The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

The Politics of Pleasure in Rebecca West’s “The Strange Necessity”

Daniel Kielty
Independent Scholar


This article explores the relationship between pleasure and art in Rebecca West’s “The Strange Necessity.” West’s theory of art’s “strange necessity” can be read as a response to the debate about pleasure-seekers who flocked to France during the Twenties. The promotion of recreational pleasures—in tourist guidebooks, medical texts, and newspaper articles—centered around the bodily or psychological needs of individuals shapes West’s portrayal of aesthetic pleasure and informs her essay’s political emphasis on the cultural legitimacy of women’s desires.

Keywords Pleasure / Art / Women / France / Rebecca West / “The Strange Necessity”

Laura Frost has demonstrated that “there was widespread suspicion of particular categories of pleasure” during the interwar period, a time when “the broader idea of pleasure itself was undergoing a radical reconceptualization, and nowhere more than in the literary culture of the time” (3). Such misgivings about pleasure frequently center on the activities of women who, over the course of the Twenties, were less subject to the strict social and moral rules that governed their public behavior in previous decades. The anxieties this change provoked are readily seen in literary texts of the period. For example, in Michael Arlen’s 1924 novel The Green Hat, the young narrator is criticized by Hilary, one of his elders:

When you people nowadays begin to break loose there’s no limit to your looseness. There was in my father’s time . . . Even if they broke loose a little—the women, I mean—they generally had to make some compromise with the decencies simply because they had to live in the place, they couldn’t make a trunk-call to Paris and go and have a few days’ “fun” there. But now if a woman has kicked through every restraint of caste and chastity there’s the whole world open for her to play the mischief in, there’s every invention in the world to help her indulge her intolerable little lusts . . . (66)

Although Hilary begins with a generational critique of “you people,” he quickly modifies the accused group to “the women,” demonstrating a gendered double standard. From this viewpoint, women traveling via train and boat to Paris for “a few days’ ‘fun’” are disturbing because they can too easily access and indulge in pleasures without “compromise” to the observation of an implicitly patriarchal community.

The gendered nature of the accusations above has implications for modernist aesthetics and definitions of taste. Frost argues that “the fundamental goal of modernism is the redefinition of pleasure: specifically, exposing easily achieved and primarily somatic pleasures as facile, hollow, and false” in favor of “cultivating those that require more ambitious analytical work” (3). This characteristic of modernism appears in the work of Aldous Huxley, the most prominent and frequent critic of popular modern pleasure during the interwar years. In “Pleasures” (1923), Huxley argues that “in place of the old pleasures demanding intelligence and personal initiative, we have vast organizations that provide us with ready-made distractions—distractions which demand from pleasure seekers no personal participation and no intellectual effort of any sort” (48). During the Twenties, Huxley repeatedly singles out the French tourist industry as one of the “vast organizations” that was ushering in an age of facile, hollow pleasures. In Along the Road (1922), he remembers “three young American girls, quite unattended, adventurously seeing life by themselves” in a depressing Montmartre bar: “the jazz band played on monotonously; the tired drummer nodded over his drums, the saxophonist yawned into his saxophone” (6). None of the girls are enjoying themselves, yet “grimly, indomitably, in spite of their fatigue, in spite of the boredom which so clearly expressed itself on their charming and ingenuous faces, the three young girls sat on.” Here, Huxley implies that “American girls” are unable to admit that the jazz band is bad in part because they are “quite unattended” by male chaperones to guide their judgment. Whereas Hilary argues that women who break loose from the patriarchal community to visit France go wild, Huxley suggests that left to themselves they mistake unpleasure for pleasure. Frost observes that “modernists disavow but nevertheless engage with the pleasures they otherwise reject,” yet, as we have seen in Huxley’s portrayal of the unattended American girls, this engagement is often driven and shaped by gender prejudices (3). Huxley dismisses women’s engagements with the pleasures of France as devoid of judgment, lacking personal initiative, and destructive to aesthetic appreciation.

In “The Strange Necessity” (1928), on the other hand, such pleasures frequently inform Rebecca West’s critical deliberations about art and influence the embodied and personal approach she takes toward it. West explores the ways in which the construction and appeal of many such pleasures in France open and revive interactions with aesthetic form. In this essay, West’s chief purpose is to account for the “strange necessity” of art: she asks, “why does art matter? And why does it matter so much?” (58). We may safely assume that, even for Hilary of The Green Hat, artworks are not one of the “intolerable little lusts” pursued by women travelers to Paris. By contrast, the pleasures of “a few days’ ‘fun’” (Arlen 66) in France inform West’s critical reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). “A novel about Dublin dinginess,” she writes, “has everything in common with a holiday spent in the Department of Var” (“Strange” 189). Though West dismisses some of the lusts described in Ulysses as a sentimental attempt to shock readers, suggesting that Gerty MacDowell’s “erotic reverie is built up with as much noisy sense of meeting a special occasion as a grand-stand for a royal procession,” Marion Bloom’s sexual ecstasies are central to her emphasis on the symbiotic nature of recreational and aesthetic pleasure (20).1 For Hilary, women’s pleasures on the Continent constitute a self-indulgent threat to established conventions of behavior. For Huxley, such adventures are a danger to women’s “charming” nature. In “The Strange Necessity,” however, West emphasizes the important role such pleasures play in her appreciation of—and argument for—art.

The gendered interwar debate about the nature of pleasure-seeking in France helps to explain why West chose the country as the setting for her inquiry into the importance of art. Huxley is aware that many travel itineraries of the period offered the traditional pleasures of visiting important cultural sites, yet the visitors to such places apparently lack the capacity for appreciating them or differentiating pleasure in any form. Modern pleasure-seekers do not visit such sites out of genuine interest, but out of “the snobbery which decrees that one must like Art—or, to be more accurate, that one should have visited the places where Art is to be seen” (“Pleasures” 7). Tourists “‘doing’ a church,” claims Huxley, “wear a mask of dutiful interest; but what lassitude, what utter weariness of spirit looks out, too often, at their eyes!” (8). Here, Huxley’s complaint about tourists’ boredom and fatigue in churches recalls his description of the “American girls” in the Montmartre jazz club unable to properly distinguish between pleasure and unpleasure (Along 6). The belief that an appreciation of art became a casualty of pleasure-seeking in its modern guise was widespread in writing about French travel during this period. West’s essay addresses this apparent disinterest in the enjoyment of art by deliberately aligning her portrayals of aesthetic appreciation with the kinds of pleasure that were sought after by women travelers to France.

West’s insistence on the role of pleasure as a bridge to art is partly based on her own positive experiences of travel in France and her relaxed approach to pleasure-seeking, yet her representation of pleasure is also political in its insistence on the relevance that women’s experience has for the appreciation of cultural forms. In a 1958 letter to the Joyce biographer Richard Ellman, she recalled that in “The Strange Necessity” she had “copied the form, killed stone dead since by T. S. Eliot, of criticism in a personal and almost fictional framework, such as Remy de Gourmont and several other French writers had used” (Letters 327). Here, as Laura Heffernan notes, “West alludes to Eliot’s championing of ‘impersonality’ in literature—a concept around which an initial modernist canon of formally complex, ‘objective’ (not first person), and typically male-authored literary works were built” (309). By stressing “that ‘personal’ criticism was practiced also by men like Remy de Gourmont,” Heffernan suggests that West “decouples the ‘personal’ from femininity and subjectivity” to “denaturalize Eliot’s distinction between highly formal, ‘impersonal,’ and implicitly masculine artworks and formless, ‘personal,’ feminized writing” (310). For Heffernan, West’s descriptions of aesthetic pleasure in “The Strange Necessity” are linked to her apprehension of “connections between seemingly closed aesthetic forms and the wider social field within which they are distributed, circulated, reviewed, displayed, and canonized” rather than expressions of her own feminine subjectivity (310).

Despite West’s attempts to decouple her personal critical style from exclusively feminine associations in her letter to Ellman, her grounding of aesthetic engagements in different forms of pleasure (recreational, religious, and aesthetic) emphasizes the cultural legitimacy and importance of women’s subjectivity in understanding the connections between artwork and social field. She implicitly critiques the privileged category of “impersonality” as masculinist, an assertion bolstered by attacks on women’s perceptions of pleasure, aesthetic or otherwise. West’s emphasis on the relevance of women’s pleasure to the analysis of cultural forms capitalizes on the significance accorded to personal experiences, pursuits, and desires by the French tourist industry.

Culture Vultures and Pleasure-Seekers in Pre- and Post-War France

Harvey Levenstein’s history of American travelers in France in the nineteenth century identifies two supposedly distinct types of tourism: travel for culture and travel for pleasure. Whereas “cultural tourism” involves “visiting museums, scrutinizing cathedrals, studying pyramids, and making other such attempts at personal uplift through self-education,” “recreational tourism” is “aimed at pleasure” (xi). In the years preceding the Great War, for the upper-middle-classes, “cultural tourism was supposed to be the chief objective of their tours” (158). In reality, such tours often involved more recreational pleasures, such as gambling. In the eyes of the American writer Laura Libbey, the pleasures of gambling in the casino at Monte Carlo could all too easily lead to self-destruction: “Hardly a week passes without someone, driven to desperation by his losses taking refuge in suicide” (qtd. in Levenstein 175). Especially shocking in this context for Libbey was the sight of “young girls playing there not out of their ‘teens,’ old women rouged and powdered, their wrinkled hands fairly trembling with eagerness” (175). Women gambling was particularly troubling because, from the 1850s and 1860s onwards, women were overwhelmingly associated with the activities called “cultural tourism.” As Levenstein notes, women traveling for culture was “thought to spring naturally from their passive, unexploitative, nonmaterialistic nature” (183). As a result, it was believed, women were more “receptive” to the instruction that monuments and museums had to offer.

The pre-war assumption that women were especially capable of appreciating cultural sites and forms in France encouraged women writers to openly discuss their pleasurable bodily engagements with art. In Beauty and Ugliness (1912), for example, the British writers Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson describe the feature that “explains the aesthetic wonder and beauty of a great French cathedral”: “A slightly uneven-sided arch, like those of good Gothic work, affects us as extremely interesting, for we see the two sides of the arch actively pressing against each other, and this at once calls up in us active sensations of equilibrium” (199). As the Great War approached, however, the appeal of cultural tourism was already weakening among the American middle-classes in France. Though “a visit to the Louvre was still de rigueur, it was becoming acceptable to give it a quick once-over and label it too immense to really appreciate” (Levenstein 209-10). Nevertheless, prior to the Great War, women were seen as morally superior and thus better suited to sense the virtues of art.

After the war, Levenstein observes, recreational tourism overtook cultural tourism as the main concern of pleasure-seekers in France. In medical texts and tourist guidebooks published during this period, the recreational pleasures of Paris and the French Riviera are presented as transformative experiences which offered the kind of self-improvement and personal uplift traditionally associated with cultural tourism. The unprecedented toll taken by the war on Europe’s population generated a desire for holidays that offered restorative, rather than specifically educational, experiences. “Among the changes which have occurred as a consequence of the Great War,” wrote Ralph Nevill in 1927, “none is more striking than the increased appetite for relaxation and pleasure, which seems to have affected all classes” (11). Whereas the era of cultural tourism had promised “personal uplift through self-education,” the “middle-class tourists of the 1920s hoped that experiencing the [recreational] pleasures of a trip to France would bring benefits, not so much in terms of social status, as in terms of personal psychological development” (Levenstein xi, 255). Medical journals added the imprimatur of scientific authority to recreational tourism. An anonymous piece on “The French Riviera” appearing in the September 1925 issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), for example, advises that “the effects on the mind of the visitor from the north of the bright skies, clear air, and charming scenery are not the least among the curative agencies of the Provencal littoral” (1124). The emphasis on the Riviera’s “curative agencies” in such journals may have persuaded the sick to travel abroad, but it also provided a useful justification for women as pleasure-seekers with family members like Hilary, who viewed their proposed trips to France with suspicion.

West’s writings of the period reflect the tendency in guidebooks and medical journals to emphasize the personally transformative and restorative nature of recreational pleasure. She visited the Riviera at least five times during the Twenties, and the pleasures afforded by the environment had a similarly positive effect on her state of mind. In “The Strange Necessity” she recalls that “for the past three months I had been living in a house in the south of France in a state which was more beautifully near pure living than anything I had known for many years” (186-87). West ties her sense of pure living to the Riviera’s purported enabling of “personal psychological development” (Levenstein 255) by noting how her stay there left her more open to “the business of experience”: “when I swam there was no sense that I ought to be doing something else to call me out of the sea, so I was able to give a complete spiritual loyalty to the water, to be blank to everything but apprehension of its qualities” (187). A 1920 article published in the BMJ about “The Riviera” cites its “influence on catarrhal conditions, whether respiratory or aural, on the appetite and debilitated states generally” (24). As West noted in a letter to John Gunther in 1926, the Riviera climate helped to alleviate her struggles with depression: “I have been struggling with this desperate depression . . . But the place has done me a lot of good. There have been two days of fine weather, and I spent all yesterday writing on the beach in a bathing-dress” (Letters 87). Though she cites the benefits that the Riviera climate has on her mental health rather than a specific physical ailment, she buys into the idea that its “fine weather” possesses a curative agency.

Numerous tourist guidebooks of the period emphasized that shopping in the French capital could be just as rewarding as sight-seeing. In A Shopping Guide to Paris (1929), for example, Thérèse and Louise Bonney write that “it is our belief that you will derive as much pleasure from the perfect gown, a really authentic Louis XIV chair, the unique setting of an aquamarine . . . as from the façade of some historic monument” (xvii). That the Bonneys could make such a claim reflected a “reigning kind of consumerism” which “tantaliz[ed] people with the dream that what they consumed would change their identities—that it would lead to some kind of positive personality change” (Levenstein 255). Indeed, Clara Laughlin—a writer of numerous travel books—lamented those who “go to Paris, and come away without having felt it, and loved it, and got that new point of view on life which Paris gives us—if we let it” (qtd. in Levenstein 255). Exactly what “new point of view on life” Paris could give remains vague, but the notion that the capital was charged with the potential for personal transformation was nevertheless a draw for travelers to France during the Twenties.

Though medical professionals and travel writers sought to emphasize the transformative qualities of the recreational pleasures in France, modernist commentators challenged this concept with characteristic skepticism. In “Wanted, a New Pleasure” (1931), Huxley discusses “a recent visit to that region which the Travel Agency advertisements describe as the particular home of pleasure—the French Riviera” (221). As we might expect, Huxley’s essay ignores the supposedly transformative benefits of the Riviera’s climate, arguing instead that its other pleasures (eating, drinking, the ballet, playing and watching games) offered nothing new: “so far as pleasures were concerned, we are no better off than the Romans or the Egyptians” (222).2 In fact, Huxley suggests, such activities offer a debased form of past pleasures because “modern pleasures are wholly secular and without the smallest cosmic significance; whereas the entertainments of the Bronze Age were felt by those who participated in them to be pregnant with important meanings” (226-227).

Furthermore, opposition to the idea that purchases made in Paris could help to change a person’s identity was tied to now-familiar prejudices about women shoppers.3 Sisley Huddleston’s In and About Paris (1927) claimed that “Paris is above all, a woman’s town. . . . Paris much more than (say) London ministers to the amusement of shopping—a specifically feminine employment” (178). Huddleston’s description of shopping as “a specifically feminine employment” reflects, as Rita Felski’s well-known analysis of gender in modernity has shown, the deeply engrained belief that “women’s emotionality, passivity, and susceptibility to persuasion renders them ideal subjects of an ideology of consumption that pervades a society predicated on the commercialization of pleasure” (Felski 62). Rather than demonstrating the power of consumerism to positively transform women, portrayals of women shoppers in Paris tended to stress the extent to which their activities confirmed existing assumptions that they were passive consumers. Shopping, in effect, replaced “culture” as the chief activity that illustrated women’s passivity. In George and Pearl Adam’s A Book About Paris (1927), for example, the authors observe that “nowhere save in the Rue di Rivoli”—one of the capital’s most famous commercial streets—“does the spider proclaim so clearly that the fly is a poor fool” (185). Whereas the pre-war belief in women’s passivity implied an openness to the self-improvement associated with culture, the spider-and-fly image in the Adams’s book positions the supposedly passive woman shopper as the helpless prey of Parisian commerce.

Whereas the above examples demonstrate that the value of recreational pleasures was contested in highly gendered ways, there was a near-universal feeling that these experiences created an overwhelmingly bodily and materialistic environment which precluded or distorted aesthetic engagement. The promotion of Paris as a place where, for women, shopping vied with cultural superiority helped to sever the historical association between women travelers and self-improvement (Levenstein 246). Several guides to Paris aimed to endorse shopping as a recreational goal, rather than an afterthought to cultural activities that had previously justified women’s trips to Europe. In one such guide, women are advised that “shopping . . . is an expedition in itself and should not be combined with the Louvre and Notre-Dame” (Harris, “Seeing Paris” 8). As Allyson Nadia Field notes, guidebooks published during the Twenties principally offer “experiential guides to a lifestyle, rather than to monuments or museums” (30). Bruce Reynolds’s Paris with the Lid Lifted (1927) offers an epicurean “joy-ride” of the city’s bars, brothels, restaurants, and dance halls in favor of visits to the Louvre (4). At the beginning of his book, Reynolds promises that “this is a Tale of Paris, new and novel. There is not a word about the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower or Napoleon’s Tomb. Not a scratch about a Church, a Picture Gallery, a Museum, a Studio, or a Statue” (6). Would-be visitors are encouraged to devote themselves to these experiences and to ignore the cultural sites and artworks which formed part of established tourist itineraries.

These cultural debates have their counterparts in fiction of the period. A recognition of this changed economy can be found in Anita Loos’s novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), where the flapper protagonist Lorelei Lee remembers a day spent in Paris: “in only a few blocks we read all of the famous historical names, like Coty and Cartier and I knew we were seeing something educational at last and our whole trip was not a failure” (78). Loos’s use of the word “educational” here is clearly ironic, yet it highlights the extent to which Lorelei has the agency to produce an alternate epistemology of the Parisian landscape. For Lorelei, the only monuments that matter in the Paris cityscape are those erected by the fashion industry: “when we stood at the corner of a place called the Place Vendome, if you turn your back on a monument they have in the middle and look up, you can see none other than Coty’s sign.” Tourists clearly did still visit cultural sites and engage in cultural activities; yet some observers suggested that such engagements were distorted by the “intolerable little lusts” attributed to pleasure-seekers (Arlen 66). Nevertheless, in Lorelei’s case, turning away from the “monument” (commemorating the egomaniacal emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s victory at Austerlitz) may be a calculated rejection of masculine lust for power to embrace a non-destructive femininity. Though Sylvia Beach claimed that “most of the buyers of ‘Ulysses’ are serious Joyce students,” Robert Forrest Wilson argued in his 1925 survey of “Paris for Young Art” that “with the advent of the tourist season the book appears in the windows of a number of bookstores, both English and French, in the downtown section of Paris. And there is little doubt that many buy it for its enormities” (Wilson 405). In buying the book for its “enormities,” Wilson suggests, tourists bought the book for its titillating rather than its aesthetic content. Here, Wilson joins a long line of didactic writers and commentators including Huxley, the Bonneys, and Reynolds whose writings are predicated on the belief that visitors to France approached recreation and art (or both) in the wrong way.

West and the Strange Necessity of Pleasure

By contrast, the word “pleasure” appears forty-three times in “The Strange Necessity” and West makes it clear that it derives from both the commercial and cultural activities described in her essay. West can be counted as one of the thousands of pleasure-seekers who flocked to France during the Twenties, yet her experiences of the tourist lifestyle challenge the idea that this inhibited her interest in art. Instead, her writing shows that she participated in activities associated with both cultural and recreational tourism without judging one as superior to the other. On the one hand, West was an unashamed participant in the pleasures of Riviera sun and Parisian shopping. In “The Strange Necessity,” she interweaves observations about Paris couture and the Riviera with her meditations on art. Far from worrying about becoming a Paris fashion victim, West openly celebrated her love for the city’s commercial sites; Pamela Frankau recalls the writer wearing “a grey frock patterned with a map of Paris” (142). On the other hand, West never turned her back on the monuments, churches, and museums that featured on travel itineraries of old. In “The Strange Necessity,” West appraises Notre-Dame and, in the synopsis for “A Letter from Abroad,” published in The Bookman in October 1929, her planned topics include “the Romanesque church at Tournus—Travelling through a wine list—The gargoyles and the museum at Dijon—Two tombs—Mortuary sculpture” (193). Frankau, recalling her time with West at the Mysto, remembers how “in St. Raphael one bought scent, the works of Marcel Proust, cakes and French cigarettes” (175). For West and the friends who joined her at the Villa Mysto in Agay, indulgence in recreational pleasures went hand in hand with an interest in art.

The use of Paris and the Riviera as the settings for “The Strange Necessity,” combined with the essay’s frequent references to pleasure, indicate that West is mindful of contemporary assumptions about the relationship between recreational pleasure and art. The evidence that pleasure-seekers of the period prized “experiential guides to a lifestyle, rather than to monuments or museums” is readily available in contemporary guidebooks and travel writing (Field 30). In the opening page of her essay, West positions herself as one such guide:

I shut the bookshop door behind me and walked slowly down the street that leads from the Odéon to the Boulevard St. Germain in the best of all cities, reading in the little volume which had there been sold to me, not exactly pretentiously, indeed with a matter-of-fact briskness, yet with a sense of there being something on hand different from an ordinary commercial transaction: as they sell pious whatnots in a cathedral porch. Presently I stopped. I said “Ah!” and smiled up into the clean French light. My eye lit on a dove that was bridging the tall houses by its flight, and I felt that interior agreement with its grace, that delighted participation in its experience which is only possible when one is in a state of pleasure. I was pleased by a poem that I had just read. (13)

Far from asserting the separation between consumption and culture found in many guidebooks, West approaches the poem through the commercial act: the volume—James Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach (1927)—is sold to West like a souvenir at a cultural site, or “as they sell whatnots in a cathedral porch.” Here, the “state of pleasure” created by the poems she buys in Paris are key—like her stays on the Riviera—in opening her up to the “business of experience” of the everyday (13). Whereas the Côte d'Azur enables West “to be blank to everything but apprehension of [the water’s] qualities” (187), her purchase of the poems facilitates an “interior agreement” and “delighted participation” in the experience of the flying dove (13). Furthermore, West suggests that the pleasures of cultural and recreational experiences are just as symbiotic. Whereas Huxley observed that confrontations with culture—high or low—in France caused nothing but “lassitude” and an “utter weariness of spirit” (Along 8), the “delighted participation” triggered by West’s “commercial” acquisition of Joyce’s poems in “The Strange Necessity” portrays an environment in which cultural pleasures are closely connected with those of the recreational variety (13).

On several occasions throughout “The Strange Necessity,” West foregrounds the ways in which her personal participation in recreational pleasures shapes the critical language of her aesthetic judgments. According to Huxley, Riviera tourists spent their time “looking at half or wholly naked ballerinas and acrobats in the hope of stimulating a jaded sexual appetite” (“Wanted” 224). For West, however, the pleasures of watching acrobatic performers reflect a more fundamental human need to view the world as a meaningful composition. “The thrills offered by the acrobat,” she explains, offer a real-world example of the pleasure that people feel “when they see in one and the same composition (whether an artistic composition or merely a section of the real world which the senses can take in comfortably at one time) . . . two or more objects using the same method to overcome some difficulty offered by the nature of the universe” (123). When it comes to Parisian shopping, meanwhile, West strongly implies that her awareness of the distinctions between French wines flavor her assessments of literary quality. She criticizes Arnold Bennett for assuming himself ranked “for ever as a dry wine by what he mixed with himself of Maupassant,” chiding him as a housekeeper might for publishing “some grocer’s Sauterne in the form of several novels that are highly sentimental” (18). Here, West’s reference to Sauterne—a French sweet wine—evokes both the saccharine qualities often associated with sentimentality and the grossness of palate that enjoys “grocer’s Sauterne.”

West’s suggestion that recreational pleasures better prepare the pleasure-seeker to appreciate art reflects her belief that commodity culture (especially for women) imbues its participants with scales of value which enable them to judge the actual worth of—and the theories that inform—commodities and services. In “The Days of Long Hair and Fine Horses” (1929), she recounts a day spent shopping on the Riviera: “all one’s purchases give one the liveliest satisfaction since at the end of every street the Mediterranean sways and rocks in a motherly manner, as if to say ‘Yes, you are tired, it will do you good to take pleasure in little things’” (904). This pleasure, West is careful to stress, is accompanied by the healthy skepticism of an astute consumer: “one buys a face cream that promises on its label to ‘fixe la jeunesse’ and one pretends to oneself for a minute that one believes it” (904). This cynical indulgence is possible, she claims, because

women represent the consumer’s point of view. Men, engaged in the productive side of industry, become involved in economic theories determined by their . . . intellectual predictions as to how it is best to make and sell goods . . . women, free from those interests, are able to say how these work out. (907)

By suggesting that “women represent the consumer’s point of view,” West implies that shopping trains women to make active judgments about the quality of products. Contrary to the claim that unsupervised women will consume indiscriminately, like the “poor fool” described by George and Pearl Adam (185), she endows women consumers with a savvy that better equips her to critique art. In “The Strange Necessity,” West identifies art as another type of commodity, albeit one that is harder to classify than everyday products like meat. Nevertheless, she makes it clear that it is her consumer point of view—regarding the quality of French wines—that helps her to compute and articulate the aesthetic value of Bennett’s novels.

West’s portrayals of aesthetic pleasure recast contemporary depictions of the experiential stimulations, satisfactions, and pitfalls associated with recreational pleasure activities. An October 1922 BMJ article on “Wintering Abroad” observes that “the climate of the Riviera is to be regarded as stimulative rather than sedative” (815-16). Whilst medical writers hailed the French climate’s energizing qualities, travel writers attributed them to the capital’s most characteristic leisure activity. According to Helen Josephy and Mary Margaret McBride, the authors of Paris is a Woman’s Town (1929), many women extended their shopping trips “to prolong the exquisite agony” (26). In “The Strange Necessity,” West claims that, during her own shopping trip, the contemplation of art can provide an equally intense form of cosmic ecstasy. She writes that “Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus and Marion Bloom make beauty . . . of the sort whose recognition is an experience as real as the most intense personal experiences we have, which gives a sense of reassurance, of exultant confidence in the universe, which no personal experience can give” (50). So much for the pornographic “intolerable little lusts” (Arlen 66) West criticizes in Ulysses elsewhere in the essay; here, sexual pleasure is evidence of Joyce’s genius.

West’s emphasis on the personal and experiential nature of the aesthetic partly panders to modern travelers’ desire for intense experiences; she points out that she “felt it there, on the Rue di Rivoli, down which I was walking when I arrived at this point in my consideration of Ulysses” (“Strange” 50). The “it” West feels here is aesthetic beauty “of the sort whose recognition is an experience as real as the most intense personal experiences we can have” (50). In their guidebook to Paris, George and Pearl Adam pinpoint the Rue di Rivoli as the site where the observer could best observe credulous women snared in the nets of consumer culture. West compares the necessity of art to the physical pleasure in consumption; in fact, one appetite for intensity inspires the other. She recalls the pleasure of eating “preserved strawberr[ies] dredged in sugar . . . like holding the best days of summer in one’s mouth” in a restaurant on the Île St. Louis and “greedily” promising herself “another deep draught” of the artist Ingres’s paintings at the Louvre (“Strange” 51, 56). By drawing upon her gastronomic delights to describe the appreciation of art, West can suggest in experiential terms that art offers an even greater form of satisfaction. Here, West also draws upon the pitfalls associated with recreational pleasure to further emphasize art’s necessity. In one account, a correspondent for Harper’s Bazaar in 1924 recalls that only after arriving in Paris could he properly reflect on his experiences at the Riviera: “with closed eyes I mentally digested the continuous nightmare of pleasure through which I had lived during the Carnival on the Côte d'Azur” (“All the World Returns to Paris” 79). West likewise argues that this commercial landscape generates a need for the cosmic satisfaction offered by art: “I was under a compulsion to turn my back utterly on all direct experience and to immerse myself . . . in art, for the reason that at that particular moment I was glutted with direct experience that had not been digested and was stored away in my mind in a crude state” (“Strange” 186). Her claim that she was “glutted with direct experience” echoes gastric language and she positions art as the thing to facilitate mental digestion (186). Whereas Huxley argues that “modern pleasures are wholly secular and without the smallest cosmic significance” (“Wanted” 226), West argues that they generate her need for the cosmic significance that art offers. For her, all roads lead to Rome: intense direct experience associated with recreational pleasures leaves people with the agency to seek out art that will help them process meaning.

In addition to grounding the appeal of art in the satisfactions and pitfalls of France’s recreational pleasures, West also suggests that engagements with art could offer pleasure-seekers the transformative personal experiences they hoped to find on their holidays. In another reference to her time spent on the Riviera, West makes clear “it is no use pretending that the emotion one gets from reading a beautiful poem or looking at a beautiful picture . . . is the same that one gets from enjoying contact with a beautiful character or admiring a beautiful breaking wave” (“Strange” 67). “The pleasure derived from art,” she argues, “is calmer and more profound, less actual but more permanent.” Nevertheless, West does seek at several points throughout “The Strange Necessity” to align aesthetic pleasure with the benefits attributed to the recreational pleasures on the Riviera. In the Twenties, as Rosemary Lancaster notes, it was a common assumption that the Riviera “distanced patients from sources of anxiety; blue skies, it was believed, could engender feelings of wellbeing” (57). To this end, one 1927 article claimed that “the sun stimulates the brain and the hot sand soothes the nerves” (Juta 302), while the BMJ argued that “the climate of the Riviera acts by heliotherapy, aerotherapy, psychotherapy, myotherapy, thalassotherapy, physiotherapy, and barometric pressure” (“French” 1124). In “The Strange Necessity,” West cites several corresponding feelings of mental wellbeing found in art: “the perfect equilibrium” found “in La Princess de Clèves, in Adolphe, in the pages of Stendhal”; the “sense of peace and satisfaction and reassurance, which rested on me like a pencil of brightness, proceeding from the rhapsodic figure of Marion [Bloom]”; and the “deep and serene and intense emotion that I feel before the greatest works of art” (17, 55, 195). West’s phrase “pencil of brightness” may have reminded contemporaries of the supposed physical benefits of the sun-cure. The physician Auguste Rollier’s book Heliotherapy (1923) promoted the sun-cure as practiced in the Swiss Alps, and Dr. C. W. Saleeby similarly testified in his Sunlight and Health (1923) that “the sun-cure [is] gloriously successful on the French and Italian Riviera” (16).

In addition to giving a similar, if not greater, physical sense of wellbeing, West suggests that aesthetic appreciation offers the pleasure seeker the kind of psychologically transformative experience promised by guidebooks. Whereas Laughlin speaks of “that new point of view on life which Paris gives us—if we let it” (qtd. in Levenstein 255), Douglas Goldring claims that the Riviera climate, “treacherous as it is, does seem to disinfect the moral atmosphere and to make the human race more inclined to be amused at its own failings than critical of them” (8). In a nod to these claims, the portrayal of Marion Bloom gives West an “exultant confidence in the universe” because “the greatest works of art . . . create a proportionately powerful excitatory complex, which . . . halts in front of some experience . . . and transform[s] it into something that helps one to go on living” (196-97). Read alongside contemporary medical literature and tourist guidebooks, her claim that great art creates an “excitatory complex” that “helps one to go on living” strategically draws upon the physically and mentally stimulating experiences that were associated with the Riviera’s climate and visits to Paris.

West’s need to demonstrate the physiological benefits of art explains why her theory of aesthetic value diverges from that of more distinguished contemporary art critics. In “The Strange Necessity,” West briefly engages with both Clive Bell’s Art (1914) and Roger Fry’s essay “The Artist and Psychoanalysis” (1924). Like West, Bell and Fry highlight the higher form of pleasure that can be had in appreciating the greatest works of art. “A good work of art,” claims Bell, “carries a person who is capable of appreciating it out of life into ecstasy” (53). Fry, meanwhile, shares West’s belief in the reassuring power of art in his description of “the pleasure which consists in the recognition of inevitable sequences” found in the “first-rate novel” (359). Despite the correspondence, West’s conception of aesthetic pleasure differs from Bell’s and Fry’s in her insistence that art never takes anyone out of life. Bell, for example, argues that “to appreciate a work of art we must bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs” (48). Fry posits that “the form of a work of art has a meaning of its own . . . [which] give[s] rise in some people to a special emotion which does not depend upon the association of the form with anything else whatever” (355). By contrast, West repeatedly claims that art provides “some assurance regarding the value of life” and, in doing so, places art on a similar plane to “that new point of view on life which Paris gives us” (Laughlin qtd. in Levenstein 255).

To reinforce their view that the appreciation of art has nothing to do with our everyday worldly concerns, Bell and Fry emphasize the disembodied nature of aesthetic pleasure. For Bell, “the pure mathematician rapt in his studies knows a state of mind which I take to be similar” to an engagement with art (48). Fry, more explicitly, promotes art “which is pre-eminently objective and disinterested” (355). In “The Strange Necessity,” however, West insists that the pleasure she gets from the greatest works of art “overflows the confines of the mind and becomes an important physical event” (195). At the heart of both Bell and Fry’s emphasis on the disembodied and detached character of aesthetic pleasure is their famous idea that the value of art rests solely within the “significant form” of the artwork itself. By contrast, West’s emphasis on the personal and bodily nature of aesthetic pleasure demonstrates her awareness of the contemporary appetite for direct and intense personal experiences.

As West was keen to point out in an “Explanatory Note” included in the U.S. edition of The Strange Necessity published by Doubleday, the intellectual basis for this understanding of aesthetic pleasure could be found in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century theorists of empathy. She writes that

certain persons concerned with the preparation of my manuscript have accused me of using in ‘empathy’ a word that is absent from most dictionaries. I imagine, however, that it is familiar to most people, as a term to express our power of entering into the experience of objects outside ourselves, through its presence in the pages of [Theodor] Lipps (as Einfühlung) and Vernon Lee. 

Lipps’s concept of Einfühlung, as discussed in Raumästhetik (Spatial Aesthetics) (1897), refers to the ability to enter into the experience of aesthetic objects in ways that assure our place in the world: “the powerful contraction and self-raising of the Doric column that I perceive gives me pleasure, just as the powerful contraction and self-raising of my own body that I remember, or as the powerful contraction and self-raising of someone else that I perceive, give me pleasure” (qtd. in Schützeichel 298). For West, Lipps’s emphasis on Einfühlung as a form of pleasure resulting from a physically and mentally reassuring impact of the aesthetic object provides her with the concept she required to emphasize art’s place in the lives of tourists. In this context, Lee’s work on empathy—heavily influenced by Lipps—gave her ready examples of this form of aesthetic pleasure in France. West’s own emphasis on the excitatory complex created by great art can be traced back to Lee’s earlier recollections of the “special feeling of excited lucidity due to very good French Gothic interiors” (Lee and Anstruther-Thomson 191). West, like her contemporaries among women writers, valorizes relationality and embodiment typically associated with femininity.

The Gender Politics of Pleasure

West’s willingness to frame her engagements with art in terms that appealed to the desires and concerns of pleasure-seekers in France distinguish her approach to recreational pleasure from that of Huxley and the writers of tourist guidebooks. Yet her determination to value recreational pleasures in her critical appreciations of art needs to be understood not just as part of the contemporary debate surrounding pleasure-seeking in France, but also as part of her broader concerns about the value that was attributed to women’s experiences. In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf outlines in general terms how attitudes concerning certain gendered activities illustrate the inferior value that is often attributed to women’s interests. “Speaking crudely,” writes Woolf, “football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’” (74). Though West can’t have been unaware of such attitudes, what particularly annoyed her was the perception that women’s activities were less valuable than those of men because they somehow precluded their interest in other fields. In an early article commenting on the “surplus energy” of women expected to adhere to household activities, she argues that “there is no doubt whatever that the long-continued endeavour that is characteristic of women’s work would be valuable in matters of Government” (“Cause” 379-80). In “On a Form of Nagging” (1924), she notes that just “because Home Twitters talks of nothing but recipes and babies, we are not to think that it supports an ideal in which women would concern themselves with recipes and babies” (59). Viewed in this context, the growing tendency of Twenties guidebooks to suggest that the activities of women pleasure-seekers involved the exclusion of appreciating art expresses commonly held attitudes. Indeed, West’s attempt to combine an account of clothes purchases in “The Strange Necessity” with an appraisal of Ulysses provoked Samuel Beckett to misogyny and infantilization: “When Miss Rebecca West clears her decks for a sorrowful deprecation of the Narcissistic element in Mr. Joyce by the purchase of 3 hats, one feels that she might very well wear her bib at all her intellectual banquets, or alternatively, assert a more noteworthy control over her salivary glands” (13). Here, we find a near real-life equivalent of the scene in Loos’s novel, with Beckett casting West in the role of Lorelei, too absorbed in the consumer landscape of Paris to “properly” attend to the cultural landmark of Ulysses.

Despite Beckett’s criticism, West’s own experiences of—and writing about—women’s recreational activities in France emphasized the importance of experiences of pleasure to the production and reception of art. She attributed the popular success of The Green Hat to the contemporary fascination with the recreational activities of socialite women. In a March 1929 “Commentary” on the death of one such socialite, Mona Tattersall, West noted that “it was largely the life she and her friends had led at the Embassy Club in London, at the Potiniere in Deauville, and the Sporting Club at Monte Carlo, which was responsible for the state of mind which led Michael Arlen to write The Green Hat and other people to read it” (54). Furthermore, West’s own participation in recreational activities on the Riviera gave her the opportunity to host—and be hosted by—other artists. Figure 1 shows West sunbathing on the Riviera with the painter Edward Wadsworth and the actor Graham Browne, whilst the writer G. B. Stern described her stays with Pamela Frankau and West at the Villa Mysto as a paradisaical women writers’ retreat: “Our days were spent bathing in the Mediterranean, and then lying in the sun or shade according to physical preference; reluctantly going apart to write—(four out of five of us wrote for a living)” (122). As well as helping West network with other artists, these pleasures encouraged her to take seriously their importance for the appreciation of art itself. In “A Letter from Abroad” in The Bookman of October 1929, for example, she draws upon her experiences bathing at the Villa Mysto to convey her response to the church at Tournus: “as I went into the church I felt much as I do when I walk over the red dust of my garden under the brassy sky and slip off the rocks into the green Mediterranean” (194).

That West’s approach to pleasure in “The Strange Necessity” asserts the cultural value of women’s pleasure is evidenced by the ways in which her aesthetic engagements explicitly cite historical examples. She turns to older religious accounts of ecstasy to stress the value that even taboo forms of women’s experience have in the realm of aesthetic appreciation. In the concluding pages of her essay, West describes the “intense exaltation which comes to our knowledge of the greatest works of art” as “the orgasm . . . of the aesthetic instinct” (196). Though this description must have raised eyebrows, it reflects the extent to which France was seen as an environment that permitted the pursuit of women’s desire and gratification. That this was perceived to be sexual in nature is evident in Hilary’s concerns about women who go to Paris to pursue their “intolerable little lusts” and there was plenty of contemporary concern about handsome “gigolos” taking advantage of gullible women at dance-halls (Arlen 66).4 Moreover, depictions of France as the ultimate destination for women’s consumer desire and gratification were sometimes expressed through (albeit half-serious) sexualized descriptions of women shoppers. Whereas Josephy and McBride describe women shoppers determined to “prolong the exquisite agony” (26), West playfully compares her shopping trips to “innocent orgies” (“Days” 906). In “The Strange Necessity,” her comparison of aesthetic ecstasy to an orgasm capitalizes on the currency and visibility that women’s sexuality was gaining in public discourse about tourists in France. As West continues along the Rue de Rivoli, she moves beyond the realm of shopping to suggest that accounts of women’s sexual experience are relevant to understanding the necessity of art itself. The “sense of peace and satisfaction and reassurance which rested on [her] like a pencil of brightness, proceeding from the rhapsodic figure of Marion,” partly refers to “the mystical writings of St. Teresa of Avila” (55, 54). West has in mind St. Teresa’s account of her encounter with an angel, noted for the way in which the language of sexual ecstasy is used to express the experience of God:

In his hands I saw a golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out . . . he left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. (Teresa of Avila 210)

As West interprets it, Teresa’s ecstasy shows that “the part of the individual which partakes of continuity with the rest of the universe rejoices in the salvation of its substance,” and she argues that a similar rule applies in the aesthetic realm of art: “for just this same purpose of obtaining confirmation of my personal experience I cross this bridge in my mind between the things that are factually related to me and the things that are factually unrelated to me” (“Strange” 55). To illustrate this correspondence in “The Strange Necessity,” St. Teresa’s encounter with the “point of fire” (210) becomes the “pencil of brightness” which projects onto West from Marion Bloom (55). Beyond the aesthetic theorizing, West’s point is that if women’s sexual pleasure can be a legitimate means through which to describe shoppers and even “the great love of God” (210), then it can also be relevant to appreciations of art.

Whereas West uses the ecstasy of St. Teresa to stress the legitimacy of women’s pleasure in the realm of aesthetic appreciation, her engagement with the writings of Lee and Anstruther-Thomson highlights her anxiety to emphasize women’s openness to art. In writings about the French pleasure industry, the perceived alienation of pleasure-seekers from art relies on the assumption that an over-indulgence in recreational pleasures left women tourists too exhausted to properly engage with art. Huxley’s recollection of the three young American women lingering in a Paris bar “in spite of their fatigue” (Along 3) and the comparison of shopping trips to expeditions are linked to the “lassitude” and “weariness of spirit” that greeted cultural sites (8). In “The Strange Necessity,” West challenges this narrative by re-writing the Parisian landscape of pleasure as a catalyst to art appreciation:

As I continued on my way along the Rue di Rivoli, still full of that sense of peace and satisfaction and reassurance . . . I was conscious of another pencil of brightness searching for my breast, whose beneficence also I could receive if I would but stand in the way of it. It proceeded almost visibly from certain grey walls . . . from the Museum of the Louvre. (55-56)

Instead of “lassitude,” West feels satisfied and more open to cultural experience. Her portrayal of artworks “searching for [her] breast” (56) as she approaches the Louvre recalls what Vernon Lee in her Gallery Diaries reported a woman student experienced: “the rhythmic obsession due to my walking would diminish, disappear, or be replaced by a different one as soon as I had entered into contemplation of a work of art” (Lee and Anstruther-Thomson 246). In addition to offering examples of women’s openness and sensitivity to cultural objects, Lee and Anstruther-Thomson’s book also helps West to recast the experience itself. The “sense of leisure, of order and of serenity” that Lee and Anstruther-Thomson feel when looking at a great painting “is what all good art gives us, and what we obtain only accidentally and intermittently in ordinary life” (230). As discussed above, West’s emphasis on a physically affecting form of analyzing cultural forms provides her with an experiential model of aesthetic pleasure that could appeal to contemporary pleasure-seekers. That these depictions borrow from a fund of historical women’s accounts of pleasure which highlight sensitivity to art reflects her concern to demonstrate the cultural openness of women. By echoing the terminology of Lee and Anstruther’s emphasis on leisure, order and serenity in her descriptions of the “peace and satisfaction and reassurance” that comes from art, West recasts women’s experience as critical rather than sentimental (55).

West’s belief that the necessity of art could be illuminated—rather than inhibited—by a range of recreational pleasures reflects a growing confidence among women in the cultural relevance of their personal experiences and responses. In her history of the feminist journal Time and Tide (which included West among its directors), Catherine Clay has observed how, during the Twenties, the publication’s book reviewer Sylvia Lynd “consistently favours novels which offer traditional reading pleasures” that foster an intimate identification between characters and readers “over texts which demand serious work or effort” (Time 95). Engaging with Frost’s thesis that modernism redefines pleasure so that “[d]ifficulty becomes an inherent value” (Frost 20), Clay notes that “Lynd resists this orthodoxy and in her review of [Gertrude] Stein’s novel [The Making of Americans (1925)] the difficulties of the text become sources of humour and critique” (Time 96). West, like Lynd, regularly finds humor in the even more infamous difficulties of Ulysses. Lynd’s resistance to “prestige values” in books and her preference for the “assertion of . . . personal tastes” when reading outlines an individualistic approach to cultural forms which was made possible by the forum that Time and Tide provided for women’s points of view (Clay, Time 96). Clay notes that, for the editorial board of Time and Tide, Agay was a place where “desires prohibited at home could be flirted with, staged and advanced, producing a range of pleasures potentially destabilizing in their effects” (British Women Writers 31). In “The Strange Necessity,” West suggests that the activities on offer to her on the Riviera and in Paris fostered tastes that were more important to an appreciation of art’s necessity than a lockstep respect for the prestige values in Ulysses.

An understanding of the French context of “The Strange Necessity” helps to explain why West’s personal approach to art remains open to aesthetic engagement based on “easily achieved and primarily somatic pleasures” rather than just “those that require[d] more ambitious analytical work” (Frost 3). As we have seen, Huxley lamented that the Riviera’s somatic pleasures “which demand from pleasure seekers no personal participation and no intellectual effort of any sort” are favored over the complex meanings of art (“Pleasures” 48). In “The Strange Necessity,” West instead suggests that somatic pleasures revealed an appetite for personally transformative—rather than strictly “intellectual”—lived experiences which necessitated an equally embodied and individual approach to aesthetic form.5 In addition to helping tailor her argument for art’s importance to the demands of modern travelers, easily achieved and embodied pleasures are key to her emphasis on the relevance of women pleasure-seekers’ personal bodily experiences to art. Though West “decouples the ‘personal’ from” its exclusive associations with “femininity and subjectivity” in her 1958 letter to Ellman (Heffernan 310), “The Strange Necessity” sets women’s pleasure as the basis of intelligent response in the cultural field. The “personal and almost fictional framework” that West adopts in “The Strange Necessity” can be read as a rejoinder to the “objective” and disinterested approach to art promoted by male theorists like Bell, Fry, and Eliot (Scott 327), yet the essay’s portrayal of pleasure shows that West’s rhetoric was driven by an emerging self-assurance about the value of approaching art through women’s interests.

The depiction of pleasure in “The Strange Necessity” demonstrates an awareness of the ways in which debates around French pleasure-seekers informed ideas about the status of art and the nature of aesthetic value during the Twenties. West’s considerations of art draw upon the demands, activities, and imagery associated with recreational pleasures to explore how they might enhance rather than inhibit aesthetic engagement. Her portrayal of aesthetic pleasure as an experience which shares many of the experiences sought by contemporary tourists legitimizes West’s framing of art’s necessity in somatic and subjective—rather than disinterested and objective—terms. The connections that she establishes between her experience of aesthetic, consumer, and religious pleasure reflect her longstanding resistance to the assumption that women’s personal experiences had little relevance to other fields of inquiry.


1. For more on West’s attitude toward Ulysses, see Scott, Briggs, and Frigerio.

2. One Riviera pleasure that West did warn against was drug use. In “Pages from a Riviera Diary” (1926), she writes that “the Riviera is thickly sown with drug-addicts, for the drugs are brought into Marseilles and easily distributed along the coast. The sight of their dreariness ought to teach a lesson to those who pretend to believe that there is no more reason to prohibit drugs than to prohibit alcohol” (551). Huxley would go on to experiment with drugs in later years, though his widow maintained that he disliked casual use.

3. For more on the relationship between women and consumerism in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, see Huyssen and Felski.

4. For evidence of this concern, see “Paris Says the ‘Gay’ Gigolos Must Go” from The Washington Post of 18 Mar. 1928.

5. It was not until her review of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) that West began to take seriously the downsides of pleasure. In her review for The Daily Telegraph, she saw the novel’s portrayal of pleasure as part of “the new spirit . . . which tries to induce man to divert in continual insignificant movements relating to the material framework of his life all his force, and to abandon the practice of speculating about his existence and his destiny” (7). In The Thinking Reed (1936), West portrays pleasure-seekers in 1928 Le Touquet as “pledged to break down life to nothingness” (285).

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