Cultural References in ‘The Strange Necessity’

By Daniel Kielty

‘The Strange Necessity’ (1928) is a peculiar work. In it, West attempts to account and argue for the necessity of art. She does so by interweaving recollections of holidays spent shopping in Paris and relaxing on the French Riviera with discussions of major writers, painters, musicians, celebrities, philosophers, scientists, athletes, comedians and historical figures past and present. Though West unsurprisingly spends much of her time discussing Anglophone cultural figures, she also draws upon those from continental Europe and further afield in order to make her argument. The impressive range of cultural references (to both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture) that West makes in this work must have partly been encouraged by her reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), the heavily allusive work that provided the impetus for the essay in the first place. In its combination of highly personal travel recollections and interweaving cultural, historical, religious, political and philosophical concerns, ‘The Strange Necessity’ can be seen as the predecessor to West’s magnum opus, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Yet whilst the latter (and considerably lengthier) work continues to attract admiring readers, the former rarely features on the reading lists of West fans.

It is true that ‘The Strange Necessity’ is a difficult work to follow. Whereas in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the detail that West is able to go into minimises the risk of losing modern day readers willing to stay the course, the comparative brevity of ‘The Strange Necessity’ left me initially scrabbling to keep a hold of her narrative as she flits from Joyce, French architecture, Parisian shops, 1920s literature, a Spanish saint and back to Joyce. This difficulty isn’t helped by the fact that many of West’s references to old novels, paintings and then-contemporary tennis players, scientists and celebrities can often be lost on modern readers. No critical edition of ‘The Strange Necessity’ has ever been published, meaning that there is a desperate need for a guide to the many obscure (and misleadingly familiar) references that West makes in her essay. In the pages that follow, you will find a comprehensive list of every significant cultural reference made in the book followed by some contextual information to assist the reader. Where possible (particularly where visual art or obscure figures are referenced), I have tried to provide relevant images to further illustrate. The page numbers given refer to the Virago Press edition of the book that was published in 1987, though they have not tended to vary much in all of the extant editions [1].

Why bother providing an exhaustive list of contextualised cultural references made in a now largely forgotten aesthetic treatise? For the scholar or student required to read the book, it is hoped that this guide will act as an initial starting point for further research into an essay which reveals much about literary culture in the 1920s. By sifting through the references that West makes below, for example, we can learn much about just how personal her argument about art is. West was a literary critic and Francophile, so we should not be surprised to find that her argument frequently depends on a discussion of examples taken from literature and French art. Also evident is the extent to which her argument leans on contemporary psychological research, psychoanalytical approaches to art and also older artworks notable for their focus on the interior life. By giving some context to West’s many cultural references in her essay, this resource aims to provide one starting point for new approaches to ‘The Strange Necessity.’

For the general reader, I hope that the contextual information will encourage you to keep reading what I have always felt is a disarmingly personal, lyrical and thought-provoking argument for the importance of art. To take one example, consider West’s remark that the French Jean-August-Dominique Ingres could not be said to have painted but ‘committed allegorical pictures of nude ladies being rescued from dragons’ (56). The modern gallery-goer who looks upon such paintings (see below) would likely pass them with bored indifference. Yet, with the humour and downright rudeness with which West approaches such artworks, we are emboldened to look upon them with a critical eye. As she would later write, ‘any authentic work of art must start and argument between the artist and his audience’ [2]. In this essay, West’s personal, combative, expert, generous, amateurish, insightful and often tenuous approach to artworks encourages us to engage in that argument.

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