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Sara Blair’s “Local Modernity, Global Modernism”

In Arts & Letters, Britain, British Literature, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Writing on April 24, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Sara Blair’s “Local Modernity, Global Modernism” describes the colorful landscape of the Bloomsbury district and proposes, among other things, that Bloomsbury the geographical space preceded Bloomsbury the movement; the site of Bloomsbury, reputedly “performative” or “kaleidoscopic,” provided the heterogeneous and cosmopolitan culture and influence necessary for the movement to flourish.

Blair admits that “[t]o insist that the sociality producing such definitive performances is itself located […] is not to resolve the question of the relations between literary modes and their geocultural contexts.” And yet she offers that such insistence “does help us think more imaginatively about how to frame such relations.” One might ask, then, what “imaginative” links could be made between the “modernist” attributes of Bloomsbury the place and, say, Virginia Woolf’s personal literary style.

“With rare exceptions, Woolf writes little about the texture of Bloomsbury […] spaces, institutions, and local histories,” submits Blair, adding that Woolf does in fact “richly register and exploit a larger fact of Bloomsbury already suggested in Black’s and Baedeker’s maps: its function not merely as a marginal space or a site of uneven alterities but simultaneously also as a lived form of […] the non-lieu, or non-place.” If the non-place is represented in Woolf’s work, and if the non-place is “a space of transition, anticipation, and fluid movement,” then we might view her novel Jacob’s Room as a series of transitional, liminal, or unfixed settings—as a sketchy composite of Jacob that is something like an impressionistic painting. This reading would be consistent with Blair’s idea that Bloomsbury functions “to organize psychic and social relations to other more immediately functional spaces.” If one were to read Jacob’s Room as a sequence of kaleidoscopic settings or spaces, organized chronologically but never quite fixed in place and time, then one might see something of the dislocating characteristics of Bloomsbury the place throughout the novel. It is in this context that one can claim Woolf’s style as itself a signifier of “Bloomsbury.” As Blair puts it, “Woolf’s own evocative narratology […] can be read as a response to both the ambient facts of Bloomsbury’s heterogeneity and its status as a non-place alike.”

Can we link the dreamlike fluidity of Jacob’s Room with the distinct fluidity of Bloomsbury culture as described by Blair. Should we even try? Blair seems to believe that we not only can, but should: “While a more systematic reading of the relations between Bloomsbury as a site of social experience and cultural generation and the work of ‘Bloomsbury,’ particularly Woolf’s, is called for, it remains beyond my scope here.” A good challenge for students is to consider how they can expand Blair’s scope and to debate whether they would be “overreading” Jacob’s Room (or any novel by Woolf and the Bloomsbury crowd) by trying to locate it in the larger modernist context of “Bloomsbury” (both the space and the movement).

See Sara Blair, “Local Modernity, Global Modernism.” ELH, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Fall 2004), pp. 813-838.

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