The Mechanic Muse

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The Mechanic Muse concerns itself with the subtle record of the technological revolution in the sensibility and writing of four great twentieth century writers. Technology has altered not only the physical world but also our sense of what it means to be human. Hugh Kenner explores one aspect of this transformation, probing the subtle responses to a new world in the work of men whose writing was itself so new that they are called “modernists.” Kenner suggests that these writers evolved their own verbal technologies as a conscious and unconscious response to the challenge of a greatly changing physical environment.

The impact of science and technology on modern art and literature, both direct and indirect, has been explored frequently. More than any other single factor, science and technology shaped the modern world that created the context for modern art and literature. They were primarily responsible for the great sense of change and overthrow that characterized the early twentieth century. They provided new subject matter (speed, machine forms, the city), new materials (especially in architecture and sculpture), and new techniques (such as multiple and simultaneous perspectives). They even provided new ways of theorizing about art and literature, as in the Vorticist aesthetic that art is patterned energy.

Kenner assumes these well-known observations and attempts to move beyond them. His interest is not primarily in how these writers responded thematically to the modern, technological world, but how in ways large and small all of this filtered into the way they put words on the page.

Modernist literature is a product of the city, especially of a handful of European cultural capitals. These same capitals were, not coincidentally, themselves products of modern technology, and technology, Kenner argues, tended to change people’s lives and responses in ways of which they were only dimly aware: “Every city-dweller’s sense of the normal—precisely, of what needn’t require attention—was gradually remolded by a thousand increments of technological pressure, from the cheap alarm clock to the dynamo.”

One man who did pay attention was T. S. Eliot, partly because, like the other modernist writers Kenner explores, he was a newcomer to the city and hence more likely to notice its special features. Kenner calls his chapter “Eliot Observing,” following a tip Eliot himself gives the reader in the title of his first book of poems.

What is it that Eliot observed? Among other things, argues Kenner, he observed the effect of the alarm clock and the subway on people’s lives. Millions of people waking up at approximately the same time, having for the first time in human history nothing to do with the sun, then rushing all at once to get to another place in the same city so as to be judged by a mechanical device to be “on time”—this is the regulated life, and Eliot was its first poetic chronicler.

The tyranny of the clock, at the bedside and in the office, necessitated the rush hours—coming and going (and, in some Southern cultures, coming and going twice). Rush hours necessitated great masses of people coming together, to be moved as efficiently as possible to their varying destinations. The result was the commuter train in transportation and Prufrock and large parts of The Waste Land (1922) in modern poetry.

Eliot found in the world of clocks and underground trains the modern condition: anxiety, facelessness, impersonality among crowds, hurry, mechanical action by increasingly mechanical people, spiritual emptiness in the midst of material fullness. That this discovery was not obvious is suggested by Kenner’s observation that another great poet, W. B. Yeats, lived at the same time in the same city without any effect on his poetry.

The city at the turn of the century was becoming a great machine, and the modes of perception of the people in it altered. One example is the telephone, a device which for the first time allowed (forced?) people to talk with someone they could not see. The more reflective are free to ponder the fact that a single line carries many voices simultaneously, something even more apparent in the days of switchboards.

Collate multiple voices from unseen speakers with the mechanical, spiritually empty clock-world of massed humanity, and one has the context for...

(The entire section is 1803 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Library Journal. CXI, December, 1986, p. 112.

The New York Times. CXXXVI, November 29, 1986, IV, p. 16.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, January 25, 1987, p. 21.