The Modernist Corpse
Posthumanism and the Posthumous
University of Minnesota Press 2018
At the beginning of the 20th century, surrealists such as André Breton and Man Ray played a game called “Exquisite Corpse.” You can play it by drawing or by writing, and the rules are very simple. Let’s say you’re writing. You would write the beginning of a story or poem at the top of a piece of paper and, when you finished, fold the paper so that only the last line of the poem or story is visible. Then you’d hand the paper to another player, and this person would add to the story or poem knowing only that little bit of language. Then this play would fold the paper and pass it along. On the story or poem would go, jumping from topic to topic, from style to style, depending on how the next person added to it, until it’s done. That’s it.
The result is usually highly fragmented and often fascinating. Things that aren’t normally put together are suddenly combined. Poems, stories, and, in the case of drawings, images that seem impossible are suddenly on the page in front of you, asking you to consider them as a connected whole. The name of the game purportedly came from a phrase one of them wrote the first time the surrealists played it: “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” I’ve played it numerous times, and it’s always fascinating to see what emerges, but I’ve new understood why it’s so fascinating until I had the pleasure of reading Erin Edwards’ new book, The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). In her insightful study, Edwards examines the presence of the corpse in modernist literature and changes the ways we understand what a corpse is and even who and what counts as being fully alive.
I finished Edward’s book with the startling insight that “Exquisite Corpse,” far from being just an odd surrealist experiment, might be a more accurate way for art to capture our world and the things that live in it with us than more traditional stories, poems, and paintings. To say it another way, Edwards shows us that, in the work of modernist artists, the corpse, whether exquisite or not, might be the best way to show us what it really means to be alive.
Eric LeMay is on the creative writing faculty at Ohio University. His work ranges from food writing to electronic literature. He is the author of three books, most recently In Praise of Nothing: Essay, Memoir, and Experiments (Emergency Press, 2014). He can be reached at email@example.com.