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Lyon professor offers new reading of motherhood, modernism

Dr. James Martell explores the relationship between modernism and motherhood in his new book, “Modernism, Self-Creation, and the Maternal: The Mother’s Son.”

Modernism is a philosophical and artistic movement that strives to break from traditional forms.

Martell, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages at Lyon College, examines the relationship between writers and their mothers, how that relationship shapes the writers' creation, and what it means to create or labor at all.

The book began as a dissertation on the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the writer Samuel Beckett. “I was trying to find connections between the two… and I found this one… from there I saw those connections between [other writers like] Baudelaire, Rilke, Herman Melville, Poe…,” said Martell, who realized the importance of this trend in transatlantic modernism. 

When Martell looks at the relationship between writers and their mothers, he sees a jealousy over their mothers’ biological ability to create with their body.

“The male writer doesn’t have that biological possibility,” Martell says.

Martell considers language and words like “labor.” On the one hand, there is labor in the sense of giving birth; on the other hand, there is labor in the sense of work or creation.

“In that scheme of things, how do you understand intellectual creation or work? What kind of metaphor do you attach to it? Do you write a book as you would build a table? Do you write a book as you would give birth to a child?”

Martell says writing something like this comes from two kinds of desires. 

“You believe you’ve found something interesting enough that you believe it must be said, [and/or] you want to jump into a conversation.”

Martell says he’s jumping in and saying, “I agree with the feminist perspective around this subject, but let’s analyze [the specific aspect] of the son [in relation to] the mother.”

Martell covers a lot of ground in 169 pages. 

“Martell’s ambition is not only to do a new reading of [these authors],” said Bruno Clément, professor at the University Paris 8, “but… to shake all the limits: between literature and philosophy, psychoanalysis and poetics, rhetoric and gender studies. Ultimately, Martell invites us to a new way of reading and interpreting texts, a new way of thinking.”