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H.D.’s Interfaces

Kunstformen der Natur by Ernst Haeckel.
Kunstformen der Natur by Ernst Haeckel. Wf1/1811 plate 15 Bibliographisches Inst., 1914 Wien. Copyright The British Library Board. 

[T]he interface brings with it strong messages.

—Lev Manovich[1]

During the early period of her work, from her Imagist poetry until around 1927, H.D. experimented with an array of real and imagined techniques for seeing into, casting light onto, and gaining access to otherwise obstructed areas of knowledge and history. Through the artistic affordances of what she variously called the “over-mind” consciousness, “a special layer or stratum of thought,” “a state containing past and future,” and “an intermediate place or plane,” sH.D.veloped a radically new way to organize and retrieve information: one which, in addition to facilitating wider access to neglected materials, also provided her with the freedom to manipulate and reassemble fragments from literature and history.[2] I propose that we call this method an “interface.” The concept of the “interface”—a collection of media effects that we today associate mainly with digital technology—best captures the many different functions that H.D. developed to gain access to a buried women’s tradition. H.D.’s interfaces are, simultaneously, an expression of her creativity on multiple media platforms and of her feminist critique of women’s secondary status in the literary and historical tradition.

H.D. joined Ezra Pound and James Joyce by focusing on the Greek portions of the Western tradition. In Homer and Modernism, Leah Culligan Flack argues that H.D., Pound, and Joyce shared the impulse to turn back to Homer, and ancient Greece as a whole, to search for alternative, more positive futures for modern culture: “Engaging the Homeric tradition helped these writers to reject the Futurist agenda to discard the past and to articulate a productive model of historical thinking that opened new channels of connection between the present and the past.”[3]

Establishing these connections was a shared concern for these authors, but the formal and conceptual techniques that H.D. employed differed from Pound’s and Joyce’s in important—and as yet understudied—ways. The differences illustrate how access to women’s literature and history was an inherently fraught subject for female writers in a way that it simply was not for male writers like Pound and Joyce. Both male authors could enter any library or archive with the expectation of finding a full range of texts by and about men from every period of history at their fingertips. Female authors like H.D. were forced to fight for the place of female authors and perspectives within these male-dominated spaces. Flack, responding to Susan Stanford Friedman’s question, “Who Buried H.D.?,” argues that H.D. “consciously participated in a counter-tradition that derived its force precisely from being attacked, repressed, and buried” (Modernism and Homer, 163). Eileen Gregory outlines the systemic nature of the exclusion of women writers: “Classical transmission operates within a seminal (patrilineal/fraternal) order. There are only a few extant women writers from antiquity, and a smaller few who have participated as scholars and commentators—as transcribers, translators, transmitters—within the classical line.”[4] From Gregory’s perspective, the male domination of textual transmission is built into the very selection, preservation, and organization practices of the archive itself. Thus, H.D.’s confrontation with such inequities required not only a feminist perspective on traditionally patriarchal narratives, but a transformation of the transmission system.

H.D. developed techniques to establish connections between ancient and contemporary texts by female authors that were otherwise closed off by archival practices favoring male authors, subjects, and gazes. Entire veins of women’s literature and history are likely lost to memory through biases (explicit and implicit) in methods of selection and preservation. The works by women that did survive—Sappho's fragments for instance—remained precious to H.D., so much so that Diana Collecott argues “[H.D.’s] entire oeuvre can be read as a creative dialog with Sappho.”[5] Texts like these testify to the precarity of women writers’ posterity within the male-dominated tradition. For every Sappho whose work, literally pulverized into fragments, survives a hostile transmission system, one can posit any number of other women writers whose work has been forever lost to Western letters through active exclusion or passive neglect.

Because of these conditions, in each of the media, genres, and forms in which she worked, H.D. developed material and conceptual strategies that allow her to engage with the marginalized tradition of women writers and subjects. She was participating in the recovery of mythic texts alongside Pound and Joyce, but using her interface techniques to imagine alternatives to the sexist and heteronormative patrilineal transmission system. While later in her career, she would shift her attention to mystical, occult, and visionary practices (which were also shaped by a gendered tradition of “seeing” into alternative realms, extending from the Oracle at Delphi to Georgie Hyde-Lees), before 1927 H.D. experimented with an array of real and imagined techniques for gaining access to otherwise obstructed areas of knowledge and history—techniques we might sum up through the concept of the interface.

Despite most commonly being invoked to describe the functions of digital technology, the term interface offers a helpful description of H.D.’s work because her experiments with media—print, cinema, and other imaginary apparatuses—exhibit capabilities that had not yet been developed when sH.D.scribed them. Only from our digital age can we recognize H.D.’s artistic techniques as precursors to the types of access to and control over information that digital interfaces provide. More than neutral technologies, concepts, or approaches to texts, for H.D., these interfaces represent at once a means of access to obstructed materials and a seizure of control over how they are collected, arranged, and presented. The examples I examine in this article—Notes on Thought and Vision (1919), the “Writing on the Wall” experience from 1920 that she recounts in Tribute to Freud (1945), and her work with film culture (1927)—represent partial examples of what she sought to achieve through the interface. She most fully realizes these ambitions in Palimpsest, her 1926 prose work that presents three separate but interconnected narratives through a single print interface. By invoking the palimpsest form in the work’s title, H.D. capitalizes on print media affordances to figuratively “layer” multiple narratives through associational links that transect the separate stories and the sequential pages of the book. As they operate in Palimpsest, the connections between the three narratives serve as a model for how H.D. visualized the interrelation of textual and visual fragments from throughout history. In Palimpsest, H.D. achieves this alternative archival model, an interface that provides access to the “special layer or stratum” in which elements from throughout time can be accessed, arranged, and dynamically configured.

The Interface

Despite its association with twenty-first century digital technology, “interface” is a mid-nineteenth-century concept developed in fluid dynamics. James Thomson, brother of the more famous Lord Kelvin, coined the term “interface” in 1869 to describe the site where two fluids of different viscosities, densities, or turbulences meet. Thus, the interface was not originally so much a thing as a condition of interaction, betweenness, and liminality.[6] These connotations carry over into digital technology: a digital interface is more than a surface on which text, images, or video appear. It also includes the mouse, keyboard, stylus, headsets, or touchscreens through which users interact with technology. In other words, the interface is as much an event in which one entity, a user, interacts with another—say, a computer—as it is a thing like a computer or phone screen. Scholars in architecture, media, and bibliographic studies continue to take great pains to define this diffuse network of conditions, activities, and apparatuses.[7] Yet among studies of the interface, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, appearing nearly twenty years ago in 2001, remains among the most relevant to discussions of modernism. Manovich establishes a periodicity for the interface that begins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the creation of cinema and extends into our current digital age.

Despite taking issue with some of his specific claims, Jessica Pressman, in her influential 2014 book Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media, agrees with Manovich that there are commonalities between the modernist period and tH.D.gital age. Pressman traces characteristics of modernist art into electronic literature, arguing that the two periods are linked by the electrification of media technology: “Whatever ambiguous qualifications are used to define ‘modernism,’ the late decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century is certainly the classical period of our contemporary technological age. Our modern mediatized consciousness emerged during this first electric age.”[8] H.D.’s interfaces are familiar to us (looking backwards from the twenty-first century) because they represent an early version of the interactions with information that now require an interface; her work provides a particularly rich field for a media studies approach because she worked in such a broad array of genres, forms, and media. And her work with cinema provides a particularly clear link between her vision of interfaces and Manovich’s.

As Manovich conceives of it, the prevalence of cinema shaped how the media forms that followed were conceptualized, developed, and then understood by the public that received them. The cinematic screen supplies a grammar and vocabulary for the perceptual, temporal, and aesthetic expectations that users have for digital media:

Cinema, the major cultural form of the twentieth century, has found new life as the toolbox of the computer user. Cinematic means of perception, of connecting space and time, of representing human memory, thinking, and emotion have become a way of work and a way of life for millions in the computer age. Cinema’s aesthetic strategies have become basic organizational principles of computer software. The window into a fictional world of cinematic narrative has become a window into a datascape. In short, what was cinema is now the human-computer interface. (Manovich, Language, 85)

According to Manovich, cinematic effects surface in the computer interface in a number of ways: through spatial and temporal sensibilities, perception of memory and the past, and the “aesthetic strategies” through which cultural materials are presented on cinema and computer screens. Similarly, H.D.’s work with cinema, which I will examine in more detail below, was a creative investment in the medium itself, but also part of a comparative experiment in how different media inform one another.

Both H.D. and Manovich view the interface as an opportunity for expanding the affordances of existing art, design, and information manipulation capabilities. In his discussion of how digital culture changed our interactions with media, Manovich describes features of interfaces that are familiar to anyone who has used computers, pointing out that many of these were developed in previous media. One of the primary functions of the interface, as he theorizes it, is to provide the user/artist with access to virtual spaces where cultural materials can be accessed:

The visual culture of the modern period, from painting to cinema, is characterized by an intriguing phenomenon—the existence of another virtual space, another three-dimensional world enclosed by a frame and situated inside our normal space. The frame separates two absolutely different spaces that somehow coexist. This phenomenon is what defines the screen in the most general sense, or, as I will call it, the “classical screen.” (95)

Manovich describes interfaces as vitally new technologies essential to the use of computers, but he also situates them on a continuum of development extending back to pre-electric media. In addition, the “classical screen” is far more powerful than a simple surface on which images and text appear.[9]

From the perspective of creative activity, this model of the interface allows the coexistence of otherwise separate spaces, and, through this access point, provides the artist with the freedom to manipulate elements appearing across tH.D.vide. Manovich argues that this power was in existence before the advent of digital technology and that these functions alter traditional notions of authorship:

Although computer software “naturalizes” the model of authorship as selection from libraries of predefined objects, we can already find this model at work in old media, such as magic lantern slides shows. . . . The magic lantern exhibitioner was, in fact, an artist who skillfully arranged a presentation of slides bought from distributors. This is a perfect example of authorship as selection: An author puts together an object from elements that she herself did not create. The creative energy of the author goes into the selection and sequencing of elements rather than into original design. (Language, 129)

Instead of “original design,” creation consists of the selection of “media elements [that] can be more easily isolated, copied, and assembled in new combinations” (129). The interfaces Manovich describes provide the user with the agency to configure, assemble, and remix the materials presented to them.

Approximately eighty years earlier, H.D. was imagining visualization methods featuring many of the characteristics of the interfaces that Manovich describes. The apparatuses she formulated establish a virtual dimension allowing her to access, assemble, and reassemble elements. In Tribute to Freud sH.D.scusses how, through a “special layer or stratum,” she could manipulate thoughts to create new, unexpected artistic objects: “Thoughts were things, to be collected, collated, analyzed, shelved, or resolved. Fragmentary ideas, apparently unrelated, were often . . . part of a special layer or stratum of thought and memory, therefore to belong together; these were sometimes skillfully pieced together like the exquisite Greek tear-jars” (H.D., Tribute, 14). As her archivally inflected language indicates, H.D.’s access to these alternative dimensions expands her freedom to control how information is selected and organized. The special layer of thought and memory is more than an artistic space; it represents a new means of knowledge storage and creation.

H.D.’s interfaces were developed in response to the forms of authority that excluded women writers from full representation or self-determination in the archive. H.D. diplomatically expresses as much in “Notes on Euripides”: “I know that we need scholars to decipher and interpret the Greek, but we also need: poets and mystics and children to re-discover this Hellenic world, to see through the words; the word being but the outline, the architectural structure of that door or window, through which we are all free, scholar and unlettered alike, to pass.”[10] H.D.’s solution to the exclusive model of scholarship is to create a passageway through which the “unlettered” can access these cultural materials.

Interface into a Buried Tradition

In 1919 and 1920, H.D. had two visionary experiences—both of which she would continue to revisit in her later writings. In these visions, she imagined an apparatus that provided her with access to alternative ways of interacting with information. She recorded her impressions from each of these experiences in texts that are difficult to classify. The first of these, Notes on Thought and Vision, recounts a visionary experience she had shortly after giving birth to her daughter Perdita in March 1919; it is part visionary philosophy, part postpartum diary, and part technical schematic. The main subject of Notes is what H.D. calls the “over-mind consciousness” through which she has access to ideas and information which pass before her through a liquid apparatus: “That over-mind seems a cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body, contained in a definite space. It is like a closed sea-plant, jelly-fish or anemone. Into that over-mind, thoughts pass and are visible like fish swimming under clear water” (H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision, 18). The over-mind is a semimystical experience accessible, though not identical, for both women and men. H.D. describes using the over-mind through a series of “feelers” or tentacles that connect her with “a super-mind”: “[T]o continue this jelly-fish metaphor . . . long feelers reach down and through the body that these stood in the same relation to the nervous system as the over-mind to the brain or intellect. There is, then, a set of super-feelings. . . . The super-feelers are part of the super-mind, as the jelly-fish feelers are the jelly-fish itself, elongated in fine threads” (19).

For all the over-mind’s bio-mystical weirdness, H.D. grounds its operation in familiar visualization tools: “The over-mind is like a lens of an opera-glass. When we are able to use this over-mind lens, the whole world of vision is open to us.”[11] The apparatus facilitates access to information, according to H.D., by connecting the user with universal ideas, memories, and archetypes: “The mystic, the philosopher . . . realised, the whole time, that [what they saw through the “over-mind”] were not his ideas. They were eternal, changeless ideas that he had grown aware of, dramas already conceived that he had watched; memory is the mother, begetter of all drama, idea, music, science or song” (23). Through the apparatus these eternal and changeless ideas become present to the user, creating the virtual space through which these otherwise unavailable materials can be accessed and manipulated.

H.D. makes her jellyfish experience more comprehensible to her readers by comparing it with telegraphy technology: “If we had the right sort of brains, we would receive a definite message from that figure, like dots and lines ticked off by one receiving station, received and translated into definite thought by another telegraphic centre. . . . We want receiving centres for dots and dashes” (24). As the over-mind is synonymous with access to a network of timeless information, its operation requires interaction with a set of technical tools. Like Manovich’s emphasis on the selection and assembly of cultural materials, H.D. describes the over-mind as an interface providing access to already existing bodies of knowledge. The over-mind’s continuous present allows ideas from the past to become available in the present. Each of H.D.’s interface models replicate the core aspects of the over-mind: each model is simultaneously mystical and technical, and each is focused on granting access to otherwise unavailable information.

H.D.’s second visionary experience took place in April 1920 on the island of Corfu, where she was traveling with her lover Bryher. She called the experience “writing on the wall”; it would figure into her work with and analysis by Freud over a decade later. As she recounted it in Tribute to Freud, the vision shares many characteristics with the over-mind. She saw a “series of shadow- or of light-pictures” that were “projected on the wall of a hotel bedroom” (H.D., Tribute, 41). Like the magic lantern slides Manovich describes, the images are silhouettes projected onto the wall, seemingly from another realm, representing human figures: “The first was a head and shoulders, three-quarter face, no marked features, a stencil or stamp of a soldier or airman, but the figure was dim light on shadow, not shadow on light. It was a silhouette cut of light, not shadow, not shadow on light” (45). The writing on the wall also featured mystical characteristics: “I consider this sort of dream or projected picture of vision as a sort of halfway state between ordinary dream and the vision of those who, for lack of a more definite term, we must call psychics or clairvoyants” (41). Both the over-mind and the “writing on the wall” provide access to alternate dimensions through which an expanded view of experience becomes available.

H.D. positions the writing on the wall experience within an ancient tradition in which revelatory visions are presented to an individual sensitive enough to receive them. She also suggests these visions projected from alternative realms are extensions of the artist’s mind:

There had been writing-on-walls before, in Biblical, in classic literature. At least, all through time, there had been a tradition of warnings or messages from another world or state of being. . . . [T]his writing-on-the-wall is merely an extension of the artist's mind, a picture or an illustrated poem, taken out of the actual dream or daydream content and projected from within. (50–51)

H.D.’s description of the images on the wall links modern and ancient modes of visualization as well as the role of artists and visionaries. In the years following the vision, too, the image of  “projection” became key for her as sH.D.epened her work with the cinema.

H.D. was involved in multiple aspects of cinema culture. She wrote criticism in the Bryher-funded avant-garde film journal Close Up and was a member of the film group POOL (also funded by Bryher), and she starred in a film about interracial romance, Borderline (1930), opposite Paul Robeson.[12] She also worked on the technical aspects of Borderline, becoming adept at editing and cutting in post-production. Laura Marcus notes that H.D.’s interest in cinema was “in many ways idiosyncratic, to be understood as an aspect of her broader concerns with language and symbol, psychoanalysis, mysticism and spiritualism, classicism and the celebration of women’s beauty and power.”[13] As in her literary and theoretical texts, H.D. approached cinema with a fluid and resourceful openness to the affordances of the medium, but she also had a clear sense of how it could further her work with fragments and with accessing unavailable bodies of information.

Cinema provided H.D. with an opportunity to interact directly with a technical apparatus and the projector itself came to absorb her attention. The film projector takes images from one location and projects them onto another, participating in H.D.’s larger practice of accessing alternative sources of knowledge and drawing them together. The use of light to project the images contained on the film before the viewer is a physical embodiment of how H.D. sought to use interfacing techniques to make invisible materials present to one another and her readers. In a more figurative sense, these techniques collapse distances between times, locations, and concepts, a trope that persists from her earliest mythic poetry, through her prose works such as Palimpsest, and into her later work on the occult.[14]

She links many of these interrelated concepts in two poems she published in Close Up in 1927 called “Projector” and “Projector II.” In these poems, sH.D.scribes the projector as a way of accessing light, which she personifies as the ancient god who “reclaims the lost” in order to


and to readjust

all severings

and differences of thought.[15]

She positions light as a figure that at once reclaims lost ideas and connects otherwise separated bodies of information. H.D. extends the function of light beyond illuminating dark places, evoking interfacial metaphors to depict its function to provide access between separated dimensions. Light is the

master of shrines and gateways

and of doors,

of markets

and the cross-road

and the street (H.D., Collected Poems, 349)

Thus light, and the projector that casts it, is a gateway or door between temporal, spatial, and conceptual differences. In “Projector,” H.D. explicitly connects the idea of accessing forgotten bodies of information to the reassembly of previously separated elements. In these poems, she abstracts light as a concept, demonstrating that the cinema projector is only a modern version of ancient mythic practices of crossing borders and connecting different collections of cultural materials. In these examples, H.D. suggests interfaces as technologies are ancient as well as modern, continually resurfacing in different material and conceptual forms. It is equally important, particularly when Palimpsest was published in 1926, that H.D. was developing strategies for presenting multiple interconnected elements through a single interface on her primary medium: print.

Palimpsest: A Print Interface

Palimpsest represents the realization of the interfacing model H.D. had been striving for since her earliest poetry and prose work. Palimpsest is an extremely difficult text to read, in part because H.D. engages in a complex analysis of how the palimpsest metaphor operates as a media format that both obscures and reveals.[16] Palimpsest’s epigraph reads, “a palimpsest, i.e., a parchment from which one writing has been erased to make room for another.”[17] This description of the palimpsest contains two primary valences. The violence of destroying one text suggests the patriarchal erasure of women’s history and literature. Conversely, H.D. sees the “room” for a new writing as an opportunity, a power in itself, to generate her counter-archive of narratives by and about women figures. H.D. uses the layering metaphor from the text’s title to implicate the book’s materiality and its function as an interface that, like an over-mind connecting ideas from throughout time, or a projection of one dimension into another, connects the three narratives.

The text is comprised of three stories: “Hipparchia: War Rome (circa 75 B.C.),” “Murex: Postwar London (circa A.D. 1916–1926),” and “Secret Name: Excavator’s Egypt (circa A.D. 1925)”. The eponymous protagonist of “Hipparchia” lives in Rome after it had conquered her Greek island home. Hipparchia is a poet and translator, and tH.D.ughter of Hipparchia, an elegant aristocrat, and the cynic philosopher Crates. In “Murex,” Raymonde Ransome, also a poet, receives a visit from a woman named Ermentrude, which recalls a set of memories she had been avoiding in the literal and figurative mist and fog of post-World War I London. Helen Fairwood, the protagonist of “Secret Name,” is a scholar of Egyptian myth, traveling in Egypt visiting ruins and temples. All three women struggle to discover ways to effectively interact with materials from the personal and cultural past, and though the three narratives never explicitly refer to one another, a multitude of repeated elements establish connections among them.

These connections consist of the repetition of themes, images, circumstances, concepts, literary and historical figures, even individual words and people, all of which combine to establish nodes within each narrative that connect to related nodes from others. As in a palimpsest, elements from each narrative, as Deborah Kelly Kloepfer puts it, by “[bleed] through time and space,” and through the pages of the book itself allowing H.D. to use the book as a virtual space on which to assemble the three narratives. [18]

Hipparchia, Raymonde, and Helen, like H.D., are professional artists and intellectuals whose work is minimized by various men in their lives. They each fixate on certain themes and phrases, and seem to teeter on the edge of psychological well-being. As in her Bid Me to Live and HERmione, H.D. represents her characters’ psychological stress through the constant repetition of words, ideas, memories, and names. In Palimpsest, these take the form of phrases which impinge upon the women’s interiority. Hipparchia’s thoughts are continually interrupted by the repetition of phrases from poetry, “Where Corinth, charm incarnate, are your shrines?”, and snatches of conversation such as “Romans are wine-pressers.” Raymonde’s mind is constantly interrupted by the interposition of “feet—feet—feet—feet,” likely a memory of soldiers marching during the war. She also repeats the phrase “Who fished the Murex up?” from Robert Browning’s “Popularity.”[19] Helen repeatedly thinks of balancing, juggling, and tightrope-walking between the poles of antiquity and modernity, Egypt and Greece, men and women, and fixates on a cluster of ideas surrounding laughter, and the goddesses Isis and Iris. These features of the women’s fragmented inner monologues emphasize the psychological stress they experience.

Hipparchia, Raymonde, and Helen are all involved in similarly complex personal relationships. They encounter numerous other women, who serve as their romantic rivals, as alternative versions of themselves, or as mirrors for their own lives and circumstances. The men they are involved with, both romantically and platonically, are also linked: each is associated with conquering Rome, which itself stands for a dilution of the Greek cultural tradition. Each patronizes the women’s intellectual seriousness and acuity, and stands for a model of learning that is both staidly traditional and clearly inferior to the women’s. The individuals that the main characters interact with constantly merge and differentiate, creating networks of related figures. Through this feature of Palimpsest, H.D. implies something far larger, of course: that any given constellation of people is repeated in different eras and in different geographies.

The women’s experiences with memory are the most frequent ways that the narratives intersect with one another. H.D. depicts their experience with memory using the palimpsest metaphor: the layers of time that obscure the three women’s pasts prevent them from reckoning with the psychological and social forces causing their pain. In order to overcome these obstacles, Hipparchia, Raymonde, and Helen frequently use interfaces to provide them with virtual dimensions through which they are able to configure their pasts. These dimensions equip them to overcome repressive relationships, patriarchal cultures, and their own psychological and social challenges. In their separate narratives, the three women confront these negative models of material and cultural memory and develop strategies for connecting materials from different layers of time.

An initial instance of the negative valence of the palimpsest appears on the first page of the first story. Hipparchia is involved with Marius, a Roman army officer. She resents the Roman conquest of Greece, but is beholden to Marius for her position in Roman society. The Roman defeat of Greece enacts an overwriting of the Greek culture: “[T]hat Greece was now lost, the cities disassociated from any central ruling. ‘The best of them are overbuilt by the new invading strength of Roman populace, who on the very levelled ruins build new foundation for a mightier empire’” (H.D., Palimpsest, 3). Rome’s victory represents the erasure of the Greek “text” and a layer of philistinic and materialistic culture that obscures the poetic vitality of the Greek tradition. The literal and metaphoric overwriting separates Hipparchia, and by implication, all of Western culture, from Greek wisdom.

In order to combat the Roman conquest, Hipparchia translates, and therefore, projects Greek texts from one language into another. Hipparchia uses her own media metaphor to visualize how to overcome tH.D.struction of her culture: “Very present receded from her as her closed eyes returned to the inner world, of bush and tree; . . . clear in perfect outline was like some long scroll unwound before her. . . . A scroll that unwinds before shut eyes, that reveals hill, wood, mountain, small lake, all minute and clarified like those very islands” (82). Repeating to herself “that she would avenge not Corinth only, but the whole lost and dispersed civilization of the islands,” Hipparchia imagines a scroll, a manuscript interface, through which she can see the Greek islands and the pastoral scenes she is cut off from in her urban Roman context (77). The islands themselves (like the pieces from antiquity that H.D. had sought to gather and reassemble) become more powerful because, “disassociated from any central ruling,” they are now free to be reconfigured in dynamic ways: “Greek temples, once broken, shattered, re-gained permanence. It was a simple and too easily proved fact” (89). The story closes as Hipparchia hears a disembodied voice say, “Greece is a spirit. Greece is not lost. I will come with you” (94). By breaking apart the physical and political instantiations of Greece, the Greek “spirit” can live on freely available throughout time: “The conquered must inevitably conquer. Not Rome, Marius, but finally the whole world. Greek must rule. . . . They had broken the mere body only to let the spirit loose, a moth from a split chrysalis, to avenge it” (75). The fragmented Greek tradition exists in stark contrast to the coherent and rigid Rome, and to Marius’s impulse to destroy, erase, and conquer.

A similar symbolic layering takes place in “Murex.” The story opens as Raymonde reflects on her life in London, defined by strife: “Layer and layer of pain, of odd obliteration had forbidden Raymonde Ransome to see into the past that was further than an Egyptian’s coffin” (108). The etherized comfort sH.D.rives from the “blurred over” London atmosphere allows her to avoid memories of the past. The atmosphere of London, the foggy and unchanging “ineffable half-light,” serves as a film between her present experiences and a painful cluster of memories including the events of WWI and her abandonment by a past lover, Freddie (95). This amnesia-inducing fog between the past and present functions similarly to the Roman conquest of Greece, an occlusion of the past by an interposing layer.

Raymonde is, we learn, an accomplished poet (she wrote a “Thetis sequence,” reminiscent of H.D.’s own mythic poems) and sees her art as a means to access her memory: “Art wasn’t seen any more in one plane, in one perspective, in one dimension. . . . Impressions were reflected now . . . they were overlaid like old photographic negatives one on top of another” (154). But Raymonde’s primary medium is writing, and thus poetry is her chosen means of accessing the past: “Verses, verses, verses. Who fished the murex up? Verses were the murex . . . Life was one huge deep sea and flat on its surface, merging, mingling was the business of existence. Verses. That meant diving deep, deep, deep—Who fished the murex up?” (160).

Beneath the surface are forgotten parts of life and by penetrating it, she is able to access and reconfigure them in the present. The murex itself represents the primary image for how Raymonde visualizes this dynamic. Fishing the murex up retrieves the memory from tH.D.pths of the ocean, from antiquity, and from Raymonde’s own past:

Faces overlaid now one another like old photographic negatives and faces whirled on and on and on, like petals down, down, down as if all those overlaid photographic negatives had been pasted together and rolled off swifter, swifter, swifter from some well controlled cinematograph. Her mind behind her mind turned the handle (so to speak) for a series of impressions that devastated her with their clarity, with their precision and with their variety. . . . People, faces, Greece. Greece, people, faces. Egypt. James Joyce was right. On, on, on, on, and out of it like some deep-sea jewel pulled up in a net squirming with an enormous catch of variegated squirming tentacled and tendrilled memories, just this, this—who fished the murex up? (157)

This passage includes a panoply of elements that connect with the other stories in Palimpsest and with all of H.D.’s early work. The flower petals evoke the vegetal imagery in her Imagist collections Sea Garden and The God. The layering of photographic negatives, an image H.D. introduced in Notes and revisited repeatedly in every one of her early prose works, becomes associated with cinema technology, which is in turn leveraged into a metaphor for the operation of memory itself. She mentions both Greece and Egypt, a geographic and mythic polarity that is important for Hipparchia, as for H.D. herself, and which becomes even more central in the next story, “Secret Name.” The tentacles that appear are reminiscent of her jellyfish metaphor to describe the over-mind consciousness in Notes. Passages with a comparable referential density appear on nearly every page of Palimpsest.

Like Hipparchia, Raymonde relies on fragmentation and on the power for poetry to enact the regathering of those fragments: “Greek formula must not be forgotten. Mavis blurred over, made one forget formula. It was easier to forget than to remember. To remember. Poetry was to remember. . . . James Joyce was right. Formula to be enduring must be destroyed. . . . Greeks upon Greeks died that men might know that the formula must be re-formulated” (155). Raymonde privileges the use of fragmented or otherwise destroyed formulas over the continuity of knowledge. These fragments of Greece are not powerful because they are themselves broken, but because they are available for reformulation. The emphasis on dynamic assembly of fragments is part of H.D.’s larger critique of the chronological and patriarchal practices associated with the existing archive.

In Palimpsest’s final story, “Secret Name,” Helen Fairwood struggles with similar dilemmas of memory and history. Like Hipparchia and Raymonde, she attempts to access the past that exists below the surfaces of the present and of the conscious mind, and she uses familiar metaphors to express these desires:

She wanted so awfully to dip, as in a pool lined with dark rock, her narrow cold-tipped fingers in that hand. She wanted to drag up from some drowned region of human consciousness those very stones. She wanted to dive deep, deep, courageously down into some unexploited region of the consciousness, into some common deep sea of unrecorded knowledge and bring triumphant, to the surface some treasure buried, lost, forgotten. (179)

The images used here, the subconscious, tH.D.pth of water as a metaphor for the past, and the recovery of a buried object all connect the narrative to “Hipparchia” and “Murex.” But Helen’s situation is a bit more complicated because, as a scholar of Egyptian myth, she is actively engaged in a model of knowledge production that she feels obscures the past: “But, O, for all her heavy and weary research into Graeco-Roman texts for those tiresome facts, for authentic and tiresome information on lost fragments, wearisome notes for Bodge-Grafton’s monumental and final volume (to be slightly, in the light of the new Tutankhamen excavations, modified) wrong” (H.D., Palimpsest, 189).[20] Rather than illuminating the past, Helen’s scholarly work on Egyptian myth covers it over in “tiresome facts” and “wearisome notes.”

As Helen tours the Egyptian ruins tH.D.fference between her scholarly work and the potency of authentic objects from antiquity becomes particularly clear to her. SH.D.scends into Tutankamen’s tomb and is confronted by an artefact:

The absolute essence of her underground experience was that long graceful figure stretched in the centre of the minute and exquisite palace-tomb, was some potent opal. Long, oval with the exquisite contour of some huge polished gem, it lay as it had lain for some four thousand years. . . . It rested now, a symbol etherealized, black opal, from which if one persistently gazed (she was sure) small cloud-like dark images would emerge, as from a darkened crystal, small images from the past. (182)

The opal is an element from distant Egyptian history, but also serves as an interface through which images become visible. Encountering the opal has a profound effect on her and prompts her to reevaluate the relationship between modernity and this tangible antiquity.

Helen visualizes modernity itself as a construction which separates individuals and culture from the layers of history that preceded them. Throughout “Secret Name” she casts her contemporary culture as a sleek, shining, but ultimately fragile age: “High, brittle; modernity. Glass and ice civilization. Modernity, machine and squared in turrets of that Manhattan sea-fortress, that blocked-in Babylon that faces, block and stone piled high like the ancient square bulwark of Babylon, of Assyria, a bulwark to the inwash of terrific ocean breakers” (238). The shining facade of modernity becomes a barrier against the “inwash” of ancient cultures. Helen’s own research contributes to the “wearisome” accumulation of information that obscures rather than clarifies the past. In addition to being rigid and “blocked-in,” modernity as depicted here is “brittle,” vulnerable to forces that Hipparchia, Raymonde, and Helen use to counteract the tradition in ways that resemble H.D.’s own counter-archive. Shortly before the end of the narrative, Helen imagines all time collapsed through a screen: “Past, present, all the communications of past and present (as light cast through a darkened glass) were merged at one within her. The just past, the far past” (218). Helen imagines an interface through which time is flattened into an eternal present and therefore infinitely accessible projection. “Secret Name”—and, therefore, Palimpsest—ends ambiguously. After diagnosing the errors of modern knowledge practices, Helen appears to participate in the banalities of tourism alongside a wealthy American girl and her “tyrant” mother whose “glass-on-ice laughter” links her with the fragile and brittle modern world (238). “Secret Name” closes by again comparing this modernity to Babylon, a culture unable to make sense to itself.

TH.D.lemma of covering over, concealing, and forcibly forgetting the past shared by all three narratives are linked through the central metaphor of the palimpsest, whereby each subsequent layer of time covers over the one that preceded it. Each of the women formulates different solutions to this problem, piercing these layers of time through conceptual and creative methods that connect their respective presents to the obscured past. In other words, they develop interfaces that provide them with all the affordances that H.D. had been developing in her works since Notes.

Palimpsest serves as the model of interface through which all H.D.’s work can be connected. The emphasis on interfaces, arranged fragments, layered images, sexist structures, creative difficulties, and marginalized literary traditions are central themes and characteristics of all of her works, particularly those leading up to Palimpsest. For H.D., the text operates on two related levels. She portrays the individual characters confronting the problems of memory, history, and the marginalized tradition of women’s texts. But Palimpsest also represents a model for solving tH.D.lemma that she and all her characters share. 

Because the links between the stories are associational in nature, they operate beyond the covers of Palimpsest. Rather than overtly referencing the other texts in her oeuvre, H.D. deliberately repeats elements from them, constructing an extensible network of relationships linking them all. In place of the exclusive and patrilineal archival model, H.D.’s invites the integration of new items, new perspectives, and unexpected associations. Rachael Blau DuPlessis expresses how this process of knowledge storage and retrieval represents a critique of existing, authoritarian practices: “Palimpsest may suggest the metonymic chain, a series of tellings of something with no one ever having final dominance, an evocation of plurality and multiplicity, lack of finality. This suggests the porousness of H.D.’s style, its unauthoritarian, constantly exploratory quality.”[21] In place of the exclusionary patriarchal authority, H.D. imagined interfaces for accessing and organizing information according to the open-ended intersection of similarities.

H.D.’s experiments were motivated by her desire to create interfaces that would provide access to both obscured materials and the freedom to assemble and configure them according to new patterns of thought. From a media studies standpoint, H.D. was far ahead of her time. Her interfaces predicted many of tH.D.vices and situations through which citizens of tH.D.gital age find themselves interacting with and captured by contemporary media. In addition, her desire to combine and recombine fragments, though hardly an invention in the early twentieth century, forecasts the functions of digital formats like hypertext and databases. H.D.’s sensitivity to the shifts taking place in the early twentieth-century information landscape and her experimentation in multiple media forms testify to her openness and creativity. Equally important was her insistence that revising the archive would require those speaking from excluded perspectives to formulate their own methods of control over information and media. Retelling mythic narratives from a feminist perspective was an initial step, but lasting recalibration of the control over information meant altering the structures and protocols that justified the exclusion of marginalized voices. H.D. developed her interfaces to achieve these goals. It remains an open question what role technology can play in forwarding progressive change; the current media, information, and political landscape suggests that technocratic, neoliberal, and patriarchal forces are as entrenched now as any other time in recent memory. But from H.D.’s early-twentieth-century vantage, opening the archive to an inclusive and pluralistic future began with the strong message that accompanies the interface.


[1] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 63.

[2] H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision (1982; repr. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers, 2001); H.D., Tribute to Freud (1956; repr. New York: New Directions, 2009), 14; H.D., Paint it Today (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 12; H.D., End to Torment (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1979), 56.

[3] Leah Culligan Flack, Modernism and Homer: The Odysseys of H.D., James Joyce, Osip Mandelstam, and Ezra Pound (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 4.

[4] Eileen Gregory, H.D. and Hellenism: Classic Lines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 52–53.

[5] Diana Collecott, H.D. and Sapphic Modernism: 1910–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 3.

[6] Chapter 2 of Branden Hookway’s Interface ([Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014], 59–120) provides a thorough account of the interface’s early history in the physical sciences.

[7] These efforts range from the highly abstract approaches such as Hookway’s 2014 historico-philosophical study Interface to Alexander Galloway’s 2011 media-studies approach in The Interface Effect (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012). Bonnie Mak’s more materialist, textual studies look at print pages as interfaces in How the Page Matters (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2011), and lay the foundation for thinking of print media in these contexts. These studies approach the interface from different perspectives, describing it in the context of science and technology studies, philosophy, textual studies, and book history.

[8] Jessica Pressman, Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4.

[9] Manovich’s more recent book Software Takes Command, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) extends this claim, arguing that software “has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and imaginations—a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs. What electricity and the combustion engine were to the early twentieth century, software is to the twenty-first century” (2).

[10] H.D. “Notes on Euripides,” in Hippolytus Temporizes and Ion: Adaptations of Two Plays by Euripides by H.D., ed. Carol Camper (1927; repr. New York: New Directions, 2003), 278.

[11] H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision, 13. The over-mind lens functions in tandem with the love-mind lens: “I have said that the over-mind is a lens. I should say more exactly that the love-mind and the over-mind are two lenses. When these lenses are properly adjusted, focused, they bring the world of vision into consciousness. The two work separately, perceive separately, yet make one picture” (23). This superimposition of images and lenses is a format she uses multiple times in every genre of her work and should be directly compared to her image of overlaid photograph negatives. It appears throughout Notes, in her writing on cinema, and as a prominent image in each of the novels in the Madrigal Cycle and Palimpsest.

[12] In the introduction to the single volume collection of Close Up (ed. James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus [New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2001]) James Donald describes the goals of the POOL group and the Close Up magazine, both names having interfacing connotations: “With manifesto-like declarations, POOL began as a publisher of books, a producer of films and the publisher of a monthly magazine Close Up. The metaphor implicit in the name expressed a combination of a ‘pool’ of resources and ‘pool’ as a surface for reflection.” (9).

[13] Laura Marcus, “Introduction to The Contribution of H.D.” in Close Up, 96–104, 98.

[14] There is a substantial body of scholarship on H.D.’s film criticism, her acting in and editing of films, and her use of cinematic effects in her writing. Charlotte Mandel (“The Redirected Image: Cinematic Dynamics in the Style of H.D. [Hilda Doolittle],” Literature/Film Quarterly 11, no. 1 [1983]: 36–45) and Christina Walter (“From Image to Screen: H.D. and the Visual Origins of Modernist Impersonality,” Textual Practice 22, [2008]: 291-313) examine how film culture influenced H.D.’s writing. Marcus, in her detailed introduction to H.D.’s work on film appearing in the Close Up volume, and Susan McCabe (“Close Up & Wars They Saw: From Visual Erotics to a Transferential Politics of Film,” The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914-1945 8, no. 1 [2012]: 11–35.) provide more analysis of her work with the POOL group and Close Up.

[15] H.D., Collected Poems 1912–1944, ed. Louis Z. Martz (New York: New Directions, 1986), 349.

[16] Difficulty is a universal characteristic of H.D.’s prose work, but is particularly intense in Palimpsest. The concepts she explores in the text are more extreme in part because she approaches them from the perspectives of three separate women who exist in different times and places. Decades later, H.D. suggested the text may not have been sufficiently edited; see “H.D. By Delia Alton,” The Iowa Review 16 no. 3, (1986): 180–221: “I regret that the proofs of Palimpsest were so carelessly revised. It was my own fault. The book was printed, 1926, by Contact Edition 29, Quai d’Anjou, Isle Saint-Louis Paris. The writing is weedy and involved, with many baffling parentheses. It is sometimes difficult to disentangle the central theme from the turnings and involutions. I have indicated in this copy that Bryher brought me, various spelling and punctuation corrections to be made, in case there is ever a re-print of Palimpsest” (220).

[17] H.D., Palimpsest (1926; Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), 1.

[18] Deborah Kelly Kloepfer, “Fishing the Murex Up: Sense and Resonance in H.D.’s Palimpsest,Contemporary Literature 27, no. 4 (1986): 553–73, 561.

[19] “Murex” gets its title from Robert Browning’s poem “Popularity.” The poem references a shell Grecians fished up from the seafloor to use in various dyes. The lines in which the reference appears read: “Hobbs hints blue, — straight turtle he eats: / Nobbs prints blue, — claret crowns his cup: / Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats, — / Both gorge. Who fished the murex up? / What porridge had John Keats?” (“Popularity,” The Poems Volume One, ed. John Pettigrew [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981], 722–24, 724). Interestingly (and cryptically), Raymonde also repeats the phrases “James Joyce was right,” and “Einstein was right” throughout the narrative. It is not immediately apparent why she mentions these figures, but there are some small clues that Joyce is mentioned because of his own involvement with connecting the modern to ancient texts; Einstein’s appearances seem to be linked to Raymonde’s concern with tH.D.lation and collapsing of time, perhaps a reference to Einsteinian relativity.

[20] Helen endures outright sexism while in Egypt with Captain Rafton, an Englishman, who, immediately before Helen describes her extensive research into Egyptian and Greek myth gives her a simplistic account of that same subject. As he mansplains, she thinks about how she must conceal her superior knowledge: “She meant to tell him about her work, to make him know what this had meant, this morning’s freedom, even this few hours’ evening escape. SH.D.dn’t tell him. She let him go on explaining tH.D.fference between Isis and Hathor, Osiris and Nut. The stone cow placed at the end of the road, marking the promenade path along the wall from the broader roadway, he was telling her was Hathor. ‘That circle in its horns in some symbol.’ She let him go on in his soft London voice, let him go on, saying things that were the very primer of myth and saying them to her, of all people, with conviction. He must never, never know that round half-dozen terrible little articles that had got her here. Terrible, intense, erudite and in their own limited way, illuminating and terribly right” (188–89).

[21] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, H.D.: The Career of That Struggle (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 56.