Lara Vetter. Modernist Writings and Religio-Scientific Discourse: H.D., Loy, and Toomer

Lara Vetter, Modernist Writings and Religio-Scientific Discourse: H.D., Loy, and Toomer (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), xi + 219 pp. £58.00 hb. ISBN 9780230621220

Modernist literature has long been seen in the light of its break from religious orthodoxies and situated in the context of philosophical accounts of secularism by Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, James Frazer, William James, Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud. While there have always been writers who do not fit this narrative – T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, for example – many twentieth-century studies of modernism have argued that religious scepticism was foundational to modernism. The first book comprehensively to re-assess modernism’s relationship to religion was Leon Surette’s The Birth of Modernism: Pound, Yeats, Eliot and Occult Modernism (1993), which took seriously the literary significance of the alternative or ‘occult’ religions which feature in poems and novels in the early twentieth century. Other books and essays followed. Helen Sword’s Engendering Inspiration: Visionary Strategies in Rilke, Lawrence, and H.D. (1995) argued that non-standard forms of spiritual understanding were significant for the creation of anti-authoritarian and female models of authorship. More recently Pericles Lewis’ Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (2010) considers modernist writing in the light of mainstream religion and argues that the open abandonment of God by writers such as Proust, Woolf and Joyce often involved a repressed and anxious yearning after the sacred.

Lara Vetter’s new book, Modernist Writings and Religio-Scientific Discourse responds to the different kinds of reflections on religion detailed above. She has a specific object of analysis – her book is a cultural history of religious interpretations of science, as well as scientific responses to religion. But she also follows Sword in seeing alternative visionary ideas as the basis of non-authoritarian models of poetic authority. For Vetter, the unveiling of the non-institutionalised religious content of ideas of poetic authority is seen as of particular significance for modernist writers who were sexually or racially marginalised – H.D., Mina Loy and Jean Toomer. The book, as well as being a cultural history of the discourses of science and religion, also contains an argument about the imaginative resources of marginalised modernists.

The strength of this book lies in the sheer range of material that has been uncovered and re-assessed. The science of the book’s title refers to a number of different areas of knowledge, including theories of electricity, pseudo-scientific models of physical perfection, eugenics and evolution. But Vetter’s excavations have also unearthed an extraordinary range of hybrid accounts of the physical and spiritual universe. A fantastical world of strange religious and scientific belief opens up in the pages of this book. These documents serve to situate, and to some degree explain, the bizarre ideas of physical or spiritual health propounded by Loy, H.D. and Toomer. The first chapter considers how electricity as both a ‘real-world power’ (32) and an idea furnished writers with metaphors for paranormal or super-sensual ideas of vitality, the erotic body and sexuality. This cultural history allows Vetter to offer a range of new insights into H.D.’s poetic references to electricity, often situated in a spiritual frame, as well as a sustained reading of Mina Loy’s playful use of electrical metaphors to capture Surrealist artistic inspiration in her novel Insel.Chapter two looks at the proliferation of new dance techniques in the early twentieth century, and the varied attempts to marry ideologies of physical improvement to spirituality. This discussion facilitates new readings of texts by H.D., particularly ‘The Dancer’, Majic Ring and Red Roses for Bronze, which as Vetter notes does not often feature prominently in H.D. criticism. Vetter also analyses the centrality of dance and ideas of physical perfection to Jean Toomer’s poems and prose works. Chapter three discusses the connection of evolutionary theories of racial difference to spirituality, with reference to Loy’s engagements with eugenics and ambivalent response to Jewishness, and Toomer’s equally complex and ambivalent writing of race. In this chapter Vetter provides an invaluable understanding of Loy’s interest in Christian Science, a topic that has often been a puzzle to Loy scholars.

Through the analysis of a wide range of books, pamphlets and essays, Vetter’s book provides important new insights into the discursive cross-fertilisation of science and religion in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. By so doing it allows one to experience the ideas of Loy, H.D. and Toomer in all their eccentricity, and points beyond its pages to offer insights into the writing of other writers from the period. There are three aspects of the book, however, that could have been usefully clarified. The argument operates at a slightly meta-scientific level. It opens with a series of statements about how the scientific discoveries of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin and Max Planck overturned nineteenth-century mechanistic models of scientific thought, but there is no sustained discussion either of the specific nature of these discoveries, or their departure from previous understandings. This omission or elision of key arguments runs through the book. In Chapter three, Vetter notes that ‘’eugenicists deployed and misapplied the rhetoric of Darwin to argue for a cleansing of bloodlines’ (115), but there is no explanation of how, exactly, Darwin’s rhetoric was deployed and misapplied, or of the significance of his rhetoric – as opposed to other aspects of his writing - for this misapplication. Such assumptions – or gaps – produce a slightly dizzying read.

There is also a linguistic imprecision in the writing. The words religion, spirituality, paranormal, metaphysical, as well as other terms, are used interchangeably. I wanted clarification – however tentative – about the meaning of these terms, so that the different elements of the argument could be kept in focus. One other question I had about the book relates to poetic form. Modernism’s metaphoric scientific entanglements have been comprehensively assessed in Daniel Albright’s Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot and the Science of Modernism (1997), where he concerns himself with the ‘appropriation of scientific metaphors by poets’ (1). Vetter also thinks about modernism and science by way of metaphor. In Chapter one, the significance of electricity for modernism is seen mainly through its ‘metaphorical possibilities’. But, the wider claim of the book seems to be that scientific-religious ideas influenced the compositional structure and themes of modernist poems, as well as the models of poetic authority which regulated these structures. Electricity as metaphor and electricity as structure or model for poetic authority seem like distinct kinds of influences, and their differences could have been usefully clarified.

At moments with this book I felt that I was reading a series of arguments with missing pieces. But Vetter’s writing progresses by way of confident and insightful claims. Moving quickly as she does between modernist poems, pseudo-scientific theory, occult doctrines, and many other documents, she succeeds in carrying her reader along.

Rachel Potter, University of East Anglia