• Seeking a new world: Modernism and alternative spirituality

Woodberry, Imogen, 2024, Thesis, Seeking a new world: Modernism and alternative spirituality PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

This thesis traces the way in which established modes of belief lingered, and yet were transmogrified, in the work of some major modernist figures in the mid-twentieth century. The aim of the project is thus to analyse and reintegrate the cultural role of spirituality in Britain and I do so by combining archival research with literary and visual analysis of major and lesser-known works. My methodology is informed by recent critical work which has sought to show why spirituality was an integral component of British modernism; however, I develop a reading which stresses the complexity of this intellectual and emotional landscape. Rather than focus purely on occult and Christian traditions, whose importance within the cultural discourses of the period is now widely recognised, this thesis considers the significance of a more porous category of belief. The interwar years saw the vogue of the guru; typified by the notoriety attracted to figures such as G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky who taught independent systems of spiritual development, composed of ideas drawn from varied traditions. The increasing turn to Eastern religion also manifested something of this syncretic tendency, with enthusiasm often directed at specific facets of their traditions, notably the techniques of yoga and meditation, rather than the system as a whole. There was also excitement in activities that bordered on the mystical such as astrology, as well as forms of alternative therapies, that while directed as physical well-being, often had a heavily spiritual component.

I thus argue that the category of ‘alternative spirituality’ provides a useful way of characterising these heterogenous pursuits and functions as crucial lens to illuminate artistic tendencies within the modern movement. In contrast to the fragmented form of the self stressed in multiple traditions of criticism, I argue that spiritual ideas fostered a counter-veiling strand of confidence in a sacredly endowed notion of being which acted to unite and animate the work of a range of authors. Each chapter of the thesis focuses on a key figure, but sets them in their matrix of intellectual, aesthetic and social connections. The figures are: Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, John Middleton Murry, Naomi Mitchison and Ithell Colquhoun. They range from the canonical to the more marginalised, but I chart how each shared an immanentist sensibility that nurtured an optimistic tenor within their works; particularly the belief that the spiritual could lead to the transformation of the world-at-large. The chapters consider how this apprehension unites Murry’s mystically infused criticism and politics of the 1930s with Huxley’s spiritual-pacificist vision articulated in his novel Eyeless in Gaza (1936); as well as Mitchison’s yoking of ideas of cosmic consciousness with a socialist futurity in both her historical fiction and social realism. This impulse, I will argue, was also manifested in a rarefied appreciation of the art object; an idea that is central to both Colquhoun’s magical automatism from the 1940s and the emphasis placed on the artist’s epiphanic insight that is found in the writings of Murry and Woolf. By placing the work of these diverse practitioners alongside each other I emphasise the way which mid-twentieth century culture, even in the absence of institutional faith, was still deeply imbibed by an affirmative spiritual vision of life.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W900 Others in Creative Arts and Design
School or Centre: School of Arts & Humanities
Funders: AHRC
Uncontrolled Keywords: Modernism; spirituality; surrealism; occult; consciousness
Date Deposited: 03 Jul 2024 12:38
Last Modified: 03 Jul 2024 12:38
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/5879
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