Deficits and Desires: Economics and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Literature

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Stanford University Press, Mar 1, 2002 - Literary Criticism - 248 pages
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This book examines the effects on literary works of a little-noted economic development in the early twentieth century: individuals and governments alike began to regard going into debt as a normal and even valuable part of life. The author also shows, surprisingly, that the economic changes normalizing debt paralleled and intersected with changes in sexual discourse.

In Victorian novels, sex and debt are considered dangerous activities that the young should avoid in order to save and invest toward eventual marriage and a home. In twentieth-century texts, however, it often seems acceptable to go into debt and engage in sex before marriage. These literary representations followed social transformations as both economic and sexual discourse moved from the logic of saving and production to the logic of circulation. In Keynesian economics and consumerism, governments and individuals were actually encouraged to borrow and to spend more in order to increase demand and keep money circulating. In twentieth-century sexual treatises, people were similarly encouraged to indulge their desires, as pent-up states were considered as deleterious to the physical body as they were to the economic.

In this book, the author traces these social transformations by examining twentieth-century literary works and films that are structured around contrasts between repressive and expansive forms of economics and sexuality. He studies a range of authors, including James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Zora Neale Hurston, and Frank Capra. The book ends with the 1960s, because after that decade deficits no longer seemed the cure for anything, and the advocacy of sexual indulgence dwindled. For half a century, however, the intersections of sexual and economic discourses created a sense that society was on the verge of a vast transformation. The artists studied in this book were fascinated by such a prospect, but remained ambivalent, as it seemed that their dreams of escaping dull bourgeois life and ending repression were becoming true because of the influence of the crassest economic policies.

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The Financier
The Great Gatsby
The National Cures of Ezra Pound
Their Eyes
Normalizing Debt in the Movies

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Page 76 - ... disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily. "They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.
Page 128 - ... damn blast your intellex, is less than the total payments made by the factory (as wages, dividends AND payments for raw material bank charges etcetera and all, that is the whole, that is the total of these is added into the total of prices caused by that factory, any damn factory and there is and must be therefore a clog and the power to purchase can never (under the present system) catch up with prices at large, and the light became so bright and so blindin' in this layer of paradise that the...
Page 28 - Thus our argument leads towards the conclusion that in contemporary conditions the growth of wealth, so far from being dependent on the abstinence of the rich, as is commonly supposed, is more likely to be impeded by it.
Page 128 - A factory has also another aspect, which we call the financial aspect It gives people the power to buy (wages, dividends which are power to buy) but it is also the cause of prices or values, financial, I mean financial values It pays workers, and pays for material.
Page 130 - But to have done instead of not doing this is not vanity To have, with decency, knocked That a Blunt should open To have gathered from the air a live tradition or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame This is not vanity.
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About the author (2002)

Michael Tratner is Associate Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College. His most recent book is Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats (Stanford, 1995).

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