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SETZ, Cathryn. Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938)

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernist Culture 2019, 212. p.
Julie Bénard
Référence(s) :

Cathryn Setz, Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernist Culture 2019, 212. p.

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1In Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938), Cathryn Setz focuses on transition, one of the transatlantic avant-garde ‘little’ magazines, representative of European literary movements with Surrealism, Dadaism and Expressionism, at the time when Eugene Jolas was its editor from the end of the 1920s to the early 1940s. Setz explores one of the overlooked fundamental ‘patterns’ (7) the magazine fed on, that of animal representation.

2If the study of transition has been ‘oddly’ (3) ignored so far, Setz states its importance, not only in modernist studies but also in ‘magazine studies’ (5). Indeed, transition has very much to reveal in terms of literary experiments as it may provide understanding of the print culture. However, if the scholar acknowledges such a possibility, her work does not embrace such a perspective to pay attention to the cultural and intellectual context instead. Indeed, and as its title intimates, Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938) falls in line with the studies of literary modernism and the animal, as they may offer, according to Setz, further insights into ‘the experimental art and writing in transition’ (15). Such a formalist interest is also driven by the editorial line of the series in which the study is published, as the series editor’s preface makes it clear: the series aims for ‘a breadth of scope and for an expanded sense of the canon of modernism’ (xii), hence the phrase coined by Setz, ‘primordial modernism’, which helps her situate transition between ‘high’ or ‘historical’ modernism and ‘late’ modernist formations (7).

3Setz justifies her use of the term ‘primordial’ by suggesting how fraught it is with the historical and social context in which transition was created, that of a nationalist and cultural ideal in the aftermaths of the First World War and considering the threat of the Second World War. However, for Setz, the term must be interpreted according to its iteration in the magazine, that is to say, as the token of a ‘fascination with primitivism’ (12). As a matter of fact, this fascination with primitivism mirrors both an anti-anthropocentric and anthropocentric sensibility—two contradictory sensibilities that the concept of biocentrism seems to channel, especially through the Russian biochemist’s work, Alexander Oparin, who established the ‘primordial soup’ (13) theory about the circumstances for the appearance of life. Indeed, if biocentrism, still makes the frontier between man and animals unclear, it also prompts Setz to go beyond the scope of what pure science has to offer so as to consider ‘the ethics of the other, agency, subjectivity and consciousness’ (15). As a consequence, what Setz calls ‘primordial modernism’ is the very contradictory nature on which transition hinges by sustaining a ‘“schizophrenic discourse”’ (19) based on aspects of psychoanalysis, such as Jung’s ‘collective unconsciousness’ (7, 11).

4Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938) is divided into four different chapters, each being dedicated to an animal characteristic of the modernist magazine and works of the writers it promotes, as Setz concurrently strives to fathom the extent to which animal representation in the journal is imbued with the different currents of evolutionary thought which were debated at the time. As a result, the first chapter revolves around the most primitive form of life, the ‘amoeba’—a ‘protozoic single-celled organism’ (16) that Setz connects with figures of abstraction in Surrealism; then the fish and James Joyce’s recycling of its imagery in ‘Shem the Penman’ (1927), one of the literary texts published in transition that would become part of Finnegans Wake; next the lizard and its study in the work of the essayist Gottfried Benn as a decisive influence over Jolas’s editorial ethos; and eventually, the bird and the romantic vision the editor set for his journal.

5In Chapter 1, ‘Amoeba: Figures of Abstraction, Surrealist Influence and the Revolution of the Word’, Setz identifies an ‘amoebic mode’ (36, 43) in transition that she connects with the impact of Surrealism in America, to assess the influence of the artistic movement overseas. The scholar mentions and studies the rejection of Surrealism by American poets and writers (especially Walter Lowenfels, Leigh Hoffman and Pierre Loving among others) to better emphasize their conforming to Surrealist poetics. For Setz, such ‘ambivalence’ (41, 47) towards Surrealism constitutes the very nature of what she previously called the ‘amoebic mode’, that is to say, the dialectical and ‘comedic’ (39–41, 43) site of ‘clashing images’ (36) such as ancient and modern time, promise and rejection of meaning (39), infiniteness and chaos, as a way to celebrate a return to earliest forms of life through ‘animalized abstraction’ (17) or ‘biomorphic abstraction’ (25) embodied by the amoeba. Setz wants to show that such a principle not only applies to visual arts but also to literary texts since the scholar endows the amoebic metaphor with a specific mode of writing similar to Surrealist automatic writing. Indeed, the amoebic mode of writing stems from transition’s reflection on language and the limits of its power, as it is advocated in the 1927 manifesto of the magazine, ‘The Revolution of the Word’, and determined by the works of the champions of Surrealism, such as Léon-Paul Fargue, Tristan Tzara and Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse).

6With the image of the amoeba, a ‘single-celled at the very origin of life on earth’ (25), Setz hints at Joyce’s way of writing as she defines it in the following chapter entitled, ‘Evolving the artwork in James Joyce’s “Shem the Penman” (1927)’. In this chapter, it is an ‘embryological or cellular’ (75) definition of writing which is given, that is to say ‘evolutionary’ as it exemplifies the schism which fueled the biological discourse at the time. Indeed, Setz shows how Joyce’s vision of writing, namely his use of wordplays and neologisms (i.e. ‘transaccidentation’ (80), ‘dividual chaos’ (80), ‘semidemented’ (82)), is anchored in the fierce debate among biologists, about how creatures have evolved, opposing an orthogenetic conception, which posits a linear evolution of species based on heredity as it belongs to eugenic and theological thinking, to Darwinism, which assumes a non-linear evolution of species founded on variation caused by adaptation. This debate is echoed in Joyce’s literary text ‘Shem the Penman’, especially through the relationship between Shem and his brother, Shaun; as Setz continues to explore Joyce’s acquaintance with biology through the study of his notebooks and readings of the 1910-11 Encyclopedia Britannica (74), but also through the theory of Henry Fairfield, the paleontologist and geologist. If this historical approach to science, rather than a commitment to sociopolitical ideology, is convincing, it is the concurrent publication of Joyce’s ‘Shem the Penman’ (1927) in transition and William K. Gregory’s scientific paper that would become Our face from Fish to Man (1929) (66), which enables Setz to prove her point. Indeed, Gregory’s ichthyological work—the study of fish to explain the morphology of species and evolutionary transition from fish to man—proves to be fertile ground for Setz’s study of the fish symbol in Joyce’s literary text through the character of Shem. The scholar finds a paradox which may have fueled transition’s contradictory nature: the fish embodies both ‘lack and profundity’ (78), ‘fertility and fecundity’ (62), which is typical of Shem. According to Setz, Shem is representative of the ‘corporeal “low” type’ (62) because of the filth (57, 74–75) that he produces, and conversely, for being a ‘productive self’ (78)—for his ‘excremental self-production’ (78). As Setz puts it, Joyce reverses ‘the idea of clean inspiration’ (77) since the waste of the body stimulates artistic creativity as it confronts the artist with his or her ‘declining self’ (85), characteristic of late modernism, in addition to challenging evolutionary discourse, especially that of degeneration, which reflects the interwar Zeitgeist.

7Setz continues to expand her discussion of the modernist crisis of consciousness, in Chapter 3, ‘Lizard: Gottfried Benn, “The ‘Dark’ Side of Modernism” and transition’s Pineal Eye”’, by exploring lizard-like imagery in transition by means of Benn’s essay, ‘The structure of the personality (outline of a geology of the “I”)’. Setz argues that Jolas was blindly influenced by Benn’s piece of writing despite the latter’s Eurocentrist views, not to say fascist ideology. Indeed, during the 1930s, Benn campaigned for a ‘nostalgic’ (100) understanding of the modern self in the name of a ‘primal unity of humanity’ (125)—‘a unity of life’ (100). What interested Jolas, was Benn’s study of the structure of the personality as part of a ‘geological principle’ (120): one that entails the understanding of the consciousness—the self, as a stratified structure following the ‘depth model of the brain’ (122), which is characterised by the presence of a vestigial organ called the pineal gland. For Benn, reaching the depth of the brain, that is to say, the pineal gland, implies a return to the ‘archaic’ or primitive ‘I’. Although, Benn’s thesis is written in a scientific jargon, it tends to yield to fantasy and convenient analogies, notably one, thanks to which the essayist equates the pineal gland with the ‘pineal eye’. The pineal eye is a vestigial reptilian sense organ part of a mid-nineteenth century thought which believed in involution, namely ‘reversed evolution’ (109) or atavism, despite utter ignorance about the organ’s specific function. In the 1930s, at the time when Benn wrote his essay, such thought would become the breeding ground for evolutionary discourse across disciplines as it would conversely blur the line between science and mysticism (108), with again another analogy or phantasmagoric image which likens the pineal eye to the ‘third eye’. For Jolas and transition’s contributors, such as Lothar Mundan, Williams Carlos Williams, Georges Bataille or readers like Henry Miller, the third eye is a ‘utopian pineal eye’ (107), turned against rational perception and racialist paradigm, which not only allows the magazine to eventually ward off Benn’s extremist views, in addition to denting Jolas’s ‘apolitical ethos’ (7) according to which culture and politics are kept separate; but also to posit the need for multiculturalism and mixing of languages, reaching back to the archaic symbol of the reptile as the very site of a vision that Jolas deems to be part of the ‘Vertigral Age’ (106). Benn’s influence over transition thus highlights a shared interest in the pineal eye as it turns out to act as a catalyst of inter-discourses that came out straight of life sciences, in the same way as Joyce’s wordplays and neologisms exemplify a schism in biological discourse by means of ichthyological appropriation. This transhistorical approach adds complexity to Setz’s demonstration than any publication timeline of transition would have allowed for. However, the reader may regret the lack of the so-called ‘reptile imagery’ that permeated the spirit of the age and transition magazine, except for the two schemas of the pineal eye that are reproduced, which helps convey the idea of a reversal of an anthropocentric order.

8After studying the pattern of the amoeba in literary texts by relying on art history, then the biological discourse to expose the symbol of the fish and reptile, Setz moves on in her final chapter to analyse the representation of the bird based on its iteration in transition. The bird is the ‘dominant’ (131) symbol of the magazine, or rather Jolas’s totemic animal behind the editorial practice he established for transition. Setz comes back to Jolas’s ‘vertigral’ or ‘verticalist’ programme (133) according to which an ideal must be reached, which is that of the above, by thwarting ‘the normalization of language through its modern usages’ (156). The bird articulates the crisis of modern language as it plays along the ‘polylingual and nonsense words’ (144) the literary texts of transition are made of. Jolas’s avian rhetoric reveals an ambivalence towards its romantic lineage as it equally thrives on and rejects its vision of flight. The bird symbol causes mixed feelings as it highlights Jolas’s ‘idealisti[c] and awkwar[d]’ (151) editorial literary program. Idealistic, because it exemplifies a desire towards transcendence; awkward, because it acknowledges the untenability of transcendentalism. In the interwar period, the magazine stood as an apolitical safe abode for moments of artistic creation, which nevertheless fed on the crisis it witnessed aloof. As Jolas confesses, the interwar period was the ‘Golden Age of the logos’ (161). Setz ascribes this detachment to the editor’s ‘obstinate innocence’ (161) as it is driven by his editorial vision and ethos. According to the scholar, what constitutes the very limits of Jola’s literary program, is his unwillingness to acknowledge the political scene, whereas other artists, such as transition’s very contributors, felt the urgency to accept it. Apart from the intertextual analysis of Jolas’s poems (‘Nocturnes’ [139–140], ‘Landscapes’ [139], ‘Monologue’ [140], ‘Construction of the Enigma’ [142]) and pamphlet (Words from the Deluge [143]) along with his translation work, as she traces back the ‘bird texts’ (135) that might have influenced the editor, keeping up conjointly with historicism of some sort, the originality of Setz’s study lies in her interest in transition’s reception with anglophone and francophone critics’ response to the journal’s publications and its contributors’, mainly Kay Boyle, Thomas Good and Georges Pelorson. Their use of bird imagery challenges Jolas’s idealism for it presents the poetic gesture as a ‘dead end’ (158) by conveying death and exhaustion whereas it still draws the magazine ‘primordial contours’ (156), which rest on anti-romanticism and modernist literary experiments, by celebrating the bird as a figure of abstraction. For all that, Setz explains that Jolas did not completely turn a blind eye on the dreadful realities of the war, for his post-war writing shows a commitment to German culture as his taking part in ‘denazification’ (156, 171) through the creation of a magazine, Die Wandlung (Transformation), points out. Since transition was discussed in American universities at the end of the Second World War, Setz believes that the editor’s ‘pedagogical attempt’ (149) to create a school of thought modeled after his ‘ascensionist belief’ (155) and theorisation of an ‘aesthetic synthe[sis]’ (141) of languages, would have given way to a didactic teaching of experimental poetry (161), had the editor lived longer. Setz offers a nuanced criticism of Jolas’s attitude and literary program during the wars, which, as she notices, suffers from the hasty conclusions the critics of the time and today’s contemporary critics have jumped to. Hence, for example, the scholar’s call for a thorough study of Jolas’s connection to American writing and novelists (171) to reverse the trend.

9What Setz calls ‘primordial modernism’ is a ‘genuine belief in the transformative power of language’ (172) through the representation of low animals or primordial life forms, ranging from the amoeba, fish, lizard and bird, to the shells, tarantulas and crabs she mentions in her conclusion; as they befit a modernist expression of the word by belonging to a pre-human wor(l)d. With primordial modernism, Setz opens up a discursive space between literary history and science history, where literary experiments come into friction. For the scholar admits that, ‘In the end, the primordial is another version of an old romantic ideal, refashioned in the garments of the new’ (173), which summons up and exceeds a modernist sacred tenet, ‘Make it New!’, championed by Ezra Pound, who acknowledges the necessity of studying the past. According to Setz’s words, the past must be read within the limits of its primordial frame, that is to say pre-historic and pre-logical, as it calls for its transposition into, but also beneath and beyond language; all of which being driven by a conflicted romantic impulse and conveyed by the representation of early life forms, in other words, primordial.

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Julie Bénard, « SETZ, Cathryn. Primordial Modernism: Animals, Ideas, transition (1927-1938) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Julie Bénard

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA EA741

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