Groups, Coteries, Circles and Guilds

Modernist Aesthetics and the Utopian Lure of Community

by Laura Scuriatti (Volume editor)
Edited Collection X, 292 Pages

Table Of Content

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Figure 9.1. Group photograph at the studio of Hans Nitzschke, Hanover, 1925, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart Archiv, Museum Wiesbaden. Top: Nelly and Theo van Doesburg, middle: Kurt Schwitters, Käthe Steinitz, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, front: Hans Nitzschke.

Figure 9.2. El Lissitzky, Demonstrationszeichnung zum Prounenraum auf der Großen Berliner Kunstausstellung 1923 [Elevation Drawing for the Proun Room at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition 1923], colour lithograph, 60.2 × 44.1 cm, Sheet 6 from the Prounen-Mappe (Proun Portfolio), Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, 1923.

Figure 9.3. Kabinett der Abstrakten [Abstract Cabinet] with works by Fernand Léger, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, El Lissitzky, and Piet Mondrian, Provinzialmuseum Hannover, 1927.

Figure 9.4. Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, excerpt from ‘Theo Van Doesburg (1916–27)’ and ‘die unvergleichliche mechanik’, De Stijl, 7/79–84 (1927), 105–6.

Figure 9.5. Cover page of abstraction-création: art non-figuratif, vol. 1 (1932).

Figure 10.1. G. Sommer, First Goetheanum, painting, 1929 (reproduction photograph by R. J. Fäth).

Figure 10.2. Second Goetheanum (photograph by R. J. Fäth).

Figure 10.3. Irma von Duczynska, Aenigma Catalog, 1918 (reproduction photograph by R. J. Fäth). ← vii | viii →

Figure 10.4. Stanislaus Stückgold, Zodiac (reproduction photograph by R. J. Fäth).

Figure 10.5. Walter Besteher, Portrait of Herwarth Walden (1917).

Figure 10.6. Walter Besteher, Head (1927).

Figure 10.7. Felix Kayser, Catalogue. A handwritten note from the furniture catalog Einfache Möbel dated at the beginning of production in 1928/29.

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The present volume is the result of the productive discussions and encounters among many of the contributors, starting with a panel at the EAM (European Network of Avant-Garde and Modernist Studies) in Helsinki in 2014 and continuing at Bard College Berlin. The editor wishes to thank all the contributors to the volume for their enthusiastic and original work, as well as for their support through the process of development of the volume. Many thanks to Caroline Patey for initiating the project, and to the research group “Writing 1900” for many inspiring discussions on transnational exchanges.

The editor also wishes to thank the anonymous reviewer for the helpful suggestions, Bard College Berlin for the financial support received, and Daniel Reeve and Lisa Vogel for the editorial work on the manuscript. Finally, special thanks to Egidio Marzona, who kindly granted the editor access to his wonderful archive of modernist and avant-garde art, for his invaluable insights, and for agreeing to the reproduction of Thayhat’s drawing, which graces the cover of this book.

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In its broader connotation, which includes the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century,1 the aesthetic moment of European and American modernism was characterized by the proliferation of literary or artistic groups and movements, of cultural formations such as small magazines, independent galleries and theatres, salons and guilds. The artistic production of avant-garde and modernist groups and individuals was not limited to standard literary and artistic forms, but spanned the organization of art exhibitions, performances, and events, the creation of styles and ‘isms’, the use of independent printed media for new literary and artistic experiments, the making of collective artworks, and the establishment of workshops and even schools (as, for example, in the cases of the Bauhaus in Weimar and later Dessau, the Collège de Sociologie in Paris, the Omega Workshops in London). Last, but not least, the avant-garde and modernist fascination with radical experiments and the creation of groups or circles also led to the development of utopian communities, usually set in rural or decentralized locations, whose goals very concretely merged arts, politics and economics (as well as, in a few cases, technology). The work done in social and collective environments during the first three decades of the twentieth century is crucial for modernist aesthetics, and its importance can hardly be overstated. As Raymond Williams observed, the ‘social and ← 1 | 2 → cultural significance of all […] groups, from the most to the least organized, can hardly be doubted. No history of modern culture could be written without attention to them’.2

While the historiography of the historical avant-garde has for obvious reasons relied extensively on grounding the concept of the avant-garde on the practices of groups, accounts of modernism, especially literary modernism, have tended to conform to a paradigm of single authorship, even when authorship depended on the participation in groups or networks. In the last two decades, scholarship has increasingly devoted attention to collective enterprises and network formations as fundamental sources for the understanding and interpretation of modernist literature.3 However, in spite of the fact that neither avant-garde nor modernist aesthetics are inseparable from the collective cultural formations which made them possible, the radical artistic experiments of the period were defined by some of their protagonists through the lens of post-romantic, idealized or radicalized notions of the genius and of his signature.4 This paradoxical situation characterized even the artistic production of groups, such as the Italian Futurists, who indeed celebrated genius as an aesthetic and political category, but denied that anything artistic could amount to the expression of the self of the artist.

Even in the interwar period, a moment when the traditional notion of the artist as genius was being challenged from many sides, uniqueness, originality and individuality – the qualities usually associated with ← 2 | 3 → it – were transposed either onto the figure of the artist as a visionary, or as an embattled individualist and non-conformist in permanent opposition to a hostile, philistine, conservative or materialistic society, or onto the very artworks themselves. Especially in Britain and the United States, new critical approaches privileged the formal analysis of artworks, which were seen as precious, unique, aesthetic objects whose meaning was not dependent on the contingencies of history and politics.5

This contributed to the long-standing characterization of the period through categories emphasizing uniqueness and originality, rather than collaboration or collective work.6 These phenomena, which might appear to represent two polar opposites within the aesthetic practices of the period, are not mutually exclusive; many of the essays collected in this volume indeed present them as inextricably linked, exploring the extent to which modernist aesthetics was also the result of the possibilities offered by communal spaces, collective enterprises, diffuse networks and international communities based on exchange, collaboration and an aesthetics of connection. This volume aims at presenting lesser-known groups and even individual modernist authors whose practices were based on the belief that lived communities and collective, collaborative artworks could be conceived as utopian artistic projects. The essays collected here show that the works and practices of these groups renewed the notion of utopia by making artistic experiments and social utopias interdependent, exploring notions of collective production and collaboration, and probing their many possibilities. ← 3 | 4 →

New paradigms have been recently developed in criticism which attend to the study of these complex interrelations and their historical, aesthetic, economic and political dynamics: cultural studies focused on small magazines, networks and salons, as well as works investigating modernism’s material cultures and cultural politics, have provided a complex picture of the period and the critical tenets associated with it.7 Jill Lloyd affirms the need to break with the (mostly Anglo-Saxon) tendency to see modernism as a general post-romantic phenomenon, and credits Peter Bürger with having initiated a paradigm shift in this sense.8 Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) defines the avant-garde as inextricably bound to groups and movements, rather than to single authors; while in this theory community and collaborative practice are not crucial for the definition and understanding of the avant-garde, Bürger argues that the peculiar project of societal renewal pursued by the avant-garde pertained exclusively to the activities of groups rather than of individual artists. His study associates group practices with a tendency to dismantle the sacredness of authorship and masterpiece, and the mastery of the artist over the work of art. From his point of view, the difference between modernism and the avant-garde can therefore be articulated not only on the basis of historical periodization, but also on the basis of a varying emphasis on individual or collective aesthetics. Vincent Kaufmann suggests that, in the case of the French avant-garde, scholarship tends to assume that it consists of groups and movements rather than individuals, and that these groups considered themselves bound to a communitarian aesthetics, which meant by default an opposition to individual artistic practices. Following Bürger, Kaufmann ← 4 | 5 → adopts this as the true definition of the avant-garde, which he sees as constituted only by groups which pursue communitarian practices.9 On the other hand, Rachel Potter shows that, if we consider the socio-economic mechanisms of dissemination and promotion of literary works, early modernism (a term which includes the historical avant-garde up to the late 1920s), was ‘both vigorously individualistic and collaborative’,10 in spite of the fact that ‘the collaborative efforts of Modernists often seemed in tension with the experimental individualism of Modernist texts’.11 In this respect, Patrick Jagoda observes in Network Aesthetics that the early twentieth century was a historical moment in which Margaret Schlegel’s appeal to Harry Wilcox to ‘only connect!’ was a suitable and much-needed response, proposing interconnection as a means of counteracting the destructive individualism and the alienating fragmentation of modern life.12

Whether one considers the sociology or the political culture of the first half of the twentieth century – marked respectively by notions of fragmentation and alienation, and by the emergence of political forces which aimed at mobilizing large segments of the population towards revolutionary and/or aggressive projects – the dialectical tension between individualism and collective action which we find in modernist aesthetics and criticism seems a suitable response to this historical moment. Numerous artists responded to the radical impulses in many areas of political and social life by creating groups and movements: therefore, the radicalism of modernist art and literature can be seen to embody not only a revolt against the previous generation, but also a mode of participation in radical politics – whether progressive or totalitarian – of the early twentieth century. While the participation of authors and artists in radical experiments and politics was not by necessity attached to progressive positions – as the cases of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Emil Nolde and ← 5 | 6 → Georges Sorel demonstrate – the formation of groups and movements had strong utopian connotations, and was mostly the result of a will to effect change, whether in the realm of aesthetics, or in society at large.13 These largely utopian goals expressed themselves in the creation of new modernist genres, such as the manifesto, or in the establishment of alternative infrastructures for the circulation and promotion of modernist works and ideas. They also relied on an optimistic vision of literature and the arts as effective instruments of political change and action. These were certainly ‘minor utopias’, to use Jay Winter’s definition: for Winters, minor utopias were markedly different in their forms of intervention and effects from the major (and discredited) utopias of the twentieth century, but still aimed at producing a better world.14

David Ayers and Benedikt Hjartarson point out that the avant-garde, with its manifestos, its wilful breaks with tradition, its critical attitudes and its radical projects or imaginative accounts of a new life and of the future, has by definition been associated with mainly antagonistic utopian projects, and in many cases, with their actual failure.15 Indeed, critics have seen the avant-garde attitude as a form of ‘pseudo-criticism’, that is, of ← 6 | 7 → a type of criticism of society which remains within the paradigms it aims to undo, or, alternatively, as a consolatory activity which provides a comfortable illusion of effecting social change, but does not in fact contribute to it. Prominent among these critics are the thinkers of the Frankfurt School,16 and also Peter Bürger, for whom the concept of avant-garde only applies to those groups whose practices aimed to refuse the autonomy of the realm of art from society, and to restore it into the midst of social and political practices, in order to change them. Cedric Van Dijck, Sarah Posman and Marysa Demoor note that these questions are inextricably related to symbolic paradigms of location, suggesting that criticism and the possibility of successful (minor) utopian projects are deeply connected with notions of the outside and the outsider.17 This paradigm takes on much more literal connotations if we consider the experiences of utopian communities founded by artists, writers and thinkers in rural locations, far from metropolises and cultural capitals, and conceived as spaces of freedom: the artists’ colonies at Monte Verità and at Dornach in Switzerland, the garden city of Hellerau, near Dresden, the Bloomsbury Group’s retreat at Charleston, the Surrealist experiment at Farley Farm, in Sussex, the Provincetown Players in the United States, are some examples of the numerous utopian communal projects purposefully located at a geographical and symbolic distance from social and political centres. These locations directly connect these experiences with the very history of the concept of utopia, whose meaning, as we know, describes a place which does not, or does not yet, exist, and can be understood also as the search for alternatives to the negative utopias of the early twentieth century. In this sense, the militant internationalism of many modernist groups signals these artists’ need to severe themselves from the destructive ideology of nationalism, and is itself a form of utopia. Indeed, especially in the inter-war years, the creation of trans- or international bodies and cultural entities (such as the PEN Club in 1921, or the ← 7 | 8 → Commission Internationale de Coopération Intellectuelle (CICI), which was part of the League of Nations, was meant to promote international understanding and to foster collaboration between intellectuals in different fields.18 Internationalism was seen as an instrument for repairing the wounds of the war, and international bodies sought to promote transnational collaborations in specific printed media, translations and cosmopolitanism.19

The chapters in this volume offer a varied, yet interconnected map of numerous groups, circles, salons and utopian communities throughout Europe and the United States; although the protagonists of some of these circles are well-known protagonists of modernism, the groups themselves – such as the artists’ collectives Porza, die abstrakten hannover and Aenigma, as well as the Surrealist retreat of Farley Farm in Sussex – are so far little known and under-researched. The chapters also bring into dialogue texts and artworks, archival material and, in some cases, still-unpublished material by a variety of modernist and avant-garde groups and single artists or authors, offering important instruments for better understanding the complex international geography and politics of modernism and the historical avant-garde. The volume shows that groups and circles gave writers and artists the possibility of developing interdisciplinary, international and political practices; the chapters illustrate from different perspectives how these practices, in turn, led to genuine interventions into public life, such as the creation of affordable housing projects (in the case of the Porza group and Aenigma) and schools (Aenigma), together with the more common institutions of art in the public sphere, such as galleries and magazines (Porza, die abstrakten hannover, the ICA in London).

Fundamental for most of the essays presented in this volume is the concept of sociability, which characterizes the lived utopias of modernist coteries, salons, circles and guilds. Although the concept acquired new prominence in German sociology of the early twentieth century, especially in the works of Georg Simmel and Max Weber, and in contemporary theory, ← 8 | 9 → its roots lie in the Enlightenment period, with its salons and circles – that is, in the moment in which the public sphere began to emerge as a fundamental cultural and political formation. The first chapter of the volume, by Ulrike Wagner, introduces the reader to the origins of the concepts of sociability and conviviality in the salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany and the United States, proposing a detailed historical and theoretical analysis of the moment in which this concept underwent considerable critical attention, and was theorized as a practice which guaranteed individual and collective freedom within parameters of secularization associated with the practice of literary interpretation. This chapter stages a productive dialogue with modernist and contemporary theorization of these concepts in sociology and philosophy.

As Michael P. Farrell argues, artists’ groups may be small and do not necessarily have utopian or political intentions: they may, on the other hand, be founded on affective bonds, on relationships of friendship, intimacy, shared aesthetic and literary interests, trust or empathy.20 In his study of the Rye circle and the collaboration between Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, Farrell shows that affective bonds and collaborative work may take the shape of narrative and conversational situations which, in turn, give birth to literary communities. Friendship, sociability and conversation are the fundamental ingredients of the forms of the salon, the circle and the coterie, which represent perhaps the more frivolous aspects of community. On the other hand, the sociability, conversation and conviviality practised within small circles and groups was seen by sociologists Georg Simmel and Max Weber not only as the source of literary and artistic creation, but also as instruments to contrast the alienation of modern life and even to forge a more meaningful world.21 Martina Ciceri explores the literary practices informed by the internationalist, pacifist and utopian Tolstoyan communities in Great Britain, focusing especially on the power of conversation ← 9 | 10 → implicit in the literary exchanges and translations of Olive Garnett and the Russian emigré Sergey Mikhailovich Kravchinsky (Stepniak).

The chapters in the second section of the book focus on writers whose work was rather characterized by a marked scepticism towards any type of collective enterprise or community: Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and the Finnish author Algot Untola. In spite of this scepticism, communities and groups do appear very prominently in the works of these authors, especially in the form of coteries and alternative ‘republics of letters’. The textual communities of these authors are international or transnational (in the case of Barnes, Loy and the Baroness) and intertextual; their presence and form seems to question the aesthetic and critical categories of authorship and originality, as well as the political agendas associated with individualism, gender identity and political affiliation. Francesca Chiappini and Laura Scuriatti explore the contradictory aspects of sociability and various forms of community in the works of Djuna Barnes, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Mina Loy. Chiappini’s study of Barnes’s works identifies different levels of textual and virtual communities based on intertextual dialogues across the Atlantic; Laura Scuriatti’s chapter on Mina Loy surveys Loy’s numerous versions of community and the failed or successful utopias produced by them – from the elitist community of geniuses of Loy’s early writings, to the individualist communities of the ‘Feminist Manifesto’ and ‘Psycho-Democracy’, to her satire of sociability and the affirmation of textual, virtual communities based on literary dialogues and citation. Kaisa Kurikka’s chapter investigates a very peculiar case: the ideal, virtual and literary community created by the numerous pseudonyms and author-names of the Finnish writer Algot Untola. Kurikka’s chapter, as well as those of Chiappini, Ciceri and Scuriatti, addresses the problem of authorship in relation to collaborative and utopian practices; the chapters highlight from different angles the dialectics between individuality and collectivity that emerged in the early twentieth century and which characterized its major and minor utopian projects. Reinhold J. Fäth’s chapter on the group Aenigma, Martina Rinaldi’s study of Lee Miller’s and Roland Penrose’s Farley Farm, and Dorothea Schöne’s analysis of the experiments of the group of artists programmatically named after the small Swiss village of Porza, offer a broad panorama of lesser-known modernist ← 10 | 11 → communities that chose to stage their own utopian discourses of resistance or rebirth at a partial or intermittent distance from locations of power and cultural politics.

The part entitled ‘Literary and Lived Utopias’ focuses on the works and practices of the ‘Young American Critics’, the British author and translator Olive Garnett, and the Surrealists Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, merging analysis of these groups and their utopian ideals with historical study of their impact on literary and public spheres. Sánchez-Pardo’s study on the ‘Young American Critics’ Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford highlights the cultural and political critiques offered by these young authors against the very notion of nation as community and national identity, while reaffirming the connection between a universalist utopia and a local, national one in which literature and the arts play a major role. The textual communities created by the Young American Critics, by Olive Garnett and by the Russian emigré Stepniak pursued utopian goals and were based on specific models of utopian communities in the United States, Great Britain and Russia.

The chapters by Isabel Wünsche, Dorothea Schöne and Reinhold J. Fäth in the section ‘Internationalism and the Utopia of an Aesthetic Community’ investigate the tensions between different notions of community, and the need to rethink communal goals within or without paradigms of national identification. The groups discussed in these chapters – Porza, Aenigma and die abstrakten hannover – pursued parallel internationalist politics and transnational aesthetic practices, using the possibilities and channels of artistic networks to create utopian social spaces or even whole new communities, in an attempt to face threats of aggressive nationalism and the increasing rationalization and de-humanization of daily life; in the case of the group Aenigma, this work also included a recuperation of a spiritual dimension connecting all aspects of human life, from aesthetics to economics.

While the impact and success of these communities and projects, or of the paradigms they created, was mixed, the present studies of such instances of minor utopias provide an overview of a variety of neglected or under-researched groups and authors, showing the relevance of the study of collective, collaborative practices for avant-garde and modernist aesthetics. ← 11 | 12 →


Adamson, Walter L., Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Fascism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

——, Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism’s Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009).

Adorno, T. W., Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007).

Antliff, Mark, Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909–39 (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2007).

Ayers, David, and Benedikt Hjartarson, ‘New People of a New Life: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Utopia’, in David Ayers, Benedikt Hjartarson et al., eds, Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Amsterdam: De Gruyter, 2015), 3–13.

Brooker, Peter, Andrew Thacker, et al., eds, The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009–16).

Brosma, Market, ‘Utopia through Art’, in David Ayers, Benedikt Hjartarson et al., eds, Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Amsterdam: De Gruyter, 2015), 49–57.

Bulson, Eric, Little Magazine, World Form (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

Calinescu, Matei, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1987).

Crunden, Robert M., American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism 1885–1917 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Durão, Fabio A., and Dominic Williams, eds, Modernist Group Dynamics: The Politics and Poetics of Friendship (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008).

Farrell, Michael P., Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Collaborative Work (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Kaufmann, Vincent, Poétique des groupes littéraires: Avant-gardes 1920–70 (Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 1997).

Jagoda, Patrick, Network Aesthetics (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2016).

Lloyd, Jill, German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1991).

Lyon, Janet, ‘Sociability in the Metropole: Modernism’s Bohemian Salons’, ELH 76/3 (Fall 2009), 687–711. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27742955>

McMahon, Darrin M., Divine Fury: A History of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2013). ← 12 | 13 →

Potter, Rachel, Modernist Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

Puchner, Martin, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Gardes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

Rainey, Lawrence, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Cultures (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999).

Schmitt, Hans-Jürgen, ed., Die Expressionismusdebatte: Materialien zu einer marxistischen Realismuskonzeption (Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp, 1973).

Soika, Aya, ‘Die Originalität der Brücke’, Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung (ZKK) 1 (2013) (Worms: Werner’sche Verlagsgesellschaft), 77–90.

Van Dijck, Cedric, Sarah Posman and Marysa Demoor, ‘World War I, Modernism and Minor Utopias’, in David Ayers, Benedict Hjartarson et al., eds, Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Amsterdam: De Gruyter, 2015), 33–47.

Will, Barbara, Gertrude Stein, Modernism and the Problem of Genius (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

Williams, Raymond, Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays (London and New York: Verso, 2005; first published 1980).

——, The Politics of Modernism. Against the New Conformists (London: Verso, 2007; first published 1989).

Winter, Jay, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

1 The following texts, among many, offer capacious definitions of modernism: Walter L. Adamson, Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism’s Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009); Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1987). See also Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists (London: Verso, 2007; first published 1989).

2 Raymond Williams, Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays (London and New York: Verso, 2005; first published 1980), 148.

3 On the history of periodicals and magazines see Peter Brooker, Andrew Thacker et al., eds, The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009–16); and Eric Bulson, Little Magazine, World Form (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). On the cultural history and aesthetics of networks, see Vincent Kaufmann, Poétique des groupes littéraires: Avant-gardes 1920–70 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997); and Patrick Jagoda, Network Aesthetics (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2016).

4 I am consciously using the masculine adjective as very few women could or would claim the label of genius for themselves according to these parameters. A prominent exception was Gertrude Stein.

5 For a survey of different versions of genius, see Darrin M. McMahon, Divine Fury: A History of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2013); Barbara Will, Gertrude Stein, Modernism and the Problem of Genius (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000). The critical approach I refer to in the text is New Criticism. W. L. Adamson analyses the language of resistance to consumerism and philistinism in Embattled Avant-Garde and discusses the position and typical figure of the embattled avant-garde artist.

6 Aya Soika discusses the tension between the need to affirm the originality of single artists and the idealistic notion of artistic collaboration in her study on the group Die Brücke: ‘Die Originalität der Brücke’, Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung (ZKK) 1 (Worms: Werner’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, 2003), 77–90.

7 See Brooker, Thacker et al., eds, The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines; Bulson, Little Magazine, World Form; Robert M. Crunden, American Salons: Encounters with European Modernism 1885–1917 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Jagoda, Network Aesthetics; Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Cultures (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); Janet Lyon, ‘Sociability in the Metropole: Modernism’s Bohemian Salons’, ELH 76/3 (Fall 2009), 687–711; Williams, The Politics of Modernism.

8 Jill Lloyd, German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1991), p. ix.

9 Kaufmann, Poétique des groupes littéraires, 3–4.

10 Rachel Potter, Modernist Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), especially Chapter 1, ‘Modernist Networks, 1914–28: Futurists, Imagists, Vorticists, Dadaists’, 37–79 at 37.

11 Ibid., 39.

12 Jagoda, Network Aesthetics, 1.

13 For an overview of the cases of ‘rear-garde’ and fascist avant-garde see, for example, Walter L. Adamson, Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Fascism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Mark Antliff, Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909–39 (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2007); Martin Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Garde (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006). See also the texts concerning the ‘Expressionismusdebatte’ in the magazine Das Wort (1938), involving, among others, Ernst Bloch, Lukács, Bertold Brecht and Hanns Eisler: Hans-Jürgen Schmitt, ed., Die Expressionismusdebatte: Materialien zu einer marxistischen Realismuskonzeption (Frankfurt a. Main: Suhrkamp, 1973). A number of these texts are published in T. W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007).

14 Jay Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 1–5.

15 David Ayers and Benedikt Hjartarson, ‘New People of a New Life: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and the Aesthetics of Utopia’, in David Ayers, Benedikt Hjartarson, et al., eds, Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Amsterdam: De Gruyter, 2015), 3–13. For Ayers and Hjartarson, the ‘antagonism’ of the avant-garde utopias refers to their rejection of the ideology of continuity and progress which characterized earlier utopias (ibid., 3).

16 See Ayers and Hjartarson, ‘New People’; Lloyd, German Expressionism, pp. vi–viii;

17 Cedric Van Dijck, Sarah Posman and Marysa Demoor, ‘World War I, Modernism and Minor Utopias’, in Ayers, Hjartarson, et al., eds, Utopia, 33–47 at 39.

18 <http://portal.unesco.org/fr/ev.php-URL_ID=30323&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html> accessed 18 May 2018.

19 Brosma, Market, ‘Utopia through Art’, in Ayers, Hjartarson, et al., eds, Utopia, 49–57 at 50.

20 Michael P. Farrell, Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Collaborative Work (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 120 and 142–3.

21 See Fabio A. Durão, and Dominic Williams, eds, Modernist Group Dynamics: The Politics and Poetics of Friendship (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), especially 197–8; Lyon, ‘Sociability in the Metropole’.

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Utopian Visions: Enlightenment, Sociability, Conviviality, Salons

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1 Utopias of Purposelessness: Sacred and Secular Sociability around 1800


This essay discusses the topic of sociability in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods from a trans-historical and cross-cultural perspective. More specifically, I concentrate on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s notion of Geselligkeit, show its crucial impact on religious criticism among American Transcendentalists, and bring these late eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century considerations of sociability into dialogue with Georg Simmel and a contemporary theoretical approach. This wide-ranging scope brings a crucial aspect of the concept’s historical career into view: notwithstanding the enormous temporal and geographical history separating some of the authors discussed here, what they have in common, I suggest, is their commitment to drawing out an aesthetic dimension of sociability that resists normative assimilations and any form of instrumentalization. It is only through such comparison, I will show, that some of the crucial implications of the concept of sociability for the arts become entirely visible.

Many of the most visionary works of avant-garde and modernist writers, artists, and social reformers gained shape within international networks, circles, salons, and wider artistic or socio-political movements. Theorizations of the concept of sociability constitute therefore a core ingredient of critical research, focused on asking how the modernists’ strong bend toward communal formations interacted with their creative ideals, projects and ideas of social reorganization. George Simmel’s ‘Soziologie der Geselligkeit’ [The Sociology of Sociability], addressed to the first German Sociological Association Congress in 1910, holds a prominent place in this context.1 Following in the footsteps of the essays assembled in this volume, I discuss the topic of Geselligkeit and its functions for individuals ← 17 | 18 → and the communities they inhabited and engaged in; with its focus on the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, however, this paper approaches the subject from a broader trans-historical and cross-cultural perspective. I concentrate on Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher’s (1768–1834) notion of Geselligkeit;2 I show its crucial impact on religious criticism among American Transcendentalists, and bring these late eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century considerations of sociability into dialogue with Simmel and a contemporary theoretical approach. This wide-ranging scope brings a crucial aspect of the concept’s historical career into view: notwithstanding the enormous temporal and geographical history separating some of the authors discussed here, what they have in common, I suggest, is their commitment to drawing out an aesthetic dimension of sociability that resists normative assimilations and any form of instrumentalization. It is only through such comparison, I will show, that some of the crucial implications of the concept of sociability for the arts become entirely visible.

Inspired by his regular visits to social gatherings organized by Henriette Herz (1764–1847), one of Berlin’s most prominent Jewish salonnières at that time, the German philosopher and theologian Schleiermacher composed with ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’ [Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct] (1799) a principal theory of conviviality that bears interesting and unexplored resemblances to today’s conceptions.3 He was working on his major theological publication Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern [On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers] (1799) when writing the fragment on sociable conduct. While ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’ approaches the topic of Geselligkeit within worldly settings, the fourth speech in Über die Religion ← 18 | 19 → titled ‘Über das Gesellige in der Religion oder über Kirche und Priestertum’ [On the Social Element in Religion; or, on Church and Priesthood] investigates the role and function of conviviality in the realm of church communities. The latter text sparked a widespread interest among New Englanders, inspiring many to fundamentally rethink structures of communication between a preacher and his congregation.

The essay’s first part is centred on translations and reworkings of Schleiermacher’s explications on social interaction among members of a church in the context of religious reforms in New England. The second part examines the notion of ‘freie Geselligkeit’ [free sociability/conviviality] that grew out of Schleiermacher’s participation in the so-called ‘Jewish salons’ in Berlin, and I put his vision of the conditions that foster a free exchange of thinking into conversation with Simmel’s argument, as well as with Magdalena Nowicka’s and Tilmann Heil’s ‘On the Analytic and Normative Dimensions of Conviviality and Cosmopolitanism’. By working out the common concerns of an eighteenth-, a twentieth- and a twenty-first-century theorization of sociability, I show a shared historical and cross-disciplinary aspect of the concept that has recently sparked contested critical debates.

To be sure, each text grew out of specific historical, cultural and disciplinary constellations that should on no accounts be conflated. Yet despite their differences, the critics discussed here articulate each in their own way a strong concern in stripping sociability of any tie to a defined set of purposes. And the effort they each invest in exploring the concept’s aesthetic dimensions dovetails with recent considerations of conviviality as a vehicle for socio-political change. With its semantic proximity to notions of community, scholars across disciplines regard the term as a productive lens for investigating dynamics of human togetherness and cohabitation. In a growing body of critical literature, sociability and conviviality function as complements or alternatives to cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism or diversity, and the theoretical baggage, normative frames and essentializing tendencies associated with these concepts.4 ← 19 | 20 →

I show how this interest in the contingent and emancipating capacities of forms of social interaction spans cultures and generations. In a multi-step argument, Schleiermacher and his Transcendentalist critics envision institutional conditions, modes of address and structures of communication directed at breaking orthodox positions before their inception, and promote the thriving of plural forms of religious expression. In a comparable vein, Schleiermacher defines ‘freie Geselligkeit’ in his profane theory of sociability as a condition untethered from interests, professional ties and responsibilities or socially defining categories. As in the text on religious sociability, verbal interaction – the here and now of communication in all its spontaneity and unpredictability – takes centre stage, and he refrains from defining any moral or educational purpose. Simmel assigns a similar set of qualities to sociability and highlights its liberal and liberating functions. Drawing on Nowicka’s and Heil’s theory in a final step, I argue that it is this trans-historical attentiveness to sociability’s presentism and volatility that constitutes the most productive and forward-looking aspect of past and contemporary theorizations of the term.

It is helpful to briefly turn to the Protestant Reformation and recall how this event changed people’s religious views, and how it prepared the way for a notion of religious Geselligkeit as revolutionary as Schleiermacher’s. ← 20 | 21 → His discussion of the communication between a priest and his congregation as a living and changing event that is not directed at specific outcomes would be unthinkable without the revolution that Scripture had undergone since the Protestant Reformation. Dissatisfied with the leadership of the Catholic Church and its claim that clerics alone were authorized to mediate between humanity and the divine, Protestant reformers demanded new mediating practices independent of church authorities and based only on Biblical authority. Sola scriptura, through Scripture alone, could one hope to decipher the divine will. The reformers rejected what they regarded as the abstract logical hair-splitting of medieval theologians and demanded an active engagement by believers themselves with the Bible. They insisted that the authority to mediate between the divine and the human world is not a God-given privilege of a human leader based on dubious customs and traditions with no scriptural warrant, but rather resides in the words of the Bible, waiting to be unlocked.

To produce more accurate versions of Judeo-Christian texts, scholars needed instruments that would help them ascertain the histories of manuscripts and their chronologies, and assist them in recuperating past works within their respective cultural contexts. Groundbreaking research in this regard took place in the Enlightenment. It was during this period, as Jonathan Sheehan argues, that a wide distribution of scholarly instruments (literary, philological, and historical) and translations in Germany called forth a profound transformation in the field of Biblical studies – that is, the birth of an Enlightenment Bible. Sheehan subsumes under the term ‘Enlightenment’ the constellation of practices and institutions that opened the Bible to entirely new fields of inquiry and sites of reconstitution. Prior to its large-scale transformation and plural recuperation in the eighteenth century, the Bible had been a ‘self-legitimizing’ text in the sense that, as a manifestation of God’s word, its authority was always already affirmed.5 The legitimacy of the Enlightenment Bible, by contrast, was built on its place in the human world. The text’s authority no longer had its centre in ← 21 | 22 → the field of theology, but was distributed across a wide network of different media and disciplines.

Ironically, while the driving force behind the deployment of new scholarly instruments throughout different disciplines was to consolidate the authority of the earliest religious documents, it was precisely in that very moment that their timeless exemplary function began to be called into doubt. Scholars began to perceive the strangeness of ancient worlds and to gain insights into ways of life and thinking that seemed utterly distinct from their own life worlds. Johann Gottfried Eichhorn demonstrated in his Einleitung in das Alte Testament [Introduction to the Old Testament] (1780–83) that the Bible consists of vastly different text collections, stemming from multiple origins; findings like these called for a fundamental rethinking of the status of religious literature.6 The complex distribution of the Bible’s authority across media and disciplines that had been set off by the demands of Protestant reformers resulted in major discoveries about the human origin of the Scriptures, and it prompted people to countermand doctrinal rigour and seek new forms for the reinvigoration of their spiritual lives.

Decades later, the revolution in scholarship that had unsettled clerical authority in Germany arrived on the American shores and instigated similar developments. Under the impact of historical research, the traditional foundations of faith began to shake and scholars no longer treated religious texts as infallible testimonies of divine revelation but as historical records, telling stories of celestial visions and human spirituality. In this situation of upheaval and uncertainty, Schleiermacher’s religion of feeling provided an appealing recipe for regaining faith in light of its scholarly deconstruction. A variety of translations and reviews testify to the widespread interest his writings sparked among New Englanders. While Transcendentalism has widely branching roots, reaching back to different traditions such as liberal Platonism or the Scottish common-sense philosophers, Richardson suggests that the movement’s ‘central religious impulse […] most nearly resembles the early religious position of Friedrich Schleiermacher’; This is ← 22 | 23 → because ‘Schleiermacher locates true religion not in doing or in knowing, but specifically in feeling’.7 The Schleiermacher who made it into American literary histories and the Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism broke new ground in people’s spiritual lives because he located the source of religious sentiments in the individual’s emotions.8

Among the American critics dedicated to engaging with German theological works and with Schleiermacher in particular, George Ripley stands out. The Unitarian minister was a core figure of the Transcendentalist group. He had attended Harvard together with his cousin and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, helped to found the Transcendental Club – a regular meeting point for anyone concerned with rethinking the premises of Unitarian theology in the movement’s early years – and was a major force in translating and promoting German Biblical scholarship, literature, and philosophy among his contemporaries. In 1836, he introduced the readers of the Christian Examiner and General Review (the most important mouthpiece of Unitarianism and intellectual forum for the circulation of Transcendentalist views)9 to Schleiermacher’s thinking with a translation of Friedrich Lücke’s reminiscences of his teacher, ‘Erinnerungen an Friedrich Schleiermacher’.10 Moreover, Ripley singled out the fourth discourse, ‘On ← 23 | 24 → the Social Element in Religion; or, on the Church and Priesthood’, of Schleiermacher’s On Religion for publication in the first American anthology of German fiction and criticism, Frederic Henry Hedge’s Prose Writers of Germany.11 These texts are crucial for understanding the function of sociability in the project of transferring the idea of divine authority from the letter into the interior world of the subject.

Andrews Norton, the leading professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School and co-editor of the Christian Examiner, felt offended by the translation of Schleiermacher’s fourth discourse and the series of pamphlets his student Ripley had published on German theological scholarship, and he attacked him publicly in a letter that appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser on 5 November 1836.12 The publication sparked a controversy between teacher and student that lasted over three years and found its most elaborate manifestation in Norton’s Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity and Ripley’s response to it in the form of three book-length letters.13 ← 24 | 25 →

The first letter is the primary resource for understanding the ways in which Ripley’s religious revival project is linked to the domain of social interaction. His mode of arguing resonates in crucial aspects with Schleiermacher’s fourth discourse, to which I turn first. In this speech, Schleiermacher encourages his readers to join him in his endeavour to fundamentally rethink the conception of religion and to ‘erect it again upon a new basis’. This basis, he claims, has to be a social one: ‘If religion exists at all, it must […] possess a social character’. More specifically, he suggests that the reason for the social core of religion lies both in ‘the nature of man’ and ‘in the nature of religion’.14

Religion’s distinctive trait is its infinite nature, which makes it impossible for a ‘single individual’ to comprehend it in its entirety. Nothing, Schleiermacher writes, confronts the subject more directly and more powerfully with the limits of his capacities than religion. Man’s ‘total inability to exhaust [religion]’, however, does not imply that he cannot experience and express it.15 On the contrary, religion unfolds and becomes alive only in moments when it gets transformed from being ‘universal’ and ‘indeterminate’ into a specific material form or mode of expression. The spiritual world’s flourishing is contingent upon the sphere of human life and activity.16

Individuals in different times and at different places bring their religious experiences into a plurality of forms and thereby embrace and articulate ‘a small portion’ of its infinity. To compensate for the limited grasp and incapacity to settle questions of religious truth alone, the subject seeks ← 25 | 26 → support in social surroundings: ‘that which he cannot immediately reach, he wishes to perceive, as far as he can, from the representations of others […] he is anxious to observe every manifestation of it […] seeking to supply his own deficiencies’. Schleiermacher’s speech renders the revival of religious feelings a communal effort in which each participant contributes toward a more comprehensive understanding of that which exceeds the individual’s knowledge. Through dynamic communicative exchanges where ‘everyone feels equally the need both of speaking and hearing,’ people complement each other.17

Schleiermacher’s claim that the community is a space where religion finds expression in multiple forms through people’s reciprocal formation resonates powerfully in Ripley’s first letter. In Ripley’s eyes, Norton’s adherence to a single doctrine runs counter to the nature of religion and man’s experience thereof:

A dead level of uniform opinions must be dreaded by every earnest speaker of truth, no man has the whole, but each a part, of reality; and a friendly comparison of ideas from different points of observation, as it is the most delightful mental exercise, is also the most certain means of avoiding error, and of building up a comprehensive faith on a strong foundation.18

The ‘earnest speaker’ of religion knows that he will never find himself in possession of its ‘whole truth’ but only of a fraction that he may build up and enhance through social interaction. The social sphere is essential for the healthy growth of a religious spirit; conscious of the limits of their individual conceptions of religion, the members of the community hone them by fostering an ethos of ‘a friendly comparison of ideas’.

To this point, one gains the impression that Schleiermacher and Ripley unsettle the domain of orthodox criticism and the institutional structures of the ministry by propagating a radically egalitarian and pluralistic approach to religious and theological questions. If the members of a church assume that ‘no man has the whole, but each a part’ of religious truth, then that requires a fundamental democratization of rank in the church in order ← 26 | 27 → to accommodate the coexistence of different views. Ideally, the reformed community is organized in such a way that

In Schleiermacher’s vision, leadership is no longer contingent upon a person’s pre-assigned position in a church hierarchy; he ‘comes forward before the rest […] not because he is entitled to this distinction’ but because he feels impelled by ‘a free impulse of the spirit’. An individual legitimizes his elevated position within a church community by virtue of his abilities to access and acquire a sound understanding of a specific sphere of religion. While he may act as ‘a priest’ in that region, he has to renounce his position of authority in another. He only serves his post truthfully if he abstains from claiming to rule over religion entirely. Its infinite spirit thrives best in an environment where people draw attention to the limits of their understanding and seek to colonize the spiritual world by inhabiting alternatively the positions of priest and layman.

While such democratic structures, however, grant every member of a community the same opportunity, Schleiermacher’s dynamic conception of religious leadership is not pluralistic in the sense that everyone’s approach is of equal value: ‘Every man is a priest’, he suggests, only ‘so far as he draws around him others’. The subject needs to legitimize his position by gathering around himself others who find his mode of treating spiritual questions compelling and seek out his guidance: ‘It will rather be his [the preacher’s] first endeavor, whenever a religious view gains clearness in his eye […] to direct the attention of others to the same object, and, as far as possible, to communicate to their hearts the elevated impulses of his own’ and to ‘effect them with […] his own holy emotions’. The subject becomes a preacher not simply on the basis of his own calling but once others begin ← 27 | 28 → to recognize his mode of practising religion as authentic and as something to learn from.

Those points in the text that link the individual’s preaching to his congregation’s recognition provide precise articulations of the parameters of Schleiermacher’s new ideal of religious leadership. What poses a particular challenge to the preacher is that while he needs to seek people’s attachment to and approval of the sphere of religion he has seized, he has to prevent the formation of a sectarian spirit and resist ‘the endeavor to make others similar’ to himself. He may not suggest that what he preaches ‘is essential to all’ and attempt to convert others with ‘that horrible expression “no salvation except with us”’.20

Schleiermacher’s ideal of leadership clearly places high demands on those who follow it truly. The religious community should organize itself in a way that makes the position of the preacher available to everyone. The individual who feels entitled to inhabit the role needs to create a sense of belonging among all members by gaining their trust in his ways of leading them into spiritual worlds. Yet while it is his duty to seek their fellowship for his vision of truth, it is also his responsibility to unsettle that very vision so as to maintain and safeguard religion’s infinite nature.

Ripley’s letter lays out a similar model of religious authority. He represents the divinity school ministers as an association whose modes of interaction are in harmony with Schleiermacher’s claim that religious truth is not found in a single creed but becomes manifest in plural forms and articulations, growing out of social surroundings. What unites the group is what Ripley broadly defines as their shared interest ‘in the investigation of truth’. In pursuing this goal, they cultivate a respectful and friendly manner of communication that refrains from building up a ‘broad line of distinction between the clergy and the rest of the community’. They do not seek to exert authority over one another by forcing faith in a particular direction but rather aim at creating an environment that promotes conversation between ‘intelligent and reflecting men of every pursuit and persuasion’. Instead of empowering one individual to settle religious questions ← 28 | 29 → for everyone, they pursue the solving of such questions through a ‘mutual endeavor’ that thrives among people who ‘shed light on each others’ mind’.21

Throughout his letters to Norton, Ripley recalls verbatim or refers to what he states in the review of Schleiermacher in the Christian Examiner.22 Schleiermacher, as channelled through Lücke’s representation, provides him with answers to the question of how a preacher sets in motion speech that oscillates between authoritative statements and their subversion. Recalling his experience of Schleiermacher as a ‘preacher and teacher of theology’ in Halle, Lücke says that through his particular ways of selecting and representing ‘various elements of theology’, and through organizing them ‘according to the laws of his peculiar individuality’, he had a significant impact on his audience:

He fathered around him a crowd of hearers, filled with enthusiasm and reverence, whom he firmly attached to his person, and who, quickened and excited by the influence of his writings and discourses, have since labored and still continue to labor in the spirit of their master. His influence is presupposed in the formation of every one.23

In that sense, Lücke resumes, one could say that Schleiermacher ‘founded a school’. Those he engaged with his speaking felt so attracted and illuminated by his mode of making the realm of religion accessible to them that they directed their striving toward a continuation of their teacher’s legacy. In ‘another sense’, however, Lücke brings to mind that Schleiermacher concentrated all his energies on overturning his own findings so as to prevent the formation of ‘a school which would appear with a distinct party purpose’.

Regarding himself a life-long ‘seeker’, he was ‘always anxious […] to form every one as a seeker for truth’ and to surround himself with ‘free, self-acting, independent scholars’ instead of ‘followers’. In pursuing this goal, Schleiermacher developed a number of strategies directed at avoiding too close of an attachment between himself, the topic, and his audience. Translating from Lücke, Ripley introduces individual elements of these strategies, referring to them as Schleiermacher’s ‘pulpit eloquence’. ← 29 | 30 → In his eyes, such eloquence is the way toward a reform of preaching in New England that he finds already well underway.24

A distinguishing characteristic of the ‘pulpit eloquence’ that Ripley discovers in Lücke’s text is that the preacher treats the genre of the sermon as a ‘living product’. Prior to every Sunday mass, Lücke recalls, Schleiermacher had the broad outline of his sermon in mind,

but he wrote nothing down until Saturday evening, and then only the text and the theme, or at the utmost a brief sketch of the divisions of his discourse. Thus prepared he went into the pulpit. Here arose his discourse, in respect to its form and execution, as the living product of his previous meditation, of the exciting influence of the assembled church, and of the constant command of his mind over the arrangement of his thoughts and language.25

Instead of addressing his hearers with pre-conceptualized interpretations of a particular theme corseted in set phrases, Schleiermacher allowed the topic to gain shape in the communicative situation that unfolded between him and his audience. The sermon developed under the formative influence of elements that exceeded his control such as ‘the influence of the assembled church’ and the twists and turns his own thinking took during his performances.

Ripley’s letters and translations provide a window into how Schleiermacher’s theological thinking contributed to the rise of a new understanding of religion centred on the individual’s emotions and consciousness. The excerpt from Schleiermacher’s fourth speech, Lücke’s recollections and Ripley’s letters to Norton all suggest that the project of promoting a religious understanding in which the subject’s feelings take centre stage is closely tied to anti-foundationalist and non-hierarchical modes of interaction. Each text is concerned with exploring institutional conditions, forms of address, and structures of communication and leadership congenial to the individual’s independent spiritual growth. Neither rank nor an adherence to a specific set of doctrinal beliefs legitimizes a subject’s position in a community, but only his ability to make spheres of ← 30 | 31 → religious life accessible while also promoting people’s independent discovery of them.

Schleiermacher pursues similar objectives in his ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’. As in ‘Über das Gesellige in der Religion’, he treats convivial spaces as potential vehicles for social change. Under the right conditions, he suggests, it is here where people question positions of authority, social norms and hierarchies they would otherwise take for granted. And as in his theological work, he is concerned with bringing into focus the circumstances under which a fresh exchange of ideas can take place. The fragment was published anonymously in the February issue of the Berlinisches Archiv der Zeit und ihres Geschmacks in 1799, and Schleiermacher had planned to complete and publish his text in a future issue yet that never happened. The text we have today theorizes conviviality or sociability (as in this essay’s first section, I use both terms here as synonymous translations of the German Geselligkeit) from two vantage points. While the first section develops a set of general assumptions of ‘freie Geselligkeit’, the second and longer part details formats and laws for free social interaction in ‘wirkliche[n] Gesellschaften’ [specific and actual societies].26 The rules and regulations for convivial interaction articulated here provide interesting insights into the dynamics of the social world in Berlin at that time, yet for the purpose of demonstrating a shared transcultural and trans-historical mode of theorizing conviviality, the essay’s first part is the most productive point of reference.

The essay’s opening paragraphs untether sociability from any purposes:

Freie, durch keinen äußeren Zweck gebundene und bestimmte Geselligkeit wird von allen gebildeten Menschen als eins ihrer ersten und edelsten Bedürfnisse laut gefordert. […] Der Beruf bannt die Thätigkeit des Geistes in einen engen Kreis: wie edel und achtungswerth er auch sey, immer hält er Wirkung auf die Welt und Beschauung der Welt auf einem Standpunkt fest, und so bringt der einfachste und niedrigste, Einseitigkeit und Beschränkung hervor.27 ← 31 | 32 →

According to Schleiermacher, the liberating potential of sociability can unfold only when individuals detach themselves mentally from their professional and domestic responsibilities and objectives. Such acts of distancing oneself are crucial because regardless of how reputable and intellectually stimulating one’s engagements might seem, they are by definition specialized and thereby constrict and limit the workings of the mind. Even activities such as dancing inhibit rather than nurture conviviality in Schleiermacher’s eyes because a dancer’s attention is primarily focused on one person (his or her partner) rather than the group.29 Similarly, lectures or theater performances do not actually promote free conviviality but rather various forms of ‘gebundene Geselligkeit’ [constrained sociability].30 Because such events are underwritten by pedagogical, moral or other objectives and are directed at forming and addressing the audience in one way or another they countermand free conviviality and fail at setting in motion a ‘frei[es] Spiel’ [free play] of their mental powers.31 It is this idea of creating a social space conducive to setting in motion a free play of the participants’ trains of thought that constitutes one of the most forward looking and productive aspects of Schleiermacher’s theory.

As the fourth speech in Über die Religion clarifies, the detachment of conviviality that Schleiermacher propagates in his theory of sociable conduct is of such great importance to him because of his understanding that our religious, cultural and political norms and values are formed through social contact and communication. It is therefore logical for him to assume that humans are most likely to try and enter and comprehend someone else’s ← 32 | 33 → modes of thinking and feeling in a non-constrictive environment. We know from many of his other publications that the experiences he had during his frequent visits to Jewish homes shaped this belief in the transformative power of sociability.32 Most important in this context were his regular conversations with Henriette Herz, who also read and discussed his work with him. Johanna Hopfner terms her activities a ‘geistige “Undercover-Tätigkeit”’ common to women of her age.33 The thoughts she shared with him were foundational to his understanding that conviviality should be geared toward unsettling familiar categories formed by one’s professional or domestic obligations, and by creating a

Zustand […] der die Sphären eines Individui in die Lage bringt, daß sie von den Sphären Anderer so mannigfaltig als möglich durchschnitten werde, und jeder seiner eignen Grenzpunkte ihm die Aussicht in eine andere und fremde Welt gewähre, so daß alle Erscheinungen der Menschheit ihm nach und nach bekannt, und auch die fremdesten Gemüther und Verhältnisse ihm befreundet und gleichsam nachbarlich werden können. Diese Aufgabe wird durch den freien Umgang vernünftiger sich unter einander bildender Menschen gelöst.34 ← 33 | 34 →

A condition free of pedagogy, prescribed themes and moral ends, Schleiermacher suggests, builds an atmosphere conducive to forming – and being formed and reformed by – others in a free-flowing exchange of ideas. He characterizes the purpose of such processes of reciprocal formation as a moral one: ‘Dies ist der sittliche Zweck der freien Geselligkeit’ [This is the moral end of free sociability].36 It is interesting, however, how he further determines the characteristics of this moral purpose, resulting from a situation of ‘Wechselwirkung’ [reciprocal action]:37 what one might expect here is a humanist vision of harmonious understanding, a situation in which members of diverse cultural and societal backgrounds not only tolerate their differences but feel emotionally and intellectually connected, viewing themselves as equal members of a global community. But instead of formulating such a pluralistic ideal of sociality, he shifts the focus to the activity of sociability as such:

Sehen wir nun auf den Zweck, der unter dieser Form der durchgängigen Wechselwirkung erreicht werden soll, so fällt in die Augen, denn es liegt in dem Prädikat der Freiheit, daß hier von einem einzelnen und bestimmten Zweck gar nicht die Rede seyn soll; denn dieser bestimmt und beschränkt auch die Thätigkeit nach materiellen und objektiven Regeln. Es soll keine bestimmte Handlung gemeinschaftlich verrichtet, kein Werk vereinigt zu Stande gebracht, keine Einsicht methodisch erworben werden. Der Zweck der Gesellschaft wird gar nicht außer ihr liegend gedacht; die Wirkung eines Jeden soll gehen auf die Thätigkeit der übrigen, und die Thätigkeit eines Jeden soll seyn seine Einwirkung auf die andern. […] Die ← 34 | 35 → Wechselwirkung ist sonach in sich selbst zurückgehend und vollendet; in dem Begriff derselben ist sowohl die Form als der Zweck der geselligen Thätigkeit enthalten, und sie macht das ganze Wesen der Gesellschaft aus.38

[If we now look at the purpose that is to be attained under this form of thoroughgoing reciprocity, we notice that the predicate of freedom implies that there should be no mention of a single and determinate purpose in free sociality since this conditions and limits the activity in conformity to material and objective rules. There should be no particular action executed communally, no product brought about jointly, nor any judgment methodically acquired. The purpose of society is not at all to be conceived as lying outside it. The action of each individual should be aimed at the activity of the others, and the activity of individuals should be their influence on the others. […] The reciprocal action accordingly is self-constrained and complete. The form as well as the purpose of sociable activity is contained in the concept of reciprocal action and this action constitutes the entire essence of society.]39

Any further determination of the purpose of social interaction would imply a corseting of social activities into a set of rules, geared toward prescribed outcomes, and the objective of the participants’ socializing would lie in gaining insights jointly and in steering their energies toward communally executed projects. According to Schleiermacher, however, Geselligkeit is free only when it is based on a structure of ‘Wechselwirkung’, of reciprocity. All members ought to stimulate and energize one another, and this constellation of active moments of ‘Wechselwirkung’ is the form as well as the purpose of conviviality. His untethering of the term from normative constraints and his emphasis on reciprocal action as the format and objective of social interaction provides several contact points with Simmel’s early twentieth-century theorizations of sociability.

In a way that resonates with Schleiermacher’s theory, Simmel places the structures of free social interaction into proximity to qualities associated with play:

Und was die Kunst mit dem Spiele verbindet, tritt an der Analogie beider mit der Geselligkeit hervor. […] das Jagen und Erlisten, die Bewährung der physischen und ← 35 | 36 → der geistigen Kraft, den Wettbewerb und das Gestelltsein auf die Chance und die Gunst der unbeeinflussbaren Lebensmächte.40

[And what joins art with play now appears in the likeness of both to sociability. […] the chase and cunning; the proving of physical and mental powers, the contest and reliance on chance and the favor of forces which one cannot influence.]41

The analogy serves him as a springboard for his central claim that sociability in its ideal state promotes ‘die reine Form, [den] sozusagen freischwebende[n], wechselwirkende[n] Zusammenhang der Individuen’ [the pure form, the free-playing, interacting, interdependence of individuals].42 Like Schleiermacher, Simmel draws the structure of communal interaction as such into focus and highlights its detachment from designated contents, instrumental ends and purposes; sociability in its pure state has ‘keinen sachlichen Zweck […], keinen Inhalt und kein Resultat’ [no ulterior end, no content, and no result outside itself].43 Both are equally concerned with the social dynamics of what Schleiermacher subsumes under ‘Wechselwirkung’ and Simmel under ‘gegenseitiges Sich-Bestimmen, Wechselwirken der Elemente’ [mutual self-definition, interaction of the elements].44 And it is this dedication to examining the mutually transformative powers of different forms and formats of communication that prevails in current theorizations of sociability.

In their lecture ‘On the Analytic and Normative Dimensions of Con-viviality and Cosmopolitanism’, Magdalena Nowicka and Tilmann Heil define conviviality as an ‘analytic term’, and their definition bears conceptual resemblances to Schleiermacher’s theory. With his claim that the gearing of social behaviour toward a ‘particular action’ or ‘product’ that ← 36 | 37 → ought to be ‘executed communally’45 disrupts the freedom of sociability, Simmel highlights a discrepancy between convivial situations and the normative criteria they are measured up against; this divergence also takes centre stage in the lecture by Nowicka and Heil.46 Reviewing critical research on conviviality, such as Paul Gilroy’s After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture?, the two authors draw attention to the term’s ties to concepts such as ‘ethnic plurality’ that contain ‘a normative and often idealistic aspiration for peaceful togetherness’.47 The predicament of assessing conviviality within such vertical frameworks is that investigations are always focused on tensions between concrete practices of sociability on the one hand, and the question of to what degree they approximate overarching criteria of togetherness and communication on the other. Nowicka and Heil, by contrast, advocate for an analysis of conviviality premised on the assumption that ‘the normative is the empirical’.48 Rather than asking to what extent social interactions approximate ideals of ethnic pluralism or further a cosmopolitan mindset, they ask how ‘minimal sociality [is] possible’. ‘Even within the framework of conflict,’ they suggest ‘there are plenty of situations in which people live and/or work together peacefully, obviously beyond their identities, attitudes, solidarities, belongings to different communities and despite their differential positions in social structures’.49

With their emphasis on the value of fleeting moments of mutual understanding, Nowicka and Heil conceptualize conviviality as a fragile condition that embraces ongoing tensions and conflicts between people of different socio-cultural backgrounds and interests as well as situations where ‘ad hoc and temporary communalities and similarities and consensus ← 37 | 38 → over issues of interest or concern in this moment of time’ may develop.50 Over two centuries lie between this analytic and situation-focused notion of conviviality by Nowicka and Heil’s theory and Schleiermacher’s, and it is by no means my intention to conflate them, of course. I have sidelined twists and turns of Schleiermacher’s argument in the second part of his theorization of conviviality in worldly settings that would have complicated the comparison with Nowicka’s approach. However, a comprehensive and in-depth examination, including a historical survey of Schleiermacher’s work on the topic of conviviality and its reception, was not my goal.

My goal was to zero in on a vital argumentative aspect that connects the two chief eighteenth-century theories of sociability, and their transatlantic repercussions, with a twentieth-century sociological model and a contemporary approach – an approach that grew out of the authors’ sceptical attitude towards the implications of existing theories concerned with the dynamics of human socializing. In different yet comparable ways, the works discussed here make every effort to refrain from corseting conviviality into normative or essentializing frames, whether of a religious or a worldly nature. Instead, they propagate situation-focused approaches and delving into the messiness of social interaction with all its tension, cohesion and dissent – a potential that many of the avant-garde and modernist groups discussed in this volume fully exploited, by creating guilds, circles and other types of suitable environments in which sociability could fully take place. The works thus produced testify to the importance of the political and spiritual dimension of sociability for the aesthetics of the early twentieth century. In his religious text, Schleiermacher aims at disconnecting conviviality from a defined set of purposes by propagating and practising a dialectical leadership strategy; in ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’ he seeks to achieve the ideal of Zweckfreiheit [purposelessness] by defining the form and objective of conviviality as a process of Wechselwirkung [reciprocity]. In a similar vein, Simmel highlights sociability’s detachment from designated contents and instrumental ends; Nowicka and Heil untether it from normativity by suggesting that ← 38 | 39 → conviviality is a contingent category. Against this backdrop, conviviality emerges as a term tied to presentism, to a nuanced, unbiased and non-judgemental scrutiny of the moment.


Eichhorn, Johann Gottfried, Einleitung ins Alte Testament (2nd edn, Reutlingen: J. Grözinger, 1790).

Freitag, Ulrike, ‘“Cosmopolitanism” and “Conviviality?” Some Conceptual Considerations Concerning the Late Ottoman Empire’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 17/4 (2014), 375–91.

Gilroy, Paul, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (New York: Routledge, 2004).

Gura, Philip F., American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).

Hedge, Frederic Henry, Prose Writers of Germany (Philadelphia, PA: Carey and Hart, 1852).

Hertz, Deborah, ‘Henriette Herz as Jew, Henriette Herz as Christian: Relationships, Conversion, Antisemitism’, in Hannah Lotte Lund, Ulrike Schneider and Ulrike Wels, eds, Die Kommunikations-, Wissens- und Handlungsräume der Henriette Herz (1764–1847) (Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2017), 117–39.

Hopfer, Johanna, ‘Zwischen Kanzel und Salon: Friedrich Schleiermacher und Henriette Herz, ein Beispiel für den weiblichen Einfluss auf die Pädagogik’, Vierteljahresschrift für die wissenschaftliche Pädagogik 76/4 (2000), 532–44.

Lapina, Linda, ‘Besides Conviviality: Paradoxes in Being “at Ease” with Diversity in a Copenhagen District’, Nordic Journal of Migration Research 6/1 (2016), 33–41.

Lücke, Gottfried Christian Friedrich, ‘Erinnerungen an Friedrich Schleiermacher’, Theologische Studien und Kritiken: Eine Zeitschrift für das gesamte Gebiet der Theologie 4 (1834), 745–813.

Myerson, Joel, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Norton, Andrews, A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity (Cambridge: John Owen, 1839).

——, [Letter to the Editor], Boston Daily Advertiser (5 November 1836), 2, in Joel Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 160–2. ← 39 | 40 →

Nowicka, Magdalena, and Tilmann Heil, ‘On the Analytical and Normative Dimensions of Conviviality and Cosmopolitanism’, <https://www.euroethno.hu-berlin.de/de/forschung/labore/migration/nowicka-heil_on-the-analytical-and-normative-dimensions-of-conviviality.pdf>, accessed 1 June 2018.

Nowicka, Magdalena, and Steven Vertovec, ‘Comparing Convivialities: Dreams and Realities of Living-with-Difference’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 17/4 (2014), 341–56.

Packer, Barbara L., ‘Romanticism’, in Joel Myerson, Sandra H. Petrulionis, and Laura D. Walls, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 84–101.

Richardson, Robert D., ‘Schleiermacher and the Transcendentalists’, in Charles Capper and Conrad E. Wright, eds, Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1999), 121–47.

Ripley, George, A Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, Occasioned by His ‘Discourse before the Association of the Alumni of the Cambridge Theological School’ (Boston, MA: James Munroe and Company, 1839).

——, ‘Schleiermacher as a Theologian’, Christian Examiner and General Review 20 (March 1836), 1–46.

——, A Second Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, Occasioned by His Defence of a Discourse on ‘The Latest Form of Infidelity’ (Boston, MA: James Munroe and Company, 1840).

——, A Third Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, Occasioned by His Defence of a Discourse on ‘The Latest Form of Infidelity’ (Boston, MA: James Munroe and Company, 1840).

Schleiermacher, Friedrich, ‘Discourse IV: On the Social Element in Religion; or on the Church and Priesthood’, trans. George Ripley, in Frederic Henry Hedge, ed., Prose Writers of Germany (Philadelphia, PA: Carey and Hart, 1852), 441–5.

——, Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, in Konrad Feilchenfeldt, Uwe Schweikert and Rahel E. Steiner, eds, Rahel Varnhagen. Gesammelte Werke. Band X: Studien, Materialien, Register (München: Matthes & Seitz, 1983), 253–79.

——,‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, ed. Ruth Drucilla Richardson and trans. Jeffrey Hoover, New Athenaeum/Neues Athenaeum 6 (1995), 20–39.

Sheehan, Jonathan, The Enlightenment Bible (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Simmel, Georg, ‘The Sociology of Sociability’, trans. Everett C. Hughes, American Journal of Sociology 55/3 (1949), 254–61.

——, ‘Soziologie der Geselligkeit’, in Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie (DGS), ed., Verhandlungen des 1. Deutschen Soziologentages vom 19. bis 22. Oktober 1910 in Frankfurt am Main (Frankfurt am Main: Sauer u. Auvermann, 1969), 1–16.

Wayne, Tiffany K., ed., Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism (New York: Facts On File, 2006).

1 In this volume see, for instance, Laura Scuriatti’s discussion of how critics of avant-garde and modernist writers have employed Simmel’s theory as a kind of overarching theoretical framework for assessing and comprehending different forms of community and collaboration among artists.

2 Throughout this text, I use the terms ‘sociability’ and ‘conviviality’ as synonymous translations of the German Geselligkeit.

3 Friedrich Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, in Konrad Feilchenfeldt, Uwe Schweikert and Rahel E. Steiner, eds, Rahel Varnhagen. Gesammelte Werke. Band X: Studien, Materialien, Register (München: Matthes & Seitz, 1983), 253–79. English translation: ‘Toward A Theory of Sociable Conduct’, ed. Ruth Drucilla Richardson and trans. Jeffrey Hoover, New Athenaeum/Neues Athenaeum 6 (1995), 20–39.

4 For overviews of how conviviality has been theorized and used to replace, refine or complement other prominent terms like cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism or diversity, see Magdalena Nowicka and Steven Vertovec, ‘Comparing Convivialities: Dreams and Realities of Living-with-Difference’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 17/4 (2014), 341–56; Linda Lapina, ‘Besides Conviviality: Paradoxes in Being “at Ease” with Diversity in a Copenhagen District’, Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 6/1 (2016), 33–41. On the shift from a normative debate centred on cosmopolitanism to the ‘quotidian practices of everyday interactions’ associated with conviviality, see Ulrike Freitag, ‘“Cosmopolitanism” and “Conviviality?” Some Conceptual Considerations Concerning the Late Ottoman Empire’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 17/4 (2014), 375–91. In a multi-step argument and through an engagement with how cosmopolitanism has been defined and employed by critics like Paul Gilroy, Magdalena Nowicka and Tilmann Heil discuss in their lecture ‘On the Analytical and Normative Dimensions of Conviviality and Cosmopolitanism’ (<https://www.euroethno.hu-berlin.de/de/forschung/labore/migration/nowicka-heil_on-the-analytical-and-normative-dimensions-of-conviviality.pdf> accessed 1 June 2018) why conviviality is a more productive term (5–7, 12–16). They also provide an overview of recent scholarly contributions to theories of conviviality.

5 Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. xii–xiv.

6 Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Einleitung ins Alte Testament (2nd edn, Reutlingen: J. Grözinger, 1790).

7 Robert D. Richardson, ‘Schleiermacher and the Transcendentalists’, in Charles Capper and Conrad E. Wright, eds, Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1999), 121, 123.

8 Tiffany K. Wayne, ed., Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism (New York: Facts On File, 2006), 252–3; Philip F. Gura, American Transcendentalism: A History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 80–3. On the reception of Herder and Schleiermacher by Transcendentalist critics, see also Barbara Packer, ‘Romanticism’, in Joel Myerson, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 84–101.

9 On the journal’s history, see Wayne, Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism, 47–8.

10 George Ripley, ‘Schleiermacher as a Theologian’, Christian Examiner and General Review 20 (March 1836), 1–46; Gottfried Christian Friedrich Lücke, ‘Erinnerungen an Friedrich Schleiermacher’, Theologische Studien und Kritiken: Eine Zeitschrift für das gesamte Gebiet der Theologie 4 (1834), 745–813. Lücke, a Göttingen theology professor, had published his recollections of his teacher only a few months after Schleiermacher’s death in 1834 in the journal Theologische Studien und Kritiken.

11 Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, ‘Discourse IV: On the Social Element in Religion; or on the Church and Priesthood’, trans. George Ripley, in Frederic Henry Hedge, ed., Prose Writers of Germany (Philadelphia, PA: Carey and Hart, 1852), 441–5. Richardson remarks on the interdependence of religious renewal and the social sphere in his essay on ‘Schleiermacher and the Transcendentalists’: ‘communication of religious feeling in others is also a basic constitutive element of religion for Schleiermacher and for his American followers – for George Ripley in particular’ (Richardson, ‘Schleiermacher and the Transcendentalists’, 124). He points to Ripley’s translation of the fourth speech from the Reden as the key text that ‘links religion with criticism, with hermeneutics, and with communal life. It lays the basis for a theology of community and communication. After the first three discourses establish the foundation of religion in human nature and in individual human experience, the fourth discourse extends the argument to the social level. It is the crucial step from religious feeling to religious community’ (ibid., 141).

12 Andrews Norton, [Letter to the Editor] Boston Daily Advertiser (5 November 1836), 2, in Joel Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 160–2.

13 Andrews Norton, A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity (Cambridge: John Owen, 1839); George Ripley, A Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, Occasioned by His ‘Discourse before the Association of the Alumni of the Cambridge Theological School’ (Boston, MA: James Munroe and Company, 1839); George Ripley, A Second Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, Occasioned by His Defence of a Discourse on ‘The Latest Form of Infidelity’ (Boston, MA: James Munroe and Company, 1840); George Ripley, A Third Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, Occasioned by His Defence of a Discourse on ‘The Latest Form of Infidelity’ (Boston, MA: James Munroe and Company, 1840).

14 Hedge, Prose Writers of Germany, 442.

15 Hedge, Prose Writers of Germany, 442–3.

16 ‘But you are aware, that as a general rule, nothing can be given or communicated, in the form of the Universal and Indeterminate: specific object and precise form are requisite for this purpose; otherwise, in fact, that which is presented would not be a reality but a nullity’, ibid., 445.

17 Hedge, Prose Writers of Germany, 443.

18 Ripley, A Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, 155.

19 Hedge, Prose Writers of Germany, 444.

20 Ibid., 442–3, 445.

21 Ripley, A Letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, 3–4; 11.

22 Ripley, ‘Schleiermacher as a Theologian’, 1–46.

23 Ibid., 13–14.

24 Ibid., 37–8.

25 Ibid., 35.

26 Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, 260; Schleiermacher, ‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, 25.

27 Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, 253.

28 Schleiermacher, ‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, 20.

29 Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, 259.

30 Ibid., 258.

31 Ibid., 254; Schleiermacher, ‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, 20.

32 See Deborah Hertz, ‘Henriette Herz as Jew, Henriette Herz as Christian: Relationships, Conversion, Antisemitism’, in Hannah Lotte Lund, Ulrike Schneider and Ulrike Wels, eds, Die Kommunikations-, Wissens- und Handlungsräume der Henriette Herz (1764–1847), 123.

33 ‘Fragt man nun aber konkret nach dem Einfluss, den Henriette Herz auf Schleiermachers wissenschaftliches Denken und speziell auf seine Pädagogik hatte, so stößt man auf ein Phänomen, das man als geistige ‘Undercover-Tätigkeit’ von Frauen in der bzw. für die Wissenschaft bezeichnen könnte. Denn oft wirken Frauen im Verborgenen, regen Gedanken an und bringen ihre Ideen in Gespräche ein, motivieren explizit oder implizit zu wissenschaftlichen Werken, beurteilen die produzierten Texte kritisch oder lesen – in Anführungszeichen – ‚nur’ Korrektur. […] Die Beziehung zwischen Henriette Herz und Friedrich Schleiermacher ist geradezu exemplarisch für das theoriegeschichtliche Phänomen solcher Frauen, die im Schatten männlicher Gelehrter oder großer Pädagogen stehen oder – auch das gilt es zu bedenken – sich ganz bewusst in deren Schatten stellen’. Johanna Hopfer, ‘Zwischen Kanzel und Salon: Friedrich Schleiermacher und Henriette Herz, ein Beispiel für den weiblichen Einfluss auf die Pädagogik’, Vierteljahresschrift für die wissenschaftliche Pädagogik 76/4 (2000), 533.

34 Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, 253–4.

35 Schleiermacher, ‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, 20–1.

36 Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, 254; Schleiermacher, ‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, 21.

37 Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, 259; Schleiermacher, ‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, 25.

38 Schleiermacher, ‘Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens’, 259–60.

39 Schleiermacher, ‘Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct’, 24–5.

40 Georg Simmel, ‘Soziologie der Geselligkeit’, in Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie (DGS), ed., Verhandlungen des 1. Deutschen Soziologentages vom 19. bis 22. Oktober 1910 in Frankfurt am Main (Frankfurt am Main: Sauer u. Auvermann, 1969), 1–16 at 3.

41 Georg Simmel, ‘The Sociology of Sociability’, trans. Everett C. Hughes, American Journal of Sociology 55/3 (1949), 254–61 at 255.

42 Simmel, ‘Soziologie der Geselligkeit’, 3; Simmel, ‘The Sociology of Sociability’, 255.

43 Simmel, ‘Soziologie der Geselligkeit’, 4; Simmel, ‘The Sociology of Sociability’, 255.

44 Ibid., 259; Simmel, ‘Soziologie der Geselligkeit’, 3.

45 Simmel, ‘The Sociology of Sociability’, 24.

46 Magdalena Nowicka and Tilmann Heil, ‘On the Analytic and Normative Dimensions of Conviviality and Cosmopolitanism’, 1–20.

47 Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (New York: Routledge, 2004); Nowicka and Heil, ‘On the Analytic and Normative Dimensions of Conviviality and Cosmopolitanism’, 16.

48 Ibid., 7.

49 Ibid., 12.

50 Ibid.

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Written Coteries: Utopian Practices, Collaborations and the Question of Authorship

| 43 →


2 Bridges over the Atlantic: Exploring Utopia in Women’s Modernism


Defining the varieties of the communities of modernist women, whether they were permanent or occasional, whether they were actual – located in specific places – or just virtual, is a challenging effort. The networks that emerge in such an attempt design a fascinating and dynamic map, where patterns of interaction complicate the meaning of the word ‘community’, and draw attention to the autobiographical, fictional and speculative aspects. This polyhedric notion of community emerges not only in the writings of specific authors, but also in the pages of small magazines, which create situations of dialogue and exchange. This chapter explores how fictional narratives can be useful to map the several facets of building community in women’s modernism, and to assess whether fiction-writing in itself can be considered as a way of building community rather than one of narrating community. As case studies, I investigate the writings of two friends and fellow modernist authors Djuna Barnes and ‘the Baroness’ Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.


Women’s modernism is a highly dynamic environment, consisting of a plethora of community networks, exchanges and debates. Studies over the last century have thoroughly explored this kaleidoscopic literary and artistic phenomenon. Even to identify ‘women’s modernism’ has proved a problematic practice from the outset: the phrase itself includes experiences so divergent that it becomes hard to think of a common theoretical paradigm.

Conventional historiography has contributed a great deal to shaping our perception of men’s modernism as a tangible network of publications and exchanges that extended across the modern metropolises of Europe ← 43 | 44 → and America. Although this network appears to us as fluid and dynamic, it pinpoints locations in such a way that we gain a sense of geographical reality. That women’s modernism has more fleeting aspects is a shared opinion among today’s scholars, who ascribe this trait to the practices of traditional historiography. Women’s writings have been less visible to the history of publications, given the transitory nature of small publications and other ephemeral writings that circulated across salons in a few dozens of copies.1 In the case of women’s modernism, a history of the forms of association (namely, salons and circles) would prove a more effective approach, since it would be able to better portray the circulation of ideas, in addition to recording the production of printed texts. Still, the abstraction of a geographical network of women’s modernism is necessary (or very useful) for critical purposes.2 The notion of a women’s modernism encompasses the different literary and artistic experiences of the many women who, in the period between the 1910s and 1940s, engaged in literary, artistic and political activity. Women whom we classify today as ‘modernist’, especially those we consider in this study, were often active in different places ← 44 | 45 → at the same time, or at different times in the same places; some of them were on the move, whereas some worked in specific geographical locales, which often included Paris and New York, two major centres of the early twentieth-century avant-garde;3 some women participated as individual voices in international literary and political debates, while many expressed the collective voice of the communities in which they participated. The geographical and virtual networks that emerge from such varied patterns of interaction result in a dynamic texture, as they stratify the meaning of the word ‘community’.

A critical understanding of this panorama has produced a rich scholarship that identifies threads and hypothesizes patterns. Several studies address city-based communities of women as groups with collective identities, common intentions or shared interests.4 Other studies emphasize the virtual aspects of these communities, explaining how individuals or groups interacted in print media, or on how they maintained their relationships in private correspondence.5 In either case, some critical studies tend to construe such conversations as if they had taken the form of an international collectivity of women.6 From a critical point of view, it is certainly fascinating to explore the breadth and diversity of these connections: they ← 45 | 46 → are so varied that it is hard to deduce patterns, and yet too frequent to be classified as accidental.

While interactions among members of city-based communities are perhaps easier to reconstruct, those carried out at a distance pose several challenges to any attempt to complete the mosaic of these transatlantic networks. What I define here as a ‘virtual community’ is a type of community that emerges from transatlantic or transnational networks, often merely producing images of networks created by the simultaneous presence of specific authors in the media of the time; in this sense, a ‘virtual community’ may share some of the traits of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’, but without its nationalistic aspects.7 Sometimes, women who participated in the same circles shared few intellectual exchanges, while others who had hardly ever met in person engaged in fertile debates in the press or in private letters. Defined in this way, a small number of the public transatlantic exchanges of the early twentieth century can be successfully tracked through a bewildering number of contemporary magazines, periodicals and newspapers – all heterogeneous in contents, readership and distribution. Analysing early twentieth-century print culture undoubtedly offers the most convenient framework for mapping transatlantic interactions, as these documents often circulated and were shared between women’s communities across continents. To a certain extent, as Lucy Delap and Maria DiCenzo note, the critical study of periodical culture also helps explore those ‘friendship networks and lecture tours [that] emerged around the circulation of texts’.8

However, as I have suggested by mentioning Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’, the ‘image’ of transatlantic exchanges conveyed by official print records sometimes differed from reality. In few cases, such as one I will briefly refer to regarding Ezra Pound’s comments on Mina Loy, print ← 46 | 47 → media enacted mechanisms of constructing community, rather than just recording spontaneous ways of building community. These inconsistencies between the picture of geo-historical realities and the image of virtual networks are certainly only visible with hindsight and only by comparing different sources, including both print media and private exchanges.

While the comprehensive idea of ‘virtual’ community already contains constructions of how groups of modernist women interacted in practice, the picture has to be further integrated with a rich corpus of fictional writings, from stories to novels, that portray, transform and transfigure the profiles of historical modernist communities. While some texts are largely based on the autobiographical experience of women inside these communities – like Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) – and therefore expand our knowledge of local and distant interactions, other texts move so fluidly across levels of fictionality that they complicate our understanding of the picture.

In this chapter I aim to explore how fictional constructions can be useful in the process of mapping the several facets of building community in women’s modernity, and to assess whether fiction-writing in itself can be considered as a way of building community rather than one of narrating community. Moreover, while moving across the already-kaleidoscopic composition of ‘virtual’ images and ‘fictional’ constructions, this chapter explores textual dimensions that intersect with the other two to produce utopian scenarios. A focus on specific texts that combine aspects of autobiographical fiction and of speculative fiction sheds light, eventually, on the misalignments and asynchronicities that emerge while observing the different aspects of community building in women’s modernism.

The corpus that I investigate here as a case study describes forms of building community principally by one modernist writer, Djuna Barnes, with particular emphasis on her friendship with her fellow writer and artist ‘the Baroness’ Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. An investigation of the bond between the two is first of all useful in order to stress how extensively our knowledge of modernist interactions is increased by the fictional writings of community members. It is, however, even more interesting to draw attention to another type of ‘community’ that seems to be sprouting from within the fictional dimension – one that pertains instead to the realm of speculation, ← 47 | 48 → and sometimes explores utopian scenarios. So as not to generate confusion between definitions, which, in describing modernist experiments, must be flexible, the difference between ‘fictional’ and ‘speculative’ (and particularly how both relate to the term ‘utopian’) should be clear from the premises. ‘Fictional’ here describes potential developments of community life that are strongly based on autobiographical experiences and virtual exchanges. Naturally, the critical background provided by compound definitions like ‘autobiografiction’ explains, when used in reference to modernist fiction, the tendency of most writers to challenge traditional narrative categories.9 The fictional communities of the present case study involve the (more or less disguised) mutual presence of Barnes and the Baroness in each other’s works. What qualifies instead as ‘speculative’ embraces those scenes of community life that are markedly distant from reality, and lose contact with the autobiographic side. Sometimes, the speculative assumes definite tones of ‘utopian’ in the narrow sense, because it profiles idealized projections of the author’s ideals. Such is the case for Ladies Almanack (1928), in which the lesbian community has typically utopian traits that portray a politically exuberant version of the group of women around the historical Natalie Barney in Paris. In the case of Nightwood (1936), as I will show, the utopian aspects of community are no longer political, but take on a more diffuse meaning, investing the notion of utopia with an idea of fictional and narrative autonomy.

A close observation of the friendship between Barnes and the Baroness is an access key to all the dimensions of community building profiled above. Their activity in their respective areas of literary engagement displays the mechanisms of popularity-gaining and marginalization. Their public and private correspondence highlights discrepancies between their actual interactions and those that were made public. These areas of investigation already provide a wide range of information for exploring the concept of ‘building community’. This chapter proposes to analyse the ways of building community that occur within fictional writing, focusing especially on Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack and Nightwood, so as to eventually show ← 48 | 49 → the emergence of further forms of the transatlantic networks of modernist women: my hypothesis is that these forms take on utopian traits, and that they integrate, entangle and transcend images of historical, virtual and fictional communities. One of the interesting utopian aspects of these forms of community building is their circumvention of official affiliations to groups and movements marked by the modernist fascination with ‘isms’, as I discuss below.

Virtual communities: Bridges and constructions

A large number of modernist artists and writers purposefully and creatively blurred the boundaries between artistic disciplines and genres, criss-crossing geographical borders as well as those of gender. They sought profound renewal on all fronts, from politics to aesthetics, and the questioning of traditional patterns and practices was the essence of these processes. From this perspective, the critical process of ‘-isming’ appears troublesome, if not illegitimate, especially if applied to the study of networks: these are indeed phenomena that resist generalization by their ontological premises, and whose creative claim lies in the freedom of potentially endless disruption, recombination and original production.

While the critical framework of a transatlantic modernist atlas remains a useful organizing principle, it seems important to investigate the practice of creating ‘isms’, since the women under consideration showed signs of resistance to critical affiliation. In fact, it seems sensible to reflect on the attitude of the writers of the time towards the tendency of print media to label, generalize, or define modern art: the same women who partook in the life of literary communities and circles had at least mixed feelings when literary critics attempted to associate them with larger movements or codified styles. A telling example is Ezra Pound’s much-quoted piece in The Little Review, in which he wrote of British-born and European Mina Loy that she, together with Marianna Moore, had written a ‘distinctly national [American] product, […] something which would not have come out of any ← 49 | 50 → other country’.10 Whether Pound’s appraisal of Loy’s allegedly American poetry derived from his (likely) lack of information about Loy’s British birth – they first met in person only five years later in Paris – or whether he simply saw her poetry as the result of her assimilation into American culture, Pound’s publicizing of Loy speaks for his practice of associating those he reviewed positively with a virtual community of modern writers; this practice coincided also, in Pound’s case, with the ‘imagined community’ of American modernist authors.11 Loy, who was indeed active in most relevant centres for modern art, from European Surrealism and Futurism to American Dada, seemed to have felt a certain impatience towards this alleged association.12 Similarly, Loy’s friend and fellow writer Djuna Barnes showed some unrest in being identified as one of the regulars of Gertrude Stein’s circle, and she caricatured Stein in one of her black and white sketches, as well as in Ladies Almanack, in a friendly parody of the expatriate women’s community in Paris.13

Loy’s and Barnes’s (and many others’, in fact) ambiguous responses to being associated with a community of modern writers makes us resist the ‘impulse to elide this heterogeneity in a seamless account of an “other” modernism’.14 Indeed, they push us to delve into a deeper exploration of modernist women’s feelings towards the idea of being part of specific communities, based either on place or on the connections created by printed media. It is both fascinating and complicated to look into the reasons why some women thrived in the intellectually stimulating environment of groups and communities, while others expressed impatience and acted with deliberate rebelliousness so as not to be seen as part of a collective identity. Differences and nuances in modern women’s behaviour in relation ← 50 | 51 → to historical and virtual groups covered too wide a range to encourage generalizations.15 In the case of Barnes alone, her attitude towards the groups she frequented was ambiguous and changed more than once in the course of her long career as a writer. If, on one hand, she explicitly identified herself with the bohemian community of artists of Greenwich Village in the 1910s, on the other hand, she used to tell her urban short stories and articles from a somewhat detached standpoint, one that put her in a position to present humorous sketches and caricatures of the same community in which she lived.16 By contrast, the Baroness openly rejected any association to communities with men and women in a way that was provocative and defiant. Even within the groups she advocated for, she acted as if she wanted to be seen as rebellious, non-acquiescent and unique. So extraordinary was her behaviour that she even stunned Margaret Anderson, founder of the avant-garde magazine The Little Review.17 When Elsa first came to the magazine offices, she presented herself as follows:

So she shaved her head. Next she lacquered it a high vermilion. Then she stole the crêpe from the door of a house of mourning and made a dress of it. […] She came to see us. First she exhibited the head at all angles, amazing against our black walls. Then she jerked off the crêpe with one movement. It’s better when I’m nude, she said.18

Irene Gammel describes Elsa as ‘too independent and too self-interested to attach herself to any political cause’.19 Yet, this exuberance and intensity ← 51 | 52 → caused her to live as an outsider, since she lacked diplomacy, aristocratic status or a political stance that could justify her unconventionality.

In addition to the work by Jayne Marek, already mentioned, studies by Linda S. Coleman and Lucy Delap on women’s life-writing and transatlantic print culture have also accurately explored the geographical and chronological span of city-based communities.20 In addition, extensive studies on the print circulation of the time provide profuse evidence of women’s joint attempts at aggregation through official and unofficial media.21 An increasingly active participation of women in the production of not only periodicals but also of journals, magazines and papers, contributed to strengthening ties among the centres of women’s modernity and modernist experiences. Some major magazines – Others, The Transatlantic Review, This Quarter – gathered and organized pieces of writing and modernist experiences in such a ways that several texts seem to be communicating with or responding to one another, even when they were not intended to do so. As a consequence, the authors of these texts appear to be willingly partaking in a virtual debate chaired by the editors of the magazines. The Little Review, for instance, suggests the connections between some very different profiles, from the reclusive Marianne Moore, to the cosmopolitan Mina Loy, to the exuberant migrant Lola Ridge.

Naturally, the widespread and significant presence of women in the print media of this time has been read through a gendered lens. Feminists themselves, in an attempt to gain social visibility for political purposes, spoke frequently of ‘women’ as a group, sometimes even using or implying the term ‘class’.22 Crucially for life-writing studies, the building of a virtual writing community has been interpreted as a joint effort to pursue a collective authoritative voice, one which would be instrumental in renegotiating heteronormative literary practices. In this respect, Kate Flint argues that the process of self-determination of female intellectuals and authors was ← 52 | 53 → indeed hermeneutically intertwined with a tension between individuality and collectivity, in an elaborate circle of identification and separation.23

Some of the female writers of the time, however, seemed to be particularly aware of the potential pitfalls of being identified through the framework of a transatlantic community of modern writers. They seemed to feel threatened by the potentially empowering, but ultimately limiting, collective mechanisms of the politicization of gender in general. Essentially, it seems that a few modernist female authors shared a marked scepticism towards common notions of community, whatever their bases were. Barnes focused on this question more than once during interviews,24 and she was often elusive while answering questions regarding her affiliation to groups (such as those based on gender or sexuality, for instance). As she famously stated in a letter in response to Emily Coleman’s question of whether she was a lesbian: ‘I might be anything. If a horse loved me, I might be that’.25

From a critical perspective, private correspondences and other forms of ‘unofficial’ conversations are fundamental for complicating the process of mapping the rich scene of women’s networking, alongside analyses of the ‘official’ exchanges recorded by printed media.26 Sprouting from or around intellectual (in other words printed and proven) encounters, this flourishing network of friendships and personal relationships requires critical consideration, in spite of the challenges these connections pose to scholars: in many cases there is little record of these friendships in the official media, and letters and diaries surfaced after significant delays; yet, these private exchanges were very influential in the development of literary techniques, language, aesthetic practices and semantics.27 While we have very little information about the friendships between some members of ← 53 | 54 → modernist communities – for instance the friendship between two ‘wives of geniuses’ Zelda Fitzgerald and Alice Toklas28 – we know that Djuna Barnes and the Baroness had close private conversations on such topics as style, language and literary conventions.29

The realities of historical and virtual communities sometimes became the subject matter of literary works: communities of women crowded the fictional works of several modernist women, where they appeared refashioned or disguised. While works such as Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas enrich with historical details our understanding of the communities of women (and not exclusively women) in Paris, other works, like Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack, add significant fictional elements to the historical identities of the city-based communities they describe. Scholars have identified these texts – which to differing extents qualify as ‘autobiografiction’, in Max Saunders’s definition – as sites for constructing stories that freely fuse life experience and literary invention.30 The fictional works by Djuna Barnes that I analyse, however, explore forms of community that have strongly utopian traits. In the rest of the chapter I will analyse texts that thematize the possibility of a speculative community, which I consider a further type of community building, alongside the notion of geographical communities, the construction of virtual communities, and the creation of fictional communities.

During over fifty years of transatlantic crossings and literary walkabouts, Djuna Barnes explored and intermixed reporting, poetry, fiction, drama and the visual arts. In all her works, from the unique ‘urban writing’ of her early career to the masterpieces of her mature days, she experimented with several forms of constructing communities on paper. Two works from her Parisian years, Ladies Almanack and Nightwood, show not only how she portrayed transatlantic community/ies but, more significantly, ← 54 | 55 → how she built on such frames to create fictional, and potentially utopian, groups.

Barnes’s numerous shifts between the centre and the margins of the women’s communities she joined in New York and Paris – such as the bohemian group in Greenwich Village and the women’s circles of the Left Bank – put her in the ambiguous position of being both observer and observed, once she fictionalized these groups in her own works. The tension between spotlight and shadow is a constant of Barnes’s experience, and one that is worth considering before delving into the paradigms of her fictional constructions of community. Having grown up on the margins of New York in an emotionally and sexually abusive family with severe financial problems, she quickly came to occupy a central position in the New York writing community and obtained visibility in the commercial and avant-garde press. Having moved to New York in 1912, she was by 1915 the lead voice of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the New York Morning Telegraph. Before 1920, she had written more than forty pieces of journalism about New York, including interviews, articles, stories, anecdotes and satires. Yet, while occupying the centre of the periodical print scene, she had also become a pivotal figure of the bohemian avant-garde in Greenwich Village – the ghetto that confined rebel artists. She was also the woman at the centre of the male community of ‘outsiders’ that included Marsden Hartley, Guido Bruno and others. In 1916, she was officially endorsed (by a man) as a member of the transatlantic network of modern male artists, and she was labelled ‘the American Beardsley’ in Bruno’s Weekly.31

This tension between centre and margin became more complex once Barnes moved to Paris in the 1920s, where she immediately entered the core of the community of expatriate intellectuals. She found herself within the circles of both Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney, although she also appeared to maintain a pattern of alternating integration and isolation. On 31 May 1963 she wrote to Natalie Barney with her feelings on her ambiguous position: ‘I am the most famous unknown of the century!’32 This central paradox of her identity as a writer is key to an understanding ← 55 | 56 → of her satire of the Parisian community in Ladies Almanack, which offers a fruitful ground for exploring the idea of utopian community.

Among the historical friends who walk freely in and out of Barnes’s fiction, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whom Barnes first met in New York in the 1910s, is certainly the most interesting personality, and one whose attitude towards communities may be compared to Barnes. The track of Elsa’s shifts between centre and margins is perhaps even more dazzling than Barnes’s. German-born and an expatriate, she crossed the Atlantic and moved through the centres of modernity and modernism; like Barnes, the Baroness criss-crossed the boundaries of fame and marginality: fascinatingly, she was ostracized by, and yet made a protagonist of, the same social contexts. Her open challenge to the conventions of art, literature and gender transformed the already-dialectical paradigm of ‘centre-margin’ into a fluid, circular motion. For instance, she regularly contributed to The Little Review, which she held in high consideration as the voice of the avant-garde, and by which she was often presented as the most interestingly provocative voice of the New York scene.33 Yet, the magazine itself sometimes refused to publish some of her works, judging them to be too extreme. After being arrested for walking down Fifth Avenue dressed in a man’s suit and smoking a cigarette,34 the Baroness always captured the attention of the public with her performances: for example by posing undressed or covered in body-graffiti in some early photographs; by shaving her head and defining herself at once as an androgynous cyborg and a sexualized body;35 by parading dressed in Dada couture of her own making, including organic-technologic accessories, clothes made by hand from newspaper cuttings and stamps; by writing in both English and German within the same poems, ← 56 | 57 → and by painting in colours on the very same poems. In sum, the Baroness advocated that all sorts of borders should be crossed, by demolishing all categories of nationality, gender, art and literature.

She also revolved around an axis of transatlantic exchanges and communities – expatriates, modernists, female intellectuals. Before even arriving in New York from Berlin, she had attracted the attention of Eliot and Pound, some of her poems being too daring even for Others, The Transatlantic Review, or The Little Review. Such appraisal on behalf of the major modernists of the time, however, did not manage to normalize her often-capricious relationships with many of them, such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Williams Carlos Williams. While being connected to practically every member (both men and women) of the transatlantic virtual community of modern(ist) artists, she only had a few close friends, especially in the women’s community, including Berenice Abbott, Peggy Guggenheim and Djuna Barnes. When she moved to Paris in the mid-twenties, she further impressed modernists like Hemingway, who endeavoured to include her in the Transatlantic Review, where she indeed made her debut in 1924, championed by Pound. Curiously, however, even though she was living in the artists’ district of Montparnasse, she did not integrate fully; there is no evidence, for instance, that she was invited into Stein’s circle, despite Hemingway’s influence, nor into Barney’s salon, in spite of her close connection to the salon through Barnes. In Paris, she lived on the edge of poverty, without heating, often famished, and developing a chronic form of suicidal depression, about which she wrote on several occasions to Djuna Barnes. In those years, Barnes supported the Baroness emotionally and financially, extensively endeavouring to see her friend’s work published.

With the exception of 1926 and 1927, the two years when Barnes and Elsa both lived in Paris, the connection between the two cannot easily be described through spatial co-ordinates. Although they both moved along the New York-Paris axis, they rarely found themselves in the same city at the same time. Once Barnes was preparing to leave Greenwich Village for Paris, the Baroness left Berlin to become the ‘it-artist’ of New York bohemia; when the Baroness was finally ready to leave New York to go to Paris, Barnes was spending her last few years in Paris before returning to America.

They both had a regular and extensive presence in The Little Review and in several other modernist magazines, both as contributors and in ← 57 | 58 → the headlines; yet, their positions in a historical and virtual transatlantic network were far from stable. In fact, the practice highlighted by Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia Smyers – that women teamed into virtual (writing) collectivities, in contrast to men – is not easily applied to the two women.36 In print media, Barnes and the Baroness staked claims for their own voices against aesthetic and gender homogenization. In their writings, they both expressed a similar resistance against conforming to paradigms of individuality and collectivity, subjectivity and impersonality.

Looking at the relationship between Barnes and the Baroness, the notion of a transatlantic bridge is, indeed, a useful instrument for reading their texts, particularly of Barnes’s Parisian fiction. Although the two women rarely found themselves in the same geographical location at the same time, they formed a bond that was much stronger than their mutual appreciation, which was recorded in print media and in their letters. Looking at the almost-symbiotic relationship between Barnes and the Baroness – something which is not justified by historical encounters and concrete membership in groups – enables a new reading of Barnes’s texts that evidences a utopian dimension, based on a particular version of the concept of community.37

Ladies Almanack: Meaningful absence and gendered utopia

Barnes’s years in Paris represent the apogee of her career as a modernist artist. By 1928 – when she published two modernist masterpieces, Ladies Almanack38 and Ryder – she was in the most intense phase of her love ← 58 | 59 → relationship with Thelma Wood (which lasted from 1922 to 1931) and at the busiest stage of her plans to secure the publication of the autobiography of the Baroness – who had died in Paris in 1927. Surprisingly, neither of these two women has an alter ego in Ladies Almanack. Such absences warn us against simplistically establishing a correspondence between the historical community around Barnes and the fictional one of the book. Indeed, as some scholars suggest, Ladies Almanack is not only a roman à clef – Barnes herself wrote it as a literary divertissement – but an extremely rich text that contains elements of satire, political feminism and discourses of gender and desire.39 Ladies Almanack is an exhilarating pastiche in which Barnes parodies the community of women gathered around Natalie Barney in the late 1920s. She provocatively overturns traditional literary forms so as to reassemble them into a carnivalesque carousel of verbal and visual caricatures. This unique work has been largely addressed by the critics as a literary divertissement in which Barnes combines visual artistry with literary parody of both erudite and popular, sacred and profane.40 Witty humour and zest for sensual pleasures are combined into a ‘slight satiric wigging’ – as she called it in her foreword – aimed at portraying the strong-minded women of her circle. Both illustrations and words exceed and ‘overrun proper boundaries, bringing sex, death, birth and animality into close conjunction with each other’.41 As the illustrations hark back to the engravings typical of the imagerie populaire française, they caricature women’s naked bodies; similarly, chapters mock both religion and superstition, yet to (re)tell Nativity and Fall in the alternative terms of a feminine myth. Close-reading/viewing of this amusing gallery of vignettes invites us to investigate Barnes’s ambiguous position towards and inside this community. On one hand, she explores the form of the almanac as parody to give us snapshots of the members of the circle in Rue Jacob. On the other hand, she explores parody and satire as forms which enable ‘an alternative to this [Western ← 59 | 60 → civilization’s] tale of heterosexual aggression, offering a lesbian creation myth’.42 The consideration of this ambiguity invites us to seek points of incoherence between the historical virtual expatriate community and, in the words of Bonnie Kime Scott, its ‘fictional alternative’.43

The ladies of Madame Musset’s (Barney’s) circle are all (although to different extents and with the exception, perhaps, of the sceptical Loy-Scalpel) lesbians – while the sexual orientation of their historical counterparts was not as explicit, stable or fixed – and are capable of all-female reproduction. Men are downgraded to occasional sexual diversions, which, however, negatively affects the bodies of women. The women of Ladies Almanack are caricatured as exuberant, excessive – even grotesque – desiring bodies. They advocate that the loss of virginity through surgery be a fundamental right, one that might emancipate women from the patriarchal economy that attributes value to maidenhood. In other words, the utopian community of the Almanack is tied together by a rhetoric of sexual liberation by all means and at all costs. In this light, the absence of Elsa is astonishing, since she was undoubtedly the most indomitable, resolute activist for the liberation of sexuality (not just for women) among Barnes’s acquaintances. Her poems of ‘Love and Longing’ – poems of this section include ‘Ejaculation’, ‘Desire’ and ‘Firstling’ – are concerned with the uncensored representation of the body during sexual intercourse. Other poems – for instance ‘King Adam’, ‘Aphrodite to Mars’ and ‘History Dim’ – are pseudo-mythical poems that rewrite patriarchal history and myth in bawdy and mocking tones.44 ‘Flagrant illogic’ and ‘freak’ – fils-rouges in Ladies Almanack – are the words that the Baroness uses to describe virginity in her autobiography, which Barnes had read extensively by 1928. Not only had Barnes encouraged, sustained and motivated the Baroness to write, but she was also the Baroness’s ← 60 | 61 → favourite addressee for her poems from the 1920s, when dedications ‘to Djuna’ are a constant.45

The absence of the Baroness from this fictional community seems therefore all the more striking: the Baroness embodied the essence of the community of Mme Musset, so that, being the great absentee, she becomes omnipresent – even more pervasive, perhaps, than Barnes’s fictional alter ego. This absence can be explained as sort of ‘allegory in absence’, one that definitively alters the balances and proportions of the overlapping of fictional and historical communities. The community’s transformation into its utopian version seems, in fact, to be enabled by the evolution of the historical Baroness into an allegory. Too evanescent, too volatile and contradictory to be encapsulated in one alter ego – even a caricature – the Baroness comes to contain, metonymically, the community of Ladies Almanack and the gender utopia that the text advocates.

Nightwood: Transatlantic wanderers and utopian usurpers

If proposing the Baroness as a narrative and rhetorical key for accessing the utopian dimension of the fictional community of Ladies Almanack might appear daring, Barnes’s later novel Nightwood offers another fertile ground for exploring an even more articulated construction of a speculative community.46 By the time Nightwood was published by Faber and Faber ← 61 | 62 → in 1936, the Baroness had been dead for nine years, and Barnes had ended her relationship with Thelma Wood more than four years earlier. Yet, in an uncanny inversion of the mechanism that contributed to creating the utopian community of Ladies Almanack, Nightwood presents a restricted group that rotates around one character, Robin Vote – a comprehensive transposition of Thelma Wood and Baroness Elsa, the ‘great absentees’ of the 1928 work.

Nightwood undoubtedly has autobiographical overtones, with Barnes corresponding to Nora Flood, the important narrating voice and character. Robin Vote, figured by most critics as the historical Thelma Wood, outlines a map of transatlantic wanderings that equally supports her association with the Baroness. Such correspondence is also validated by the association of the ‘Baron’ Felix, Robin’s husband, with Elsa’s third husband. However, this map appears as the exact reverse of the historical Baroness’s travels and Atlantic crossings – to the point that it might even allude to Barnes’s own transatlantic migrations.47

Thanks to their multiple referentiality to historical people, Nora and Robin evoke a much wider, and more fictional community. The characters in Nightwood seem, at times, to be aware of their ‘fictionality’ and try to construct artificial identities for themselves in addition to the already fictional ones provided by Barnes. This peculiarity distinguishes the characters of Nightwood from other characters in Barnes’s fictional communities. They have – thanks to this self-aware mask-making ability – stronger identities and enjoy higher autonomy than the other communities of Barnes’s fiction. Jenny Petherbridge,48 for instance, steals other people’s identities as well as ← 62 | 63 → valuables and trifles: like a sort of identity-kleptomaniac, she constructs her own mask(s).

Jenny’s extravagant practice only makes more explicit a narrative strategy of which all characters partake to some extents; from Felix, who steals a family portrait to justify his artificial noble bloodline, to Doctor O’Connor, who wears feminine nightgowns in the privacy of his bedroom. All characters, including wandering Robin, are in search for one identity – no matter whose, but apparently not their own. In this fictional community, in which the historical figures around Djuna Barnes play hide and seek, identity seems to become a fluid concept, one that can be manipulated and disguised, bargained, stolen and appropriated.

Another character, Doctor O’Connor, fits in the scheme of identity-kleptomania and self-construction carried out by all the other characters: he is a transvestite self-professed prophet and self-proclaimed gynaecologist and psychoanalyst, who uses an exaggerated variant of talking therapy as a form of ventriloquism: his logorrhoea makes him usurp, eventually, Nora’s role as the narrating voice.50 Since Nora is the character in the book who is based (the most) on Djuna Barnes, and stands therefore as an autobiographical character, the narrator’s overthrow is quite significant for the purpose of my argument. ← 63 | 64 →

The ambiguity created by the shifting narrator poses the ultimate challenge to any equivalence between the historical communities in Nightwood, and functions as a gateway between autobiographical and speculative fiction. It challenges autobiographical modes of reading and draws attention to the textual community, its formation and characteristics. When the change of narrator occurs, the community gains prominence by posing as a speculative, utopian community. Towards the end of the novel, it is Doctor O’Connor who orchestrates the threads of community life and the relationships between its members – and he is the only character in the book who does not seem to refer to any historical person among Djuna Barnes’s friends and acquaintances; he is certainly the most fictional and artificial among the novel’s characters, and yet Barnes hands the role of the narrator over to him, renouncing her fictional alter ego Nora. Thanks to this handover, the community ceases to be just fictional, managed so far by an autobiographical point of view and voice, and claims identity and autonomy: it becomes a speculative community, one that is stripped of the political and idealized traits that it preserved in Ladies Almanack, and which combines aspects of utopia and dystopia, projection and emancipation. In this new community, Nora falls silent, her actions being told by the new narrator, whose delirious monologues have his own life and issues as their centre. Her story with Robin no longer takes centre stage, and she and Robin now become a background to the doctor’s unrelenting and rambling story.

From the moment when Doctor O’Connor, until that point only a member of the fictional community, comes to weave the threads of the plot, the community itself acquires a stronger identity and appears more ‘alive’. As the autobiografictional characters fade into the background, the community around the doctor gains strength, also because he tells us about the current life of characters like Felix (Robin’s first husband), who were only mentioned briefly in Nora’s narrative.

I consider the community built through Nightwood’s textual strategies as a ‘utopian community’ in the sense that it presents itself as being autonomous from fiction. This particular meaning of ‘utopia’ is supported by another quality of the character of the Doctor which reflects on the community-set(s) of Barnes’s fiction: Dr ‘Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt Dante O’Connor’, as he appears in Nightwood, is an intertextual character ← 64 | 65 → whom we also meet in Ryder. In both novels, he boasts about and falsifies his medical abilities when he speaks with (or rather, to) other characters. When Nora becomes a background character in her own fictional community, now orchestrated by an intertextual character who is not in any sense her fictional alter ego, and who yet embodies the narrator’s point of view, the community acts, talks and lives in a way that is not dependent on her.

This connection ultimately supports the suggestion of a strongly autonomous, ‘utopian’ community that exists beyond fiction, indeed across Barnes’s texts – one that not only emancipates itself from alleged historical corresponding characters, but also transits across fictional realities. Of such a community, we can observe life-frames in the various fictional constructions, thus appreciating that it has a life of its own.

From its opening pages, the range of identities that emanates from Nightwood creates a beautiful prism of fictional disguise, construction and projection that reflects and colour historical networks. The presence of this ‘utopian’ group multiplies the facets of such a prism, connecting with both Barnes’s historical and fictional communities. The final ensemble translates into a vibrant, eclectic system that reflects the complexity of ‘community’ itself, involving actual people and texts in a mirroring and referential game. It is no coincidence, in fact, that the mirror is one of the most powerful leitmotifs of the novel – ‘She said: she is myself. What am I to do?’51 With her trans-textual utopian community, one in which the Baroness does not play a central role, Barnes shows us the potential of fiction in terms of building community. Since the network of groups and connections of her books has such strong connections to the reality of historical groups, it appears to be the ultimate level of the transatlantic network in which Barnes partook, rather than just being its fictional adaptation. ← 65 | 66 →

Final remarks

In Ladies Almanack, the Baroness qualifies as the ‘big absent’. Yet, she is allegorically omnipresent in the formulation of every gendered practice and claim; thus, she comes to embody the feminist utopia of the whole community pictured in the work. In Nightwood, Robin, the character partly inspired by her person,52 becomes part of the utopian community activated by Doctor O’Connor.53

The exploration in the texts of the relationship between Barnes and the Baroness – either ‘in presence’ or ‘in absence’ – helps us chart new vectors, if not routes, that increase our understanding of the historical connections between these two authors, and prompts a reflection on the intersections between different versions of community based on networks. This reflection enhances our knowledge of their friendship, a knowledge which we could not gain either from print media or from their private correspondence. Barnes’s texts considered here show pictures of community(/ies) that are significantly distant from the historical panoramas on which they are modelled, realities that they distort, caricature or develop. Ladies Almanack constructs a community that magnifies the potential of women’s collectivity and develops a feminist utopia. Nightwood explores the potential developments of historical encounters and its (dysfunctional) evolutions, prospecting a speculative community. As the various texts of Barnes (both those explored here and others) mix elements of autobiografiction and speculation, they hint at a possible utopian collectivity that exists across texts and beyond these single pieces of fiction. ← 66 | 67 →

While fictional communities project and explore potential interactions with both the city-based and virtual historical networks, utopian communities are constituted by many stratified levels of fictional constructions, enhancing the meaning of women’s networks as even more ubiquitous.54 By doing so, they cease to be alternate, fictional dimensions of historical communities, and rather become a further level of the concept of community. Ultimately, utopian communities enhance the hermeneutic unfolding of the phrase ‘transatlantic community’, one that rests on the untangling of the assonances and dissonances between geography, virtuality and fiction.


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1 Jayne Marek, ‘Magazines, Presses, and Salons in Women’s Modernism’, in Maren Tova Linett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 62–77 at 63.

2 Critical background on women’s modernism is provided by Bonnie Kime Scott, ed., The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Bonnie Kime Scott, Refiguring Modernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Bonnie Kime Scott, ed., Gender and Modernism, 4 vols (London; New York: Routledge, 2008); and Maren Tova Linett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); see also the studies that explore communities of women in modernist centres and transatlantic connections among women artists, such as, for example Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900–40 (London: Virago, 1987); Lucy Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), and finally, several other studies that focus on specific interactions; see Cristanne Miller, Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schüler: Gender and Literary Community in New York and Berlin (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005); Catherine Keyser, Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

3 The geographical perspective of women’s modernism on which I am focusing in this chapter does not encompass the lively panorama of postcoloniality and women’s writing. However, the (problematic) relation between geomodernism and post/coloniality adds further complexity to the already intricate web of modernist female writers. See Laura Doyle, ‘Geomodernism, Postcoloniality and Women’s Writing’ in Linett, ed., Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers, 129–45.


X, 292
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (June)
Groups, Coteries, Circles and Guilds Modernist Aesthetics and the Utopian Lure of Community Avant-garde and modernist collaborations Avant-garde and modernist utopias Authorship
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. X, 292 pp., 12 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Laura Scuriatti (Volume editor)

Laura Scuriatti is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2019); she has co-edited, with Caroline Patey, the volume The Exhibit in the Text . The Museological Practices of Literature (2009) and, with Sara Fortuna, Dekalog . On Dogville (2012). She has published on Mina Loy, Ford Madox Ford, Futurism, H. G. Wells, Sacheverell Sitwell, Mario Praz.


Title: Groups, Coteries, Circles and Guilds