[The below represents the first draft of the introduction to my dissertation chapter on H.D.’s early work and, in particular, Palimpsest]
Hilda Doolittle, or H.D. as she has come to be called, wrote in multiple genres and formats. Her work ranges from fastidious imagist poetry, to stream of consciousness roman a clefs, into theoretical and critical texts, and as a film actress, technician, and editor. These different types of work are bound together by her consistent focus on a few core ideas, but the driving force behind all of her work is the pursuit of access to women’s perspectives and experiences as agents and artists in the Western tradition. From her earliest poetry and into her later works, Helen in Egypt and Hermetic Definition, H.D. generated a body of texts which flesh out, uncover, ventriloquize, narrate, translate, and in every other imaginable way, present texts by and about women. In this sense, her work represents an archive in miniature, an attempt to recalibrate a literary and historical tradition defined by a disproportionately large representation of male writers and subjects. In order to carry out these ideas, H.D. had to create a body of texts from a feminist perspective, but also examine the rules according to which the archive itself is structured.
In addition to being less prominent in the archive, texts by and about women are often filtered through, told in the context of, or excluded through embedded patriarchal values. Entire veins of women’s literature and history are likely lost to memory through the biases implicit in the archive’s structure. Sappho’s fragments, H.D.s first ancient influence, testify to the precarity of women writers’ status in the archive. For every Sappho, whose work, battered and bruised, survives a transmission system hostile to her work, one can posit any number of other women writers whose work has been forever lost to Western letters through active exclusion or passive neglect. In her 1941 novel The Gift, H.D. describes the occluded state of an entire network of female figures, languages, archetypes, and epistemology:
Mary, Maia, Miriam, Mut, Madre, Mere, Mother, pray for us. Pray for us, dar Mary, Mary, mere merl; this is the nightmare, this is the dark horse, this is Mary, Maia, Mut, Mutter. This is Gaia, this is the beginning. This is the end. Under every shrine to Zeus, to Jupiter, to Zeu-pater or Theus-pater or God-the-father, along the western coast of Peloponnesus, there is an earlier altar. There is, beneath the carved super-structure of every temple to God-the-father, the dark cave or grotto or inner hall or cella to Mary, mere, Mut, Mutter, pray for us. (113-114)
The prayer represents H.D.’s symbolic request for access to these buried fragments of women’s history. Like many of her literary peers, H.D. wove together ancient and modern literary and historical fragments, but her work differs from the majority of these authors because the texts she stitches together focus on women figures, authors, and subjects from throughout history and literature. Both Joyce and Pound depict, refer to, and recontextualize women from literature and history in interesting, and often ostensibly progressive ways, but neither engages in a full-scale excavation of the ignored, suppressed, and devalued tradition of women’s writing and subjects in the way that H.D. does.
At issue for H.D., in a way that it is not for Joyce, Pound, or any male artist of the modernist period, is access to a tradition. For this reason, in every period of her career, H.D. developed strategies that facilitate access between her reality and the occluded materials from which she sought to construct her feminist archive. As a cluster of integrated technical, conceptual, and media effects, the interface best captures all the different functions H.D. developed in order to gain access to the buried women’s tradition. An interface is any surface on which information is presented, but interfaces insinuate themselves as interfaces most fully when they give the user/viewer/reader the impression that she is seeing part of a larger whole through the access point the interface provides. The access allowed H.D. to posit an alternative model of history in which she was free to reconfigure the archive’s established information organization principles based on chronological order.
In place of the traditional archival model, H.D., with Joyce and Pound, began to structure her work through informational relationships between the elements in her work, and these elements dynamically shift and move based on the relationships they share with other texts. Eileen Gregory describes how these efforts represent a theory of women’s history in which different texts relate to one another in a network of patterns:
[O]ne sees H.D. engaged not simply in biographical projection but in a complex mode of historical and cultural analysis, as well as self-analysis, within which she holds her own hellenic models up to scrutiny and articulation and elaborates a theory of history in which they are situated. H.D. increasingly understands the character of her hellenism, serving as an elaborate trope for the amalgam of experiences — both personal and cultural — in her early years. Thus she comes to detach herself from identification with particular figures in order to reflect upon recurrent patterns of interrelationships” (H.D. and Hellenism 3)
Rather than a representation of stable and continuous experience, H.D.’s work collects and arranges fragments as a tactic for assembling her archive of women’s history. She describes a similar process in Tribute to Freud: “Thoughts were things, to be collected, collated, analyzed, shelved, or resolved. Fragmentary ideas, apparently unrelated, were often part of a special layer or stratum of thought and memory, therefore to belong together; these were sometimes skillfully pieced together like the exquisite Greek tear-jars” (14). This “special layer or stratum” represents a new freedom for depicting, organizing, and relating texts about women. Fragmentation takes on a profound power for H.D. because the individual pieces, removed from their original contexts, are arrangeable according to flexible criteria, providing H.D. with the freedom to connect her conditions in the early twentieth century with texts and figured from throughout time.
I will begin this chapter by analyzing H.D.’s affiliation with the Imagist movement and her use of various strategies to integrate intertextual materials into her early poetry. In these early poems, she created a matrix of narratives that relate to one another through the repetition of aesthetic, thematic, technical, and conceptual patterns. Her feminist versions of traditionally male narratives expand into a complex interrogation of the cultural values that perpetuated the asymmetrical gender composition of the archive. Next, I examine how her early prose works, the four roman a clefs that comprise the Madrigal Cycle, depict her experience of of modernity and represent the temporal and spatial dislocation she felt was endemic to the period following World War I. These prose works initiate H.D.’s experiments with interfacial models to facilitate access to alternative bodies of knowledge, information organization strategies, and, most importantly, a logical justification for connecting previously separate texts, figures, and patterns. Representing this alternative history required new methods of information organization, but it also needed a new type of platform that allowed H.D. to freely select and arrange different elements. The occlusion of the women’s writing made it necessary for H.D. to develop techniques for accessing texts that were otherwise unavailable. H.D.’s work obsesses over conceptual and technical visualization methods whose functions are best theorized through comparison with interface models. Through each of these experiments, H.D. combined material practices, technical apparatuses and metaphors, and an openness to mystical experience in ways that facilitate access to information, and provide passageways between otherwise separated zones of life and art. These interfaces provide H.D. with access to a real and imagined alternative archive of women literary and historical figures, narratives, subjects, mythologies, and epistemology. H.D. uses this access to arrange these elements in new ways, extracting them from their contexts and relating them to new elements. All of these experiments lead to Palimpsest in which H.D. presents three separate narratives taking place at distant times and places through a single print interface. By invoking the ancient textual practice of palimpsesting in the work’s title, H.D. uses print media’s affordances to connect multiple narratives with associational links that transect the separate narratives and the sequential pages of the book. As they operate in Palimpsest, the informational connections between the three stories allows the text to serve as a model for how all of H.D.’s work functions as an interconnected database of feminist narratives.