Form, Sensation, Emotion

On February 16, 2012 by admin

[HUG interviews Santanu Das in the wake of his talk on D. H. Lawrence’s poetry in Delhi University on February 9, 2012]

HUG: If I may take your reflections on Lawrence this week in DU as a platform to probe a little more on the current state of affairs in European Modernism scholarship (although Lawrence may not fit in with Modernism wholly), the first thing that comes to my mind is about the very idea of poetry itself. When you say that you look for pleasure in poetry, what exactly do you mean?

Santanu: By ‘pleasure in poetry’, I meant at a fundamental level enjoyment of poetry i.e. the formal pleasure afforded by verse, or pleasure afforded by poetic form. Since poetry, more than the novel or the short story, is dependent on patterns of sound (rhythm, meter, rhyme etc), the sensuous pleasure at the immediate, bodily level is often intense. Increasingly, we are addressing and trying to theorise not just the technical aspects of verse – what often goes under the name of prosody – but the role of the human sensorium in the enjoyment of verse. Note that the New Critics were  keenly aware of this, though they perhaps did not theorise it: an excellent example of this is The Music of What Happens by Helen Vendler who remains one of the most important and pleasurable critical voices. A more theoretical approach is developed recently by Susan Stewart in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. The ‘pleasure’ in poetry, with its proximity to the body, can be articulated through various theoretical models: the two that immediately come to my mind are ‘jouissance’ (Barthes) and ‘semiotic’ (Kristeva). However I think that such ‘theory’, if applied, has to be nuanced, and if possible woven into the texture of the writing: see Maud Ellmann’s The Poetics of Impersonality on modernist poetics which to me is one of the most brilliant examples of that combination of close reading, theoretical astuteness and just pleasurable, playful writing. A more recent work, very different but still acutely pleasurable, is Angela Leighton’s On Form,  which may be considered as part of the swell of interest in what is now being called ‘new aestheticism’.

HUG: There is a lovely, understated manner, in which you were trying to read Lawrence neither as a realist nor as a mystic. That brings us to a speculative domain that can be touched and felt at the same time. Is it just about Lawrence’s poetry or would you say that poetry and literature in general is about that kind of speculative materiality?

Santanu: I’m sorry but I don’t think I wholly understand the question; and being old-fashioned (!), I’m slightly reluctant to make statements about poetry or literature in general. You’re absolutely right when you say that Lawrence is neither a realist nor a mystic: as I was trying to say, there is a wonderful play in his poetry between a perceptual delicacy and a performative excess. In fact Lawrence’s poetry, like much of Lawrence himself, flatly refuses to fit into any kind of theoretical model; that’s one of the main reasons I find him so fascinating.

HUG: This brings me to this thing about this reaction against post-structuralist abstraction, historicism and discourse analysis too. You say a great deal about emotions, make sharp points about form but you also fundamentally think kinaesthetically. How is subjectivity related to matter?

Santanu: I think I suggested that it is Lawrence who often thinks in terms of motion and energy, as if kinaesthesia is central to the birth of the poetic object in his consciousness (critics have often noted the influences of Heraclitus and Nietzsche,  but I think this is not solely the reason). And yes, I’m very interested in emotions. Most of my work has circled, in one way or the other, around human emotions, often in times of crisis. As I said, what Lawrence wants to touch after all is not just the body – as often with Keats and Owen – but human feeling: ‘Tenderness’ was his initial title for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. When you say about ‘subjectivity (being) related to matter’, yes, I think you were responding to the phenomenological underpinnings of the paper, that our consciousness is not just a subjective shiver but usually consciousness of the world – I was partly reacting against the excesses of some stands within post-structuralism on one hand and the over-density of some new historicist works. I was trying to highlight the acuity of Lawrence’s phenomenological thinking, while paying close attention to literary form and historical context, as when I discuss the startling passage from Lawrence’s ‘Insouicance’.

HUG: On a related point: phenomenological everydayness may have a rough, often an antagonistic relationship to history. But some people that you cite in order to buttress the point on Lawrence’s sense of the tactile—say, Sartre or Merleau Ponty or Lefort, are deep historicists too?

Santanu: Yes, there is often an assumed antagonism between the two but the challenge is to historicise the everyday. Think of a novel about the everyday or a day, such as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway or Joyce’s Ulysses, and how absolutely enmeshed the ‘day’ is in the history, whether that of post-war London or semi-colonial Dublin. One of my main aims in Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature was to unravel the everyday in the trenches through the sensuous, and show how historical factors impact on the contingent.  As you know, at the moment there is a big interest within modernism in the everyday, and the phenomenological is increasingly brought in dialogue with the historical – think of a work like Sara Danius’s The Senses of Modernism: Technology, Perception and Aesthetics. I think that Michael Levenson is also very interested in the phenomenological and the perceptual, and how the historical contexts of modernity bring about a shift in perception, or create ‘the shock of the new’.

HUG: What is your sense of transgression in poetry? If we do not look for progressive or programmatic ideas of transgression in the poetry of Lawrence or Keats or Hopkins or Owen, what in their poetry might disturb the banality of ordering?

Santanu: I’m not wholly sure about what you mean by ‘banality of ordering’ but I’ve a sense that you mean conventional/canonical/standardised ideas – am I right? Of course there has been wonderful work on the relationship between poetry and politics, or works that have revealed the political, the dissident and the dissonant aspects of verse.  Jacqueline Rose’s The Haunting of Sylvia Plath and Isobel Armstrong’s work on Victorian Poetry (I forget the title – Poetry, Politics?)  spring to mind. But I wonder whether one could/should always look for progressive or programmatic ideas of transgression in poetry (not that you’re suggesting that). While reading against the grain can be thrilling, I’m also slightly wary of readings of poetry that have palpable designs or agendas which are not nuanced to the historical and formal particularities of the poem. Moreover is transgression (so influential and important as a concept in the 1990s and even early 2000) always, necessarily, or inevitably progressive (I find some of the current ‘death drive’/necessarily transgressive assumptions  within queer theory politically problematic, especially when related to actual/medical/lived experiences)?  As to the disturbing qualities of verse by some (not all) poets, I guess you’re gesturing towards Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic? – you’re absolutely right, Owen is a wonderful example – thanks.

HUG: Is there any scope of the theological or the ethical in modernism? There is grappling with death, darkness and God in Lawrence, of course. How does kinaesthesia relate to such questions of non-being?

Santanu: There is a big resurgence of interest in the theological within modernism: Suzanne Hobson’s book on the relation between theology and modernism has just come out from Palgrave (I forget the exact title but I think it has got ‘angels’ in it). Lawrence’s intense engagement with death, darkness and God is informed by but cannot possibly be confined within a neat theological framework. As Lawrence said toward the end of his life, ‘God is after all a great imaginative experience’.  I don’t know how kinaesthesia is related to ideas of non-being but it’s a tantalising line of investigation – have you got any suggestions?

HUG: In wonderful moment of disclosures, you brought Lawrence to life: his concern for his wife, his impotency, his tortured relationship to death and so forth. But that he was bossy and uneven in temperament is also something that you highlight. Of course, his poetry can be detached from his biography—as modernism would want us to do. But, as I said, you stressed Lawrence’s preoccupations—things and ideas he loved and hated, along with a close reading of his poetry. Poetry and the man worked with each other. Does it make a difference to poetry if the man is self centred or bossy or some such? Does that alter the poet’s relationship with his readers?

Santanu: I’m tempted to revert to Wilde (if I remember correctly): there is nothing as moral or immoral, there is good and bad literature. Of course biographical details are important to illuminate the literature, and prejudices such as racism, anti-Semitism or misogyny can seriously compromise the work (as occasionally with Lawrence) but part of the critic’s (and the reader’s) fascination is to untangle such knots and investigate the complexities.

Many thanks for engaging with my paper with such rigour and insight – I’m really grateful.


Santanu Das teaches at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (CUP, 2005) and the editor of Race, Empire and First World War Writing (CUP, 2011).

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