Marcus, Laura, Dreams of Modernity: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Cinema

Laura Marcus, Dreams of Modernity: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Cinema (New York: Cambridge University Press 2014) 263 pp. £19.99 Pb, £52.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107622951

This book provides a comprehensive and readable introduction to Modernism by covering the literary, artistic and scientific achievements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Examining Modernism as a movement emerging around 1880, the essays in the collection are concerned with a variety of contexts surrounding social and cultural modernity, focusing also on the aesthetic dimension of Modernism as well as including discussions on gender and globality. The key themes investigated include railways, cinema, psychoanalysis and the literature of detection, portraying an era that witnessed the birth of several groundbreaking theories and creative works, and the advancement of inventions of the previous period.

Laura Marcus emphasises that the year 1895 has a particular significance when it comes to reviewing Modernism. 1895 marks the starting point for the history of cinema, a shocking railway accident in Paris, and the crystallization of psychoanalysis through Freud’s discovery of the unconscious (on which he published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899). The abovementioned four core themes – railways, cinema, psychoanalysis and detective stories – are adeptly unified in Dreams of Modernity, uncovering a powerful correlation between seemingly unrelated concepts. As it happens, early reflection on cinema focused mainly on the parallels between dreams and films. In most cases scenery passed by as if it had been projected onto a train window. Not entirely coincidentally perhaps, Freud revealed that, at two years of age, he saw his mother naked on a train, which he considered the founding moment of his theorization of the Oedipus Complex. Exposure, discovery and unmasking as quintessential notions contributed to the formulation of detective fiction too, while the motif of revelation was also crucial to another literary invention, the so-called ‘new biography’, which surfaced in the early twentieth century.

Dreams of Modernity consists of twelve chapters. Chapter One investigates the series of murders of London-based women in 1888. The crimes, which were allegedly committed by Jack the Ripper, were widely documented in Britain and worldwide. Hermeneutic understanding of the performances and representations of murder is central to the nineteenth century, something which contemporary texts – literary and otherwise – illustrate convincingly. Chapter Two deals with a slightly different theory of interpretation by shifting focus onto psychoanalytic thought. This essay looks into the significance of railways in psychoanalysis by exploring how nineteenth-century accounts of ‘railway shock’ as a disease of modern life impacted on Freud’s most fundamental concepts. Chapter Three focuses on one of Walter Benjamin’s most notable articles entitled ‘Kriminalromane, auf Reisen’ (Detective Novels, on Journeys), which was published in 1930 and which highlighted the implicit connection between the era’s emerging detective fiction and trains. Chapter Four explains that the focal points in contemporary psychology included the concepts of attention and distraction. The models of consciousness which these terms imply became central to Modernist literature and thought in that they shaped theories of attraction, advertising, film and the language of modernity. Chapter Five continues to underline the importance of 1920s-1930s cinema: city films in relation to novels produced in America and Europe (Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in particular) are considered in this section of the book.

Exploring the  relationship between fantasy and writing based on stories told by Freud’s patients as well as in publications by female writers, Chapter Six gives attention to the notion of private theatre as a sphere of fantasy, reverie and systematic daydreaming linked to the production of fiction. Chapter Seven  investigates the relationship between author and narrative by introducing the reader to a modern literary form called ‘new biography’. Trying to understand character from both literary and psychological perspectives, however, was warned against by Freud who labelled psychobiography dangerous, slippery ground. Chapter Eight carries on pursuing the topic of psychoanalysis – this time in the context of British and European psychoanalytic cultures existing between the wars. Highlighting the relationship between psyche and polis in 1920s-1930s Europe, this chapter utilises H.D.’s experiences of psychoanalysis in Vienna as a central focus of attention. Chapter Nine further explores the life of H.D., especially her interest in acting and her writings on cinema in relation to her accounts of her analytic sessions with Freud. Chapter Ten focuses entirely on the representation and significance of dreaming in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Freud saw dreams as helping us to process things that happened during the day. Accordingly, questions of lucid or directed dreaming, the history of writing about dreams, dreaming as a project, and the interplay between still and moving image in dreams play a pivotal role in this section of the book. Chapter Eleven takes a slightly different turn by examining various drafts of one of Woolf’s short stories entitled ‘The Telescope Story’. Here scene making, optics and memory are researched as essential elements of Woolf’s methods of production. Chapter Twelve continues studying Woolf’s writing by emphasising how literary Modernism was characterised chiefly by experimentation in structure, form and technique. Woolf as well as other Modernist authors created texts that broke up the chronological series and were heavily episodic. Juxtaposing order and freedom of thought and action, Woolf’s works demonstrate a self-conscious break with traditional styles of narration.

Hugh Kenner described the period 1880-1930 as the ‘second machine age’, in that trains and automobiles became a central feature of modern life in the city for the first time in history. Dreams of Modernity offers an in-depth analysis of this significant shift in a global context and brings to light the history of modern forms of transport which may not have been Modernist creations, but they were nonetheless an important inspiration for Modernist movements between 1880 and 1930. The book introduces us to early responses to machine transport as well as its later Modernist celebrations, resulting in travel becoming a central theme in contemporary psychoanalysis, literature and cinema.

Teodora Domotor, University of Surrey