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.

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