Cinema and the Classics

by Christina Walter, University of Maryland, College Park

“Cinema and the Classics” is a series of three essays written by H.D. and published in the first English-language film journal Close Up in 1927.  The journal was created and edited by POOL Productions, an experimental film company of which H.D. was a part and which used the journal as a forum for explaining the theoretical ideas behind its films. Together, H.D.’s three essays—“Beauty,” “Restraint,” and “The Mask and the Movietone”—characterize the ills of the modern human condition and suggest that cinema can help correct that condition in the spectator.  In its characterization of film and the film experience, “Cinema and the Classics” reflects H.D.’s own formulation of the modernist aesthetic of impersonality and shows that that aesthetic is centered on a modern understanding of vision.

Impersonality and “Impersonal Subjectivity”

Impersonality is a contentious concept in modernist studies, perceived as definitive of modernism and yet often dismissed for its ties to an impolitic T. S. Eliot, whose definition of the term in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—a “permanent surrender of the self” during which the writer is nonetheless “most individual”—seemed impossibly contradictory.[1] Until recently, the critical consensus on this contradiction viewed impersonality as an escape to objectivity, as both an evasion of bodily contingency and a subterfuge for masculine power.[2] This diagnosis pervades H.D. criticism, where scholars have sought to distinguish H.D.’s “personal,” “feminine” aesthetic from that of her male contemporaries, notably her one-time fiancé Ezra Pound, whose Imagism is deemed an impersonal, scientific project, pursuing “objective truth about reality.”[3]

It is time, however, to recognize that H.D. did not oppose impersonality anymore than impersonality offered an objectivist epistemology. Modernism’s impersonal aesthetic was certainly founded in scientific inquiry, but it was the later-nineteenth-century science of vision, centered on an embodied, and therefore subjective, observer.[4] H.D.’s impersonal aesthetic highlighted this observer’s unwilled perceptual systems and thereby explored a never fully knowable subjectivity, both psychical and physiological, that exceeds the personality and uncontrollably shapes one’s knowledge of reality. This scientifically derived ‘impersonal subjectivity’ centered on a visual image that was likewise scientifically defined not as natural or mimetic but as partial, fragmentary, and constructed—that is, conventional and expressive like texts. Modernists invested in impersonality, like H.D., saw in this deconstruction of generic boundaries a challenge to social binaries—such as male/female and self/(racial) other—which had tended to be naturalized through their comparison to a presumed opposition between the silent, timeless, bodily image and the man-made, mental, expressive text.

“Cinema and the Classics” reflects H.D.’s use of aesthetic impersonality to explore this modern visual epistemology. Its three essays deploy a visual language derived from cinema and psychoanalysis to propose an ‘imagetext,’ a new image-text relation that could encode the embodied observer’s implications. Specifically, their visual language registers what Walter Benjamin terms an “optical unconscious”: an opacity, repetition, and temporality within the visual mechanism.[5] H.D.’s use of such language to denaturalize the embodied identities traditionally analogized to a dyadic image/text focuses especially on reformulating common notions of racial identity. Ultimately, then, while critics have typically read H.D. either as unconsciously racist or as overwhelmingly anti-racist, modernist impersonality offers a new lens for exploring her more complicated understanding of racial embodiment and the social role of the aesthetic.[6]

“Cinema and the Classics” bemoans a contemporary “dissociation” of body and soul, a Cartesian experience that manifests ironically a limited “point of view.”[7] Against such limitation, H.D. describes an “advance guard” that is inextricably both a “microscopic mind” and a “microbe” “prod[ding]” its way toward “understanding” (105). As a microbe, or unseen matter living in the body, this advance guard is subject to, and indeed synonymous with, the opaque impersonal systems governing vision; yet, as a microscopic mind, a mentality aligned with augmented vision, it also has insight into the mediating forces of those systems. H.D.’s principal argument in “Cinema and the Classics” is that film can enable such insight. To that end, she identifies three components of cinema—the spectator, the film, and the visual attentive state that marks spectatorship—and proposes positive and negative forms of each. She argues that the correspondence of all three positive forms produces a psychoanalytic situation in which the spectator can access images of unconscious desire that exceed but condition personal experience.

Spectator and Spectacle

H.D.’s ideal spectator, the first component, can see things about a film’s construction and the experience of viewing it that the average moviegoer does not. Through their concentrated attention to set, costumes, and camera shots, as well as to their own perceptual experience in the theater, these spectators can regard the filmic image as a mediated creation and projection rather than a transparent mirror of reality. Just as importantly, these spectators—from the almost hypnotic state that marks the inevitable limits of their concentrated attention—are also able to access a film’s underlying representation of the subject’s unconscious psycho-physiological systems, a representational effort that marks H.D.’s ideal film.

H.D.’s second component, in other words, calls for films that represent impersonal subjectivity and promote the spectator’s ability to attend to it. To this end, H.D. advocates a proportionate use of naturalism, which portrays what the eye sees, and formalization, which shows that view’s mediation; the resulting “proportionate image” works as an imagetext. For example, by advocating the representation of a tree through a branch set against the “wall of an empty room, with suitable cross-effect of shadow,” H.D. draws attention to the mechanics of film projection: light and shadow on a blank wall (111). These mechanics symbolically mark the material processes of “some super-normal . . . layer of consciousness,” making film the “medium” most able to represent psychic “phenomena” (112, 116). The cinematic image thus serves as an analytic narrative revealing unconscious desires disguised in dream images. This function underscores film’s status as an imagetext, because its images convey a narrative.

The full significance of H.D.’s proportionate image comes out in her discussion of the movietone. She criticizes sound for making cinema too “real,” for transforming the “mask” of silent film into a “personality” (115, 116). Whereas silent films point to the mechanical nature of cinema, talkies camouflage the image as mimetic and oust the spectator from his imaginative role. Personality, H.D. maintains, robs the “screen image” of the “thing behind the thing that has grown to matter so much”; it prevents the image from functioning symbolically and thus the film from exploring the limits of human transparency (115).

H.D.’s impersonal aesthetic, by valuing film as a psychoanalytic project, highlights the mutual construction of spectator and spectacle suggested by embodied vision. H.D. describes the ideal spectatorial experience, her third component, as a mechanism for actualizing film’s representation of impersonal subjectivity, and offers a formal program for film that supports this mechanism in the spectator. She then characterizes the ideal spectatorial experience itself as a dialectical relation between attention and hypnosis, detailing a visually attentive effort to mark perceptual mediation that gives over to the material limits of vision in a hypnotic state. These two stages together lead to a discovery of the optical unconscious and of one’s subjection to it.

The Question of Race

Part and parcel of H.D.’s characterization of this impersonal aesthetic for film is her use of contemporary racial discourses to elaborate the aesthetic’s formal aspects. Her complex negotiation of these discourses points to her understanding of the social implications of impersonal art. “Cinema and the Classics” circulates racial discourses—always shuffling terms inherited from them—in classifying both the avant-garde film that typifies H.D.’s ideal and its foil, Hollywood cinema. In this way, the essays bring to view the oscillating cultural and biological imperatives that (in)form embodied identity. H.D. does not, in other words, preen herself on having destroyed social and aesthetic conventions, but rather positions her aesthetic as exposing some of the mechanisms that calcify such conventions.

The question of race emerges most clearly in H.D.’s discussion of Greta Garbo’s European and Hollywood careers. H.D. condemns Hollywood’s presentation of Garbo for hiding the constructedness of the film image and disallowing the impersonal mechanics of film spectatorship, thereby obliterating the work of Garbo’s early avant-garde films in Europe. The idea that Hollywood has turned Garbo into a “photogenetic guise,” a racialized corruption of photogenic, points to the role of race in this charge, and indeed H.D.’s indictment inverts and blends two discourses of racial embodiment: eugenic Nordicism and the myth of the black rapist (107, emphasis mine).

In the early twentieth century, anthropologist Madison Grant pioneered an effort to distinguish America’s old Northern European immigrants from the new influx of Southern and Eastern European émigrés. He hierarchized the races of Europe, putting the Nordics—a race of “rulers and aristocrats . . . self-reliant and jealous of their personal freedom”—at the apex.[8] H.D. both plays on and rejects this conclusion by suggesting that Hollywood has managed to pollute the “nordic ice-flower” that Garbo had been in her early European films, turning her into “the most blatant of crepe, tissue-paper orchids” (107). On the one hand, H.D.’s suggestion, while turning an American discourse against America itself, nonetheless values racial purity and affirms Nordic superiority. On the other hand, her “ice-flower” cuts against the essentialism of such purity by blending naturalism and formalization; it joins two natural objects to characterize a formal concept (a nonexistent ice-flower). More importantly, H.D. emphasizes that Nordic is a “word [Americans] fall for”—part of the commodification of the star “thudded into the spectator” even before she enters the theater (106). This mocking claim shows that H.D. deploys her Nordicism ironically to criticize a form of cinema that will not acknowledge its racial logic and whose bluntly realist aesthetic robs its icons of their iconicity.

A similar process occurs in H.D.’s manipulation of the myth of the black rapist.[9] H.D. registers in this myth questions of embodiment recently theorized by literary historian Robyn Wiegman, who argues that what motivated the myth and the terrorism it supported was not only white men’s desire to control their lineage by controlling white women’s bodies, but also their effort to achieve a sense of disembodiment by violently disciplining black flesh.[10] H.D.’s portrayal of Garbo exploits related fears of miscegenation, by describing a pure white woman (a Nordic ice-flower) who is transformed into a “black-eyed” “vamp”—that is, who is blackened and sexualized—through Hollywood’s “devitaliz[ing], deflower[ing], and deracinat[ing]” acts upon her body (106, 107). H.D. magnifies this description’s miscegenational implications through a reference to horticultural hybridization: Hollywood has grafted Garbo “into a more sturdy . . . rootstock” (105). Yet H.D. compresses the two male roles Wiegman identifies by depicting the (white male) controller of bodies, Hollywood, as itself a figure of embodiment, the “deflowering” black (male) body. Such a compression does not directly reject the desire for disembodiment underwriting the myth. However, because H.D. does not explicitly call Hollywood black, she offers the racial body as an effect of an act on a victim rather than a clear essence, undermining biological notions of race.

Psychoanalysis and the Revision of Totemism

H.D.’s well-known relationship to psychoanalysis offered her a third modern racial discourse through which to critique her negative film, spectator, and attentive state. Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913) links contemporary black “savages” to “primitive” man, who functions as an atavistic image, transparent in motivation (because lacking all repression) and frozen in time. Freud claims that the totem functions as “primitive” man’s image of horde (i.e., group) identity.[11] Following these notions, H.D. characterizes Hollywood as a primitive “medicine man” who “dupes” or “dopes” his “horde” with only a single familiar “totem” of beauty (106, 105, 106).[12] The totemic Hollywood Garbo—who misleadingly suggests a transparent, timeless image—represents not spectators’ individual repressed desires, but an ironic nationalist sublimation of the “civilized” American audience mockingly recast as “primitive” horde. Moreover, when read alongside the myth of the black rapist, this totem doubly condemns American cinema.

For Freud, the totem anchored primitive law against incest: a man could not copulate with a woman of his own totem. Yet, the Hollywood Garbo, in H.D.’s reading, is both a totem and a product of sexual violation. Hollywood thus effectively rapes its totem to produce it, a paradoxical violation of totemic law. This paradox is compounded by H.D.’s depiction of Garbo’s rape as both an act that produces the racial body and an act of miscegenation that blurs racial distinction. These moments suggest that the doing—the constitution of racial embodiment—is simultaneously an undoing that signals the shifting nature of identity. Of course, because H.D. voices this critique through racist discourses, these moments also point to the inevitable constraints of an impersonal aesthetic, which must reckon with the limits of will, consciousness, and artistic intent. Nonetheless, H.D.’s interpenetration of these discourses and reassignment of the roles within them point to the ongoing re-circulation of the social and biological imperatives informing embodied identity and impersonal subjectivity.

Moreover, H.D. registers the breadth of this circuit and softens the limits of her method by using psychoanalytic racial discourse also to characterize her ideal film, spectator, and attentive state. In Totem and Taboo, Freud aligns the “savage” with dreamers, “civilized” subjects whose investments—being “concealed behind the manifest personality”—partially evade repression.[13] In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud explains that this evasion relies on an imagetext, on dream images that like “ancient pictographic script” code latent memories.[14] Such an imagetext, Freud suggests, resembles “primitive” totemism, which he describes as “the primitive technique of writing in images” (TT, 137). Freud proposes that psychoanalysis works to translate such images’ opacity into conscious but partial meaning.

H.D. deploys this association of the savage with an unconscious productive of impersonal images to blur the binaries inherent in her own racial metaphors. While she portrays her ideal film and spectator as exhibiting a more developed consciousness than that of a racialized Hollywood viewer, she also typifies her avant garde as the bearer of art “since the days of the stone-writers” and denigrates American cinema as a “circus” complete with “crowds” and “pink lemonade” (105). Hollywood and its spectator here become a “civilized,” commodified spectacle, while the avant garde bears a connection with the “primitive.” Further blurring her racialization, H.D. suggests that European film functions like the hieroglyphs in the “temple of Karnak,” elevating an ancient Egyptian picture-writing that resembles the core of the totemic image condemned in her discussion of Garbo (108).

H.D.’s revision of totemism continues in her consideration of the movietone, where she draws out Freud’s portrayal of dream work and analysis to characterize the proper cinematic project. She proposes that the theater must be a “temple” in which we commune with “[i]mages, our dolls, our masks, our gods”—a communion destroyed by sound (116). She thus now depicts totemism as a positive mass fantasy rather than a national sublimation: silent film images, recalling Freud’s hieroglyphic dream images, are “symbols of things that matter” (116). Accordingly, H.D. suggests that in the theater, spectators may enter a hypnotic state akin to Freud’s dream state, in which they are “far enough removed” from a “censor[ious]” consciousness to be “recreated,” to return to the “primitive beginning” (116). She notes that it is the work of film—as Freud argues of the work of analysis—to help such spectators make the resulting hieroglyphic images of the unconscious meaningful. Finally, just as Freud qualifies this work as always partial, H.D. understands film images to remain distinctly embodied, against any notion of immediacy or transparency. H.D.’s application of psychoanalytic terms highlights varying threads of racial embodiment in Freud’s discourse—threads that her simultaneous representation of the optical unconscious and its impersonal destabilization of social binaries act to fray. And yet, H.D.’s use of Freud again draws race to the center of her aesthetic, so that she circles back to the conventions against which she began. By this point, though, this circling back seems a purposeful attempt to encode the limits of her project into her practice.


H.D.’s impersonal aesthetic, as described in “Cinema and the Classics,” offers a new view of the issues at stake in modernist impersonality. By registering the impersonal nature of H.D.’s representation of the embodied observer and modern image proposed in contemporary visual science, we can see that modernism rejected a hackneyed opposition of impersonality and personality and viewed impersonality instead as the very condition of personality. This fact re-orients the apparent contradiction of Eliot’s maligned definition of the concept. More importantly, H.D.’s impersonal aesthetic and its visual language show that modernism’s appeal to science and the image is not a solipsistic escape from the body, the passions, or even identity categories like race, but rather a detailed engagement with the oscillating concerns of cultural and scientific modernity.

  1. ↑ T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt, 1975), 37-44, at 40, 38.
  2. ↑ The older consensus is best represented by Maud Ellmann’s The Poetics of Impersonality: T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Recent work challenging this reading includes Sharon Cameron’s Impersonality: Seven Essays (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007) and also Tim Dean’s “Paring His Fingernails: Homosexuality and Joyce’s Impersonalist Aesthetic” (in Quare Joyce, ed. Joseph Valente [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998], pp. 241-72) and “T.S. Eliot, Famous Clairvoyante” (in Gender, Sexuality, and Desire in T.S. Eliot, ed. Nancy Gish and Cassandra Laity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 43-65).
  3. ↑ The two descriptors of H.D.’s aesthetic are Cassandra Laity’s (H.D. and the Victorian Fin-De-Siècle [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], pp. 21, 4). The descriptor of Pound’s aesthetic is Claire Buck’s (H.D. & Freud: Bisexuality and a Feminine Discourse [New York: St. Martin’s 1991], p. 1).
  4. ↑ Recent scholarship on the late nineteenth century has tracked the emergence of a new science of vision that challenged the prevailing Cartesian model of perception, which presumed visual objectivity, by proposing instead an observer whose knowledge of reality was mediated by automatic psycho-physiological systems. For more information on this major shift and its cultural and philosophical influence, see, e.g., Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990) and Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), and Andrea Goulet, Optiques: The Science of the Eye and the Birth of Modern French Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  5. ↑ Benjamin describes the optical unconscious in terms of photography and film’s ability to make visible bodily movements imperceptible by the naked eye, emphasizing the materiality and temporality of vision. He also suggests that the optical unconscious gives over onto the instinctual unconscious by analogizing the access offered by these technologies to that of psychoanalysis. Where I use the phrase, I intend a tighter interrelation of the non-willful systems that condition vision. See “A Small History of Photography” (1931), in One Way Street, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (New York: New Left Books, 1979), pp. 240-57, and “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), pp. 217-51.
  6. ↑ For the former argument, see Andrew Lawson, e.g., “Helen in Philadelphia: H.D.’s Eugenic Paganism,” in Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880 – 1940, ed. Lois A. Cuddy and Claire M. Roche (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2003), pp. 220-39, and Betsy L. Nies, Eugenic Fantasies: Racial Ideology in the Literature and Popular Culture of the 1920’s (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 67-84. For the latter argument, see, e.g., Friedman, “Modernism of the ‘Scattered Remnant’: Race and Politics in the Development of H.D.’s Modernist Vision,” in H.D.: Woman and Poet, pp. 91-116, and Annette Debo, Interracial Modernism in Avant-Garde Film: Paul Robeson and H.D. in the 1930 Borderline,” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 18.4 (2001), p. 371-83.
  7. ↑ H.D., “Cinema and the Classics,” Close Up, 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism, ed. James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 105-20, at pp. 108, 105.
  8. ↑ Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, or, The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918), pp. 227, 228, 5.
  9. ↑ See Ida B. Wells’ famous diagnosis of the American South’s use of this myth to justify lynching (Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892 – 1900, ed. Jacqueline Jones Royster [New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997]).
  10. ↑ “The Anatomy of Lynching,” American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), pp. 81-113.
  11. ↑ I take the phrase “atavistic image” from David Eng, who similarly uses it to characterize Freud’s association of the racialized savage with a transparent image. See Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 7-9.
  12. ↑ The published essay reads “dupe,” but the manuscript and proof read “dope” (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).
  13. ↑ Freud, Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950), p. 117. Referred to hereafter as TT.
  14. ↑ Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1998) p. 312.