Modernist difficulty: its evolving value and meaning

deadline for submissions: 
March 6, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
MSA Toronto (October 2019)
contact email: 

Difficulty is a key quality associated with modernist works and a key value associated with modernist theory. T. S. Eliot’s “The Metaphysical Poets” valorizes difficulty’s intellectual and mimetic value, claiming that, because civilization is various and complex, poetry should force or dislocate language into meaning. D. H. Lawrence’s “Morality and the Novel” values emotional difficulty as necessary to the journey toward newness, both in life (“A new relation … will always hurt. So life will always hurt”) and art (“to read a really new novel will always hurt”). Echoing Freud, Lawrence says there will always be “resistance” to newness. Reflecting in 1961 on teaching modernism, Lionel Trilling discussed the challenges of confronting students with the intellectually and emotionally difficult material in Eliot, Lawrence, Kafka, and others. What does it mean for students of aesthetics to accept, contest, or contextualize modernist valuations of difficulty? Discussions of literary as well as theoretical texts are welcome (Eliot, Lawrence, Stein, Wittgenstein, Adorno, et al.).

 Please send 400-word abstracts and 50-100 word scholarly biographies, preferably as MS Word docs, to Jesse Wolfe at by March 6.


Modernist Studies Associaion website:


Requester's bio: Jesse Wolfe is a Professor of English at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of _Bloomsbury, Modernism, and the Reinvention of Intimacy_ (Cambridge, 2011) and is currently completing revisions on a second manuscript. Entitled "Intimacy-in-History: Love, Friendship, and Narrative Form After Bloomsbury," this project examines the residual utopian yearnings--transferred from the public to the private sphere--of contemporary modernist legatees supposedly operating in an era of "incredulity" toward historical metanarratives.