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Euripides, Ultra-Moderniste: H.D. and Avant-Garde Failure

Kay Gabriel

Princeton University

This presentation takes up the poet and dramatist H.D. through the lens of her engagement with Euripidean drama. Specifically, I offer a reading of H.D.'s 1917 "Notes on Euripides" in order to illuminate H.D.'s ambivalent relationship to the failed avant-garde desire, as Peter Burger polemically describes it, to "restore art to life."

In 1986 Rachel Blau DuPlessis lamented the chauvinistic sidelining of US poet Hilda Doolittle in the canons of Anglo-American literary modernism: designated by Pound as "H.D., Imagiste" in a letter to Poetry magazine editor Harriet Monroe to introduce his own Imagist movement, H.D. figures in many historical surveys of modernism—Kenner's The Pound Era (1971) chief among them—in the ancillary role Pound invented for her. Since Barbara Guest's biography Herself Defined (1984) and Blau DuPlessis's The Career of That Struggle (1986), H.D. scholarship has attended more precisely to H.D.’s modernist poetics, including her translations and adaptations of Sappho and Euripides. Against the impression of H.D.'s formal conservatism, Diana Collecott asserts that H.D.'s "Sapphic modernism" deranges and creatively repurposes her classical antecedents. Eileen Gregory meanwhile excavates H.D.'s extensive adaptation of Euripides, while Katerina Stergiopoulou's recent dissertation argues for the modernist, rather than classicizing, inflection of H.D.'s Euripidean adaptations.

My argument departs somewhat from these discussions of H.D.'s modernist bona fides, typically parsed in the vexed terms of sufficiently disjunctive form. Instead, I look to H.D.’s active participation in the forging of what Fredric Jameson has described as an "ideology of modernism"—in the discursive markers that lend a historical moment the status of a decisive, epochal rupture with history. H.D.'s "Notes on Euripides" suggests that she repurposes the ancient dramatist in this explicit capacity. Speculating about Euripides' lost plays, H.D. writes: "What did these plays contain, how did they approach life? Surely, in some ultra-modern spirit if the surviving plays are any clue to the lost ones. ... How would 1917 London have acclaimed such anti-war propaganda? Work that out and you will have some idea of the power and the detachment of the Attic dramatist." On the one hand, in lending Euripides the status of an "ultra- modern spirit," H.D. invokes the dramatist in the explicit terms of historical rupture. And on the other, in suggesting the political efficacy of his artistic antipathies, she looks to Euripides as an icon of the avant-garde desire to "destroy art as an institution" (Burger 1974, 88)—the desire, in other words, for an artistic iconoclasm with revolutionary social force.

Despite her personal conservatism, this desire commits H.D. to the "proximity to social revolution" that Perry Anderson argues characterized the period of modernist cultural production—and in that capacity, the date of 1917 speaks the louder as a marker of the February and October revolutions in Russia that effectively ended the First World War and ushered in the experiments of "actually existing" socialism. In my contention, H.D.'s engagement with Euripides under the cast of the avant-garde provides the ground for her vexed and ambivalent modernism, fixed between a romantic anti-capitalism and the utopian invocation of a future temporality. When coupled with what Burger argues to be the failure of the historical avant-garde to fulfill its promise of restoring art to life—of, in other words, overcoming the alienated life-world of capitalist modernity—H.D.'s "ultra-modern Euripides" discloses a certain hollow utopianism, the promise of a plethoric, liberated future in name only. But by this token, H.D.'s avant-garde Euripides signals at least the generative quality of Euripidean tragedy for thinking and staging the desire called cultural revolution.

Session/Panel Title

Problems in Performance: Failure in Classical Reception Studies

Session/Paper Number

51.3

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