Colonial Anxiety and Primitivism in Modernist Fiction: Woolf, Freud, Forster, Stein

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Kalkhove, Marieke
English Literature , Modernism , Psychoanalysis , Colonial Anxiety , Primitivism , Virginia Woolf , Gertrude Stein , Sigmund Freud , E.M. Forster
From W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety to Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, modernists have frequently attested to the anxiety permeating members of modern civilisation. While critics have treated anxiety as a consequence of the historical circumstances of the modernist period—two World Wars and the disintegration of European empires—my aim is to view anxiety in both a psychoanalytical and political light and investigate modernist anxiety as a narrative ploy that diagnoses the modern condition. Defining modernist anxiety as feelings of fear and alienation that reveal the uncanny relation between self and ideological state apparatuses which themselves suffer from trauma, perversion, and neurosis—I focus on the works of four key modernist writers—Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Gertrude Stein. These authors have repeatedly constructed the mind as an open system, making the psyche one of the sites most vulnerable to the power of colonial ideology but also the modernist space par excellence to narrate the building and falling of empire. While the first part of my dissertation investigates the neurosis of post-war London in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the second part of my thesis discusses the perverse demands of the colonial system in Forster’s A Passage to India and Woolf’s The Waves, arguing that Woolf and Forster extend Freud’s understanding of repetition compulsion by demonstrating that the colonial system derives a “perverse” pleasure from repeating its own impossible demands. The concluding section of my dissertation discusses Woolf and Stein’s queer primitivism as the antidote to anxiety and the transcendence of perversity. My dissertation revives Freud’s role in the modernist project: Freud not only provides avant-garde writers with a theory of consciousness, but his construction of the fragmented psyche—a construction which had come to dominate modernist renditions of internality by the early-twentieth century—functions as a political stratagem for an imperial critique.
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