Medicine and Modernism: Diagnosing and (Re)Imaging Paralysis




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This work explores the image of paralysis in the works of Beckett, Eliot, H.D., Hemingway, Joyce, and Williams; specifically, the manner in which these artists utilized medical language to develop a diagnosis of social, political, and cultural paralysis in America and on the Continent of Europe, and fabricated a re-imaging of paralysis which complemented a newly emerging aesthetic ideal. Stemming either from experience in the field of medicine, or from psychological therapy as a patient, these artists incorporated visceral representations of paralysis which delineate a specific sequence of symptoms through medical terminology, re-imaging them into a disease process that affects a body—cultural, political, social, or mankind. Paralysis ranges in complexity from a mild velleity to a crippling abulia within the texts of the Modernist artists. Velleity manifests as a desire or wish to act, but the individual fails to see fulfillment of that desire. Abulia, on the other hand, presents within the individual as a complete physical and psychological loss of will. While these terms no longer find common usage in psychology, many of the founding practitioners of the field of psychotherapy utilized them in the early twentieth century to diagnose anxiety related issues instigated by technological advancements and personal pressures to perform at a certain level. At the turn of the twentieth century, the rapidity of change initiated by modernity catalyzed a struggle between progressive philosophies and traditionalist thought. Emerging from this clash of ideals rises an anxiety that actualizes within literary aesthetics through the use of representations of physical and/or psychological paralysis. By implementing close readings and using a medical vocabulary lens, this dissertation demonstrates how medical terminology served as a prescriptive language to diagnose social, political, and cultural paralysis in America and on the Continent, calling for a break from the embedded stagnant ideologies which generated that sense of stasis in response to modernity’s push to create change within early twentieth century culture.



Literature and medicine, Modernism (Literature), Paralysis, Joyce, James, 1882-1941, Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965, Beckett, Samuel, 1906-1989, Hemingway, Ernest, 1899-1961, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), 1886-1961, Williams, William Carlos, 1883-1963


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