Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1754
In its heyday (the 1910s and 1920s), Modernism did not exist. That is to say, the word Modernism did not have the meaning that it has today. Modernism referred to technology, to an openness to the new commercially-driven society that was coming about, and to changes in Catholic theology. The literary themes and concerns and stylistic innovations that today are called modernist belonged, in their time, to dozens of different writers who lived in different places, spoke different languages, were members of different groups, and very often were hostile toward each other and their work. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s, years after the movement ended, that the term Modernism came to designate a group of writers preoccupied with alienation and the destruction of old certainties. It can be instructive to look at the ways that large trends in literature and culture are examined, classified, and codified into a movement by readers and critics. Modernism was produced long after the movement’s height by critics; Modernism was not produced by the modernist artists themselves.
In a very real sense there is no one Modernism; there are many modernisms. Some critics have identified Modernism as far back as the French writer Gustave Flaubert, who wrote in the 1850s, and many critics see a number of works of the 1970s (Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, for instance) as late examples of Modernism. The themes now understood as characteristically modernist existed in many works of the nineteenth century. By the early 1900s, an explosion of artistic subgroups whose members crossed between music, painting, sculpture, dance, photography, and literature rapidly coalesced and just as quickly disappeared. Almost all of these groups—the surrealists, the imagists, the cubists, the vorticists, the dadaists, the futurists, and many others—are considered components of Modernism.
It was only near the end of the movement that critics came to a consensus about what constituted Modernism in literature, and these critics set the rules for who should be considered a central member of the movement and who would remain only a minor figure. Perhaps more important in the long run, these critics codified a way of reading and criteria for evaluation of literature, both of which, not coincidentally, were particularly friendly to Modernism.
These critical developments of the 1950s were a direct reaction against the climate of earlier decades. In the 1930s and 1940s, art and politics were linked together very closely. Artists were expected to weigh in on the political issues of the day, and especially in the 1930s they allied themselves with left-wing causes. Dozens of artists and writers joined the Communist Party, feeling that only a worker-centered movement could save America from the depression and from vast concentrations of wealth. Other, albeit fewer, writers and artists allied themselves with the other side: of these, the most notorious were the English painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (who praised Hitler), and the American poet Ezra Pound, who admired Mussolini and held anti-Semitic beliefs. T. S. Eliot, although he never supported fascism, had extremely conservative political views as well.
Writers have never become famous only by their own efforts. It takes dozens of people to bring a work from the mind of the writer to the hands of the reader. And in an age such as the mid-twentieth century, when thousands of works of literature were published every year, the role of the critic became especially important in establishing whether a writer was important and why. In the 1930s, when the modernist writers had already produced a solid body of work to be explained and evaluated, two groups of critics with drastically different backgrounds and political inclinations set their sights upon Modernism. Together, these groups defined the sprawling movement, telling readers what it meant and, most importantly, arguing that Modernism should be read without concern to any political beliefs expressed in the works or held by the writers. Their consensus about Modernism eventually made the movement the great movement of twentiethcentury literature.
The first of these two groups came together in the American South in the 1920s. This “Fugitive” or “Agrarian” group included writers Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate (most of whom were poets or novelists as well as critics) who were inspired by the antebellum South and its Elizabethan English heritage. They yearned for a preindustrial world where cultured aristocrats cultivated the land and wrote subtle, accomplished verse. In the 1920s they read the influential critical writings of T. S. Eliot, which meshed well with their own ideas about literature and led them to appreciate Eliot’s (and by extension other modernists’) works.
Eventually, these writers obtained academic posts and developed a method of literary analysis called “New Criticism.” The New Criticism valued such formal devices as tension, ambiguity, wordplay, and irony. It had absolutely no interest in questions of what a work can tell about history or about an author’s life or what political meaning a work holds. People who read works for what they had to say about society were Philistines to the New Critics; the goal of reading literature was to refine one’s sensations and to make ever-finer distinctions about the excellence of language. In such works as Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn and Ransom’s The New Criticism, these critics provided a model for reading literature apolitically.
This apolitical attitude was anathema to the New Critics’ counterparts, the New York Intellectuals. The New York Intellectuals were urban, immigrants or the children of immigrants, largely Jewish, and adamantly left-wing (many of them were briefly Communist Party members). They came together writing for Partisan Review, the leading intellectual journal of postwar America. And for these critics—Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, Diana Trilling, Irving Howe, and many others—Modernism’s value was that it undermined the simplistic happy-ending narratives produced by capitalism and “mass culture.” Modernism, with its fragmented visions of the world and its insistence that there is no such thing as an objective perspective, was a blow against the smug capitalist structure of advertising and consumption. Modernism accomplished this not by means of the content of the writing, but by means of the form. The complicated combination of allusions, the decentralizing interior monologue, and the often jarring sense of time take away all certainties and call attention to the ways that minds create the world.
During most of the 1930s, these two groups had little to do with each other. The New Critics, from their posts at universities and colleges, taught students how to read and appreciate literature. The New York Intellectuals wrote for journals and lived as public intellectuals; few of them had any affiliation with schools and most of them mistrusted universities. But both argued to different audiences that the type of writing now called modernist was the highest form of literature in the contemporary world.
In 1949, though, these two groups were forced to directly confront Americans’ refusal to ignore literature’s political meanings. The great American Modernist poet Ezra Pound had lived in Italy for over two decades, during which time he had expressed his admiration for Mussolini as well as for a growing anti-Semitism. During World War II, Pound broadcast radio programs on Fascist state radio and, as a result, was indicted for treason in 1943. In 1945 Pound was arrested and brought back to Washington to face trial. Broken and unstable, he was found mentally unfit to stand trial. He was sentenced to an indefinite period in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane.
But Pound was not finished. During his term in the army’s detention center in Pisa, Italy, Pound composed a series of cantos (individual installments of his epic poem The Cantos). Published in 1948 as The Pisan Cantos, the book was Pound’s most personal work in decades and perhaps his greatest single book of poems. It won the first Bollingen Prize, an award given by the Library of Congress, in 1949. Immediately, a storm of controversy arose. The American press and large numbers of American citizens were angered and insulted that a man who had supported an enemy power only a few years before, and who could have been executed for treason, was now being honored by the United States government.
The Bollingen Prize committee included members associated with the New Critics and the New York Intellectuals as well as the poets W. H. Auden, Conrad Aiken, and T. S. Eliot. Called upon to defend their decision, the committee members did so in very different ways. The Jewish poet Karl Shapiro frankly stated that he voted against Pound because he could not abide anti-Semites. Allen Tate argued that poetry must be judged without reference to the personal life of the poet. The committee as a whole released a statement to the press arguing that their decision was grounded on “that objective perception of value on which civilized society must rest.”
Where the New Critics would have been expected to defend the prize, many assumed that the left-wing, anti-Fascist, Jewish New York Intellectuals would oppose any award being granted to Pound. Partisan Review convened a symposium in its pages to discuss the award, and although a range of points of view were expressed, the editors of the notably leftist journal (Philip Rahv and William Barrett) came out in support of the award. They feared what they termed the “Stalinoid” tendency of governments and societies to judge art only by the criteria of whether it advances that society’s interests. To the New York Intellectuals, art must spur challenge of society’s assumptions, not uphold them; art must demand thinking and questioning. By no means did the New York Intellectuals endorse Pound’s ideas; on the contrary, many of them made a point to condemn him even when defending his award.
If World War I was the vortex out of which Modernism was truly born, the Bollingen Prize controversy became the event that transformed Modernism from an avant-garde movement into the literary establishment. During the 1950s, literary critics of the left and the right agreed about literature, at least in broad strokes. And while they each admired different things about Modernism (the New Critics liked its formal intricacy, while the New York Intellectuals endorsed its demands on the reader), their consensus about the movement defined it and ushered it into the center of the American literary canon, where it has remained ever since.
Source: Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on Modernism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9605
In one of the earliest attempts to come to terms with modernism as a total phenomenon, the Czech Formalist, Jan Mukarovsk˝, began by stating that ‘the notion of “modernism” is very indefinite’. Thirty-five years later, Monroe K. Spears echoed that sentiment when he prefaced an important book on the same subject by observing that ‘Modernism is, of course, an impossible subject’. Shortly after that, the editors of one of the most widely disseminated anthologies of essays on the topic wrote in their introduction:
The name [i.e. modernism] is clear; the nature of the movement or movements . . . is much less so. And equally unclear is the status of the stylistic claim we are making. We have noted that few ages have been more multiple, more promiscuous in artistic style; to distil from the multiplicity an overall style or mannerism is a difficult, perhaps even an impossible task.
And a decade later, two other influential commentators tacitly admitted that they were still encountering the same difficulties in finding ‘the core of Modernism’ by opting, as they were finally forced to concede, for an unsatisfactorily reductionist definition of the concept. Indeed, the most obvious index of the difficulties involved in discussing the subject is its lack of clear chronological boundaries. Although the broad consensus agrees on 1885–1935, some critics set its startingdate as early as 1870 (so as to include Nietzsche and Rimbaud), while others, notably North American critics, set its ending in the 1950s (so as to include the early novels of Vladimir Nabokov, the late poetry of William Carlos Williams, the abstract Expressionists, and work produced under the impact of émigré European modernists).
As three basic bibliographies clearly indicate, a huge amount of secondary literature on modernism exists, and in adding to it, I am aware that I may have neglected a key work which either anticipates or counters my argument. However, because critical understanding of modernism has developed so much ever since academic literature on the subject began to snowball in the early 1960s, it is not totally foolhardy to attempt, on the basis of that development, to try and elaborate a more differentiated understanding of the phenomenon.
On the whole, critics have tried to comes to terms with modernism via one of three strategies. First, a large number have tried to define it by pinpointing one or more key features, concerns or ‘common traits’. These have included an ‘uncompromising intellectuality’, a preoccupation with ‘Nihilism’, a ‘discontinuity’, an attraction to the Dionysiac, a ‘formalism’, an ‘attitude of detachment’, the use of myth ‘as an arbitrary means of ordering art’ and a ‘reflexivism’, an ‘anti-democratic’ cast of mind, an ‘emphasis on subjectivity’, a ‘feeling of alienation and loneliness’, the sense of ‘the ever-present threat of chaos . . . in conjunction with the sense of search’ and ‘the experience of panic terror’, a particular form of irony which derives from ‘the rift between self and world’, ‘consciousness, observation and detachment’, and a commitment to metaphor as ‘the very essence of poetry itself’. In the early 1970s, when this strategy was most prevalent in critical literature, two Marxist critics aptly remarked: ‘On the question of what Modernism is, no two critics agree. . .’ Three years after that, Bradbury and McFarlane outlined the limitations of this approach, and as late as 1984, the reductionism of Fokkema and Ibsch (who excluded a range of classically modernist texts from the category on the basis of an excessively narrow definition) highlighted these limitations even more starkly. But it is, perhaps, Chapters 4 and 5 of Les Avant-gardes littéraires au XXe siècle (in which a large number of allegedly defining characteristics of modernist art are isolated and discussed at great length) that bring several basic weaknesses of this strategy into the clearest relief. Once torn out of the context which generated them, it becomes evident that almost none of these characteristics, whether formal or experiental, is specific to the modernist period. It also becomes clear that more than one of them, depending on which author, works or culture one selects, could arguably be privileged in any reductionist account of modernism. And from this it follows that to breathe life back into this collection of dead concepts, it is necessary to reconstruct the dynamic, not to say cataclysmic context which generated them in their specifically modernist combinatoire. As one of the editors of a recent collection of essays on German modernism clearly saw, it is time both to stop ‘reducing modernism to this or that set of criteria’ and to pose ‘the question of history and politics in the [modernist] text . . . with renewed vigor’.
Given the limitations of this first approach, more than a few critics have felt the need to develop a second, more broadly-based strategy— quite often as a spin-off from the first. Having identified one or more allegedly key features of modernism or the modernist avant-garde, critics then attempt to bring these into sharper focus by setting them in a one-dimensional historical, literary- historical or sociological context. Thus, modernism has been viewed as a continuation of or a contrast with Romanticism; as a reaction, in its extreme avant-garde forms, against Aestheticism; as an inversion of the conventions of Realism; as a contrast with Expressionism, Futurism and Surrealism; as a precursor of postmodernism; as a product of the megalopolitan experience and/or the Great War; and as a result of the ‘serious arts’ A scene from the film The Dead, based on the story by James Joyce being forced to cede their ‘utilitarian function’ to the ‘mass media of communication and entertainment’. All of these positions are more or less tenable, but none is exclusively so. Precisely because, as Alan Wilde observed, the modernists were ‘heirs to a tradition they revolted against’, they simultaneously used and reacted against aesthetic conventions which marked several earlier and contemporary artistic movements. Moreover, fused with such purely aesthetic considerations, the experience of modernity (of which the mass city is but one, major aspect) is equally important to most, if not all, important modernist texts: either visibly or as the equally significant ‘repressed Other’ in such works as Rilke’s Neue Gedichte (c. 1903–8) (translated as New Poems (1964)), most of Kandinsky’s pre-1914 visual work, or E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1922–4). Furthermore, as Spears so clearly saw, the Great War did not of itself generate modernism, but rather foregrounded that awareness of the darker side of reality and human nature which had already been present in the work of several major non-modernist writers of the nineteenth century. And while modernism and postmodernism overlap to such an extent that a large number of surface features are common to both phenomena, there are, as Wilde’s and Hassan’s books show, basic ontological differences between the two modes. Bathrick and Huyssen are right to reject simple categorical contrasts, but their own work, speaking as it does of ‘the modernist aesthetic of transcendence and epiphany’, points to a nostalgia or desire for epiphany, transcendence and closure which has no place within the flat surfaces and eternal present of postmodernism. As with the movements which preceded modernism, its relationship with its successor is far from simple. What Fredric Jameson said of any cultural or historical period is especially true of modernism, given that modernism is more a transitional phenomenon than a period or a movement. What is designated by the label does not ‘“express” some unified inner truth—a worldview or a period style or a set of structural categories which marks the whole length and breadth of the “period” in question’. Modernism not only evolved from, reacted against and anticipated a multiplicity of other artistic phenomena, it also developed out of a complex of socio-historical experiences, of which the shocks caused by the modern megalopolis and the Great War were simply the most violent.
We shall, I suggest, get further with the problem by developing a third strategy which is more or less manifest in works on modernism or the modernist avant-gardes by Schwartz, LeRoy and Beitz, Bürger, Jameson, Renate Werner, Jeffrey Herf, and Huyssen and Bathrick, and if we then combine their insights with the central thesis of Horkheimer’s and Adomo’s Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947) (translated as Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972)). Basing his argument on a concept borrowed from the American scientist Thomas S. Kuhn, Schwartz argues that the modernist epoch involved a ‘global shift’ across a range of disciplines, and that to understand this shift, we need to develop a ‘matrix approach’ which ‘makes it possible . . . to compare individuals who have no direct ties to one another but exhibit similar patterns of thought.’ Like the much looser matrix which is used in Les Avantgardes littéraires au XXe siècle, the matrix established by Schwartz to investigate the poetry of Pound and Eliot derives primarily from the natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy. But the work of the other writers named above implies that the paradigm shift which those disciplines, like the arts, underwent during the modernist period derived from a much more fundamental seismic upheaval. In 1974, Bürger, following Adorno, connected that upheaval (which generated both Aestheticism and the avant-garde reaction against it) with imperialism. And in 1973, LeRoy and Beitz were even more precise about that generative source when they described it as ‘the transition to the epoch of imperialism’, which they then analysed as follows:
Turning then to some changes brought about by the transition to imperialism, we can say first that the ideals of the French Revolution, which had held up reasonably well during two thirds of the nineteenth century (in England and the United States, at any rate), become markedly less tenable. The same thing happens to the notion associated with Adam Smith that the existing economic system has the capacity to correct its own ills and bring about an equitable distribution of the wealth. Profound doubts now arise as to whether man has the capacity to dominate the historical process. With a suddenness that would be surprising if one knew nothing about the causes, the idea of progress collapses. When we seek an explanation for these changes, it is relevant to note how in the epoch of monopoly the decision-making process becomes invisible, the real decisions coming to be made more and more by those in command of the monopolies; ordinary people, even those in somewhat privileged positions, come to feel—and justifiably—that they lack the kind of leverage that the humanist tradition had always made one feel entitled to command. A further cause lies in the intensifying irrationalities in the existing order, the vast increase in productive capacity along with economic stagnation, technological progress, and the neglect of human needs, breathtaking scientific advances that seemed to promise a solution to the age-old problem of human want, but with no mechanism for connecting these advances with the demand which in theory they ought to be able to meet . . . Still another cause of the new doubts about the existing order is a new kind of alienation from work. This results in part from gigantism in industrial development and corresponding efficiency in techniques for managing the work force.
For all its perceptiveness, monocausalism never lurks far behind the surface of this avowedly Marxist account of the origins of modernism, and in 1981, Jameson offered a corrective to that tendency when he warned against viewing modernism as ‘a mere reflection of the reification of late nineteenth- century social life.’ More importantly still, Jameson, like Bürger seven years before, saw modernism in dialectical terms: its works are not just reflexes, transcriptions or symptoms of a profound cultural upheaval, but, simultaneously, responses through which the authors of those works try to pictorialize their understanding and so make sense of that upheaval. Bürger had asserted that the literary work was not just an ‘Abbild, d.h.. . . Verdoppelung der gesellschaftlichen Realität’ (‘image, that is to say . . . replication of social reality’), but the ‘Resultat einer Tätigkeit, die auf eine als unzulänglich erfahrene Wirklichkeit antwortet’ (‘product of an activity which responds to a reality that is experienced as inadequate’). And Jameson implied a similarly dialectical conception of modernism when he wrote:
we are first obliged to establish a continuity between these two regional zones or sections—the practice of language in the literary work, and the experience of anomie, standardization, rationalizing desacralization in the Umwelt or world of daily life—such that the latter can be grasped as that determinate situation, dilemma, contradiction, or subtext, to which the former comes as a symbolic resolution or solution.
Indeed, towards the end of the same work, Jameson broadened out that dialectical conception by indicating that it was necessary to understand modernism not as a single, unified response, but as a range of responses to a perceived crisis. In doing this, he implied that it was possible to account coherently for the diverse phenomena which the concept involves, but without falling prey to the reductionism and over-simplification which the first two strategies described above involve. Because, Jameson suggested, modernism was the product of an age in a process of radical change, it was not simply, but multiply Janus-faced (and in the case of Dada, anus-faced into the bargain), with the result that any account of it has to look not just in two, but in several directions at once. And it is this dual awareness that modernism is both an active response to a seismic upheaval and a heterogeneous phenomenon which constitutes one of the greatest strengths of the major essays in Huyssen’s and Bathrick’s recent book.
Werner and Herf enable us to go further still. Herf noted that many (conservative) German modernists were born between 1885 and 1895 into a country which was modernizing rapidly (i.e. rationalizing its institutions and industrializing), and in which the humanist, liberal democratic tradition was relatively weak. And Werner pointed out that in common with most other major artists and intellectuals in nineteenth-century Germany, most German modernists had come from one class (the ‘Bildungsbürgertum’—‘educated middle class’) and attended one educational institution (the ‘Gymnasium’—‘ classical grammar school’). This latter was dominated by ‘ein klassizistischer Normenkanon, die doktrinäre Verfestigung der klassischidealistischen Ästhetik, die Vorstellung, dem Kunstwerk als einem in sich harmonisch gegliederten Organismus komme die symbolische Repräsentanz einer göttlich geordneten Welt zu’ (‘a quasi-classical set of norms, the canonical institutionalization of a classical-idealist aesthetic, the notion that a work of art could stand symbolically for a divinely ordered world to the extent that it itself was a harmoniously structured organism’).
Similar things could be said, mutatis mutandis, of modernists from other European cultures. Consequently, it can be argued that at one level, the concept of modernism designates a heterogeneous range of responses to a global process of modernization by a generation which had internalized a set of assumptions in conflict with the values inherent in that process, and which, as a result, experienced modernization as a cultural cataclysm. It should, however, be stressed that the nature and intensity of the conflict varies from culture to culture, in Germany, for example, the classical ideal described by Werner was particularly remote from reality; the process of modernization was exceptionally rapid; and the liberal democratic, humanist ideal had a comparatively weak hold in the public domain. Consequently, many German modernists experienced the conflict particularly intensely. In England, however, the Arnoldian ideal was more robustly ethical than its German counterpart; the process of modernization, having begun much earlier, had been less rapid than in Germany; as Dagmar Barnouw has argued, the liberal democratic, humanist ideal continued to play a comparatively important role in the public domain throughout the modernist period; and the Great War did not produce the same social upheaval as it did on the Continent. Consequently, it was easier for intellectuals in Britain to find more common ground with their societies so that what was in essence the same conflict was, on the whole, experienced less apocalyptically. As a result, it generated much smaller, less radical and less threatening avant-gardes (i.e., the Georgians, Imagists and Vorticists) than was the case on the Continent. So, for all the criticisms which can be levelled at Bürger’s theory of the avantgarde, he was fundamentally correct in describing its work as the ‘Ausdruck der Angst vor einer übermächtig gewordenen Technik und einer gesellschaftlichen Organisation, die die Handlungsmöglichkeiten des Einzelnen extrem einschränkt’ (‘expression of a profound anxiety in the face of a technological system which had become excessively powerful and a social system which imposes extreme limitations on the individual’s freedom of action’).
It is no accident that Georg Heym’s first use of the neologism ‘Weltstadt’ (‘world city’—i.e. ‘city which has become the whole world’) should have occurred in a poem, ‘Berlin VIII’, which was written in December 1910—that precise juncture when, according to Virginia Woolf, ‘human nature’ and ‘all human relations’ changed. By late 1910, a significant number of major modernist artists and intellectuals were foregrounding a powerful sense that a global process was affecting all areas of human life. But modernism was more than just a reflex, it also involved an active attempt to understand and pictorialize the complexities of that process. More importantly still, modernism, in its extreme forms, involved the prophetic urge to investigate the long-term implications of those complexities— both for the individual and society in general. Consequently, Horkheimer and Adorno, writing from America in the 1940s, enable us to add a final dimension to our understanding of the context which generated modernism via their analysis of the dialectical turn which, they contend, the central project of the Enlightenment had taken by the mid-twentieth century. In their view, those very constructs of human reason whose original purpose was to free mankind from its thralldom to Nature and feudalism, had turned into an autonomous system which was running madly out of control, depriving its creators of any real autonomy, and enslaving them more effectively than ever Nature or feudalism had done:
Die Herrschaft des Menschen über sich selbst, die sein Selbst begründet, ist virtuell allemal die Vernichtung des Subjekts, in dessen Dienst sie geschieht, denn die beherrschte, unterdrückte und durch Selbsterhaltung aufgelöste Substanz ist gar nichts anderes als das Lebendige, als dessen Funktion die Leistungen der Selbsterhaltung einzig sich bestimmen, eigentlich gerade das, was erhalten werden soll.
Man’s self-mastery, in which his sense of selfhood is grounded, almost always involves the destruction of that very subject in whose name the process of self-mastery is undertaken. For the substance which is thereby mastered, suppressed and dissolved is that selfsame vital force from which all that is achieved in the name of self-preservation uniquely derives— i.e. precisely that element which is supposed to be preserved.
Viewed in this context, modernism ceases to be merely the artistic manifestation of a conflict between conservative, humanist sensibilities and a modernizing, non-humanist world, and becomes the manifestation of a more or less shocked realization that modernization required more than the development of a new, appropriate sensibility. Rather, a significant number of modernists saw that for all its ideology of scientific rationality, the process of modernization was, like the Golem of Paul Wegener’s expressionist film Der Golem (1920), the monstrous product of an originally emancipatory impulse which was now running amok. Many of the modernists had, during their youth, been imbued by their liberal humanist background with the Enlightenment belief that it was possible for Man increasingly to understand, rise above, dominate and utilize the external world by means of his logos—understood either as a purely secular faculty or as one which was grounded in the divine logos. But, paradoxically, that very generation which had grown up amid the triumphant achievements of increasingly confident nineteenthcentury science, technology and economics, now felt that these systems were becoming dysfunctional and potentially totalitarian. Moreover, by virtue of the law by which the repressed always returns in a destructive form, they also felt they were in danger of turning into their opposite: the entropic chaos which the sociologist Emile Durkheim had, in Le Suicide (1897) (translated as Suicide (1952)) and De la Division du travail social (1902) (translated as Division of Labour in Society (1933)), called anomie. And it was this feeling of normlessness (which, according to Durkheim, was induced by modernity’s destruction of traditional communities) that generated the ‘panic terror’ which informs so many modernist works.
Marcel Duchamp’s La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even; also known as the Large Glass (1915–23)); the dystopic vision of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1920) (translated as We (1924)); Breton’s claim in the first Surrealist Manifesto (1924) that we are increasingly being forced to live in a rationally constructed cage from which, ‘sous couleur de civilisation, sous prétexte de progrès’ (‘using civilization and progress as pretexts’), everything is banished which does not conform to convention; and such paintings from the 1930s by Max Ernst as La Ville entière (The City as a Whole) (1935–6 and 1936) and La Ville petrifiée (The Petrified City) (1935) catch the first movement of the dialectic described by Horkheimer and Adorno, as does Balázs’s and Bartók’s image of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. In their opera the triumph of (male) rationality is shown to bring immense wealth and power, but at a terrible cost. Against Duke Bluebeard’s intention and despite his desire to be redeemed from his own creation by Judith, his castle holds him more securely captive than ever Nature could do. It induces in him a sense of powerlessness; turns the female and the elemental into dead things locked behind the seventh door of his castle and so divorces him from those powers which might save him from himself.
But Franz Kafka’s ‘In der Strafkolonie’ (1914) (translated as ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1914)); Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu (1915–16) (translated as "(1917)); Georg Kaiser’s Gas trilogy (1916–19) (translated by various hands 1924 and 1971); the concluding pages of Italo Svevo’s La Coscienza di Zeno (1919–22) (translated as Confessions of Zeno (1930)); the war paintings of Otto Dix from the 1920s and 1930s (one of which, Flandern (Flanders) (1936), was inspired by the concluding pages of Le Feu); Alfred Döblin’s Berge Meere und Giganten (Mountains Seas and Giants (1921–3)), especially Books One and Two; and the slaughterhouse chapters from Book Four of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1927–9) (translated 1931) transcribe both movements of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s dialectic. In all six cases, a rationally constructed system—a machine for executing convicts; the military-industrial complex; mechanized warfare; the technological megalopolis; and a food production process—has turned or is in danger of turning into its opposite. In all six cases, an elemental, irrational system is running out of control, treating people as though they were animals or reducing them to dead primal matter, and threatening to destroy both its creators and itself as it does so.
Indeed, because of the very tenacity with which Western Man clung to the fiction of the rationality of the process which was enslaving him, many modernists felt that he was all the more perilously exposed to those anti-rational powers which the Enlightenment had thought it possible, in some final sense, to subdue, harness and control: psychopathological urges and demonic Nature. Kandinsky, whose seven Compositionen (Compositions) (1909–13) are marked by a violent sense of impending Apocalypse, put that sense into words when, in Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1900–10) (translated as The Art of Spiritual Harmony (1914)), he wrote as follows on the state of contemporary civilization: ‘Der alte vergessene Friedhof bebt. Alte vergessene Gräber öffnen sich, und vergessene Geister heben sich aus ihnen’ (‘The old forgotten graveyard is quaking. Old forgotten graves are opening and forgotten spirits/ghosts are rising up from them’). And Hugo Ball, one of the founders of Dada in Zurich in February 1916, echoed the diagnosis when lecturing on Kandisky in Zurich on 7 April 1917: ‘Die Titanen standen auf und zerbrachen die Himmelsburgen’ (‘the Titans rose up and smashed the celestial castles into pieces’). Thus, it is precisely because Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach clings so stubbornly to the illusion that his attraction for Tadzio derives from high, Apollonian motives that he falls prey so destructively to Dionysiac obsession. And it is precisely because the utopian Dream Kingdom of Perle in Alfred Kubin’s Die andere Seite (1908) (translated as The Other Side (1967)) has been created so artificially that its final collapse into anarchy is so violent and so total. The same sense also explains why madness and the city are so closely connected in so many modernist texts. As Spears put it, that institution which had originally been constructed as ‘a society of individuals who subscribe to an ideal of rational order’ was felt to be turning dialectically into the ‘Weltstadt’, the insane megalopolis which, in all major pre-war Expressionist poetry and painting, is associated with darkness, demonic ingression, elemental inundation and the dystopic machine. It is not simply, as Bathrick suggests, that ‘quotidian modernity’ is felt to cause madness. Rather, for all its claims to rationality, the modern city itself is perceived to have ‘den charakter des offenen Wahnsinns’ (‘to be characterized by public insanity’). One work which graphically demonstrates this connection in extenso is Rilke’s novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) (translated as The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (1930)). In this text, the central character is so profoundly affected by the dislocated insanity of modern Paris that, as Huyssen has shown (see note 33), the shock uncovers the fragmentary nature and latent paranoia of his own personality: insane city and unhinged self are mirror images of one another. By the same token, Michael Fischer in Döblin’s Die Ermordung einer Butterblume (The Murder of a Buttercup) (c. 1905), a small-scale entrepreneur; the madman in Heym’s story. Der Irre (The Head-case) (1911), a psychopath who is associated with an industrial landscape; and Anton Gross in Franz Jung’s Der Fall Gross (The Case of Anton Gross) (c. 1920), a draftsman, are metonymic. While convinced of their sanity, all are motivated by pathological drives which they cannot control, and these lead them to do violence to the natural, the innocent and the female, and, ultimately, to destroy themselves.
Because we can, with hindsight, understand modernist texts in a total context in a way which many of their creators could not, Althusser’s concept of a ‘problématique’ is of relevance. In Pour Marx (1965) (translated as For Marx (1977)), Althusser argues that any ‘problématique’ as that is perceived subjectively will be more or less mismatched with the objective state of things, and so will tend to de-form, obscure or repress factors which are not compatible with the epistemological position of the perceiver. If we apply this idea to modernism, it becomes easy to see why the phenomenon is so diverse. First, because of the subjective elements involved in the dialectic encounter from which any given text is generated, two texts which derive from the same objective ‘problématique’ may appear to be unconnected at the surface level. Second, texts will vary greatly in the manner in which they transcribe and foreground the objective ‘problématique’ from which they have been generated. Where some will display an ‘explicit consciousness of their own ideologies’, others will distort, simplify or repress those ideologies and the objective ‘problématique’ which underpins them— ‘manage’ them, ‘forget’ them, drive them underground. Thus, some modernist texts, like Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s ‘Vorfrühling’ (‘Early Spring’) (1892), the early work of Gustav Klimt, or the poems of Georg Trakl (1910–14) allow the objective ‘problématique’ of modernism to manifest itself only as more or less dark intimations of an impending threat. Others, like Musil’s Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (1902–3) (translated as Young Törless (1955)) naturalize that ‘problématique’ into something more manageable (an adolescent crisis in this particular case). Others, like Egon Schiele’s paintings Selbstbildnis mit Lampionfrüchten (Self-portrait with Chinese Lanterns) (1912), Mutter und Tochter (Mother and Daughter) (1913) and Liesbesakt (Act of Love) (1915), show terrified human figures in contorted and defensive postures but provide no background which indicates what is causing their terror. Others, like Andrey Bely’s Petrburg (1911–13) (translated as Petersburg (1959; revised and improved in 1978)), Balász’s and Bartók’s A Kékszakállá herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard’s Castle) (1911), Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1911) (translated as Death in Venice (1928)), or Franz Kafka’s Der Proceß; (1914) (translated as The Trial (1929)), foreground a very powerful sense of the objective ‘problématique’, but do so in terms which are mythological, quasi-mythological or surreal rather than overtly modern. And others, like Ludwig Meidner’s Apokalyptische Landschaften (Apocalyptic Landscapes) (1913–14), or the major poetry of the German Expressionists, foreground the objective ‘problématique’ using images which are derived from the modern, i.e. urban/technological world.
Furthermore, modernist texts vary greatly in the degree of complexity with which they present the ‘problématique’ which they are confronting and trying to resolve. Some, like the poetry of the German Expressionist August Stramm, evince a sense that the ‘problématique’ is so tangled, so multidimensional, that it vitiates the very medium—in Stramm’s case language—which is being employed. While others, like the poetry of the German Activists (1914–20), such late novels by Lawrence as The Plumed Serpent (1923–5), or Heidegger’s Einführung in die Metaphysik (1935; second (revised) edition 1953) (translated as An Introduction to Metaphysics (1959)), involve a subjective ‘problématique’ which is relatively simple, notwithstanding the portentous weight of their rhetoric. Finally, modernist works vary extensively in the nature and complexity of their response to the perceived ‘problématique’. On the one hand, it is perfectly possible for important modernist works— like many of Rilke’s Neue Gedichte or Kandinsky’s post-1910 visual work—to involve a highly complex response to a perceived ‘problématique’ which is so repressed, concealed or ‘veiled’ that we seem to be dealing with Art for Art’s sake in its purest form. While on the other hand, an excessively simple perception of the ‘problématique’ can, and indeed tends to provoke a correspondingly simplistic response and so generate works which, although modernist, are utopian, and even totalitarian in one form or another.
These variables have been the (often unrecognized) source of critical debate along at least two axes: which works belong in the modernist canon and how important is any given modernist work or author? Although such debates are important, I wish, in this essay, to sidestep them for the sake of two more descriptive aims. First, I wish to chart the major aspects of the modernist ‘problématique’ within the context established above. And second, I want to chart some of the major ways in which a range of modernists responded to and attempted to resolve that ‘problématique’ as they perceived it. The point of drawing such a map is not to make it unnecessary to explore individual texts. Rather, the point is to bring those texts into some kind of relationship with one another and so give readers some kind of idea of the issues they may expect to find there when they throw away the map and engage with the texts themselves. . .
Modernism as Response
By the early 1930s, it was a commonplace among artists and intellectuals, especially on the Continent, that European civilization was at a crossroads. C.G. Jung’s Seelenprobleme der Gegenwart (Spiritual Problems of the Present Day) (1931), especially the chapter entitled ‘Das Seelenproblem des modernen Menschen’; Karl Jaspers’s Die geistige Situation der Zeit; Edmund Husserl’s lecture of 7 and 10 May 1935 ‘Die Krisis des europäischen Menschtums und die Philosophie’ (translated as ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of Modern Man’ (1965)); and, of course, Heidegger’s Einführung in die Metaphysik all evince a more or less pronounced awareness that Western humanist and/or idealist culture was in a state of crisis. The scientist Max Planck put it thus:
We are living in a very singular moment of history. It is a moment of crisis, in the literal sense of that word. . . Many people say that these symptoms mark the beginnings of a great renaissance, but there are others who see in them the tidings of a downfall to which our civilization is fatally destined.
But the art of modernism had anticipated and gone beyond such a straightforwardly optimistic/ pessimistic reaction to the perceived crisis, and at the risk of excessive categorization, it is possible to identify at least nine fairly well distinguished types of response to that crisis which recur throughout modernist art.
First, and most negatively, there is the nihilist response. Faced with a situation which Durkheim had, in Le Suicide and De la Division du travail social, described as one of anomie, more than a few modernist artists and intellectuals succumbed to the feeling that an apocalyptic end was approaching beyond which there was only the ‘endless darkness . . .’ with which A Kékszakállá herceg vára concludes, or that human relationships were irredeemably locked into that sadomasochistic double bind which marks Kafka’s early writings and Georg Kaiser’s Von morgens bis mitternachts (1912) (translated as From Morn to Midnight (1920)). Consequently, a significant number either went insane (Nietzsche, van Gogh, Jakob van Hoddis, Antonin Artaud); or took their own lives (Virginia Woolf, Jacques Vaché, Jacques Rigaut, René Crevel, Georg Trakl, Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergey Yesenin); or died prematurely in a state of near total despair (Rimbaud, Alfred Lichtenstein, August Stramm).
Second, several modernists—and this response is particularly typical of the early Expressionists— sought to relieve their sense of crisis by means of the experience of ecstatic release, sometimes aided by drugs, alcohol or violent experience. Following Rimbaud’s stated aim in his letters of 13 and 15 May 1871 of arriving at the Unknown by deranging all his senses, several early Expressionists, not to mention the alter egos who form the mid-point of their so-called Ich-Dramen, would have assented to the view which Georg Heym recorded in his diary on 6 July 1910 and 15 December 1911: that one instant of intoxicated enthusiasm, even though it may lead to death, is preferable to the suffocating banality and oppression of everyday modern life. And Ludwig Rubiner’s highly influential essay of mid-1912, ‘Der Dichter greift in die Politik’ (‘The Poet intervenes in Politics’), with its call for dynamism, intensity, ecstasy and the will to catastrophe, was almost certainly one of the immediate stimuli for such hymns to ecstasy as Bean’s ‘Untergrundbahn’ (‘Underground Train/Railway’) (1913), Stadler’s ‘Der Aufbruch’ (‘The Beginning’/‘ The Break-Out’) (c. 1912) and ‘Fahrt über die Kölner Rheinbrücke bei Nacht’ and Ernst Wilhelm Lotz’s ‘Aufbruch der Jugend’ (‘Youth Bursts Out’) (c. 1913–14). In these and similar works, no attempt is made to analyse or understand. The threatened ego seeks to overcome its sense of isolation and constriction by tapping the irrational powers of the psyche and inducing what Freud called the ‘oceanic feeling’, regardless of where that might lead. And in several cases, it led, via the war hysteria of 1914, to the trenches and an early death (Lotz, Stadler, Hans Leybold, Franz Marc and August Macke) or to rapid disillusion with ecstatic irrationalism (Ludwig Rubiner, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Klemm, Hugo Ball and Rudolf Leonhard). As Freud was to argue in Jenseits des Lustprinzips (XIII) (translated as Beyond the Pleasure Principle (XVIII)) which he published in 1920 in the wake of the Great War: if you open up the Unconscious, you are as likely to release the destructive power of the Death Instinct (Thanatos) as the creative power of the Life Instinct (Eros).
Third, a significant number of Modernists turned to mysticism as a way of resolving their sense of crisis. This might take the form of a latter- day Platonism (like that of Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst); a panentheism (like that informing the theory and practice of Hans Arp and Paul Klee); an esoteric hermeticism (like that of Yeats); or a more or less westernized Eastern mysticism (like that embodied in the blue-eyed people who preside over and survive the concluding apocalypse of Die andere Seite; or that implied by the concluding (Sanskrit) words of Eliot’s The Waste Land; or that involved in Hesse’s Siddhartha (1919–22) (translated 1954) and Narzibeta; und Goldmund (1927–9) (translated as Death and the Lover (1932)). But the mysticism might also take more secular forms like Chandos’s final openness to inexplicable epiphanic moments; Breton’s alchemically inspired quest for ‘le merveilleux’ (‘the marvellous’) in Nadja (1927–8) (translated 1960); the importance of music in Symbolist and Symbolist-derived aesthetic theory; the use of music imagery throughout A Passage to India and in the concluding pages of La Nausée, Dr Faustus and Kafka’s ‘Die Verwandlung’ (1912) (translated as ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1937)); or what has been variously termed the ‘individualist mysticism’ and ‘the aesthetic of transcendence and epiphany’ of such works as Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, My, Das Schloß, Der Steppenwolf and Berlin Alexanderplatz. In all cases, we are dealing with an attempt, albeit one which expresses itself in very different ways and with varying degrees of confidence, to arrive at a sense which is deeply repugnant to those critics who have accepted the (anti-)ontology of postmodernism. Beyond or within what looks like entropic chaos or unresolvable conflict, there exists a firm spiritual substratum. This substratum may be either psychological or metaphysical, but it permits what Jung termed ‘integration’ and the emergence of what the Existentialists were to call a sense of Being out of Nothingness: it is a melody, as Roquentin puts it in the final pages of La Nausée, which persists even after the record has been broken.
Fourth, and closely related to the mystical response, is the aestheticist one. As Bürger has shown, the attempt to establish art as something autonomous, a-historical and removed from the realm of rationalization and commercialization goes back to the end of the eighteenth century. But towards the end of the nineteenth century the sense intensified that the world had not only been desacralized, but was also being increasingly afflicted by the radical sense of uncertainty generated by the dialectical turn taken by the central project of the Enlightenment. Consequently, such practitioners of Art for Art’s sake and aestheticism as the Symbolists, the Decadents, the George Circle and the Imagists felt the ever more urgent need to proclaim the sacral nature of art and thereby hold on to an allegedly a-temporal enclave of meaning, stability and transcendence. It is this desire which informs Mallarmé’s essay ‘Averses ou Critique’ (‘Rainshowers or Criticism’) (1886–95); better known as ‘Crise de vers’ ‘Crisis in Poetry’ (1897)); Rilke’s book on Rodin (1903–7) (translated 1946) and Hofmannsthal’s essay ‘Der Dichter und diese Zeit’ (‘The Poet and this Age’ (1906)). In an age when, as Hofmannsthal puts it, the representative things lack spirit and the spiritual things do not stand out in relief; which has no Eleusinian Mysteries or Seven Sacraments with which people can lift themselves above everyday life, it is the artist’s task to redeem the world by recapturing that lost sense of mystery.
From here, it is only a short step to the fifth response, the decision to turn one’s back on the modern age. After the Great War, for instance, Rilke, Yeats and Ball expressed that decision in a ‘flight out of time’—the emigration to a ‘still point’ or the fixed centre of a ‘gyre’ which was geographically as far removed as possible from the confusions of the modern age. In Rilke’s case, this meant the little château at Muzot; in Yeats’s case, the tower in Galway; and in Ball’s case, Montagnola in the Tessin (where he became Hesse’s secretary and biographer) and the certainties of ultra-orthodox Catholicism. Eliot and Pound (whose early thinking about art and poetry, especially in respect of the need for impersonality, owed much to Symbolism) expressed a very similar decision in a somewhat different way. After the Great War, both moved backwards in time to associate themselves with a pre-modern consciousness and system of beliefs which, they felt, were free from the uncertainties, instability and sense of meaninglessness which marked the modern age. In The Waste Land, Eliot came to the conclusion that the modern world was an arid desert full of broken images and that all he could do about it was to put his own lands in order. And he rationalized that conclusion in his essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921) by means of the extremely influential notion of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ according to which English culture had undergone a historical fall from grace during the seventeenth century from which it had never recovered. On the basis of that conclusion, Eliot committed himself publicly, in his preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), a book dedicated to an English divine who had died in the pre-lapsarian year of 1626, to classicism in literature, royalism in politics and Anglo-Catholicism in religion—i.e. to those attitudes which Eliot believed to have been most finely developed in the last part of the sixteenth century, before the historical fall. And it was the quintessential spirit informing those attitudes which Eliot sought to celebrate in Little Gidding (1941–2), the last of the Four Quartets, which takes as its starting point a religious community near Huntingdon founded one year before Andrewes’s death by Nicholas Ferrar, but looted and dissolved by the Roundheads in 1646. Pound voiced a similar disgust with contemporary European civilization in Hugh Selwym Mauberly (1919–20), describing it as ‘an old b____ gone in the teeth,/ . . . a botched civilization’. He then left England, and after a stay in Paris, finally settled in 1924 in Mussolini’s Italy (which he saw as a modern version of the corporate medieval state and hence free from the mechanization, systematization and ‘the black death of the capitalist system’) in order to write his own, latter-day version of the Divine Comedy: the Cantos. These were, as Schwartz put it, ‘designed to challenge the corrupted values of Western civilization and to inspire reverence for the highest values—the “eternal state of mind”—which will lay the groundwork for a new and more humane society.’ Likewise, Hofmannsthal and George went down their own, not dissimilar paths leading from Aestheticism to various forms of high conservatism.
Where Pound and Eliot turned their backs on the complexities and confusions of the present in the name of an ideal, hieratic past, other modernists, especially during the immediate post-war years, turned their back on the same complexities and confusions in the name of an ideal, socialist future. Thus, the more or less short-lived left-wing utopianism of, for instance, Ernst Toller, Johannes R. Becher, RudolfLeonhard, Kurt Hiller, Ludwig Rubiner, Lyonel Feininger, Bruno Taut and the members of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst in Germany, or of Kandinsky, Mayakovsky, Alexander Blok, El Lissitzky, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodschenko in Russia, was the obverse of the rightwing nostalgia of Eliot, Pound, Hofmannsthal and George. Both groups of modernists were marked by a deep yearning for a total, centred world in which the New Man under socialism or redeemed humanity under God could rediscover a secure identity and transcendent sense of purpose. It is wrong to say, as some critics have, that all modernist utopianism issued in a totalitarian commitment. However, Pound’s extreme right-wing illusions did lead him to become the propagandist for a fascist state; and Becher’s extreme leftwing illusions did lead him to become the first Minister of Culture of a Stalinist state, the GDR, and the composer of its national anthem. In both cases, a flawed sense of ‘problématique’ ultimately generated a frighteningly simple, totalitarian response.
The sixth response can be broadly described as a ‘primitivism’. Non-European or pre-modern cultures are used not just as sources of aesthetic inspiration, but as a cultural model for emulation. Hence the importance of the Hindu philosopher Professor Godbole in A Passage to India and the black community of Harlem in Section II of Lorca’s Poeta in Nueva York (1929–30) (translated as Poet in New York (1940)). Godbole’s intuitive, nonrational cast of mind makes him the character who is best adapted to the mysteries, ambiguities and open-ended fluidity which Forster designated with the non-topographical shifter ‘India’. And in Lorca’s poem, it is the elemental, mythological, ‘great and desperate’ King of Harlem (whose beard is said to stretch down to the sea) who offers the inhabitants of New York, especially its black community, their only hope of redemption from the anguished frustration and cancered blood which derive from their enslavement by the banality and materialism of industrial civilization.
The seventh response, aptly characterized by Pär Bergman as ‘modernolatry’, is characteristic of Italian Futurism, early Vorticism and that group of writers, of whom Ernst Jünger is the best known, described by Herf as ‘reactionary modernists’. Where the first six responses described above all, in various ways, involve a withdrawal from or transcendence of the contemporary world, the three latter groups celebrated their unreserved commitment to it. The Futurists and the reactionary modernists did so because of the speed, energy, size and sheer modernity of industrial society, and, conversely, its ability to destroy what had been inherited from the past. The Vorticists did so because of the tension they perceived between the massively static, abstract machine forms of modernity and the violence which was stored up within them. But where the Futurists’ hymn to the machine, the city and material energy led several of the major members of the movement towards ‘embarrassingly reactionary’ attitudes—the inhuman celebration of mechanized warfare, Man’s ability to master his environment by machine brutality and, ultimately, Mussolini’s fascism—most of the Vorticists moved away from their early attitudes and towards less abstract and more humane modes of art. Indeed, Jacob Epstein (who belongs stylistically to the Vorticist group even though he refused to exhibit with them in June 1915) went so far as to destroy what is arguably the major example of Vorticist sculpture, his massive Rock Drill (1913–15), probably because he felt that it celebrated the machine violence which had issued in the Great War. Unlike Epstein, but like several major Futurists, Jünger failed to learn more humane attitudes from his war experience. And in books like In Stahlgewittern (1920; second (revised) edition 1924) (translated as The Storm of Steel (1929)) and Der Arbeiter (The Worker) (1932), he actually seems to approve of the process by which human beings lose their autonomy and become aspects of a supra-human military or industrial machine. But like the early Vorticists, it was the staticness and stability of huge machines which attracted him; and this, together with his ingrained aristocratism, generated in the late 1930s the totalitarian (albeit anti-Nazi) ‘static hierarchy of value’ and ‘haven of paradisaical permanence’ which forms the resolution of his novel Auf den Marmorklippen (1939) (translated as On the Marble Cliffs (1947)).
The change of heart on the part of most of the Vorticists forms an obvious bridge to the eighth response. Utopian and messianic socialism was doomed to disillusion as the real nature of the German and Russian revolutions became apparent; and Futurist affirmation of the modern was unacceptable to many modernists because of its blindness to or indifference towards the reality and implications of machine violence. So, in order to avoid these pitfalls, those modernists who suffered from a sense of cultural crisis but who wished to stay with the contemporary world had to develop more modest, more ambiguous and more ironic attitudes to the complexities of modernity. It was this desire to negotiate a middle way which generated Constructivism and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), with their assertion of the need for a modern classicism, their commitment to modern materials and their desire to rescue Western civilization from the barbarism to which it had succumbed over the previous decade. But above all, whether they understood it in these terms or not, the proponents of both movements were trying to reverse the dialectical turn which the central project of the Enlightenment had taken and bring it back onto its central and proper course. Hence their attempts to bring technology back to manageable human dimensions through the design and construction of aesthetically pleasing cities where imperialist capitalism was not permitted to turn into a chaotic, autonomous system, but was, instead, subject to reasonable and humane control. One might describe this general attitude as a pared-down humanism: Man was reinstated at the centre of things but not necessarily regarded as the measure of all things. And human reason, while retaining its centrality, was not overestimated vis-à-vis the powers of unreason inside and outside human nature. Such was the spirit informing Bruno Taut’s move away from utopianism and acceptance of the post of City Architect in Magdeburg; Sartre’s Existentialism; Jung’s central doctrine of ‘integration’; Ernst Bloch’s Spuren (Traces) (1930); Döblin’s revision of his apocalyptic Berge Meere und Giganten into Giganten (Giants) (1932) (in which human autonomy and technological ability were celebrated); and, perhaps of all literary works, Thomas Mann’s Joseph tetralogy (1926–42) (translated as Joseph and his Brothers (1934–45)). Here, as Ritchie Robertson has perceptively observed, Mann, instead of ‘surrendering blindly to the primitive or trying to deny its power’, sought to ‘explore and understand it with the aid of his modern consciousness’ and so developed an ironic stance as ‘a means of keeping the primitive at bay while acknowledging its authority and appeal’.
And finally, one can identify a strand in modernism which points forward very clearly to McHale’s definition of the postmodernist condition as an acceptance of ‘an anarchic landscape of worlds in the plural’ in which artists renounce the nostalgia or desire for epiphany, transcendence and closure. From the modernist point of view, this double attitude of acceptance and renunciation can be experienced either as a loss (as in Virginia Woolf’s last, posthumously published Between the Acts (1938–41), and, less tragically, in Ulysses and Watt). Or it can be experienced as a liberation (as in Finnegan’s Wake and Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften). Or it can be experienced as both at the same time. The best example of this latter, ambiguous response is undoubtedly provided by Dada with its anarchist roots, plurality of poetic registers (including deliberate banality), wide-ranging use of various kinds of collage components, recognition that the cinema rather than the printed word is the art form of modernity, aggressive challenging of classical humanist assumptions, metaleptic mistrust of hierarchies, disrespect for allegedly impermeable boundaries (like that between ‘Art’ and ‘life’), hostility to final solutions and closures, parodic use of machinery, experimentation with heteroglossia via the simultaneous poem, carnival imagery, willingness to accept its own disposability/death, antiillustrations and repeated insistence that Dada involves the ability to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time. It can be argued that Dada left too many of the tragic aspects of life out of account, and in his later years, Arp came to see this. Nevertheless, Dada involves the ‘suspensive irony’, the ‘more comprehensive “both-and”’, the ‘willingness to live with uncertainty, to tolerate and, in some cases, to welcome a world seen as random and multiple, even, at times absurd’ and the ability to accept ‘the gaps and discontinuities’ which Wilde identified as central features of postmodernism. Dada also evinces virtually all the characteristics which, in McHale’s view, typify postmodernism—so that it comes as something of a surprise to discover that neither of these critics accords Dada so much as a mention!
It is an artistic landscape like that constructed by Dada in which Ulrich, Musil’s ‘Möglichkeitsmensch’ (literally ‘possibilitarian’) lives and moves: ‘without the fiction of the self as entelechy unfolding and growing according to some inner law’; untroubled by ‘the futile and frequently selfdestructive searches for selfhood as wholeness, which neglect the potential rewards of openness toward the other’; and without the need for certainty. Indeed, Ulrich’s refusal to look for any final solution outside his situation, his ability to hold an ironic balance between the conflicting, overlapping and fluctuating possibilities which inform his situation, and his preparedness to live without any final certainty in an elastic situation where reason is of limited help all make him an example of that ‘non-Euclidian humanity’ which can live in a ‘Lobatchevskyan’ universe. Eliot glimpsed precisely this possibility when he published his essay on Ben Jonson in the TLS on 13 November 1919, but having achieved his own sense of centred, ‘Euclidean’ certainty, he repressed that awareness when he published his Selected Essays in 1932. Ulrich’s attitudes also put him in the same category as those quintessentially modernist heroes Chaplin and Keaton—little men who, when everything is ranged against them, manage to keep their balance in an insane modern universe.
Because the modernists could see, with varying degrees of clarity, complexity and acceptance, the implications of an accelerating process which, in our own era, has turned the world into an electronic stage, or, as Wilde put it, a global shopping mall, they constituted in the literal sense an avantgarde scouting out an unknown territory. But because that process had not yet turned into a total and accepted way of life legitimized by what Horkheimer and Adorno were to call the ‘culture industry’, it was still possible for the modernists to respond to it in ways which are closed to the postmodernists. Hence the frequent and hotly debated charge that postmodernism is not an oppositional phenomenon. The modernists were still able, either literally or imaginatively, to seek out alternative or geographical enclaves which had not yet been colonized by the media or the leisure industry. They could call to mind a past which was in danger, but not irrevocably so, of being lost and had not been reified by the nostalgia or heritage industries. They could hope in a hieratical or socialist utopia which had not been discredited by Nazi or Stalinist atrocities. They could withdraw into arcane areas of the mind which had not been invaded by the religious or the fantasy industries. And they could use a variety of innovative artistic techniques and psychological ploys which enabled them to retain a greater or lesser sense of selfhood and autonomy, but which had not yet been assimilated by the advertising, fashion and lifestyle industries. Although modernism anticipated what McHale has called ‘the pluralistic and anarchistic ontological landscape of advanced industrial cultures’, most modernists disliked what they espied from their advanced position. As Barnouw and Wilde suggest, this was partly because of a nostalgia for a (probably imaginary) ideal stability, but partly, too, because of three more serious reasons. First, many modernists suspected that what McHale describes as ‘pluralism’ might actually be nothing more than a multicoloured surface concealing a commodified uniformity. Second, the more socially aware realized that that ‘anarchistic’ landscape was not a flat one, but involved large, possibly growing areas of systematically created physical and psychological misery. And third, the more psychoanalytically aware feared that the abolition of metaphors of depth—one of the central features of the postmodernist imagination—inevitably involved a blindness to or the repression of those dark, Dionysiac powers which return from the forgotten depths all the more potently and destructively for being ignored.
Given the unmistakeable consequences which are now issuing from the dialectical turn taken by the central project of the Enlightenment— escalating environmental problems, the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, the boredom, violence and alienation which haunt our advanced societies, the difficulties involved in making relationships within a system which is inherently hostile to Gemeinschaften—the anxiety of modernism may well be a more appropriate response to that turn than postmodernism’s ludic acceptance. Ever since Kierkegaard, the Existentialists, with the exception of the later Sartre, have been telling us that our capacity to experience Angst betokens a very deep realization that the prevailing system which constructs what Lawrence called the ‘old stable ego’ is at odds with the profoundest stratum of the personality. And the central project of German aesthetics since Kant, admirably analysed by Andrew Bowie in terms of the ‘concern with those aspects of subjectivity which are incompatible with wholesale rationalisation’, points to the same awareness. We may not be able to return in good faith to the security of religious orthodoxy, cling on to the centred categories and confident correspondences of classical humanism, or find refuge in any of the enclaves still available to many of the modernists. But in the face of the massive problems faced by Western or westernizing humanity, all of which can, ultimately, be understood in terms of Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s analysis, it has become a matter of urgency to undertake a transvaluation of values. And that means defying the massively oracular authority of the patriarchs of the 1980s like Lacan and Derrida; finding a power with which to fill the gap at the heart of postmodernist aesthetics and psychology; undoing the post-Enlightenment equations of Geist-as-spirit with Geist-as-ego and self with ego; relegitimizing metaphors of depth; and rediscovering that decentred fluidum at the heart of the human personality which many ancient cultures referred to by means of metaphors of breath. The problematics of modernism are still with us, albeit in a more drastic form. Thus, by studying the variety of ways in which modernist writers, thinkers and artists responded to them and understanding the implications and end results of those responses, we are given the means of avoiding the modernists’ mistakes and making decisions about the nature of reality, our relationship with reality and our relationship with ourselves which can, in some measure at least, help us to look for a way out of the impasse into which our civilization seems currently to be heading.
Source: Richard Sheppard, “The Problematics of European Modernism,” in Theorizing Modernism: Essays in Critical Theory, edited by Steve Giles, Routledge, 1993, pp. 1–51.