Book Review: Modernism and the Machinery of Madness by Andrew Gaedtke

35343065Review by Burcu Alkan

From the middle of the nineteenth century to that of the twentieth, theories of electromagnetism developed rapidly and their applications became a part of daily life in the form of telegraphs, radios, and other such devices. These developments not only revolutionised communications but also had a great impact upon the way people viewed and experienced the world around them. Moreover, they provided ample novel material for creative and aesthetic aspirations. In Modernism and the Machinery of Madness: Psychosis, Technology, and Narrative Worlds (Cambridge University Press, 2017) Andrew Gaetdke examines the effects of these new theories and technologies in three distinct realms: mental illness, popular technology, and literary modernism.

With examples of psychotic patients claiming to be suffering from “thought transmissions,” devices that transform people’s lives through tailored broadcasts, and literary texts that explore the mind-body relationship through technological metaphors, Gaetdke asks the question of how we might “understand such uncanny echoes across the discourses of psychotic delusion, technological media, and literary modernism” (2). Modernism and Machinery of Madness looks at several literary texts within a comparative framework that is informed by narratives of mental health patients and popular perceptions of technological developments. Additionally, the discussions sketch out the changes in the field of psychiatry from phenomenological models, such as psychoanalysis towards biological ones that focus on bodies as organic “machinery.”

The book looks at  works by Wyndham Lewis, Mina Loy, Anna Kavan, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Flann O’Brien, and Samuel Beckett. These writers stand out both with their personal encounters with mental illness and the ways in which they employ experimental elements to portray the connection between psychosis and technology. Technological devices that transmit waves serve as astute metaphors for authors writing about alienated selves and instrumentalised bodies. For the psychotic patients, they become powerful images that help them make sense of their disconcerting delusions. In this context, Gaedtke emphasises the significance of narrativity as “world-making” that is essential to both experiences of psychosis and literary expressions. While the modernist texts are attempts at making sense of a fragmented world and achieving totality, the patients suffering from psychosis similarly use “the ordering work of narration” in an attempt to reinstall and maintain “fragile ontological distinctions” against predominantly hostile delusions.

Gaedtke’s choice of literary works highlights the undeniable relationship among the developing theories of the mind, the existential anxieties of an era marked by speed, technology, and two world wars, and the desires of the writers to engage with them. He examines how Wyndham Lewis maintains a criticism against posthumanism’s “monist reduction of the human to mechanistic and mindless disorder” (49). Works of Mina Loy and Evelyn Waugh are studied together as narratives of psychosis and psychoanalysis that explore fragile and troubled selves. The texts of Muriel Spark and Anna Kavan are discussed with a focus on their experimental formalistic mimicry of psychotic symptoms. The analyses of Flann O’Brien’s works focus on the results of rapid, disorienting transformations along the lines of the instrumentalisation of the self and the concomitant anxieties. The final chapter of the book looks at Samuel Beckett’s encounters with mental illness and how he is inspired by them to push the boundaries of literary texts. Gaedtke points to Beckett’s turn towards the radio (plays) as a possibility of traversing such boundaries through the medium and achieving a multi-layered self-reflexivity.

Although a little convoluted and repetitive at times, Modernism and Machinery of Madness is a well-executed investigation of the modernist twentieth century. The works discussed are some of the most intriguing ones of their times, establishing a high point for modernism with fascinating themes, formalistic experiments, and radical modes of thinking. Gaedtke notes that the “movement in and out of delusional (and fictional) worlds comprises much of the dramatic and ontological tension that motivates late-modernist representations of mental illness” (92). The outcome of his engagement with the intersections of technological developments, mind sciences, and literature highlights the fruitfulness of interdisciplinary encounters among diverse meaning-making processes. Gaedtke’s Machinery of Madness would prove a useful read not only to scholars who work on modernist literature but also to interdisciplinary researchers working in the field of medical humanities with an emphasis on mental health.

Dr. Burcu Alkan is a literary scholar and an editor currently based at Justus Liebig University, Germany. She specialises in comparative literature with an emphasis on the Turkish novel. Recently, she has been working in the field of medical humanities, on the relationship between psychiatry and literature, focusing on psychoanalysis, self-destruction, suicide, and mental health. She has co-edited the Dictionary of Literary Biography – Turkish Novelists Since 1960 (2013) and Dictionary of Literary Biography – Turkish Novelists Since 1960 Second Series (2016). Her monograph Promethean Encounters: Representation of the Intellectual in the Modern Turkish Novel of the 1970s was recently published by Harrassowitz Verlag (2018).

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