Please Unplease Me: A Review of Laura Frost’s The Problem With Pleasure

First, I want to get a bad joke out of the way: it seems cruelly apt to review a scholarly text titled The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (Columbia UP 2013), especially one, while passionate and provocative, that may preclude pleasure for the casual reader. To be expected from a scholarly text, hence the bad joke, but Frost’s study of the vicissitudes of modernist unpleasure performs its argument quite well — The arrays of Unpleasure found in this book do delight and prod the reader in its investigations of everything from stalwart modernist topoi to perfume and farts. Frost’s mission, in her own words, is to “present the interwar debate about pleasure and the rise of unpleasure … as a new way of defining literary modernism more capaciously” (14). Frost wants to collapse the schism between the two divergent interwar poles of “high” and “low” culture and their shared mission to re-stabilize the shocked and distended interwar subject. Frost’s contribution to her field isn’t quite revolutionary, but the methods in which she ties the affect of text and media on the body is pressing and important, and carries weight outside the academy. For it is not simply that the “high” modernists wanted its world to repudiate fast & easy entertainment to engage with the post-World War One space. Rather, they wanted their readers to engage with pleasure in a different key — unpleasure. Seeing the beginnings of literary modernism with the more inclusive Unpleasure rather than Eliotian disdain or Poundian militancy allows us to see how literary modernists not only critiqued vernacular entertainment, but how  Jean Rhys, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley were themselves subject to mass cultural motifs in their own texts.  “High” and “low” culture were not as mutually exclusive as previously thought, Frost asserts, and the interwar period set the stage for our current moment of pleasure, cultural division, and technological innovation considerably more than we think.

Unpleasure is not a new idea, and not as simple as the old adage “the pleasure in pain.” Frost locates literary modernism’s unpleasure to Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It is “characterized by gratification attained through tension, obstacles, delay, convolution, and pain, as opposed to accessible, direct satisfaction. Unpleasure can be grim, but it can also be ironic and funny and offer engagements and intensities on par with pleasure” (6-7).  Pleasure is a received affect and/or emotional state. We’re taught to enjoy life, that art’s primary mission, before education and critique, is to please and only please. For Frost, the literary modernists sought to unplease us first and educate us second. Unpleasure is as vital as pleasure in our understanding of literary modernism–for both pleasure and unpleasure work dialectically. See here an example from Frost’s first chapter, “James Joyce and the Scent of Modernity”:

The second half of ‘Nausicaa’ does not merely undermine a sentimental and romanticized narrative. It introduces a Rabelaisian counternarrative in which foul odors have a dialectical relationship to fragrant ones. This is true of pleasure in general for Joyce; it is never far from–and is heightened by–unpleasure (56).

As Frost shows us the ways in which “[Bloom] is viscerally soothed by rank odors; [pacified] by [a reflection of] his fallen nature: a sensual creature, driven by bodily and blasphemous desire,” I thought of Brian Massumi’s essay “The Autonomy of Affect,” that visual/auditory/olfactory transmissions move faster than words. Stephen Bloom isn’t the only one “viscerally soothed by rank odors” (45). One only needs to refer back to Joyce’s choice letters to Nora Barnacle. “…Buy whorish drawers, love, and be sure you sprinkle the legs of them with some nice scent and also discolour them just a little behind” (Selected Letters 185). Frost’s theoretical frame is Affectively bent, and helps makes her study all the more trenchant, timely and important.

Joyce imagines odor in terms of linguistic structure and syntax. The dispersal of scent also resembles the production of stream of consciousness, a spontaneous spinning of words that bypass censorship (“always spinning it out of them … without knowing it”). Joyce’s characters’ thoughts are generated like a sort of time-delayed perfume, with words and refrains scattered across the text, repeated later, inevitably, “slow but sure.” … Joyce uses the metaphor of perfume’s dispersal not just to establish a material history of perfume and the tension between Victorian and Catholic odors and more modern, carnal scents, but also to assert the erotic appearl of difficult and contorted pleasure (48).

Perfume becomes a text for Frost’s Joyce, and raises questions about the reader’s affective response in the spaces between texts, or commodities that behave as texts, even commodities that purport to be texts. Frost sees Joyce’s engagement with perfume as a reflection of his textual mission: “[he] mediates somatic pleasures by rendering them aestheticized, self-reflexive, and textually difficult, but puts forward that mindful, complex process of reading as its own reward and as superior to other kinds of reading” (62).

Subsequent chapters on Stein, Lawrence and Huxley drive Frost’s argument home. The modernist reader enjoys texts through arenas of tension and possibly pain, moving forward with a Textuality-Is-Sexuality key. Stein tickles us because “‘[what] is the use of a violent kind of delightfulness if there is no pleasure in getting tired of it,'” for “tickling is not just a game, and its pleasures are not simple; it has a very particular effect and neuropsychological structure that correspond to the vicissitudes of Stein’s writing” (67, 75). Lawrence’s eroticism both critiques and employs orientalist narrative techniques–as seen in E.M. Hull’s The Sheik and its “utopian” and “masturbatory” (read: mass culture) structures of pleasure–to teach his reader about the parallels between sexuality and textuality, of orgiastic discipline as a way to “get to the bedrock of sex and language, to give the reader a new feeling, and to revitalize sexual and literary experience through difficult pleasure” (128). In other words, we’re Sub, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover is Dom. And the potential revolutionary or repressive power of cinema in Huxley’s Feelies (“Brave New World proves that the alert and politically aware reader can appreciate–even have fun with–prurient pursuits such as the feelies at the same time that she appreciates a satiric attack on them” (161)) germinate the more groundbreaking insights of Frost’s book.

Cinema is not merely a screen for psychic identifications but is experienced by an embodied, physically affected spectator. … [M]odern technologies of vision were experienced as mobilizing the body and actively produced new modes of spectatorship and perception (131-2).

“[P]leasure is imposed” in Brave New World (157), and I couldn’t help but think of the ways the Internet–or the Internet Makers, like Facebook–force us to enjoy what could otherwise be annoying. Who asked, before the Internet, that we had to stay in touch with everyone, or that we always had to be switched on, so to speak? Do we live our Internet lives unpleasurably?

Huxley’s representation of mass culture in Brave New World explains the seeming contradiction between the two dominant accounts of early cinema–as a Benjaminian shock, on the one hand, and as a narcotic, on the other–which [critic Susan Buck-Morss] characterizes as producing “the simultaneously hypersensitized and anaesthetized mass body that is the subject of the cinematic experience” (55).

I’m going to make a leap here. FOMO, YOLO, et al. may be regarded as cultural responses to the hypersensitivity of mass anaesthesia we would lose if the Internet broke tomorrow. Would we lose our unpleasure, the anxiety we decidedly enjoy each time we fear we’re missing out on our selves? Outside of the academy, this may be our Problem with Pleasure. Namely, that the structure of our Internet is decidedly Unpleasurable — Compulsive Internet Use, forgotten corpses at the cyber cafe, etc. Those very venues that make shopping, banking, and communicating fun also reduce and flatten us; the more we tweet, the more we despair, the more we enjoy, the less we please ourselves.

Among my favorite chapters in Frost’s book, next to the Stein and Lawrence sections, is her chapter on Anita Loos. “Fundamentally changing the concept of cinematic pleasure as passive vision, … Loo’s titles presumed and even created an active audience to whom they offered a new kind of pleasure: literary visual pleasure” (217). Not only one of the few women working in early Hollywood, Loos isn’t a canonical figure in “high” literary/visual modernism. Her most well known text, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is thoroughly pop. But Loos’ work besides Blondes, Frost asserts, broke rank with mass culture and injected “serious” pleasures of the modernists with her intertitles.

In the “Handwriting on the Wall,” Loos told Everybody’s Magazine that her “most popular subtitle introduced the name of a new character. … The name was something like this: ‘Count Xxerkzsxxv.” Then there was a note, “Too those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.'” The title, as described by Loos, establishes a direct relationship between the audience and the writer that entirely excludes the film. It insists that this jumble of letters cannot be treated as an oral artifact. Language here is neither visual nor audible, but rather located in an abstract realm of thought. Words don’t just represent ideas: they are ideas in themselves. … Loos invited audiences to enjoy the collision of different levels of cultural pleasure (218-9).

Elsewhere from Loos’s intertitles are her own films, which eerily anticipate our current mode of interacting with ourselves and each other.

Loos’s 1914 one-reeler The School of Acting features Professor Bunk’s drama school, in which thespians are taught to emote according to “large cards, about two feet square, [on which Bank] has printed in big type the names of the different emotions; such as ‘Anger,’ ‘Jealousy,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Hope,’ etc.” Comedy ensues when actors are shown the cards in appropriate circumstances and cannot help but act them out. The cards suggest titles, which cinema audiences read in tandem with the actors in the film, causing a metatexual collapse of viewer/actor and word/image (215).

I couldn’t help but think and hear “hypertext.” Text that describes text. Isn’t HTML5 a text that allows and produces a “metatextual collapse of viewer/actor and word/image” as well? The Facebook user is both the viewer and actor in her own cinema feature. Like Pleasure, what we do not consider in the realm of technological innovations is how unmoored to reality–a reality reconditioned by modernism and postmodernism–we are becoming. Then again, as the modernists have shown us, what is reality, what is pleasure? I thoroughly enjoyed Frost’s book. This book is not for the general reader but, as Frost hopes in her coda, it aspires to help in our effort to try and “strike a balance somewhere between naive enthusiasm and reactionary anxiety. … Modernism’s counterintuitive negation, difficulty, and appeal to the power of unpleasure could provide a productive tension at a time when many new pleasures have unsettling implications” (244).

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