Book Club: March

Trauma, Primitivism and the First World War: The Making of Frank Prewett by Joy Porter.


March's book club pick will be short, in part because I am still processing this new publication by Prof. Joy Porter, and also because I will be interviewing Prof. Porter for The Signal House Edition in their anniversary issue in May.


[An aside: For those who don't know, I am an editor with that publication and frequently commission artists and writers, so if you feel The Edition would be a good platform for your work, please do get in touch with me here (or there!). If you think Porter's book is perfect for your bookshelf (and I wholly recommend it); The Edition will be offering a discount to coincide with the interview, so do sign up to its newsletter and social media channels on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.]


I will provide a link to the interview when it is published, but meanwhile I wanted to include Porter's book here for a number of reasons.


1. At the outset, a book on a male WWI Canadian poet might seem at odds with some of the content of this website, which was originally designed to focus on the role of women promoting modern art in the US in the early twentieth century. However, Porter's research, like mine, rescues a character from "history", adopting innovative approaches to understanding and problematising aspects of their person, and how that person inter-relates with the world they find themselves in. It also gives the author an opportunity to situate that person within pre-existing academic discussions; in Porter's case trauma theory, shell-shock, protest, WWI poetry, and primitivism. Therefore, Porter's approach is one I enjoy and identify with in my own journey as a researcher.


2. I was interested to read this book for the way it discussed 'primitivism' and, in particular, Frank Prewett's identity. Prewett identified as indigenous First Nation Iroqouis. Induced by shell-shock and war trauma, in particular being buried alive during combat, Prewett's cultural appropriation connects to a creative and spiritual need, and possibly, cure, for the poet. Porter writes:


Prewett’s trauma poetry and adoption of an indigenous persona is brought into relief as an articulation of protest memory. The memories of trauma Prewett deployed worked to subvert and challenge national representations of the war. His expression of what I term ‘soft primitivism’ was a response to a need to recover an authentic self in the wake of combat-induced trauma and to resist aspects of modernity. It was a personal expression of nostalgia that used an adopted mythologized indigenous identity to resist a world that appeared to lack a recognizable link to the values of past. (Porter: 199)

3. The rise of 'primitivism' in the wake of 'modernity' connects very well with some of my other reading on modernism, in particular Walter D. Mignolo's essay Coloniality: The Darker Side to Modernity (I'm not sure which book this is from: #academicfail). Before I return to Porter, I want to preface her quote below by capturing Mignolo's central thesis, which is: ‘modernity’ is a European narrative that hides its darker side, ‘coloniality’ (Mignolo: 39), and since


coloniality is the unavoidable consequence of "the unfinished project of modernity" (as Jurgen Habermas would say)—since coloniality is constitutive of modernity—de-coloniality (in the sense of global de-colonial projects) becomes the global option and horizons of liberation (Mignolo: 48).

Mignolo, though he does not go into great detail in his essay, turns at one point to the institution of the museum as a product of modernity/colonialism that needs to be de-colonialised; which I think, nowadays, most people would be in agreement with (though less clear is the 'how'!). Again, this intersects with my studies of museum history and the individuals who played an important part in the promotion of the Western canon (and sometimes sale of indigenous artworks/ artefacts).


Eitherway I wanted to include Mignolo here, alongside Porter, to bring attention to the other 'side to modernity'. To introduce some complexity into modernity. For it is widespread in art history to celebrate and focus on modernism as a process of evolution, the development of the avant-garde, a dismantling of moral and political constraints in a bid to accessing individual - and thereby - universal truths; but as Mignolo's essay and Porter's discussion of primitivism makes clear, the modern movement was a lot more complicated than it is broadly represented to be. Porter:


‘Soft’ and ‘strong’ forms of cultural primitivism link to the development of modernity as both a reaction to it and as constitutive of it. Both relate to specific understandings of time and to mankind’s desire to use the past to affect the future. ‘Strong’ primitivism reflects the desire to thrust forward by deliberately going backwards, by forcefully recreating or reinstating the past. Since the past can never be precisely re-created or fully recalled, this inevitably leads to the imposition of an invented version of the past upon the present. (Porter: 215)

4. Another reason Porter's book proved interesting to me was how it used Prewett (who I realise I have not described much here) as a jumping off point for engaging in a number of fascinating issues, including indigenous studies, literary studies, psychology, and more. Porter's book is not a biography as such; though one does get to feel intimate with Frank Prewett, in particular through his poetry and Porter's careful analysis of these. And too, in his personal relationships with the Bloomsbury set and wider artistic circles: think Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Siegfried Sassoon, and so forth. And so, I have included Porter's book here for the template it serves to biographers and historians (and those who might identify as both) and for the line it walks between these two genres. I recently finished reading Barbara Caine's Biography and History, which I will review in April, which was a wonderful read that pointed out the problems (historical and contemporary) that exist between these two disciplines, but also, how a book like Porter's which functions as biography, critical study and history, can successfully embrace a number of approaches in a way that forms sometimes startling juxtapositions. Additionally, in the way a biography often reveals aspects of the biographer, I found that one of the strengths of Porter's book was how the author's interest and passions were transparent from the outset; one definitely gets a sense that Porter enjoyed the research and writing of this book, and it allowed her to establish links and connections that play to the strengths of her specialisms, but also her personal interests.


You can buy, and learn more about, Joy Porter's book on the Bloomsbury Academic website.


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