Static Chaos: The Great War and Modern Novels of Sterility

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Title: Static Chaos: The Great War and Modern Novels of Sterility
Author: Stoeckl, Sarah
Abstract: The Great War was unprecedented both in its devastation and in the significance people attached to it, which this dissertation contends led to a crisis of representation that manifested in literary tropes and discourses of sterility. Some authors used sterility to represent the war as a cultural and historical apocalypse, others as a basis for questioning how literature, Western civilization, and humanity itself could continue after such a catastrophe. "Static Chaos" theorizes how thematic renderings of sterility work alongside modernist formal experimentation to sever reproductive literary traditions. The widespread instances of sterility reveal the deep effects of the war on non-combatants as well as combatants, as demonstrated through analysis of novels by a diverse group of authors from Britain and United States--Rebecca West, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Claude McKay, and Ford Madox Ford. The study moves chronologically yet it also follows a narrative logic of thwarted human sexual experience beginning with novels focused upon problematic virginity, then those depicting the inability or unwillingness to procreate, and then one preoccupied with pregnancy overshadowed by illegitimacy and stillbirth. This dissertation draws upon trauma theory and grief and mourning theory, which reveal how, in addition to individual experiences of psychological trauma, the war disabled traditional means of coping, leading to a widespread inability to mourn that was traumatizing in itself. I name this state "traumatic grief" and argue that its pervasiveness led authors to break with a longstanding interconnection between making war and making babies. "Static Chaos" also expands theories that diagnose narrative's mimetic relationship to human sexual intercourse and sexuality, particularly those of Judith Roof and Lee Edelman who assert narrative's heterosexuality based on its traditional logic of continuation. I argue that post-war formal experimentation in modernist literature renders narrative metaphorically sterile by disrupting reproductive traditions and conventions. These formal components include generic manipulation, representations of inversion and paradox, ambiguous or inconclusive endings, and parodic or circular plot structures. Together with themes of sterility, these formal elements work to depict the post-war world as fixed in a barren wasteland, trapped in static chaos.
Date: 2012

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