Edited to add: A video of this lecture is now online.

Sørina Higgins gave the Sunday plenary talk at Mythmoot IV.  She thinks we need a new story for imagining literary communities and literary modernism. She uses the Great Dance at the end of Perelandra as her starting point.

He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity — only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern was not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated.

C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, p. 218
Cover of Perelandra, 1979 MacMillan edition

I’m writing this on the porch, on a sunny day in June. The book cover matches the lawn beautifully.

Professor Higgins’s revision to the story of the Inklings is radical: there was no group called “the Inklings”, in the sense that there was a group called “The Beatles”. The name is better thought of as a constantly-changing configuration of influences among people who flowed in and out of each others’ notice, and whose significance in each others’ works ebbed and flowed over time.

If you try to use rigid identifications to describe something as chaotic as twentieth-century communities, you’re bound to miss things.  In the case of the Inklings, what you miss is their engagement with Modernism. If you think of four Dead White European Males turning their backs on the industrial world you don’t see: women, Americans, pulp magazines, romance novels (in the XXth Century meaning), or their keen perception of advances in science.  Others have noticed this before, of course. Critics have designated a raft of /[a-z]*-modernist/ schools. That regular expression could be low, high, pulp, pop, inter, outer, or whatever else. Any time you have an explosion of hyphenations in scholarship, it’s a sign that we’re ready for some kind of theoretical unification. (They give Nobel prizes for that in physics. It’s what quarks do.)

Prof. Higgins proposes that we should use network theory to create “meta-fictional narratives”, and basically told the audience to get to work. (This was the second action item from a plenary talk last weekend.)  OK, let’s.

It’s easy to see how the network nodes are defined; there’s almost certainly going to be one for each person. The value of the writer’s nodes will be time-dependent, describing their works in progress. We’ll need some specific non-null value for anyone who’s not writing something, but interacts with writers in other ways. (I’m thinking of Joy Davidman, and that may be the most discreet sentence I’ve ever written.)

The links in the network will be the hard part. Interactions between writers don’t fit onto a numerical scale. (And that may be the worst understatement I’ve ever written.) I have no idea what kind of quantitative analysis is possible when a link value is chosen from a set like {influenced, discussed with, expanded upon, refuted, deliberately ignored, stole from, converted, ran off with the wife of, …}.

Link values will also be time-dependent, so the whole network will be time-dependent. I foresee lots of cool animated graphics at future conferences, if Professor Higgins has the kind of influence on Modernist Studies that I suspect she will.