Department of English and Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Prophets in the Modernist Wilderness: Ways of Being and the Magic of Self-Transformation
My project examines four separate nodes of thought, spread across the temporal, spatial and geographical range of what is still called “Modernism.” These nodes are linked by the characters involved in each movement, the syncretism of the belief systems developed, and the desire of each of these systems to effect a particular, transformational, relation between the self and world. That is, each of the respective “systems,” involve a process of self-actualization through self-transformation, often through a type of surrender and the repair of the bodymind’s relation to itself and to a transcendent other-than. These systems were institutionalized, to an extent, through writing, teaching, and the foundation of a “site” of worship and an organization of community members.
The first node is perhaps the most typically religious: poet and artist Mina Loy’s relation to Christian Science. The second might be the most outlandish: that of Gurdjieffianism, a wandering mystical totality, equal parts charlatanism and self-help, that had a major impact on the intellectual development of numerous modernist authors; I will focus specifically on Katherine Mansfield and Jean Toomer.
My third node is located in India between 1848 and 1941 and takes the polymath Rabinadranath Tagore and nature spiritualism as the lens through which to re-examine the development of the Theosophical society and influence of Helena Blavatsky, the rise of the “guru,” and India’s nascent independence movement. The fourth node traces theories alchemical self-transformation in the work of Ithell Colquhoun, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and the continued presence of chemical self-transformation in contemporary bio-hacking practices and self-taught visionary art practices of the mid-twentieth century.
This is a project interested in the affectivity of the mystical, spiritual and religious: how these bodies of work impact other bodies (those of the reader, but also, in their intense intertextuality and allusiveness, other bodies of work and other authors.) The dissertation explores the search for meaning and purpose in literary texts, where the experimentation in literary form parallels the experimentation with the various possibilities of being human and creating a livable life in a time and place of precarity.