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Pinky Lui discusses the consolation of stillness in Modernist art.

Louise Hornby, Still Modernism (Oxford UP, 2017), 256pp.

Monochrome images from the beginning of photography and Greta Garbo’s mystic charm captured in glamorous old Hollywood films suggest that time is forever mesmerized into images of another world beyond paper or screen. Given the rapid development of cinema, the early twentieth century’s modernists upheld the mobile image as the ideal, even considering it an improvement on the stillness offered by photographs. Louise Hornby’s Still Modernism thinks through these aspects of Modernism, and in so doing demands the critic reassess the notion of stillness as aesthetic.

Hornby’s book emphasizes how scholarship on stillness is simply hidden in plain sight when most modernist scholars were overwhelmed and obsessed by the challenges of thinking velocity and mobility. Still Modernism contains four progressive chapters, beginning with a re-examination of the relationship between film and photography, and moving onto an inquiry of photographic qualities in literature. In each chapter, Hornby offers an in-depth introduction of corresponding theories about film and photography. From the writings of Walter Benjamin, Andre Bazin, F.T. Marinetti, to photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot, Still Modernism probes into these classic texts and images and pries for something still and ephemeral. This challenges the modernist juxtapositions of film and photography with kinesis and stasis. Composed of two parts, Still Modernism first explores the limits of photographic stillness in the first-person narration in Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, then moves on to the second and climatic part on James Joyce’s Ulysses and lastly to the fiction of Virginia Woolf. Hornby suggests that photographic stillness is a response to “a longing to get beyond the limits of the human” (17). The author offers an interdisciplinary and lively critique that not only focuses on the visual, but also the literal and psychological.

Since the monumental premiere of Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1895, cinematic magic has revolved around the sense of speed and motion enabled by technological advancements such as the locomotive and simultaneously rendering photography. The still image is soon thought to be boring and lacking in exhilaration and liveliness. Interestingly, Hornby proposes that we can regard stillness in itself as an event. She begins by returning to the photographic blurriness of a moving object snapped in an instant and the cinematic cloudiness of smoke, dust, and air. While cinematic blurring offers a scene of “constant motion as atmosphere” where air is visible, photographic blurriness too offers a “continuity of movement” by showing “the fleeting nature of motion” in obscured visual field (55,56). It is exactly because we cannot see clearly that the motion seized by the photograph transcends the limits of time and space, forever enclosed and at the same time thriving ceaselessly in a blur imperceptible to the human eye.

By positioning high modernist literature as a parallel to early photographic and filmic ideals, Still Modernism is as an interdisciplinary exploration of the aesthetic of stillness moving beyond words and images. In Hornby’s reading of Proust’s Recherche and Chantal Akerman’s adaptation of “The Captive” volume, the author associates modernist portraiture with gender hierarchy in its very didactic of motion and stillness, extending Laura Mulvey’s idea of the male gaze. Looking at how the narrator of “The Captive” named Simon attempts to create a literary serial portraiture of Albertine, Hornby suggests that his “desire to still her in a series of photographic images and counter her perpetual motion, her fugacity, with stillness, repeated” is denied by a photographic lesbianism that rejects male desire (93). The elusiveness of Albertine reveals a lesbianism that is invisible to the male gaze and thus, channels an unreachable distance for the heteronormative gaze to come across and “control her femininity” through stilling for male desire (94). Hornby refers to the techniques of close-up and seriality, which were often used by photographers Francis Galton and Alphonse Bertillon in finding a singularity within a multitude. Still Modernism exposes the irony of close-up, as it refuses “the term of intimacy it purports to offer” in the promise of proximity (98). In his attempt to know Albertine, Simon fragmentises parts of herself as scientists do with their specimen in order to zoom in. All remains futile since the central thread of Recherche as concluded by Hornby is that “desire is predicated on visual inaccessibility and dissimulation”. Photographic stillness is therefore an aesthetic influenced by a heteronormative ideology embedded within the mainstream modernist discourse (97). Apart from the unfathomable Albertine, Hornby also brings in Georgia O’Keeffe and Greta Garbo as photographic and film icons respectively to argue how lesbianism turns close-up into a “site of impurity and resistance” where women can refuse “to be seen even when looked at” (106,107). The interdisciplinary approach of Still Modernism is intriguing and intensely provocative, as foundational texts of photography and film are reread as revelations of a gendered discourse of stillness.

In the second half of her book, Hornby offers a more complex and challenging idea. Stillness can be detached from an observer and human experience. Drawing from Roland Barthes who comments that “cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood”, Hornby invites her us to detach ourselves as observers and imagine a photographic instant where humans and our understanding of time are obsolete (109). Her discussion on temporality in Joyce’s experimental novel Ulysses is difficult and complex. Nonetheless, she continues eloquently in her critique of the modernist imperative to embrace motion over stasis in relation to the manipulation of time in narratives. Joyce’s novel shows how photographic instants, emphasised through the use of parataxis and multiple coexisting timelines as identified by Hornby, can construct a world with “a new mode for thinking about subjectivity and time” that lies beyond the modernist mode of human perception (113). The idea that some time somewhere is beyond human imagination stands as a disturbing thought, but Hornby points towards Virginia Woolf whose writings may provide some consolation.

The last and most admirable chapter of Still Modernism dives into the psychology of Virginia Woolf’s writings about light, through which Hornby takes her readers back to photography before the camera called photograms. Hornby proposes that aside from Woolf’s famous stream-of-consciousness narrative, the British author also proposes a theory of photography that focuses on light and its exposure and emergence. Photograms without the need for camera rely on the action of light on an object to capture the instant. Hornby makes an interesting observation that this sole necessity of light is analogous to  Woolf’s writing of nature. The detached narrative of a floating consciousness without a self is comparable to photograms independent of human participation. The emphasis of light as a privilege on objectivity is extended to the mother figure, a recurring character Woolf’s works, most notably  Mrs. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse. Hornby draws a parallel between the mother and the light in the novel and suggests that Woolf’s photographic light-writing partly originated from the traumatic death of her mother is therapeutic and comforting “as a form of maternal enclosure and encirclement” (169). In Woolf’s narrative, light enables the existence of the universe, just as the mother functions as the substance to the world of her children. To cast away “the unlit world”, as Hornby quotes from Woolf’s The Waves, the mother understood as the light in a photographic world of words composed in objectivity suggests that a still image timeless in its human-free dimension is transcendent, comforting, and alive (171). Hornby’s analysis the mother figure in Woolf’s light-writing is impressive, as it presents maternal presence as an objective and natural force that sustains and creates a world, just as a mother brings life to the world. Hornby counters the modernist belittlement of stasis by affirming the powerful photographic and still presence of the mother. Still Modernism ends on a high note that the aesthetic and presence of stillness found in light is an event stretching across time immemorial.

Still Modernism provides a captivating and interdisciplinary examination of the notion of stillness in contrast to mainstream modernist discourse, generating surprising and new insight into gender, time, and death. Hornby’s meticulous dissection of high modernist literature in relation to photographic stillness is worthwhile, as she draws perceptive parallels between modernist artists to reveal something beyond the limits of the human body and mind. Pushing us out of the shadow of modernist canons and into the light of stillness, Still Modernism urges its twentieth-first century readers to slow down and observe the limitlessness of stasis as a unifying essence of the universal creative agencies of photography, literature, and film.


Pinky Lui Chung-Man is currently completing her MPhil in English Literary Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Her research interests focus on feminist criticism and twentieth-century literature. She is particularly interested in the work of Henry Miller and the suppression of desire(s).

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