Andrew Gaedtke, Modernism and the Machinery of Madness: Psychosis, Technology, and Narrative Worlds

Andrew Gaedtke, Modernism and the Machinery of Madness: Psychosis, Technology, and Narrative Worlds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 254 pp. $80.00 PDF, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781108418003

In the Introduction to his captivating monograph, Modernism and the Machinery of Madness, Andrew Gaedtke states that one of the book’s goals is ‘to trace the form and logic of a technological paranoia that became especially articulate in late-modernist culture’ (2). Framing his study in terms of the intersection between late modernism and the rapid advancement of technology (in particular, the radio), Gaedtke undertakes an incisive and thorough investigation into the convergence of ‘the discourses of psychotic delusion, technological media, and literary modernism’ (2). Modernism and the Machinery of Madness comprises five chapters, each of which explores the writing of one or two individual authors. From the outset, Gaedtke establishes the sense of mystery, innovation, and fear that surrounded machines like the wireless and automatic suggestion devices (such as the Psycho-Phone). Drawing on early criticism of these devices, Gaedtke pinpoints the apprehension and ‘technological paranoia’ (2) that befell writers and intellectuals of the time. Consequently, he places the notion of the mind as a receptacle for manipulation, and its ensuing reduction to an object for study, in the context of the developments of psychiatry and neurology. Referring to this cultural phenomenon as ‘the technologization of the mind’ (5), Gaedtke prioritises the recovery of phenomenological insights into mental disorder. Also laudable within this literary project is the re-assimilation of modernist female voices that have too long been omitted from established canons driven by homosocial prerogatives.

Chapter One, ‘Fables of Regression’ takes as its focus Wyndham Lewis, whose commentaries (namely The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927)) on the emerging changes detectable in modern culture are described as containing both ‘insight and vitriol’ (36). Gaedtke takes a particularly interesting critical standpoint in his analysis of Lewis’s fiction as he argues that the traditional view of Lewis’s work as anti-humanist in its portrayal of characters as ‘unthinking automata’ (36) is perhaps reductive. We might instead view this as a technique that forms part of Lewis’s ‘satirical campaign against what he perceived to be anti-or post-humanist cultural developments’ (36).

Through his analysis, Gaedtke draws attention to Lewis’s interweaving of ontological doubt with features of mental disorder and psychopathology, and interesting parallels are made between schizophrenic representations in the novel and non-fiction first-person accounts of schizophrenia. Lewis’s own writerly preoccupations and style are also positioned as betraying his sense of insecurity about his position as a writer. The remainder of the chapter concentrates on Lewis’s reactions against the development of the radio and the theory of behaviourism. More specifically, Gaedtke examines Lewis’s view that the radio propagates “the cult of the child”.

Chapter Two is titled ‘Modernist Influencing Machines’, and in it Gaedtke explores the writing of Mina Loy and Evelyn Waugh. Throughout Loy’s novel Insel (1991) the two characters communicate through Mrs. Jones’s apprehension of Insel’s Strahlen (rays), and it is argued that their interactions resemble those of psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, Gaedtke suggests that the materialist undercurrents that straddle the possibility of psychoanalysis render the workings of Mrs. Jones’s and Insel’s communication opaque. Contextually crucial to the novel is the haunting notion of Tausk’s “Influencing Machine”; the novel therefore corresponds with the lived experience of paranoid psychotics, who feel that their ‘thoughts are not [their] own’ (70). In the second half of the chapter Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) is also analysed. As for Loy, Waugh’s own experience influenced his writing: in the novel, Pinfold believes that BBC agents are monitoring and transmitting thoughts to him, which Waugh himself at one point also held to be true.

The third chapter, ‘On Worlding and Unworlding in Fiction and Delusion’, explores the writing of Anna Kavan and Muriel Spark. Gaedtke focuses on Spark’s novel The Comforters in the first part of the chapter, a novel in which the protagonist appears subject to voices that are the narrators of what she thinks and says. Subsequently, there is a sense that she is always being watched, which, in turn, causes her to experience ontological instability. The chapter also draws attention to the incessant speaking that occurs as a form of defence-mechanism for the protagonist. According to Gaedtke, then, the novel itself becomes a type of “Influencing Machine” in Spark’s work; this is also reflected in the novel’s formal experimentation that performs the breakdown of language. Chapter Three is very rich in theoretical grounding, and the author expertly suffuses his detailed textual analysis with key critical perspectives as well as Spark’s own auditory hallucinations of one of T.S. Eliot’s plays.

The second half of the chapter turns to the writing of Anna Kavan – in particular her short story collection Asylum Piece (1940). Gaedtke places Kavan’s writing as akin to ‘the phenomenological and discursive modes of memoir and mental illness’ (94), and argues that the ‘patients’ feelings of mechanized depersonalization’ (94) in her work are indicative of a ‘strictly mechanistic conception of the mind’ (94) espoused by their doctors. (107) Explanation as to why the specific formal qualities of Kavan’s work facilitate important phenomenological insights of mental disorder, may, however, benefit from more precise critical exposition. For instance, Gaedtke discusses Kavan’s use of the short story form, claiming that ‘the stories share a similar narrative style, but there is little conclusive evidence that the collection represents a single storyworld as experienced by the same, consistent subject’ (110). This, however, is often typical of short story collections, and so perhaps does not go far enough in nuancing Kavan’s formal idiosyncrasies.

In the fourth chapter, ‘Flann O’Brien and Authorship as a Practice of “Sane Madness”’, Gaedtke turns to the novel The Third Policeman, in which we are subject to a world in which the inhabitants have a physical and mental amalgamation with their bicycles. Consequently, suggests Gaedtke, there is a world of merged materialism that cannot be contained phenomenologically, which, in turn, leads to ontological instability. This uncertain materialism thus leads to the depiction of O’Brien’s work ‘suggest[ing] that a twentieth-century culture that identifies itself as rational, secular, and scientific rests upon the supposedly antimodern foundations of belief, desire, and fantasy.’ (128) Gaedtke interestingly develops this merging of the seemingly dichotomous concepts of rationality and irrationality as he draws parallels with the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Gaedtke’s final chapter has as its title ‘Prey to Communications’, and it centres on the work of Samuel Beckett, whose writing has a long relationship with mental illness as Gaedtke succinctly outlines. Referring to Beckett’s ‘career-long explanation of cognitive disability and mental illness’ (154), Gaedtke begins his analysis with Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938), in which the protagonist, Murphy, attempts and fails to manoeuvre his way through ‘rapid syntheses of cognitive disability and mental illness’ (154). In this way, Gaedtke views Murphy as idealizing madness, as it represents the promise of some form of depersonalization. Ultimately, however, Murphy’s perspective can only ever be ‘a projection of his own agenda’. Gaedtke continues to track Beckett’s engagement with the intersection between machinery and madness as he turns, finally, to Beckett’s radio plays, such as All That Fall (1957). Positioning the non-visual space of the radio drama as an ideal one for staging traditionally “un-understandable” mental phenomenology, Gaedtke asserts that, in this way, machinery can also bring us closer to ‘empathic understanding’ (181), rather than merely being associated with depersonalization and subjective distance.

Modernism and the Machinery of Madness is an ambitious phenomenological project that very successfully informs whilst also providing a myriad of innovative arguments and observations. Gaedtke’s incisive and thorough account of the relationship between the discourses of technology and mental disorder is underscored throughout by precision, originality, and enlightening close textual analysis. Through an exploration of the late-modernist fiction of Wyndham Lewis, Mina Loy, Evelyn Waugh, Anna Kavan, Muriel Spark, Flann O’Brien, and Samuel Beckett, alongside non-fiction memoirs of mental illness and psychiatric literature, Gaedkte very adeptly bears out the specific ways in which ‘[t]he study of such writing expands our understanding of what may constitute a world, and how such worlds may be constructed, inhabited and lost’ (191).

Emily Chester, University of Bristol