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Modernism was the most influential literary movement in England and America during the first half of the twentieth century. It encompassed such works as The Waste Land (1922), by T. S. Eliot, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce, and The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Representing an unequivocal rejection of Victorian aesthetic standards, moral precepts, and literary techniques, Modernism was initiated during the opening decade of the century, a time of extensive experimentation in the arts. Writers of the movement embraced the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the anthropological relativism espoused by Sir James Frazer, and in their works the Modernists emphasized the psychological state of a character through the use of such devices as the interior monologue, or stream-of-consciousness narrative.

In English literature, manifestations of the modernist aesthetic in fiction range from the sexual explicitness of D. H. Lawrence to the formal experimentation of Virginia Woolf and the myth-based narrative of James Joyce. The disorienting effects of the era of modern warfare that began with the First World War gave rise to such American expressions of modernist concerns as the novels of John Dos Passos, whose Manhattan Transfer (1925) utilized montage-like effects to depict the chaos of modern urban life, and Ernest Hemingway, whose The Sun Also Rises (1926) portrayed the aimlessness of the "lost generation" of American expatriates in Europe during the postwar era. Similarly, The Great Gatsby is seen to epitomize the demoralization of American society and the end of innocence in American thought.

While sharing the novelists' preoccupation with themes of alienation and ambivalence, Modernist poetry is chiefly known for its dependence on concrete imagery and its rejection of traditional prosody. Considered a transitional figure in the development of modern poetry, W. B. Yeats rejected the rhetorical poetry that had gained prominence at the height of the Victorian era, favoring a personal aesthetic, natural rhythms, and spare style. American expatriate Ezra Pound, who with Richard Aldington and Hilda Dolittle founded the Imagist movement in poetry in 1910, favored concise language and free rhythms, and became a champion of avant-garde experimentalists of the era. The thematic preoccupations and technical innovations of Modernist poetry are seen to culminate in The Waste Land, Eliot's complex, erudite expression of modern malaise and disillusionment.

Representative Works

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Anderson, Sherwood

Winesburg, Ohio (short stories) 1919

Crane, Hart

The Bridge (poetry) 1930

Dos Passos, John

Manhattan Transfer (novel) 1925

U.S.A. (novels) 1930-36

Eliot, T. S.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (poetry) 1917

"Tradition and the Individual Talent" (prose) 1919

The Waste Land (poetry) 1922

Murder in the Cathedral (drama) 1935

Four Quartets (poetry) 1943

Faulkner, William

The Sound and the Fury (novel) 1929

Fitzgerald, F. Scott

The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925

Ford, Ford Madox

The Good Soldier (novel) 1915

Hemingway, Ernest

The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926

Isherwood, Christopher

The Berlin Stories (short stories) 1935-49

Joyce, James

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (novel) 1916

Ulysses (novel) 1922

Finnegans Wake (novel) 1939

Lawrence, D. H.

Sons and Lovers (novel) 1913

The Rainbow (novel) 1915

Women in Love (novel) 1920

Lady Chatterley's Lover (novel) 1928

Pound, Ezra

The Cantos (poetry) 1925

Richardson, Dorothy

Pilgrimage (novel) 1915-38

Stein, Gertrude

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (memoir) 1933

Stevens, Wallace

"Sunday Morning" (poetry) 1923

Woolf, Virginia

Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925

To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927

The Waves (novel) 1931

Yeats, William Butler

"Easter 1916" (poetry) 1916

"The Second Coming" (poetry) 1920

"Sailing to Byzantium" (poetry) 1928

Purgatory (drama) 1938


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Anna Balakian

SOURCE: "Problems of Modernism," in The Snowflake on the Belfry: Dogma and Disquietude in the Critical Arena, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 24-43.

[In the following essay, Balakian considers the variety of meanings and manifestations of Modernism.]

Each generation of writers had the habit of reacting against the past by declaring itself "modern." The quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns used to be a cyclical phenomenon. "New" is in itself empty of meaning, a connective word between what was and what is to come. In early uses the word had a pejorative meaning, implying that what was new and modern could not be as good as what had the prestige of approval over a period of time.

Baudelaire as both poet and critic was one of the first to splice the meaning of "modern" in a modest article relating to his viewing of the art of his time. In his piece called "La Modernité" he first gives the image of a little man running around searching for the modern and expresses the normally accepted derogatory meaning: "the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent," but then adds "that which is capable of drawing the eternal from the transitory."

Since the middle of the nineteenth century critics as well as artists in the broader sense of the word have compounded ambiguities on "modern" by using it in both senses. Succeeding generations have been calling themselves modern and allowing the word to lose gradually its defensive tone and instead assume an attitude of contestation and even arrogance. It has become in many cases a cry of rebellion, and sometimes what the late Renato Poggioli called agonism, no longer apologetic but rather challenging. Others have claimed the label "modern" in the Baudelairian sense that while reflecting the passing climate of the time, what is modern has caught "the eternal and the immutable." Critic-readers have learned to distinguish between these two definitions by calling the protesters avant-garde and have retained for the latter the label "modern" and even "high modern" cast in solid gold.

In both cases there has emerged an added aspect of the confusion. There has developed a tradition of the antitraditional, and the label of "modern" has been retained for works of the past. Let me explain. With the passage of time each era claiming the advantage of a little distance used to delimit what had passed with a more precise label and claim for its own rebellion or renewal in the arts its own modernity. Ours is the first era on record in which succeeding waves of moderns carry on their backs the memorabilia of their ancestors and sustain the myth that modernism, proclaimed and acknowledged at a moment in time for a group of works, forever retains that label in reference to those works, that it survives in a cumulative form, generation after generation, and that avant-gardes as well as golden-seal moderns can follow each other without a posteriori appraisal, which might result in a more permanent label than the temporal one of "modern."

Seen from the Anglo-American perspective, Joyce, Proust, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, all so different from each other, remain under the label of "modern" on the basis of their capability of retrieval of the eternal from the transitory, and writers as different from each other as Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, AndreéBreton remain "modern" from the avant-garde angle of protest and rebellion. The French, more pedagogical in their classifications, have adhered to Baudelaire's definition in one sense but, unable to define their own modernism, have virtually abandoned the label itself and created newer "ism" labels. The Spanish still cling to "modernismo" with its special reference to Rubén Darïo and his particular brand of Symbolism. They complicate the chronological problem by following up with "postmodernismo," which is not of the vintage of the Anglo-American postmodernism. The Germans associate modern with Expressionism and Dada, the Russians hang on to Futurism as the ultimate modern before the curtain came down on any further movement in the arts. The common agreement among all of them is to call a certain moment in time modern and surrender the word to it for eternity. In calling the past modern the commentators would let their elders retain the label and in amazing timidity would relegate to their own era the rank of reargarde, paradoxically labeling the contemporary scene "postmodern." Then the sometime literary critic, sometime philosopher Jean-Franc̈ois Lyotard comes along to usher us into the post-postmodern in his book entitled The Postmodern Condition. Has there ever been such ancestor worship recorded on the part of writers and artists themselves or of critics and literary historians? In terms of literary criticism the ambiguity simply tells us that out of the plethora of books on the market on "modernism" or "the avant-garde" there is very little chance that they are discussing the same artists or writers or the same period in literary history.

Jean Weisgerber, in structuring his two volumes on modernism in the twentieth century for the monumental project of the Comparative History of Literature in European Languages, tried to eliminate the problem by using the collective title Les Avant-gardes littéraires. But thereby he raised a new problem; in borrowing a term metaphorically from military terminology one expects the garde itself after the avant-garde. For more than two decades in the course of various communications I have been asking, "Where is the garde of the avant-garde?" I have heard no answers. Instead we observe in studies of theories of the avant-garde such terms as "old avant-garde," "the return of the avant-garde," "post-avant-garde" (although I can't quite see how you can be out front and at the tail end simultaneously), "academy of the first avant-garde," "other avant-garde," "the twilight of the avant-garde," and most recently "the neo-avant-garde." The implications of these two labels, the meaningful and meaningless one of "modern" and the uncomfortable one of "avant-garde," suggest the inability of the current moderns to provide self-determination or in retrospect attribute to past "moderns" more precise and discrete qualifications. It is no solution to suggest, as Ihab Hassan has in relation to Surrealism, that "these movements have all but vanished now, Modernism has proved more stable." Existentialism and Minimalism, the two most recent efforts at group classification, have already outlived their recentness. The end of the century that has had in its existence so many ruptures with the past has not yet had the vision and the courage to proclaim the past moderns as pre-something that would define changes in literature and art in our era reflecting our society and at the same time preserving those of its qualities that may have resilience and permanence.

The reason that one sometimes denigrates a phenomenon or task is the realization that one cannot cope with it. That is perhaps why literary history is a bad term these days and the practice of analysis has priority over attempts at synthesis. We have dwelt on the most comfortable assumption that ruptures in the realm of arts can be paralleled with political revolutions, but in doing so we may be overlooking the fundamental cohesions that existed beneath the many "isms" of the first half of our century, alternately called modern and avant-garde.

My perspective tells me that there is something else that is understressed: throughout the century all literature and art that could be termed modern in its time and that laid the foundations of what exists today as "the arts" and qualifies as our modernity is related to radical concepts, not politically radical but scientifically so, that have altered our philosophy of existence and thereby reshaped our notions of aesthetics, mimesis, representation, and creativity. Such are the drastic changes in concepts of reality, time, nature, causality and chaos, indeterminacy, and above all, in terms of all the arts, the notion of communication and reception.

As the spectrum of reality enlarges, replacing the old opposition between real and supernal, a progressive distinction is perceived between mimesis and more sophisticated representations of the relative notion of reality. And we have gradually understood that the unconscious is not simply the opposite of the conscious but part of a continuum within the totality of human experience. The old and sage dichotomies between the real and the unreal, the conscious and the unconscious, simply no longer hold, and the dialectics involving them have been run into the ground. The famous phrase of the early decades of the century, "the juxtaposition of distant realities," so often cited as the basis of daring associations created in poetry and paintings by the still so-called moderns and a governing principle of so many works of art and poetry, has lost much of the meaning it had at its inception because we know now that distance exists only in the eye of the beholder, and that if the creative artist has brought two entities together, it is because on some level of sensorial lucidity a connection was made.

In the same way, disordinate perceptionis—such as what Rimbaud called the reasoned disorder of the senses—and their representation reflect disorder only if the natural world is perceived as a network of determinable and tested physical laws producing predictable results. But we have discovered that every law of physics does not have a Newtonian regularity or if it does it is not yet within our capacity to grasp, and we have also learned that there are phenomena which cripple at least temprarily our perception of a logical, precise universe. And in accepting these facts we, as a society, have had to develop the ability to express with mathematical precision the indeterminacies of the material world. Because this ambiguity or presumed randomness is part of our reality, it can be said that the writers or painters who once were considered avant-grade because they performed in an unrealistic or irrational way are from a more educated view no longer avant-grade because they are still holding the mirror up to nature when they represent this indeterminacy: it is not that the mirror is distorted but that nature is discovered to have parameters beyond those previously known and areas of the unknown but not unknowable realities. In other words, the perceived disorder is part of the system of laws whose supposed randomness may be only an appearance manifested in our partial knowledge of the totality.

Early in the twentieth century, Guillaume Apollinaire, whose voice was more European than French, said in his essay Les Peinters cubistes: "Great poets and great artists have the social function to renew unceasingly the appearance that nature assumes in the eyes of humans." Obviously even then he did not consider nature a constant but an ever changeable factor.

From hard ground to soft terrain, the writer moves with the scientists, stunned by his own ignorance, which he characterizes as indeterminacy, replacing previous attitudes of positivism and determinism. In his isolation and sense of loss of control, he drifts into a nonanthropocentric universe. And whereas most observers of the strong element of alienation in the literature of our century may continue to attribute it to psychological disturbances and social maladjustments, the alienation may more correctly be explained by cosmic causes.

The sense of dispersion emphasized by neophilosophers such as Derrida and Foucault is not new to modernism. All self-named moderns have had it. An early avant-gardist, Hugo Ball, often too exclusively associated with Dada but closer in reality to Rimbaud, described the condition of the modern man of his time in an article on Kandinsky in 1917 during a devastating war. Curiously, his apocalyptic fresco is not politically inspired but reflects a metaphysical anxiety: "The world showed itself to be a blind juxtaposition and opposing of uncontrolled forces. Man lost his divine countenance, became matter, chance, an aggregate. He became a particle of nature… no more interesting than a stone: he vanished into nature… a world of abstract demons swallowed the individual… psychology became chatter."

If, in responding to the effect of this condition on the arts, Ortega y Gasset coined the phrase "dehumanization of the arts," "dehumanization" means something quite different today from what it meant in the early part of the century. We can each select a cast of characters to reflect this dehumanization from the annals of literary and art history of the seventy-five years since Hugo Ball's statement and Ortega y Gasset's definition: from Marcel Duchamp's mockery of art in his ready-mades to the latest involutions of abstract art, from the boldness of collage to the whimperings detected in the techniques of fragmentation in all the arts, from the suddenly meaning-stripped world of Sartre's then modern, now classic character Roquentin in La Nausée to the nameless soldier in Alain Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth, from destruction of time-perspective in John Hawkes's novels to the randomness of images in William Burroughs's writings. All were "modern" in a moment in time, and all can be said to hold the mirror up to nature as nature was perceived at that moment in time. In that sense, in each case the classical dictum of a Boileau or a Pope was applicable to his aesthetics and in that sense his forms of representation are from our vantage point mimetic. If his expression of nature is being called antirealistic by some contemporary critics it is so only in terms of previous definitions of reality and nature. The minute one considers our changed perception of reality, such writings and art expressions fit the changed definitions of reality. The disparity between the perception of the critics and the artists is due to the fact that critics are clinging to the older notions of reality and nature, and they are not as agile in grasping the ontological changes. They are bridging the gap between their superannuated notion and the artist's more updated one with the convenient use of the label "modern."

One of the most important transitions—oh so gradual but so irreversible once it is made—in the changing characterization of "modern" is the manner in which the "modern" artists are reacting to the passing of a centrality of purpose and of a supernal presence. Instead of mourning they are accepting the plurality of the universe, of which their predecessors had been warned three centuries earlier but had not seriously implemented, that changes their art forms. There was to be a giant difference between the Nietzschean proclamation that God was dead and the proposition that God never existed. As the poet-artist Jean (or Hans) Arp observed, "Dada was the revolt of the nonbelievers against the disbelievers." The concept was there, but not many practitioners in the arts were implementing that view. It had not yet been ingrained. The revolution in the arts that I would call a postapocalyptic posture is a more radical one than reactions to the kind of sociopolitical events that are generally attributed to avant-garde manifestations and their reflections on the arts. I would suggest that modernism today, responding primarily to passing political winds and ideologies, is modern only in terms of the first part of Baudelaire's definition, "transitory, fugitive, contingent," or in my own words I would call them contemporary works dependent on circumstantial events, reserving the label "modern" for those which anchor their vision on phenomena relating to decentralization and decontrol in what is perceived to be an indifferent universe.

Among those who share these deeper disquietudes there are some who reject the continuity more generally perceived between themselves and earlier moderns; instead they sense grave schisms separating them from their predecessors. Nathalie Sarraute has expressed this distance with some irony: "The works of Joyce and Proust already loom in the distance like witnesses of a closed era. It will not be long before we shall be taking guided tours of these historic monuments in the company of schoolchildren in silent respect and in somewhat mournful admiration." By habit and respect, Joyce, Yeats, Thomas Mann, Proust, and others of their generation may still be called modern, particularly from the Anglo-American perspective because neither England nor the United States had an early-century onslaught of "isms." But the fact is that in terms of their works, the signifier "modern," still applied to them, has subsequently acquired another set of signifieds. These great writers of the recent past are indeed part of what Mallarmé called an interregnum; they are waiting for literary historians to give them a more permanent classification than the temporary and provisional "modern" can sustain, and if such a designation does not come forth they will simply join the ranks of the classics without any special label of their own.

Even if we isolate the writers and artists who gave form as well as expression to their sense of the decentralization and instability of the dimensions of reality and apply to them the label of "modern" in our time, we will find great disparities in the ways they reject or represent their adjusted vision of human and physical nature according to Freud and according to Einstein (just to mention two of the many shakers of our reality).

From this angle it is now possible to view as premodern some of those who are still being called modern in literary history and in books on modernism. Such are the makers of Symbolism and Dada and other refugees into language. Of the Symbolists, an early twentieth-century critic, Raoul Hausman, denigrated their resistance to a drastically changing world; he called their act a "naive nostalgia to see the world through human will as if it was imagined by man." The symbolist nihilism, and in some countries it was called aestheticism, was quiet and introverted. In man's quicksand entrapment, the literary icon was able to create an artificial world to serve as the vitalizing power of the writer's slipping individuality. The second mode of the premodern was a direct attack on the growing notion of a nonanthropocentric world. It was a much more hostile and sometimes teasing reaction in verbal terms. It was flamboyantly represented as we know by Dada: "Dada wants nothing, it is a sure thing that they will achieve nothing, nothing, signed by Francis Picabia who knows nothing, nothing." This was a modernism of rupture, asserting that the assumption of a meaning-free cosmos reduces the perceiver to an equally meaning-free status. Simultaneous with a rejection of language expressed in such structures as phonetic poems was the development of a language of rejection. This rejection was paralleled in the plastic arts with a challenge of the objects to which aesthetic qualities had been attributed.

If the rejection of language developed a language of rejection, it is also true that in the reality of language others sought their sole comfort and strength, a replacement of the divine Logos by a new confidence in language which would equate naming with the act of creation. Stephen Hawking, an eminent popularizer of science, suggests in A Brief History of Time that neophytes viewing the changes catalyzed by recent scientific activities take the advice of the philosopher-mathematician Wittgenstein and in their perplexities seek refuge in language. Earlier poets had done that in a premodern era. Vicente Huidobro, Pierre Reverdy, James Joyce, the early surrealists had perceived language as an armor and a staff in the resistance to chaos. To quote Hugo Ball again, "You may laugh, language will one day reward us for our zeal, even if it does not achieve any directly visible results. We have loaded the word with strengths and energies that helped us to rediscover the evangelical concept of the word (logos) as a magical complex image." And a number of years later, Octavio Paz: "Against silence and noise I invent the Word, freedom that invents itself and invents me every day." To this day language has had a main hold both on poets and in major areas of philosophy.

But I see three other modes directly confronting the decentralized universe, modes in which language is not an end in itself but a means of making responses to the cosmos. They are the modernisms dealing with identification, representation, and revision, all responding to the expanded definition of nature.

Identification (or imitation) with the decontrolled universe is expressed by simulation of it, signaling direct involvement with it. This form of mimesis is demonstrated in the random spirit of collage, in happenings theatrically staged, connective structures suggesting sequence replaced by gaps suggestive of dark holes in thought, action, or human perception of time, in the fragmentation of language or object in text or canvas or celluloid to suggest correspondences between the dislocated narrator and his incohesive surroundings, wherein anger and indifference are personalized not in pathos but through irony and complacency, as if the joke were not on man but on the universe. If life is a travesty, let art be a game! In adopting an amorphous structure and discarding even the elementary codes of art, it is as if the writer or artist were confirming that nothing short of the negation of art can be the symbol of a terminal era. It is this involvement of the perceiver with the perceived chaos, using irony as the only weapon against total dissolution and silence, that has become the literary fortune of Dada among those modernists of today, self-identified as postmodern.

If indeed there are many evidences of authors and painters who identify with flotsam and chaos through their subjective and lately minimalist response, there is also in evidence the representation of human dispersion in the form of personas who are not identified with the narrator but are his cast of characters in a dramatic narrative, creating a distance that protects the narrator from pathos and self-entrapment. I view as such the works of Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, John Hawkes, Günter Grass, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and many so-called neorealists or antirealists in British, Italian, and South American literature. When Molloy, and not Beckett, says "I listen and the voice is of a world collapsing endlessly, a frozen world under a faint and untroubled sky," we, the readers, are joining the author in the act of observing his characters struggling with a redefined notion of reality, and in sharing the detachment of the author we are immune to the element of the tragic. (The voice is not necessarily that of the author; why do critics assume that every somber utterance must necessarily represent the author's attitude?)

It is significant that some of the most prominent writers who have taken the decontrolled, decentralized universe in their stride use the myth of the labyrinth.

Molloy searches for the lost center in the metaphor of the return to the Mother. Robbe-Grillet's nameless, faceless character searches out his memory-stripped consciousness in a void. In neither case is mere an Ariadne in sight. These new Theseuses are engaged in what RobbeGrillet calls "an interminable walk through the night," going nowhere, dying everywhere. A situation of impasse is very structurally staged, the decor is selected, landmarks on the journey are consciously chosen; the central character pirouetting has no recourse to human support, or reliance on a benevolent nature or outside force. There is no possibility of battle or an act of courage at the end; because no single danger can be identified, diere is no opportunity for risk and no need to manifest resistance.

Robbe-Grillet's unidentified protagonist copes with the ambiguities not only of space but also of time. We have the excellent example here of architectonic form without a content of supplied meanings. There is the structure of allegory, explicit in the title and implemented in the geometric engineering of the composite events, but the author warns us that there is no allegory of values implied; if no interpretation is invited, then all meaning is exterior and polysemous. If human memory is emblematically present in a box that the protagonist carries around in an eternally present moment, there are no questions as to where or why. The loss of identity is spelled out in a series of maneuvers, compounding each other, and yet the character never says "I am lost." This is not an imitation of the randomness perceived in nature or a thrusting of the author into the whirlpool of nothingness but a staging of it.

Similarly, in Claude Simon's The Grass the author tackles the age-old theme of the devastations caused by the passage of time; the metaphor of the grass is used as the emblem for the imperceptibility of the passage of time, as a measure of growth whether on a physical or a psychological basis. To demonstrate the difference between Proust's handling of time and the newer manipulations of the time dimension, let us presume that Proust views the past as a contained package of memories that he can retrieve according to the power of the faculty of remembering: voluntary memory, involuntary flashback, association memory, etc. The newer novelists represent not so much hindsight as the degree of clarity of their troubled eyes, which are not at all sure that anything remains; they believe only in the centrality of the moment. In describing the precarious quality of the moment, man's meager and sole possession, Octavio Paz sees it as a form of instantaneous eternity in his meditative essay "The Dialectics of Solitude," included in The Labyrinth of Solitude.

Previous novelists, modern in their time, have presented alienated heroes. Famous among them are Kafka's protagonists, Dostoevsky's underground man, and Sartre's nauseated Roquentin. But it is important to note that in the case of Kafka and Dostoevsky the social rather than the ontological factor underlies the alienation; in the case of Sartre's hero, there is strong author identification rather than objective representation of character, and at the end there is a therapeutic solution to the malaise with autobiographical overtones.

Characters not judged, time deprived of continuity, space used circularly, objects distanced from their functional associations, characters unidentifiable with their creators, acceptance of inconsistencies in personality attributed to the normal interplay of degrees of consciousness, use of verbal and phenomenal chance as acceptable factors of life as of art: these features prevalent in recent modernist writings separate them from earlier concepts of the modern and necessitate newer classification for past moderns.

I have referred to identification and representation. The other mode, that of modernism, of revision, is the mode of those who, instead of representing a changed perception of the universe, take artistic control of it. André Breton's most important contribution of the groundwork of the literature of modernism as it is shaping up today was his earlier adjustment to the new factors in a way to make literature and art and their need for determined absolute values viable in a relativist world. He called upon a moral rather than an aesthetic motivation to free the various forms of art from engulfment in the unreliable. The so-called moral value of such willed revision would make both writer and painter, as well as reader and beholder, better able to cope with daily life, as he thought. Such an objective contains a philosophy directed to a concrete and pragmatic achievement rather than to abstract levels of dialogue.

Viewing surrealism in the context of realism—a correction Breton made in his definition as he proceeded from the First Manifesto to Surrealism and Painting—he explained that there can exist a process of transformation of the real into the artifact. The primary function he demanded of himself and of his fellow surrealists was to recuperate the random and the senseless, the automatic and the fortuitous, and to submit them to the control of the artist. The artistic universe need not be decontrolled to match a decontrolled universe. Beauty, for instance, can survive the demolished canon of an art representative of an orderly world only if it is made to correspond to an unpredictable universe: it has to be convulsive in order to suggest that convulsive nature the poet or artist accepts; but here we have a process neither of imitation nor of representation; instead the surrealists resort to subterfuges of controls to recreate the turbulence on their own terms: not through breaks in grammar or ruptures of syntax but through self-referential associations opening up limitless meanings and interpretations, not the destruction of familiar objects but their dislocation or recycling. It is not an attempt to represent the indeterminacy of nature but a creation of indeterminacies in those very aspects of nature that are presumed to have remained constants. But expecting neither sympathy nor meaning in nature, the poet or painter began to project his own countenance onto the world around him.

The poets and painters acted according to consorted theories that brought about great understanding of each other's work. But the painters' manifestations, as it turned out, can be more graphically perceived: the defiances of the laws of gravity painstakingly manifested in the paintings of René Magritte; the dislocations of familiar objects, their change of function in Dali and his imitators; the annihilation of the barriers between the kingdoms of the animal, vegetable, and mineral in the spectacular amalgams of Max Ernst; the efforts to create new objects and new horizons in the case of Yves Tanguy; the surrealist signets such as the Minotaur and the Mandragora that suggest a correction of nature's separation of man and animal. All these manifestations can be summarized as the poet-painter's effort to engender purpose where we can outwardly perceive none. The ultimate question proposed to modernisms of the future is whether human desire can give direction to objective chance. In their self-referential structures the best of surrealists appeared to think so.

The prophetic Apollinaire had foreseen two kinds of artists in modern time. One instinctively and intuitively lets the representation of modern humanity seep through him into the work of art; in that respect the postmoderns are justified in claiming that there is a touch of everyman in the so-called work of art and that it is therefore a collective possession. The other category, in which Apollinaire named Picasso as the original force, recreates a universal model, an aggregate of stylized projection to what might be called a cosmic scale of naturalism. Picasso has been much more recognized of course than his counterpart in literature, Breton. But even in Picasso's case, I wonder whether that admiration has been sufficiently focused on that moment of epiphany when he slipped out of his blue period into the stream of light coming from the depths and the edges of night.

A fundamental argument emerges among moderns concerning the destiny of the metaphor. Robbe-Grillet declared some twenty-five years ago that in view of the absence of human meaning in the universe, the practitioners of the arts should eliminate analogy in their works and thereby suppress the metaphor. But the neosurrealists, particularly the poets of Hispano-America, have increasingly sharpened the image as the sole device to guard what Breton had recognized as the creative spirit in its efforts to overcome what would otherwise be a solipsistic existence "when the primordial connections have been broken." The aim would then be to readjust and conciliate the apparatus of the poetic analogy to the new materialistic data. To quote Breton again: "For me the only evidence in the world is controlled by the spontaneous relationship, extra-lucid, and insolent, which becomes established under certain conditions, between such and such things which common sense would avoid confronting.… I am hopelessly in love with all that adventurously breaks the thread of discursive thought, takes off suddenly into a stream of light, illuminating a life of extremely fertile relationships." In fact Breton and those who have followed him into today's modernism are compelled to inquire into the nature of nature, which is the ultimate subject of modern inquiry.

As we know, the element of rebellion, which is an essential feature of any and all modernism, can be expressed—and indeed was spectacularly expressed early in this century—by deconstructions in perceptions of aesthetics and in sociopolitical activisms. But the rebellion involved in the moral concerns of any serious artist penetrates a deeper level of the art of expression.

Apollinaire described the evolution of Picasso as the calm after the frenzy; "calm" in that context means mastery of process as an answer to unilateral, belligerent attitudes toward the conditions of life in the twentieth century. What Apollinaire perceived in the development of the art of Picasso is the transformation of circumstantial rebellion into the multitiered image of subversion in painting, in poetry, in film, whereas frenzy is the overt exercise of uncontrolled, unsparing movement. One of the great changes in subsequent manifestations of modernism is the channeling of these energies of rebellion so that they are no longer the outer garment of the artist but assume through shocking analogies the double-edged meaning of reconstruction, constructing while deconstructing, espousing no single issue but catalytic of any issue.

It is too early to take inventory of all the avant-gardes that constitute the self-perpetuating modernism of the twentieth century. What matters for the moment is to proceed beyond the attempt to understand motivations, beyond tolerance of each and every one, because indeed to love the avant-garde has become as popular and trendy as it previously was to shun it. Instead it may well be time to go beyond tolerance to critical discrimination. The distinctions between modes should be helpful in discerning the degree of craftsmanship in any such modes. If there emerges what appears to be sloppy composition, is it because the artist wants to represent a sloppy state of existence or is it simply a sloppy state of composition for lack of technical and aesthetic expertise? If the plot dissolves, if character remains flat, is the structure an intentionally reductive form of art, an act of artistic minimalism, or is it due to a lack of imaginative resourcefulness or a unilateral desire to shock and nothing more? If there is no ending, is it because the author believes that the elimination of a sense of ending suggests the quagmire in which humanity is engulfed or does it betray on his part a lack of inventiveness or a weakness in the mastery of the particular art? When does the excremental image lose its power of analogy to return to its original signification of waste? When does erotic language and its objectification lose its luxurious quality to become standard pornography? Are awkwardly shaped figures on a canvas or tedious repetitions of geometric lines a statement about the destruction of human form or a sign of haphazard bluff? Is it time to ask at what point even the most flamboyant avant-garde artist gets repetitious, tired, boring? Or, on the other hand, when do minimal linguistic discourse and gaps of total silence, hailed as achievements of the most recent examples of modernism, become merely indicative of clinical aphasia or verbal deficiencies?

One of the greatest powers of the modernisms of the past has been the overtone of sincerity and commitment; how far can the ironic element of author distancing from reality be carried out without bringing about reader-spectator distancing as well from the work declared as art?

The time has come, I think, when answers to this type of questioning may have to replace the more current, simplistic responses to the avant-garde—which have consisted either of rejecting it totally and in principle or accepting it and embracing it totally and without reservation and without even recognizing that in a single writer or artist there are better and lesser degrees of achievement. I bought some time ago at a book fair the latest work of a very personable playwright whose fame as a "neo-avant-garde" is fast rising. The title was "Burn This," and after reading it I had the feeling that the title was very appropriate. But this piece of trash received acclaim and an award. Audiences used to be too resistant to the avant-garde; now either they have become pushovers if the work is overt or they run away if it is a bit subtle—and the artists are becoming too eager to please.

Renato Poggioli, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde has become a universal reference in any serious discussion of the question of modernism in spite of the availability of many books subsequently written on the subject, thought that it was too early to evaluate. He therefore made his classifications according to the sociological factors involved. But his book is of 1950 vintage. It is hard to believe that we are designating moderns in the same way more than forty years later. Political protest and social negativism are still being rated as the basic elements of modernism and it is no longer too early to begin evaluation. It is time to look empirically at achievements rather than intentions. There is good and bad avant-garde no matter what standards of evaluation we use. A torso on canvas hanging on the wall may shock the viewer. Maybe it is a protest against violence and as such it is perhaps a sociological document, but it has to fulfill certain other criteria to be classified as art, and to be judged as modern it has to have a quality that extracts out of the transient something of the eternal. I have suggested certain categories of the modern. My distinctions are arbitrary and have to do with my own reading lists and philosophy of art. My intention is not to impose them on anyone else but to indicate that it is time to establish values, or at least guidelines, whereby we can regroup the moderns of the past with a good triage in the bargain, and gauge what to expect in current and even future moderns as eventually viable classics. With the everchanging political and social scene, it is time to minimize the element of protest as a signal of the modern and to ask, what else is there? It is time to scrutinize the various powers of construction rather than be overwhelmed by the destructive intensity of the work. It no longer matters who shouted loudest, who shocked most widely. The question now is who shaped a permanent ticker tape of pleasure behind the instant notoriety, who went beyond talk about the unconscious to really give verbal approximation of unconscious or dream discourse, who conveyed the power of reality in the midst of concurrent processes of awareness and unawareness, whose work nourished the works of others instead of cloning itself endlessly?

Underlying the great variety of forms and attitudes loosely grouped and retained under the provisional title of "modernism" there emerge new encodings in search of new classifications. Writers and artists have had to make choices between identifying with new challenges to new notions of time, space, chance, consciousness, and reality and distancing their art from these factors, revising the parameters of the arts accordingly. The transitory label of "modern" must be passed along to new editions of modernism while the great work of separating the chaff from the wheat is carried out as we weigh the viability and degree of meaning and change of meaning of previous modernisms.

I am concerned as I read from the pen of scholars with solid reputations such subservient remarks as "from Lacan we know," "from Foucault we learn," "Derrida tells us." Academic scholars acquiesce too much and thereby plant in their disciples dangerous seeds of docility. Has it occurred to some that Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida could learn a few things from those of us who have been reading literature rather than psychology, archaeology, and philosophy?

As the post, post, post accumulate they seem to announce the ultimate end. Whereas some commentators on our era are eager to proclaim the death of literature, others obsessed with the prefix "post" are laboring under the assumption that we are witnessing the inevitable afterglow of a setting sun. How discouraging this attitude must be both to young writers and to their prospective critics! The paradox is that with the radical changes in the meaning of meaning, the broadening of the channels of communication, and the multiplication of the inner and outer aspects of nature, there has never been such an auspicious moment for the creator as well as the receiver to discover the imminent modern.

Malcolm Bradbury

SOURCE: "The Nonhomemade World: European and American Modernism," in American Quarterly, Vol. 39, Spring, 1987, pp. 27-36.

[In the following essay, Bradbury focuses on the divergent origins and development of Modernism among American and European writers.]

At the beginning of A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975), Hugh Kenner performs an elegant act of metaphorical magic by yoking violently together two items in the history of modernity separately much celebrated, but not usually associated. One is the flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the first serious proof of powered flight, and a clear triumph of American technological inventiveness. The other is a work of fiction started the next year in which the image of the artist as modern flyer has a striking place. That fiction, of course, is Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus's flight into the unknown arts provides us with a figure for the rising spirit of artistic modernism. Metaphorically juxtaposing the one with the other, Kenner can now link two powers, those of American modernity and those of European modernism. As he says of the Wrights: "Their Dedalian deed on the North Carolina shore may be accounted the first American input into the great imaginative enterprise on which artists were to collaborate for half a century." The cunning connection gives him his book. American flyers came to the First World War, and also to the not much less embattled bohemias of Paris and London, where the new arts were being forged. At this stage American technological dominance and European forms were separate. To most Americans, Modernism was foreign; but since it was modern they wanted it, but made in a homemade way. Poets like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, and many American novelists, musicians, and painters obliged, becoming Modernist without even going to Europe, exploring the new preoccupations as an aspect of the problems of the American language, the needs of American perception and American consciousness, American plenitude and American emptiness. This Kenner explains: "That doctrine of perception, like general semantics, seems peculiarly adapted to the American weather, which fact helps explain why, from Pound's early days until now, modern poetry in whatever country has borne so unmistakably American an impress."

I have done little justice to Kenner's cunning book; but I start with it because it serves as an example of a familiar historiographical process, providing as it does both a narrative of an American act of artistic appropriation and a skillful critical mechanism for reinforcing it. It is a way of telling Modernism's story largely by dislodging the venturesome modern spirit in the arts from a European soil, in which it appears unrooted, to modern American soil, where it prospers and fertilizes, grows with the American grain, and then, an abundant crop, returns to the world market, rather like Frank Norris's nirvanic wheat. Modernism bears the American impress, even outside America, it and American modernity being natural kin. Such narratives are, of course, not new, but they have flourished powerfully since the 1940s when, with F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance (1941), the modern history of American literature began to be seriously written, and the idea of the native grain, of an encompassing and modern American tradition based on American vision and American mythology, enlarged. Matthiessen's brilliant book, the first truly convincing exploration of the way the American writers of the Transcendentalist pre-Civil War period constructed a new art that seemed to pass beyond inherited forms, constructing itself anew, released a fresh idea of the relation between the American imagination and American culture. In the same year, Alfred Kazin, in On Native Grounds, made a similar case for American Naturalism, which might well have been thought to owe much to European ventures of the same kind; after all Frank Norris had studied art in Paris and was seen around the Berkeley campus with a volume of Zola in his hand, and the European Naturalists were much in vogue among the young American writers. But Kazin seeks to establish a difference: where in Europe Naturalism had the force of a literary doctrine, in America it "just came,… grew out of the bewilderment, and fed on the simple grimness of a generation brought face to face with the pervasive materialism of American capitalism"—and it "had no center, no unifying principle, no philosophy, no joy in its coming, no climate of experiment." It was the art of an American process, of industrialization and modernization; and all done on native grounds.

This sense of the power of native soil, the guiding texture of the American grain, stimulated a splendid new generation of critical studies which have shaped all our thinking. In Richard Chase's fine The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957) the novel-form comes to the United States in rather the same way, countermanding the European tradition of the social and moral novel and generating its own neo-mythic form, the romance. This was a season for nativizing literature, valuably giving the modern American arts a tradition, a sense of a usable past. American mythographies arising from American beliefs and motifs, ideologies and theologies, American institutions and landscapes, American notions of election, mission and destiny powerfully illuminated a literature that, while it might run curiously in parallel with the arts of Europe, and assimilate much from them, had self-creating powers in the homemade world. And this notion was reinforced by another—that the American arts had from the beginning a special relation to the modern itself. That view owed as much to the European Enlightenment as America itself, and its notions of the course of empire—according to which, as Bishop Berkeley reminded Americans, history moved ever westward, and brought the new arts in its train. When the Revolution brought into being the First New Nation, itself a startling appropriation of modern history, the motif intensified, supplementing the Calvinist sense of mission that came with settlement with the diachronic notion of rising modernity that came with continental spread and intensive development of industry and resources. As Hegel famously said, America was "the land of the future where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world's history shall reveal itself" (we sometimes forget that he saw that revelation taking the form of a conflict between North and South America). Such ideas had a natural appeal to Americans, and applied alike to society and the arts. As Melville declared in Pierre, the Americans were history's own avant-garde, a people advancing into the wilderness of untried things. In Whitman the message grew clearer, modernity in society and experience leading to modernity of form in the arts. "One main contrast of the ideas behind every page of my verses, compared with establish'd poems, is their different relative attitude towards God, towards the objective universe, and still more (by reflection, confessional, assumption, &c), the quite changed attitude of the ego, the one chanting or talking towards himself and towards his fellow-humanity," he wrote in A Backward Glance, going on to add that the material, inventive, and war-produced revolutions of the times, but above all the moral one, had produced what he called a change of army-front through the whole civilized world. And this meant modern form: "For all these new and evolutionary facts, meanings, purposes, new poetic new forms and expressions, are inevitable."

This sense of alliance—between America's modern history and modernity of form—Gertrude Stein took with her when, with the twentieth century in her blood (she meant, she said, to be historical, from almost a baby on, and was there "to kill what was not dead, the nineteenth century which was so sure of evolution and prayers"), she went in 1903 to settle in bohemian Paris, where among the refusés the spirit of twentieth-century modernism was in process of birth. "So the twentieth century had come it began with 1901," she wrote in Paris France. The new century was widely summoned in the United States as "the American century" and Stein shared the view, saying that the twentieth century came in America even though it had to go to France to happen. England was consciously refusing the new era, "knowing full well that they had gloriously created the nineteenth century and perhaps the twentieth was going to be one too many for them," while France took it all in its stride, since "what is was and what was is, was their point of view of which they were not very conscious." They were soon made conscious, in part by the Americans who came to Montparnasse, collecting, hunting the new, purchasing modern art on an extraordinary scale which can best be tested by inspecting the collections of the major American galleries and their dates of purchase, and stirring modernity into action. It had to be admitted that the novelties had a European source, and that the United States was puritanical and unartistic—"a half-savage country, out of date," said Ezra Pound, who played a somewhat similar role in motivating and stimulating London with American energies at around the same time—and so, argued Stein, Americans needed Paris because they could not be artists, they could be dentists at home. But she carried with her the familiar American conviction, that the United States was a nation with a special disposition toward progress, and with its technological advance, democratic social order and distinctive space-time continuum it required the "new composition." By this interpretation Modernism was a progressive movement of the arts aptly suited to a progressive nation, and we can see how powerful this kind of account of Modernist evolution has been in the development of the new arts in America.

It needs hardly be said that these ideas have been held in Europe also, both by those seeking to fund the modernity of Modernism and those attempting to expel it and all its works. Al Alvarez said for English-language writing, Modernism "has been a predominantly American concern"; Philip Larkin was happy to hand over to Americans "the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage," and stay near the line of Hardy, and sanity. European Modernists often acknowledged their connection with the American spirit, Picasso observing that if Modernism was born in France it was the product of Spaniards and Americans. The images of rapidity and synchronicity that came from American culture, the beat of American popular music, the rhythms of jazz and the American dances, had great appeal to those artists in Paris who were moving toward both spontaneous primitivism and a new abstraction. The American motif was widespread, in Picabia, Duchamp, Cocteau and many more. Mondrian explained that "True Booogie-Woogie I conceive as homogenous in intention with mine in painting." Mayakovsky saw the skyscraper American city as the heart of the modern, and read the implications of Brooklyn Bridge with the same radical intensity as Hart Crane. The motif has lasted, in Sartre, Butor, RobbeGrillet, and has much to do with the engagement of many European critics with American literature and culture. The "modern" image of America which so strongly affected Russian and Italian Futurism, and German Expressionism even made its mark in Britain. Indeed, D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) recovered, in a remarkable and visionary way, from the little-read classic American tradition the same sense of modernity: "Two bodies of modern literature seem to me to come to the real verge: the Russian and the American.… The furtherest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The Europeans were all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them today."

Yet if Modernism was to become, as Alvarez said, "a predominantly American concern," it hardly started as such. It began in Europe, and took a long time to cross the Atlantic; indeed the American writers from the 1890s to the War were largely preoccupying themselves with a Zola-esque Naturalism that in Europe was mostly considered exhausted. Indeed the full impact of the Modernist tendency came in America at least a generation later than it did in Europe; we normally date it from the ferments around 1912, when Freud and Cubism, the abstract art of the Armory Show and the new poetry that Pound sought to press upon Poetry, Harriet Monroe's magazine, begin to implant in American soil. This is no place, with no space, to expatiate at length on what we mean by Modernism, a contentious matter now as it always was, in part because on detailed inspection it dissolves into a plurality of different, often substantially conflicting, movements or tendencies, with many different sources, many different philosophies and culture-readings, many different versions of the modern, and the deliverances required of the modern arts. The complex problems of definition I and James McFarlane sought to address are discussed at length in the "Introduction" to Modernism: 1890-1930, where we note the heterodoxy of ideas that have gone into most of the attempted definitions. But let me here suggest that for many Western writers and thinkers a nineteenth-century synthesis seems to dissolve or come to crisis in the 1880s and 1890s—when positivism struggles with intuitionalism, sociology with psychology, naturalism with aestheticism, when there is a deep sense of perceptual crisis which throws attention onto consciousness, when world-views pluralize, and dusks and dawns both in the arts and civilization are much thought of. The result in ideas and forms is a period of remarkable intellectual and aesthetic innovation, a general upheaval manifest also in science and philosophy; this all has some prophetic or precursory relation both to the dislocation of the Great War and the postwar synthesis. These changes and disorientations are strongly manifested in the arts, displacing the role of artists, privatizing and specializing them, in some sense dislocating them from the familiar or the homemade. All this has social roots in the processes of late nineteenth-century change, the political upheavals of growing democratization and radical if not revolutionary feeling. It was an international affair, and if any thing distinguishes modernism it is surely its international interfusion—which is to say that whether through simultaneous generation or traceable flows of ideas and influence related artistic phenomena occur right across the Western nations, from Oslo to Rome, Moscow to Chicago. One then should add that they do not occur at quite the same time, in the same order, with the same aims or underlying philosophies, with the same degrees of hope, or despair, or the same historical expectations.

And since the familiar perspective in much English language-centered theory of Modernism sees it largely as an affair of Paris, London and New York, let us consider how wide a matter it was, and how enormous was the thought-flow passing through the European cities, making some capitals and some provinces at different times. Ibsenite Naturalism started in Scandinavia, went to Germany to happen, and turned with late Ibsen and Strindberg toward Expressionism. In France Zola-esque Naturalism turned toward aestheticism, symbolism and the art of the soul and the senses; both of these traditions seemed to cross over in German Expressionism in the immediately prewar years. Paris gave London much of its 1890s Naturalism and its aestheticism, but Germany won some attention, especially via Nietzsche and Ibsen, and D. H. Lawrence of course was drawn by Frieda toward Expressionism. In Russia another version of Symbolism moved toward Futurism; in Vienna another compound evolved which linked modern music, psychology, and new linguistic theory. In Paris, Marinetti was inventing and disseminating Italian futurism, though there were many other crucial movements, including Unanimisme, to the point where Pound, constantly visiting, felt that movements were just what London needed to stir the pot. Imagism in London derived in part from French symbolism, in part from the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer, and to some not very great degree from Whitman, with whom Pound contracted a painfully slow pact. It did have a significant American constituent, though Pound denied America as the main source of its ideas, and credited, amongst others, Selwyn Image, T. E. Hulme, and F. S. Flint, as well as the Chinese ideogram. Vorticism, on the other hand, was both borrowed from Worringer and the Futurists and was in revolt against them, and suitably one of its founding figures, Wyndham Lewis, was born on a ship at sea. Dada came in a wartime Zurich that, as Tom Stoppard shows, contained the odd synthesis of Tristan Tzara, Lenin, and Joyce. The war over, it took off in two directions—to Berlin and to Paris, where it interacted with French surrealism, which inherited from earlier symbolism, the impact of Cubism, and generated the Revolution of the Word, which brought together, or apart, contingents from France, Germany, England, Ireland, Romania and the States, to name but a few.

What we can say is that Modernism was an affair of many movements, of a common avant-gardizing tendency, with international origins and a massive and constant change of personnel, and considerable capacity for transit. It was also an affair centered in certain cosmopolitanizing cities capable of concentrating the flow of art-news and sustaining a large bohemian population of polyglot character. And one of the marks of Modernism was that it seemed to have no home. That flight Stephen takes in Portrait of the Artist into the unknown arts is a voyage of broken ties, fracturing the bonds of kinship, religion and country as he goes off to Paris, certainly to forge the uncreated conscience of my race, but from an anxious expatriate distance which set over Joyce's tales of Dublin, the paralyzed city, a modern pluralism and polyglotism. Homelessness was part of the story. As George Steiner says, it was largely an art unhoused, an art of "extra-territoriality," and it was no accident that multilinguists have been the major artists of our age. Indeed, he says, of Nabokov, so clearly a part of this tradition, "It seems proper that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism in which so many are made homeless, which has torn up tongues and peoples by the root, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language." That wandering of language, that separation of the signifier from the signified which Saussure was intuiting in the immediately prewar climate, that "defamiliarization" of which the Russian formalist critics began to speak at much the same time, indeed seems near to the heart of Modernism. Thus what Kenner domesticates, and makes friendly with modern society and modern change, Steiner deracinates, and associates with modern anxiety and historical suffering. There are indeed many versions of Modernism.

In this Americans, essentially the expatriate ones, played their part from the early stages, a part which intensified in quantity and influence as time went on: James and Henry Harland, Pound, Eliot, Robert Frost and John Gould Fletcher in London; Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris, to be followed by the expatriate wave of the 1920s, and so on. But support funds at home were not great, as Pound discovered when he tried to transmit European news back to Harriet Monroe. When Pound explained that American bards had to study Remy de Gourmont, Henri de Regnier, Francis Jammes and Tristan Corbiere, her magazine waved its homemade banner in behalf of its version of Modernism: "Mr [Vachel] Lindsay did not go to France for The Congo or General William Booth Enters Into Heaven. He did not even stay on the eastern side of the Alleghanies.… " It was the midwestern "moderns" like Lindsay, Masters and Sandburg that the magazine took pride in, while the great modern epic Monroe was looking for was not "Prufrock," which Pound sent her and which she tried to edit down, but a nativist epic celebrating the Panama Canal. Much of what Pound was saying was in fact an embarrassment. Nonetheless a "home-made" school did evolve, with Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore and others, who may not have headed for Europe but who took much of their funding from Pound, Imagism and French symbolism. Williams may have felt that The Waste Land set back poetry by twenty years, but his Imagist debts are clear. Stevens for some time impersonated a French symbolist poet, and submitted poems under the dandy-name of "Peter Parasol," taking many of his titles from French poetry and paintings. American writing itself bred many modernisms, from the cultural despair of Eliot and Pound to the contrary affirmation and surer nativism of Stein or Williams. Indeed an assimilation took place, so that we see the American arts as modern not simply because they explore the cultural experience of an advanced or futuristic society, but because they have incorporated into that culture the lore of the modern art forms.

Not all saw the elegant equation of American modernity and European modernism as virtue. Stein's tactics of takeover, representing Cubism as an art that, though invented by Frenchmen and Spaniards, was really American, fitting prairie space, skyscraper cities, and filmic speed, were not universally accepted. Braque, in the famous transition testimony against Gertrude Stein, said: "Miss Stein obviously saw everything from the outside and never the real struggle we were engaged in. For one who poses as an authority on the epoch it is safe to say that she never went beyond the stage of a tourist." Certainly she perceived in terms of abstract, detachable styles justified by broad reference to twentieth-century needs, and never touched the deeper historical and perceptual anguish behind much modernism. Yet in her way she was right. Americans had a taste for stylistic radicalism, for forms that suggested a modern version of life, for new structures. American modern style did assimilate much from modernist style, in architecture and art. Indeed modernism seemed to pull together the apparently lonely and eccentric history of American artistic endeavor right through the nineteenth century. By the middle twenties, Americans seemed in one fashion or another major participants, and a modernism of sorts settled as an acceptable American style, along with Freud and Jung, Picabia and Picasso, the skyscraper and the futurist lines of the motor car, the radical spontaneity of jazz. And when in the 1930s the rise of Hitler and Mussolini reversed the tide of intellectual and artistic migrations, the alliance between Modernism and modern America seemed secured. Mann and Brecht, Auden and Isherwood, along with many of the intellectual supporters and major figures of theater, and architecture, found themselves on American soil, and in the American grain. In 1939, the year of new war, Joyce published Finnegans Wake, that summative and polyglot myth; a year later he died, displaced back to Zurich, and around the same date so did Virginia Woolf, a clear casualty of war. Of the two great American expatriate figures who had so much to do with the transaction, Pound, staying in Italy, ended with threatened charges of treason, and Stein, remaining in France, just survived the war, still asserting that America was her country and Paris was her home town. In America modernism seemed settled, and Bauhaus became not so much our house as the American corporate office building. Stein's prophecy for the century seemed fulfilled. Modernism had become the twentieth-century American style, the language of its progressivism, pluralism, cultural convergence; its commerce, its aesthetic drive, its modernity.

Thus, we seem to agree now, Modernism both endured and ended, fractured by the war but leaving its overwhelming trace on the Modern. Its demise left us with a problem, at least of nomenclature, for what comes after the modern, what follows the future, what happens when now turns suddenly into then, is not easy to define. But after the war there came, as Sartre said, a "third generation" of writers, called by the historical fracture and the collapse of entire social orders to new responsibilities. Modernism was now historicized, something came after, and we have come to talk of Postmodernism. No one has been more helpful and thoughtful than Ihab Hassan in trying to interpret the transition and gloss the term, and I quote him in paracritical flight: "If we can arbitrarily state that literary Modernism includes certain work between Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896) and Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939), where will we arbitrarily state that Postmodernism begins? A year earlier than the Wake? With Sartre's La Nausee (1938) or Beckett's Murphy (1938)? In any case, Postmodernism includes works by writers as different as Barth, arthelme, ecker, eckett, ense, lanchot, orges, urroughs, utor. …" The list, you will notice, is provisional, capacious and international, with a large European contingent. So is that in another fine and undernoticed book on the same matter, Christopher Butler's After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant Garde (1980), which also takes the wake as a break, the break as a wake, but sees a distinctive new phase of style developing after Existentialism, during the 1950s, with the nouveau roman, the nouvelle vague in cinema, a new music and a new painting. "For better or worse," he says, identifying this Postmodern time, "this is the age of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet, of Cage, Messiaen, Boulez, of Pollock, Rothko, Stella, and Rauschenberg." Butler not only emphasizes the internationality of the matter but draws less than usual on contemporary literary theory, concentrating on the statements of artists themselves. And I would suppose that most Europeans (and even the British now call themselves European, or certainly when it is in their interest to do so) would recognize some such history, seeing the after-modern or postmodern tendency or aesthetic equation as owing much to the postwar evolution of Existentialism, with its struggle between the humanistic and the absurd, and the subsequent challenges to it in successor arts and philosophies, the reassimilation of some aspects of Modernism, the rejection of others, the pervasive sense of the "imaginary museum" of plenitude and emptiness that passed through so many Western arts, the spirit of what Nathalie Sarraute calls "the ear of suspicion," when, as RobbeGrillet puts it, in an era beyond humanism and tragedy art lives with "the smooth, meaningless, amoral surface of the world."

What is clear is that Postmodernism does have a larger American constituent, reflecting in part the fortunes of Modernism, and the dominance of America as modern art patron, high stylistic consumer, and eḿigré haven. It is surely equally clear that its great marking figures include Beckett, an Irishman writing in Paris in French; Nabokov, a Russian refugee writing in his native language, German, French, and latterly English; and Borges, an Argentinian writing in Spanish and with a Latin American, Iberian, French and Anglophile background. Thus it draws on a tradition that had moved through Modernism and the Absurd toward a new minimalism, a tradition based in a latter-day adaptation of early Russian symbolism, and a South American tradition which relates the fantastic to historical realism. Its present centers certainly include South America, Paris, Italy, Germany, to some degree Britain, and to some further degree the Indian subcontinent, Australasia and Canada. Its intellectual sources appear to be, amongst other things, Russian formalism, Saussurian linguistics, later Surrealism, Existentialist philosophy, and what has followed it, that Deconstructionist revolution that spread throughout the entire Gallic World (as I believe Yale University is sometimes called). It includes, I would say virtually by definition, an eclectic principle of multiple quotation, stylistic pluralism, creative misprision. There has indeed been a strong American contingent, which Saul Bellow, who has made clear his resistance to the tendency, has distinguished from the nouveaux romanciers and European writers "whose novels and plays are derived from definite theories which make a historical reckoning of the human condition and are particularly responsive to new physical, psychological, and philosophical theories." In this matter, he says, American writers are again the modern primitives, writing in the same spirit but "seldom encumbered by such intellectual baggage, and this fact pleases their European contemporaries, who find in them a natural, that is, a brutal or violent acceptance of the new universal truth by minds free from intellectual preconceptions." If this is not entirely true, some part of American Postmodernism having a clear intellectual face related to those European philosophies, it does seem that there is a Postmodernism of the homemade world.

Today the tendency indeed seems to have been domesticated within the cultural heterodoxy of American culture, and become a convention. As Alan Wilde ways with some irony in Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (1980), "postmodernism is an essentially American affair." The term has been generalized to apply to the broad eclecticism of forms and referents in contemporary American writing, architecture and art, a way of speaking of an art that appears "self-creating" and "in the American grain." Indeed this is the form of modern writing that has grown particularly exemplary, so literary that Post-modernism often seems to mean innovative American fiction read—or rather misread—with the methods and slippages of French Deconstructionist criticism. It is, in effect, the art of the "homemade world," a consequence of American stylistic abundance, provisional form, intermedia arts, futurism and, often, optimism. So, says one American critic, James Rother, "to be American is, quite simply, to be postmodern, and to be postmodern entails nothing more than knowing (in the full light of a communally held fiction) that one is."

I have suggested here that for a sufficient account of Modernism we need many Modernisms, and a far more challenging and international perception of the relation between American and broader international culture. By necessary logic the same would apply to Postmodernism, which has inherited, certainly, the pluarlity and multiple signification of Modernism and a good part of its philosophical, linguistic and formal skepticism. If the term means anything, it surely means an art of stylistic plurality and cultural synchronicity, rebarbative plenitude and decultured emptiness, formal enquiry and parodic self-reference, random signification and infinite quotation, that marks much of world-culture in our multimedia, high-noise, wide-traveling internationalist age. To attend to it we need a capacious attention, if we are to construct not only a sufficient historiography of the immediate past of our arts but of their present. For we live, after all, in the age of Marquez, Calvino, Handke, Eco, Fowles, Pinter, Stoppard, Wittig, Coetzee, and many many more, and there is a major international literature of extraordinary power which needs drawing into any cogent mapping of the late twentieth century arts that both succeed to and react to the overwhelming Modernist inheritance. The arts of Postmodernism, like those of Modernism, are of no single and unidirectional kind; they are a contention, a quarrel, seeded in many places, often floating free of them in a large extraterritoriality, and funded by polyglot and multistylistic sources. It is almost forty years after the wake, as indeed the wake was just around forty years after Ubu Roi. The task of charting this is immense, and hardly begun in terms of a conceptual historiography. But as we begin to assimilate theoretically the arts of our own long time, we will find almost certainly that in our age of cultural melting-pot and extraordinary global interfusion they are hardly the arts of a homemade world.

Lawrence B. Gamache

SOURCE: "Toward a Definition of 'Modernism,'" The Modernists: Studies in a Literary Phenomenon, Associated University Presses, 1987, pp. 32-44.

[In the following essay, Gamache illuminates the origins and meaning of the term "Modernism " in both literary and nonliterary contexts.]

Because the ambition to define modernism completely would be almost Miltonic, I will begin this study with an explanation of its limitations. By considering the history of the words modern and modernism and by adumbrating the cultural context that defines their literary usage, I intend to suggest several essential constituents of both literary and nonliterary modernism and to provide several examples of modernists whose lives and works manifest those constituents.

My initial intent was to clarify the uses of modernism and modernist to describe some twentieth-century writers and their works. I considered referring to four major figures—Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, and Lawrence—to represent what I think are the constituents of a cultural phenomenon that reaches back at least several centuries in its genesis. This I found difficult: much clarification was needed before the examples could be discussed.

The word modernism, given its complex range of uses, has all the traps of others like it, for example, romanticism; it presents even greater difficulty just now because of the proximity in time of the phenomena it pretends to identify. My revised ambition has not been overreaching, I think, but it has, nevertheless, led to a very cumbersome project. Previous studies have dealt with rather limited literary and artistic applications of the word, and have discussed points of specific agreement and disagreement about the phenomena it usually refers to; but little has been done to relate nonliterary uses of the word, especially its earliest uses, to descriptions of the larger cultural context that frames recent literary history. A larger study might seem more appropriate than this attempt to outline a difficult subject, but in the context of the series of essays to which it will relate, what I have undertaken is apropos. The apparently disparate cultural phenomena referred to in a number of contexts by uses of modern, or many of the modifications of that word current in theological and religious, scientific and technical, linguistic, philosophical, and psychological study, in social, economic, and political practice as well as ideology, make an unequivocal usage impossible. Studies of the literature and art from origins other than Anglo-American, French, German, and Italian (most often treated as the mainstream sources of the "modernist tradition") and of its nonliterary uses can help to identify what is basic to the phenomena the word refers to. My final intent has been to clarify the literary meaning of this term by identifying its earliest usages, in particular the religious, the first context in which it gained currency, and to suggest parallels between appropriate literary and nonliterary figures who illustrate essential modernism.

It is the core of the meaning of modernism, then, for which I will suggest an explanation. I think there is a felt sense of crisis in human existence reflected in many late nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural products to which the following constituents of modernism can be attributed: (1) a preoccupation with the present, usually urban and technical rather than rural and agricultural in its sense of place and time, is related to the loss of a meaningful context derived from the past, from its forms, styles, and traditions; (2) this sense of loss gives rise to a search for a new context—cosmopolitan, not provincial, in scope—and for new techniques to evolve an acceptable perception of reality, often, paradoxically, in the form of an attempt to rediscover roots in the depths of the past; (3) but this search tends to an increasingly relativistic, inward, often disillusioned vision and a compulsive need to develop techniques to embody it. As Monroe K. Spears suggests, however, the modernist may also react to modern cultural changes "as emancipation, a joyful release from the dead hand of convention, from stale pieties and restrictions." The culmination for many modernists is the rejection of the present in favor of the values of the past (Eliot), a singular vision of the future (Lawrence), a substitute reality (Yeats), or the diminishing conviction that there is any stable external reality to which that inward search relates (Joyce). For a writer to be a modernist, each of these constituent elements should to a noticeable degree be not just arguable but evident preoccupations; someone may be modernistic in some ways without being a modernist, as is true of George Bernard Shaw, the early Yeats, Robert Frost (at least in much of his work), and the later Eliot.

My proposed description of modernism is really a fairly basic reduction to a common ground of what most commentaries on modernism state as defining constituents. What has been most revealing during the study of this common ground is the extent to which it applies to the wide range of phenomena in our culture referred to above, that is, to our struggles as artists, scientists, philosophers, even technologists, to deal with that sense of crisis in our evolution that has increasingly pervaded human life through at least the last two centuries. Although a specifically modernist period, analogous to the romantic period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, can be argued to have existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, based on the prevalence to a significant extent of its defining characteristics in the rhetorical and poetical products of writers, be they artists, philosophers, or scientists, the word itself must be allowed to function descriptively, unfettered by temporal constraints, as are romanticism or classicism. Certain ancient authors, therefore, might be legitimately said to manifest modernist attitudes or responses, without the assertion being considered absurd. For example, Euripides, for some critics, at times reflects very modernist reactions to certain human quandaries. In 1938, Robert L. Calhoun argued this point as he defined the meaning of humanitarian modernism in contrast to traditional Christian religious views. He applied his definition to several sociocultural contexts without limiting himself to a purely twentieth-century frame of reference. He said that "its key note is active, conscious preoccupation with the present" and that "the obstinate, urgent past embodied in living tradition is disparaged." Confidence in a "new critical insight," which may issue in "rationalism, in positivism, or in skepticism," he attributes to the modernists' cutting away of "spiritual bonds which else would hold present and future to the past." While I would qualify Calhoun's sense of the modernists' perfect-abilitarian optimism and decisiveness in divesting themselves of the past and a pride and confidence about themselves and their programs, his awareness that the phenomenon is not a "school of thought" and is a "particular recurrent mood of temper, which in essence is very old, which during the past two hundred years has become more widespread," are insights uncharacteristic of early considerations of the meaning of "modernism," especially in a religious context.

It is very difficult to discuss any examples of modernism in isolation, and, for that reason, I will preface my examples of a prototypical form of modernism with a consideration of the word as such and with what I hope will be sufficient acknowledgment of the appropriate larger context necessary for a coherent discussion of representative patterns of moral, religious, and existential crises drawn by the examples I will cite. According to the OED, modern was first used in the sixth century A.D. by analogy with the modification of hodie to hodiernus; modo became modernus, meaning "just now." It would seem both by virtue of analogy and etymology that a preoccupation with "just now," rather than with the past or the future, is fundamental to what modern suggests, in particular when it is modifying statements of attitudes or states of mind, not simply designating what is coeval. In England, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, it usually referred to qualities of thought, style, or workmanship that were current rather than classical in sympathy or affinity, often with pejorative connotation.

This long history of usage is, in part, the source of some of the confusion in the use of modernism (that is, one that assumes apparently differing significations in differing contexts while, at the same time, retaining a core of meaning). When the suffixes-ism and -ist are added to modern, an irresistible and fascinating challenge to the ingenuity of lexicographers and semioticians develops. Defining it for use as a descriptive term in literary-cultural history is no less challenging. The addition of -ism and -ist to a word can make it refer to a set of tenets, an attitude or complex of attitudes held in common by a more or less identifiable group. Individuals, and the phenomena related to them for which the word is also used as a modifier, must in some significant measure adhere to those tenets or manifest those attitudes. The danger is to reduce complex human phenomena to the -ism, making it a vague tag, rather than to have it point at a perceivable propensity whose identification clarifies a complex idea; it can help us to be aware of an underlying coherence amid confusing diversity. Any definition of such a term that comes to grips with the fundamental problem—the relationship of the literary to the larger context of cultural influences that, in the final analysis, define it—will necessarily have to be relative: flexible, yet have the precision to suggest more than a meaningless set of ambiguities or, worse, a distorting category.

Some evidence of the scope of a study of Western intellectual traditions affected by modernism is provided by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson in The Modern Tradition, a seminal anthology of source materials that goes as far back as the eighteenth-century roots of twentieth-century thought for evidence. Their collection of bits and pieces suggests the range and richness of a modern tradition for which no single concept, no matter how complex its explanation, seems appropriate. Considering the multitude of -isms and -ologies they touch on (for example, in philosophy, Kantianism, Hegelianism, Marxism; in the arts, impressionism, surrealism; in psychology, Freudianism, Jungianism; in socioeconomic theory, socialism, liberalism), it might appear that this tradition is nothing more than an amorphous slagheap of ideologies that volcanizes out of the heat of human evolution. The tradition is, however, far more real and has, in its reality, touched individual lives far more powerfully than such a conception would allow for; such a conception admits no distinction between the living heat of the volcanic eruption and its residue.

The longstanding practice of identifying the time span from the early Renaissance to the present as "the modern period" (the source of much ambiguity in its current usages) to distinguish it from the medieval, was based on an awareness of a shifting focus of attention from a medieval God-centered to a man-centered vision of this world. In this context, the so-called modernist span, considered most broadly to begin in the last third of the nineteenth century, peaking between 1900 and 1930, and continuing to about World War II or shortly thereafter, is the period of the failure of Renaissance and post-Renaissance aspirations; but between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries the center had shifted from man to nature—seen at first abstractly and analytically, then more imaginatively and emotionally by some and more empirically by others—in reaction to the incompleteness of the optimistic programs, for example, of the Baconians and Cartesians.

Valuable studies done earlier in the century by such scholars as Arthur O. Lovejoy, Erich Auerbach, Joseph Warren Beach, Basil Willey, Paul Oscar Kristeller, and Meyer H. Abrams have helped to clarify this pattern: there has been a progression from the optimistic attempt to discover the real world, studied confidently as the proper object of philosophy and science and as the artist's guide, to man reduced to skepticism and to his own subjectivity. The individual, considered to be full of potential (as in the Renaissance), was gradually replaced by mass consciousness and individual subconsciousness or unconsciousness. Nature has changed from an object to know and control to a noumenal universe beyond our minds' direct grasp, and Nietzsche's "death of God" has been succeeded and completed by Michel Foucault's "death of man." The process of this succession constitutes the history of the modernist era.

The effects of these shifts on efforts to understand fundamental reality are primary indicants of the modernist temperament; by looking into the earliest attempts to embody these effects in the forms of our culture, especially in its religious forms, we can clarify them somewhat and apply them to literature by more precise use of analogy than is usual. The majority of studies of modernism thus far tend to isolate the object matter of the study—be it art, literature, philosophy, or religion—from the other areas of human activity that manifest the incursion of the modernist spirit, thereby rendering our perception of that phenomenon piecemeal and our understanding fragmentary. I have chosen to use the development of modernism in Roman Catholicism to exemplify what I think are its major constituents because religion touches most directly on those facets of human thought and feeling affected by modernism and because, historically, Roman Catholic intellectuals were the first to pursue consciously and deliberately the modernist enterprise as I am defining it.

Evidence of the spirit, the motivations, and the genesis of modernism can be studied in particular in the careers and thoughts of two exemplary figures from the history of the Roman Catholic modernist controversy, that is, in the personal and religious development of Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell. Each of these men is considered the founder of Catholic modernism in his own country, France and England respectively; their lives suggest the terms of a crisis indicative of not only what religious modernism was at the turn of the century, but also of what it cost, and why it, too, is identified by those defining constituents mentioned above. These men were concerned with their own times, with the moral and intellectual issues they themselves felt and also saw others troubled by, both Catholic and not Catholic, in their own countries and beyond. They were aware of a loss of belief in the efficacy of religious traditions, in form and in content; they turned to new methods to discover new foundations for spirituality, but, in the case of Loisy in particular, became increasingly relativistic and disillusioned. Characteristic of the scholarly endeavors of each of these men was an awareness of the intellectual pursuits, in their own and in other fields, of colleagues in other countries. This cosmopolitanism was, in fact, the source of some of their difficulties with their more provincially-minded and ultramontane superiors. Each of these qualities contributed to Roman Catholic modernism and to the controversy surrounding it.

Pope Pius X, in his encyclical Pascendi (1907), identified a complex of attitudes and theories, especially certain avant-garde approaches to biblical study and to doctrine, as embodying the "modernist heresy." According to J. J. Heaney, a Catholic spokesman, "[Pascendi] condemned theories on dogma and Biblical criticism which had agnostic, immanentist-evolutionary and anti-intellectualist bases." He also claims that "immanentism, neoHegelianism, and agnosticism were the terminal point rather than the point de depart" for some modernists only. This judgment would apply to Loisy, but not to Tyrrell.

From such a point of view, Pascendi focused on the negative influence of current, often conflicting, varieties of epistemological phenomenalisms like those of Mill, Spencer, Pierce, and Comte; of philosophical idealisms like Bradley's, Hegel's, Bergson's or Croce's; of forms of scientific and historical determinism as preached by Thomas Henry Huxley or Hippolyte Taine; and of the religious historicism of such scholars of religion as Schleiermacher, Ritschl, von Harnack, and Renan. The views of these last supported, in varying measure, and paradoxically, scientific historicism in biblical and doctrinal studies—a relativistic development in matters of faith, and subjectivism, that is, feeling, as the basis for a commitment to religious belief in the absence of intellectual certitude. It is the force of intellectual currents such as these, in particular those that affected twentieth-century man's confidence in his knowledge of the world outside his mind, and, for that matter, the worlds of his mind as well, that have influenced modernists in literature from Joyce, the rational technician, to Lawrence, the intuitive man of feeling.

According to Leighton Parks, an early twentieth-century Protestant modernist, what was "somewhat contemptuously" condemned by Pius X was more than a series of explicit, highly formulated positions; it was, rather, a complex of "certain social, philosophical, and historical movements in the Roman Catholic Church" that the Pope stigmatized as heretical. To Parks, modernism "is not a body of doctrine. It is a state of mind. It is an attempt to 'justify the ways of God to man,' that is, to man in the twentieth century." To many, both inside and outside the Catholic Church, it was that "state of mind" the Pope condemned. The examples of Loisy and Tyrrell support Parks: they did not uphold the same theses; they were involved in different ways, as scholars and as idiosyncratic minds, with different areas. Yet they did share common attitudes, those I have cited above as specifically constituting the modernist spirit.

Alfred Loisy has often been called the father of Roman Catholic modernism. He was born in 1857 in Ambrières, Marne, and began studying for the priesthood at the age of seventeen. He was ordained five years later. He became a student and, later, Professor of Hebrew and Biblical Exegesis at the Institut Catholique in Paris, between 1881 and 1893; he was dismissed in 1893 as a result of an article on the Bible and inspiration. He served as Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters at Neuilly, Seine, from 1893 to 1899. In 1900 he was Biblical Lecturer at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris but had to retire in 1904 because of his controversy with Rome; a number of his books were placed on the Index by Pius X in 1903. He was finally excommunicated in 1908.

In 1909 he became Professor of the History of Religions at the Coll`ege de France. He abandoned Catholicism and eventually Christianity in any traditional sense, but continued to publish studies of the Bible and other religious subjects until his death in 1940. His career spanned the modernist era, but his earlier years are the most important.

In 1913, Loisy revealed his earlier torments while a student of theology:

Just in the degree to which certain objects of faith had impressed me when employed as sources of religious emotion, to that same degree their Scholastic exposition in terms of naked intellect filled my mind with an ill-defined disquiet. Now that I was required to think all these things rationally, and not merely to feel them, I was thrown into a state of prolonged disturbance. For my intelligence could find no satisfaction, and with my whole timid, immature consciousness I trembled before the query that oppressed, in spite of myself, every hour of the day: Is there any reality which corresponds to these doctrines?

The conflict felt by Loisy as a sickly, delicate young seminarian might be used, mutatis mutandis, to describe James Joyce during his adolescence.

Loisy was but eleven years old when the doctrine of papal infallibility was declared during Vatican Council I (1869-70); but the sources of tension within and outside the Catholic Church that led to that declaration lie behind Loisy's declared "four years of mental and moral torture," during which he was introduced to the study of Roman Catholic theology. Joseph Ernest Renan (1823-92), an agnostic and author of the highly controversial Vie de Jésus (1863), had used textual-historical critical tools in treating the New Testament story of Christ as a romance, reducing Christ to a purely human historical figure; David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74), a German theologian, had mythologized the Christ figure. These uses of "modern" textual-critical approaches, compounding the effects of current archaeological discoveries in the Middle East and the unsettling effects of popular Darwinianism, deeply disturbed many of Loisy's contemporaries. It was as a response to such influences that Rome declared infallibility and that Leo XIII published his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879) in support of neoscholasticism for an approved method in philosophical and theological studies.

In his late adolescence, Loisy entered religious studies in a milieu of heated controversy and a deeply-rooted historical division between "liberal" and "fundamentalist" Catholicism. Those who stood on a middle ground or who, like the Baron von Hügel and Giovanni Genocchi (both contributors to religious studies associated with Loisy during his controversy with Rome), attempted to mediate the "modernist" cause with traditionalists, were caught, often painfully, between two irreconcilable extremes. As Loisy developed in his studies of scripture, he became the spokesman of the "modernist" extreme. It was in his mid-twenties, after he took his degree in theology, that he embarked on his career as a modernist student of the Bible. By 1882, he expressed his awareness of the conflict that would eventually lead him to break with Roman Catholicism and, in the long run, with any traditional notion of Christianity:

On the one hand [is] routine calling itself tradition; on the other, novelty calling itself truth.… These two attitudes are in conflict as to the Bible, and I wonder if anyone in the world is able to hold the scales even between faith and science.

That same year, he became a student of Renan at the Collège de France.

By 1890, when he published his first piece of biblical scholarship, the way before him was becoming clearer and his direction was being set. In 1893 he lost his position at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In 1900 he criticized the notion of inspiration in Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus (1893). Loisy's claim that theologians "are as able as others to write… free criticism, because in the field of biblical history, as in every other subject [emphasis added], faith directs scientific investigations" was, paradoxically, the source, according to Genocchi, of his pronouncements that contradicted traditional teaching. Genocchi warned Loisy against the inevitable conflict he would engender between biblical textual history and philosophical and theological analysis. To Genocchi there was a fundamental difference between historical-critical and philosophical methods: they must not be confused or reduced the one to the other. Loisy began to treat purely philosophical and theological questions, "though protesting that he wished to write a purely historical work." The philosophical and theological methods to which Genocchi referred were neo-scholastic, more specifically neo-Thomist. Genocchi was a declared devotee of Thomas Aquinas from his earliest years of study. Loisy sought in these years to apply new, nonscholastic methods to biblical studies as an apologist; he in fact referred to his work concluded in 1899 as an "apologetic." The final section, according to Francesco Turvasi, served as the rough draft for chapters on the historical Jesus and on Christian dogma and worship in L'Evangile et l'Eglise and Autour d'un petit livre (1903), two works that seriously disturbed many of his confrères, and evidently caused a number of young clerics to question their religious convictions. This work was originally entitled La crise de la foi dans le temps présent: essais d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses; he clearly saw himself in the vanguard of a new approach to religious studies.

Loisy believed he was being maligned, not because of his audacity in implying radically different theological and philosophical (particularly implicitly epistemologica!) positions, but because of his accusers' ignorance of the true nature of the crisis and of the methods of modern study that might resolve that crisis. This seems, at least, to have been his sense of the conflict at the turn of the century. He was moving consistently toward an evolutionist view of church teaching, and an immanentist (anti-transcendent) view of God's relationship to the world and man, and toward a "Catholic" agnosticism in his view of the person of God and of Christ's divinity: he evidently wanted to remain in the Church while, at the same time, teaching views inconsistent with its traditions in theology. In 1913, he acknowledged the impossibility of maintaining these two positions.

Loisy's "ill-defined disquiet," his intense sense of a mission, felt early in his intellectual development, to find new techniques for dealing with the issues of faith he recognized as increasingly troublesome for his contemporaries, and his desire to open his quest to the discovery of new, rational grounds for a new kind of religious faith offered by research outside the strict confines of traditional religious study, are the areas I think suggestive of analogies to be drawn to the urgency shared by literary and visual artists contemporary with him in their thematic preoccupations, and in their search for new techniques to embody those themes (whether products of thought or of feeling or, in Pound's words, of an "intellectual and emotional complex [experienced] in an instant of time." Loisy's gradual movement away from the given heritage of his religious ancestry toward an agnostic, relativistic approach to biblical and doctrinal interpretations presages similar developments in other, equally sensitive products of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural evolution.

George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisy have often been linked in studies of Roman Catholic modernism as the leading lights of the movement, because both were excommunicated after Pascendi was promulgated and because both resisted the attempt to stop their endeavors to change basic conceptions of Catholic teaching; however, these two men could hardly have differed from each other more completely in their backgrounds and personalities. Loisy was born into a peasant farm family, very traditionally French Catholic, was destined very early in life for the priesthood, and was educated from his earliest years wholly in Church schools; Tyrrell was born in Dublin, in 1861, into a Protestant Irish family, made fatherless just before his birth, and was constantly moved about (eighteen times by the age of eighteen). He was exposed "to a variety of religious traditions, including Methodism, Calvinism, and Evangelicalism." His older brother, a very important influence during his formative years, was an agnostic. Between the ages of ten and fourteen, George Tyrrell claimed he did not believe: "It was simply my first self-chosen attitude in regard to religion; I did not cease to be a believer, but, from a non-believer, I became an unbeliever at about the age of ten." His family were believers, except for his brother Willie, but they were not aware of his attitudes. A childhood friend later wrote, "for Tyrrell, his change of religion was a necessary precondition to his gaining of his soul spiritually or intellectually."

Tyrrell found his direction toward religious faith in his fourteenth year; he discovered Grangegorman, an Anglican High Church in Dublin. Of this experience, he said he "felt instinctively what I, long afterwards, understood clearly, namely: that the difference between an altar and a communion table was infinite." Ellen Leonard describes Tyrrell's progress toward Catholicism by contrasting it with that of Newman, a figure of importance in Tyrrell's early modernist thought: "Whereas Newman began with a belief in God's presence in the voice of conscience, which led him ultimately to a belief in Catholicism, Tyrrell began with Catholicism, which led him to Christianity and then to Theism." He became a Roman Catholic after having moved to London in 1879, and almost immediately he decided to become a Jesuit priest.

Tyrrell's "spiritual odyssey," according to Leonard, was the result of his "strong 'wish to believe'"; it was an urgent search for a conception of order that would provide meaning for people living in a modern, not medieval, world. He was guided by a "strong sense of mission, a conviction that his search was not for himself alone.… His concern was for others who were experiencing the same darkness through which he had come." The introduction, during his seminary studies, to neo-scholastic methods had a long-lasting influence on him; he felt St. Thomas Aquinas gave him the intellectual instruments to pursue his quest:

Whatever order or method there is in my thought… I owe… to St. Thomas. He first started me on the inevitable, impossible, and yet not all-fruitless quest of a complete and harmonious system of thought.

It is ironic that his condemnation was, in part, for not acquiescing to the authority of neo-scholasticism in the teaching of Church doctrine.

Tyrrell's acceptance of the Jesuit discipline was based on a conviction "that the originality of Ignatius [founder of the Jesuits] lay in his willingness to adapt new means to meet the needs of his time." It was to revive this Ignatian spirit, that is, to seek again the means, suitable to the realities of the turn-of-the-century, to speak to the people of a modern world, that he dedicated himself. He gradually came to believe that what he called Jesuitism had become "the maintainer of the status quo, rather than an innovative force within the Church." He felt it contributed to an exaggerated sense of Church authority that stultified attempts to accommodate Church teachings to the research of modern science and scientific criticism. It became his hope to "historicize" St. Thomas, who "represents a far less developed theology than that of the later Schoolmen.… I would study Aquinas as I would study Dante, in order that knowing the mind of another age we might know the mind of our own more intelligently." Tyrrell here sounds much closer to a Gadamer than to any neo-scholastic of his own time. His attempts to use this critical approach to Thomas as a teacher of philosophy at Stonyhurst, between 1894 and 1895, led to his removal from teaching and to his early difficulties within the Society. At this point he began to search for alternative ways of understanding and interpreting Catholicism. John Henry Newman seemed to offer such an alternative.

From Newman, Tyrrell adapted the conception of Christianity as developmental, that is, that the teachings of the Church in any age are the articulation of Christ's revelation for that age—that the Church itself evolved and is evolving continuously. He said that Newman recognized "the fluctuating character of science and religion" and that Newman wanted "to make the preambles of faith in some sort independent of, and indifferent to, those very fluctuations." Tyrrell wanted to establish the critical bases of faith upon which subsequent studies, such as Loisy's adaptation of German criticism in his work on the Bible, could rest without need or fear of authoritative censure from Church officialdom. His was the position of mediator: "The Church may neither identify herself with 'progress' nor isolate herself from it. Her attitude must always be the difficult and uncomfortable one of partial disagreement and partial assent."

At the close of the century, Tyrrell published an article on the dogma of Hell; in the course of his statement, rejecting the scholastic position, he remarked:

In a saner spiritual philosophy born of a revolt against materialism—the last and lowest form of rationalism [e.g., scholasticism]—a basis is found for a certain temperate agnosticism, which is one of the essential prerequisites of intelligent faith;… the essential incapacity of finite mind to seize the absolute and which governs and moves everything towards itself, the natural necessity of seeming contradictions and perplexities in our estimate of God's thoughts and ways are accepted as inevitable.

This article led to the conflict with the authorities of his Society and of the Church in Rome that culminated eight years later (22 October 1907) in his excommunication, a little more than a month after Pascendi was promulgated.

Tyrrell's way of dealing with this conflict—without denying his basic acceptance of Catholicism, on the one hand, or of acquiescing to the pressures of authority, on the other—was to see himself as one who "will stand on the doorstep and knock and ring and make myself a nuisance in every possible way." He had a sense of his own faith that echoes Newman's of A Grammar of Assent (1870), in rejecting "extravagant claims for what reason can prove about God. We have assents based… on the total response of the whole person to a concrete fact." He also had to deal with uncertainty:

As to faith, it is my hope that there is a solution yet to be discovered; and that not very far hence. I think there are crises in human thought comparable to those in evolution when life, sense and reason first come on the scene; and that after such crises there are seasons of great confusion pending readjustment;… How far away even Newman seems to one now! How little he seems to have penetrated the darkness of our day!

His answer to the darkness, and his urgent reason for knocking at the door of the Church rather than retiring, is contained in his conception of the proper relationship between Catholicism and the modern world:

If a religion is to influence and leaven our civilization and culture it must be recognized as a part of it, as organically one with it; not as a foreign body thrust down from above, but as having grown up with it from the same root in the spirit of humanity.

Death did not come to Tyrrell suddenly; he had expected to die even sooner than he did, but the spectre did not deter him from his convictions or his chosen course of action. Up to 1909, when the effects of Bright's disease and, undoubtedly, the strain of the conflict he was in took their toll, he continued to adhere, within himself, to his Catholicism, hoping that he might contribute to making it adapt more coherently to the ways of the modern world.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, Tennyson had expressed his fears of the image of nature being proffered by biological science (In Memoriam) and technology ("Locksley Hall Sixty Years After"), but he did not grasp the challenge to his most basic perception of reality that would evolve by the time of Tyrrell and Loisy. And Arnold's "darkling plain" in "Dover Beach" was perhaps his most extreme expression of human prospects after the withdrawal of the "Sea of Faith." On the whole, Victorians saw the direction of coeval developments in human knowledge positively or, at worst, fearfully; but the fearful did not realize the radical effect on their sense of the past and of the present about to invade their basically stable perceptions of the right order of things. The apparent darkness of modern human horizons became evident to religious searchers sooner than it did to most of their contemporaries, and their perception of that darkness—unlike, for example, a Hardy's—was framed by a modernist's sense of place and time and of the general human condition in a modernized world. The careers of both Tyrrell and Loisy echo the mind and world of a Stephen Dedalus or a Paul Morel far more than they do a Michael Henchard, or any of the Forsyths for that matter.

The patterns of the modern novel described by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending or Alan Friedman in The Turn of the Novel, that is, their openendedness and apocalyptic, urgent struggles for an intellectual and emotional vision to give a meaningful context of belief in which to act out human life, are more applicable to Loisy's and Tyrrell's biographies than they would be to their mentors' life stories, such as, for example, Renan's or Newman's. The descriptions of literary modernism presented by such commentators as Spears, who acknowledges the importance of religious modernism in his Dionysus and the City, or Bradbury and McFarlane, who never allude to it in their collection of essays entitled Modernism: 1890-1930, are clearly relevant to a study of religious modernism; and a knowledge of religious modernism does make clearer and more vividly real the intensity and nature of the human conflict the growth of modernism in our culture represents. I have attempted to sketch, briefly, the outlines of that conflict, in particular as it is represented by the lives of two of its most famous and most painfully intense figures.

In discussing the attempts of modern artists to produce their works, William Graham Cole offers the following description of modernists:

Many modern artists have portrayed the predicament of twentieth-century man with jarring expressiveness.… In [all the arts], the creative mind has found the old forms hollow and mute. They no longer communicate; they have ceased to contain or convey. The search for new media, new symbols, new techniques is everywhere painfully apparent.… Those who peer at the present age, penetrate its mask and probe into… themselves no less than [into] the world outside… : for [modern artists] there was a chaotic breakdown of all traditional forms of communication. Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surealism [sic], Dadaism are all late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century efforts to understand and to express what is happening to modern man and his world, they are exercises in the attempt to bring order out of disorder, to manage the unmanageable, to express the ineffable.

Cole's remarks can be used to comment almost as well on the motivations and actions of Loisy and Tyrrell. It is his reference to the "painfully apparent" search of the artists for the means to voice their sense of the breakdown of meaning that is particularly apt in describing the religious quest of the two priests. It is, perhaps, the sense that the pain is no longer so acutely apparent in many works of writers and artists of more recent years that suggests the passing of the dominance of modernism. It is as though we have gotten used to a sore and are no longer quite so sharply conscious of its continued presence.

Modernism And Earlier Movements

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17871

Gabriel Josipovici

SOURCE: "Modernism and Romanticism," in The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, Macmillan Press, 1979, pp. 179-99.

[In the following excerpt, Josipovici studies the relationship between Modernism and the earlier artistic movement of Romanticism.]

[The] years between 1885 and 1914 saw the birth of the modern movement in the arts. What are the specific features of that movement and how are we to account for its emergence?

Two points need to be made before we start. First of all we must be clear that in one sense our inquiry is absurd. There is no physical entity called 'modernism' which we can extract from the variety of individual works of art and hold up for inspection. Every modern artist of any worth has achieved what he has precisely because he has found his own individual voice and because this voice is distinct from those around him. Yet it cannot be denied that something did happen to art, to all the arts, some time around the turn of the century, and that Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Klee, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, for all their manifest differences, do have something in common.

The second point is more in the nature of a reminder of a historical fact which, if rightly interpreted, should serve as a guide and a warning throughout this investigation. Although the First World War effectively marks the break between the world of the nineteenth century and our own, both in the minds of those who lived through it and for those of us who only read about it in the history books, the modern revolution in the arts did not take place during the war, or immediately after it, as one might have expected, but a decade or so before it. This should make us wary of too facile an identification of art with the culture and the society out of which it springs.

The modern movement in the arts cannot be understood in isolation. It must be seen as a reaction to the decadent Romanticism which was prevalent in Europe at the turn of the century. Some of the apologists of modernism, such as T. E. Hulme, tried to argue that the movement was nothing other than a wholesale rejection of Romanticism and all that that stood for, and a return to a new classicism. Looking back at those pre-war decades from our vantage point in the mid-century, however, we can now see that the situation was a good deal more complex than Hulme suggests; that it was more a question of redefining Romanticism, of stressing some of those aspects of it which the nineteenth century had neglected and discarding some of those it had most strongly emphasised, rather than rejecting it outright. If we are to understand what the founders of modern art were doing it will be necessary to try and grasp the premises and implications of Romanticism itself.

Romanticism was first and foremost a movement of liberation—liberation from religious tradition, from political absolutism, from a hierarchical social system and from a universe conceived on the model of the exact sciences. Reason and scientific laws, the Romantics felt, might allow man to control his environment, but they formed a sieve through which the living breathing individual slipped, leaving behind only the dead matter of generality. What man had in common with other men, what this landscape had in common with other landscapes, was the least important thing about them. What was important was the uniqueness of men and the uniqueness of each object in the world around us, be it a leaf, a sparrow or a mountain range. There were moments, they felt, when man is far from the distractions of the city and of society, and when the reasoning, conceptualising mind is still, when life seems suddenly to reveal itself in all its mystery and terror. In such moments man felt himself restored to his true self, able to grasp the meaning of life and of his own existence. It is to experience and express such moments, both in our lives and in our art, that we should perpetually strive, for these are the moments when we throw off the shackles of generality and are restored to our unique selves.

The function of art thus becomes that of exploring those areas of the mind and of the universe which lie beyond the confines of rational thought and of ordinary consciousness, and the hero of Romantic art becomes none other than the artist himself, who is both the explorer of this unknown realm and the priestly mediator between it and his audience. Something of this is suggested by August Wilhelm Schlegel, who was probably responsible for the introduction of the word 'Romantic' as a description of the age, when, in his lectures on dramatic art and literature of 1808-9, he made the following comparison:

Ancient poetry and art is a rhythmical nomos, a harmonious promulgation of the eternal legislation of a beautifully ordered world mirroring the eternal Ideas of things. Romantic poetry, on the other hand, is the expression of a secret longing for the chaos… which lies hidden in the very womb of orderly creation.… [Greek art] is simpler, cleaner, more like nature in the independent perfection of its separate works; [Romantic art], in spite of its fragmentary appearance, is nearer to the mystery of the universe.

Schlegel, it is true, is not here talking only of the nineteenth century; he is contrasting the whole 'modern' or Christian era with the classical age of Greece and Rome. But his stress on the transcending impulse of Romanticism, on the aspiration towards the mystery of the universe, is taken up by Baudelaire several decades later when, in a discussion of the 'Salon' of 1846, he writes: 'Romanticism means modern art—that is to say, intimateness, spirituality, colour, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by every means known to art.' And yet already here a curious contradiction begins to emerge, a contradiction which lies at the heart of the whole Romantic endeavour, and whose nature was to determine its future course. Two quotations, the first from Rousseau and the second from Schleiermacher, will bring it out into the open. In his Rêveries du promeneur solitaire Rousseau tells how he came to after a minor accident to find himself lying in the middle of the countryside:

Night was falling. I perceived the sky, a few stars, and a little verdure. This first sensation was a wonderful moment; I could still only feel myself through it. In that instant I was born to life, and it seemed to me that I filled with my frail existence all the objects I perceived. Entirely within the present, I remembered nothing; I had no distinct notion of my individuality, not the least idea of what had just happened to me; I knew neither who nor where I was: I felt neither hurt, nor fear, nor anxiety.

And Schleiermacher, in his Speeches on Religion:

I am lying in the bosom of the infinite universe, I am at this moment its soul, because I feel all its force and its infinite life as my own. It is at this moment my own body, because I penetrate all its limbs as if they were my own, and its innermost nerves move like my own.… Try out of love for the universe to give up your own life. Strive already here to destroy your own individuality and to live in the One and in the All… fused with the Universe.…

Romanticism had begun as a movement of rebellion against the arbitrary authorities of the eighteenth century and its abstract laws, a rebellion undertaken in the name of the freedom of the individual. But this freedom, which of course involves the suppression of the tyrannical intellect, in fact turns out to be synonymous with the loss of individuality. 'In that instant I was born to life', writes Rousseau. The world around him soaks into his body, he becomes one with it and in so doing gains a sense of his own uniqueness, while Schleiermacher too feels the universe as if it were his own body. But this feeling is also one of the loss of self—'I did not know who I was', 'Strive already here to destroy your own individuality …'. The paradox is there: the ultimate freedom, according to the Romantic logic, can only be death.

Where consciousness itself is felt to be an imprisoning factor, keeping man from his true self, freedom must lie in the transcending of consciousness. Yet the only time we escape from it for more than a brief moment is in sleep, or under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or else in madness. And the only total escape is death. Hence the key place accorded by Romanticism to dreams, to various forms of addiction, to madness, and to the deathwish. And in all these cases the result is, of course, ambiguous. The freedom from consciousness and from the bonds of society may result in deeper insight, but it results also in rendering the individual more vulnerable, more prone to destruction from outside as well as from within. Hence the general tone of Romantic art and literature is one of melancholy gloom, for there seems to be no way of resolving the paradox.

This tension between freedom and annihilation is even easier to discern in the forms of art than in its contents. The task of the poet, as the Romantics saw it, was to communicate those moments of visionary intensity which he experienced, moments in which the meaning and value of life seemed to emerge. But the poet's only means of expression is language, and language belongs by definition to the realm of consciousness and social intercourse. For language, as Plato had already noted, only exists at a certain degree of abstraction and universality; it takes for granted that there is some sort of social agreement among the users of a language. But if you feel that what is important is the uniqueness of this tree or that man or this experience—then how are words going to help you to convey this uniqueness? This of course has always been one of the problems of art, but with the Romantics it comes right into the foreground of their consciousness. The Romantic poet finds himself struggling to express by means of language precisely that which it lies beyond the power of language to express. He becomes a man desperately striving to escape from his own shadow.

Only one poet in the nineteenth century was fully aware of the implications of the Romantic endeavour and was also prepared to accept and overcome them. In Rimbaud's famous letter to Paul Demeny of 15 May 1871 we can see that he had fully understood the problem and had decided on a radical solution:

Thus the poet is truly a stealer of fire.

He is the spokesman of humanity, even of the animals; he will have to make men feel, touch, hear his creations. If what he brings back from down there has form, he will bring forth form; if it is formless, he will bring forth formlessness. A language has to be found—for that matter, every word being an idea, the time of the universal language will come! One has to be an academician—deader than a fossil—to compile a dictionary in any language. Weak-minded men, starting by thinking about the first letter of the alphabet, would soon be overtaken by madness!

This [new] language will be of the soul, for the soul, summing up everything, smells, sounds, colours; thought latching on to thought and pulling. The poet would define the quantity of the unknown awakening in the universal soul in his time: he would produce more than the formulation of his thought, the measurement of his march towards Progressi An enormity who has become normal, absorbed by everyone, he would really be a multiplier of progressi

The failure of this ideal can be traced through the poems themselves, and it forms the explicit subject-matter of Une Saison en enfer. And, indeed, how could Rimbaud succeed? What he desires is not communication but communion, the direct and total contact of one person with another through a language so charged that it will act without needing to pass by way of the interpreting mind at all; in other words, a language that is not conventional but natural. But, as we have seen, such a wish can never be more than a Utopian dream, since to give words the meanings I want them to have regardless of their dictionary definitions is tantamount to abolishing language altogether. When Rimbaud recognised this, with admirable logic he gave up writing altogether.

But just because he was so ready to push the premises of Romanticism to their ultimate conclusion, Rimbaud remains one of the key figures of the nineteenth century, marking forever one of the two poles within which modern art is to move. His contemporaries, both in England and in France (Mallarmé excepted), chose a somewhat less arduous and therefore less interesting path. They tried to solve the problem by making their verse approximate as closely as possible to their conception of music, since music seemed to them to be the ideal artistic language, with none of the disadvantages of speech. To this end they made their verse as mellifluous as possible, stressing its incantatory qualities, smoothing out all harshness of diction, minimising its referential content, and rigidly excluding all forms of wit and humour for fear these would break their fragile spell. The result was aptly described by Eliot in his essay on Swinburne:

Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified. They are identified in the verse of Swinburne solely because the object has ceased to exist, because the meaning is merely the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment.

As with Rimbaud, the normal function of language is denied and words take on an independent meaning. But here the meaning is not just independent of general usage, it is no longer under the poet's control at all. The result is not revelation but empty cliché, not the articulation of what lies beyond the confines of consciousness and rationality but simple reflex, the verbal equivalent of the canine dribble:

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time with a gift of tears;
Grief with a glass that ran.…


O Prêtresse élevant sous le laurieur verdâtre
Une eau d'antique pleurs dans le creux de tes
Tes yeux sacrés feront resplendir mes chemins,
Tes mains couronneront de cedre un jeune

For language, as we have seen, has a way of getting its own back on those who try to step over it in this manner.

Just as the Romantic dreamer found that he escaped from the bonds of the intellect only at the cost of his sanity or his life, so the Romantic poet, trying to escape from the bonds of language, found himself its prisoner, uttering platitudes in the voice of a prophet.

But if the poets dreamt of living in a world freed from the stifling restrictions of language, and looked with envy at the composers, these, had the poets but known it, were in the same plight as themselves. For if language is not natural, if, that is, words are not inherently expressive, as Rimbaud had imagined, then the same is true of the language of music. Although E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote enthusiastically about the inherent qualities of the chord of A flat minor, the truth of the matter is that music is nearly as conventional a form of expression as speech. We find it difficult to grasp music which is distant from us in space or time (Indian or Japanese music, or Gregorian chant, for instance), to know when it is being 'cheerful', when 'sad'. Musical instruments too have different and highly specialised functions in other societies, and so are associated with different things; it is only through frequent hearings, through a familiarisation with its language that we can come to appreciate Indian music or the music of Bali. The composer, no less than the poet, works in a language which is largely the product of convention, and according to rules to which he voluntarily submits in order to create a meaningful work. Thus, when the initial heroic impetus of Romanticism starts to peter out, we find a development in music parallel to that which we traced in poetry: a slackening of formal control, a loosening of harmonic texture, and the emergence of a soulful, cliché-ridden style which strives to lull the listener into a state of trance while the music struggles to express the world of the infinite which Baudelaire had urged the artist to seek with every means at his disposal. Naturally enough the piano, instrument of the half-echo, the suggestive, the indefinite, becomes the favourite of composer and public alike. And in music, as in poetry, the attempt to express everything, the totality of experience, unfettered by the rules and limitations of conventions and consciousness, leads to self-destruction. More than any of the other arts, Romantic music is imbued with the melancholy which stems from the knowledge that to achieve its goal is to expire.

Wagner's operas, as all his contemporaries realised, form the apotheosis of Romantic art. These vast music-dramas seemed to them to be the perfect answer to Baudelaire's plea for a work of art that would make use of all the resources of all the arts, lifting the spectator into the realm of the infinite, into the very heart of the mystery of the universe. We are fortunate in possessing a critique of Wagner by one of the few men who really understood the implications of Romanticism because he was so much of a Romantic himself—Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's analysis of the 'decadent' style sums up many of the points we have already noted:

What is common to both Wagner and 'the others' consists in this: the decline of all organising power; the abuse of traditional means, without the capacity or the aim that would justify this. The counterfeit imitation of grand forms… excessive vitality in small details; passion at all costs; refinement as an expression of impoverished life, ever more nerves in the place of muscle.

This is extraordinarily perceptive. Nietzsche has put his finger on one of the main characteristics of expressionism: the richness of sensual detail, of the feel of things, allied to the poverty of overall form. And how could it be otherwise, once the dichotomy expressed by Thomas Hooker is accepted? We are left with either meaningless sensation (the traveller) or knowledge devoid of feeling (the historian, map-maker). Thus it becomes easy to trace even a historical connection between Luther, the Puritans, the German Romantics, the German expressionists, and a film-maker like Bergman. This has little to do with innate German or northern characteristics or geography and a great deal to do with cultural tradition.

But Nietzsche is not content with a simple catalogue of Wagner's characteristics; he wants to understand what lies behind them and to try and account for Wagner's enormous popularity. He sees first of all that for Wagner music is only a means to an end: 'As a matter of fact, his whole life long, he did nothing but repeat one proposition: that his music did not mean music alone! But something more! Something immeasurably more!… "Not music alone"no musician would speak in this way.' And he explains what this 'more' is: 'Wagner pondered over nothing so deeply as over salvation: his opera is the opera of salvation.' And this, thinks Nietzsche, is the source of Wagner's power and popularity: what he offered was nothing less than the hope of personal salvation to a Europe—and especially a Germany—bewildered by the rapid social and technological changes of the previous half-century. 'How intimately related must Wagner be to the entire decadence of Europe for her not to have felt that he was decadent,' he writes in the same essay. And again: 'People actually kiss that which plunges them more quickly into the abyss.' We remember that Schlegel had already talked about a 'secret longing for the chaos… which lies hidden in the very womb of orderly creation', and that this longing was nothing other than the Romantic desire for an absolute freedom. Nietzsche's suggestion that with Wagner this longing spills out of the realm of art into that of politics allows us to glimpse the connection between decadent Romanticism and mass hysteria. The cataclysmic events of the first half of the present century would have occasioned him little surprise.

What Nietzsche particularly objects to in Wagner is precisely the fact that by trying to turn his music into a religion he debases both music and religion; by trying to turn the entire world into a music-drama, drawing the audience up into the music until they shed their dull everyday lives and enter the heart of the mystery, he dangerously distorts both the life of everyday and the true nature of art. By blurring the outlines between life and art he turns art into a tool and life into an aesthetic phenomenon—that is, into something which is to be judged entirely by aesthetic criteria and where the rules of morality therefore no longer apply.

Only one other thinker in the nineteenth century had seen as clearly as Nietzsche where the assumptions of Romanticism were leading, and that was Kierkegaard. In Either/ Or, written in 1843, he set out to analyse what he calls the aesthetic attitude to life, and from then on the category of the aesthetic or the 'interesting' occupied a key place in his writing. He noted that the point about a work of art is that we are not in any way committed to it. We can pick up a book and put it down again, turn from one picture to another in a gallery. We are surrounded by a growing number of works of art and we can move among them at will, sampling here or there according to our whim. Art makes no claims on us, and surely an attitude of disinterested contemplation is the correct one when we face a work of art. It so happens, however, that people carry this attitude over into their lives. A man will take up with one woman, for instance, because she 'interests' him, and when she begins to bore him he will turn to another. The philanderer, Don Juan, is the archetype of the aesthetic attitude to life, an attitude which depends on a complete surrender to the moment, the immediate, the sensual, and which for that reason is wholly amoral. That is why music is the most perfect medium for the aesthetic mode, and why, Kierkegaard argues, Mozart's Don Giovanni is the greatest work in that mode. But when we transfer this attitude from art to life its immediate implication is that no choices are binding. The person who lives in the category of the aesthetic never thinks in terms of 'either/or', but always of 'and/and'. Yet life, Kierkegaard argues, does not consist of a series of aesthetic moments. Choices are essential in life, and a genuine choice implies a genuine renunciation. That man is a creature who must make choices is evinced by his awareness of time. The aesthetic category does not know the meaning of time, but man is a creature of time, as can be seen from the fact that no absolute repetition is possible in life although it is perfectly possible in art. Repetition in life always implies change and difference, and so always forces us to recognise the fact that we do not exist in the category of the aesthetic.

The extension of the term 'aesthetic' to imply an attitude to life as well as to works of art allows Kierkegaard to show how much the European bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century had in common with the Romantic artists, just as Nietzsche had noted the close links between Wagner's art and the mentality of his patrons. But Kierkegaard was able to extend his insight into a critique of the prevalent philosophy of the time, Hegelianism. For Hegel, as he saw, was the supreme philosopher of aestheticism. He it was who had undertaken to show that all history should be contemplated as a work of art, the product of one great Mind, moving inevitably forward towards the completion of its pattern. But this view of history, though tempting, is also subtly distorting, as Kierkegaard noted. Luther or Cromwell or Napoleon, when confronted with a choice between one action and another, did not have the benefit of Hegel's vision of the totality of history to guide them. For them the future was open, their choice fraught with consequences they could not foretell. It is only by virtue of hindsight that a pattern emerges, and each of us lives life forwards rather than backwards. Hegel sees history as akin to the plot of some great novel, sees it, in fact, as an aesthetic object, to be contemplated and understood; whereas in fact history—and our own life—can almost be defined by the fact that it is not a book.

Kierkegaard's attacks on Hegel and on the 'aestheticism' of the society in which he lived were of course made in the name of his own particular brand of Christianity. But he felt that it was essential that he make them, if only to reveal to his readers the impossibility of his task. For how is he to convey the difference between life lived according to the religious or the ethical category and life lived according to the aesthetic category, when all he has at his command is his pen, an instrument good only for the creation of aesthetic objects? How can he bring home to each reader the uniqueness of his life and the irreversibility of his choices through the generalising medium of language and of philosophical discourse? The answer is of course that he can't, except by the roundabout way of drawing the reader's attention to the problem in the first place. That is why reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche is such an uncomfortable activity, for they introduce us not to some foreign realm of experience, but to ourselves.

Kierkegaard's problems, and some of his solutions, are the problems and solutions of modernism. For even as Wagnerism swept through Europe and Nietzsche sank into his final madness, the reaction to Romantic decadence had begun. This did not take the form of a movement in the sense that, say, surrealism, was a movement, with polemical manifestos and self-appointed leaders and spokesmen; it was not even a movement of men who thought alike on such general topics as human freedom and the role of the artist in society, as Romanticism had been in its early stages. Proust and Joyce met once and did not take to each other; Schoenberg loathed Stravinsky; Eliot was more interested in Donne than in Mallarmé or Mann; Kafka ignored and was ignored by all the rest. Yet it is easy for us today to see that all these men were united by one common attitude, albeit a negative one: they all insisted on the limitations of art. More than that, they all stressed, in their art itself, that what they were creating were artifacts and not to be confused with life: that painting was first of all a series of brushstrokes on a flat canvas; music certain notes played by certain combinations of instruments; poetry the grouping of words on a page.

The Romantics had regarded art as simply a means to a transcendental end, and they therefore tended to see all art as more or less interchangeable—it didn't matter what train you caught since they all arrived at the same destination. The insistence on the part of the moderns that their work was art and not something else, their stress on the particular medium in which they were working, was not meant to be a denial of the importance of art. On the contrary, it was a reassertion of art's vital function. Art, they argued, was not a means of piercing the sensible veil of the universe, of getting at the 'unknown', as Rimbaud and others had claimed, for there was nothing beyond the world we see all around us. The whole mystery is there, in front of our eyes—only most of us are too blind or lazy to see it. What most of us tend to do in the face of the world, of ourselves, of works of art even, is to neutralise what is there in front of us by referring it to something we already know. Thus we are forever shut up inside our preconceived ideas, reacting only to that which makes no demands on us to see. As Giacometti wittily remarked:

Where do we find the greatest number of people? In front of the Sacre de Napoléon. Why do people look in particular at this painting? Because they imagine themselves to be present at the scene, participating in it. They become 'little Napoleons.' At the same time the spectacle becomes the equivalent of the reading of a novel.

In other words, it becomes an excuse for daydreaming. The modern artist, on the other hand, holds that the work of art is meaningful precisely because it reveals to us the 'otherness' of the world—it shocks us out of our natural sloth and the force of habit, and makes us see for the first time what we had looked at a hundred times but never seen. Art is not the key to the universe, as the Romantics had believed; it is merely a pair of spectacles. Valéry, echoing Proust's Elstir, points out:

In general we guess or anticipate more than we see, and the impressions that strike the eye are signs for us rather than singular presences, prior to all the patterns, the short cuts, the immediate substitutions, which a primary education has instilled in us.

Just as the thinker tries to defend himself against words and those ready-made expressions which protect people against any feeling of shock and thus make possible everyday practical activities, so the artist may, through the study of objects with a unique form [a lump of coal which is like no other, a handkerchief thrown anyhow onto a table, and so on], try to rediscover his own uniqueness.

Art, then, does not feed us information and it does not provide us with a passport to some higher realm of existence. What it does is to open our eyes by removing the film of habit which we normally carry around with us. The work of art does this by shocking us into awareness through its insistence on itself as an object in its own right, an irreducible singular presence. The cubist picture, for instance, teases the eye as we follow shape after shape on the canvas, always on the verge of understanding it, yet never quite allowed to do so. For understanding would mean fitting the picture into our preconceived world, in other words denying its uniqueness. And because we cannot step back and say: 'Ah yes, a mandolin, a glass of wine, a table…', we go on looking at the canvas and in time learn to accept its own reality instead of reducing it to our unthinking notion of what a mandolin or a glass of wine looks like. Thus Braque can say: 'The painting is finished when the idea has disappeared', and Valéry, elsewhere in the essay on Degas: 'To look means to forget the names of the things one is seeing.' Proust's whole novel, of course, can be seen as the attempt to substitute the object for the name, to render the uniqueness of existence by relentlessly destroying all the names by which we explain it to ourselves.

An art of this kind makes the spectator work. It does not, like Wagnerian opera, claim to hand him the key to salvation, or, like the 'Sacre de Napoléon', allow him simply to indulge his day-dreams. What it claims to do is to recreate within the willing listener or spectator the liberating experience of the artist himself as he makes the object. When Picasso said of his famous sculpture of the bull's head made out of the seat and handlebars of a bicycle that the whole point would be lost if the viewer, through excessive familiarity with it, were to see only a bull's head, he neatly illustrated this aspect of modern art. What is important is not the finished product, but the process. Picasso wants us to be aware of the fact that what is in front of us is not a bull's head but a man-made object. The product is not there to be contemplated for its own sake but to make the viewer re-enact the creative discovery for himself. What is important is to see the bull's head in the handlebars, and handlebars in every bull's head. It is the play of wit which turns a universe we had taken for granted into a source of infinite possibilities, and therefore wakes us up to the miraculous nature of everything that is. The object—the head/handlebars—is necessary, for wit is always the result of the transformation of what is given, never the creation of something totally new; but Picasso is not interested in bicycles or bulls as such, he does not want us to say: 'Now I understand what a bull is really like,' but, if anything: 'Now I understand that a bull is.' We must not rest with the object, but with the object-as-created-by-wit. In much the same way A la Recherche du temps perdu does not so much tell a story as create within the reader the possibility of telling the story Marcel is about to set down as the work ends. In this way me artist's acceptance of limitation, his open acknowledgment of the medium in which he is working, leads to the creation of an art that strikes more directly at the life of the reader or viewer than any art since the Middle Ages.

The modern revolution in the arts was a reaction to decadent Romanticism, but this reaction, we can now see, entailed a break with four centuries of me Western artistic tradition. Shifts in taste and in the forms of expression had of course occurred at regular intervals throughout these four centuries, but they were adjustments and alterations of emphasis within a fixed framework. Romanticism, by trying to give full and unfettered expression to the individual, burst this framework and so made it possible for the moderns to step out of me wreckage and discover that the frame only enclosed a small fraction of the universe. Or perhaps a more accurate way of describing the change would be to say that what the artists of the previous four centuries had taken for the universe was now seen to be nothing else than the universe as seen through the spectacles of Renaissance norms. It is not by chance mat the birth of the modern coincides with the discovery or rediscovery of Japanese graphics, Balinese music, African sculpture, Romanesque painting and the poetry of the troubadours. This is not simply a widening of the cultural horizons; it is the discovery of me relativity of artistic norms. Perspective and harmony, far from being a datum of experience, are suddenly seen to be as much the product of convention as the sonnet form, though, unlike the latter, they were clearly me product of certain metaphysical assumptions which began to emerge in the West in the years between 1350 and 1700.

All art, since the Renaissance, had been based on the twin concepts of expression and imitation. In some of the previous chapters I tried to suggest why the two should always go hand in hand and why they should have emerged as the primary criteria of art at a time when medieval notions of analogy were no longer acceptable. The Romantics, by stressing expression at the expense of imitation, helped to bring the hidden assumptions of both out into the open. Baudelaire, writing about the 'Salon' of 1846, quotes at some length from Hoffmann's Kreisleriana. The passage is central not only to Baudelaire's own aesthetic, but to that of Romanticism in general:

It is not only in dreams, or in that mild delirium which precedes sleep, but it is even awakened when I hear music—that perception of an analogy and an intimate connexion between colours, sounds and perfumes. It seems to me that all these things were created by one and the same ray of light, and that their combination must result in a wonderful concert of harmony. The smell of red and brown marigolds above all produces a magical effect on my being. It makes me fall into a deep reverie, in which I seem to hear the solemn, deep tones of the oboe in the distance.

The implicit belief behind this passage is mat individual sights, sounds, smells and tastes touch each one of us in the same way and are themselves interchangeable. There is an analogy here, but it is not between two sets of events, two orders of reality, but between the different senses. And this correspondence can find an echo in each one of us because the senses speak a natural language. The poet has simply to reach down into himself and express what he feels and it will immediately enter the soul of the reader. We have seen how this mistaken view of the poetic process led to the breakdown of art into a series of utterances so private that they no longer made sense, or turned into the banal expression not of vision but of cliché. This failure made it clear to the moderns that art is not the expression of inner feeling but the creation of a structure that will allow us to understand what it means to perceive, and will thus, in a sense, give us back the world. Already at the start of the Romantic movement, as though to spite the historian of ideas with his clear notions of historical change and development, Lichtenberg had written: 'To see something new we must make something new.' And this explains the insistence on the part of the moderns on the impersonality of the poet, that distinction between the man and the artist which forms the basis of the work of Proust, Valéry, Rilke and Eliot. For the artist, qua man, is no different from other men; the only difference lies in the fact that he is a craftsman, a man who makes objects which will refract reality in a way the tired eyes of habit never do. Thus St. Beuve's biographical method is not only useless as a critical tool, but misleading, since the artist has, if anything, a less interesting life than other men, since so much of it is given up to the making of artifacts. Robbe-Grillet expresses the extreme position with wit and elegance: 'The artist is a man with nothing to say.'

The Romantic artist claimed in some way to be a magician. Words and sounds, he implied, hid within themselves certain magical properties over which he alone had power. Through this power he could confer salvation on the rest of mankind; the reader or listener (I am thinking of Rimbaud and Wagner, different though they are in so many respects) had simply to submit to the words or sounds in order to shed the pains and frustrations of his daily life and to emerge into a free world where there was no conflict between desire and fulfilment, imagination and reality. The consequences of this view were quickly seen by Nietzsche, and the modern reaction to this notion of art as magic was to stress the idea of art as game. The work of art, said the moderns, does not offer permanent salvation to anyone. Its function is to increase the reader's powers of imagination, to make him see the world again cleansed of its stiff and stubborn man-locked set. This requires active participation rather than passive submission, and a willingness to play according to the rules laid down by the artist. At the same time the modern rediscovery of the hieratic and stylised arts of other periods went hand in hand with the rehabilitation of forms of art which had not been considered serious enough to form part of the mainstream of post-Renaissance art in Europe: the puppet play, the shadow-play, children's games, street games and ballads were all used by Jarry, Stravinsky, Picasso and Eliot, and all helped them to forge their own individual styles. In these archaic and popular forms of art there is no pretence at illusion. Art is a game and its creation involves making something that will be of pleasure to others.

This is a very different view of art from that held by the Romantics. But it is not perhaps all that far removed from art as it was known from the time of Homer down to the Renaissance. The acceptance by artist and audience of the rules of genre and rhetoric shows mat there was always an implicit awareness of the fact that for art to be true it must not pretend to be other than it is, a made thing, an object put together according to the rules of tradition and convention in order to satisfy. It is in fact only with the painting and the fiction which emerged from the Renaissance revolution in thought that the extraordinary belief grew up that art could do without rules altogether, that it could simply imitate external reality and tell the whole truth starting not from axioms but from observable facts.

But we have seen that the imitation of the external world, however detailed, does not really answer the questions: Why this bit of the world rather than that? Why should the artist paint this subject, include this detail, why should the novelist tell this story, recount this incident? Is it enough to say: Because he feels like it? Will he feel like it tomorrow? If there is no answer to these questions then the freedom of the artist to do what he likes is a meaningless freedom. The hero of Kafka's last novel, standing in the snow outside the inn, recognises the force of this paradox only too well:

It seemed to K. as if at last those people had broken off all relations with him, and as if now in reality he were freer than he had ever been, and at liberty to wait here in this place usually forbidden to him as long as he desired, and had won a freedom such as hardly anybody else had ever succeeded in winning, and as if nobody would dare to touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him; but—this conviction was at least equally strong—as if at the same time there was nothing more senseless, nothing more hopeless, than this freedom, this waiting, this inviolability.

The problem had already haunted the Romantics and we find it everywhere in their poetry. But so long as they held to an expressive theory of art they could never resolve it. We see them trying to blur the outlines of their fictions, their music, their painting, until the artifact almost merges with the surrounding world—but of course it never does completely or it would cease to be an artifact, and until it does so they are bound to remain unsatisfied. In music they try to slow down the forward thrust of their art so that it ceases to unfold in time according to the premises laid down at the start and spreads instead like a sluggish river in marshy country. This is particularly evident in the work of Bruckner and Mahler, but again, it is not till the entire nature of the medium is reconsidered that they can escape the inner contradictions of their art. Schönberg undertakes such a reconsideration, introducing a new, non-linear principle of composition to replace the subjective and time-bound principles of the sonata form, and in Webern we find the tradition reaching its logical conclusion, since in a three-minute work he can present us with the means of generating a hundred Mahler symphonies (just as a five-page work by Borges is capable of generating a hundred three-decker novels). In painting the decisive break comes with Cézanne, and his phrase 'Je pars neutre' is the key to this aspect of modernism. What he means by this is that in his painting he wishes to eliminate the personal slant in the choice of both subject-matter and treatment, and to seek instead to discover the general laws of light and space present in the scene before him—as in every other. Thus it is not so much that the artist refines himself out of existence as that he tries to establish the laws of perception and of the process of art itself. In a similar way Wittgenstein was to argue that he wished to develop not a new area of philosophical inquiry, but an investigation of the nature of that inquiry. This has led to the charge that his work is concerned with trivialities, since it is not concerned with 'life', a charge familiar enough to the ears of modern artists who are accused of wilfully shutting their eyes to the world by writing books on the writing of books and painting pictures whose subject-matter is the painting of pictures. Proust, whose design is similar to Cézanne's, comes back to this point again and again in Le Temps Retrouvé: he is not interested in imitating a flat reality, in writing one more book which tells one more story; what he wants to do is to draw out the laws inherent in love, in speech, in perception, in art. And, thinking perhaps of a Cézanne, and comparing it to one of those society portraits so popular at the time, he writes:

If, in the realm of painting, one portrait makes manifest certain truths concerning volume, light, movement, does that mean that it is necessarily inferior to another completely different portrait of the same person, in which a thousand details omitted in the first are minutely transcribed, from which second portrait one would conclude that the model was ravishingly beautiful while from the first one would have thought him or her ugly, a fact which may be of documentary, even of historical importance, but is not necessarily an artistic truth?

It might be thought that such an art, an art of total potentiality, of laws rather than subject-matter, would result in a dry abstraction. Many modern works certainly display this characteristic, though different people would have different works in mind as they made that statement. There is of course no legislation for art or for criticism, and membership of a school, whether it be Imagist or Nouveau Roman, does not confer automatic value. We are not really concerned with the countless imitations of the great modern masters, imitations no better or worse than those of the great classics. What is important is that such an art need be neither solemn nor cold. On the contrary, there has never been an art more joyous, or one that brings joy back to our response to older art, than that of Stravinsky, Picasso and Eliot. For the interest of these artists in the tradition is of course bound up with their search for laws rather than new subject-matter. Stravinsky has called Pulcinella 'the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.' Such a love affair was Picasso's with Velasquez when, by producing dozens of imitations of 'Las Meninas', he made us see that picture anew by revealing the necessity of its particular being. Had 'Las Meninas' not been reworked by him we would have taken it for granted and thus in a sense failed to see it. By showing us all the things it might have been Picasso as it were freed it from the realm of the 'given' and revealed to us how all its elements were both chosen and necessary. And in a precisely similar way the greatest modern art, concentrating as it does on laws rather than on subject-matter, paradoxically gives us back the world we had lost through force of habit. Picasso, in conversation with his friend the photographer George Brassai, sums up the spirit of modernism as I have tried to sketch it in this chapter:

I always aim at the resemblance. An artist should observe nature but never confuse it with painting. It is only translatable into painting by signs But such signs are not invented. To arrive at the sign you have to concentrate hard on the resemblance. To me surreality is nothing and never has been anything but this profound resemblance, something deeper than the forms and colours in which objects present themselves.

J. Edward Chamberlain

SOURCE: "From High Decadence to High Modernism," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 591-610.

[In the following essay, Chamberlain links Modernism to the late nineteenth-century Decadent movement.]

"Sympathy with suffering," suggested Oscar Wilde, "is the joy of one leper meeting another leper on the road." Misery likes company; but as well as company decadence needs an audience. Indeed, the one thing which the celebrated decadents of the nineteenth century needed more than their absinthe, their indolence or their sometimes picturesque debauchery was a large middle class to be offended, a phalanx of bourgeois outrage. "To bewilder the middle class" might be, as Arthur Symons suggested, itself a thinly disguised middle-class occupation; but it was, as well, an appealing obligation for those who thrived on the deliciously self-righteous pleasures it afforded.

Wilde, more than anyone of his age, advertised the conspicuous consumption of decadent pleasures. He did not walk down a country lane with a lily in his hand, but down Picadilly, where he would be seen; and he wore his notorious green carnations in the buttonholes of his morning coat or his evening jacket, not of his dressing gown—unless, of course, he might be wearing a dressing gown to the theater. He set as one of his early ambitions to live up to the beauty of his blue and white china, but he certainly intended to do so in public. In more general terms, for which Wilde also provided a glossary, the virtues of clarity and openness were transformed by decadent instincts into the habits of confession and display.

Of course, decadence meant other things than floral decoration and fine porcelain. It meant a precious over-refinement in all things, an obsessive concentration on apparently useless detail, a preferring of the hot-house to the open air; it meant a cavalier refusal to take the broad and balanced view, and a corresponding susceptibility to a dog's breakfast of neuroses; it meant a nervous fascination with the forms of decay, a morbid interest in disease and death, a quixotic celebration of the unnatural and the artificial, a deliberate dalliance with the perverse. But most of all, decadence meant a flaunting of the conditions under which art and life become confused. Thus, ease or leisure, the otium that Virgil associated with the achievement of art, is transformed into the companion of life—into easeful death, idle tears, or foolish indolence, Baudelaire's "luxe, calme et volupté." Or the artistic instinct to embellish and decorate is transposed into an emphasis on style instead of substance, a cherishing of the human importance of display. The tactful notion that what is on the surface is not necessarily superficial was thereby taken to its extreme, and what is on the surface accepted as perhaps the only thing which is profound, or at the very least permanent. "One should so live that one becomes a form of fiction," Wilde advised. "To be a fact is to be a failure." To succeed in the way he hoped, it was necessary to extend the logic, and to celebrate the more general conditions under which the imagination competes with reality, or fancy with fact; the conditions under which form is detached from its function, and ethics dissociated from the appreciation of art. Writing of Thomas Chatterton, Wilde noted that "he did not have the moral conscience which is truth to fact [he was of course a forger, among other things] but had the artistic conscience which is truth to beauty." And Wilde would not let that paradox rest, insisting elsewhere that even in life "being natural is simply a pose, and one of the most irritating poses I know."

One of Wilde's provoking critical remarks, that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, gives witty form to this pattern of confusions.

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our street, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art… At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold.

The critical argument that Wilde is making, that all perception is informed by the imagination—that the perceiver intends the perceived—this needs the exaggerated flourish that he provides if it is to hit its mark. For its aim is not exactly logical assent. Though he is declaring that nature imitates art, Wilde is not advising us to look to the pages of the newest journal of the arts for the last words on Arctic cold fronts or atmospheric inversions. Nor is he saying, as a scientist such as Darwin essentially did, that phenomena such as natural selection imitate, or at least are recognizable only following our familiarity with, such ingenious artifice as that practised by the selective domestic breeder. Instead, Wilde is after a conspiratorial complicity, a sense of brotherly blasphemy. We need to feel slightly wicked as we smile at Wilde's outrageous statement; for which feeling of course we need a sense of its outrageousness as well as of its truth. Wilde is much more anxious that we be initiated into a complex and subversive understanding than that we be convinced. We must know what it is to be silly before we can know what it is that we know. We must laugh with, or more precisely be serious with, Aubrey Beardsley, explaining that he caught a cold because he went out that morning and left the tassel off his cane. "One should spend one's days in saying what is incredible," Wilde advised, adding the less comfortable advice that we spend the evening doing the improbable.

But we pay the price for such silliness, for soon other people stop taking us seriously. So if we want to be taken seriously, we need to do more than amuse or bewilder, we need to give offence, to turn the screw, as it were, and be not only foolish but outrageous, and not only outrageous but perverse. Folly and vice are, the good people tell us, phases of a spiritual disease, something like (the same people tell us) marijuana and cocaine. Therefore, if we are concerned about the life of the spirit, as Wilde most certainly was; and if we are told that the self-satisfied mediocrity and pernicious puritanism that we see around us are manifestations of health, then we might well choose disease as the only salvation for our spirit, and follow its increasingly pathological or hysterical phases. Wilde's eccentric version of this logic was to assert that not goodness but sin is the essential element of progress.

One of the standard complaints about the literature and art of Wilde's generation was that it was "unhealthy," and the crowd feared that the disease might be contagious. As Dionysus moved from the country to the town, this was certainly a reasonable concern; and just as certainly, it was the hope of the afflicted. For if, like Wilde, we are instinctive evangelists, as so many in the nineteenth century seemed to be, then we want converts; and so we want our outrageouseness to be taken seriously, we want the contagion to spread. There is nothing quite like adversity to strengthen our resolve to hold to our principles, which are by now outrageous only to the uninitiated, diseased only to those who have not succumbed. Panic afflicts only those who have not already embraced the goat god. Furthermore, a combination of ignorance and belligerence on the part of the uninitiated or the disdainful makes us feel positively chosen to take a stand. "The capacity of finding temptations is the test of the culture of one's nation," Wilde proposed. "The capacity of yielding to temptation is the test of the strength of one's character." So the continuum from the foolish to the vicious offered a natural recourse to those who felt called to match complacency with effrontery, propriety with abandon, realism with artifice—especially if they could show that reality was most truly apprehended by the imagination, that an ennobling decorum could only be achieved by setting aside inhibitions, and that a bold confrontation with the mundane held more promise than a bland acceptance of it. Decadence was the obligation of the independent-minded, the open-hearted and the free-spirited; and since, as Wilde insisted, it is much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it—anybody can make history; it takes a great man to write it, he argued—most of Wilde's contemporaries chose the hard way, and talked and talked and talked about it. And they all, being quite genuinely silly, were confident that they knew what they were talking about. Some, such as Wilde, also knew that the game was anything but trivial. "Everything is a poison," he wrote. "But there are two kinds of poisons. There are the poisons that kill, and the poisons that keep alive. The last are the more terrible."

The decadence of the last decades of the nineteenth century clarified the conditions, and determined the limits, of the modernism of the first few decades of the twentieth. There was a sense of refined complicity about the literature and art of the period, a sense that they knew, or that they knew, what was going on; and that the conspiratorial nod, the furtive understanding, was all that was needed to carry the day. For the decadent artists, it was the secrecy of the secret that was crucial, the unexpressed and inexpressible agreement that it all mattered. They were like connoisseurs, assuming a shared sense that the wine cork needs to be sniffed. And they were up against those who liked to drink Cold Duck. With this connoisseurship went a certain egotistical detachment, and a corresponding inability to sympathize with different conditions. Dealings with others tended to be either conspiratorial or coercive; dealings with oneself tended to be relentlessly and paralyzingly candid. The possibilities of either engagement or transcendence became negligible, replaced by the high probability of "sterile introspection, infinite delay."

Nowhere was the issue joined more directly than in aesthetic matters. From the middle of the century, the idea had been about that art was an autonomous activity, independent of normal categories of experience (as well as of moral censure), and appealing to our aesthetic sense or sense of beauty alone. Théophile Gautier, who first elaborated this notion of art for art's sake, argued the case in his Preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), itself variously called "the Bible of the decadence" (because of the perverse sexual confusions upon which its story depends) and "the holy writ of beauty" (because, following an Aristotelian logic, it inspired the soul (in Swinburne's words) to "burn as an altar-fire/To the unknown God of unachieved desire"). That this desire was profane rather than sacred merely added to its exquisite charm.

Gautier insisted that "there is nothing really beautiful save what is of no possible use. Everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and man's needs are low and disgusting, like his own poor, wretched nature. The most useful place in a house is the water-closet." The next step might be to insist that anything even as useful (and as mundane) as a water closet can by the imagination be rendered useless, and be transformed into a work of art. This step was taken by Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 submitted a urinal (entitled "Fountain") to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York.

By the time Duchamp submitted his urinal, both painting and poetry had accepted the radical redefinition of the idea of beauty which had begun almost a century earlier. Cubism in its disintegrated manner eliminated the traditional aesthetic values attached to the subject matter of painting, and along with abstract art defined a new attitude to beauty which was not easily reconciled with either classical or romantic verities. In poetry, Ford Madox Ford was affirming that poetry must be as well written as prose, must be also objective, clear, factual, contemporaneous. On another tack, Wallace Stevens was writing poems preferring crows "anointing the statues with their dirt" to the more conventional (and incidentally Yeatsian) swans. Hart Crane was talking about "making a grail of laughter of an empty ash can," while T. S. Eliot rejected the heroic prettiness of some of his contemporaries for a description of twilight as a patient etherized upon a table. The notion of beauty, obviously, had undergone more than a sea change, and this change had been part and parcel of the decadent ambition to confront propriety on its own ground. The trouble was that, whereas in former times it could be assumed that only the few might appreciate true beauty, English and European romanticism (and American transcendentalism) created the illusion in many minds that theirs, too, was an appreciation capable of apprehending the beautiful. Indeed, the apostles of beauty (of which Wilde for a time was chief) who took up the Pre-Raphaelite banner in the 1870s and 1880s operated from this assumption, but it was never a very comfortable campaign. Like most apostles, they soon concentrated on who to keep out of their circle, rather than how to get in. Beauty was becoming popular, "decreed in the marketplace" (as Ezra Pound put it), and this clearly would not do. So the increasingly decadent custodians of the central beauty bank simply withdrew some of the supply, to combat such tedious inflation. Decadence, in ways, became simply the signature of a new elite. To pick up our earlier figure, as soon as everyone claimed to be sick, then one needed to redefine disease. Even the ostentatiously unorthodox beauty which found a form in the grotesque had become much too comfortably domestic to be accepted by the decadent camp, in part because of Ruskin's enthusiastic and moralistic celebration of the savage and the grotesque as central to the honest appeal of Gothic architecture, the embodiment of the true north strong and free.

Two things happened. First of all, beauty (and truth, its counterpart) became individual and relative, so that Wilde could say that "a truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it," and Walter Pater could emphasize that "in aesthetic criticism the first step toward seeing the object as it really is [which is what Matthew Arnold had defined as the function of criticism] is to know one's own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realize it distinctly"; and he also spoke of how "every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world." Second, the conventionally beautiful or even the ruggedly grotesque were rejected in favor not just of the idiosyncratic but of the dangerously fantastic and the sinister grotesque, which were the most obvious sources of wonder in an age that had been raised on Gothic melodrama and Byronic romance, and in which the highest praise was of the sort that Victor Hugo had for Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, that its author had "invented a new shudder."

Those who had a fondness for the old ways were not amused. Richard LeGallienne, a sometime friend, wrote of Wilde that "his face grew strangely sweet—As when a toad smiles. He dreamed of a new sin." Novelty as an instrument of revolt; sin as an element of progress. It was all nicely circular. Decadence, in short, appropriated the Johnsonian virtue of invention in art, often under the perennially dubious guise of novelty, but nonetheless with an emphasis on the demonstration of individuality that would become the modern hallmark of authenticity; as when F. R. Leavis took for one of the new bearings of English poetry "the need [for the poet] to communicate something of his own"—a new truth incorporated in a new beauty. "Make it new," announced Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to each other. Or in decadent terms, seek "new perfumes, larger flowers, untried pleasures" (in words from Gustave Flaubert's La tentation de Saint Antoine [1874], words which were intensely admired by Des Esseintes, the hero of J.-K. Huysmans' novel A Rebours [1884], the model for the book which "poisoned" the soul of Wilde's Dorian Gray).

The difficulty of achieving this new and decadent kind of beauty in art was no greater than achieving beauty in art had ever been, and just as much subject to superficiality, but it was to a much more obviously initiated group that such art appealed. Part of the pleasure in being thrilled by what Yeats referred to as the "visionary beauty" of Beardsley's hauntingly grotesque drawing of "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist" was that one knew there was something dangerous about its compelling forms, its insinuations of sinister desire, and that most who saw it would be merely repulsed by the perversity of the content as well as the form. Beardsley commented to Yeats that such "beauty is the most difficult of things"; those who admired such beauty would recognize its rare charms, and feel as fortunate to be party to the rarity as to the charm. Ezra Pound gave an account of the process of realizing one's impression of a Beardsley grotesque, in one of his later Cantos (LXXX):

La beauté, "Beauty is difficult, Yeats" said Aubrey Beardsley

when Yeats asked why he drew horrors
or at least not Burne-Jones
and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to
make his hit quickly

hence no more B-J in his product

So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult

"I am the torch" wrote Arthur "she saith"

"Arthur" was Arthur Symons, whose poem "Modern Beauty" began: "I am the torch, she saith, and what to me/If the moth die of me?" This is clearly a different beauty from "that fair lamp from whose celestial ray/That light proceeds which kindleth lover's fire," the beauty of which Edmund Spenser wrote and to which Ruskin referred in his central discussion of beauty in Modern Painters.

Beauty is difficult, certainly; but the beauty which appealed to the decadent artists is also dangerous, with its difficulty and its danger together constituting much of its appeal. It is a beauty, as Wallace Stevens insisted in one of his early poems ("Sunday Morning"), whose mother is death; and it may well need its own aesthetic, an "esthétique du mal" for the beautiful flowers of evil. Edgar Allan Poe had made a strong argument, which especially appealed to the French writers who were at the center of the nineteenth-century interest in symbolism, that beauty is the sole province of poetry, and that its most intense manifestation is through sorrow and melancholy. Furthermore, in Poe's view, such a melancholic tone is most exquisite when heightened by what he called "the human thirst of self-torture," by which he meant the delicious anguish of despair, of asking the raven more and more desperate questions about when one's beloved will return, questions to which one knows that the answer will always be "nevermore."

The paradoxical conjunction of beauty and despair, of joy and sorrow, is one which poetry has always employed, and it became a particular darling of the romantic poets. But the artists of the nineteenth century that were called decadent intensified this juxtaposition to a dangerous pitch, to the point that it became unclear whether the pleasure that one felt was in the beauty evoked or in the deliberate and often suicidal despair that accompanied its evocation. This confusion was compounded by the tendency to separate what was said or represented from the way in which it was presented, so that language approached incantation, and forms became abstract or decorative—in either case, relatively safe from the mediation of the moralist or the realist. As a result, the effect of the aesthetic forms—the language and its rhythms, in this case—was independent of and uncompromised (which in many cases could mean uncomforted) by a rational perspective. This attracted a generation that was becoming more and more suspicious of the tendency of language to distort, to establish irrelevant structures of meaning or intention. It was increasingly suspected that the only defence against such a tendency was to detach language from its syntactical forms and the compromised structures of meaning to which it refers, and to focus more upon its pure sounds, and upon the capacity of the carefully selected and detached word or phrase or image alone to capture the momentary sensation, the symbolic meaning. The plastic arts moved in a similar direction, towards abstraction. So when Mallarmé wrote in the early 1880s a sonnet on "The Tomb of Edgar Poe," he referred to Poe's attempt "donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu"—to give a purer meaning to the words of the tribe. Most of us are more familiar with this phrase from Eliot's remark in "Little Gidding" that "since our concern was speech… speech impelled us/To purify the dialect of the tribe."

Here, we touch once again on one of the central paradoxes linking decadence and modernism. Both, in ways that are congruent, were informed by an almost puritan zeal to maintain standards appropriate to what were received as the sacred values of art, and to protect these values against compromise. Just as one defense against large institutionalized religion was to break into small, decentralized groups of fellow worshippers, so a defence against the futile institutionalizing of language and other forms of communication was to break them down into their smaller constituent elements—images, words, sounds, and so forth. Decorative and other similarly abstract forms of art were in a way a defence of this sort against the perversions of representative art; just as symbolism, with its isolation of the elements of a numinous reality, was (in Arthur Symons' view) a defence against materialism. Art for art's sake was in some respects therefore not so much a preciously decadent affectation, and an indication of the loss of a sense of probity and responsibility by the artists who advocated it, as it was an element of the constant negotiation that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between the prerogatives of the poem or painting and those of its ostensible subject. Artists who worked on behalf of one side or the other were reviled as advocating a lively decadence or a deadly realism, and both were told by the custodians of the via media (which was to say, of the middle-class culture) to "drive their pigs to some other market."

All of this, in its indication of the intentions and expectations associated with uses of language in particular, has a surprisingly modern tone to it, as anthropologists of a certain bent argue that the structures of language underlie cultural and other social arrangements. On a more mundane level, writers—the most apparent users and abusers of language—are often identified as responsible for the maintaining of certain civilized values. One needs only attend to the ubiquitous and perennial rage displayed in letters to the editors of newspapers about shoddy uses of language, usually associated with a slipping of the standards that made the Empire, or whatever, what it was and could be again, if only people could learn not to split their infinitives.

And so we are back to the origins of decadence in the nineteenth century, to what Gautier referred to as the style of decadence, which is an

ingenious complicated style, full of shades and of research, constantly pushing back the boundaries of speech, borrowing from all the technical vocabularies, taking colour from all palettes and notes from all keyboards, struggling to render what is most inexpressible in thought, what is vague and most elusive in the outlines of form, listening to translate the subtle confidence of neurosis, the dying confessions of passion grown depraved, and the strange hallucinations of the obsession which is turning to madness. The style of decadence is the ultimate utterance of the Word.

It was the sense of disintegration which most of all fascinated the stylists, as they employed analogies from science. (In this following case, the passage is from an essay by Havelock Ellis, in which he quotes the French critic Paul Bourget.)

If the energy of the cells becomes independent, the lesser organisms will likewise cease to subordinate their energy to the total energy and the anarchy which is established constitutes the decadence of the whole… A similar law governs the development and decadence of that other organism we call language. A style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word.

In a broader perspective, Roland Barthes defined (in Writing Degree Zero) "modern poetry" (written after the revolutionary year of 1848) as

distinguished from classical poetry and from any type of prose [in that it] destroys the spontaneously functional nature of language, and leaves standing only its lexical basis. It retains only the outward shape of relationships, their music, but not their reality. The Word shines forth above a line of relationships emptied of their content, grammar is bereft of its purpose, it becomes prosody and is no longer anything but an inflexion which lasts only to present the Word.

The decadent style, then, apparently like the modern style, is one in which the classical subordination of the individual parts to the unity and harmony of the whole is broken, in favor of a celebration of the constituent parts, an obsession with the part that in one sense may embody the whole and yet in another remain part of it—an obsession, that is to say, with the symbol. Those who understood such matters, those who were part of the conspiracy, if you wish, felt themselves to be part of a cabal. Thus, the separation of text from context becomes a special mission, which joins together the proponents of collage and cubism, of the new modern criticism, and of the gem-like flame which Pater argued that the momentary experience might afford. And when Symons associated the style of Mallarmé with "the kind of deprivation undergone by the Latin language in its decadence," and suggested that this deprivation was necessary to the kind of "exact noting of sensation" to which Mallarmé and his contemporaries aspired, he was also inviting Mallarmé's readers to fancy themselves ripe with the indulgence of Rome in its decline, in which any act is freed of its association with a motive, and instead attaches itself to an effect.

The disunity, the separateness, the disintegration, that seemed to define decadence both fascinated and bothered the artists who moved from decadence to modernism, and few escaped the ambivalence. Ezra Pound's pitiful (and representative) lament in the (late) Canto CXVI

I have brought the great ball of crystal;
who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho' my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere

has to be set in the context of a poetic career dedicated to splendidly rhyming patterns of incoherence. In the same way, Eliot's poetic celebration of a desperate state of mind which "can connect nothing with nothing" is the expression of a sensibility which delighted in shoring up the fragmentary with a very ambivalent expression of disdain.

There is a curious element in all of this, which it is easy to miss. From scientific analogies which were provided in the nineteenth century, there developed a recognition of some axioms in the study of biological (and by extension social and cultural) phenomena derived from direct observation: specifically, the axioms that there are "higher" and "lower" species, that the progression from lower to higher corresponds to a progression from less to more complex, and that there is an increase of complexity in the development of the heterogeneous from the homogeneous. That is, increased complexity constituted progress or development, the way forward. No one in the nineteenth century needed to be told that the alternative direction to forward was backward. So when Pater criticized Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, he did so on these terms: "To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance, the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr Wilde's heroes are bent on doing as speedily, as completely as they can, is to lose, or lower, organization, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development." Many forms of decadent behavior, in particular, were subjected to this type of analysis. Certain kinds of insanity were commonly understood to be the product of arrested development, as were various forms of sexual deviance and criminal behavior. And when Freud subtitled Totem and Taboo (1913) "some points of agreement between the mental life of savages and neurotics," he was specifically applying the theory of developmental arrests to support his theory of neuroses.

This leads to one of the most unsettling paradoxes associated with decadence, the notion mat it is a mark botti of progress and of decline, and can be taken to justify both optimism and pessimism. Wilde's remarks about sin being an element of progress were specifically intended to focus this paradox with a typically decadent flourish. The pessimistic line was straightforward enough, drawn by such encouraging figures as Schopenhauer and Max Nordau; the optimism, however, had two aspects. One view, which was really a kind of latter-day romanticism, perceived in the perversity of much decadent art an indication of the ungovernable (and thereby exhilarating) character of man's spirit. The other (and eventually more common) view was apocalyptic, and followed anything similar to Carlyle's dictum (from Past and Present [1843]) that "the eternal lights shine out again, as soon as it is dark enough." Yeats celebrated this most dramatically, but it had some specific origins in the nineteenth century, and in a broad tradition of western millennial speculation. And one cannot but think, for example, that anyone who listened to Colonel Maud'huy in France in 1912, addressing his assembled regiment (he later became commander of the Tenth Army in Artois during the Great War), must have expected or hoped that the limit of the intensely decadent inane had finally been reached, and that such obsession with form and style might best lead to some apocalyptic transformation of the ideas of utility and beauty: "Many men salute correctly, very rare are those who salute beautifully; those latter are necessarily the ones who have achieved complete suppleness and received a thorough physical and moral instruction; they are the elite. One could say that the salute is the hall-mark of education."

Ambivalence, then, was central to decadence. Wilde, in particular, celebrated the unnervingly ambiguous character of decadence, a character which abounds in modernism, as (for example) we accept the expression and embodiment of violence in art with an uneasy sense that our response is therapeutically vicarious and defensively detached at the same time—that is, that we both enjoy and abhor the violence, that it gives us both pain and pleasure. Writing of the style of the "poisonous book" that Dorian Gray read, for which the prototype was A Rebours, Wilde noted its

curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew whether one was reading the spiritual ecstacies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner.

When Oscar Wilde went to trial in 1895, he defended himself from the accusations of homosexual debauchery that were made against him by referring to "the Love that dare not speak its name"—a love which, he reflected, the mediocre bourgeois mind of his contemporaries would be quite unable to understand. Punch magazine quickly picked up the phrase, and remarked that apparently the art which Wilde championed also "has a mission that may not be named/With scarlet sins to ennervate the age." As so often, Punch had an unerring instinct. Wilde and his cohorts—and here I do not refer to Wilde's lovers but to the literary and artistic circle of which he was part—acted in an almost comically conspiratorial manner, deploying a flurry of passwords, catch phrases and esoteric references which would make Tom Sawyer dizzy, and acting as though they belonged to subversive urban guerrilla cells, separate in their organization but mysteriously united in a high-minded purpose too pure and ideal (and too easily distorted) to set down in words. They had a sacred mission, they had their "scarlet sins," and they posed as an ennervated and ennervating lot, determined in their ennervation to subvert the virtues of industry and thrift which the age espoused, and to keep art away from utilitarian and moral ambitions.

The arts have often relied upon this sort of mystery and intrigue in a functional way, of course. The gothic tradition in the novel depended upon secret knowledge which was slowly and nervously disclosed; while one of the ancient sources of poetry is the riddle, and the riddling character of metaphor provides one of its central charms. The oracular inheritance of the poet is one to which poetry often refers with pride, especially when misunderstood (and it even invites misunderstanding in order to refer to this inheritance); and the image of the riddling Sphinx confirms this kind of fascination in its wide and consistent appeal in western art and literature. When Wilde returned from his tour of America in 1883, he went to Paris to do some writing. He was always very ambitious, and had obviously decided that the volume of poems he published a couple of years earlier, though it gave him some additional notoriety, had not made his literary mark. (He may have felt, however, that despite its derivative and imitative character, the volume marked him as a "bad influence"—just the sort of mark he might wish to embellish. The publication of Poems in 1881 precipitated at least one serious dispute of a personal nature, with Rev R. H. W. Miles, the father of Frank Miles, with whom Oscar had been living since his arrival in London from Oxford in 1879. Wilde and Rev Miles, who was a thoughtful and not especially narrow-minded man, had been on very good and familiar terms. Miles now insisted that Wilde should stay away from his son.) In any case, Wilde now set himself to write a play (The Duchess of Padua) because plays were the thing to get one's name in the lights; and he determined to write a poem of note. Poe's The Raven had been a staggering success, of which Wilde had been made particularly aware on his tour, and he decided to try a longish poem of a similar sort, which he called The Sphinx, and which would also play on the fascination with the mysteries of Egypt that such writers as Flaubert had developed. Though it was not published until a decade later, with as frontispiece the figure of Melancholy, and illustrated and designed by Charles Ricketts, it is a model of decadent motifs for the age, emphasizing pleasure in pain, beauty in the grotesque, the sinister in the sensuous, the erotic in the religious. Several reviewers said that it embodied the "new humour," a grim conjunction of incompatibles. One correspondent wrote to Wilde from Turkey asking what the new humor was, that he had not heard of it in Smyrna, from the regions of which it presumably derived some-thing of its inspiration.

The juxtapositions are deliberately perverse—the Christ child and the boy Antinous, darling of the Emperor Hadrian, for example—and the images are nightmarish, or as one wag remarked, positively asphynxiating. Finally, the poem relied upon a sense of the universal immediacy of arcane mysteries and sacred truths, which might in their startling and ineffable power replace the tatty methodistical conventions to which the middle class seemed bound. This appeal was carried on into the twentieth century by Yeats, with apocalyptic images of sphinxes slouching towards Bethlehem, or gyroscopic visions of human destiny; by Pound, with his fascination with eastern religion and Renaissance power and his compulsion to codify that fascination into his own kind of oriental ideogram; by Eliot, chanting "da, daya, dayadvham" and "shantih, shantih, shantih" at the end of a poem so incomprehensible in many of its details as to force our assent to the chant even if, as is almost certain on first reading, we have no idea what is going on, and at best can view the poem as (in Eliot's own words) "just a piece of rhythmical grumbling." The words have been freed from their meanings, we have been freed from our petty expectations (of propriety, perhaps, or coherence, or meanings in words), and the art has been freed from its limitations. It takes a special knowledge to know this; not a knowledge of anything exactly, but a knowledge of the ways in which we must suspend our ignorant curiosity, detach ourselves from conventional notions of morality, utility, meaning, and wallow in wise unknowing, in graceful irrationality—a knowledge of the questions not to ask.

This is the signature both of modern art and of the kind of decadence for which Wilde at his best provided a focus. Art (and the life which imitates it) thereby becomes something illicit, something whispered in secret, something only the initiate understands—though its for-bidden character must for greater effect be announced from the rooftops. Wilde's importance is in part because he performed that office in a spectacular way during his trial and conviction. His is, if you will, the version from life of bringing John the Baptist's head out on a platter in a work of art. Beheading in private is butchery; in public, it becomes ritual, however decadent or perverse. The initiates to this kind of ritual are those in whom the aesthetic temperament is alive, and who recognize that art appeals to that temperament alone—not to the rational, moral or utilitarian instinct in us. Wilde used to emphasize that all art has its rites of initiation; tragedy, for example, has the Aristotelian process of catharsis, by which we are purged of our emotions of pity and terror, and consequently (and very oddly) can enjoy watching Othello smother Desdemona with a pillow. Decadent art went to the limit on this, and created conditions in which we might enjoy images of the most harrowing and depraved of human experiences. In going to this limit, it deliberately tested the character and conditions of aesthetic appeal—tested, furthermore, the basis of art, and its relationship to life, which is why the practices of the decadent artists so appealed to artists of the twentieth century.

It was much more than the fact that the decadent novelties of one age became the revolutionary traditions of the next. There was something about the sense of forbidden pleasure or illicit charm, something about shared secrets and inexpressible understandings, something about a siege mentality or a doomsday state of mind—something in all of these things which were part of the decadent spirit—that art found to its liking. Certainly, there was always the deliberate secrecy which paradox flaunted, or the conspiratorial energies of apolcalyptic vision, to feed the perennial appetite for that which is either hidden away or revealed only to a few, through the agency of the kind of "economy" which John Henry Newman had earlier defended with such success. And science had its intrigues, as Freud was just beginning to titillate the fancy with his distinctions between the manifest and the latent content of dreams.

Most pervasive of all, perhaps, was the shared and profoundly affecting secret that there was sorrow and sadness at the heart of life, and that we are at best (which is to say, at our most entertaining) "the zanies of sorrow, clowns whose hearts are broken," as Wilde said from his prison cell. It was little wonder that the mask of Pierrot was adopted by so many, with his sobbing quite audible behind his clowning. And nothing less than a deep sense of imaginative complicity could account for the extraordinary popularity and influence among late nineteenth-century writers and artists and musicians of such pantomimic charades as the "Pierrot assassin de sa femme" (1881) of Paul Margueritte, Mallarmé's nephew, in which a "subtle neurotic, cruel and ingenuous Pierrot, uniting in himself all contrasts, a veritable psychical Proteus" makes his wife die from laughing by tickling the soles of her feet.

Religion usually claims something of a corner on the trade in secrets, as well as on the bizarre, and in nineteenth-century England Roman Catholicism on the one hand and various occult movements on the other provided the most stodgy as well as the most discriminating with an arcane feast from which some choice yet awful truth, heretofore hidden from view, might be selected. But religion had no more monopoly on the truths which art was now revealing than it did on those of science. Wilde himself, in company with many of his adolescent contemporaries in the 1870s and 1880s, oscillated between the masonic temple and the scarlet woman, to be sure, but he also flitted between a number of other cabals, at the most trivial moving from the family secrets of the upper classes to the coterie secrets of the cafe, eventually (and typically for his time) inventing instead his own order to which only the true aesthete and the confirmed decadent might belong. Yeats a decade or so later wandered somewhere between the Celtic Twilight and the Golden Dawn trying to find a wearable cloak to mask the secrets which he intimated in the world around and beyond him. Once again, the arts provided the only durable form in which secrets could be shared, and perhaps it was inevitable that there would be a kind of surreptitious conspiracy about those who participated in its rituals.

In their turn, the arts of the early twentieth century either depended upon or referred to such a conspiratorial conspiracy. "So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow," says William Carlos Williams, and we nod our heads with the same kind of furtive agreement that we might display in a church, the rituals of which we do not quite understand, but feel we should admire intensely. T. S. Eliot's earliest success in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" depends in large part on our sense of knowing, even if we could not say, the overwhelming question which he insistently evades, as well as on our sense of sharing a secret knowledge of depravity with some evil figures now suffering in Dante's Inferno, or in Eliot's London. Eliot's later embellishments in "Gerontion" rang the changes on this, as the suspicious mysteries of Easter are vaguely associated with Dionysian spring sacrifices, and with an unnervingly sinister communion involving Mr Silvero with the caressing hands, Hakagawa bowing among the Titians, Madame de Tornquist and Fräulein von Kulp, and the reader. Pound writes of the image which he celebrated that its precise definition "does not concern the public and would provoke useless discussion"; and as we read his haiku poems we feel sure that we do not need the definition anyway, and useless (or indeed any) discussion of "the apparition of these faces in a crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough" was not at all on our minds. And so it goes—we are either in or out, and once in, we must only whisper. "Is there any secret in skulls,/The cattle skulls in the woods?/Do the drummers in black hoods/Rumble anything out of their drums?" asks Wallace Stevens in "The Pleasures of Merely Circulating," forcing us to deal with that challenge in the next breath from reading about how "the clouds flew round and the clouds flew round/And the clouds flew round with the clouds." Clearly, we are in particular company here.

Now all art requires a sense of complicity, whether it is Alexander Pope taking ostentatiously for granted the urbane understanding we share with him, or Wordsworth matter-of-factly assuming we know the sensation of the rural manic depressive, of dropping from the heights of joy to the depths of despair in the plash of a rabbit's foot, and just in time to greet the old leech-gatherer. Some romantic poets took this further, however, by developing a sense of complicity in inexpressible motives (such as the Ancient Mariner's) and unnamable (usually intimated as incestuous) acts (such as that of Byron's Manfred). The notion of the poem as an encounter is replaced by that of the poem as a nudge. With these refinements on the unspeakable, love and hate became incorrigibly intertwined, and the artists of the nineteenth century delighted in this unsettling confusion. This sense of entanglement easily slips into a fascination with the affiliations between saint and sinner, or between virtue and vice—particularly, between unnatural virtue and unnatural vice—affiliations with which Wilde certainly dallied, and which found one form in his play Salome.

The images of androgyny, the ubiquitous story of Tannhauser, the legend of Narcissus, the fascination with the dance, the Dionysian energies, the attractions of the femme fatale, the complex confusion of fear and desire—all of these are important to Wilde's play, and it is little wonder that Salome's strangely murderous passion for John the Baptist provided one of the most compelling motifs for the generation of artists following Wilde. Once again, there is a nice sense that only the initiated can understand such debauchery, such a disturbing fusion of the religious and the erotic. When Wilde sent Beardsley a copy of the Paris edition of Salome in 1893, he inscribed it: "For Aubrey: for the only artist, who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance." "He who knows the power of the dance," wrote Hugo von Hofmannsthal several years later, "knows that love kills." And unless we are incorrigibly mundane, we say "yes, we know that power"; and we watch Salome's dance with appropriately perverse fascination, unable to avoid a shivery sense that Salome embodies something to which we are mysteriously vulnerable, something like the inseparability of Beauty from Decay and Death. And we develop a set of strategies for maintaining ourselves in a kind of delicious moral and rational suspension in the face of this mystery. Paradoxically enough, Remy de Gourmont's expression about a "dissociation of sensibility" was intended to provide just such a strategy, though Eliot later employed the phrase in quite a different way.

All in all, there was an appropriate focus for much of this in the complex fusion of joy and sorrow, or (as Yeats would have it) the bitter and the gay, which informed both the life and the art of this period. The exquisitely anguished exhilaration which this created found an artistic form in structures of often precarious ambivalence, as the nineteenth-century artist (and his successors in the twentieth) shifted between the majestic and the maudlin, between the models of psychodrama and those of the melodrama, between introspection and evasion, between the literature of inscape and that of escape. As the line between art and life was deliberately (and in this case necessarily) obscured, we have once again the sense of an initiation into a new kind of knowledge. At worst, what resulted was the embodiment of convivial despair or mindless aspiration. At best, it produced a celebration of the word becoming flesh and dying. "In the actual life of man," Wilde argued, "sorrow is a passage to a lesser perfection. But the sorrow with which Art fills us both purifies and initiates." In modern art, Wilde affirmed, one hears the cry of Marsyas more clearly than the song of Apollo.

There were two related directions which late nineteenth-century art took to find a suitable form for the desperation that it sought to embody. One was an escape into images of blatantly trivial entertainments—such as the circus; or the amusements of cosmetics, costume and fancy dress, Eliot's realm of "strange, synthetic perfumes." From Baudelaire to Beerbohm, the nineteenth century relished the extremes of artifice, and flirted with the limits of art, suggesting that fine lace represented the ultimate spiritualization of the material, or that the rapid, elliptical effects of the circus and the music-hall provided specific analogies for the frenetic urban life which more and more people were experiencing. And so, with the advent of modernism, we have Wallace Stevens assuming the "complacencies of the peignoir" while Robert Coady, in his magazine The Soil (to which Stevens contributed), celebrates Toto, the Italian clown, as "the most creative artist that has visited [American] shores in many a day. He is a clown at the Hippodrome who has invented a bow which has given pleasure to thousands"—all of this contemporary with Duchamp's urinal and part of the American collaboration between Dada and the avant-garde, the modern apotheosis of high decadence. In fact, there are complex affinities between decadence and avant-garde, especially in an age when the idea of transition has a considerable appeal. And if decadence is characterized, as the Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov suggested in the early 1920s, by "the feeling, at once oppressive and exalting, of being the last in a series," then it fits nicely into a notion of the avant-garde as having a mission to pre-pare the way for or indeed inaugurate a new series, opening up new possibilities to excite an exhausted sensibility.

The other direction which art took to celebrate its despair involved a retreat into the self, eventually into a labyrinth of indolent gestures, psychic dead ends, emotional impasses—a world of dead souls, as Gogol had suggested. Pierrot, the laconic haunted fool out of Commedia del'Arte and Paris street theater by way of Gautier, Verlaine and Laforgue, provided one image which combined these elements, linking the lame reflectiveness of the would-be Hamlets of the time to figures from popular entertainment—circus performers, dancers, singers, actors, magicians. Fantasy and the fantastic, especially when juxtaposed with a failure of the will and a loss of a center of belief and meaning, offered to Wilde's contemporaries a sort of secular sublimity to replace that which had degenerated when beauty declined into syrupy prettiness and earnest realism. Under such conditions, as Wilde suggested, "the first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered." This notion arose in an age which was cultivating a fashionable pessimism to match the fashionable boredom it had inherited. Of course, there were always those, such as Carlyle and Ruskin and one's schoolmaster, who counselled that work was the answer to boredom, pessimism, the dangers of enchantment, and unnatural (or indeed natural) desires. But how dreary. No—anyone with a soul had to turn elsewhere for salvation. One had to stop listening to conventional pieties, and pick up Wilde's advice that the folly of youth contains more wisdom than the conviction of age. When life, as Strindberg said, is "like the tuning of an orchestra which never begins to play," then one is sorely tempted, perhaps even obliged, to take up an instrument oneself, to turn to art, to a world of illusion and artifice. As for living: as Yeats noted (taking a line from Villiers de L'Isle Adam), "our servants will do that for us." When F. R. Leavis quoted this in the 1930s in New Bearings in English Poetry, it was to castigate it as a futile, and not entirely genuine, gesture unworthy of the poet who would find his authentic voice in "the actual, waking world." Art as (in Pater's words) "a sort of cloistered refuge from a certain vulgarity in the actual world"; and the specific image of the poet in his ivory tower (which comes from a passage in a poem written by Charles Augustin SainteBeuve in 1837 about Alfred de Vigny)—these were the hallmarks of decadence to some.

The arts responded to the challenge which the dreariness and the desolation of life presented, and artists tried to achieve in their art what Wallace Stevens called its "essential gaudiness." And so we get perverse but entertaining exaggeration and excess, art on the verge, the counterpart to the trapeze artist's daring, the dancer's leap, the singer's high note, the magician's disappearance, the actor's final flourish—a kind of transcendence achieved by the flagrantly contrived, the final paradox of modernism. And we get the Crazy Janes and Emperors of Ice Cream and Sweeneys Erect of Yeats and Stevens and Eliot, Pound's Mauberley and Hart Crane's Charlie Chaplin—or, indeed, Charlie Chaplin's Charlie Chaplin. Or we get Pozzo and Lucky in Beckett's Waiting for Godot; or the compleat circus, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind. The world that these artists created was a world of what Paul Klee, who was much influenced, called "visible laughter and invisible tears," a world of nervous extremes, of ambiguous emotion, of covert feelings which floats apart from any specific individual or event, a world of anxious ecstasy and desperate exhibitionism, a world in which Dadaism found a home. It was a world of gallows humor and witty perversity, but also of zealous disenchantment and earnestly egotistical alienation. One of its manifestations was the dandy, the ultimate conjunction of art and life, a figure who had been on the scene for most of the nineteenth century. We meet him as Platon Mihailovitch Platonov in Gogol's Dead Souls, and as Alfred Mountchesney in Disraeli's novel Sibyl. "Nothing does me any good," says Alfred at the beginning of Disraeli's story. "I should be quite content if something could do me harm"; and he spends his time mourning the "extinction of excitement," and trying to revive the coals. The Monchenseys of T. S. Eliot's play The Family Reunion are his descendants, watching the final disintegration of Wishwood, the family seat—a genteel version of Poe, a kind of Fall of the House of Monchensey. The only way out, as Alfred surmises, is to find something that does one harm, and this way involves both an escape from and a return to or isolation of the self.

A Faustian pattern of escape into forbidden and dangerous knowledge was modulated throughout the nineteenth century into a pattern of encounter within the self, an exploration of the ways in which the self becomes divided, and a delineation of its double. The artificiality of this kind of enterprise gave a paradoxically appropriate accent to its naturalness, as Wilde discovered in The Picture of Dorian Gray. And so, the ambivalence that attached to the natural and the artificial transformed the standard melodramatic oppositions between the good and the evil into a more subtle succession of decadent juxta-positions: between rebellious sin and repentant yearning, the sphinx and the crucifix, beauty and decay, the mascu-line and the feminine. Even Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest displays a milder but still disconcerting array of oppositions, between the spirit and the flesh, the country and the town, the real and the imagined, truth and falsehood, and seriousness and triviality. Wilde's genius here was to focus on the language itself, magical and fatal at the same time, both to mask and reveal the secrets which intrigue the audience. But the play, like much decadent and much more modern art, develops around the difficulty of distinguishing between the important and the unimportant, of deciding whether cucumber sandwiches or the trivialities of Paterson or the discontinuous fragments shored against our ruin are to bear the burden of our spirit and sensitivity.

Wilde used to say that the Creeds are believed, not because they are rational, but because they are repeated. Just so, the rituals to which one gives indolent allegiance become the rationale for one's life, as marrying for love or money belongs beside marrying the name Earnest. Nothing is sacred, or everything may be; and whatever the case, our instincts are by now to look upon everything as possibly replete with secret meaning. Ernest Newman, one of Wilde's contemporaries and a biographer of Richard Wagner, remarked in an essay on Wilde written in 1895 that "the function of a paradox is really the same as the function of religion—not to be believed." The paradoxes embodied in decadence, like those of modernism, have a similar function, as well as an opposite one.

Stylistic And Thematic Traits

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26982

James Sloan Allen

SOURCE: "Self-Consciousness and the Modernist Temper," in Georgia Review, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1979, pp. 601-20.

[In the following essay, Allen considers self-consciousness as a defining trait of the Modernist temperament.]

If there is one undisputed attribute of the modernist temper, it is self-consciousness. Even quarrels over the merits of that temper fall into agreement here: self-consciousness—in such guises as the mirror, shadow, multiple selves, self-reflecting thought, an anxious pause between sensation and expression, shuffling feet, or quickly averted eyes—marks every work of the modernist imagination.

Critics who find fault with that temper often locate the fault in self-consciousness. A generation ago, Jacques Barzun, observing that "the first striking trait of the modern ego is self-consciousness," belabored this trait for subverting the "willingness to take risks" and thereby working "to the detriment of happiness… and of art." W. H. Auden agreed. Although Auden believed self-awareness could enhance imagination, he saw modernist writers usually crushed by it; and he concluded that the modernist temper tested itself upon one question alone: "How shall the self-conscious man be saved?" Robert Langbaum, surveying quests for psychological identity in modern literature, is less ambiguous. "Modern self-consciousness," he says, "produces the emotional and moral blankness" that constitutes the modernist's "hell"—as nowhere more grimly portrayed than in the early poetry of Eliot. Eliot himself made his loathing explicit in images of disease: he called self-consciousness "the cancer that eats away at the self—just as Robert Musil held it largely responsible for the disintegrated "human type that our time has produced"—and found it the besetting malady of the age. Lionel Trilling became disquieted by the odd effect this malady had on his students in the 1950's: instead of being disturbed by the torturous "self-consciousness and self-pity" of modernist fiction, as he had been in the 1930's, they blithely accepted it all as the natural mood and manner of modern life. Finally, both the cult of self-consciousness and the criticism of it found ironic culmination in John Barth's story, "Title," where Barth sighs, "Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness."

If critics of self-consciousness assail it for weakening the will and imagination, others praise self-consciousness for enabling the mind to pierce the disguises of appearance and seize truth. Such praise was implicit in works of the French moralistes from Montaigne onwards. And Diderot's Rameau's Nephew carried that praise toward enthusiasm. But that enthusiasm became full-blown first among Romanticists—as we shall see—and again later in the nineteenth century with the likes of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, who aspires to what he calls "higher consciousness" (that is, full self-knowledge achieved only by abandoning all objective self-control and "rational self-interest" and by steeping himself in "humiliation" and anguished introspection). Around the turn of the twentieth century, in both literature and social theory, the exploration of a consumingly reflective "higher consciousness" sparked a far-reaching intellectual revolution. The historian of that revolution, H. Stuart Hughes, explains how thinkers and imaginative writers alike "found themselves inserting between the external data and the final intellectual product an immediate stage of reflection on their own awareness of these data. The result was an enormous heightening of intellectual self-consciousness—a wholesale re-examination of the presuppositions of social thought itself." This interpretation—like Dostoyevsky's and akin to ideas advanced in the 1930's by Edmund Wilson, David Daiches, and Talcott Parsons—finds the deepest insights of modern social thought to have been born of the discomforts and dangers of self-consciousness. But it should be added that sociologists of modernization, such as Daniel Lerner, Alex Inkeles, and David H. Smith, have shown that the self-consciousness typical of modern societies—by contrast to the "naïve" personality type common to traditional societies—breeds confidence in people that they can control their lives rather than increasing their discomfort: here again, the merits of self-consciousness are disputed but not the influence of self-consciousness upon the modern mind.

This sampling of opinion from literature, criticism, and social theory plainly illustrates the prevalence of, and debate surrounding, self-consciousness in modern culture, but it also discloses diverse meanings of self-consciousness. The state of mind disapproved by Jacques Barzun or T. S. Eliot, for example, is not the same as that praised by H. Stuart Hughes; and that of the social theorists is something else still. This diversity only hints at the confusion that muddles debate and conceals the unique character of modernist self-consciousness.

The confusion derives in part from a cloudy history: self-consciousness has seemingly had as many cultural births as, say, Romanticism or modernity. And these births may plausibly be assigned to every age. The Enlightenment may be seen as the fount of that intellectual self-awareness that dissolves naive certainties, as evidenced by Hume's agonizing scrutiny of knowing, Rousseau's and Kant's demand for moral self-determination, and the rise of an aesthetic sensitivity which, in W. J. Bate's words, introduced "a self-consciousness unparalleled in degree at any time before." Yet the seventeenth century has impressive claims to priority in self-consciousness with the birth of modern philosophy in Descartes' self-reflecting cogito; the unabashed critical psychology of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère; and the conflict between "modems" and "ancients" in the Battle of the Books. But then no student of the sixteenth century could fail to assert that modern self-consciousness had its origins in the subjectivity of that age: aesthetic Mannerism and Montaigne's self-searching; the Protestant Reformation and the revival of Pyrrhonian skepticism; the perfection of the mirror and the emergence of autobiography and the self-portrait; Cervantes' invention of what Robert Alter calls "the self-conscious novel" and Shakespeare's self-absorbed heroes; the cult of sincerity and the rise of the role-playing self. Nor could students of the Italian Renaissance resist placing the source of self-consciousness in the Quattrocento's high valuation of man, new assertive ego, and cultivation of secular intellectual and artistic pursuits.

Yet even before the modem individualism of the Renaissance, the reforms of Gregory VII had given life to a type of man who was, in the words of the great historian Marc Bloch, "more self-conscious" than any Christian before him and whose "self-consciousness indeed extended beyond the solitary human being to society," where it stimulated the art and thought of the High Middle Ages. But Christianity itself may also be credited with introducing into Western culture a self-reflectiveness unknown to ancient times through its psychological definition of sin—as formulated in The Sermon on the Mount and Paul's Epistles and reflected in the spiritual autobiographies and confessional day books of believers. But no sooner has the novelty of Christian self-awareness been recognized than classical antiquity asserts new priorities with the metaphysical self-consciousness of Plotinus; the critical, secular spirit of Latin literature; and beyond these the rise of philosophical skepticism and heterodoxy among Hellenistic philosophers and of an educated cosmopolitan personality in the Hellenistic cities. Even earlier still, there are manifestations of self-consciousness in Aristotle's ideal of self-contemplating intellect, Plato's intuitive rationalism, Socrates' irony, and—unavoidably—the motto at Delphi: Know Thyself. In fact, no search for the historical origins of self-consciousness could stop before that awakening of human self-knowledge in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve lost not only moral purity and hallowed sanctuary but psychological innocence: they clutched at fig leaves, having become painfully conscious of themselves.

Of course, no quest for the historical origins of ideas can fix either an idea's first appearance or its meaning. Such a quest, like Arthur Lovejoy's well-known essay, "On the Discrimination of Romanticisms," more nearly justifies dismissing an idea altogether than using it. To discrimi-nate the self-consciousness of modernists from that of others requires more than an analysis of ideas; it demands an inquiry into the manners and the psychological under-pinnings of this attribute of the modernist temper. And that means, first, to scrutinize some of the relations between modernism and its principal forebear, Romanticism.

It is commonly said that at the end of the eighteenth century a new self entered the cultural life. This self had among its attributes a large appetite for feeling and fantasy, abundant restless energy, and a marked preoccupation with itself. This preoccupation not only heightened the self-awareness already much developed in Western culture but prompted the study and exploitation of it. The new personality was conscious of its self-consciousness.

This intensely reflexive self emerged first in Germany among Goethe's generation, when many young men with-drew from society into themselves, where, as Werther said, they could "find a world" of perfect freedom. The German Romanticists who followed Goethe began to depend on self-absorption to satisfy every desire, whether for emotional release, psychological and metaphysical certainty, or artistic expression. Hence Ludwig Tieck wrote plays within plays within plays. Chamisso recorded a man's search for his shadow. E. T. A. Hoffmann told the bizarre adventures of divided selves. Jean Paul Richter invented the literary Doppelgzänger after discovering himself to be both the subject and object of consciousness ("Never shall I forget," he wrote, "when I was present at the birth of my own self-consciousness. Suddenly the internal vision 'I am I' passed before me like a lightning flash from heaven… my 'I' had seen itself for the first time and forever."). Fichte constructed a metaphysics around a discovery like Jean Paul's, concluding that the objective world depends for its existence on human consciousness (and he taught this theory by asking students to contemplate the wall in front of them and then to contemplate the thing that had contemplated the wall; but, as one student recorded, "It was curious how confusion and embarrassment ensued; many of the listeners seemed not to be able to discover anywhere the thing which had thought of the wall"). Hegel skirted these dizzying flights into subjectivity, without diminishing the importance of the theme, by identifying self-consciousness with the unfolding of objective Spirit in his-tory: for Hegel, self-consciousness (Selbstbewusstsein) means wholeness and strong self-possession not deep introspection.

Outside of Germany, Kierkegaard adopted and modified Hegel's usage in his influential existentialist version of the human self. "Generally speaking," he said, "consciousness, i.e., consciousness of self, is the decisive criterion of the self. The more consciousness, the more self; the more consciousness, the more will, and the more will, the more self. A man who has no will is no self; the more will he has, the more consciousness of self." But unlike Hegel, Kierkegaard was ambivalent toward this kind of self-consciousness; and Kierkegaard's ambivalence, as we shall see, points directly towards the modernist temper. I should note that such an ambivalence, as experienced by poets, had already been suggested in Schiller's great essay, "On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry," which contrasts spontaneous, natural, unreflective poetry with poetry that is halting, subjective, self-aware. Schiller saw virtues in both but believed the modern poet more likely to create the sentimental kind, and critics have since agreed—W. J. Bate and Harold Bloom, for example, having explained how modern poets, from Romanticism onward, could be nothing but "sentimental," burdened as they are by the awareness of their predecessors and the accumulating expectations of art.

These examples—mainly German—of Romanticist self-consciousness illustrate a deliberate mental exercise in-tended to advance self-realization or self-discovery. And this exercise, with the ambivalences it aroused, lay at the source of two of the major themes of European Romanticism. The first was a fear of being consumed by self-consciousness or regressing uncontrollably into the self—"Romantic anti-self-consciousness," as Geoffrey Hartman has called it. Expressed by poets like Byron and Keats as the desire to flee from the demon of consciousness into art, this fear could also erupt in the unpoetic despondency of John Stuart Mill, who believed himself the "most self-conscious person alive" in a world where anguished self-consciousness afflicts all geniuses. The second was the probing of psychological and aesthetic ambiguity known as Romantic irony and manifested, for example, in the entanglements of truth and illusion, the ideal and the real in F. Schlegel's Lucinde; in the interplay of sublime and ridiculous modes of love in Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin; and in Stendhal's mockery of social pretense and self-deception from behind a protective front of pseudonyms, masks, and lies. It may be that these themes and styles of Romantic self-consciousness had their homes in different nations—the English Romanticists inclined to lyrical anguish, the Germans to psychological and metaphysical adventures, and the French to heartfelt discord between their public and private selves. Yet no European of the early nineteenth century could deny that self-consciousness flourished everywhere. Like Goethe, they might have said that so subjective a culture cannot be a healthy one, but they would have agreed with Carlyle that "Never since the beginning of Time was there, that we hear or read of, so intensely self-conscious a society."

Romanticist self-consciousness became the parent of the modernist self-consciousness. But like all passages between generations, this one saw an inheritance enfolded in new needs and appearances. The Romanticists' bold quest for self-realization and self-discovery, even at the expense of emotional disquiet and intellectual bafflement, gave rise among modernists to a confused longing for such positive ends overlaid by pervasive anxiety about experience. This anxiety manifests itself in a variety of moods and manners—e.g. , ill ease, embarrassment, discomfiture, affectation, histrionic stances, disillusion, resentment, self-contempt, nihilism—none of them the sign of a willed and exploring self-awareness (can we imagine Kafka ingenuously announcing the birth of his self-consciousness, like Jean Paul?) but of a self-awareness that has impaired the will, the ego, and the self.

Upon wondering what caused the modernist temper to lose the strength of its Romanticist forebear, we discover, for one thing, that the Romantic inheritance of self-awareness was absorbed into that spirit of criticism which induced self-criticism. Schiller hinted at this consequence in his idea of "sentimental" poetry; but Gautier was correct to mark the intrusion of criticism into the act of artistic creation with Baudelaire: "His is a very subtle mind," Gautier wrote, "highly refined, most paradoxical, and one which makes criticism play a part in inspiration." This statement "could serve as a shorthand definition of our modernism," says Jacques Barzun; and Peter Gay puts the idea more sharply still: "Modernism is the creature of criticism." Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus found this hegemony of criticism detrimental to art, and to escape it sold his soul to the devil in exchange for uncritical spontaneity, pure "unreflectiveness," in musical composition. But criticism may have achieved its final con-quest of un-self-conscious art with the influential works of Harold Bloom which attribute the highest accomplishments of modern poetry to the critical imagination that enables "strong poets" to "misread" and vanquish their predecessors.

Whether approved or not, criticism (a manifestation of self-consciousness) shapes the modernist temper. But this criticism is not only a rational appraisal of art and life; it is also an irrational or even unconscious hostility, which is often directed against the self as well as others. Nathaniel Hawthorne devised a graphic image of this nonrational self-criticism (associated for him with conscience): the "bosom snake" that bites its victim from within and free of his control. This self-criticism beyond the critic's control gives the modernist self-consciousness its nasty, often mocking mood and manners.

Self-criticism grew organically with other forms of self-consciousness during the social and intellectual revolutions of the nineteenth century. As early as Goethe's generation, deepening subjectivity had induced self-contempt: once Werther let his aspirations soar beyond the constraints of objective reality, his failure to realize those aspirations in art, love, and action bred in him hostility toward the world and himself; his suicide only dramatized his sense of self-defeat, and in doing so prefigured the alliance of self-inflicted torment and performance characteristic of the modernist temper. But the cutting edge of self-criticism began its most injurious work only after Waterloo, when the young in France equated the defeat of Napoleon with the death of heroism and the loss of life's meaning. Alfred de Musset correctly saw that they had in truth translated their own incapacities and ennui into an "affectation of despair" and denounced everything, when actually they suffered only from being "idle and tired." The victims of a failed idealism and its resulting self-contempt, they relished the display of despair.

After the abortive revolutions of 1848, this floundering, self-destructive, and histrionic rage redoubled, with Baudelaire as its exemplar. In the poem "Au Lecteur," which became the Prologue to Les Fleurs du Mal, he tells of the ennui that "makes no grand gestures or cries," but "would willingly reduce the earth to ruin, and swallow the world in one gaping yawn." In the closing lines, he names this ennui as the common horror of humanity and takes a taunting swipe at himself and everyone: "You know that fastidious monster—O hypocritical reader—my fellow man—my brother!"

In Baudelaire, the modern artist steps forward to act out his hostility toward himself and others. This performance fulfills the same self-justifying intentions as had led Werther to his private but theatrical suicide and recalls Musset's suspicion that his contemporaries' cries of despair were self-serving acts motivated by ennui. And in this marriage of criticism and performance lies the soul of the modernist self-consciousness. Yet it is a soul whose character and needs disclose themselves but darkly. This darkness results in part from the psychological tricks played by the critical or aggressive desires and by the unconscious defenses against them—the resistances, repressions, sublimations, and so on. But it also arises from the conscious urge to satisfy affirming appetites for recognition, self-assurance, self-realization, psychological coherence, and the like, which make role-players of us all, in life and art. All human actions and creations being therefore searches for a fitting self—as the sociologist Erving Goffman and the critic Richard Poirier have made it their business to explain—the critical and histrionic works and manners of the modernists are complex searches indeed.

Baudelaire illustrates this complexity when he first directs his hostility toward others—hypocrite lecteur—in order to exalt himself at their expense, and then turns this hostility on himself—mon semblable, mom frère—to convey proud possession of intimate and embarrassing truths about everyone. Both gestures grant him privileged status while seeming to demean him—although neither Baudelaire nor any other modernist could confess this without lapsing into an endless series of self-maskings and unmaskings.

Baudelaire's performances of hostile criticism, like the symptoms of ennui, betray a social-psychological malaise of the kind Durkheim called anomie—the loss of respect for goals or norms or for the capacity of one's actions to attain goals or fulfill norms (Durkheim referred appropriately to Musset's writings). A person suffering anomie aches with a sense of impotence or disregards accepted behavior, resulting in socially destructive actions, like suicide or crime. Baudelaire's life and works played upon this theme continually: failed hopes and splenetic impotence lead to self-denigrating or antisocial acts or ideas. Baudelaire was no Romanticist plagued only by the discomforts of introspection, self-awareness, and the ambiguities of truth and illusion; he was more the modernist driven to act out his hostilities toward himself and the world by a sense of social and psychological weakness. The myth he invented of the martyred artist sanctioned his performance: Baudelaire was the archetypal Pierrot, enchanted by the mood and performance of loneliness and pained clowning—a persona he portrayed in Le Vieux Saltimbanque. Or, to use his own word, Baudelaire was L'Héautontimorouménos, the self-tormentor, who played the role of victim very well:

I am the wound and the knife!
I am the slap and the cheek!
I am the limbs and the rack,
The victim and the torturer!
I am the vampire of my own heart
—One of the great abandoned
Condemned to eternal laughter,
Who can never smile again!

A clue to Baudelaire's and the modernists' anguished and histrionic anomie lies in a commonplace of the sociology of the avant-garde: the economic dependence of the artist on a public he deplores. Troubled in his relations with both family and public, Baudelaire turned his sense of isolation and impotence into an entire mythology of the modern poet. The poet, he wrote, must avoid places where "the rich and joyous congregate" and remain with the "feeble, destitute, and forlorn," for only there can he preserve his inspiration; and yet this requires removing himself from the very society that could sustain him. Baudelaire, to be sure, followed this rule only when his improvident expenditures and foolish debts left him no alternative. But this duplicity only intensified his sense of being an artist who desires a life he cannot have and resents the failure. To mythologize and embody this conflict was to be Baudelaire's historic role, as Jules Laforgue knew when he attributed to Baudelaire the motto: "I am damned on account of the public—Good—The public is not admitted."

Baudelaire's histrionic defiance and self-pity did not in any way strengthen his will, but they did strengthen his conviction that powerlessness is the inspiration of art. Unable to make the public heed even his greatest achievements, which he believed to be his lyrical poems, he cultivated worldly impotence and pursued artistic potency in alcohol, opium, and aestheticism (his "artificial paradises"); and he praised uselessness while abandoning himself to the urban crowds, crying fatalistically: "It is the devil who pulls the strings that make us dance."

Through these social and artistic performances of despair and self-effacement, Baudelaire established many of the gestures and the mood of the modernist self-consciousness. In Laforgue's words again, Baudelaire "is the first who is not triumphant, but accuses himself, reveals his wounds, his laziness, his bored uselessness in the midst of this hardworking, devoted century." And both the wounds and the uselessness were largely of his own making in a society whose comforts he wanted but not at the cost of vulgar, bourgeois labor.

Baudelaire thus gives the modernist self-consciousness its drama, mask, and public face: the histrionic criticism of self and others. But there is a private face, too, and this is not a mask donned, consciously or unconsciously, and believed in as one's public self. It is rather the expression of an anguish more painful and a conflict more deeply unconscious than the discontents of ennui. This private face is guilt. The seeds and forms of guilt can be detected in Baudelaire—say, in his harsh ambivalence toward his mother and his treatment of her. But the rise of guilt and its place in the modernist temper is better illumined by writers who knew guilt as a constant haunting or an open obsession.

There is no written history of guilt—and we will probably never have one—for guilt is a psychological drama enacted amid abundant confusions and concealments. The actors in this drama are barely conscious of their roles and wholly unconscious of those roles' origins; yet what those actors do and say carries such force that guilt is charged with the power to wound. And that power signals the nature of guilt: guilt is an injury, a wounding of the heart—or the ego—by a weapon inside the victim acting in response to commands beyond his control. Little can be known of this drama in ages long past because the intimate human relations that form and energize the deeply unconscious self-criticism of guilt lie hidden. But no better illustrations of the rise of this self-criticism can be found than the lives and works of the two most guilt-ridden writers of the nineteenth century: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Søren Kierkegaard.

These may seem unlikely choices here since both men preceded modernism and both were deeply religious—Hawthorne a captive of New England Puritanism, and Kierkegaard of Lutheran conscience and existential anguish. But both foreshadowed the modernists with a guilt ungoverned by religion: they demonstrate that religion may manipulate and even strengthen guilt, but cannot create it; and that the modernist temper can be at once unencumbered by religion and steeped in guilt. The clue to guilt, as given by Hawthorne and Kierkegaard, lies not in a harsh Protestantism but in lives and writings marked by painful insecurity, neurotic self-criticism and self-contempt, and by a preoccupation with the psychological and philosophical nature of guilt.

Hawthorne's self-critical temper was nourished mainly by his reclusive and moralistic mother, who worshipped at the shrine of her deceased husband and fed her memories and devotion to her son throughout the prolonged illness and dependency that confined him to home. "I scarcely had human intercourse outside my own family," he wrote; and his sister later remarked that although he had wanted to be among the "multitude," he was too "conscious of being utterly unlike everyone else" and "began to withdraw into himself." Just before leaving for Bowdoin College, Hawthorne admitted to her: "The happiest days of my life are gone. Why was I not a girl, that I might have been pinned all my life to my mother's apron."

This self-absorbed and timid temper doubtless arose in part from the limited physical activity allowed Hawthorne as the result of a severe leg injury. But his feelings of inadequacy reached deeper than physical weakness, for he was persistently driven into self-contempt by what he considered the overpowering demands of maturity and his own aspirations. Even after achieving some prominence as a writer and establishing a family of his own, he denigrated himself for his uncertain financial circumstances and erratic periods of creativity. Disregarding his accomplishments, he remained tormented by "that same dream of a life hopelessly a failure." This is guilt without religion—severe irrational self-criticism.

Hawthorne drew upon this spirit in portraying guilt in fiction. Harry Levin correctly observes that Hawthorne's literary preoccupation with guilt derived not from misconduct but inhibition: Hawthorne knew little of active sin but much of weakness. Hence, Hawthorne's renderings of guilt concern sins of consciousness not action. In "Fancy's Shadow Box," for example, he calls guilt "a stain upon the soul," concluding that it comes not from actual misdeeds but from those contemplated: even "in a church, while the body is kneeling, the soul may pollute itself." Then, when the evil wish is recognized, conscience "strikes a dagger to the heart"; yet, this pang of conscience is not caused by the sinner: like the viper in the breast of another tale, "The Bosom Snake," it strikes with a will of its own. Thus do inhibition, self-awareness, and unconscious self-criticism join to injure the ego independent of both the claims of religion and rational self-punishment.

No one can read Hawthorne's parables of guilt without noting, with Quentin Anderson, that this guilt gains its power from the strength of the social bond. Hawthorne tells of individuals inseparably tied to others through shared beliefs and the common conscience which speaks for those beliefs. So pervasive and domineering can this common conscience be that it induces Dr. Grimshawe, in Hawthorne's last, uncompleted tale, to experience moral reproach in an empty room; and it causes Dimmesdale, in The Scarlet Letter, to suffer a self-critical remorse suggestive of Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death." Here Hawthorne's tales of psychological impotence, moral anxiety, and self-contempt escape their Puritan settings and enter the modern world of self-conscious, Kierkegaardian despair.

Upon turning from Hawthorne to Kierkegaard, it must be said that the "sickness unto death" of Kierkegaard's essay by that name (published two years before The Scarlet Letter) does not truly represent Dimmesdale's remorse. For Kierkegaard meant a thoroughgoing "sickness of the self that arouses a desire for extinction, whereas Hawthorne has Dimmesdale actually die in the fullness of repentence, presumably to the joyous redemption of his soul. Yet Kierkegaard would have found Dimmesdale's self-lacerating guilt exemplary of the moral type he explained, because it enabled Dimmesdale to reach a higher stage of self-awareness.

I have previously cited Kierkegaard's belief that the self exists only through self-awareness. Now this awareness discloses itself as guilt. Remove all worldly manners, Kierkegaard says, and "the only thing remaining is the individual himself, the single individual, placed in his God-relationship under the rubric: Guilty/Not Guilty?" And this means that the highest state of the self is not, as it was for Hegel, a state of potency and wholeness but one of anxiety and despair over that self's insufficiency before God, its powerlessness to deny existence, its ambivalence before freedom and sin, and its inescapable, guilt-ridden burden of responsibility.

Although Kierkegaard conceived of guilt more metaphysically than did Hawthorne, there were ample reasons in his life, too, for defining human nature through guilt. Even more than Hawthorne, Kierkegaard as a youth was isolated from the public world and dominated by a morally obsessed parent. His widower father taught him a fearsome Christianity, with the crucifixion as its central image. But more important in fostering Kierkegaard's sense of guilt was his father's demand that Kierkegaard, even as a child, accept full responsibility for his actions. Kierkegaard's childhood was thus more an exercise in self-criticism than in religious devotion; and his earliest memories of school record a nearly compulsive will to do what was expected of him:

To me it was as if heaven and earth might collapse if I did not learn my lesson; and on the other hand, as though even if heaven and earth were to collapse, this would not exempt me from doing the task assigned to me, from learning my lesson.… I had only one duty, that of learning my lesson, and yet I can trace my whole ethical view of life to this impression.

Nor did this obsession originate in fear of explicit punishment. Kierkegaard's father neither threatened nor cajoled him into accepting his secular obligations; he merely mantled them with the cloak of moral imperative. When he handed his son new books for the next level of the boy's education, for instance, he added these words: "When the month is up you are the third in your class." No more was said or needed saying. "I was exempted from parental twaddle," Kierkegaard remembered; "he never asked me about my lessons, never heard me recite them, never looked at my exercise book, never reminded me that now it was time to read, now time to leave off.… I was left entirely to my own responsibility." And in consequence, Kierkegaard concludes, "I got a thoroughly deep impression of the fact that there was something called duty and that it had eternal validity."

Even the rules of Latin grammar assumed for Kierkegaard the authority of moral injunction. Viewing their regular order with "unconditioned respect" and "reverence," he "looked down upon the miserable life the [grammatical] exception led" with "righteous contempt:" Understandably, he identified these regular rules with his father: "When under this influence I regarded my father, he appeared to me the incarnation of the rule; what came from any other source was the exception, in so far as it was not in agreement with his commandment."

In the light of this exalted moral idealism, it comes as no surprise that Kierkegaard's discovery of his father's human fallibility left him devastated—"The Great Earthquake," he named it, although he left in doubt whether the cause was an indiscretion of spirit or flesh. But this disillusion did not lead Kierkegaard to abandon his moral idealism; rather, it made him simply repudiate instead of emulate the source of that idealism—namely, his father. Hence, relations with his father were never completely restored, and, although he led a dissolute life for a time, he always experienced aching guilt for violating any obligation to others, as, for example, when he broke his engagement to be married. And he later elevated this consuming private conscience to serve as the judge of modern Christianity and of the existential responsibilities of the modern self.

These details of Kierkegaard's and Hawthorne's lives and ideas disclose the private face of modern self-criticism, just as Baudelaire disclosed its public face. When the two are joined, the bitter, mocking, anguished temper of modernism is formed: unconscious self-punishment, or guilt, energizing the feelings of impotence, ill ease, and hostility that are acted out in art, ideas, and life. The full measure of this modernist self-consciousness does not find embodiment in all modernists, of course, but its elements and their pattern are discernible.

The modernist who most exemplifies the private sufferings of self-criticism and the literary performance of them is Kafka. He knew better than any other, as he said, the "pressures of anxiety, of weakness, or self-contempt," and the "boundless sense of guilt" that lives beyond all reason. Kafka was so like Kierkegaard in temperament and childhood experience that they might have been brothers. Both were overwhelmingly dominated by their fathers; neither could bring himself to marry, although both were engaged and seemingly in love; and both were victims of exalted idealism, extravagant disillusion, and obsessive guilt.

Kafka's Letter to His Father, written when he was thirty-nine, recalls the agonizing forming of his temper. His first childhood memory is exemplary. At about the age of three, Kafka had once complained in the night of thirst and been threatened by his father with punishment if he persisted. When he continued to complain, his father, without speaking, took him from his bed to the outside of the house and made him stay there for the rest of the night. Kafka interprets this episode as a primary cause of his feelings of self-contempt: "I dare say I was quite obedient afterwards," he remembered, "but it did me inner harm," for his father's action "meant I was a mere nothing to him," and this bred the persistent "feeling of nothingness that often overwhelms me."

Kafka goes on to say that such silent, psychological punishment typified his father's relations with him: "You hardly ever really hit me," he wrote, rather "you put special trust in bringing up children by means of irony." And this assertion of his father's psychological authority led Kafka, like Kierkegaard, to idealize his father's moral stature: "everything you called out at me was a heavenly commandment, I never forgot it, it remained for me the most important means of forming a judgment of the world." And, also like Kierkegaard, he suffered a shattering disillusionment over an unexpected act of his father. Kafka's filial disillusion was provoked by a seemingly trivial incident. During adolescence, Kafka had once boasted of his knowledge and curiosity in matters of sex, while in the company of his parents and in a moment of boyish self-dramatization. He anticipated reproach, but instead his father only told him "how I could go in for these things without danger." The moral disappointment caused "the whole future world to come tumbling down"—although, unlike Kierkegaard, it made Kafka feel that his father "became still purer, rose still higher," while he became more worthless than before: "the purity of the world came to an end with you," he said, "and by virtue of your advice, the filth began with me." Here Kafka turned his moral idealism upon himself rather than his father because he was himself all too completely "seized in my innermost being" by "the weakness, the lack of self-confidence, the sense of guilt" that "your method of upbringing" fostered. And this weakness and guilt then inspired his distinctive art.

Kafka so thoroughly embodies the private, unconscious sufferings of self-criticism that he is exceptional. But consider some other modernists. There is Gide, whose self-assertiveness and labored candor emerged, as he confesses, to compensate for his "lack of self-confidence," feelings of ugliness and inferiority, weak "sense of reality," and aching guilt. The biographer of Gide's early years, Jean Delay, attributes these feelings to the influence of his mother's Protestantism and, even more, to an innate "psychological weakness in energy or in the nervous structure." This latter suspicion is unprovable, but there is no doubt that Gide was trained in youth, like Kafka and other modernists, to be exceedingly critically self-conscious—that is, to govern himself according to ideal standards and to punish himself for his lapses. Gide's famed displays of self-awareness, with all their histrionics of sincerity, derived from self-criticism implanted in him by others and beyond his control.

T. S. Eliot enjoyed—or suffered—a childhood like Gide's. His mother ruled him unyieldingly, in part because she feared that his congenital physical weakness would worsen if his activities were not limited, and in part because her Unitarian moral impulse demanded self-denial and intellectual achievement. Eliot learned the necessity of work and self-control, but also-in the words of his sensitive biographer, Lyndall Gordon—a "self-destructive introspection" and a "self-disgust" that "was in a class of its own" among modernist poets, so entirely lacking was it in the tenderness that touched even Baudelaire. It was this spirit, Gordon observes, that gave Eliot his "central persona—a performer fixed in his silly role, unable to take command of his real self which is socially unacceptable, outcast, or elusive." Eliot was at home in the company of his characters: Prufrock, Sweeney, the Hollow Men, and Edward Chamberlayne, who speaks for them all in "The Cocktail Party": "I am obsessed by the thought of my own insignificance"; they are all ruined from within.

Pirandello is another steeped in the critical self-consciousness that dissolves confidence. He also came to literature through a highly dependent adolescence and parentally inspired idealism. And when his own idealism collapsed, first through the foibles of his father, then the failings of the clergy, he extended his disillusion to the whole of human nature and penned the nihilistic literature of psychic confusion for which he is famous. Victimized by that "voice of others within us," which he knew to be conscience without God and represented as such in the novel L'Esclusa (1893) and the play Ciascuno a suo modo (1924), Pirandello found the most powerful expression of his critical self-consciousness in the theatre, where confusions of identity between people and within the self made ingenious, even spellbinding, drama.

Jean-Paul Sartre exemplifies this same profoundly self-conscious temper despite his belief that he had no conscience, or super-ego, as a result of growing up without a father. In fact, his childhood ideally illustrates the formation of conscience, for, although fatherless, he was raised by his maternal grandfather, who cherished him and demanded perfect social performance of him. Sartre therefore idealized his own image of himself—and he confesses experiencing guilt over even so slight an imperfection as catching a cold! It may be, as Victor Brombert has said, that such a "sense of guilt" afflicted Sartre's entire generation of middle-class Frenchmen: "an all-pervasive, generic, subjective, largely unaccountable feeling of culpability presenting the symptoms of a new mal du siècle." Yet Sartre carried this guilt beyond morality into the imagination: he demonstrated how this acutely self-critical temper can give rise to intellectual nausea. Like guilt, the nausea of Sartre's hero Roquentin occurs in moments of psychic impotence. At these times, self-awareness overwhelms the mind, preventing it from spontaneously and objectively organizing experience. The consequence is chaos—sensations become things, words fly about, and the head grows dizzy. Sartre calls this chaos the brute realm of "existence," pervaded by nausea and bereft of cognitive meaning: the existentialist here becomes almost psychotically self-conscious.

These instances of uncontrollable self-criticism suggest what Freud, during the heyday of modernism, denoted the super-ego. Perceiving that such self-criticism involves numerous psychic actions—such as the acquiring of ideals, criticizing oneself and others, disillusion and punishment, the mental disorientation or self-contempt that is-sues from persistent failure, and so on—Freud came to believe that this network of actions, collectively known as the super-ego, was responsible for many psychological maladies, among them, narcissism, melancholy, anxiety, and, of course, neurotic guilt. And he became convinced that these maladies were forms of self-punishment, which he found to be the epidemic emotional malaise of the twentieth century—as psychoanalysts still do, although nowadays they associate it especially with narcissism.

Freud's metaphor of self-punishment as disease recalls and may seem to justify the criticism of self-consciousness as disease cited in the early pages of this essay. But like many psychoanalytic metaphors, this one misleads by attributing substantive malignancy to psychological states. And although it is a theme of this essay that those who suffer from self-criticism are to some extent ignorant of its cause and helpless to effect its cure, it is also a theme that these sufferers often choose to dramatize their discomforts as substantive and irremediable: the modernist delights in playing the afflicted and unhealable heart. This desire to act out his pains leads the modernist to all of his agonizingly self-conscious manners, gestures, themes, literary devices, and ideas—e.g., embarrassment, nervous laughter, debunkery, defensiveness, affectation, inhibition, self-pity, vexation at the burdens of history, society, and art, and the images of helpless people, insects, puppets, rodents, crustaceans, and the like. To say these manners and images are histrionic is not to say they are false or hypocritical, for the self-criticism that thrusts them forward is genuine; nevertheless, dramatizing affliction is as important to the modernist temper as the affliction itself. As Baudelaire knew: the performance of symptoms dignifies the disease; but as he did not know, it may also make the disease suspect.

The psychological uses of performance do not, of course, belong exclusively to the modernists. Nietzsche viewed most of cultural life as unwitting performance: strong people, he said, impose style on their lives and thereby behave according to their highest natures; lesser people mask their weaknesses in self-justifying ideologies, like religion, socialism, decadence, and pessimism, and allow their masks to become reality for them. Alfred de Musset had observed this self-deception among his generation in the 1830's: they cultivated an "affectation of despair" to hide the dull fact of their ennui. In this light, the manners and nihilism of modernists appear as masks of inadequacy: modernists act tough or nervous or knowing to disguise the weakness caused by obsessive self-consciousness.

Yet, besides concealing or dignifying this weakness, the histrionics of modernist self-consciousness also provide an actual identity—in Gide's words, a "fabricated personality"—to the performer. Hence, the modernist's self-conscious performance is a form of idealization which is likely to be more anguished, awkward, defensive, and disquieted than the actual emotions; he may praise and seem to achieve authenticity, but even this belongs to his performance: the persona of Pierrot is never lost, for, in many ways, the modernist is Pierrot.

This constancy of performance helps to explain the puzzling disjunction between the cheerfulness observed in Kafka, Sartre, Eliot, and others by their friends and the bleak despair and nihilism that dominate their works. And it illumines the progress of many modernists from dramatic pessimism to political, religious, or moral commitment. Such a disjunction has typified all self-conscious writers since Goethe, who explained to Eckermann that his own youthful anguish had been mainly a melo-drama of restless subjectivity. Like Goethe, Sartre looked back to discover and confess the embarrassing secrets of his youthful passions: "Fake to the marrow of my bones and hoodwinked," he admitted, "I joyfully wrote about our unhappy state" and about "the bitter unjustified existence of my fellow men." And why had he done it? To acquire a persona, a social-psychological identity that fit. "The object of my mission, the springboard of my glory," he said, was to decry the "impossibility" of everything human. "I was," he concluded, "a prisoner of that obvious contradiction, but I did not see it, I saw the world through it" and "regarded anxiety as the guarantee of my security; I was happy" and "exonerated."

This remarkable confession is, of course, another performance, as any reader of that artful venture in self-revelation, Les mots, knows. But it perfectly describes how the modernist self-consciousness, even at its most philosophical, as in Sartre's early existentialism, is a quest for personality through public performance; a quest made the more necessary by the sting of internal self-criticism.

Once the modernist self-consciousness is seen to be an interplay of unconscious self-criticism and histrionic self-seeking, the appearances of modernism take on a new character. The debunking manners, social nervousness, cultural hostilities, and the vision of an arid and brutish world lose their objectivity to become ideological stances. Uncertain of himself, the modernist dramatizes his uncertainty with the hope of gaining security and stature, always perceiving his experiences through the lens of his self-consciousness.

This ideological distortion has been suspected by critics of the modernist temper for a long time. Lionel Trilling said this suspicion finally led him to "the view that art does not always tell the truth or the best kind of truth and does not always point out the right way, that it can even generate falsehood and habituate us to it, and that, on frequent occasions, it might well be subject, in the interests of autonomy, to the scrutiny of the rational intellect." But I hasten to repeat that the modernist's "distortions" are not strictly false. For internal self-criticism is painfully real; hence the view of life it promotes is subjectively true. If the modernist temper often displays itself, as Hugh Kenner says, in an "orgy of self-depreciation, each man confronting in his own way his own bankruptcy," that bankruptcy of the self is neither more nor less than the psychic wound inflicted by unconscious self-criticism; and the "orgy of self-depreciation" is but one of the performances that the self-conscious modernist gives in seeking his own ego's satisfaction. And here is the clue to modernism: the subjective sufferings of a wounded ego and their dramatization have shaped both a temper and a culture.

Hugh Kenner

SOURCE: "Modernism and What Happened to It," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 37, No. 2, April, 1987, pp. 97-109.

[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture in 1987, Kenner considers the linguistic complexity of Modernist works.]

To commence with good news: the Last Modernist is well in Paris where he lives under the name of Beckett. He has a typewriter and an unlisted phone, but is so much the man of some ancien régime that he grants no interviews and never did. He writes by preference in a language he can remember learning at Portora Royal School in the north of Ireland, and one of his plays contains (in English paraphrase) the following exchange:

—Have your seeds sprouted yet?

—No, they have not sprouted. If they were going to sprout they would have sprouted by now. Now they will never sprout.

In the French in which he originally wrote it, that takes the verb germir through some recondite aspects of its conjugation, remembering the classroom where artificial problems are posed. 'If they were going to sprout they would have sprouted by now': an unlikely thing to be said in French, unless on an examination paper. A language, it seems, is a game played by intricate rules. One can learn the rules, but switching to a different language means learning new ones.

That is a particularly cold eye to cast on Language, which by convention is something we cannot remember learning. Your mother tongue, runs the idiom; which means you likely learned it from your mother, and what were the first words you learned from her you cannot say. For you did not learn 'words'. You learned a habit of discourse which you later learned to analyse into words. Since novelists used to specialize in growing awareness we might have expected them to depict the process, but by and large they were indifferent to it.

Not even the author of Frankenstein rose to the challenge. Soon after her monster divines that human sounds denote things (and seemingly mat's all there is to language—names) we find him deep in Plutarch's Lives and Paradise Lost. Or, if Mary Shelley's book isn't really a novel—a frenzied visionary parable perhaps—David Copperfield seems a fair instance. It commences with the chapter-heading 'I Am Born'; after which there's a fascinating elision, since the next thing we know he is reading from a book.

Peggoty and I were sitting by the parlour fire, alone. I had been reading to Peggoty about crocodiles. I must have read very perspicuously, or the poor soul must have been deeply interested, for I remember she had a cloudy impression, after I had done, that they were a sort of vegetable.…

Three paragraphs earlier David was already gleaning such words as 'Mr. Bodgers late of this parish' from tablets on the church wall, and his ability to do that passes without remark. In short, neither Dickens nor any reader of Dickens was impressed by the miracle of language or its acquisition, let alone the acquisition of its written signs. It seems agreed that reading comes like breathing. That was 1850. But by 1914 A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man is commencing,

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named Baby Tuckoo.…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was Baby Tuckoo. The moocow came down along the road where Betty Byrne lived. She sold lemon platt.…

I submit that page as the beginning of Modernism, indeed as its proclamation, not least because it recognizes autonomous Language, something alien to a small child. Language—the Mother Tongue—is second only in strangeness to the cold air that smites a neonate. 'Once upon a time'—what can that expression mean? We may imagine Baby Tuckoo wondering. 'And a very good time it was': that conveys his father's questionable judgment that the word 'time' in the mysterious 'Once upon a time' can be interchanged with the word 'time' in a phrase such as 'Those were good times'. But 'to have a good time', a phrase Joyce skirts but implies: what does 'time' mean there, when it's something you can have?

The OED tells us that 'to have a good time' was idiomatic in England from c. 1520 to c. 1688; after that it lingered in America, whence England re-introduced it in the 19th century. Tracing such lore so exactly is a hall-mark of the great dictionary's epoch. As for 'Once upon a time', the OED is strangely incurious; I don't find the phrase anywhere in the 16 columns it devotes to Time, though perfunctory mention does get made under Once.

Well, a novel that can send you to the OED is not your ordinary 19th century novel, the working convention of which was to keep you altogether unaware of language except when a character was being idiosyncratic, as by dropping aitches or by recycling a pet expression. But James Joyce was born the year the publication of Skeat's Etymological Dictionary was completed, and the first fascicle of the OED (A-Ant) appeared before he was two. As a student, we are told, he read in Skeat 'by the hour,' and his dealings with the OED, which was up to the S's and T's by the time he commenced Ulysses, have been noted by James Atherton and other scholars. One thing that was modern when Modernism was new was awareness of Language as a mode of human behaviour virtually unexplored. It was not, as it had been for Dickens, simply there; it required devoted attention. Mysterious, it could screen off as much as it conveyed. It is not too much to say of Joyce that he was fascinated throughout his career by the fact that a reader of a printed page, unguided by a speaker's intonations and gestures, has a hope of understanding anything at all. Common words in particular have so many senses; by rough estimate, the OED entry for Set, on which Murray rightly commended his chief deputy, runs to two-thirds the length of Paradise Lost. To any specific appearance of the word nearly all of this is irrelevant; how on earth have we such skill at excluding so much?

That is a Modernist question, cognate with the Modernist custom of paring words from a text, the better to isolate what is left behind and let small words bend the energies of their neighbours. 'And then went down to the ship …': how much weight 'And' carries, and what tension in the studied deferral of a subject for 'went' ! We read that line as we'd read it were it all that survived of the poem, and at century's turn Greek scholars were attending to poetry quite as exiguously present; seven words of Sappho, say, salvaged by someone who wanted to exemplify a meter.

Ezra Pound, analogously, was attentive in classrooms where the 19th century's philological adventure was being particularized, and was held by the romance of much of Europe speaking dialects of Latin: Latin as it had mutated below and above the Alps, below and above the Pyrenees. The Dante he revered was the author of the Commedia but also of a treatise on language, the De Vulgari Eloquentia; that had not been routinely esteemed as a major work of Dante's, and Pound is a man of his time in citing it often. He came to the Provençal poets of his early enthusiasm by way of the scholarly editions that were still appearing when he was an undergraduate; one thing plain from those was the difficulty of retrieving, from a chaos of manuscripts, anything close to the sound in the poet's mind. Canto XX tells us of his walk from Milan to Freiburg to ask the lexicographer Emil Levy about one doubtful word, a word Levy had brilliantly solved, thereby making sense of a whole stanza of Arnaut Daniel. And Professor Fred Robinson has recently shown how dubieties in Pound's 1911 English Seafarer reflect, not the ignorance that used to be imputed, but much pondering of textual notes in the Sweet edition, which in turn condense the effort of many scholars to comb a coherence out of manuscript static: the way, nowadays, we patiently coax an image out of satellite transmissions from nigh the planet Jupiter. It's noteworthy how the Cantos, as Pound's control faltered in his extreme old age, tend to unravel into celebrations of single words.

So that was one strain of Modernism, a generation's alertness to a problematic of words.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

—That exhibits its participles, 'breeding', 'mixing', 'stirring'; places on exhibition too the word 'April', inviting us to remember the opening of The Canterbury Tales; whereas Shakespeare's

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty

do not urge us to search out old contexts for 'March'.

And if the great Modernist wrtiers inherited the century-long concern which the OED epitomizes, they encountered also something the OED had no obligation to anticipate, the modern city, a city turned into a machine. Modernism, it is important to recall, was a phenomenon localized in large European cities; we should recall how its practitioners encountered the modern big city as a sudden novelty, not having been, like the city's native inhabitants, immersed unaware in piecemeal change. As Ovid had come to Rome from the Abruzzi, Virgil from marshy Mantua, Catullus from near Verona, so Eliot came to London from St. Louis and genteel Boston, Pound and H.D. to London from a Philadelphia suburb, and Joyce, always the exception, to Zurich and Paris from a Dublin that boasted when he left it the most extensive tram system in Europe. The systems of transportation deserve stressing; when Pound arrived in London in 1909, then Eliot in 1914, the tracks and trains were in place whereby people could be moved by the thousand and the hundred thousand underground in from suburbs to a place of work, thence out again to 'home', there to clear the breakfast, light the stove, and lay out food in tins. Rapid transit had not previously been part of human experience; it underlies the 'episodic' structure of Ulysses, where on turning a page we are suddenly somewhere else, and the quick-cutting of The Waste Land, where one moment we watch eyes and back turn upward from a desk (a line which, in asking to be read literally, conveys Picassoesque distortion) and the next moment the remains of an early morning's breakfast being cleared in a dreary flat as the sun goes down. The poem works like a stripped and crisp machine.

Urban syncopation of the rhythms of life; also an underbeat of distraction, of attention given and withdrawn: of such is the warp and woof of many High Modernist texts. The reader, moreover, is drawn into close collaboration, of the kind we expect a work of learning like Paradise Lost to exact. Yet what the modernist text concerns itself with is precisely what has grown familiar, and in fusing the customary with the difficult it asserts its philological origins. Let me offer an intricate instance from fairly early in Ulysses. Mr Bloom has emerged from Westland Row postoffice with a letter he is itching to read; he's encountered an acquaintance he has no wish to dally with; the small talk he's trying to abridge is about a funeral.

—I must try to get out there, McCoy said. Eleven, is it?

I only heard it last night. Who was telling me?

Holohan. You know Hoppy?

—I know

Mr Bloom gazed across the road at the outsider drawn up before the door of the Grosvenor.…

The Gosvenor is a hotel across the street; but 'outsider'? Though Joyce could have written 'carriage', 'outsider' would be Bloom's natural word, in the OED's sense 3, 'an outside jaunting-car', listed without further explanation. Referring next to 'Outside [adj.]', we locate with some effort a cross-reference to 'jaunting-car', where the term is finally explained. 'A light, two-wheeled vehicle, popular in Ireland, now carrying four persons seated two on each side, either back to back (outside jaunting-car) or facing each other (inside jaunting-car).' With that much effort we might expect to resolve a minor crux in Dante, and what we've gained is that we know what to visualize. The passage proceeds:

The porter hoisted the valise up on the well. [We'll not pause over 'well'.] She stood still, waiting… [Note how abruptly a 'she' has come into Bloom's field of attention] while the man, husband, brother, like her, searched his pockets for change. [Note the subtext of speculation: is she married? Mr. Bloom is preparing to fantasize.] Stylish kind of coat with that roll collar, warm for a day like this, looks like blanketcloth. Careless stand of her with her hands in those patch pockets. Like that haughty creature at the polo match. [Now we're following Bloom's thoughts, which are suddenly disrupted by the intrusive voice of McCoy:]

—I was with Bob Doran, he's on one of his periodical bends, and what do you call him Bantam Lyons. Just down there in Conway's we were.

Doran Lyons in Conway's. [Bloom registering this talk with semi-attention.] She raised a gloved hand to her hair. In came Hoppy. [The voice of McCoy again.] Drawing back his head and gazing far from beneath his vailed eyelids he saw the bright fawn skin shine in the glare, the braided drums. Clearly I can see today. Moisture about gives long sight perhaps. Talking of one thing or another. Lady's hand. Which side will she get up?

And we have our reward for tracking down 'outsider'; since the passagers face outside, then if she gets up on this side, Bloom may expect a titillating glimpse of ankles. Those 'vailed eyelids', by the way—'vailed' with an a—are 'lowered or drooped' ; the OED calls the word both rare and obsolete. It wasn't too rare for Shakespeare, and Joyce likely found it in Hamlet; by using it here he effects an odd tang of detached pedantry, shifting the viewpoint momentarily to outside of Bloom. As for 'braided drums', the OED has no help to offer; it's been conjecturally explained as a tightly-coiled hairstyle, in fashion just too late for editors who'd finished with the letter D by mid-1897.

… Which side will she get up?

—And he said: Sad thing about our poor friend Paddy! What Paddy? I said. Poor little Paddy Dignam, he said.

Off to the country: Broadstone probably. High brown boots with laces dangling. Wellturned foot. [At a time when ladies' feet were considered so provocative they were frequently trimmed out of photographs, Bloom's eye knows where to rest.] What is he foostering over that change for? Sees me looking. Eye out for the other fellow always.…

Why? I said. What's wrong with him? I said.

Proud: rich: silk stockings.

—Yes, Mr Bloom said.

He moved a little to the side of McCoy's talking head. Getting up in a minute.

By this time the narrative planes are multiple. Bloom has his mind on the woman and no more than a safe fraction of his attention on McCoy. McCoy meanwhile is not only talking, but is reciting verbatim a conversation that occurred in Conway's public house the previous night. To keep his recall and his narrative separate our text is having recourse to italics. Meanwhile an odd rare word—'vailed eyelids'—breaks into the immediacy to apprise us of a narrative vocabulary that could dazzle us if it chose with a show of resources surpassing those of anyone here. We find, too, that uncommon words like 'vailed' and once-common words like 'outsider' are laying an equal tax on our attention.

What's wrong with him? he said. He's dead, he said. And faith, he filled up. [What does that mean? Did Hoppy's eyes fill, or his glass?] Is it Paddy Dignam? I said. I couldn't believe it when I heard it. I was with him no later than Friday last or Thursday was it in the Arch. Yes, he said. He's gone. He died on Monday, poor fellow.

Watch! Watch! Silk flash rich stockings white. Watch!

A heavy tramcar honking its gong slewed between.

Lost it. Curse your noisy pugnose. Feels locked out of it. Paradise and the peri. Always happening like that. The very moment. Girl in Eustace Street hallway was it Monday settling her garter. Her friend covering the display of. Esprit de corps. Well, what are you gaping at?

—Yes, yes, Mr Bloom said after a dull sigh. Another gone.

—One of the best, McCoy said.

The tram passed. They drove off toward the Loop Line bridge, her rich gloved hand on the steel grip. Flicker, flicker: the laceflare of her hat in the sun: flicker, flick.

—Wife well, I suppose? McCoy's changed voice said.

—O, yes, Mr Bloom said. Tiptop, thanks.

In often interrupting this narrative I've been faithful to its spirit, an orchestration of distractions and interruptions, and, once absorbed, an amazing technical achievement, whether we regard its wit, its economy, or its mimetic precision. Some themes I began by stating are surely evident: the foregrounding of language, both colloquial and narrative; the multifaceted urban order of experience mimed; and the demand for our intense participation, as we both construct the scene and safeguard a chief source of our pleasure, a certain textual obduracy, never quite subduable. We're not allowed to forget how it's words, words, words we're coping with: exactly what Hamlet famously said he was reading. By attention to words, since Alexandrian times, we have read Homer. Lexicons of the Homeric Dialect exist; a Ulysses lexicon is quite conceivable, with 'Outsider' for one entry and 'Drums' for another.

Let us next confront the Easy Book, a genre with which Milton was unacquainted. In a time when the production of reading matter (remarkable phrase) was first being commercialized on a large scale, the reading public was also being enlarged to include a great many who possessed, often with facility, the technical skill of reading although it was impossible to be certain what they had read already. It was natural for Milton to assume that anyone who knew how to read had some familiarity with texts one could enumerate. Thus the Bible could be taken for granted. So, probably, could certain Latin works, for instance Caesar and parts of the Aeneid. That meant that, while allusiveness could reach far—

Blind Thamyris and blind Maeonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old

(where 'Maeonides' is a sidelong way to say 'Homer' and Thamyris and Phineus summon a scholar), still there was a core you could safely allude to. 'That warning voice, that he who saw th' Apocalyps, heard cry in Heaven aloud… Wo to the inhabitants on Earth!' would not have been obscure to anyone literate. But what can Defoe assume his readers have read, save pages as referentially circumspect as his own? By Victoria's century the Easy Book was the norm; about all that Dickens can assume is that readers of his novels have read other novels, and while we've heard him use words like 'perspicuously' we don't find him presupposing easy acquaintance with Homer. Reading Matter, consisting almost wholly of Easy Books, was the principal mass-produced artifact of the late 19th century. Poetry too had become Easy; thus Everyman's Library assimilated Adelaide A. Proctor, author of 'The Lost Chord', well before it got around to Donne or even Dryden. A. E. Housman, though a classicist, was an Easy poet. George Meredith, by contrast, was thought a Difficult novelist, though less because he presupposed prior reading than because he drew on so big a dictionary.

'Everyman', wrote the series' longtime editor Ernest Rhys, 'is distinctly proverbial in his tastes. He likes best an old author who has worn well or a comparatively new author who has gained something like newspaper notoriety.' That meant, people either bought Scott or Dickens, who had worn well, or else some best-seller or other (a guaranteed Easy Book). 'As one reads it for the first, or re-reads it for the fifth time', affirmed Rhys, Ivanhoe is 'one of the best of all storybooks.… It carries into its far time that immense humanity and tireless heartiness which were part of Sir Walter Scott's character.' 'Heartiness' is a word to be alerted by. Rhys is telling us that Ivanhoe is an Easy Book, like—oh, mutatis mutandis, like Michael Arien's long-forgotten The Green Hat, a great '20's best-seller.

I'm affirming what it would take a volume to demonstrate, that by the early 20th century the Easy Book was an unexamined norm. You might read it once and discard it, like The Green Hat, or re-read it for the fifth time, like Ivanhoe, but reading it would never be an exacting experience: in particular, would require no special awareness of the words it used. Now Modernist works came packaged exactly like Easy Books, and that was a great affront. Ulysses for instance looked like a long novel. The Waste Land on the page looked rather like Maud. Later, if you went to see Waiting for Godot, the curtain rose on what looked like the set of a proletarian play, though a play which after a while didn't seem to be getting anywhere. (True, its first words give fair warning: 'Nothing to be done'.)

What was happening, in each case, was the turning back on itself of a public convention; a novel and a poem part of the subject of which was the normal inattention exacted by novels and poems; a play part of the subject of which was the essential unreality of expecting, in the mirror held up to nature, some neatness of stark events. Exactly because they defamiliarized the familiar, such works were widely and vociferously denounced. The TLS condescended to The Waste Land, and did not so much as take notice of Ulysses.

Criticism has its sociology, a subject I want to evade. We might spend an hour or so on early reviews, learning little save that lazy journalists and a docile public were locked in an embrace of mutual trust. (The 'parodies' in The Waste Land were judged 'inferior', and someone disliked its 'erudition-traps'; the skewed expectations there would be fun to anatomize.) But I want to stress instead how the very nature of the Modernist enterprise entailed return to a time before the Easy Book. Joyce was never more the contemporary of Dante and Milton than when he spoke quite casually of making no demand of his reader save a lifetime's attention. Dante would have understood that. Likewise Eliot's valuation of Donne requires no stressing, nor Pound's of the troubadour Dante valued most, that most 'difficult' of troubadours, Arnaut Daniel. (But when the troubadour texts were being recovered, Jaufre Rudel seemed among the best because he resembled Tennyson, and you'll still see that judgment repeated.)

Dante assumed he was bequeathing us a book we'd not wear out in a lifetime; assumed, too, that we'd be expecting no less. That went with a rarity of books; you expected one to last you. But it went, too, with a shared valuing of the intellectual pleasure of discovery; also with the notion of a community of readers, letting one another know what they had found. The Commentary is one way such a community shares knowledge. It was the Easy Book that taught us to say 'pedantic' and 'academic'. Not that pedantry is recent, or ever other than boring, though if we keep our eyes from glazing over, the pedant, even, can often tell us something.

One thing Joyce and Pound and Eliot and Beckett share—and W. B. Yeats too, a part-time modernist—is a veneration for Dante; it's perhaps the one thing, by the time we've included Beckett. And all of them save Yeats read him in the Italian. Modernism for that matter was notoriously polyglot, and Philip Larkin perhaps announced the end of it when he denied that foreign languages were of any value. 'I don't see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile', he told a Paris Review interviewer. Larkin even affirmed a naive word/thing identity: 'If that glass over there is a window then it isn't a Fenster or fenêtre or whatever'.

'It seems to me,' he ruminated, 'that up to this century literature used language in the way we all use it', a proposition rich with implications about the street-talk of Milton's contemporaries. As for what Larkin read, he read 'Novels I've read before. Detective stories: Gladys Mitchell, Michael Innes, Dick Francis.… Nothing difficult'.

Even if, as may be suggested, Larkin was trailing his coat, there are implications to the sympathy he was fishing for and the outrage he was counting on. What he's saying, you see, is that it was all a fraud: that no one ever really understood a foreign poem, that the French lines in The Waste Land are impostures, that it's really the easy books that we reread, to renew their easy sensations, and that poring over Modernist texts is a highbrow game. He implies, by the way, that Oxford is a fraud, likewise such a journal as Essays in Criticism. Matthew Arnold, to whom the journal's title does homage, is the man we might like to hear from at this juncture. That Larkin was mentioned as a possible Poet Laureate is what the author of Culture and Anarchy would have known how to make much of. He'd have made something, too, of Sir John Betjemen's accession.

So the ghost of Arnold beckons me from the shades. I borrow the trope from Eliot, who felt beckoned by the sad ghost of Coleridge at the end of a series of lectures in which he proposed a strategy: taking a popular form and making of it something rich and strange. He was speaking of drama, remembering perhaps his aborted Sweeney Agonistes, but also describing the great Modernist enterprise in which he played so signal a part. For it coopted popular forms, to submit them to irradiation; and it fell afoul of the guardians of those forms. To revive, in the heyday of the Easy Book, the learned book that yields its satisfactions slowly, was to presuppose, and venture to recreate, a vanished readership, feasible now only in universities. What Milton deemed prerequisites are now nearly post-requisites. Students read a translated Odyssey, for the first time, because Ulysses exacts it. I've known a few who felt driven to the study of Greek; that would have pleased James Joyce, whose Greek was scant. I think of another man who undertook, and pretty well mastered, five foreign languages at the behest of the Cantos; Pound would have welcomed a fellow-learner.

Modernism came to pass because a few men of genius seized a precarious moment's opportunity. As much because genius is rare as because the moment passed, the movement had no hope of lasting. But its major texts last, the thorny admonitory artifacts of our era. If there's any Greek left at the other side of the democratic divide, or any recollection of the tale of Odysseus, of the etymologies of Give, Sympathize, Control, or the sound of Provencal, of rumours of a Europe when the Munich Hofgarten was more than a coffee-house, it will be thanks to a few books from an age the phrase 'post-modern' is assuring us we're well clear of.

James W. Tuttleton

SOURCE: "The Vexations of Modernism: Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle," in American Scholar, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 263-72.

[In the following essay, Tuttleton focuses on conflict between the radically experimental stylistic innovations of Modernist literature and the conservative, often reactionary, attitudes of Modernist authors.]

In "Catching Up with the Avant-Garde," a recent essay in the New York Review, Roger Shattuck—after taking up some eight new books that attempt to define "Modernism"—throws in the lexicographer's towel. At present the task of definition seems beyond us: "There is as much disagreement about the dating and the essential features of modernism as about the existence and nature of a fundamental particle in physics." "Modernism," Shattuck concludes, is "no more than an umbrella or bucket word" that has to do its service for movements as diverse as Impressionism, Aestheticism, Bohemianism, Symbolism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Vorticism, Futurism, the Avant-Garde, and so on. His is a problem we all share, for criticism has not yet accomplished an essential task—that of reformulating the chronology and characteristics of Modernism, putting the movement in context, and renaming it (and its successor "Post-Modernism") so as to reserve the term modern for what participates truly in the here and now.

I want here to explore one aspect of the problem of Modernism—the complex relationship between radical aesthetic experimentalism and the conservative cultural ideology that often accompanied it. The paradox of this relationship has been a source of consternation to radical critics from the era of the New Masses to that of the Partisan Review and beyond. Even liberals express dismay at the apparent aversion of the Modernists to the agenda of the Left. I cite merely one instance—from Lionel Trilling's recently published notebooks for 1945:

In three-four decades, the liberal progressive has not produced a single writer that it itself respects and reads with interest. A list of writers of our time shows that liberal-progressivism was a matter of contempt or indifference to every writer of large mind—Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Mann (early), Kafka, Yeats, Gide, Shaw—probably there is not a name to be associated with a love of liberal democracy or a hope for it.

In exploring this paradox, my method will be to return us to a decisive moment when these tensions between radical technique and conservative attitude, as a characteristic of Modernism, received their first important expression. That moment occurred in 1931 with the publication of Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle: A Study of Imaginative Literature, 1870-1930.

Wilson is a useful point of departure because, in Axel's Castle, in the treatment of Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and Gertrude Stein, he brought into focus a wide range of experimental writings that constitute at least some of the central texts of Modernism. So acutely intelligent and instructive was his account of the aims and intentions of these writers that he taught virtually a whole generation how to read their work. At the same time, however, Wilson's virtual repression of his political attitudes while writing Axel's Castle produced a good deal of confusion in readers as to his exact relationship to the movement, with which he is often identified as an unqualified supporter. This view of Wilson as the champion of Modernism needs, I believe, to be reconsidered in the light of the recent publication of his Letters on Literature and Politics and his diaries—The Twenties, The Thirties, The Forties, and The Fifties,

By way of a brief propaedeutic on Wilson's relation to Modernism, it will be useful to keep in mind his education in the classics at the Hill School; his studies in modern French literature at Princeton; his relationship there and thereafter with his mentor Christian Gauss; the shock of recognition when he discovered the Modernists, virtually simultaneously with some of their finest achievements; his editorial work in the 1920s at Vanity Fair and the New Republic, which put him in direct touch with some of them; and his response to the changing domestic political situation in that decade (particularly to the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and the stock market crash). All of these experiences—especially Wilson's growing political radicalism—were decisive, I believe, in the composition of Axel's Castle (1931), the first book to make plain to readers interested in the avant-garde the aims, intentions, and methods of the Modernist writers. These experiences were equally decisive in turning him against the Modernists' most cherished beliefs and against some of their most brilliant and representative techniques. All this, in my view, calls into question the relation of Edmund Wilson to the Modernist movement, about which he is widely but wrongly regarded as a major sympathetic spokesman.


Let me begin with Wilson's letter to his Princeton classmate, the poet John Peale Bishop, dated August 1, 1922. Wilson was twenty-seven and the managing editor of Vanity Fair. Bishop had just married and sailed for Europe when Wilson wrote him this letter:

I was much impressed by the furious storm which burst upon the city just at the minute of your sailing and abated as suddenly about half an hour afterwards. Ominous and heroic thunders resounded across the city and one felt in the voice of the elements something fateful and definitive, as if an epoch had been ended, a drama brought to its close—or as if it signaled some august periphery in the ardors of a god.…

Since then, though a brightness be gone from the day, everything has gone on much the same. I discovered the key to the modern movement the other day, but will not disclose it to you here because I am on the point of writing a tremendous article about it.

The young man who had "discovered the key to the modern movement" had been educated at the Hill School and Princeton, two extremely traditional schools. While his mastery of French had prepared him to read Mallarmé, Verlaine, Remy de Gourmont, and Rimbaud in the original, I emphasize here Wilson's training in the classics and the early development in him of a combative rationalist temperament. This temperament was manifest in Wilson's hostility to religion, to the supernatural, to mystery, to feeling as a source of value, and to nineteenth-century Romanticism as the corrupting site of expressivist literary phenomena.

The evidence of his letters and diaries suggests that Wilson's love of the classics and of the classical values of reason, order, balance, and lucidity made his discovery of programmatic irrationalism in the French decadents, Symbolists, Surrealists, and Dadaists a problem for rational comprehension. Nothing in his formal education had adequately prepared Wilson for the willed repudiation of the cognitive in these forms of Modernism, which he conceived to be a latter-day manifestation of Romanticism. To a man of Wilson's classical and rationalist temperament, the literature of the Symbolists and Modernists resisted his intelligence, withheld its meaning, cloaked itself in mystifications, seemed a willed obscurantism. Yeats, Valéry, Joyce, Eliot, Proust, and Stein can only be understood, Wilson tells us in Axel's Castle, as having founded their work on a revolution effected in the previous generation in France, a revolution largely unknown to the Anglo-American mind.

The critical method by which Wilson will account for French Symbolism in Axel's Castle is predicated on an analytic procedure defined in his dedication of the book to Christian Gauss. Criticism, in Wilson's view, should provide "a history of man's ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them." This formulation, by the time Wilson comes to develop it fully, implies a historical-critical method that owes a great deal to the shaping influence of Voltaire, Descartes, Vico, Herder, Renan, Vigny, Anatole France, Hippolyte Taine, Shaw, Wells, Bennett, and Marx, as well as to the scientists Darwin, Einstein, and Freud. All of these influences were either fundamentally oriented toward history as providing the key to interpretation or were rationalist, scientific, and skeptical in temperament. Many were both. In any case, as an amalgam of such influences, Wilson's method leads him to interpret the French Symbolism of Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Adam as a second wave of early nineteenth-century Romanticism, indeed as a degeneration of it.

The revolution that preoccupied Wilson in Axel manifested itself in a set of specific characteristics that made literary Symbolism exceptionally difficult for the curious rationalist to read and understand. He stresses Symbolism's destruction of the formal rules of literary art, its synesthesia, or "confusion between the perceptions of the different senses," their attempt "to make the effects of poetry approximate to those of music," and "the confusion between the imaginary and the real, between our sensations and fancies, on the one hand, and what we actually do and see, on the other." Wilson's Symbolists present a further problem to understanding in that they turn away from the objective world of bourgeois men and affairs and make the content of poetry subjective with the effect "of making poetry so much a private concern of the poet's that it turned out to be incommunicable to the reader."

The art of the incommunicable, such as we find in Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and the others, is antthetical to the lumen siccum, the luminous intelligence, the precision of order in the classical mind—at least as the handbooks at Hill and Princeton had then defined it. At the very moment when Wilson launches his investigation into the modern movement, he confesses to John Peale Bishop on September 5, 1922, his need for relief from the self-involvement of this kind of subjective art: "My great ambition now is to buy a little house in the country whither I can retreat and derive strength from contact with the classics and the uninterrupted contemplation of my own thoughts." The next year he reports, "I have been reading, as you will readily guess, Virgil and would commend him to your attention. He was really one of the very great poets of Europe but has been spoiled for most people by being taught in school." The Eclogues are praised as the inspiration to Dante; and Wilson celebrates Virgil's classical virtues—his "rigorous artistic conscience, his careful fitting of the manner to the matter, and his lifelong devotion to his craft."

Steeped in the classics, then, Wilson found it difficult to grasp why the French Symbolists were averse to rational, discursive statement and to the non-linguistic, actual world. Their preoccupation with oneiric visions; with altered states of consciousness induced by opium and morphine; and with what Wilson calls (apropos of Rimbaud) the "long, immense and reasoned derangement of all the senses" struck him as antithetical to common sense. He found the Symbolists' work marked by a desire "to intimate things rather than to state them plainly," an intimation presented in a "complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors" intended merely "to communicate unique personal feelings."

It is the nature of the rational mind to ask why the French writers should have done this. Wilson accounts for these literary developments by invoking the revolution in scientific thought, as described by Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead had presented modern science as having subverted any real dualism between external nature and the mind and feelings, seeing them as "interdependent and developing together in some fashion of which our traditional notions of cause and effect, of dualities of mind and matter or of body and soul, can give us no true idea." To articulate the new understanding of the scientific view of man and nature, the Symbolist poets had thus had "to find, to invent, the special language" that would alone be capable of expressing the personality and feelings of the artist. "Such a language," Wilson wrote, "must make use of symbols: what is so special, so fleeting and so vague cannot be conveyed by direct statement or description, but only by a succession of words, of images which will serve to suggest it to the reader."


Having grasped the nature of diese older French experiments and the conclusions of science on which they were grounded, Wilson then turns in Axel's Castle to his Modernist contemporaries. The intent of the individual chapters on Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and Stein is to show how the extension of Symbolist techniques into the work of these writers produced the modern movement. The result is a wonderfully ambivalent act of criticism. Wilson explicates Yeats's interest in the fairies, the motif of seclusion in the tower, the aestheticist influence of Pater's Renaissance, Yeats's experiments with automatic writing, theosophy, clairvoyants, astrology, and magic. Wilson understands that he is in the presence of a lyric master, but he is impatient with Yeats's devised identities, and he is critical of the mystical-metaphysical system of A Vision with its daimons, tinctures, cones, gyres, husks, and passionate bodies. Who can believe in mis nonsense? Even Yeats doesn't believe in it. What right has he then to impose it on us? Wilson is critical of Yeats for "rejecting the methods of modern science" and so cutting "himself off in a curious way from the general enlightened thought of his time."

Wilson contrasts Yeats's visionary style with that of George Bernard Shaw's "Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" in order to show that Shaw's style is admirably figurative without being murky; indeed, all good writing (not just the Symbolist-Modernist style) operates by suggestion. The implication is that Shaw's style in presenting socialist ideology is superior to Yeats's visionary self-indulgence. Yeats is a poet, Wilson tells us, who wants "to stand apart from the common life and live only in the imagination." And Wilson is obliged to warn us of the effects of living for beauty alone, of living only in the imagination: "We shall be thrown fatally out of key with reality—we shall incur penalties which are not to be taken lightly." These penalties, however, are not specified, although his correspondence, to which I shall turn in a moment, makes the danger plain.

In respect to Valéry, Wilson finds it absurd that the poet asserts "that prose deals exclusively in 'sense' as distinguished from suggestion, and that one has no right to expect from poetry, as Valéry says in another passage, 'any definite notion at all.'" Valéry's equation of poetry and mathematics as inapplicable to reality as such, his insistence on form and form alone, is contrasted with the solid sense of Anatole France, a writer who was lucid and voluminous in all genres and who genuinely communicated with his audience on the plane of intelligence and ideas. (Anatole France, even more than Dr. Johnson, is the paradigm of Wilson's whole career in letters.)

Wilson resists vigorously "the real effect of Eliot's as of Valéry's literary criticism," namely: "to impose on us a conception of poetry as some sort of pure and rare aesthetic essence with no relation to any of the practical human uses for which, for some reason never explained, only the technique of prose is appropriate." He finds their position to be "an impossible attempt to make aesthetic values independent of all the other values. Who will agree with Eliot, for example, that a poet cannot be an original thinker and that it is not possible for a poet to be a completely successful artist and yet persuade us to accept his ideas at the same time?"

Wilson treats Proust as the first Modernist exemplar of Symbolist fiction in that he imports into the novel Bergsonian metaphysics—namely, a subjectivization of time. Wilson understands that memory is celebrated in Proust because it nullifies time. The timeless character of memory, transfixed in the novel, transforms art into a transcendental experience itself outside of time. This anti-historical bias in Proust is so defiant to common sense that Wilson seeks an explanation in the medical pathology of his author: Proust's ideas—like his physical and psychological illnesses (such as his asthma, his seclusion in the cork-lined room, his homosexuality)—are so abnormal and distinctive to him that they cannot be of general use to us.

With respect to Joyce's Ulysses, the technical devices that establish the mythic method (which most readers since Eliot have regarded as the chief originality of the book) are criticized in Axel's Castle as an interruption of the story line, interpolations that Wilson finds himself skipping "in order to find out what has happened." Stein's rhythmic experiments with the sentence are "carried to such immoderate lengths as finally to suggest some technique of mesmerism." What she has written in the twenties, Wilson writes, "must apparently remain absolutely unintelligible even to a sympathetic reader. She has outdistanced any of the Symbolists in using words for pure purposes of suggestion—she has gone so far that she no longer even suggests."

Having indicated Wilson's irritation with the Modernists, let us pause here at the curious break that occurs in the process of writing Axel's Castle, a break that has its' source in Wilson's increasing political radicalism in the 1920s. (Malcolm Cowley recognized the break in Exile's Return, but could not adequately account for its causes). Wilson's use of Symbolism shifts in meaning from the deployment of literary techniques, techniques of suggestive implication, to a view of life, a conception of the writer's relation to reality. Symbolism, for Wilson, comes to mean that aversion to reality, that cultivation of the self, that religion of art, that he finds aptly symbolized in Villiers de 1'Isle-Adam's poem "Axel," with its Castle of Art as a refuge from the longueurs of actuality. This poem does indeed give Wilson's book its title and point of departure; but what truly bothers him is the persistence of this aestheticism in his own time.

We ought not to forget that the ultimate manifestation, for Wilson, of this Symbolist and Modernist deficiency—the departure from communication, from lucidity, from intelligibility, from serious engagement with the world of men and affairs—was the work of his contemporary, Tristan Tzara, whose "Memoirs of Dadaism" Wilson had reprinted in Vanity Fair, while he was managing editor there. This bizarre document forms the final appendix to Axel's Castle and was a vade mecum for Village Dadaists like Matthew Josephson and Malcolm Cowley in their zanier moments. Though Wilson reprints it without comment, Tzara's "Memoirs" stands as the ultimate absurdity of degenerate Modernist Romanticism.


Thus far I have isolated those moments in Axel's Castle where Wilson's classical values and rationalist temper recoil in distaste from the values and methods of his Modernist authors. This procedure seems to put Wilson out of all sympathy with his contemporaries. But since he is so widely regarded as the spokesman for Modernism, the method is essential to establish how alienated Wilson indeed was from the characteristic techniques and attitudes of these writers. It is now time to rectify the imbalance this method has produced. This necessary adjustment of the balance is compelled by the example of Wilson himself, for one of the features of what I have called the classical temper of Edmund Wilson is the desire to avoid extremes of critical judgment.

However distasteful his view of the Modernist disavowal of historical time and social responsibility, a Wilsonian sense of justice to his authors lifts him above the plane of any merely tendentious ideologue. If he is critical of Yeats's fairies and automatic writing, he finds a ground to applaud Yeats for entering the Irish Senate and devoting himself to national affairs. Yeats is now "much occupied with politics and society, with general reflections on human life—but with the wisdom of the experience of a lifetime, he is passionate even in age. And he writes poems which charge now with the emotion of a great lyric poet that profound and subtle criticism of life of which I have spoken in connection with his prose."

Eliot is saluted for having left upon English poetry, in a mere ten years, "a mark more unmistakable than that of any other poet writing English." The Waste Land is brilliant in its "new technique, at once laconic, quick, and precise, for representing the transmutations of thought, the interplay of perception and reflection." Eliot is in fact "a complete literary personality." Proust, though regarded as a candidate for psychoanalysis, is recovered for didactic purpose when Wilson locates a passage in which Proust commends "the reality of those obligations, culminating in the obligation of the writer to do his work as it ought to be done, which seems to be derived from some other world, 'based on goodness, scrupulousness, sacrifice.

The very classical demand for balanced judgment, then, obliged Wilson to acknowledge the Modernists' greatness. He explains the ground of his judgment to Maxwell Perkins, in a letter in 1928:

Now I consider three of these writers—Yeats, Proust, and Joyce—among the greatest in modern literature, and even now, not half enough appreciated. And I consider the others—even Gertrude Stein, in her early fiction—very fine. And I believe that there is a good deal of justice in their criticism of the group before them—I believe that such a reaction was inevitable.

He told Perkins that he wanted "to give popular accounts of them which will convince people of their importance and persuade people to read them."

But the balance, with Wilson, fails of equipoise, because his politics overpowered him as writing the book dragged on toward 1931. Even though he acknowledges the Modernists' power, Wilson was really intellectually allied with the previous generation of Renan, Taine, Anatole France, Bennett, Shaw, and Wells, and with a literature more focused upon the social issues of the 1920s. Wilson wrote Perkins that

the difference between these two generations—Shaw and France on the one hand, and Yeats and Valéry on the other—is, as I have suggested, that the earlier group were deeply influenced by the materialistic and mechanistic ideas of science, and that, partly as a consequence of this, they occupied themselves with public affairs in a way that their successors scorn. The generation since the war go in for introspection: they study themselves, not other people: all the treasures, from their point of view, are to be found in solitary contemplation, not in any effort to grapple with the problems of the general life.

However much Wilson appreciated his Romantic and Modernist contemporaries, then, he could not help constructing Axel's Castle in such a way as to bring their work under severe criticism. To Perkins he observes:

In every one of them, the emphasis on contemplation, on the study of the individual soul… has led to a kind of resignationism in regard to the world at large, in fact, to that discouragement of the will of which Yeats is always talking (I mean that he actually advocates discouraging the will in order to cultivate the fruits of lonely meditation). The heroes of these writers never act on their fellows, their thoughts never pass into action.

Instead of resignation, passivity, inaction, Wilson wanted a literature of social engagement, reflecting the will to power, manifest in action and politics. The Modernist aversion to grappling with the problems of the general life was spectacularly illustrated for him by E. E. Cummings, whom he visited in the summer of 1929. To Allen Tate, Wilson wrote:

I have just been up to see Cummings.… He certainly has the most extraordinary point of view. It is 100 percent romantic. The individual is the only thing that matters, and only the gifted individual—in fact, only the poet and artist. The rest of the world is of no importance and has to take the consequences. He keeps protesting his lack of interest in anything outside the world of his own sensations and emotions.… I don't know whether the type of pure romantic can survive much longer, though perhaps I think this merely because the romantic in myself has recently been giving up the ghost.

The Romantic figure—such as Cummings, the visionary Yeats, the hallucinated Eliot, the neurotic Proust—was to be understood as a reaction to the events of World War I that had produced a general disgust with the terms and conditions of the modern world. Their subjective impressionism had political implications, and Wilson promised Max Perkins that he would touch upon this fact.

But in Axel's Castle Wilson's politics are latent and never very obtrusive, although he does preposterously reduce Proust, in A la recherche du temps perdu, to "the last great historian of the loves, the society, the intelligence, the diplomacy, the literature and the art of the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture.… "He wrote to Perkins, in criticism of the Romantic strain of Modernism:

I believe that any literary movement which tends so to paralyze the will, to discourage literature from entering into action, has a very serious weakness; and I think that the time has now come for a reaction against it. The disillusion and resignationism of contemporary European literature is principally the result of the exhaustion which has followed the war; and we in America, in taking from Europe… our literary standards and technique, have taken also… a sea of attitudes and ideas (I mean that the literary people have) which have absolutely nothing to do with the present realities of American life and which are largely inappropriate for us.

Wilson wanted an end to the paralysis of the will in Modernist literature, and he hoped that it would be initiated in the United States. Taking a cue from Van Wyck Brooks's Letters and Leadership (1918), Wilson claimed to detect "certain signs of it: in another generation or two, we may be leading the world intellectually. I feel that Europe is coming now to look to us for leaders while we are still respectfully accepting whatever they send us." But, in fact, Axel's Castle does not explicitly lay out Wilson's radical politics, nor does it so evidently reject the modern masters as reflections of a European mentality no longer of value to American art and its social conditions.


For Wilson, the Modernist era had ended and would soon be replaced by a literature directed outward to the social and political realities of American life. I have called this view a recoil from the subjective impressionism of Modernist literature. When Christian Gauss suggested to him in 1929 that he write the confessions of a child of the century, Wilson replied:

As for a confession d'un enfant du siecle, I fear that I shall never write one. That kind of thing is really repugnant to me, and I expect to become more and more objective instead of more and more personal. Incidentally, the diet of Symbolism, early and recent, which I have lately been consuming, has had the effect in the long run of wearying and almost disgusting me with this kind of subjective literature. I have a feeling that it has about run its course, and hope to see its discoveries in psychology and language taken over by some different tendency.

The different tendency was of course a literature of political engagement. It was already taking shape in his mind. Long before 1931 when Axel's Castle finally appeared, Wilson's interests were shifting to what he perceived to be the exploitation of the working class. The Sacco-Vanzetti case, which dragged on between 1920 and 1927, helped to radicalize Wilson's politics, and he and Herbert Croly at the New Republic quarreled over whether or not the case was a manifestation of class conflict. Wilson later remarked to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that "it was from this moment that I realized that [Croly] and I could not really agree about such matters (I had always had at the back of my mind the Fabian Essays and the Russian Revolution) and that I began to gravitate toward the socialist left." By May of 1930, Wilson was telling Allen Tate, "Politically I am going further and further to the left all the time and have moments of trying to become converted to American Communism.…"

Communism, he opined, was theoretically sound and practically right for Russia, but he naturally had trouble figuring out how the theory could be domesticated in America. In the year that Axel's Castle came out, he remarked to R. P. Blackmur: "As for politics, I wish that I knew of some promising movement or program for action, but I don't, and all that we write in The New Republic is still almost as much in the domain of pure literature as the productions of the Symbolist poets." What he wanted was the wedding of literature to political power, in the service of radical socio-economic change. Marxist action was necessary to contain big business (which he detested), to redistribute income, and to repress bourgeois liberalism. The Crash in 1929 seemed to pose the imminent possibility of political revolution.

For the next decade, Wilson's politics were avowedly Marxist, and, for a short while, he found his political program in the Communist party, which he wanted to be seized by native radicals like himself and thoroughly Americanized. Wilson's leftist position was manifest in his call in 1932 for the election of the Communist party candidate for the presidency, William Z. Foster; in signing various appeals and open letters; in joining the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners and the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky; in reporting on labor disputes in America and political conditions in the Soviet Union, which he visited in 1935; and in publishing his polemics in such periodicals as the New Masses, the Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review. Wilson's Marxist phase subsides after To the Finland Station (1940), by which time he has had the good sense to become disillusioned with the Soviet Union's totalitarian purges and with American Stalinists at home.

I have leaped ahead from Axel's Castle in order to suggest how Wilson's growing radicalism in the twenties came to separate him from the Modernist movement to which he had at first been sympathetically drawn. Between 1930 and 1950 or thereabouts, left-wing radicals continued to lay claim to the Modernists whom Wilson had celebrated, even though, like him, they could not square their admiration with the cultural conservatism of these writers, whom they came to regard as an "anti-democratic intelligentsia." Wilson's tack was somewhat different. During these decades, much like the youthful radical Van Wyck Brooks, Wilson withdrew from the Modernists because they had proved themselves uncon-genial to the left-wing politics he had developed. Lawrence, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Cummings, Wyndham Lewis, and other conservative writers seemed to Wilson to have swept the field. Hence he retreated into the past. In A Piece of My Mind (1956) Wilson characterized himself as

more or less in the eighteenth century—or, at any rate, not much later than the early nineteenth. I do not want any more to be bothered with the kind of contemporary conflicts that I used to go out to explore. I make no attempt to keep up with the younger American writers; and I only hope to have the time to get through some of the classics I have never read. Old fogeyism is comfortably closing in.

Of course it would be a mistake to take the last remark at face value, as some of Wilson's critics did. But his aversion to Modernism and his longing for the ordered world and the polished classicism of the ancients are indeed hallmarks of his later work.


The ambivalence in Wilson's view of Modernism, as indicated in his letters and journals, makes it possible now to bring his limitations into clearer focus and to assess his place among the early students of the modern movement. First, Wilson's combative atheism, his naive faith in science, his hostility to religion, and his reduction of the inner life to a question of psychology (if not psycho-pathology) prevented him from fully engaging with the spiritual claims of some of these Modernists, such as Yeats and Eliot. These claims did not follow the direction in which Wilson's own secular rationalism invariably led. The very historical method that Wilson brought to bear upon his subjects could not adequately account for their representations of spiritual experience.

Second, their preoccupation with the inner life in lyric verse seems to have turned Wilson away from poetry itself toward a preoccupation with social novels, which he believed to reflect more directly the outward historical conditions then making a claim upon his attention. Wilson as a critic of poetry has always stirred controversy, but it is in Axel's Castle that he first commits the fatuity that verse is a dying technique and that the iambic line is no longer applicable to modern conditions. For this he was taken sharply to task. As Delmore Schwartz wrote in "The Criticism of Edmund Wilson":

[W]hen it becomes a point of describing the technical working, the craftsmanship and the unique forms, which are an essential part of Symbolism, and the authors who were greatly influenced by the Symbolists, Wilson is impatient and hurried. He is not actually interested in the formal working which delivers the subject-matter to the reader.… It is for him the wrapping-paper which covers the gift; it is necessary to spend some time taking off the wrapping-paper and undoing the difficult knots of the cord tied about it, but the main thing is the gift inside, the subject matter.

Third, Wilson's criticism of subjectivist impressionism assumes—improperly, I think—that this literature has little relevance to external reality. But Wilson's view discounts the alterations in the consciousness of readers that such a literature may effect, with political consequences. His own reaction is exemplary in this respect.

Fourth, Wilson's treatment of Modernism failed of balance by the very inflexibility of his functionalist view of literature. His thought is of course consistent with the classical view of the purpose of literature—that it should please and instruct, and especially instruct by means of the inducement to aesthetic pleasure. But Wilson's position is taken virtually in defiance of that nineteenth-century revolution in aesthetic theory that—serving as a timely corrective to Victorian utilitarianism in art—argued for the relative to absolute autonomy of the artwork itself, a position that grounded in some measure the emerging New Criticism of the twenties, which rationalized the modern movement.

While defending himself in correspondence with Allen Tate, Wilson reformulated, more explicitly, the position that underlay his treatment of the Modernists in Axel's Castle:

The point that I am trying to make when I talk in this vein is that art and science both are merely aids to getting by in the world. They harmonize or explain limited fields of experience and so comfort and reassure us and also, in proportion as they are original and profound, actually make it easier for humanity to live and improve itself. The end is not art or science but the survival and improvement of humanity. So that it seems likely that the time will come eventually when the artistic and scientific masterpiece will be not a theory or a book but human life itself.

Such a view of human perfectability is of course wildly visionary and reflects a Utopian belief in the "New Man" to be created by the advent of Communism. But Wilson—who believed in the false claim of Marxism to be an objective science—could not see that his Utopian view of human nature was a manifestation of the ghost of his own Romanticism. He told Tate that he had dramatized this idea in his novel I Thought of Daisy, where "the hero, seeing science and art as techniques for getting by,… embraces art as a useful trade like carpentry."

In a revealingly coarse redefinition, Wilson told Tate, "Symbolism was the atmospheric or arty side of art and naturalism the factual side," and, the two having become divorced, a reintegration of them needed to take place again. Wilson contrasted himself to Tate by pointing out that he was older enough than Tate

to have been brought up on a literature which did mix these two elements in better proportions than the literature of after the war, which was what you were reading when you were in college and which seems to you the normal thing. It seems abnormal to me and that is the reason I take the point of view I do in Axel's Castle; I'm looking back to Shaw, Wells, Bennett, France, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Renan, et al. You call some of these people propagandists, but I don't see how you could if you had read them—which I bet you haven't—if by propaganda you mean the kind of thing which is put out by governments, political parties, etc. If by propaganda you mean, on the other hand, merely attempts to persuade people of one's point of view or particular way of seeing things, every writer is a propagandist.

Wilson's position here reduces art to the rhetoric of persuasion, defining it functionally as a mere instrument, or technique, like science, for explaining experience, comforting and reassuring us, didactically helping us to survive, and effecting social progress. While this view is founded on the classical function of art as didactic, Wilson's notion that art is persuasive (if generalized) propaganda and the view that it is a "useful trade," like any other, reveal an unfortunate philistinism reminiscent of Shaw, Wells, France, and the other socially oriented anti-Symbolists with whom Wilson so unmistakably allied himself.

Art ultimately does, I believe, reveal a didactic horizon, but this horizon comes into view only after the immediate effect of the work of art—on feeling, on emotion, on sensibility—has been brought into the mind with its capacity for reflective thought. Wilson's chief deficiency as a critic of Modernism is that he had no vocabulary for the effect on sensibility of the ineffable, the mystical, or the transcendental. But this is a vocabulary that we need, for it is the language that poets use—and not always in ways that imply a vulgar religious superstition. As valuable as Wilson's Apollonian perspective may be, there is a Dionysian energy in art, an energy that may be terrible in its revelations, that gives to art a life—inseparably inter-twined with its form—that we find humanly compelling. We see this most clearly in the dance, in music, in styles of painting like abstract expressionism where a direct and unmediated experience of this pre-rational, this primordial energy is sought for or expressed. It is a feature of art that is beyond cognition and rational analysis. Analysis may, in fact, in trying to explain art, end up in explaining art away. Wilson has a momentary intuition of this danger—the danger of transposing the irrational into the rational—in his comment on Valéry in Axel's Castle: "In trying to clear up his meaning, one clears it up too much." On the whole, however, Wilson was unwilling to concede the reality of the inexplicable as such or to admit that the revelation of the tragic and terrible in art may not "help" us in any tidy, cheerful way.

Wilson's was thus an agenda for what Denis Donoghue has called, in another context, The Arts Without Mystery. As Donoghue has observed, the arts do contain a mystery. This mystery, this energy, this life in art that eludes rational explanation, is transcendental, but its ineffability is not to be confused with the religious experience. Art is not religion and can never be a substitute for religion or for an ethics properly founded on religious belief. Donoghue is absolutely on target when he remarks, "If you wanted to neutralise the arts and remove their mystery, the best strategy would be to reduce them to psychology and politics."

In Axel's Castle, Wilson undertook to tame the Modernist writers by invoking the canons of a naturalistic psychology and a left-wing politics. Yeats's claim for a visionary experience, Proust's notation of a timeless dimension of consciousness, Joyce's location of the present within the cycle of the mythic return, Eliot's timeless moments of epiphanic revelation—all of these are neutralized by Wilson's reductionist historicism (in the manner of Taine, Renan, and Marx) to matters of psychology and politics. Yet if Wilson was not the perfect reader, he was, in his grasp of trends, movements, and typologies of literature, of immense value in his time; and his skeptical response to his major contemporaries made him a very lucid (though ultimately reductive) analyst of their work. At the very least, in Axel's Castle he formulated the problem that has continued to vex radical critics in their relation to the great conservative Modernist masters.

Barry Wallenstein

SOURCE: "Poetry and Jazz: A Twentieth-Century Wedding," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 595-620.

[In the following essay, Wallenstein discusses the influence of jazz on poetry as an exemplary artistic phenomenon of the twentieth century.]


In a manner of speaking, poetry has always craved the company of music. Tone, rhythm and cadence, and lyricism, too, are the property of both. It is the music inside the poet's head that determines the meter and often the mood of the words as they fall to the page. So there is nothing odd about poets joining with musicians in the performance of their work. Minstrels, the troubadours and trouvères of Provence, and, in more recent times, poets have collaborated with musicians and composers in the creation of opera, lieder, tone poems, choral works, songs of all kinds, and jazz.

There are, it seems to me, three plausible ways to approach the jazz-poetry connection. The first is to search out traditional poetic definitions and values in jazz lyrics. Any number of songs have the effect of poetry, and one of the ways people often express deep affection for a lyric is to say, "That's poetry!" One especially good example is Billie Holiday's much admired recording of "Strange Fruit," originally a poem by Lewis Allen.

Since the performance of jazz is not unlike the performing language of poetry, one could also study the structure of a jazz composition and note how improvised solos break away from the original harmonic and melodic structure. Similarly, in much of modem poetry, especially free verse, the range of improvisatory gesture is immense. One could observe how a traditional-sounding first line will not necessarily be followed by a regular meter, rhyme, or rhythm.

The poet Hayden Carruth, in Sitting In: Selected Writings on Jazz, Blues, and Related Topics, talks at length about the juxtaposition of jazz and poetry. "The great contribution of the twentieth century to art," he says, whether it be jazz, poetry, or other types, "is the idea of spontaneous improvisation within a determined style, a style comprising equally or inseparably both conventional and personal elements.… Today," as one could easily say about jazz, "the open-ended, random, improvised, indeterminate poem, whatever its length, concluding usually with inconclusion, is our norm."

Throughout his book Carruth speaks of poetry and jazz in the same breath. "Those who burn out young… like John Keats or Charlie Parker," he says in one such example, "do not give us the solidity of achievement that we have from those who stay the course, like William Shakespeare and Coleman Hawkins." Charles Simic has made a similar linkage:

The poet is really not much different from the tenor player who gets up in the half-empty, smoke-filled dive at two in the morning to play the millionth rendition of "Body and Soul." Which is to say that one plays with the weight of all that tradition but also to entertain the customers and to please oneself. One is both bound and free. One improvises but there are constraints, forms to obey. It's the same old thing which is always significantly different.

Still another approach to the jazz-poetry relationship, really an outgrowth of the first, is to observe the effects of jazz on twentieth-century poetry, including jazz-influenced diction and a recognition of jazz's place in American culture. In "Who Cares, Long as It's B-Flat," the first half of which appears below, Hayden Carruth combines his interest in jazz personalities with an ambiguous reclamation of Western poetry's ubi sunt ('where are they?') theme, which dates back to the twelfth century. This poem doesn't merely enumerate jazz names and places, but incorporates humor with frequent references to jazz expressions:

Floyd O'Brien, Teagardens Charlie & Jack
where are the snowbirds of yesteryear?

Boyce Brown, Rod Cless, Floyd Bean
Jimmy McPartland, Danny Polo
Hank Isaacs, Davy Tough, Jim Lannigan
where are you, Jim Lannigan?

Jesus but you were awful musicians
Pee Wee, Abby, and you Faz
awful awful. Can you please
tell me the way to Friar's Point?

"Aw, Jess." "Shake it, Miss Chippie, but don't
break it."
"Listen at that dirty Mezz!" Can you
tell me please
the way to White City? Where
can I find
the Wolverines, Teschemacher?

Frank O'Hara's elegy to Billie Holiday, "The Day Lady Died," like all fine elegies, allows the mourned figure to inform and color all observations. The whole poem can be compared to an improvised performance around a set theme, in which the personality of the poet (or musician) sets the mood:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don't know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the
in Ghana are doing these days
ace to after days I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once
doesn't even look up my balance for once in her
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan's new play of Le Balcon or Les
of Genet, but I don't, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her
face on it.

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the John door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped

Similarly, Michael Harper, in his book Dear John, Dear Coltrane, pays tribute to the saxophonist and to Coltrane's album A Love Supreme (1964), as the following excerpt from "Brother John" suggests:

Trane, Coltrane; John Coltrane;
It's tranetime; chase the Trane;
It's a slow dance;

It's the Trane
In Alabama; acknowledgement,
a love supreme,

It's black Trane; black;
I'm a black man; I'm black;
I am; I'm a black man—

Besides the common bond of improvisation in performance, poetry and jazz seek out fresh expression, as in these lines by Sonia Sanchez from "A Chant for Young / Brothas & Sistuhs": "yall / out there, looooken so coool / in yo / highs. / yeah yall / rat there / listen to me / screeaamen this song." Jazz historian Neil Leonard has written about "the incapacity of ordinary language to express extraordinary feelings. Unable to convey his deepest emotions in the received idiom, the jazzman invented terms of his own… prob[ing] the unknown or unexpressed with metaphor, oxymoron, and synecdoche in ways puzzling to unattuned ears." Likewise, the poet, unable to tell the deepest truths directly, often employs oblique references to emotions and events.

Both poetry and jazz-with-lyrics are arts of indirection, often extremely ironic constructs, sad and funny at the same time. Poets, like jazz artists, have traditionally been on the other side of the approved culture's speech and attitudes. This might explain the attraction many poets feel toward the music and language of jazz—especially African-American poets, for whom the jazz influence has been most profound.

Such are two faces of the jazz-poetry interaction: the poetry embedded in jazz lyrics, and the jazz influence so deeply felt and executed in the poetry of our time. But a third type, perhaps the most unusual, occurs when the two arts physically combine, when poets, collaborating with music in performance on stage or on record, merge language and music into a highly personalized synergism.


Jazz with poetic elements actually has origins in the church services of plantation blacks, where the preacher was one of the community who had a way with words. Like the poet/priests of ancient times, these preachers were said to have received the "call" from heaven. Their sermons moved emotionally and fluidly from speech to poetry: "to song to dance to moaning and back again," as one exslave has said. In the 1930s, recordings were made reenacting portions of these services, in which the preacher is calling out the gospel and the congregation is singing in response. The voices of the congregants reveal a fast, uptempo response to each call, combining the intensity of religion with the feel of poetry.

Some of the early recorded jazz talks or raps are ironic, humorous dialogues; siblings, one might say, of the giveand-take practice of the preacher-congregation "performance," without the religious element. In Louis Armstrong's 1927 recording of "That's When I'll Come Back to You," for example, the words are half-sung, with the man's response overwhelmingly nasty after the selfeffacing plea of the woman:

Woman: Now Daddy, I'll treat you right
Promise never to fight
If only you'll come back to me.
You can knock me down, treat me rough
And even kick me
Black both my eyes, but Daddy,
Please don't quit me.

Man: Now Mama, when the rain turn to snow
And it's ninety below—oh!
That's when I'll come back to you.
When I have nothing to eat
No shoes for my little feet
Then I will think what you been through.
(But I know that's a lie.) (Armstrong)

Cab Calloway's first jazz raps—those recorded between 1930 and 1934, such as Minnie the Moocher, Hotcha Razz-Ma-Tazz, and Kickin' the Gong Around—are certainly humorous, but offer a marked departure from the dialogue tradition. Instead, they are monologues with coded language: words used as "covers" for subjects such as sex, drugs, anger, and sorrow not discussed "on the outside." Calloway's liner notes to a reissue of his early recordings show his penchant for this kind of language:

Whether you're a queen—or even a cool V-8—or merely a jack, may we invite you to bust your conk to place this platter on your record deck at once. When you do, you'll hear these Calloway cats beat out the grooviest sounds. 'Cos when they play, the joint is jumpin'. The music is kopasetic! You'll blow your wig. And if you wanna lay some iron… well, do it, Jack—you don't have to be a rug-cutter. You don't have to wear your finest drapes to make this scene—a yarddog, with nothin' more than a dreamer can still make it. But if it's Mantovani or Mott The Hoople you're into, then it's gotta be neighho, Pops…

As Neil Leonard has pointed out, "Jazz talk has been highly eclectic, combining black English with the jargons of gambling, prostitution, larceny, music, and dance. Successive versions of this rapidly changing parlance started as semi-secret codes, vocational idioms which were proud symbols of the jazz community's identity and separateness." Another way to view the black jazzman's hip lingo may be as a bold manifestation of Whitman's maxim that American poetry be the language of the ordinary man. One kind of jazz talk—certain "mumbles" by Clark Terry that satirize the sometimes unintelligible "language" of downhome blues singers—is the furthest extension of this tendency.

Scat singing, an essential ingredient of the jazz singer's performing language, is akin to Terry's imaginative word play. "In the scat idiom," Leonard contends,

are all of the characteristics of extreme, verbal ritual: special styles and registers, fast delivery, high pitches, broken rhythms, grunts, anomalous mumbo jumbo words, and prosaically pleasing repetitions. We can hear a good deal of this in the reet-a-voutee routines of Slim Gaillard and the bop utterances of Dizzy Gillespie in songs like "OopBop-Sh'Bam." And the same qualities are evident in the early singing of Louis Armstrong, most notably in "Heebie Jeebies," which inaugurated the scat craze of the twenties.

Dizzy Gillespie's vocal antics, in particular, express a freewheeling exuberance, an irreverence, a feeling for nonsense—all with a style built on poetic phrasing and a keen sensitivity to word music. The jazz instrumental "Salt Peanuts," for example, is punctuated by the briefest of lyrics—the title recited in the same rhythmic durations of one of the tune's dominant phrases. Gillespie's "OopBop-Sh'Bam," a group of nonsense words that act as a kind of scat chant, has no meaning even in the underground vocabulary of the bebopper. They are nonetheless funny, rhyming, rhythmic words that take on the essence of poetry. They are not merely filler, but central to the tune's energy and character.

Other novelty numbers that rely on talking raps, minimal language, or some other language device occur in the performances (to mention only a sampling) of Louis Jordan, Jon Hendricks, and Slim (Gaillard) and Slam (Stewart). One particularly engaging tune of Slim and Slam's—about playing the numbers—includes a rap in the place where a jazz improvisation often occurs:

A tip on a number from the sly old fox
You can play it straight or in the box
On a Monday it's 284
If you hit that day you gonna play some more.
On a Tuesday 825
If that comes out, good gracious alive!

Another Gillespie tune, truly the light verse of jazz-poetry performance, is his tongue-in-cheek version of the Negro spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Gillespie's rendition begins with a parody of call-and-response chant, which is then followed by this revision:

Swing low, sweet Cadillac
coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan and what did I see
coming for to carry me home
An Eldorado coming after me
coming for to carry me home.


As has often occurred with pioneers who are breaking new ground, the inventions of Gillespie and Charlie Parker were strongly criticized by the arts establishment in the 1940s. Even jazz patriarch Louis Armstrong, who incorporated talking, humorous narratives, and nonsense scatting in his own performances, joined those discontented with bebop's break with basic requirements, particularly that of making much sense.

Two recordings that presumably rankled jazz conservatives actually enlarge our understanding of how poetry/ talk joins with jazz performance. The first is "Manhattan Fable" by Babs Gonzales, from his recording Tales of Manhattan. The narrative, for which Gonzales provides a glossary, is a spoken rap in front of music by Kenny Burrell and Roy Haynes. It is a fable about hipsters in the city, and behaves like poetry with its rhymes, strong rhythms, and indirection:

Well about a deuce of long blacks and whites ago
A guy from the lowlands came to the Apple
He copped him a haine on Edison Blvd.
Payin' those delivery dues
Everything was fine as wine until he ran into
Miss Hollywood eyes.…

Such entertaining verbal invention rounds out the lyric, affording a teasing glimpse into meanings that would suffer from more direct expression.

The second example is from Charles Mingus's A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry, on which the one cut of poetry, Lonnie Elders' "Scenes in the City" (written with the assistance of Langston Hughes), is narrated by Melvin Stewart. This is a long composition, more serious than Gonzales's rap, more textured with frequent changes in tempo. The issues are similar—poverty and jazz—and in both cases the words would be fairly uninteresting without the musical accompaniment; but, as unified compositions, they engage lyrically as well as musically. Mingus's arco bass provides a sad fabric for Elders' words: "Well, here I am / right back where I was yesterday / the day before—the day before that / sittin' on a high bar stool / holding my dreams up to the sound of jazz music."

The same year Mingus recorded "Scenes in the City," his album The Clown was released. Even before the recording date, Mingus had conceived the story of a sensitive soul for the title cut. The "hip radio commentator" (Jean Shepherd) felt free during the recording session to embellish his narration with an improvised rap. As Mingus biographer Brian Priestley notes, "The verbal content of this piece was a collaboration between author and improviser in exactly the same way that Mingus's music had become."

Another jazz artist who utilized poetry in his work, especially in his longer compositions, is Duke Ellington. An early innovator of verse drama, Ellington orchestrated spoken poetry into songs and instrumental sections in A Drum Is a Woman (1957). Ellington's musical My People, staged in Washington in 1963, uses Negro spirituals and the blues to enhance its spiritual and civil rights message; and his religious works, such as the Second Sacred Concert, along with earlier compositions concerned with black consciousness, pointed the way for a generation of black poet/musicians who used music to transmit their own poetic language and cultural identification.

An example of this is "The Sojourner," the title cut from a 1974 album by Ensemble Al Salaam. As in Ellington's works, the vocal part of "The Sojourner" is primarily chanted and sung poetry with a religious orientation. Al Salaam's musical style is part-Eastern, part-African, and the poetry is stretched onto the voice, which (as in Ellington's case) is used as an instrument. Another example of black consciousness poetry is Juno Lewis's "I Juno," which comprises the entire first side of John Coltrane's album Kulu Sé Mama (1966). This work, a vocal and percussion feature dedicated to Lewis's mother, is chanted in an Afro-Creole dialect known as Entobes. It has both the ancient quality of an extended chant and a Whitmanesque openness and concern to define the self:

a drummer born. American.
My father

a tuxedo drummer,
"Once a tuxedo drummer, always
tuxedo drummer."
My mother's father was a captain's
F Company, 84th Regiment, Union Army
during the Civil War, 1863-6.
For the past 12 years I have been a
maker, designer,
a son of drums.

Most of the poetry discussed in this section was conceived as part of a musical composition. As with the performance of song, these compositions of Gillespie, Ellington, Coltrane, and others are so well integrated that the term collaboration fails to define the degree to which the music and poetry are unified.


Langston Hughes, who recorded some of his poetry with Red Allen, Charles Mingus, and other jazz musicians, blazed the trail for jazz poets who would follow. All of his verse expresses the influence of the American music that was growing up simultaneously with him. Born in 1902, Hughes began performing his poetry with music in the 1920s and continued to do so throughout his career, with artists such as Randy Weston and Thelonious Monk. His poems, like his songs (which, by the way, outnumber the poems), are rich in allusion. Hughes's commentary is generally understated, and references to the source of his narrators' pain are oblique, as if the cool, detached tone could perhaps influence a change in fortune. Hughes's "Maybe" is subtle in this way:

I asked you baby,
If you understood—
You told me that you didn't
But that you thought you would.

One of Hughes's most anthologized poems is "Harlem," from the 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. "What happens," the narrator asks, "to a dream deferred?" Questions follow that are not meant to be answered but to provoke the auditor. The poem's rhetorical control—its movement from "dry up" to "fester" to "stink" to "explode"—is extraordinary. Another short poem in Montage is "Dream Boogie," in part reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespie's raps:

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out—

You think
It's a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain't you heard
something underneath
like a—

What did I say?

I'm happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!


Later in Montage is "Flatted Fifths," a title that describes an important musical characteristic of modern jazz. It is as fine an example as possible of pure musical energy in a jazz poem:

Little cullud boys with beards
re-bop be-bop mop and stop.

Little cullud boys with fears,
frantic, kick their draftee years
into flatted fifths and flatter beers
that at a sudden change become
sparkling Oriental wines
rich and strange…

Little cullud boys in berets
oop pop-a-da
horse a fantasy of days
ool ya koo
and dig all plays.

Hughes was quite conscious of the impact of his work in performance. He remarks in I Wonder as I Wander that he "had worked out a public routine of reading [his] poetry that almost never failed to provoke, after each poem, some sort of audible response—laughter, applause, a grunt, a groan, a sigh, or an 'Amen' ." His strategy was first to offer jazz poems for humor and relaxation, then political poems and those with social messages for serious consideration. Like the jazz entertainer, Hughes needed to gauge audience response and sense that his poems were part of the audience's language.


The conscious collaboration between formal poetry and jazz flowered in the 1950s, reflecting the gradual and ongoing twentieth-century adventure between poetry and other art forms, and contributing to the evolution of the poetic language built into jazz from its earliest days. Looking back on the 1950s, the two figures who stand out most clearly in the jazz-poetry field are two Kenneths: Patchen and Rexroth. By the fifties, bebop had entered the sensibilities of many poets; its jargon was a potent force, a magical language, particularly for these two rebels. Patchen and Rexroth were among the many poets who, stylistically opposed to the allusive, intellectualized work of the Pound/Eliot school, naturally gravitated toward jazz rhythms and jazz language. While Langston Hughes was actually transmitting that language into his verse, thus preserving an ethnic tradition, Patchen, Rexroth, and the entire school of beat poets developed a separate and distinct poetry—a poetry less derived from folk tradition than from the ego, but still within the tradition Hughes defines so clearly.

Hughes, Patchen, and Rexroth came of age in the 1930s—the "years of protest" in the arts and politics—, and they sympathized with the leftist thinking of the proletarian movement. Hughes brought ethnic consciousness to the general awakening of the white intelligentsia; Patchen was a writer of social consciousness; and Rexroth, also an anti-establishment figure, became known as an elder statesman to the beat movement in San Francisco.

In 1958 Rexroth published an appreciative essay on Patchen's work in which, verbalizing a common theme of the fifties literati, he remarked that "there is no place for a poet in American society." Nevertheless, "the bobby soxers do have [Patchen]. Against a conspiracy of silence of the whole of literary America, Patchen has become the laureate of the doomed youth of the Third World War. He is the most widely read younger poet in the country." Rexroth felt that Patchen's idiosyncratic language, along with his "integrity" and "earnestness," placed him in a line of independent voices that stretched loosely from Whitman through Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. But more than these poets, and even more than Rexroth, Patchen stands with such mavericks as Henry Miller and William Burroughs, who worked mostly apart from literary trends and movements.

Patchen's first recording of jazz and poetry appeared about the time of Rexroth's essay about him. (Either Rexroth hadn't yet heard the record or chose not to comment on it.) The poet recites or half-sings a wide range of his work, all of which appears in the third edition of his Selected Poems. The music on the record, performed by Allyn Ferguson and his Chamber Jazz Sextet, often sounds like a swing band, though there is also the suggestion of Miles Davis's 1950s ensemble sound. In the liner notes, Ferguson explains the "pact" between himself and Patchen:

When first discussing the possibility of setting poetry to jazz, Kenneth and I agreed that the usual procedure of setting text to music would have to be abandoned. The final product, we felt, should be conceived in terms of the poet's interpretation of the text. It seemed evident, however, that the music would be quite unnecessary were there no attempt to bring about a meaningful union between the two mediums. We decided, therefore, to tape record the readings and underscore them. This procedure would have the double value of retaining the spontaneity of original reading while still allowing freedom for the creation of a significant musical entity. The music, then, was composed to the poet's readings—and designed to fortify the emotional content of the poetry.

The first poem on the record is "The Murder of Two Men by a Young Kid Wearing Lemon-Colored Gloves," which consists of the word Wait stated fifteen times, followed by the word NOW. On the record, Patchen shifts his intonation of each utterance of "Wait" to build up drama.

Wit and finesse, though, are only part of the story. That Patchen is a most musical poet may be gleaned from the page alone. Consider "And with the Sorrows of This Joyousness," which is made up entirely of transformations ("O apple into ant and beard / Into barn, clock into cake and dust," and so forth). The recorded version of the poem begins with a jolly, thirties-type swing introduction of some length. The series of metamorphoses builds in intensity, supported by the musical accompaniment, and, ultimately, the music crescendos with the ecstatic "… and years / Into yieldings . . O zeals of these unspeaking / And forever unsayable zones!"

Patchen's second poem on the record, "The Lute in the Attic," is set to a sixteenth-century tune by Thomas Cam-pion. Many spaces are left open in the recitation for the music to establish a mood. The poem has a most lyrical ending:

Come you and lie here at the side of your
I can tell you exactly how many times
these seven lean ducks have gone
fiercely round the rock of Santa Maura—
And show you worse things than your father sees
And show you things far worse than your father
sees, Willy.

Considering that Willy's "father's gone daft," the implications of such terrors make an exquisite contrast to the Elizabethan melody.

Next Patchen strings together a number of short poems and juxtaposes them against an unbroken jazz improvisation. Surreal and biting, the joyous music barely disguises a bitterness that is at the center of Patchen's vision:

There was a man two inches shorter than himself
Who always kept getting stuck in the sidewalk;
And when the curious townsmen came
To yank his arms and crush his hat,
He'd spit in the eye of the lean,
And steal the wallets off the fat.

The last poem of the series strikes a different tone—sad and wistful—and is close to song both in its lyrical refrain and in the way it rides the music:

I Went to the City

And there I did weep,
Men a-crowin' like asses,
And livin' like sheep.
Oh, can't hold the han' of my love!
Can't hold her little white han'!

Yes, I went to the city,

And there I did bitterly cry.
Men out of touch with the earth,
And with never a glance at the sky.
Oh, can't hold the han' of my love!
Can't hold her pure little han '!

Patchen's second jazz album, released in 1959, was recorded with the Alan Neil Quartet. As occurred with the Ferguson band, the musicians here aimed for spontaneity and avoided literal interpretations. Alan Neil comments in the liner notes that the "feeling the poet releases through his reading must be met by the jazz guys with the same type of honest paralleling in their own speech, in the idiom of jazz." One poem that Patchen had recorded on his first LP ("Lonesome Boy Blues," Selected Poems) is reinterpreted on the second. In the first version, the poem is set to a mellow, downhearted blues. Patchen's voice is low and deadpan, his delivery slow, and there are significant breaks in which the musicians can solo. The recording with the Neil ensemble, however, emphasizes other possibilities. Patchen races through the poem, with the music of Charlie Parker propelling him. The words are more accented—with a swing feeling that the beat generation poets were in the process of imitating and developing.

Generally speaking, Patchen's voice on the second album is more involved with lyrical phrasing, through which he attempts to approximate the drama of a singing style. One particularly arresting segment consists of four song poems (with music composed by George Wallington) held aloft on a continuous, undulating melodic line that occasionally verges on schmaltz. These call attention to Patchen's unabashedly romantic side. His exalted, almost religious feeling, reminiscent of seventeenth-century love poetry, is heightened by numerous nature images that are brought down to earth by the music—sometimes soaring to coincide with the most emotional phrases, but always highlighting the most high-flown passages.

Kenneth Rexroth also recorded with jazz. Like Patchen's, Rexroth's collected poems contain tendentious elements (e.g., the money lords are strangling us, to hell with middleclass politics, and so forth), and, like Patchen, he was anti-establishment long after the thirties were over. A comparison between Rexroth's and Patchen's performances on record is irresistible, for both had similar styles. As with Patchen, Rexroth's voice veers toward song occasionally, and both are given to the romantic image ("The summer of your hair," intones Rexroth, a phrase that could as easily have been spoken by Patchen). Patchen's delivery contains more variety of phrasing, intensity, and tone. Rexroth's approach is frequently to pronounce short lines staccato, with an upswing at the end. Each of these lines is emphatic, to the point of making many of them sound like first lines.

Rexroth's poetic voice is generally more formal and stylized than colloquial or idiomatic. It is his delivery, as well as his immersion in the jazz world, that brands him a jazz poet. Rexroth's recordings are testimony to the fact that it isn't necessary to use hip phrases and jazz talk to work well with jazz. He recites sixteenth-century English poetry to a jazz background—Edmund Waller's "Go Lovely Rose" is one example—, and it fits as well as his own!

Whitney Balliett, in an essay on Rexroth, calls him "the Daddy-O of the jazz poetry movement" and cites the poet speaking about jazz-poetry and his work as a jazz poet:

"A good many people… think of jazz poetry at first as something only a weedhead would do. Not long ago, I worked with a symphony bassist, and he told me afterward… '[it was] one of the greatest experiences of [his] life.' I didn't start this thing. Renegade monks were doing it in the Middle Ages. Charles Cros, a nineteenth-century poet read his stuff… to bal-musette bands. There have been countless talking-blues singers in the South. Maxwell Bodenheim did it in the twenties and Langston Hughes in the thirties, and even I did it in the twenties, at the Green Mask, in Chicago, with Frank Melrose, a K.C. pianist. I've been reading poetry to jazz for years now, starting in The Cellar, in San Francisco, with a quintet. Since then, I've done all of the West Coast, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis.… Modern jazz has outgrown everything. The audience can't get into the music without verbal contact. The poetry gives you that, and the jazz gets the poetry out of those seminars taught by aging poets for budding poets in cornbelt colleges. I plan a good deal of the musical accompaniment, which isn't all jazz by any means. I use bits of Satie, Webern, Boccherini. Each musician has a copy of what I'm reciting, with cues and musical notations on it."

Balliett's essay was first published in the late 1950s, at the height of the jazz-poetry revival. Around the same time, Rexroth's essay "Some Thoughts on Jazz as Music, as Revolt, as Mystique" was published in New World Writing. Rexroth's article was inspired by his 1958 jazz-poetry performance with the Pepper Adams Quintet at the Five Spot Café in New York, where a number of literary critics—"highbrow men-about-town," Rexroth calls them—were put off by the jazz accompaniment. In his apologia Rexroth says, among other things, that in jazz, "melody, rhythm, dynamics, ornamentation, tone color, sonority—all owe a great deal to imitation of the human voice." By extension, we may then think of poetry with jazz as actually reading jazz or speaking in jazz.

"We think that good poetry gives jazz words that match its own importance," Rexroth wrote in the liner notes to his album recorded live at the Blackhawk in San Francisco. "Then, too, the combination of poetry and jazz, with the poet reciting, gives the poet a new kind of audience. Not necessarily a bigger one, but a more normal one—ordinary people out for the evening, looking for civilized entertainment. It takes the poet out of the bookish academic world and forces him to compete with 'acrobats, trained dogs, and Singer's Midgets' as they used to say in the days of vaudeville." For his live recording, Rexroth chose poems "which are simple enough so that they can be put across to the average audience in a jazz room" (Poetry and Jazz). He did not try to match his words to musical notes—utter them, say, in unison with the melody—but aimed for a spontaneous, free mutuality between the words and music. Nevertheless, the material was carefully prepared: Standard tunes, for example, were chosen for certain poems and were well-rehearsed.

The first poem on the album, "Married Blues," is presented in mock dramatic style. The poet leaves lots of room between stanzas for up-tempo blues improvisation:

I didn't want it, you wanted it.
Now you've got it you don't like it.
You can't get out of it now.

Pork and beans, diapers to wash,
Too poor for the movies, too tired to love.
There's nothing we can do.

Hot stenographers on the subway.
The grocery boy's got a big one.
We can't do anything about it.

You're only young once.
You've got to go when your time comes.
That's how it is. Nobody can change it.

Guys in big cars whistle.
Freight trains moan in the night.
We can't get away with it.

That's the way life is.
Everybody's in the same fix.
It will never be any different.

Rexroth's true poetic commitment, however, is to the graceful, romantic lyric. "Quietly" is one such work. On the recording, its first four lines are intoned in silence. Then a trumpet provides a steady melodic line behind Rexroth's gentle voice:

Lying here quietly beside you,
My cheek against your firm, quiet thighs,
The calm music of Boccherini
Washing over us in the quiet,
As the sun leaves the housetops and goes
Out over the Pacific, quiet—
So quiet the sun moves beyond us,
So quiet as the sun always goes,
So quiet, our bodies, worn with the
Times and penances of love, our
Brains curled, quiet in their shells, dormant,
Our hearts slow, quiet, reliable
In their interlocked rhythms, the pulse
In your thigh caressing my cheek. Quiet.

Despite his sway upon and affection for the poets of the fifties, Rexroth was opposed to their fostering a jazz mystique. The "influence of jazz on modern poets, particularly people who, like man, dig the beat scene, like, has been most unfortunate," Rexroth wrote in his liner notes to Poetry Readings in the Cellar. "Nothing is more lamentable than a poetaster in a beard reciting what he considers hip poetry." In "Some Thoughts on Jazz," he asks, "Does the hipster with his green beret, black glasses, and embouchure whiskers,… dirty feet in Jesus sandals, the amateur dope fiends with their adulterated marijuana, the Beat Generation, do these people represent 'jazz as a way of life'? God forbid!" Rexroth shared with the beat poets what may be called an autobiographical strain, but he regarded them as overly self-promotional. In the final analysis, however, it was because of the beat movement that poets got together with musicians in a visible effort to get that audience Rexroth realized was so essential to his art.

Jack Kerouac, with his love for jazz and his own expansive style of composition, was a fine jazz poet—much better, I think, with the music than on the page—, though his novels, especially the early ones, did much to promulgate the jazz mystique. On the Road, the book which more than any other defined the beat generation, is full of scenes at jazz joints where the hipster heroes groove on the music:

Out we jumped into the warm, mad night, hearing
a wild tenorman
bawling horn across the way, going "EE-YAH!
and hands clapping to the beat and folks yelling,
"Go, go, go!" Dean was
already racing across the street with his thumb in
the air, yelling,
"Blow, man, blow!"

The jazz of the beats was bebop, and among their heroes were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. As bebop expanded jazz's possibilities, it also provided the model of spontaneous composition that Kerouac and his circle followed. Kerouac made two recordings with jazz in the late fifties. One features Steve Allen on piano, the other Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on saxophones. The first, Poetry for the Beat Generation (1959), begins with Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady, the hero of On the Road, improvising a rap in front of the barely audible band. Steve Allen, using popular melodies such as "How High the Moon" to set the theme, plays an old-style, honky-tonk piano behind several of Kerouac's readings. The overall execution is rarely exciting, however, since Kerouac's emphatic, always intense voice is asserted over an unobtrusive musical background, preventing a fully unified effect. Nevertheless, Steve Allen's piano work is perfect for reinforcing the humor in Kerouac's poem "104th Chorus":

I'd rather be thin than famous.
I dont wanta be fat,
And a woman throws me outa bed
Callin me Gordo, & everytime
I bend
to pickup
my suspenders
from the davenport
floor I explode
loud huge grunt-o
and disgust

every one
in the familio

I'd rather be thin than famous
But I'm fat

Paste that in yr. Broadway Show

Kerouac's sense of street language is always complemented by his detached wit.

The connection of voice to music is handled differently on Blues and Haikus, Kerouac's record with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. In keeping with the call-and-response tradition, the saxophonists answer each line of poetry with a line of music. The integration of music and voice is awkward, however, as if the horns were playing the poem just recited. Whatever preciosity might be felt on the page by "No Telegram today / only more leaves fell," and similar turns of phrase, is successfully masked by Kerouac's forceful delivery on record. Still, Kerouac is able to introduce and make acceptable a so-called feminine sensibility in his identification with nature images: "Bee, are you staring at me? / I'm not a flower. / Why are you staring at me?" is one example.

Allen Ginsberg shares much of Kerouac's excitement for jazz and, like his friend, has incorporated it in his poetry. Though he doesn't carry on about jazz in his poetry as Kerouac did in his fiction, Ginsberg has acknowledged its influence. In his "Note Written on Finally Recording 'HOWL,'" Ginsberg observes that "by 1955 I wrote poetry… arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short line patterns… [and] long saxophonelike chorus lines I knew Kerouac would hear the sound of …" {Howl, and Other Poems). Over the past few years Ginsberg has recorded First Blues, a collection of blues poems, and The Lion for Real, with Beaver Harris, Bill Frisell, and other jazz musicians.

A major irony of the beat movement, which has not been unnoticed, is that, despite its emulation of black culture, its practitioners were almost exclusively white. Anthologists of the period have had to search far in order to include a few black poets, such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Ted Joans. Both performed with jazz in the fifties and are still largely associated with jazz-poetry today. Baraka has recorded several of his poems with jazz musicians. "Black Dada Nihilismus," a brutal, didactic, apocalyptic work that can be heard on the 1965 record New York Art Quartet, is probably the most compelling. Here is a brief excerpt:

… Come up, black dada

nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape
their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats.
Black dada nihilismus, choke my friends

in their bedrooms with their drinks spilling
and restless for tilting hips or dark liver
lips sucking splinters from the master's thigh.

The strong imagistic sense, the overwhelming rhythms, and the sophistication throughout somewhat free this rant from its hard message and separate it from lesser works of angry social protest. Baraka's book The Dead Lecturer and the recording of this poem from it, more than any other single effort, seem to give license to rage.

In 1981 Baraka recorded an album with David Murray (tenor sax) and Steve McCall (drums) called New MusicNew Poetry. In the liner notes, Baraka remarks that "poetry, 1st of all, was and still must be a musical form. It is speech musicked. It, to be most powerful, must reach to where speech begins, as sound, and bring the sound into full focus as highly rhythmic communication. High speech. The poetry I want to write is oral by tradition, mass aimed as its fundamental functional motive." Near the end of his notes, he adds that "we wanted the music and the words to extend each other, be parts of the same expression, different pieces of a whole. And the work to produce this product seemed effortless—it was a pleasure, a beautiful experience." Maybe, but the poetry on this album is mainly instructive verse and didactically political. There is little of the inventiveness for which Baraka is justifiably famous. The titles alone tell the story: "The Last Revolutionary," "Against Bourgeois Art," "Class Struggle in Music." This kind of poetry rarely reaches beyond sloganeering and could easily be mistaken for self-parody.

A few years earlier, however, on July 2, 1978, at The Public Theater in New York, Baraka recited (chanted, shouted, sang) his early poem "Rhythm and Blues (for Robert Williams in Exile, 1962)." Though this performance has not been commercially released, a tape I've heard of that evening's program stands for me as a high point in the collaboration of jazz and poetry. This modernistic piece—fragmentary, imagistic, with its narrative threaded beneath clusters of words—is no less political than Baraka's later work, but it is far more textured and personal than the material he recorded in 1981. The pre-dominant musical theme—Simon and Garfunkel's "Home"—provides a lyricism to match the words. And as imagery and Baraka's tone of voice shift, the music keeps pace, becoming, finally, wonderfully discordant.

Many insights into Baraka's life in jazz and his views towards jazz-poetry can be found in his Autobiography. Here is a sampling:

[A] poet I heard [who] had a great influence on
me [was] Amus Mor (once
David Moore) from Chicago. I heard him read in
Chi his masterwork,
"We Are the Hip Men." The way Amus put the
music directly into the
poem, scatting and being a hip dude walking
down the street letting the
sounds flow out of his mouth—putting all that
into the poetry—really
turned me on. We wanted to bring black life into
the poem directly. Its
rhythms, its language, its history and struggle. It

was meant to be a
poetry we copped from the people and gave them
right back, open and
direct and moving.… [We] were drenched in
black music and wanted
our poetry to be black music. Not only that, we
wanted that poetry to be
armed with the spirit of black revolution.


Throughout the '70s and '80s, jazz-poetry on record has been dominated by black poets speaking directly and musically of their racial experience. As Amiri Baraka observes in his liner notes to New MusicNew Poetry, "Black poetry in the main, from its premise… means to show its musical origins and resolve as a given. Just as Blues is, on one level, a verse form, so Black poetry begins as music running into words.… Poets like Larry Neal, Yusuf Rahman, The Last Poets, Askia Touré, Jayne Cortez write a poetry that brings the words into music and the music into words, reflecting the most contemporary of both expressions, made one."

The Last Poets is a performing group with shifting personnel. Their one album of poetry and percussion includes performances by the poets Ablodun Oyewold, Alafia Rudim, and Omar Ben Hassen. The titles—"Run Nigger," "New York, New York," "When the Revolution Comes"—indicate the subject and emotional content. Rage is more controlled and filtered through popular rhetoric here than in Baraka's poetry, and the language is more street poetry than anything else.

Another jazz poet is Eugene Redmond, who has performed his work with the jazz trio of Jimmy Daniels on guitar, Ed Jefferson on percussion, and Ike Paggett on soprano sax. Redmond's record Blood Links and Sacred Places (1973) contains political poems such as "Angel of Mercy," for Angela Davis. The record is most memorable, however, for its infusion of street poetry—non-political this time. "Invasion of the Nose" is one such work, an original folk poem about a ghetto super-hero. Redmond produced his album, one of a growing number of independent productions of jazz-poetry that so far have been condemned to limited availability.

In 1974, Strata-East, a small jazz label, released two very different jazz-poetry albums. Winter in America, by poet/ musician Gil Scott-Heron, was something of a hit, probably due to the Leon Thomas-style singing and lyrics. "H20-Gate Blues," a spoken poem on the record, exhibits an excellent wedding of music and voice, in addition to being a clever and satirical protest poem. Strata-East's other poetry record, Celebrations and Solitudes, is by poet Jayne Cortez, whose voice is the perfect instrument for jazz: flexible, warm, hard-edged, and swinging. Cortez's recitation style suggests song and is set off beautifully by the inventive bass playing of Richard Davis.

Cortez's second album, Unsubmissive Blues, has a more assertive race consciousness and a greater presence of African rhythms and references. These qualities are augmented on two subsequent albums, There It Is: Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters and Maintain Control, which feature Denardo Coleman, Charles Moffett, Jr., and, on the more recent album, Ornette Coleman. Maintain Control features a heavy, electrified back beat, and Cortez's own version of dub poetry. There is much variety here, from James Brown riffs to church music to inarching band harmonies. Cortez's poetry is no less political than Baraka's, and her delivery is just as rhythmic and powerful.

Because of commercial marketing practices and a long history of seeing poetry as a nonprofit venture, Jayne Cortez and others are forced to distribute their work at readings and concerts. Yet in the cafés of large cities, in the jazz lofts, and at college campuses, jazz-poetry is being performed. Patti Smith, though her fame rests on rock music rather than jazz, and Tom Waits are both poets who successfully present their verse to large audiences. Jeanne Lee is a jazz vocalist who sings and recites her own poetry. Bill Zavatsky is a poet who sometimes accompanies himself with piano. Boruk, who recorded the album Black Hole Boogie in 1974, combines his poetry with music and slide shows. Doug Hammond, a pianist and percussionist, included poetry on his album Ellipse (1977). Harry Lewis frequently performs with jazz artists such as David Murray and Fred Hopkins, and Archie Shepp has been known to recite his poetry at gigs.

And while today's rap music is hardly jazz and the language of rap is often something other than poetry, there are nonetheless examples that may somehow enlarge the ongoing collaboration between poetry and jazz. The Breaks, by Kurtis Blow with Tito Puente (1980); Grand Master Flash's The Message (1982); Suicide, by Busy Bee (1987); Kool Moe Dee's How Ya Like Me Now (1987); and K.R.S.l's Stop the Violence (1988) are all interesting for their amalgamation of music and verbal pyrotechnics.

The poetry read with jazz music takes particular risks in its duality. It is necessarily rooted in black culture and is also transcendent and aspiring. With one foot in the street and the other in the skies, only the best blends are satisfying.

Poetry And Drama

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12109

Philip Hobsbaum

SOURCE: "The Growth of English Modernism," in Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry, Rowman and Littlefield, 1979, pp. 289-307.

[In the following excerpt, Hobsbaum examines Modernism in English poetry.]

A conventional account of the rise of modern poetry would, I suppose, run something like this. The Georgians of Sir Edward Marsh's anthologies represented the last lap of Victorianism; sheltered subjects and literary diction. English poetry was shocked out of such torpor by the Imagists; insistence on experiment, free verse. The resistance to 'modernism', so called, was overcome by the mature work of T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land and of Ezra Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. But their work has never been satisfactorily implemented in English poetry. Hence the thin poetic haul of the last thirty years.

There is a lot in this that one can agree with. Yet it seems to me far from the whole truth. And, indeed, a certain amount of dissatisfaction with this account has been shown already. In a broadcast of 1961, George MacBeth clearly showed that the Georgians were not so whimsywhamsy as popular accounts, and popular anthologies, have suggested. He maintained that the links between the Georgians, such as Lascelles Abercrombie, and the modernists, such as Eliot, were closer than had been suspected. In Mr MacBeth's opinion, the true division was in terms of subject matter—whether, for example, the poet was committed to violence as a mode of purgation or whether he was himself half in love with it.

But this, again, may be only part of the truth. It is one thing to show that both Eliot and Rupert Brooke were influenced by the Metaphysicals. It is quite another to demonstrate that they made comparable use of that influence. One may suggest, too, that Pound's attitude towards the First World War was a very different matter from that of his fellow non-combatant Lascelles Abercrombie.

There is a third account of the rise of modernism which has become rather fashionable. It can be located in the critical work of academics who are also practising poets. Examples that come to mind are John Holloway (The Colours of Clarity, 1964) and Graham Hough (Image and Experience, 1960). Their account of modernism would suggest that it was interesting while it lasted, and even salutary, but that its impetus is now spent. For them, this is an age of consolidation rather than experiment. From this view, it is only a step to regarding Eliot and Pound as eccentric side issues. Yet, in a sense, they are—at least, as far as English poetry is concerned.

It is not often enough remembered that Eliot was an American by birth and upbringing. Of course, he lived in England for many years, was a naturalised citizen and had associated himself with a number of characteristically English institutions. Even his intonation was impeccably English—and, in its way, this was a disadvantage. One could say, for example, that Eliot's urbane reading of his own verse rather muffled its colloquial, experimental and, I would add, very much American qualities.

For one thing, Eliot characteristically wrote in free verse. This form has never sat very happily on the English language, as the nineteenth-century attempts of Southey, Arnold and Henley show. Yet Eliot brings it off. How?

Again, Eliot's work exhibits the characteristic American qualities of free association or phanopoeia and autobiographical content. English verse, however, has been at its best as fiction: an arrangement of what is external to the poet to convey the tension or release within. Yet Eliot's work succeeds. Why?

Associated with the problem of Eliot is that of Ezra Pound. This poet has a name for being erudite, cosmopolitan. Yet even in his most polyglot cantos he is most himself in colloquial American speech. For instance, in Canto XCVI (ante 1959) Pound describes Justinian's law reforms in the tones of the Idaho of his boyhood.

It may well be that both Eliot and Pound have been read with too English an accent. To my ear, the rhythms of 'Sweeney Agonistes' (1924-7) are akin not only to those of demotic American speech but also to the attempt of the Beat poets to write a genuinely popular poetry. And doesn't such a lyric as 'My little island girl' very much anticipate the innovations of 'Poetry and Jazz'?

To go further than this: one could say that the experiments of Eliot and Pound have not fallen on stony ground in the United States. R. P. Blackmur (Language as Gesture, 1952) has demonstrated the influence of the Four Quartets (1936-42) on Wallace Stevens's 'Notes toward a Supreme Fiction' (1941-2). The grinding personal verse of Pound, in Mauberley (1920) as in the Pisan Cantos (1948), seems to me, raised to the nth power of concentration, to be right behind Lowell's Life Studies (1959). But, of course, American poets have always excelled in the public presentation of the minutely personal. One thinks of Whitman, who wrote in what has always been agreed to be a distinctively American language. I would never deny that Eliot and Pound, who derive so much from Whitman, are fine poets. But is it not time to insist that they are fine American poets? And that therefore the influence they may be expected to have on English poets is limited?

Certainly it is true to say that the influence of Eliot and Pound on English poetry has, so far, been damaging. The American language lends itself peculiarly to the assemblage of images in an emotional rather than a logical connection. Whitman's catalogues (and, indeed, those of F. Scott Fitzgerald) would convey next to nothing if compiled by an Englishman—or even an Irishman, as so many dead pages in Joyce's Ulysses only go to show. Yet free association in free verse was what was recommended to a rising generation of poets in the 1930s by that most astringent critic of modern poetry, F. R. Leavis.

New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) is a model of approach to the modern poets with which it deals—in many respects. But it was written at a chaotic period in English literature. That we are now able to challenge some of Leavis's formulations is, in no small part, due to the efficacy of his work as a critic. He must, however, be held responsible for the view that English poets could do nothing better than to learn from the experimentalism of the modernists; by which he particularly meant Eliot and Pound. And, although he has deprecated the talent and influence of W. H. Auden, Leavis must be seen as part of the same movement—a movement which sought to graft Eliot's essentially American experimentalism on to English poetry.

And so we have Auden writing long poems such as 'Easter, 1929' with a distinctively Waste Land mood and landscape; Louis MacNeice, closest of all the 1930s poets to Eliot technically, trying to produce a spiritual diary (1938) in the mode of Four Quartets; and the weakest of them, Day Lewis and Spender, sticking odd Eliot properties on to a characteristically Georgian nostalgia, traditionalism—even patriotism. The 1930s poets adapted Eliot's vatic utterance to their own leftish brand of doom; but they all grew out of it.

Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis—how did their reputations come about? More important, how did they, along with Louis MacNeice, come to be joined with W. H. Auden, a poet of really considerable talent? Most important of all, how did the work of these four come to be acclaimed as a renaissance in English poetry?

The renaissance, it is now plain, was stillborn. A revaluation of the 1930s would establish William Empson, Robert Graves, Norman Cameron and perhaps John Betjeman as the most interesting new poets then writing; that is, apart from Auden himself. And the whole does not amount to more than an orbit of rather minor satellites. What is most immediately noticeable is that they lack any sort of a sun.

Auden himself was incapable of supplying the necessary energy. For one thing, he himself was poorly chanced for survival. Some of his early poems are at once synthetic and impenetrable:

Between attention and attention
The first and last decision
Is mortal distraction
Of earth and air,
Further and nearer,
The vague wants
Of days and nights,
And personal error.…

('Easy Knowledge', 1930)

The tone is, in cant phrase, 'significant'—but significant of what? Do all these abstractions really refer to anything beyond themselves? And this riddling nicety—'Between attention and attention'—is it really making any sort of valid distinction? It is easy enough to see where it all derives from:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom.…

Eliot's 'Hollow Men' (1924-5), no less. And Eliot's hollow men were what the poets of the renaissance were to become.

For, if we look at the periodicals of the time, we shall find singularly few of the rave notices that literary historians have led us to expect. On the contrary, it seems as though the editor of The Criterion had a busy private line to Oxford and Cambridge—spying the coming man before he had come, as A. S. J. Tessimond, a neglected poet of the time, was to write.

Auden's play Paid on Both Sides, dedicated to Cecil Day Lewis, appeared in The Criterion in January, 1930; 'Four Poems' by Stephen Spender, dedicated to W. H. Auden, appeared in October, and were followed by three more a year later. Meanwhile reviews by the coming men began to appear: Auden on psychology, Spender on belles lettres. It was not a revolution in the palace so much as a tacit capitulation. The Editor of The Criterion, of course, was T. S. Eliot.

Not all the new young men were untalented. The reviews by Empson and James Smith are still worth looking up, and Paid on Both Sides has a sustained brilliance that Auden never was to achieve again. What one objects to is the way these reputations were made: there is about it all a distinct air of fait accompli. Whatever F. S. Flint or Peter Quennell said in The Criterion's poetry chronicles, Auden had come to stay. And with him came a good deal else.

Because, it's no good pretending, a great deal of bad verse was published, and not so much held up to acclamation as passed by default. There it was, the new writing, and that was all there was to say about it. Even the more traditionalist London Mercury had an article solemnly discussing the young poets in terms of a new range of emotion: 'the reader's receptive faculties, then, have to be sharpened'. But what one may question is the whole mode of reading involved.

There is no doubt that Eliot did a great deal to disrupt English poetry, as distinct from that of the Americans. He claims descent from the Jacobean playwrights and Laforgue, but the most evident ancestor is Walt Whitman. Whitman's abstractions and random collocations have a raw life of their own, a form even through their formlessness; and this has remained highly characteristic of American poetry ever since. The Waste Land (1922) is, indeed, a heap of broken images: this is its meaning, and, to some extent, its distinction. But that kind of writing has never worked well in England. And so Eliot's revolution seems nowadays not so much modernistic as alien.

This is borne out by a look at English poetry written before his influence became a sine qua non for young poets. Who wrote this, for example?:

Sixty odd years of poaching and drink
And rain-sodden waggons with scarcely a friend,
Chained to this life; rust fractures a link,
So the end.…

(c. 1923)

Hardy? Edward Thomas? In fact, it is the earliest Auden—Auden before the influence of Eliot. And I do not think that it is accidental that this gifted poet showed himself at the very first in the direct line of Hardy and the war poets; that is to say, in the mainstream of English poetry. But in the absence of any strong direction—Hardy was very old and the war poets had not survived—English poetry became Americanised, and the result was the brilliant obscurity of Auden's first (1930) volume.

Auden himself came out of it all rather well, which only goes to show how difficult it is to extinguish an original talent. Many of his 1930s poems have a warmth of moral indignation that irradiates the distorted language in which he felt constrained to write. There are moving passages in 'Easter, 1929', in The Orators (1932), even in The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935). He is seen at his best in an interim selection, Some Poems (1940). And it seems to me that Auden's reputation will have to rest mainly upon the poems which exist as finished wholes. Many of these are to be found in his sequences, 'In Time of War' (1938) and 'The Quest' (1940). Not surprisingly, they are couched in the unEliotesque—and very unAmerican—form of the sonnet.

Other poets were not so lucky: at least in their achievement—for their success, of course, was assured. The earliest Spender reads like Eliot's 'Preludes' sucked in and spat out again:

Moving through the silent crowd
Who stand behind dull cigarettes…
The promise hangs, this swarm of stars and
And then there comes the shutting of a door.…


But Auden soon replaced Eliot in his work, and it gained a new—but suspiciously general—exaltation:

oh young men oh young comrades
it is too late now to stay in those houses
your fathers built where they built you to build to
money on money it is too late.…


This is shrill, and the sense is governed by the sound, as witness the functionless outbreak of alliteration in the third line quoted. Compare it with the Auden poem from which it obviously derives:

Seekers after happiness, all who follow
The convolutions of your simple wish,
It is later than you think.…

('Consider', 1930)

One would have thought that such a comparison would have stamped Spender as a second-rate derivative, but nothing of the sort. The resemblance assured him of a currency among those who wanted to know what, in poetry, was the latest thing. Even his anthology pieces do not very much transcend the sort of verse I have quoted. Image after image defies visualisation, and offers little to any other kind of reading. The end of 'I think continually' is characteristic in its evasive rhetoric:

Bora of the sun they travelled a short while
towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour.


The reputation of Cecil Day Lewis seems to have grown less rapidly, though it is interesting to see that the London Mercury backed him most heavily of all the new young poets. Perhaps this was an involuntary tribute to his Georgian temperament: the modernism of his work never seems more than a superficial overlay. Transitional Poem (1929) came out with the usual Waste Land sort of notes, but, in spite of its pretensions, was quite evidently a collection of harmless lyrics:

It is becoming now to declare my allegiance,
To dig some reservoir for my springtime's pain,
Bewilderment and pride, before their insurgence
Is all sopped up in this dry regimen.…

The allegiance is most immediately, of course, to Auden; but the quatrains and rhymes take us back to a world before Eliot. Day Lewis mentions charabancs as well as hedgerows, but then so did Sir John Squire, and it is open to doubt whether either of them realised that there were more subtle ways of being modern. Later on, Day Lewis was to coarsen the fabric of his verse and produce this sort of claptrap:

Look west, Wystan, lone flyer, birdman, my bully
Plague of locusts, creeping barrage, has left earth
Suckling and centenarian are up in air,
No wing-room for Wystan, no joke for kestrel

(The Magnetic Mountain, 1933)

But, towards the end, Day Lewis gave up what must always have been an unequal battle. Those who thought him one of the new modernists lived to see him read and remembered for poems such as his later 'Sheep Dog Trials in Hyde Park' and 'View from a Window' (1961): gentle, discursive, countrified in that urban way beloved of Squire and the London Mercury.

Louis MacNeice is something of a different proposition. Unlike his two contemporaries, he seems to have been able to go direct to Eliot. Just as early Auden sometimes reads like Edgell Rickword's parodies of Eliot, so early MacNeice often looks like those of Henry Reed:

But I, Banquo, had looked into the mirror,
Had seen my Karma, my existences
Been and to be, a phoenix diorama,
Fountain agape to drink itself for ever
Till the sun dries it.…

(Blind Fireworks, 1929)

However, to do MacNeice justice, he seldom in his later work takes himself as solemnly as this. His last volume, The Burning Perch (1963), is a craftsmanlike collection. One reason why even his work of the 1930s has worn better than that of his contemporaries is because he is, on the whole, unsentimental and often genuinely witty:

The country gentry cannot change, they will die in
their shoes
From angry circumstances and moral self-abuse,
Dying with a paltry fizzle they will prove their
lives to be
An ever-diluted drug, a spiritual tautology.…

('An Eclogue for Christmas', 1933)

But, one's tempted to remark, Auden did this sort of thing much better; and this brings us to the crux of the whole problem.

The renaissance of the 1930s rested largely on the shoulders of one man: W. H. Auden. And, as we have seen, he himself had ignored his earliest influences and embarked upon a misdirected course. His consequent idiosyncrasies were therefore erected into a style for modern poetry, and one has only to look at the Preface to Michael Roberts's Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936) to see how rooted the misconception became. Modern poetry was to be obscure, condensed, fantastic in diction, freed from logic. The result was that a lot of minor talents, such as Kenneth Allott and Charles Madge, wrote themselves out for want, among other things, of a viable tradition; and the revolution ended in Dylan Thomas and the New Apocalypse, when poetry in England ceased to mean anything even to an educated reader.

The conventional account of the last fifty years would suggest that the social realism of the 1930s was succeeded by the romanticism of Dylan Thomas, George Barker and the New Apocalypse. In fact, of course, the resemblance between these two 'schools' is obvious. Both indulged in longish autobiographical poems full of private allusion, usually in free verse, often of considerable obscurity, indulging in a scolding rhetoric unparallelled since the best days of Shelley. Pound could get away with this; in the Usura Canto (ante 1937), for example, or in 'Pull down thy vanity' (Canto LXXXI, ante 1948). And Eliot could admit his reader to his inner vision in 'Burnt Norton' (1935) and not for a moment seem posturing or rhetorical. But then Eliot and Pound are Americans; and their 'modernism' is only suited to an American language. In English poetry of the 1940s, obscurity grew so fast and rhythms broke down to such an extent that the whole attempt at modernism collapsed in the nerveless verse and chaotic imagery of the New Apocalypse. Hence, of course, what came to be known as the Movement.

This was largely academic in origin—an attempt by several poets who were also critics to consolidate English verse. In comparison with Dylan Thomas, or even with early Auden and Spender, the poems of the Movement were self-contained, formal, and sought to be unrhetorical. Like most schools of poetry, the Movement proved too constricting for its more talented members. Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie and Thorn Gunn wrote in the 1960s better than they ever did before, but not in a Movement style. That style, abstract and gnomic, produced little of real value. But the Movement was a necessary spring-cleaning whose real achievement may have been to arouse interest in a number of poets of the 1930s who had been unjustly neglected. The most impressive of these is probably William Empson. His verse represents a concern for form, and this is an integral quality in the best English poetry. Without it, it turns into something very like prose.

This concern for form is a characteristic of a development in our poetry which has not, I think, been separately recognised. Perhaps it is best called English modernism—as opposed to the American brand of Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Lowell.

The chief heroes of English modernism died sixty years ago, in the First World War. I am thinking particularly of Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. They seem to me quite distinct from the Georgians, on the one hand, and the modernists, on the other. Their deaths were probably as great a set-back as those of the young Romantics, Shelley, Keats and Byron, even though, it is true, their achievement is less. And their deaths were a set-back for much the same reason. Their uncompleted work was not sufficient to prevent the tradition of which they were the latest development from falling into misunderstanding and neglect.

Only a superficial classification would relate Edward Thomas to the Georgians. His poems certainly belong to an English tradition. But it was one that had been much misunderstood, as was shown by the cool reception of Hardy's Wessex Poems in 1898. This tradition was as much one of prose as of verse: the tradition of Cobbett and Jefferies—on whom, as a critic, Thomas had written most eloquently. Indeed, it was Thomas's own prose that led his friend, Robert Frost, to suggest that he should try his hand at poetry. Thomas never actually followed Frost's advice to write up his nature studies into free verse. But there is no doubt that much of Thomas's strength is that he has no time for the merely 'poetic'. His poetry really is 'a valley of this restless mind'. He objectifies his inner emotions in terms of landscape, or even fiction. That is to say, Thomas will often act out his feelings in terms of story, scene and character, rather than state it in his own person. And this brings him close to the writings of the finest poetic realists—Wordsworth, for example, whose best work is in narrative form, and is akin to the great nineteenth-century novelists, themselves the heirs of Shakespeare. This inclination towards fiction rather than autobiography or lyric is characteristic of much good English poetry.

Palgrave's attempt to exclude all but lyric from the canon of English verse gave us a singularly denuded Golden Treasury (1861). Hardy, who had grown up in the age of Palgrave, was concerned to point out rather deprecatingly—in his introduction to Wessex Poems—the fictional element in his own verse. And perhaps it was this element of fiction in Thomas's work, as well, that disturbed the Georgians. It is notable that the lyric 'Adlestrop', rather a conventional production, was for years Thomas's prime anthology piece, as "The Darkling Thrush' was Hardy's. There is nothing so decisively great in Thomas's output as Hardy's cycle 'Veteris vestigia flammae' (1912-13). But no more than for Hardy does the countryside represent for Thomas an escape. Thomas has been much admired for his powers of observation and presentation of particulars. And they are remarkable. But more remarkable still is Thomas's placing of war as a senseless evil against the life-giving rhythms of the countryside. This can be seen in his poem entitled 'As the Team's Head-brass' (1916). Here, the certainty of the ploughman's coming and going is contrasted with the delays and uncertainties of the war. The lovers going into the wood, the ploughman harrowing the clods, are an assertion of life against maiming and death. And the war's encroachment on these rhythms is symbolised by the fallen tree that, if the ploughman's mate had returned from France, would have been moved long ago. The relationship with Hardy's war poems is clear enough. One thinks most immediately of 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations'" (1915)—where there is also a pair of lovers and a ploughman.

The difference between Thomas and even the better Georgians is that his work is an advance on that of the poetry of a previous generation. His is a genuinely modern sensibility. His view of life has none of the heroics easily assumed by those who never saw action, or who joined the army in a spirit of public-school patriotism. But Thomas had little chance to produce trench poetry. His best work was written before leaving for France, while training as an officer. He had time to contrast the English countryside he was forsaking with the Front—known only by hearsay and implication—to which he was going. And he was killed soon after reaching it.

There were Georgians who saw more action than Thomas; most notably Siegfried Sassoon. And Sassoon's poems certainly include much first-hand reaction to experience. But I am not so sure that his technique is equal to his sensibility. In 'Break of Day' (1918) he presents an escape from battle into the memory of a happy day's hunting. Here we have the detailed realism for which Sassoon was to become famous. No doubt this is a strong poem if compared with the early, and now suppressed, war poems of Graves. Graves is prone to smother his action in whimsy and allusion. But, if we think of Edward Thomas, Sassoon's tone seems over-insistent; and perhaps the most telling comparison is with Wilfred Owen.

It cannot be too often stressed that Owen's technique is not just a matter of half-rhyme. Half-rhyme had been used before in English; though not, it is true, so systematically. Owen's genius can be localised in the actual function of the play of the vowels. They mute those over-confident metres which Owen, in common with other war poets, inherited from the previous, more peaceful, generation. He makes them as exploratory and tentative as his feelings about war. In comparison, Sassoon's verse seems too assured for its content. It is impossible to feel that "Strange Meeting', for example, will ever date.

Owen's verse, like Thomas's, is akin to fiction rather than lyric. He will adopt a persona, as in 'Strange Meeting' (1918), where he acts as interlocutor; or he will don the mask of narration or of dramatic monologue. Even when he seems to be speaking more directly, as in his poem 'Exposure' (1917), he will use the first person plural rather than singular. So that he seems to be speaking for all the soldiers of the war, not just himself. His details are never merely descriptive. In 'Exposure', they are selected to create an atmosphere and a human attitude—the cold, and the soldiers waiting. It is rather too simple to regard Owen as the poet who hated war. His verse has a distinctively modern ambivalence. In 'Exposure', as well as a grim endurance on the part of the troops, there is a desire for action—a desire which is mocked by the way in which the weather is presented in this poem through a metaphor of war: dawn massing in the east her melancholy army.

Owen recognises with startling modernity that death can be as certain out of battle as in it, and dispiritingly inglorious. His poems are the defeat of lyric; anything but a subjective cry of pain. We are not asked to take an interest in something just because it was happening to Wilfred Owen. A point is made, through the evocation of a war, about war itself. Owen's landscape has all the conviction of Sassoon's with a dramatic quality which Sassoon never achieved. Not one death is expressed in Owen's work, but many:

Tonight, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are
But nothing happens.


Like Owen, Isaac Rosenberg characteristically uses the plural first person. But he appears to use words, as D. W. Harding remarked (Scrutiny, 1935), without any of the usual couplings—as though the poetry were formed at a subconscious preverbal level. Although as authentic as Owen's stretcher-party, that of Rosenberg is alarmingly unexpected:

A man's brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer's face;

His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.…

('Dead Man's Dump', 1918)

One can see why Gordon Bottomley, Rosenberg's first editor, was so hesitant about publishing this poetry. And why, even when it was published, it took so long to make its way. Even the iambic metres have been abandoned in this plasm of verse.

Rosenberg's technical innovations cannot be so readily discussed in terms of a past norm as those of his fellows. One can hear in the lines of Owen's 'Strange Meeting' the rhythms of the Induction to 'The Fall of Hyperion' (1819); but muted down, made tentative by the half-rhyme. The poem gains much of its strength through adapting familiar material to an utterly new situation. Keats's goddesses occur, too, in Rosenberg's 'Daughters of War'. But that is as far as resemblance goes. The myth is created in strikingly individual terms—a kind of sprung verse, for example, developed quite independently of Hopkins. To find Rosenberg's antecedents, one has to look at the juvenilia, as one does with Hopkins's surprisingly Keats-like fragments (c. 1866). The mature poems resemble nothing but themselves—though there are signs that gifted poets of our own time, such as Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove, have learned from them. It would be absurd, then, to call Rosenberg a traditionalist, except in the sense that he is in the tradition of Keats and Shakespeare. His sprung verse, use of myth, are wholly unlike anything produced by the 'traditional' Georgians. It is as though an overmastering experience had blasted out a new form:

The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green days
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.…

('Daughters of War', 1918)

Nobody could call this traditional in manner or content. Yet it is certainly not modernist, if by modernist one thinks of a play of images, a montage in free verse. If Rosenberg's verse has affinities, it is not with Eliot or Pound but with the apocalyptic prose of Lawrence. Not, indeed, with Lawrence's verse, which seems to go more diffuse as it gets further from Hardy and nearer to Whitman. Rosenberg, unlike the modernists, does not go in for phanopoeia or free association. His poems exist through images, but never for them. And the poems are not autobiographical, though they may be a projection of his inner feelings, in terms of myth. Rosenberg projects outwards. As in 'Daughters of War', he creates a fiction in which feelings are acted out. Like Thomas and Owen, he conveys his emotion through poems about something other than himself.

These poets used forms and, at the same time, changed them. Thomas used Wordsworthian blank verse that had also learned from nineteenth-century novelists, and could absorb further narrative and symbolic properties. Owen muted the rhythms of the Romantics by the use of pararhyme, and applied the Romantic sensuousness to a new and grimmer end. Rosenberg manipulated events even more resourcefully than the others, and revitalised dramatic blank verse into a sprung rhythm that has not been fully exploited even now. They all marked an advance not only in technique but in sensibility. The world of 1911 must have seemed very remote in 1915. A glance at the newspapers of the time would establish the difference in terms of an increased sense of strain, a wedge driven between the generations, criticism of hitherto accepted values by the young. But it was only the exceptional writers who could get much of this into their verse. In the last analysis, the success of Thomas, Owen and Rosenberg as poets could be attributed to their recognition of the need to adapt the old forms to express new experience.

This should differentiate them on the one hand from the American modernists, who broke forms down, and, on the other, from the Georgians, who relied on them even when they proved inapplicable to modern experience. But Thomas, Owen and Rosenberg died young, and, after the war in which they died, a debate broke out about which was the right path for poetry. The alternatives offered were American modernism, as represented by Eliot, Pound and the Imagists, and traditionalism, as represented by Abercrombie and Squire. As Mr MacBeth has reminded us, this debate was quite irrelevant to the facts. This, indeed, was seen at the time by that most penetrating reviewer, John Middleton Murry. In reviewing two volumes, one from each of the opposed schools {Athenaeum, 1919), Murry said that there was no distinction between them, and the only distinction he himself would be prepared to recognise was one of quality. Such quality was found in the only good poem in either of the volumes: it was Owen's 'Strange Meeting'.

But this distinction was not made by Leavis in New Bearings or Michael Roberts in the influential anthology The Faber Book of Modern Verse. Leavis and Roberts got rather taken in, it seems to me, not by Eliot's poetry, but by his position vis à vis tradition. They thought that Eliot would be more of a healthy influence than he could possibly be, at least on Englishmen. Leavis and Roberts were examples of progressive opinion at the time. Other loci classici are the contemporary undergraduate magazines, such as Cambridge's Experiment (c. 1929), edited by Empson and Bronowski. And this, in its turn, led to the misapplication of the talent of many young poets, notably the so-called Auden group. Out of this came me misunderstanding of the stream of consciousness which eventu-ally led to the confused writings of the 1940s; when it became the fashion for writers, even some of undeniable talent, to switch off their intellect before they started composing.

Poets of Auden's generation could have saved themselves by learning less from Eliot and Pound and more from Thomas, Owen and, perhaps especially, Rosenberg. But history was against them. My main thesis, I suppose, is that English poetry in the twentieth century has had four atrocious strokes of luck. They are worth enumerating. First of all, that the wrong emphasis should have been placed on the work of one great Victorian who could have had a useful influence—I mean Hardy. Secondly, that the Georgians, for the most part, should have chosen to regard tradition as a resting-place rather than a launching-pad. Thirdly, that three of the poets who were developing an essentially English modernity should have been killed in the war—their publication, too, was delayed and incomplete. And, lastly, that Eliot and Pound should have chosen to start an essentially American revolution in verse technique over here rather than in the United States, and so filled the gap which the death of the war poets left with an alien product whose influence has been a bad one.

But, over the period since the First World War, some talented poets stuck out against this. John Betjeman ignored Eliot and did what no Georgian ever really managed: married a modern sensibility to a Victorian verse technique. Andrew Young carried on the Georgian mood, but with a first-hand reaction to experience and a meta-physical wit most of the Georgians lacked. Of these poets, Norman Cameron now seems to be one of the most valuable. But his hard economical verse excludes so much of life that he hardly seems to be a man of our own time. And what I have said of Cameron would do very well for Robert Graves too. There has been a tendency to erect Graves into a great modern poet. But he does not seem to me to have done much more than refine the Georgian techniques. Much of what Mr MacBeth finds to admire in the Georgians at their best will be found in the work of Graves. His place is with Sassoon and Blunden rather than with Owen and Rosenberg. What one misses in Graves is a real sense of the world we live in. His keen eye is directed inwards. His verse represents, for all its formal toughness, a retreat from a concern with man as a social animal into a species of pastoralism. Though more skilled than Cameron, he seems to me inferior in sensibility.

Auden could have saved himself by learning more from Owen and less from Eliot. But William Empson is a different case entirely. His imitators in the Movement laid stress on all the wrong aspects of his verse—the tedious refrains, the occasional stiffness of form. Empson's better poems are probably his early ones: for example, 'To an Old Lady', and 'Part of Mandevil's Travels' (c. 1928). His best later poems are those like 'Let it Go' and 'Success' (c. 1935) which were not imitable by the technical means at the disposal of most of the Movement writers. Empson is not a straightforward traditionalist. As Owen did, he uses forms in such a way as to make them new. With all this, his subject matter is restricted and his oeuvre, though intense, is narrow.

Neither those who passively imitated Eliot nor those who explicitly reacted against him have produced a very rich crop of poetry. But Empson, who did neither, is an example for the poet of today in more ways than the obvious one. The work of a gifted poet who owes little directly to him, Philip Larkin, shows many of the qualities one finds in Empson's work and in the sonnet sequences of Auden. Larkin is a formalist in so far as he uses rhymes and writes in regular metres. But his rhyme is not the clanging full rhyme which suited the self-confidence of a Swinburne rather more than the self-doubt of a Francis Thompson, let alone of an Elroy Flecker. Larkin uses mainly pararhyme in his poem 'Church Going' (c. 1951), creating, in the varying degrees of rhyme he utilises, the unease in church, not of a worshipper, but of an agnostic.

This is done even more subtly by a rather younger poet, Peter Porter. He uses degrees of pararhyme to secure different degrees of emphasis. Here is an example, from his poem "Metamorphosis' (1959):

This new Daks suit, greeny-brown,
Oyster-coloured buttons, single vent, tapered
Trousers, no waistcoat, hairy tweed—my own:
A suit to show responsibility, to show
Return to life—easily got for ten pounds down
Paid off in six months—the first stage in the
I am only the image I can force upon the town.

The town will have me: I stalk in glass,
A thin reflection in the windows, best
In jewellers' velvet backgrounds—I don't pass,
I stop.…

Notice the pattern of pararhyme here. In the remainder of the stanza, 'glass' rhymes with 'mask' and 'last'—mocking the assurance of his attitude, I am myself at last'. In the same way, the vowel of the 'town' echoes throughout the first stanza before it comes clanging in on the keyline, 'I am only the image I can force upon the town'. The rhyme here is made all the more blatant by alternating with unrhymed lines. The rhythms, too, are flexible. The basic unit is a five-stress line, but there is no syllable count. The first line of the first stanza, 'This new Daks suit, greeny-brown', has only seven syllables for its five stresses, while the last line, 'I am only the image I can force upon the town', has fourteen—from diffidence to brash self-confidence, one might say.

There is a poem by another contemporary, Peter Redgrave, called 'Bedtime Story for my Son' (1955), which chases a rhyme through many kinds of assonance and half-rhyme, just as the couple in the poem chase the ghost of a child, and catches up with it only in the last two lines, as the couple do:

Love pines loudly to go out to where
It need not spend itself on fancy, and the empty air.

Of course, it is cruel to isolate metre and rhyme in this way, particularly when one is sure the poet himself did not. But it is a way of bringing home a point: that what is best in English poetry generally and in the present generation of English poets is this vigour within the discipline of shape—freedom through reshaping a form rather than breaking it down. Inevitably, there are poets such as Charles Tomlinson who are trying to carry on the technique of the American modernists, just as there are poets, like David Holbrook, who have pushed traditionalism further than ever the Georgians did. But they seem to me to be fighting against the genius of the time and the language. D. J. Enright, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Peter Porter and Peter Redgrove—to name only five of our best contemporary poets—did not get together in a huddle to find out which form they ought to write in. Their feeling and experience come out in the way I have described, a way that is neither modernism nor traditionalism—perhaps because it is the only way it can come out in English poetry at present. It is a way that relates back to Owen, master of the half-rhyme, and through him back to the Keats of the 'Fall of Hyperion' and back to Shakespeare. Another line could be traced through Redgrove and Hughes through Thomas and Rosenberg to the blank-verse fictions of the Romantics, Shakespeare and even back to the medieval poets. Either way, it is the central line of English poetry. And I cannot see much good work being done far away from it. Like any tradition, however, it is alive only as long as it can be re-created. But I am not being optimistic when I say that it seems to be in process of re-creation, after a long quiescence, at the present time.

Martin Esslin

SOURCE: "Modernity and Drama," in Modernism: Challenges and Perspectives, edited by Monique Chefdor, Ricardo Quinones, and Albert Wachtel, University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 54-65.

[In the following essay, Esslin provides an overview of the sources and characteristics of Modernist drama.]

Concepts, it must be said at the outset, like modernity, modernism, and the avant-garde fill me with apprehension and doubt. They are, after all, concepts of relation rather than fact. To ask, "What is the avant-garde? What is modern?" is rather like asking: "How long is a piece of string?" In relation to yesterday's art, today's art is modern, or avant-garde. As the great illuminator Oderisi tells Dante in the eleventh canto of the Purgatorio:

Credette Cimabue nella pittura
tener lo campo, ed ora ha Giotto il grido,
sì che la fama di colui è scura.

Così ha tolto l'uno a l'altro Guido
la gloria de la lingua; e forse è nato
chi l'uno e l'altro caccerà del nido.

(Once Cimabue held sway in painting, but now does Giotto have the cry, so that the fame of the former is obscured. Similarly has the one Guido taken from the other the glory of the language, and perhaps one has been born who will chase both from the nest.)

"Modern," after all, only means "le dernier cri." In German it can even mean no more than "fashionable." The term, I suppose, entered discourse about art and literature with the Renaissance, when there were disputes as to the relative merit of works produced in Greek and Roman antiquity as against those of the period; Swift later dramatized this conflict in his Battle of the Books.

And yet, in the course of the nineteenth century the concept of modernity did acquire a special significance, at least for the people then experiencing what to them seemed a truly epochal change of lifestyle and thinking. With the coming of the industrial revolution, the introduction of the steam engine, powerlooms, railways, the telegraph, and photography, and the new uses of electricity, together with the rise of new ideologies (Darwinism, Marxism, positivism) and the decline of belief in revealed religions, it must have seemed to these people that an age had truly come to an end. As it happens—and this is particularly true of the drama—there had previously been a longish period during which academicism, i.e., a fairly rigid adherence to what seemed immutable standards of excellence and technique in the writing and performance of plays, was prevalent, so that it really seemed that these orthodoxies were destined to undergo the fate of all the others that were being swept away. In fact, of course, this was merely an optical illusion: the rigid standards of the French Academy or the English Augustans were themselves fairly recent phenomena and by no means immovably fixed as absolutes, as then appeared.

Seen from this angle, the beginnings of Modernism, in our present sense, in drama dates from the rise of the romantic movement, or, in Germany, from the Sturm und Drang. As such, initially, it was a revolt against formal restraints, the tyranny of the three unities, and the rigid rules of seemliness that governed the art of acting, the restraints on what could and what could not be shown on the stage.

When absolutes are dethroned, everything becomes relative; and the beginnings of Modernism in this sense are intimately linked with the growth of a sense of the differences between cultures synchronically and between historical epochs diachronically. Different standards of ethics, different values of beauty are suddenly perceived as possible. With the rapid technological changes of the nineteenth century the historical sense became dominant. As Nietzsche put it in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886):

Der historische Sinn… auf welchen wir Europäer als auf unsre Besonderheit Anspruch machen, ist uns im Gefolge der bezaubernden und tollen Halbbarbarei gekommen, in welche Europa durch die demokratische Vermengung der Stände und Rassen gestürzt worden ist—erst das neunzehnte Jahrhundert kennt diesen Sinn, als seinen sechsten Sinn. Die Vergangenheit von jeder Form und Lebensweise, von Kulturen, die früher hart nebeneinander,übereinander lagen, strömt dank jener Mischung in uns "moderne Seelen" aus, unsre Instinkte laufen nunmehr überallhin zurück; wir selbst sind eine Art Chaos.… Durch unsre Halbbarbarei in Leib und Begierde haben wir geheime Zugänge überallhin.

(The historical sense… which we Europeans claim as our specialty, has come to us as a consequence of the enchanting and mad semi-barbarism into which Europe has been plunged by the democratic commingling of social classes and races—the nineteenth century is the first to know this sense, as its own sixth sense. The past of every form and way of life, of cultures, that previously had lain in hard distinction side by side, or one above the other, now, thanks to that commingling streams into us "modern" souls, our instincts now run back to everywhere; we, ourselves, are a kind of chaos.… Through our semibarbarism, in body and in desire, we have secret access everywhere.)

And, significantly, among the examples Nietzsche quotes for this semibarbarity, caused by the newly acquired historical sense, is the renewed vogue of Shakespeare, whose drama he calls an

erstaunliche spanisch-maurisch-sachsischen Geschmacks-Synthesis, über welchen sich ein Altathener aus der Freundschaft des äschylos halbtot gelacht oder geärgert haben würde: aber wir—nehmen gerade diese wilde Buntheit, dies Durcheinander des Zartesten, Gröbsten und Küntstlichsten, mit einer geheimen Vertraulichkeit und Herzlichkeit an, wir geniessen ihn als das gerade uns aufgesparte Raffinement der Kunst und lassen uns dabei von den widrigen Dämpfen und der Nähe des englischen Pöbels, in welcher Shakespeares Kunst und Geschmack lebt, so wenig stören als etwas auf der Chiaja Neapels: wo wir mit alien unsren Sinnen, bezaubert und willig, unsres Wegs gehn, wie sehr auch die Kloaken der Pöbel-Quartiere in der Luft sind.

(astonishing Spanish-Moorish-Saxon synthesis of tastes, about which an ancient Athenian from among the friends of Aeschylus would have almost died of laughter or anger: but we—we accept this very wild proliferation of colors, this mixture of the most tender with the most coarse and artificial, with a secret connivance and heartiness, we savor him as the highest refinement of art that has been specially vouchsafed to us; and in doing so we are as little disturbed by the noxious exhalations, and the proximity, of the English mob, in which Shakespeare's art is at home, as we are when walking down the Chiaia in Naples: where we go on our way, enchanted and willing with all our senses, however much the cloacas of the slums are in the air.)

And to complete this analysis Nietzsche—who, while obviously deploring what he describes, yet must reckon himself one of the semibarbarians of the modern age, with its sense of history—adds:

Das Mass ist uns fremd, gestehn wir es uns; unser Kitzel ist gerade der Kitzel des Unendlichen, Ungemessnen. Gleich dem Reiter auf vorwärtsschnaubendem Rosse lassen wir vor dem Unend-lichen die Zügel fallen, wir modernen Menschen, wir Halbbarbaren—und sind erst dort in unsrer Seligkeit, wo wir auch am meisten—in Gefahr sind.

(Let us admit it: we are strangers to the concept of measure; what tickles us is precisely the tickle of the infinite, the unmeasured. Like a rider on a horse that is bolting we drop our reins, confronted with the infinite, we modern human beings, we semibarbarians—and we are in our greatest ecstasy where we also are most—in danger.

I have quoted this passage of Nietzsche's at such length because I believe that he more than anyone else was the true prophet of modernity, whose wild, extravagant thought perceived and penetrated the nature of the epochal change that the nineteenth century brought to human history, and predicted with astonishing insight many of the terrible and cataclysmic events that inevitably followed from that change of human destiny. It is ironic that Nietzsche is just now being discovered by the currently fashionable intellectual gurus in France, for already in his own time he was very much perceived, even by the popular imagination, as the embodiment of all that was dangerous in modernity. I remember how as a child I got hold of some pious piece of popular fiction—alas, I have forgotten its author and title—published in Germany around the turn of the century. When its heroine confessed to her parents that she had fallen in love with a young man, her father sternly said, "I hope he is not one of those who reads Ibsen and Nietzsche."

And indeed, Ibsen and Nietzsche have much in common. It is sometimes as though Ibsen, outwardly the sober, well-regulated bourgeois, embodied basic traits of Nietzsche in his characters; Nietzsche, for example, wrote the passages I have just quoted in the highest village of the Swiss Alps, Sils-Maria, at the foot of a glacier, shortly before madness engulfed him—as though he was living out the destiny that Ibsen had given Brand; and Ibsen's Stockmann rages against the rule of the mob as much as Nietzsche ever did. Above all, Ibsen, like Nietzsche, denounced the false morality of a dying world. This, to my mind, is the essence of Modernism in the sense in which we are discussing it here: the "revaluation of all values" of which Nietzsche spoke, the quest for a new morality beyond the old concepts of Good and Evil; and the rejection of the philosophical and religious, metaphysical, basis of those beliefs. If Ibsen, in The Lady from the Sea, created the first truly, and consciously, existential heroine in drama, who can make her choice only after she has been given total freedom to make it (and whether Ibsen got this existentialism from Kierkegaard or not is as yet a matter of dispute), Nietzsche also clearly prefigured the drama of existential choice:

Wenn ich den Vorgang zerlege, der in dem Satz "ich denke" ausgedrückt ist, so bekomme ich eine Reihe von verwegnen Behauptungen, deren Begründung schwer, vielleicht unmöglich ist,—zum Beispiel, dass ich es bin, der denkt, dass ilberhaupt ein Etwas es sein muss, das denkt, dass Denken eine Tätigkeit und Wirkung seitens eines Wesens ist, welches als Ursache gedacht wird, dass es ein "Ich" gibt, endlich, dass es bereits feststeht, was mit Denken zu bezeichnen ist—dass ich weiss, was Denken ist.

(If I dismantle [perhaps today we should translate "deconstruct"] what happens that is expressed in the phrase "I think," I'll get a series of daring assertions, that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove: for example that it is I who is thinking; that, indeed, it must be something that is thinking: that thinking is an activity and an effect on the part of an entity that can be regarded as a cause; that, finally, there is such a thing as I; and that it is already established what it is that can be called thinking—that I know what thinking is.

Much of Beckett is prefigured in these ideas, as it is, even more clearly, in this passage in which Nietzsche deals with the concept of the soul:

Man muss zunächst auch jener andern und verhängnisvolleren Atomistik den Garaus machen, welche das Christentum am besten und längsten gelehrt hat, der Seelen-Atomistik. Mit diesem Wort sei es erlaubt, jenen Glauben zu bezeichnen, der die Seele als etwas Unvertilgbares, Ewiges, Unteilbares, als eine Monade, als ein Atomon nimmt: diesen Glauben soll man aus der Wissenschaft hinausschaffen! Es ist unter uns gesagt, ganz und gar nicht nötig, "die Seele" selbst dabei loszuwerden und auf eine der ältesten und ehrwürdigsten Hypothesen Verzicht zu leisten: wie es dem Ungeschick der Naturalisten zu begegnen pflegt, welche, kaum dass sie an "die Seele" rühren, sie auch verlieren. Aber der Weg zu neuen Fassungen und Verfeinerungen der Seelen-Hypothese steht offen: und Begriffe wie "sterbliche Seele" und "Seele als Subjekts-Vielheit" und "Seele als Gesellschaftsbau der Triebe und Affekte" wollen fürderhin in der Wissenschaft Bürgerrecht haben.

(We must give a coup de gräce to that other and even more fatal atomism that Christianity has been teaching best and longest, the atomism of the soul. Let us be permitted to use that term to denote the belief that regards the soul as something ineradicable, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, an atomon: that belief must be thrown out of science. It is, let it be said among ourselves, quite unnecessary to get rid of the soul itself in doing so… as happens through the clumsiness of those naturalists who, hardly have they touched the soul, immediately lose it altogether. But the way to new versions and refinements of the hypothesis of the soul is open: and concepts like "a mortal soul" or "the soul as the multiplicity of the subject" and "the soul as the social edifice of drives and emotions" should in future have their right of citizenship without science.)

If the little play by Yevreinov, The Theater of the Soul, which was produced at the Claremont Colleges Comparative Literature Conference on Modernism, is almost a word-for-word translation of this passage from Nietzsche's Jenseits von Gut und Böse into theatrical terms, how much more so is the whole mighty oeuvre of Samuel Beckett, who never ceases to dismantle and deconstruct the Cartesian "cogito ergo sum." And, if we turn to another giant among the creators of Modernism in drama, Antonin Artaud, we find that he, too, in his own way, followed on a path that Nietzsche, as the first thinker to gain an insight into the meaning of what was happening in his time, had opened up and prescribed:

Man soll über die Grausamkeit umlernen und die Augen aufmachen; man soll endlich Ungeduld lernen, damit nicht länger solche unbescheidne dicke Irrtümer tugendhaft und dreist herumwandeln, wie sie zum Beispiel in betreff der Tragedie von alten und neuen Philosophen aufgefüttert worden sind. Fast alles, was wir "höhere Kultur" nenne, beruht auf der Vergeistigung und Vertiefung der Grausamkeit—dies ist mein Satz; jenes "wilde Tier" ist gar nicht abgetötet worden, es lebt, es blüht, es hat sich nur—vergöttlicht. Was die schmerzliche Wollust der Tragödie ausmacht, ist Grausamkeit; was im sogenannten tragischen Mit-leiden, im Grunde sogar in allem Erhabnen bis hinauf zu den höchsten und zartesten Schaudern der Metaphysik, angenehm wirkt, bekommt seine Süssigkeit allein von der eingemischten Ingredienz der Grausamkeit.

(We have to revise our notions of cruelty and open our eyes; we should at last be eager to prevent such immodest and gross mistakes to run about virtuously and impertinently, as, for example, those that have been bred up by ancient and new philosophers about tragedy. Almost everything that we call "higher culture" is based on the spiritualization and deepening of cruelty—that is my verdict; that "wild beast" has not been deadened, it lives, it flourishes, it has even been made divine. What determines the sorrowful lust of tragedy is cruelty; what is felt as pleasurable in the so-called tragic pity and essentially even in everything sublime right up to the highest and most tender tremors of metaphysics, gets its sweetness solely from the ingredient of cruelty that is mixed up with it.)

I apologize for quoting Nietzsche so copiously, but I feel that his diagnosis of the nature and consequences of the sea-change that European culture had undergone in his time is a profound help in understanding the quality of that change. And, of course, Nietzsche has an intimate connection with drama, not only because he started on his career as a brilliant and original interpreter of the nature of Greek tragedy, but also because he was intimately associated with another of the great creators of the modern theater, Richard Wagner. Wagner, I believe, is as important as Ibsen and Strindberg in the genesis of the Modernist drama. It is no coincidence that the man who did most to naturalize the concept of Modernist drama in the English-speaking world, George Bernard Shaw, was an Ibsenite as well as a Wagnerian, and, of course, philosophically decidedly a Nietzschean. What is Shaw's life force but an English version of Nietzsche's vitalism, his will to power? Shaw's love of paradox is comparable to Nietzsche's revaluation of all values with the addition of an Anglo-Irish sense of humor. (If we wanted to bring Strindberg into the Nietzschean orbit we would only have to mention Nietzsche's insane anti-feminism, so religiously echoed by Strindberg. But, of course, Strindberg's de-atomization of the human soul and his take-off into introspective expressionism also echo Nietzsche's insights about the ultimate consequences of the abandonment of the Christian concept of the immortal soul, one and indivisible.)

But to go back to the beginnings: the revolt of the romantics and their precursors against the classical ideal and the tyranny of the unities and the Alexandrine was initially a revolt against worn-out forms. That the whole movement ultimately arose from an endeavor to reinstate Shakespeare as the model of great drama shows not only the modernity of Shakespeare but that ultimately the "Modernist" movement was a return to the roots of drama before the academicism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seemed to have put a stop to all development by decreeing a perfect model to be followed (and in painting and sculpture as much as in drama).

But once the formal bounds had been broken, new subject matter, new substance, could stream into the drama. And it must not be forgotten that of all forms of art the drama is most closely linked with technology, back to the deus ex machina, the God who appeared by courtesy of a machine in ancient Greece. Throughout history drama has been highly technological. In fourteenth and fifteenth-century Florence elaborate machines enabled the angels in mystery plays to fly high above the worshippers in some of the great churches of the city. The baroque age luxuriated in machinery for transformation scenes, flying clouds inhabited by Gods, and other spectacular effects. The coming of gas and then electric light, hydraulically operated stage machinery, and the cinema and other means for mechanically reproducing and electronically distributing drama have put drama into the very center of a whole series of industrial revolutions. And each of these innovations and technological advances has, in turn, opened the floodgates for the new contents, the new things that drama could say, that Nietzsche had so brilliantly discerned.

If romanticism was the initial revolt, naturalism seems to me the actual root of all our Modernist drama. As Otto Brahm, the German apostle of Ibsen, put it in one of the earliest manifestos of his Freie Bühne:

Der Bannerspruch der neuen Kunst, mit goldenen Lettern aufgezeichnet… ist das eine Wort: Wahrheit; and Wahrheit, Wahrheit auf jedem Lebenspfade ist es, die auch wir erstreben und fordern. Nicht die objektive Wahrheit, die dem Kämpfenden entgeht, sondern die individuelle Wahrheit, welche aus der innersten Überzeugung frei geschöpft ist und frei ausgesprochen: die Wahrheit des unabhängigen Geistes, der nichts zu beschönigen und nichts zu vertuschen hat. Und der darum nur einen Gegner kennt, seinen Erbfeind und Todfeind: die Lüge in jeglicher Gestalt.…

… Die moderne Kunst, wo sie ihre lebensvollsten Triebe ansetzt, hat auf dem Boden des Naturalismus Wurzel geschlagen. Sie hat, einem tiefinnern Zuge dieser Zeit gehorchend, sich auf die Erkenntnis der natürlichen Daseinsmächte gerichtet und zeigt uns mit rücksichtslosem Wahrheitstriebe die Welt wie sie ist. Dem Naturalismus Freund, wollen wir eine gute Strecke Weges mit ihm schreiten, allein es soll uns nicht erstaunen, wenn im Verlauf der Wanderschaft, an einem Punkt, den wir heute noch nicht überschauen, die Strasse plötzlich sich biegt und überraschende neue Blicke in Kunst und Leben sich auftun. Denn an keine Formel, auch an die jüngste nicht, ist die unendliche Entwickelung menschlicher Kultur gebunden; und in dieser Zuversicht, im Glauben an das ewig Werdende, haben wir eine freie Bühne aufgeschlagen, für das moderne Leben.

(The slogan that the new art carries in golden letters on its flag… is one word: truth; and truth, truth on every path of our life is what we strive for and demand. Not objective truth, which escapes anyone engaged in a fight, but individual truth, which is freely arrived at from deepest convictions and freely uttered: the truth of the independent spirit who has nothing to embellish or conceal. And who, therefore, has only one opponent: his hereditary and mortal enemy: the lie in any form whatever.…

… Modern art, where it is developing its most vital shoots, has put its roots into the soil of naturalism. It has, obeying a deep inner feature of our time, directed its attention to gaining knowledge of the powers of nature and it shows us the world as it is, with ruthless truthfulness. Friends as we are of naturalism we want to travel a good deal of the road with it, but it should not surprise us if, in the course of our wanderings, at a point we cannot as yet see, the road should suddenly bend and unexpectedly disclose new vistas in art and life. For the infinite development of human culture is not bound to any formula, not even the most recent; and in this hope in continuous growth we have established a free stage for modern life.)

This openness of the naturalists, indeed, their eagerness to branch out into an infinity of new, as yet undiscovered paths, is often overlooked by those whose own ideas originated in a rejection of the original, primitive forms of naturalism as a photographic reproduction of reality, as life in a room without its fourth wall. In fact, just as, in the novel, it was a consequent application of the desire for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that led Dujardin, Schnitzler, and Joyce into the realms of the internal monologue, so in the case of Strindberg and the expressionists it was introspection and the desire to represent the world as it was perceived by an individual (this being the only verifiable experience of reality available to anyone) that led to the dramatization of dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, and nightmares.

"Der mittelpunkt den Welt ist in jedem ich" (The center of the world is inside each ego), said Theodor Däubler in one of the early manifestos of German expressionism, which contains what I find to be one of the pithiest definitions of that style:

Der Volksmund sagt: wenn einer gehängt wird, so erlebt er im letzten Augenblick sein ganzes Leben nochmals. Das kann nur Expressionismus sein!

(Popular belief has it: when someone is being hanged he relives his whole life in his last moment. And that can only be Expressionism!)

That is how realism turned into surrealism; it was Apollinaire who coined the term in his preface to Les Mamelles de Tirésias. He felt that the reality, the truth, of walking was best expressed in the invention of the wheel, which did not look like walking legs but performed the same action more efficiently and therefore more truly. Yvan Goll, the bilingual French and German poet, formulated the same thought when he said, in his preface to one of his Ü berdramen (superdramas) in 1922:

Überrealismus ist die stärkste Negierung des Realismus. Die Wirklichkeit des Scheins wird entlarvt, zugunsten der Wahrheit des Seins. "Masken," grob, grotesk, wie die Gefühle, deren Ausdruck sie sind. Nicht mehr "Helden," sondern Menschen, nicht Charaktere mehr, sondern die nackten Instinkte. Ganz nackt.

Der Dramatiker ist ein Forscher, ein Politiker und ein Gesetzgeber. Als Überrealist statuiert er Dinge aus einem fernen Reich der Wahrheit, die er erhorchte, als er das Ohr an die verschlossenen Wände der Welt legte.

Alogik ist heute der geistige Humor, also die beste Waffe gegen die Phrasen, die das ganze Leben beherrschen. Der Mensch redet in seinem. Alltag fast immer nur, urn die Zunge, nicht um den Geist in Bewegung zu setzen. Wozu soviel reden, und das alles so ernst nehmen!

(Surrealism is the strongest negation of realism. The reality of appearance is unmasked in favor of the truth of being. "Masks," coarse, grotesque, like the feelings of which they are the expression. No longer "heroes" but human beings, no longer "characters" but naked instincts. Totally naked.

The playwright is an explorer, a politician and a legislator. As a surrealist he decrees things that come from a distant realm of truth, that he has overheard when he laid his ear against the closed walls of the world.

Nonsense [Goll calls it "Alogik"] is today the humor of the spirit, and thus the best weapon against the clichés that rule all of our lives. Human beings in their everyday existence almost always merely talk to move their tongues, not their intellects. Why should one talk so much and take everything seriously!)

So here too the argument for surrealism, for what we later came to call "the absurd," is derived from the same search for the truth that animated the early naturalists, who had rejected the concept of beauty, or seemliness, measure, and control. Thus had the scientific spirit turned a somersault into the absurd.

How then does that other self-proclaimed scientific impulse, that of Marxism, which lies behind the work of Brecht and the Brechtians—another important sector of Modernist drama—fit into this picture? Well, surely Marxism, out of Hegel, is a blatant case of the historicism, that sense of history, that Nietzsche had diagnosed as the essential characteristic, the sixth sense, of the modern world. And what is more: Brecht's theory of epic theater and the Verfremdungseffekt, his rejection of introspective psychology in favor of a behavioristic model of man as the product of his social environment, is another variant of Nietzsche's rejection of the soul as a monad, of character as an indivisible whole. If the introspection of the expressionists, surrealists, and absurdists dissolves that unity of the soul from the inside, Brecht's insistence that all that matters is what is observable on the outside dissolves it from the opposite end of the spectrum. There is no such thing as one individual human character, Brecht claimed, there is only one human being in social contact with another; the same person will be utterly different when confronted with his boss from what he is when confronted with a social inferior. Human character, Brecht once said, is not like a grease stain that you can't get out of a garment however much you rub it.

The point I am trying to make is simply this: behind the vast diversity, the proliferation of forms and -isms, the seemingly diametrical opposition between the different strands of contemporary drama, there still lies that one single impulse, born of the nineteenth century's rejection of the traditional world system that had seemed to contain and explain the ways of the world and to justify the ways of God to Man. The impulse behind all this modernity to this day is thus essentially a negative one—a rejection of any closed worldviews, any closed world systems. Hence the curious paradox, for example, that totalitarian countries, whether Marxist or fascist, reject Modernist art, because they need to constitute a closed system, however simplistic and primitive it might be. Hence Brecht's Marxist dramatic theory and practice had to struggle against the totalitarian orthodoxies of the Stalinist aesthetics and prevailed in the end in that world only after it had been rigidified into a lifeless exhibit in a museum of prestigious artifacts.

The original negative impulse of Modernism, however, that rejection of formal rules that arose with the romantics and broke through with naturalism, has by no means exhausted itself: the contemporary avant-garde in drama, whether political or aesthetic, environmental or street-theatrical, whether in performance art or Grotowskian intensity, is still nourished by that impulse.

Where will it end? Have we not reached the limits, the point at which even the definition of what drama, what theater, is has been almost totally dissolved by the tearing down of the distinction between actor and spectator, audience and participant-in-the-action? Are we not reaching an area of total negation, total anarchy?

I must confess that I do not know the answer to these questions. What is undoubtedly the case, however, is that the proliferation of new forms and theories (that all, ultimately, go back to the same root concept) has not obliterated all previous forms; we still have classical drama, well performed today, perhaps better than at any previous time; and we still have, in the mass media, an almost obscene profusion of the most old-fashioned premodernist comedy and melodrama. All that is still drama, and indeed we have today more old-fashioned, premodernist drama than at any time in human history: it has become omnipresent. The revenge of the philistines, of the fathers who did not want their sons to find their own ways, is all around us. Perhaps in light of this fact, the cavortings of the heirs to the Modernist impulse, those knights in shining armor who see themselves as the advance guard of a new and better humanity, are reduced to their true proportion and their true function: to continue hammering at the fossilized rules of form and seemliness that spread a simplistic and primitive worldview and thus carry an obtuse and outmoded content into the consciousness of the people of a homogenized mass culture and an atomized society.

Or is it that it was the destruction of those old formal structures that has created the present state of affairs? It is at least possible that this is the case, and it would be the ultimate irony.

What, to my mind, is essential is that in the area of serious endeavor at the frontiers of the art of drama there should be a powerful desire to maintain the highest standards of quality. In fields where new soil is being broken, where rules have been overthrown and new conventions are being sought, it is inevitable that there should be much that is pretentious, silly, stupid, and untalented. That is inevitable and will always remain so; it lies in the very nature of mings. All the more important then has the function of the critic become; all the more crucial is it that his or her endeavors should be pursued without pretentiousness, censoriousness, or pedantry, but with insight, humility, openness of mind, rejection of all prejudice, and above all with the maximum of intelligent self-awareness and self-criticism.

Redefining Modernism

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33174

Harry Levin

SOURCE: "What Was Modernism?" in Varieties of Literary Experience: Eighteen Essays in World Literature, edited by Stanley Burnshaw, New York University Press, 1962, pp. 307-29.

[In the following essay, Levin reflects on the distinguishing traits and cultural significance of the Modernist era in literature.]

A new apartment building in New York City, according to a recent announcement, has been named The Picasso. Though I have not had the pleasure of seeing it, I would suggest that it ought to be hailed as a landmark, indicating that we Americans have smoothly rounded some sort of cultural corner. Heretofore it has been more customary to christen our apartments after the landed estates or the rural counties of England, as if by verbal association to compensate for the rootless transience of metropolitan living. A few years ago the name of Picasso, as house-hold god, would have conjured up notions of a jerrybuilt structure and a Bohemian ambience. Prospective tenants, in their perennial quest for comfort and security, would have been put off by a vision of collapsible stairways, rooms without floors, trapezoidal kitchenettes, or neighbors with double faces and blue-green complexions. But in the meanwhile the signature has brought untold wealth and unquestioned prestige to its signer, and now it becomes a warrant of domestic respectability. If this is not an arrival, no painter can ever be said to have arrived. But where? At the latest and strangest phase of a restless career, where previous arrivals have always been points of departure.

We must admit that our eponymous hero has met with more appropriate recognitions, notably the retrospective gathering of Picasso's works, exhibited in several cities on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. That was indeed a retrospect: not only of the productivity where-with a single man could fill a museum, but of the versatility that enabled him to master such varied styles and numerous media. To follow his progression from room to room and period to period—from drawing and painting to sculpture and ceramics, or from Romanticism and Impressionism to Cubism and Primitivism—was to recapitulate the history of art. Above the labels of the catalogue loomed the dynamic personality of the artist, not merely a school in himself but a whole succession of schools, seeking to outrival his own work at every subsequent stage as well as the work of so many earlier artists. If there was any text he was born to illustrate, it was Ovid's Metamorphoses. The conceiving eye that could turn a broken mechanical toy into a monstrous ape or a sacrificial goat, the shaping hand that could transform a terracotta pitcher into an archaic goddess of love, such are the faculties that Marcel Proust must have had in mind when he described the impact of great painters as "une métamorphose des choses." Emerson, a favorite writer of Proust's, had described the poetic process as "a metamorphosis of things."

Pablo Picasso, who will be eighty next year, is unique in his field, but not in his artistic eminence. In the sister art of music, we think at once of the protean achievement of Igor Stravinsky, his junior by one year. There, with due allowance for technical differences, we seem to note a similar tendency, which some bewildered cataloguers might have labelled Ultraism. This is the will to change, in other words that metamorphic impetus, that systematic deformation, that reshaping spirit which must continually transpose its material and outdistance itself in a dazzling sequence of newer and newest manners. Picasso was asked by a conventional person who admired his classical illustrations, "Since you can draw so beautifully, why do you spend your time making those queer things?" He answered succinctly, "That's why." He might have countered with another question: why retrace familiar lines? Similarly Stravinsky might have replied, to hearers aware that his departures were firmly grounded upon past mastery of his craft: why go on repeating the recognized chords? There are other possible modalities, though they may sound discordant the first time you hear them. The original composer is he who must try them, in the interests of further discovery.

Since more and more combinations have been tried, more and more possibilities have been exhausted, and the problems of experimentation have become harder and harder. The public, of course, is shocked; it prefers the accustomed harmonies to the neoteric experiments, and it finds cubist projections unrecognizable. However, the development of the arts is registered through a series of shocks to the public—which, after all, in buying cars or clothes, accepts the principle of planned obsolescence. At its own pace, it too is animated by "the need for a constant refreshment," as has been pointed out by James Johnson Sweeney, who as Director of the Guggenheim Museum has done so much to supply that need. The shift of taste fits in with a dialectical pattern of revolution and alternating reaction, as the breaking of outmoded images gives way to the making of fresh ones. Hence the successful iconoclast frequently ends as an image-maker. Witness T. S. Eliot, whose career has been a literary parallel to Stravinsky's or Picasso's. Since his conversion to the Anglican Church and his naturalization as a British subject, we have come to view him as a living embodiment of tradition. Yet he emerged as an experimentalist, whose problematic endeavors startled and puzzled his early readers.

This realignment corresponds with the usual transition from the enfant terrible, who is naturally radical, to the elder statesman, who is normally conservative. But it does not explain why such grand old men as Bernard Shaw and André Gide, several years after their respective deaths, still seem so alive and so much younger than their survivors. It does not account for the patricidal attacks, launched against Modernism in general and Mr. Eliot in particular, by angry middleaged men such as Karl Shapiro, whose rallying cry is In Defence of Ignorance. It throws no light on the charlatanical fame that has accrued to Picasso's younger compatriot, Salvador Dalí, for turning back his limp and dripping watches. Yet one of the spokesmen for a resurgent conservatism, Peter Viereck, throws out a meaningful hint, when he speaks of "the revolt against revolt." And the Institute of Modern Art at Boston has officially marked the mid-century transition by changing its name to the Institute of Contemporary Art. Now, we are all contemporaries; about that we have no option, so long as we stay alive. But we may choose whether or not we wish to be modern, and the present drift seems to be toward the negative choice and away from the hazards of controversial involvement.

"An intellectual deliverance is the peculiar demand of those ages which are called modern." So Matthew Arnold had declared in his inaugural lecture "On the Modern Element in Literature." But though that lecture was delivered at Oxford in 1857—the year that inaugurated French modernism by dragging both Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal through the lawcourts—it was not much more than another of Arnold's pleas for classicism. By recourse to his criteria, which were those of high civilization, Sophocles and Lucretius could be ranked among the moderns. It remained for the late Edwin Muir to work out the implications of this relativistic conception, applying it also to the Renaissance and to such nineteenth-century prophets as Nietzsche. Muir's sharply pointed paragraphs in The New Age, collected under a pseudonym as We Moderns in 1918, were republished in the United States two years later with a polemical introduction by H. L. Mencken. Modernity, they argued, does not necessarily mean the very latest thing; rather it is a program of cultural emancipation, "a principle of life itself which can only be maintained by "constantly struggling." The struggle of the moment was against such reactionaries as Chesterton and such derivatives as Galsworthy. The long-range conflict would meet those forces which, recognizing the challenge of modernism, damn it as heresy in every sphere.

Today we live in what has been categorized—by whom but Arnold Toynbee?—as the Post-Modern Period. Looking back toward the Moderns, we may feel as Dryden did when he looked back from the Restoration to the Elizabethans, contrasting earlier strength with later refinement. "Theirs was the giant race before the Flood.… The Second Temple was not like the First." But, we may console ourselves by reflecting, there are times of change and times that seek stability; a time for exploring and innovating may well lead into a time for assimilating and consolidating. We may well count ourselves fortunate in that we can so effortlessly enjoy those gains secured by the pangs of our forerunners. Lacking the courage of their convictions, much in our arts and letters simply exploits and diffuses, on a large scale and at a popular level, the results of their experimentalism. F. Scott Fitzgerald, because he managed to catch some of the glamor that finally caught him, has himself been sentimentalized as a hero of biography, fiction, and drama. Compare his own reckless hero of the Twenties, the great and flamboyant Gatsby, with a typical protagonist of the Fifties—the decent, judicious, respectable Arthur Winner in James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed—and you can measure how far we have advanced into the middle age of the Twentieth Century.

Compare a militant novel of the Thirties—let us say John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath—with a penitent novel of the Forties, Lionel Trilling's Middle of the Journey, and you can locate the turn that came nel mezzo del cammin. World War II was the Flood; but the Temple had been crumbling and the giant race disappearing through what W. H. Auden, retrospectively and rather too severely, called "a low dishonest decade." Some of the talents were prematurely sacrificed: Guillaume Apollinaire, García Lorca. Others survived without honor in their own countries, as Ezra Pound and Boris Pasternak did for such different reasons. Many of their amiable juniors were led astray by those "enemies of promise" which Cyril Connolly demurred at but did little to resist. The query "Who killed Dylan Thomas?" has prompted some maudlin accusations. The poignant fact about James Agee's writing, much of it published posthumously, is his uneasiness about not living up to his genuine promise. The gifted J. D. Salinger, who writes so movingly of adolescent confusions, has yet to free himself from them. Our colleges are full of writers in residence, who offer courses in "creative" writing, and publish embittered novels whose principal source of interest is the noncoincidental resemblance between their colleagues and their characters.

Though our Miltons may not be glorious, they are both vocal and pampered. Poetry has become a caucus-race, where there are prizes for all the participants and where there are virtually no spectators. The little magazines that "died to make verse free," as people used to say, have been resurrected on the campuses, where they specialize in the stricter Provençal forms. Joyce's books, which were burned and censored during his lifetime, have become a happy hunting ground for doctoral candidates; while his dishevelled disciple, Samuel Beckett, is the subject of an article in a current issue of PMLA. One of my intermittent nightmares is based on two tons of Thomas Wolfe's manuscripts now reposing in a vault of the Houghton Library, and the thought that future scholars will gain reputations by putting back what the editors cut out. It is significant that Lawrence Durrell's tetralogy, one of the very few ambitious novels to appear in Britain latterly, takes place in the self-consciously decadent city of Alexandria. "Art," as Thomas Mann announced and illustrated in Doktor Faustus, "is becoming criticism." In the same vein John Crowe Ransom, who turned from poet to critic some thirty years ago, lately announced that literature has been moving from an age of creation into an age of criticism.

Mr. Ransom, interviewed on his retirement from his influential chair as teacher and editor at Kenyon College, stressed the happier aspects of the prevailing situation: the necessity for thoughtful rereading, the opportunities for self-cultivation and renewed understanding of the existent classics. An instance might be the revival of Henry James, far more dominant now than he ever was in his day. These are valid and absorbing pursuits, and I am too ingrained an academic myself to deplore the amenities of the Academy. Then too, it must be conceded, there are positive advantages to living in an epoch which technology has enriched with esthetic appliances, so that our acquaintance with music and with the fine arts is vastly augmented by long-playing records and photographic re-productions. But this is reproduction, not production; we are mainly consumers rather than producers of art. We are readers of reprints and connoisseurs of High Fidelity, even as we are gourmets by virtue of the expense account and the credit card. For our wide diffusion of culture is geared to the standardizations of our economy, and is peculiarly susceptible to inflationary trends. The independence of our practitioners, when they are not domesticated by institutions of learning, is compromised more insidiously by the circumstances that make art a business.

The prosperous and the established, The Just and the Unjust, find their mirror in the novels of Mr. Cozzens, as opposed to that concern for the underprivileged which novelists used to profess. Genius, more understanding than misunderstood, rises to worldly success in the shrewd fiction of C. P. Snow, where science and scholarships provide the means for "the new men" to enter "the corridors of power." From England we hear of young men who are angry, presumably at the various conformities which they sum up in their conception of an Establishment. It is not quite so clear what is beating our so-called "beat generation"; they seem to be rebels without a cause, born too late in a world too old. Jack Kerouac, in On the Road, has produced a document which fills some of us with the wistful feeling that experience must somehow have passed us by. Yet his friends, for all their violent whims, do not seem to be having nearly so good a time as Hemingway's playboys in The Sun Also Rises. The school associated with San Francisco, for whatever a personal impression may or may not be worth, looks very much like Greenwich Village transported across the continent long after its heyday. It exemplifies the cultural lag rather than the advance-guard.

As it happens, I have been somewhat associated with the publishing firm known as New Directions, which was founded in the late Nineteen-Thirties by my college friend, James Laughlin. In spite of its vanguard title, it has been primarily engaged in fighting a rear-guard action. The leading innovators on its list have been Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, both of whom are advanced septuagenarians nowadays. The other day I noticed a reference to the annual miscellany, New Directions, which was characterized as "the accepted place for off-beat publication." Here is an interesting contradiction in terms, which reveals a deeper contradiction in our standards. Whether it expresses the nonconformist's yearning for conformity or the conformist's urge toward nonconformity, it gives with one hand what it takes away with the other. It weighs the notion of acceptance against the compound, "off-beat," which is so characteristic an expression of the mid-century. The noun "beat" accords with the terminology of jazz; as an ungrammatical participle, the same word carries certain sado-masochistic overtones, e.g. "beat-up." Rounded off by a Slavic suffix, which may be either affectionate or contemptuous, and which must have been reinforced by the Sputnik, it has become an epithet for the fashion of being flagrantly unfashionable, "beatnik."

However, its underlying connotation seems to derive from the cop who is off his beat, the man in uniform who has gone off duty and strayed into unfamiliar territory. Thus it subserves the ambivalent curiosity of the denizens of a well-grooved society about whatever may lie beyond its beaten paths. It represents an ineffectual effort to vary the cliché, and probably owes its currency to those whose own beat is Madison Avenue. A cognate phrase, "off-Broadway," is more concrete in specifying the relationship between that main thoroughfare, the precinct of uniformity, and its bypaths, where novelty may perchance be encountered. Legitimate drama, all but superseded on Broadway by musical comedy, has had to improvise its theaters in devious lofts and makeshift basements. Shaw's Pygmalion, in its Broadwayized version of Covent Garden, My Fair Lady, is the soaring index of this trend. Like those bland composites to which Hollywood reduces imported ideas, it is an entrepreneurial accomplishment, another by-product of the middleman's pragmatic philosophy as stated by Pope:

Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

That sentiment is reversed paradoxically when an advertisement for Esquire, the haberdashery magazine, salutes its clientèle as "the aware moderns who are the first to embrace a new idea and speed it upon its way to becoming the popular fashion." Well, we Post-Moderns like to eat our cake and keep it, to take a chance on a sure thing. We tipsters want to call the long shot while hogging the inside track, to take credit for originality without risking unpopularity. Hence we congratulate ourselves upon our broad-mindedness because Lady Chatterley's Lover is now a best-seller after thirty years of suppression.

Thirty years constitute nature's round number for the span from infancy through maturity, and consequently a kind of basic rhythm for reckoning the progresses and regressions of mankind. Thirty years is just about the age-difference between a playboy and an academician: consider the case history of Jean Cocteau. What is generally regarded as the Irish Renascence began in 1892 with Yeats's Countess Cathleen and terminated in 1922 with Joyce's Ulysses. Broader movements, succeeding one another, are comparable in their periodicity. Thus, if we start with Wordsworth's manifesto of 1800, we observe that the continental triumph of Romanticism dates from 1830. Shortly before the end of another cycle, this gives way to the countertendencies toward Positivism, Realism, and Naturalism; whereas, when we move from the Sixties to the Nineties, the latest watchwords are Symbolism, Estheticism, and Decadence. It will be seen that a revolutionary generation tends to be succeeded by a reactionary one; to put it less politically and more psychologically, there seems to be a cyclic oscillation between tough and tender minds. That would help to explain the phenomenon of the hard-boiled Nineteen-Twenties, recoiling as it were from the softness of the fin du siècle. It might also set the acknowledged weaknesses of the Fifties into clarifying perspective.

But nostalgia for the vigorous youth of our century is a weakness in which we need not indulge ourselves; nor would it serve any purpose to draw invidious comparisons between our immediate contemporaries and our elders. The average life is privileged to span two generations, and we live at least in the afterglow of the Moderns. Insofar as they were ahead of their time, we can even claim to be nearer to them. Furthermore, each generation has three decades, in which either to gather momentum after a wavering start, or else to subside from a powerful beginning. Accordingly, the manic Twenties declined into the depressive Thirties, which yielded in turn to the war-interrupted Forties. If the countermovement of the Fifties seems to have begun unpromisingly, we may take comfort in expecting the Sixties to proceed on a rising plane, looking toward the next watershed in the Nineteen-Eighties. There George Orwell's object-lesson gives us pause, and we shift with relief to a backward glance and a less complex set of variables. We can examine the material factors, chart the framing conditions, and project the hypothetical curves of artistic activity. Yet we have no means of predicting how the human sensibilities, in their most individualized manifestations, will respond.

The best we can do is recognize when those responses have occurred with a special resonance. But that point cannot be established by generalizations; let me particularize instead, with a handful of titles and names and dates. Among the latter, 1922 stands out as the year of Proust's death, of the publication of his central volume, Sodome et Gomorrhe, and the first appearance of his work in England. English letters had likewise to absorb the twofold shock of Ulysses and The Waste Land. And if this was not enough for the reviewers, D. H. Lawrence offered them Aaron's Rod, Virginia Woolf Jacob's Room, and Katherine Mansfield The Garden Party. Readers of poetry faced not merely the Georgian anthology but Hardy's Late Lyrics and Earlier, Yeats's Later Poems, and Housman's Last Poems—it sounded rather autumnal, but the harvest grew with reaping. Lytton Strachey's Books and Characters was more narrowly de l'époque, while Max Beerbohm's Rossetti and his Circle was an antiquarian curio. Among the highlights of the season in France were Charmes, Valéry's collection of verse, and the first installment of Martin du Gard's Les Thibault. Germany saw Bertolt Brecht's first play, Baal, and Die Sonette an Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke. Americans were reading Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt and being scandalized by Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie.

Though I have been highly selective, the list is sufficient to justify an annus mirabilis—or would be, if there were not others comparably brilliant. Let us therefore sample another year, jumping arbitrarily to 1924, when Franz Kafka died, scarcely known, since his novels would only be published during the next three years. The greatest event for the critics was Thomas Mann's masterwork, Der Zauberberg. The noisiest, perhaps, was the Surrealist Manifesto, which proved to be something of an anticlimax; but Valéry counterbalanced it with his first collection of critical prose, Variété; while Gide braved scandal by signing Cory don. America witnessed Sherwood Anderson's autobiography, A Story-Teller's Story, Marianne Moore's salient volume of poetic Observations, and William Faulkner's first book, also in verse, The Marble Faun. In Britain, George Moore waxed more reminiscent than ever with Conversations in Ebury Street; T. E. Hulme's posthumous Speculations were to have continuing influence on criticism and poetry; each of the three Sitwells contributed to the ebullition by bringing out a book; and Bernard Shaw was inspired to touch his heights by the theme of Saint Joan. E. M. Forster's Passage to India may have been an omen as well as a milestone; for it was his most important novel to date, and it is the last that Mr. Forster has given us.

Everyone can multiply for himself these modern instances; while students of Russian or Spanish literature can point to additional flowerings which were either transplanted or nipped in the bud. Futurism, as Joyce foresaw, had no future; Marinetti fell in line behind Mussolini; and Hitler was to proscribe Modernism as degenerate art or Kulturbolschewismus. We hardly need to underline the pressures or constraints that limited the epoch so poignantly, entre deux guerres, to Mr. Forster's "long weekend," 1918-1939. Nor could we blame the generation confronted with the task of continuing to write, if they found it hard to forgive such knowledge. Yet at this distance we can perceive, with increasing clarity, that the modernistic movement comprises one of the most remarkable constellations of genius in the history of the West. And while some of its lights are still among us, before they have all been extinguished, we should ask ourselves why they have burned with such pyrotechnic distinction. What, if anything, have such figures in common, each of them vowed to idiosyncracy, practising a divergent medium, formed in a disparate background? Above all, the elementary circumstance that they happen to be coeval, more or less; that they are all, or would have been, in their eighth decade today. But what, if we are not to beg the question, was the Zeitgeist they shared? What was there in the air they breathed that differed from the intellectual climate of their successors or predecessors?

All of them grew up in the late Nineteenth Century and matured in the early Twentieth, reaching their prime in the period between the wars. The Nineteenth was not so well organized as the Eighteenth, nor so deeply speculative as the Seventeenth, nor so richly magniloquent as the Renaissance. But, as the apogee of middleclass liberalism, it permitted a maximum of leeway for the emergence of individuality; it educated individuals thoroughly; it collected art and fostered science; it cultivated human relationships; it developed temperament and talent. Into its world the Modernists were born, and yet they were not quite shaped by it. To it they often hark back, with that acute sensibility which they have reserved for their own impressions of adolescence. Had they been born any earlier, they might have felt—with Henry Adams—that they had missed a still earlier boat. Had they been Mid-Victorians, they might have poured their creative energies into causes that they now could take for granted. If they had reached maturity in the Nineties, their views would have inevitably been colored by the outlook of the Decadents. But they took the fin du siècle in youthful stride; for them, it was not so much the end of one century as it was the beginning of another.

One of the determining characteristics of modern man, which influences the role he plays and relates him to pre-existing phenomena, is the awareness of chronology. We who are children of the Twentieth Century never experienced the excitement of welcoming it. Our casual habit of predating centuries makes us insensitive to the West's first realization that its second millennium was now in sight. The bliss that Wordsworth inhaled at the dawning of the French Revolution had been a disillusioning adumbration. "Years of the modern! years of the unperform'd!" Such had been Whitman's prologue to a performance which he anticipated all the more keenly because, as he chanted, "No one knows what will happen next." At all events, things would be happening; and those whose existence falls within the limits of a single century may well envy those who cross temporal boundaries and have a chance to inscribe their names on history's blank pages. How terribly much it must have meant to James Joyce, as an eighteen-year-old university student, to have set his ambitions down on paper and dated them "1900!" Here was the brave new world that had been heralded by his mentor Ibsen, by Nietzsche whose death came that very year, by Tolstoy and those other Proto-Moderns who had been breaking the images that had stood in its way.

One of the assumptions about World War I was that it had settled history. Its sequel was to teach T. S. Eliot that "History is now and England." But the interval thought of itself in the present tense, separating modernity from history. The past was over; the present was happily more comfortable—though unhappily less colorful, as Miniver Cheevy and other timesnobs lamented. Ernest Hemingway's first book of stories was aptly entitled In Our Time, and its grasp of immediacy was heightened by its reminiscences of battle. His intensive concentration on the instant, which imparts a film-like quality to his fiction, is pinpointed in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," when a polyglot series of synonyms runs through the mind of a dying writer: "Now, ahora, maintenant, heute… ." Whatever the language, the meaning is imminence; and that "nowness" is a precondition of the search for newness, for what Whitman had termed "the unperform'd." To perform the unperformed! La nouvelle revue française! "The Great English Vortex!" The sense of novelty, of potentialities being opened up, does not seem any less eager because it is juxtaposed to the inherited sense of the past and the pleasures of retrospection. Everyman, in his more thoughtful moods, is conscious of his overwhelming patrimony as heir of all the ages; and his relation to them takes the guise of an endless stroll among the masterpieces of their invisible museum.

Time was of the essence, not only for the metaphysician Bergson, but for the innumerable poets, novelists, painters, and scientists who worked in the dimension he formulated. Vainly did Wyndham Lewis assail the time-consciousness of his contemporaries. As the Gracehoper retorted to the Ondt, in Joyce's fable, "Why can't you beat time?" The lifework of Proust was precisely such an attempt, the attempt of an aging dilettante to make up for lost time by recapturing the past, repudiating its ephemeral concerns and crystallizing its highest moments through an appeal to the timelessness of art. Yeats pursued the same objective symbolically, when he pictured himself abandoning the earthbound sphere of nature and setting sail for the timeless art-city, Byzantium. His poet, Michael Robartes, had desired to remember forgotten beauty. The feeling of belatedness has the habitual effect of stimulating the act of memory, along with the stylistic consequence of sounding echoes, evoking reverberations, and playing with pastiche. When Pound advised disciples to "make it new," he was repeating a maxim as old as Confucius, and was well aware of the irony; for his studies in the Renaissance had won him insights into the processes of cultural renewal, and shown him how renovation could be innovation.

What I have ventured to call the metamorphic impetus seems to have resulted from this paradoxical state of feeling belated and up-to-date simultaneously, and of working experimental transformations into traditional continuities. But there are other preconditions of Modernism, geographical as well as historical. Joyce and Picasso, Eliot and Stravinsky have another trait in common—alas, too common among the uncommon artists of our time. How few of them have lived out their careers in the lands of their origin! To be sure, migration is a civilizing force, and sojourn abroad has been a classic step in the artistic curriculum vitae. Unfortunately we have had to learn, through dint of wars, revolutions, and political persecutions, the distinction between expatriation and exile. The hyphenated German-Jewish Czech, Kafka, though he did not live to share it, clairvoyantly sketched the plight of the Displaced Person. Mann, who was destined to become a Transatlantic nomad, had situated his magic mountain in neutral Switzerland. There, in the International Sanitorium Berghof, his Teutonic hero undergoes successive exposure to a Swiss physician, an Italian poet, a Polish priest, a Dutch businessman, and a Russian mistress. Then, having gained an education while regaining his health, he is lost in combat with the Allies.

The catchphrase employed by continental architects, "The International Style," might be very appropriately extended to other works of the Twenties. Many of them were composed in Paris, the capital of between-the-wars cosmopolitanism. "The School of Paris"—a topographical designation for unacademic painting—was presided over by our expatriate Spaniard, Picasso, who now has his monument in New York. Paris was the inevitable headquarters for those Russian dancers, designers, and choreographers who staged Stravinsky's ballets. It was where a famous generation of Americans got temporarily lost, under the Sybilline tutelage of Gertrude Stein. Meanwhile, in an apartment near the Etoile, the self-exiled Irishman Joyce was carefully elaborating the most minute and comprehensive account that any city has ever received from literature—his account of his native Dublin. Ulysses is of its time, in endeavoring to arrest the eighteen hours of time it exhaustively chronicles. Nineteenth-century novelists, especially Balzac, had set forth the complexities of the metropolis, but through a sequence of loosely connected novels where more or less conventional narrative was filled in with sharply detailed observation. Joyce's unexampled contribution was a gigantic yet rigorously experimental design, which controlled the accumulating details as they fell into place.

It is the metamorphic impetus that provides this controlling device: the transmutation of Dublin citizens into mythical archetypes out of the Odyssey. In the novel, as Naturalism had left it, the environment came dangerously close to swamping the personages. That was not the fault of the Naturalists, but of the situations with which they dealt. The dehumanization of art, if I may build upon a useful phrase from Ortega y Gasset, mirrors the dehumanization of life. Joyce, by resorting to metamorphosis and even to mock-apotheosis, was trying to rehumanize his characters; and he succeeded in giving them contour, if not stature. Journalistic novelists like John Dos Passos and Jean-Paul Sartre, seeking a panoramic or kaleidoscopic approach to the urban scene, have imitated Joyce's structural methods. But the problem, to which the French Unanimistes and the German proponents of the Gesamtkunstwerk have also addressed themselves, goes beyond—or else within—the matter of structure. If the object is unity, that must bear an organic connection to the multiplicity; its collective pattern must be revealed and confirmed through individual lives; its outward view of social interaction must be combined with an inner focus on psychological motivation.

Hence the old-fashioned type of rounded fictional character, standing between the narrator and the reader, seems to dissolve in the stream of consciousness, which directly and transparently conveys a flow of impression and sensation from the external world. Though the novelist need not utilize the internal monologue, increasingly he approximates to the voice and the viewpoint of his protagonist. The very completeness of the ensuing intimacy forces him to fall back upon the raw materials of his own autobiography, refining them into self-portraiture of the artist. The intensity of Proust's introspection pushed him to the point where he disclosed an abyss between the moi and everything else. Gide, by writing his novel about a novelist writing a novel, Les Fauxmonnayeurs, including his novelist's journal, and then publishing the journal he kept while writing that novel, Le Journal des Faux-monnayeurs, demonstrated that first-person narrative may become a double mirror reflecting infinity. Fiction was spurred to such feats of self-consciousness by the revelations of psychoanalysis: the Freudian probing for unconscious motives, the Jungian search for universal patterns. It may be an exaggeration to argue that human nature changed in 1910, but Virginia Woolf was bold enough to do so, though probably un- aware that the International Psychoanalytical Association had been founded in that year.

That argument was a measured overstatement, put forward in defending the new Georgian novelists against such Edwardians as Arnold Bennett. Mrs. Woolf knew that it would have just about as much validity as the assertion that sunsets have changed since Monet and the Impressionists undertook to paint them. It was true, in the sense that characterization had changed, that people too were being visualized through the eyes of other people, and that another metamorphosis was thereby being effected. The author of Orlando understood that permutations so subtle and subjective might have a circumscribing effect on the novel. Most flexible of genres, it readily focuses either upon the recesses of the self or the expanses of society; and the Twenties took it to both extremes, sometimes at once, with their mental analyses and their monumental constructs. Here is where Ultraism may have attained its ne plus ultra. Joyce himself could go no farther than Finnegans Wake; few others could get that far; and later novelists have understandably made no attempt to press beyond Ulysses. This has stirred some critics to announce that the novel is an obsolete or dying form. One cannot deny that it seems to be regressing toward the plane of documentary realism, where at best it may be indistinguishable from reportage or good journalism.

But fiction is doomed to failure in its competition with fact. What it possesses that non-fiction lacks is fantasy—that is to say, the projective power of the imagination, which confers value and significance on the stuff of our everyday apprehension by rearranging and transmuting it. Thus the apparent sordidness and purposelessness of our day with Leopold Bloom in Dublin are transmuted into a symbolic reënactment of Homer's epic. Some of those cross-references seem far-fetched, and others grimly ironic; yet, as a whole, they interpret for us data which would otherwise be meaningless. Joyce's use of myth makes the past a key to the present. More than that, wrote T. S. Eliot in his review of Ulysses, "It has the importance of a scientific discovery." Future writers would take advantage of it, as he predicted; and even then he had just finished his Waste Land, which abounded in flashbacks and parallels. In that least heroic and most fragmentary of epics, he exorcized the blight of contemporaneous London by tracing through it the outline of a quest for the Holy Grail. A timeless ritual, a timely critique, I. A. Richards commented that it completed the severance between poetry and belief. But, in the long run, it proved to be a station on Mr. Eliot's pilgrimage toward faith.

It is not surprising that Modernism, the product of cities, should be so impelled to recreate the image of cities. One of the greatest Modernists, in this respect, is Charlie Chaplin, who has so brilliantly rendered the metropolis in all its frustrations and incongruities. For T. S. Eliot, London is "unreal"; but its apparition is that of Vienna, Athens, Jerusalem, or Alexandria; and his elegiac vision becomes prophetic when he imagines "falling towers."

The prophecy was apocalyptically fulfilled by the bombings of the next war, which Mr. Eliot—combining his own observation as air-raid warden with a reminiscence from Dante's Inferno—has powerfully invoked in the last of his Four Quartets. That he should proceed by musical analogy, finding his inspiration in the austere but imposing string quartets of the later Beethoven, is still another trait of his generation. Poets' poets and novelists' novelists, painters' painters and musicians' musicians, they were profoundly versed in their own particular crafts, and so whole-heartedly devoted to craftsmanship that they attempted to transfer it from one art to another. Writers borrowed thematic techniques from Wagner, who himself had aimed at a synesthesia, to be induced by music in conjunction with other arts. Poetry encompassed painting and music, when Wallace Stevens presented—after Picasso—his Man with a Blue Guitar.

The thought that a man of letters should consider himself a practitioner of the fine arts, or that he should be designated professionally as an artist, is a legacy from Flaubert's generation which is not likely to outlast Joyce's by long. The cult of intransigent artistry, which both men practised as devoutly as if it were their religious vocation, is embodied in and elucidated by the latter's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the archetypal figure is Daedalus, the fabulous Greek artificer, and the epigraph is a line about him from Ovid's Metamorphoses: "Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes." Joyce was clearly inviting the application to himself: "And so he turned his mind to unknown arts." Paul Valéry discerned a historical prototype in the artist-engineer of the Italian Renaissance, and paid his homage in two essays upon the method of Leonardo da Vinci. He made his own apologia through the personage of M. Teste (M. Tàte, Mr. Head), whose cerebral soliloquies begin with the unabashed admission: "La bêtise n'est pas mon fort." Stupidity has decidedly not been the forte of the Modernists; they have left that virtue to their Post-Modem attackers, who can now write in defence of ignorance. If M. Teste seems arrogant, let them make the most of that last infirmity. He was just as firm, in refusing to suffer fools, as they are weak in appealing to philistines.

Though recent literature prides itself upon its outspokenness, there remains one organ of the body which it is almost taboo to mention, and that is the brain. What may seem a sin, on the part of the Moderns, is that they were preoccupied with the minds of their characters, and—what is worse—that they make serious demands upon the minds of their readers. This cannot be lightly forgiven by an era whose culture-heroes are persistently mindless—whether they be the good-hearted goons of John Steinbeck, the epicene slobs of Tennessee Williams, or the analphabetic gladiators of the later Hemingway. But popularity was excluded, by definition, from the aims of the writers I have been discussing; their names did not figure upon the best-seller lists of their day; many others did, which are now forgotten. The aura of obscurity or unintelligibility which may still occasionally tinge these intellectuals, in some degree, emanates from their refusal to advertise themselves or to talk down to their audience in the hope of enlarging it. That, for them, would indeed have been a treason of the clerks. Their ultimate quality, which pervades their work to the very marrow, is its uncompromising intellectuality. Like the intelligentsia of old Russia or the class of Mandarins in China, they looked upon letters as a way of life.

But this may have presupposed, along with their own dedication, other conditions which may no longer be possible. The extraordinary spread of higher learning has lowered it, and introduced a large amount of dilution. The highbrows and the lowbrows have intermarried, and their children are—exactly what Virginia Woolf dreaded most—all middlebrows. Instead of a tension between the uncomprehending majority and the saving remnant—or, if you will, between sensible citizens and longhaired coteries—there has been a détente, a relaxation, and a collaboration for mutual profit between the formerly intractable artist and the no longer hostile bourgeoisie. Out of it there seems to be emerging a middlebrow synthesis, the moderated expression of our mid-century. But that is a subject notoriously better appreciated by professors of sociology and experts on mass communication than it is by old-fashioned scholars or modernist critics. Nor do I wish to imply that all of our talents, responding to technological pressure and economic attraction, have become mere purveyors of entertainment. On the contrary, many of them profess an engagement of the sincerest kind to the responsibilities of common welfare. The Modernists did not have to make such commitments, because they were not threatened by such urgencies. Hence they could strive for artistic perfection in single-minded detachment.

Alfred North Whitehead was strongly convinced that the early Twentieth Century was one of the greatest epochs in the march of intellect. Though he was thinking basically of mathematics and physics, he held a lively belief in the interplay between the sciences and the humanities. He concurred with the opinion that Wordsworth, writing from the opposite vantagepoint, had expressed in the opening year of the Nineteenth Century:

If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself.

Certainly such a material revolution has taken place; the arts have struggled to adapt themselves to it; and we gain a fuller comprehension of the modern artist, if we envision him—in Wordsworth's terms—at the side of the scientist. The partnership, however uneasy, has intensified his curiosity and sharpened his preoccupation with his own technique. He has been encouraged to experiment, not by blindly accepting hypotheses as Zola did in his roman expérimental, but rather as Valéry did in transferring to poetry the lessons he had learned from geometry, or in taking for his motto "ars non stagnat." Successful experiment involves trial and error and incidental waste, as scientists know. This is a necessary function performed, upon the fringes of the arts, by that continued ferment of willed eccentricity whose products we can usually dismiss. But "the two cultures," as Sir Charles Snow has lately reminded us, are still too far apart. What should draw them together, more than anything else, is the shared recognition that conjointly they cover an area which man has set aside for the free play of painstaking intelligence.

Science no longer underprops our world view with rationalistic or positivistic reassurances. It has undergone a modernist phase of its own, and seen its solid premises subverted by such concepts as relativity and indeterminacy. Where, then, can we turn for illumination? Can we come to no more helpful conclusion than the message that E. M. Forster discerned in the Marabar Caves of India? "Everything exists; nothing has value." Critics of the Moderns have accused them of being deficient in a sense of values, of believing in nothing beyond that negativistic credo. However, to reread Eliot's "Fire Sermon," or Kafka's "Parable of the Law," or Mann's farewell to his soldier-hero, or Proust's commemoration of a great writer's death, or Joyce's hallucinating encounter between a sonless father and a fatherless son, is to feel the glow of ethical insight. A younger and more plain-spoken writer whom we have lost much too soon, Albert Camus, received the Nobel Prize three years ago for having "illuminated the problems of the human conscience in our time." That citation recalls the warning of an earlier French moralist, Rabelais, at the very dawn of modernity, that "science sans conscience" would bring ruin to the soul. Joyce's young artist, Stephen Dedalus, pledged himself to create the "uncreated conscience" of his people. Has it not been the endeavor of his generation to have created a conscience for a scientific age?

Robert Martin Adams

SOURCE: "What Was Modernism?" in Hudson Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 19-33.

[In the following essay, Adams enumerates reasons for the inadequacy of "Modernism" as a critical-historical term.]

"The past serves only as a means of knowing the present. But the present eludes me. What, after all, is the present?"

—Henri Foçillon, quoted by George Kubler: The Shape of Time

Since the ironic reservations and self-questioning cautions that surround the topic of "the modern" are potentially infinite, it's best to start with a blunt and vigorous citation from Mrs. Woolf, who tells us flatly that on or about December, 1910, human nature changed radically. I think she's right. Within five years either way of that date a great sequence of new and different works appeared in Western culture, striking the tonic chords of modernism. Ten years before that fulcrum of December, 1910, modernism is not yet; ten years after it is already. The "human nature" that changed is not the substructure and component systems of the animal, but his way of seeing himself as expressed in works of art, literature, music. Naming the great works that inaugurated this period, and thinking, however loosely, about their quality, may lead to the rudiments of a definition.

Specifically, then, Picasso began working on the "Demoiselles d'Avignon," that idyll of a Barcelona whorehouse, in 1906-07; Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" had its riotous premiere in 1913. The first book by Ezra Pound to bear the title Personae came out in 1909; J. Alfred Prufrock made his debut (in Chicago, of all places) in 1915. In 1914, Joyce had just finished the Portrait and was turning his full attention to Ulysses. In 1914 Wyndham Lewis published Tarr. Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist show at the Grafton Galleries (November 1910 to January 1911) was followed in 1913 by the New York Armory show, which introduced Post-Impressionist art to America. D. H. Lawrence took his first steps as a poet and novelist in the years around 1910. From 1910 onwards, F. T. Marinetti was lecturing explosively around Europe on an ill-defined but violent esthetic program that he called "Futurism." It would gain adherents in France, England, and Russia, as well as Italy; the adherents soon faded or wandered, but the movement, despite Marinetti's frequent silliness, had wide repercussions. It was more than a sideshow.

This list could be extended to include names like Bartok, Braque, Musil, Modigliani, Epstein, Kafka, Klee, Kandinsky, and so on almost indefinitely, but already it has given us grounds to talk about modernism's concrete character. Doubtless there was some new spirit in the air, around December of 1910, and very likely it was connected with world-events like the miserable World War that was just around the corner or the unhappy Boer War that was just over the horizon. But these amorphous spirits in the air are very hard to pin down, and it's better to start by noting some specific things that modernism as a style was and wasn't. For example, Marinetti's futurism was loudly and explicitly hostile to the past as such: it wanted works of art as dynamic, efficient, and mechanical as automobiles or airplanes, and furiously repudiated all sorts of nineteenth-century historicism, humanitarianism, and softness. Except perhaps for the art of music, where it produced only a few laughable and sterile cacophonies, futurism had significant reverberations throughout the arts. Brancusi the sculptor was touched by this idea of stripped energy; so, more importantly, was Le Corbusier the architect; and if the movement didn't strongly influence Cubist painting, that was because the Cubists had already embarked on a very similar program of their own. Blok and Mayakovsky in Russia wrote Futurist poetry; Wyndham Lewis in the several issues of Blast and in his first novel Tarr, produced Vorticist prose which was closely allied to Futurist work in its bold discords, its stark and simplified syntax. Pound's version of Imagism is first cousin to Vorticism, and so in the same family group as Futurism; but here we run suddenly into confusion, because Pound, quite as much as his master Browning, was always fascinated by the past, and among his many styles wrote in a number of deliberately archaic forms and manners.

And this deliberate cultivation of the past seems, as we look around, rather more characteristic of modernism than the direct and violent assault mounted by the Futurists on what they delighted to call passéisme. Two root inspirations of Picasso's first and most famous Cubist painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," were a big Paris exhibit of prehistoric Iberian sculpture and an equally comprehensive exhibit of primitive African masks. Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" is based on and expressive of the vegetation rites and barbaric dances of ancient Russia. Both works were not only the last word in avant-garde style (for their day); they were more deeply rooted in primitivism than anything Europe had seen for a long time. And so with Eliot and Pound. They were "modern" poets from the beginning, and before long they were to be almost the touchstones of modernism; but all their work was deeply rooted in consciousness of the past. "The Waste Land" revolves around a priest-poet-prophet whose various incarnations include the Cumaean sybil and the ancient blind sexologist from Thebes, Tiresias. Pound's voyages in the Cantos took him through a series of events buried far in the past (the classical, the medieval, the Renaissance, the Chinese, the American past). One way or another, they all rhymed or were supposed to rhyme on events of the present; but the sheer volume of them made the Cantos look like an historical lumber-room. For Joyce, another of the great modernists, the Dublin episodes of June 16, 1904 were—among other things—but "a spume that played / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things." That paradigm was as old as any literary origin in the Western world; it was Homer's Odyssey. Far from repudiating and rejecting the past, as the Futurists demanded, modernism under one major aspect explored and exploited it.

The style of exploitation was new, the materials being exploited very old. The new primitivism sought a more remote past than people had been used to, and made very different applications of it. The polite, polished, Olympian side of the classic past was not what intrigued the modernists, rather it was the primitive, the barbaric, the mystery-side of the ancient world. Evidently they picked up a lot of these materials from the work of anthropologically-minded mythographers like Herr Max Muller, from the so-called "Cambridge anthropologists" led by Frazer, and from the work on archetypes done in the name of psychoanalysis by Jung and his followers—men like Ferenczi and Otto Rank. When Eliot went back to the Grail legend to structure his "Waste Land," he read it as something even more primitive than the medieval legend, he saw it as a vegetation ceremony out of prehistory.

Prokofieff filled his "Scythian Suite" with barbaric clangor; the "Classical Symphony" is a twittering joke on Haydn.

What their materials were and where they got them were clearly less important than what the modernists did with them. The nineteenth century had crammed itself on classical and medieval pastiches, where the modern poet or painter used myth as a familiar container into which to pour highminded contemporary sentiments. We don't need a better word for this sort of thing than "kitsch." Everyone can think of his favorite example—whether it's Bouguereau or Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton or Robert Bridges, Bulwer-Lytton or Arnold Böcklin. But when Pound and Eliot, Stravinsky and Picasso took in hand the antique, they did so in a spirit at once deeper and more ironic than that of traditional neo-classicism. They used the past structurally, not for decorative ends; they incorporated fragments from the past in a structure stridently of the present; they emphasized grotesque disparities as much as harmonies; instead of a smooth surface, either antique or modern, they produced a broken one, which was both. Pound made Sextus Propertius talk of Wordsworth and frigidaires; Eliot's bowler-hatted, brolly-carrying clerk wandered the City streets anxiously inquiring about corpses buried in back-yard gardens; Bloom put out the glaring eye of Cyclops by lighting a cigar instead of downing a John Jameson. Behind this change was a new sense of time as cyclical and repetitive, not sequential and developmental. The past wasn't a series of incremental stages on the road to the present, it was a single pattern replicated pointlessly and potentially to infinity. History became a series of allbut-identical arabesques traced on sheets of transparent plastic and lined up behind one another, so that only a slight shift of perspective could transpose any particular story into the Homeric age, the medieval era, the Renaissance, or the "present." Whatever its momentary embodiment, the configuration would always be much the same. A hard and jagged style of disparate elements juxtaposed without nexus or comment, an a-chronological patterning of correspondent themes (like a shape in space, not a sequence in time), these were techniques that admirably suited the translucent vision. This was the first major distinctive style of modernism, and not even one whose first interest is letters can fail to notice how closely it corresponded with the fractured surfaces of cubism, the broken, syncopated rhythms of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, the montage method of the movies.

The Futurist element of modernism was not only (by contrast with what preceded it) abstract and non-representational, perhaps in line with Worringer's thesis that abstract art represents fear, rather than acceptance, of the exterior world: it was, to borrow a word from José Ortega y Gasset, increasingly "dehumanized." The marks of this quality are everywhere, and one needn't labor the point. Fictional heroes, for example, could no longer be interesting because they embodied or exemplified "human nature": they were verbal patterns at second, third, or 26th hand, and they advertised the fact, as in Giraudoux's thirty-eighth retelling of the Amphitryon story. They were passive as beanbags, and they were also transparent—passive as in Kafka, transparent as in Gide. Bloom, by the end of the book which is so largely his, has been flattened as thin as a piece of strudel-dough; he is Everyman and Noman, a mountain-range, a heavenly body wandering beyond all astronomical waifs and strays, to the extreme boundary of space, and then returning, not once, but again and again, forever, in eternity, as best our imagination can reach that term. And Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker in the next and greatest book is explicitly described as a "human pest cycling (pist!) and recycling (past!) about the sledgy streets, here he was (pust!) again." "The Waste Land" has often been described as a miniaturized epic, and so it is; what's been left out is simply the epic hero and his story. Finally, one doesn't find much of the human form divine in Arp or Mondrian or in the Cubist works from which they derive. Modern painting, the greater part of it, doesn't represent human beings or the nature they inhabit; in fact, it doesn't generally represent at all. "Black on Black" or "Untitled No. 6" are characteristic labels, and they conjure up before us pictures on whose merits we may not agree, but which certainly don't have much use for the greasy commonplaces of flesh and blood.

Yet there was from the beginning an exception to modernism's dehumanization; and that was the ancient, inescapable commonplace of sex. Not love, not by any manner of means: not love in the reconciling and humane sense familiar to novel-readers and occasionally to people—nor yet the doomed passion of Wagnerian lovers, though one can't fail to note the remarkable survival-value of Liebestod as a literary theme. Maeterlinck and D'Annunzio were replicating it well into the new century; even Proust can be seen in this line, and so can our late contemporary Nabokov, for whom the grand consuming passion was still possible. Yet in most modernist documents it's sex, not love, that predominates. Sexual pathology was an important ingredient of both Ulysses and "The Waste Land"; the hero of consciousness was also a hero of inhibition, and the so-called stream of consciousness flowed to most interesting effect when it was turbid or even choked. After Joyce the medium of that stream was assumed to be sex, one major interest lay in its failure or frustration, and we can see the theme being used by Hemingway, Faulkner, and lesser imitators beyond number. Even when the symptom of his condition was called alcoholism, writer's block, or what Auden named "the liar's quinsy," the afflicted hero was characteristic, and his disease involved sterility or impotence.

Complementary, not contradictory, is the kind of therapy accomplished by the priapic heroes of D. H. Lawrence, who find a cure for the brittle, mechanical superficiality of modern life, not merely in sex, but in the dark, primitive impulses of the blood. Sex, for Lawrence, is a kind of cognition, a necessary filling out of the human form and figure. The work of literary art that embodies his feeling throbs with the rhythms and repetitions, the enthusiastic vocabulary of sensuality. Whether sex can convincingly sustain all the psychic burdens that Lawrence and the Lawrentians loaded on that wholly delightful activity may discreetly be doubted. In effect, Lawrence, Miller, and Durrell made a religion of the genitalia to replace other religions (including that of art), which had apparently lost their stimulating effect. The point isn't that the religion of sex amounted to a big operation; as a piece of social pathology, indeed, the less it amounted to, the more significant it is.

For this variety of sex-and-sensuality modernism grows out of the "dehumanization" view of modern art, even while protesting as vigorously as possible against it. Because modern society seems to consist of cutouts and robots going through predetermined mechanical routines, Lawrence proposes that we get under the hard carapace to a vital and tender existence that's available to us all in the life of the instincts, the dark river of the subconscious. And here he chimes on the thought of that very different and apparently much more crustacean man, James Joyce. For Joyce too, there's a vital giant buried within each of us; that's why his title includes as one of its many potentials an imperative—Finnegans, wake up! Within each of us a giant Finn lies buried under mountains of psychic detritus, cultural habit, social conditioning, acquired guilt. As we accept this load, we sleep or die; but if we throw it off, we can be reborn to the life that has always been there inside us. What Joyce and Lawrence, from rather different perspectives, join in seeing as the great enslaver, the brutal jailer of the human animal, is the conscious, rational mind. Even Stephen Dedalus knows this much before the end of Ulysses: "In here it is," he says, tapping his forehead and echoing Blake, "in here it is I must kill the priest and the king."

As one might anticipate, this anti-intellectualism isn't a simple phenomenon, and it hasn't yet found its historian or even its analyst. Quite obviously the trend owes something to those giant enemies of ideology, Marx and Freud; just as obviously, it includes elements deriving from neither, including an amorphous kind of culture-weariness and nostalgia for barbaric vitality that became very prevalent in the nineties of the last century and continued into this. The Futurists, with their fondness for fistfights and nonsense-syllables chanted at the top of their lungs, manifested this mood as well as anyone. Whether rationally or not, the weight of war, empire, and technology (all of which the Futurists in fact welcomed), the pressures of mass civilization, the exhaustion of religions, and the accumulated inhibitions of artistic artifice, all got mixed together in some minds as hostile to instinctual being. The mood was more anti-civilization than actively primitivist. Somebody like D'Annunzio, who stood up to his knees in esthetic decadence, yet promoted the swashbuckling, blood-and-iron side of fascism, spans much of the gamut. But there are ultra-violet bands beyond D'Annunzio, where hostility to the mind and its works spreads into hostility toward esthetic elitism and the category of art, hostility toward the mental reservation and bad faith implicit in artistic arrangement, hostility toward the very codes of equivalence which constrain our ultimate yawping, fecal Yahoo-sincerity.

But here we pause on the shore of a wide sea of modern irrationalist, anti-rationalist, and absurdist movements to note a couple of curious, half-way phenomena among some of the modernists. There's been a lot of talk about the fact that men like Pound and Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Céline, and Lawrence all had a special weakness, more or less overt, for authoritarian if not fascist governments. This needn't be put down to irrationalism as such. In some cases at least, these men had an abiding devotion to what they called rationalism, which they thought required an authoritarian and elitist group to embody and defend it. "Reason" in these cases isn't like a quiet room that you can walk into or out of; it's an area that men fight to control, from which you can be dispossessed despite your best intentions. Céline and Lawrence really lived some part of the time in a deliberately cultivated delirium; not so, or at least not so completely, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. A key document for some of the early modernists, those whom Mr. Kermode slyly calls palaeo-modernists, was Julien Benda's Trahison des clercs. For all that it included a broad streak of anti-intellectualism, modernism was in many respects a learned, a clerkly phenomenon. And this isn't altogether an absurd concatenation: who, after all, has a better right to be anti-intellectual than a clerk?

A related ambiguity of literary modernism that hasn't been much explored is its attitude toward "surfaces," which has amounted to calling into question what we mean by that strangely elusive word. Works that consist of a series of receding congruent outlines obviously don't have any fixed, primary surface; they are deliberately polysemous literature, to be experienced now at this level, now at that, or at all at once, according to the reader's elasticity of mind. Relatively familiar is the trick with literary surfaces that involves fragmenting them and inviting the reader to construct constellations of significant shape across the vacant gaps between them—a kind of structure that defines the strongest areas of work's surface as those where nothing is expressed. Many modernist works destroy trust in a specious surface by filling it with deliberate anomalies and absurdities; or they modulate the narration of an ostensible event into another mode, possibly the tale of the narrative's own generation; or they work into the texture of an ostensible narration subliminal patterns of correspondence that can be seen (by a retrospective rearrangement) to constitute a counter-narration. Still more frequent is the use of unreliable (absurd or contradictory) and therefore unsettling narrators, from whose faltering indications the reader must construct whatever consecutive and coherent shape he can. One of the easiest ways to define a façade as "genuine" is to take another façade away from in front of it; given an antagonist relation, one can play off a fake into a double-fake just as easily as into a counter-fake. All these tricks with surface (and many more in common use) imply an equivocal attitude, at best, toward the reader and his impulse to "understand." In effect, the artist works with and against the reader's logical inertia. What we mean by understanding is simply identifying on some level a surface sustained and consistent enough to support a general idea that has formed in our minds. And modernist works from Pirandello to Beckett are concerned to delay, confuse, and impede, as much as to assist, the reader's definition of such an appropriate surface.

Game-playing is fun, but a very crude consideration of raw materials may tell us more about the real character of modernism. In architecture, it's particularly clear that modernism brought to the fore new materials used in distinctive new ways, just as the Futurists had proposed. Plate glass, stainless steel, reinforced concrete, even erector-set framing techniques, all came into prominence pretty abruptly, and with results ranging from Taliessin West at one end of the scale to the typical ungainly, shamefaced academic box at the other. In music, modernism brought about increased use, not only of discords and syncopation (particularly as the old distinction between "high" and "low" art faded toward insignificance), but of actual noise as a musical element. When Honneger imitated a locomotive, and Antheil mounted an airplane engine on the concert platform, we were well on our way to John Cage's famous "Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds," where random noise is not only incorporated in the performance, but constitutes the whole thing. For painting and sculpture the case is even more apparent. The first effect of modernism was to widen the palette and increase enormously the range of materials that the artist could use. The revival of collage and the importation into painting of sand, cigarette butts, linoleum, hair, straw, mud, or anything else that came to hand—this development is as familiar from jokes as from actual experience. Whatever could be seen in an esthetic way was potentially a work of art. And finally, I think the same sort of thing happened in the verbal arts as well: the range of literary language widened extraordinarily. I'm not thinking simply of the dirty words which crept in modestly with Lady Chatterley's Lover, expanded through Henry Miller's trilogy, and became a kind of buried speech-norm in Last Exit to Brooklyn. More interesting than this change is the increasing use for literary purposes of contaminated language—clichés and quotations, formulas and phrases out of the linguistic garbagemidden, sufficient to make up an independent, semi-private language of its own.

Radical linguistic innovation naturally came as a particular shock in a country like France, where the standards of literary correctness had long been strict. Anatole France, whose terminal date is 1924, refused to learn any foreign tongue, lest he corrupt the purity of his French idiom; but on the same principle, he might well have refused to learn French itself, since the way Frenchmen really talk is a couple of light-years away from the style in which Anatole France prided himself on writing. When Céline and Vian began writing French of the sort that the truck-driver and the scow-skipper use, they created real shock-waves. Americans and Englishmen had to do more than that to ripple the pond, but in fact they widened enormously, not just the vocabulary, but the general verbal resources of the tongue. To cast, a novel in the form of an index or a catechism, to investigate the resources of absolute asininity or even idiocy, to cross-breed English with a dozen other tongues, to represent complex synthetic states of mind and the full multiplicity of our emotional subcurrents—all this involved a kind of verbal explosion, to parallel which we have to reach back to the age of Shakespeare and Montaigne. Explosions aren't, to be sure, necessarily great literary events in themselves: classical French drama emerged when the French vocabulary was contracting, not expanding, and is all the better for that. Still, the age of palaeo-modernism was one of expansion, invention, updating, radical refurbishing—down to the roots of the vocabulary. Following an age of avowed decadence, and often describing itself (maybe a bit wishfully) as an age of retrenchment and restraint, the palaeo-modernist era was in fact one of explosive and revolutionary change. Indeed, the difference between palaeo-modernism and neo-modernism may prove in the end too great to be bridged by a couple of half-comic prefixes. Maybe palaeo-modernism will prove to have been the only real modernism, while what succeeded it will prove to have been merely (and momentarily) contemporary.

At any rate, if modernism represented a change at all, that change was worked by palaeo-modernism; and from a short perspective at least, it seems real enough. One odd if forceful proof of its reality is that we've so far been unable to write a coherent history of modern English literature. The old survey-title took us, one writer after another, in decent chronological order, from Beowulf to Thomas Hardy; and there's a clear line to be traced there. But to get from Hardy to Eliot we have to go back to Laforgue and Donne. To reach Pound we must consult Lao Tze and Peire Vidal: and in order to get a background for Joyce we have to combine Swift, Flaubert, and Ibsen with a dash of Dante. In cosmic terms, nothing is new under the sun; but modernism gives us a sense of an entire cultural heritage being ploughed up and turned over.

It's much easier, however, to say where and how modernism started than where it ended, or if it has: the central and hardest problem is always the closest, the problem of now. We seem neither to have pushed beyond the innovations of modernism nor to have rejected them decisively. Primitivism no longer seems like a spacious new dimension of art, sex as a theme offers no larger perspectives than leit-motifs and montage as techniques. A lot of play continues to be made with varieties of illusionism, including the manipulation and disintegration of surfaces: in that sense and perhaps a few others, modernism can be thought of as pushing forward, though its heroic days are certainly over.

Whether we need a new term for the period that has succeeded modernism depends in fact on where we imagine ourselves to be standing—a locus standi being exactly what's hardest to achieve in considering the now. On the customary loose accounting the middle ages lasted for a thousand gigantic years after the death of Boethius, from 500 to 1500. If we take a perspective anything like that long, the entire subject of modernism disappears from view. What happened in 1910 wasn't a new definition of human nature, and modernism never happened. It was just a tertiary wrinkle or ripple in a movement loosely labelled romanticism that began around 1750 or so. If we think of ourselves as still working through romanticism (protesting against it like all the other romantics before us), then we only have to go back a few years before romanticism to get to the renaissance, of which romanticism as a whole can very well be seen as a stage. Then we have three handsome periods in the history of the west—the classical age (800 B.C. to 500 A.D.), the middle ages (500-1500), and the renaissance, which, as it began about 1500, can reasonably be expected to peter out about 2500, give or take a couple of centuries. At that time we may be ready for the new Dark Ages, of which some romantic pessimists already profess to see multiplying signs.

Should I be sent on a Fulbright to some remote galaxy, this or something like this might be a good first perspective on the history of western culture. It's neat, it's symmetrical, and it divides the subject into three parts, which is always reassuring. For us, however, being who, where, and when we are, it has the slight disadvantage of being altogether useless. All these distinctions of schools and movements over the last century or two are doubtless trivial in the long run—if you run long enough. Futurist and modernist, symbolist and Parnassian, pre-Raphaelite and surrealist, expressionist and impressionist, realist and naturalist and so forth and so on—no doubt they will all iron out with the passage of time, and schoolchildren will be taught exquisitely simple generalities about the first machine age (1750-2400) or something like that. But if only for mnemonic purposes (and I'm sceptical enough to think those the only real purposes of cultural categories), we do need some scale calculated for the here and now, not for hypothetical inhabitants of Sirius and Betelgeuse.

So modernism we've got, its waves and reverberations have filled our lives, ephemeral as they are, and at the moment, though they've been damped, flattened, attenuated and subjected to frequent counterpressure, I see no sign that they've been supplanted by any other major unit of cultural energy. That, after all, is the only conclusive event that can write "finis" to a cultural era—the arrival, in thunder, of a new cultural era. I haven't heard any rumors of such an event. It would seem that, like ancient geographers, we have here a blank spot on our cultural map, to be filled with amorphous, nondescript creatures. Yet if we can't specify any cultural earthshakers over the past fifty years (since palaeo-modernism started fading into eclectic, harlequin neo-modernism), we may still remark some characteristic strains and pressures of what we may yet someday call "the age of undertow."

For one thing, where modernism has simply pushed ahead, it has exaggerated tendencies which were in it from the beginning, by making symptomatic jokes out of them. Hostility to artifice continues to make itself felt, along with violent dislike of that placatory packaging which makes art as easy to take as placebo pills. Art-forms that consist of holes and trenches dug in the desert, or a twenty-mile canvas fence to the sea, are a way of thumbing one's nose at 59th street and Madison Avenue. One young man has distinguished himself as an arranger of excelsior in piles—the admirer is challenged, as it were, to buy that, take it home, and put it in his living room. Akin to this impulse is another which disclaims, so far as possible, any participation of the artist in the arrangement of his materials. Minimalist art and aleatory art (which introduce a deliberate element but undeliberate quantity of disorder and chaos into the art work) are ways of repudiating the artist's role of God over his own creation. One can see this as a natural development from pop art, which deliberately accepted the forms of vulgar life, resizing them or reduplicating them, but often doing as little to them as possible. Andy Warhol, tired of imitating Brillo boxes, soon began acquiring real Brillo boxes, signing his name to them, and sending them to the galleries. Robert Rauschenberg, finding to hand a drawing by De Kooning, erased it, signed the paper, and listed it among his works as an "Erased De Kooning" by Rauschenberg.

Simultaneously, books are being written which consist entirely of the love-hate romance of the story with the story-teller—in which every ostensible story collapses into the story of the story-teller, and no surface exists which is not potentially and ultimately a phantom of his mind. The self-conscious novel is the mirror image, as it were, of minimalist art: in the one, the artist is nowhere, in the other he is everywhere. And both varieties of elusive game-playing (pretending as they do to delude us on a point where common sense is not to be deluded) be-speak a kind of radical tension between the craftsman and his craft. I think this tension could be traced widely, through Beckett's explicit efforts to murder prose fiction, through parodists and self-parodists, through joky nihilists beyond number. And there seem perfectly sufficient reasons for this state of affairs. By and large, our artistic forms do have long histories: they are mature forms. Yet the pressure on artists to produce something new is unremitting. The new mass audiences with their new leisure time gulp cultural artifacts at a staggering rate. To take a single instance, movies and television, though simply extensions of the drama, have multiplied a thousandfold the appetite for narrative, and so hastened a thousandfold the wearing-out of dramatic and narrative clichés. Even before the contemporary deluge broke, the pressures of mass society were creating in a few a nostalgia for the void, a fascination with the dark unknown, and thus a hatred of culture and its forms. By now, one of the few formulas for artistic distinction seems to be the repudiation of artistic distinction as a category.

And when even this extreme position has become hackneyed, where do we go? We fracture, we eclect. Some fall back, declining the gambit entirely; a few push ahead faster and faster. In recent painting particularly, phases and stages and fads and manners seem to succeed one another so fast, that even the competitors are hard put to keep up. I don't think it's just an illusion that artistic periods not only get shorter as we approach the modern era, but cultural classifications get continually hazier and looser. History is moving faster; eclecticism offers us ever-wider fields of choice for parody, pastiche, or imitation; the big alternatives have already been used. So categories multiply as the reasons for having them languish. Of all the empty and meaningless categories, hardly any is inherently as empty and meaningless as "the modern." Like "youth," it is a self-destroying concept; unlike "youth," it has a million and one potential meanings. Nothing is so dated as yesterday's modern, and nothing, however dated in itself, fails to qualify as "modern" so long as it enjoys the exquisite privilege of having been created yesterday. Collections of so-called modern art thus fall between two stools: I've walked through some that seemed to me absolutely petrified—as dead as a collection of dodo-skeletons—and through others that were so determined to be up-to-the-minute, that they were simply trendy. What's new isn't to be defined just chronologically. A lot of work pretending to be new is the old stuff covered with a glossy varnish of artificial novelty; a lot of innovation proceeds lockstep down the corridors of prescribed nonconformist conformity; and a lot of apparent novelty is new simply because previous workers in the vineyard had enough sense to see that that particular path wasn't worth following. Separating what's really modern from what's simply contemporary is an exacting speculation, and language doesn't help with the distinction. More than anywhere else in criticism, we need a rich if not indeed a rational vocabulary to discuss our own times: though we're poor everywhere, we're poorest of all here.

In one sense, then, we can say that the "modernist" period has never ended and never will end, though as a perceptible piece of time it has ceased to exist. If "modern" means no more than "born yesterday," the modern age won't cease till there are no more todays. So modernism will never end, it will just attenuate and diffuse itself more and more. In The Shape of Time, George Kubler says, neatly, "Every new form limits the succeeding innovations in the same series. Every such form is itself one of a finite number of possibilities open in any temporal situation. Hence every innovation reduces the duration of its class." This is true, and very sharply put, but it pre-supposes a clearly defined class. If your class is infinitely elastic, as "modernism" may become if we don't tack it down here and there, it may well achieve total comprehensiveness at the cost of total meaninglessness.

According to some of my colleagues, we are already into the postmodernist age—a formula that flatters one with the sense of being an amazingly up-to-date fellow, but also implies an awful degree of terminological desperation. Doesn't the heedless fellow who dreamed up this formula anticipate the day when we'll have worked our way into forms like post-post-post-modernist and its inevitable, infinite sequels? The more such patches one sticks on "modernist," the more obvious its inadequacy as a descriptive term in the first place.

So in answer to the question of my title, "What was modernism?" I'd like to propose a pretty restrictive response. Modernism was an inaccurate and misleading term, applied to a cultural trend most clearly discernible between 1905 and 1925. When it is understood to refer to distinct structural features that some artistic works of this period have in common, it has a real meaning, though it still isn't a very good term. As it departs from that specific meaning, it gets fuzzier and fuzzier, and sometimes it doesn't mean much of anything at all. Still, it has been a prevalent and widely accepted stopgap term, with a loose, emotive tone, and one of the ways to get better terminology is to pick it apart, and see how many different things it has been used to cover. Then perhaps we can get better names for them.

Richard Poirier

SOURCE: "The Difficulties of Modernism and the Modernism of Difficulty," in Images and Ideas in American Culture: The Functions of Criticism, edited by Arthur Edelstein, Brandeis University Press, 1979, pp. 124-40.

[In the following essay, Poirier confronts the problematic nature of Modernism as it has been variously designated by literary critics and historians.]

On every side, these days, there is talk of modernism—what was it? what is it? when did it happen?—and partly because these questions have been voluminously but not satisfactorily answered, the modernist period threatens to stretch into a century, or, for some people, into two. Literary history has never allowed such longevity, and the prospect raises a number of embarrassing questions. During this whole time, has there been so little change in the cultural and social conditions which supposedly begat modernism that there has been no occasion for a radical change in literary consciousness? Or could it be said that poets and novelists have either been unresponsive to upheavals in the culture or that they have been able to respond only by modifications of Joyce, Eliot, and Pound—or, stretching it a bit, of Hawthorne, Melville, and James? Or perhaps we should ask if there has been a wholly uncharacteristic failure on the part of literary historians to make those discriminations of periods which keep them busy. They have proposed subdivisions like neomodernism, paleomodernism, or postmodernism, which only serve to illustrate the problem.

In fact, modernism in literature has become so amorphous that it is possible to be half persuaded by Harold Bloom when he says that "modernism has not passed; rather it is exposed as never having been there." While this seems in no way a satisfactory solution, it is generated by a healthy and beneficial contempt for the kind of thinking that has encumbered attempts to locate the specific cultural anxiety we call modernism. For it is not cultural anxiety itself, scarcely the sole privilege of the twentieth century, but a peculiar form of it that needs to be diagnosed. We can begin simply by noting that modernism is associated with being unhappy. It is associated with being burdened by the very materials, the beliefs, institutions, and forms of language, that are also our source of support as we labor under the burden. To be happy in the twentieth century is to see no burden in these supports; it is to be trivial. Modernism carries a very learned but always a very long face. I recall in college hearing an unusually beautiful and vibrant young woman from Smith murmur to herself in the middle of a party, "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons." Obviously, at eighteen or nineteen, she was boasting. Nowadays she would probably say, "Keep cool, but care," and while this might register an advance in social amiability, it would not be an advance for literary criticism, which has found it more or less impossible not to take everything in modernist texts seriously. Or perhaps seriously is the wrong word. It finds it impossible not to take everything solemnly.

The phenomenon of grim reading—that is what I would like to offer as my initial definition of modernism. Modernism happened when reading got to be grim. I locate modernism, that is, in a kind of reading habit or reading necessity. I am concerned with the degree to which modernist texts—and it should be remembered that in the annals of twentieth-century literature these texts are by no means in the majority—mostly prevent our asking questions about any spontaneous act of reading, even when it is accompanied by a high degree of learned competence. Modernism in literature can be measured by the degree of textual intimidation felt in the act of reading. That act can become, especially in the classroom, a frightened and unhappy experience in which we are made to feel not only inferior to the author but, in the face of constant reminders that he is himself dissatisfied with what he has just managed to put before us, totally uncritical. There are almost no critical as distinguished from interpretive readers of the twentieth-century classics. Speaking only of English and American literature, but knowing of a similar but more politicized argument made by Leo Bersani with respect to French literature as exemplified in Malarmé, it can be said that modernism is to be located not in ideas about cultural institutions or about the structures of life in or outside literary texts. It is to be found, rather, in two related and historically verifiable developments: first, in the promotion, by a particular faction of writers, of the virtues and necessities of difficulty and, second, in the complicity by a faction of readers who assent to the proposition that the act of reading should entail difficulties analogous to those registered in the act of writing.

Modernism is an attempt to perpetuate the power of literature as a privileged form of discourse. By its difficulty it tries, paradoxically, to reinvoke the connections, severed more or less by the growth of mass culture, between the artist and the audience. Since this special connection is no longer based on inherited class, as it was up to the Restoration, and since there is no provision for a Spenser, a Milton, a Marvell—great writers who were also members of a governing class for whom they wrote—a corresponding community of writer and reader has to be created. To this end they are asked to partici-pate in a shared text from which others are to be excluded. This may sound as if modernism were a snob's game. It certainly was and is just that, despite all the middleclass keys and guides to the club. It was and is, of course, much more. Significantly, modernism in English literature is nearly exclusively the result of American and Irish—Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Yeats—rather than of English writers and, as I have argued elsewhere, Melville and Hawthorne are, in what they require of the reader, modernist in theory and practice. (It took the inculcation of "difficulty-as-a-virtue" in this century before either of these writers began to be read properly.) Obviously involved here is a colonialist protest on the part of these writers against the shapes the language had assumed as it came forth from England, the seat of cultural and political authority. More importantly, the protest occurred when English literature had itself begun, in the novel and in the great popular poets of the nineteenth century, to cater to the ethos of the so-called common man or common reader. It was to escape incorporation in the ethos that modernist writers turned to the City, with its sharpened social and cultural discriminations, to ancient myth and its hierarchies, to the coteries of French literature, and to English literature of the seventeenth century, a literature of privilege. It is consistent with all this mat the two great twentieth-century writers who often seem comparatively easy, Lawrence and Frost, were charged by their modernist contemporaries with being relatively deficient in the sophistications of culture as embodied in the university and the modern city.

Modernism can be thought of as a period when, more than in any other, readers were induced to think of literary texts as necessarily and rewardingly complicated. It represents a demand made upon readers not by anything called twentieth-century literature but by a few peculiarly demanding texts which were promoted as central during this century. In most cases the authors were also remarkably persuasive as literary critics, both in their poems and novels and also in critical writing itself. They rewrote literary history from the retrospect of their own preeminence, expected or achieved. So successful were they in doing this that only in about the past fifteen years has it become possible to bring to vividness on the map of English literature those areas left rather dingy since the advent of modernism as a critical fashion. If, through the preeminence of Eliot early in the century, it became necessary to give prominence to Donne and Marvell, it is because of the later eminence of Stevens mat Wordsworth has recently been seen for an ever more strange and wonderful poet, just as it is thanks to Frost and Stevens together that the extraordinary importance of Emerson has still to be coped with.

Literary history is to so great an extent the product of such tactical moves and thrusts for power that I cannot agree with the argument offered by Robert Adams in his essay "What Was Modernism." Of the term itself, Adams writes that "one odd if forceful proof of its reality is that we've so far been unable to write a coherent history of modern English literature." No one can argue with this proposition, but it is possible to take it as a case for celebration rather than bewilderment, and certainly not as an occasion for holding one's breath. A major achievement of recent criticism has been the effort to break down the coherencies that have passed for literary history and to invalidate the principles on which that coherency has traditionally depended. It is possible now to see that the very cult of modernism is in itself a demonstration of the arbitrariness and impertinence by which literary history gets made and remade. Fortunately there is no longer a "coherent history" of English poetry to replace the one which could claim coherence only by reading Shelley out of the line of succession and by trying to dislodge Milton from it. Nor is there a coherent history of American literature, since it has in the past been so often only a history of the Northeast. The coherencies that may ultimately be found will have less to do with chronology, or with periods, or so I hope and expect, than with habits of reading, and related fashions in classroom pedagogy.

Modernism, then, is not an idea or a social condition. The ideas usually associated with it are in themselves not unique to any historical period. It is, rather, the profferred experience which, in its intensity, is unique to this century. Thus, some of the ideas ascribed to Eliot or Joyce or Faulkner belong just as much to Matthew Arnold or to Diderot; they can be extrapolated from Shakespeare, especially from Troilus and Cressida, or from the tragedies of Seneca. But none of these is a modernist writer. No one of them has written a book that asks to be read with the kind of attention—unique in the history of literature—required by Eliot or Joyce or Faulkner. It is through Joyce and Eliot especially, and the works published roughly between 1914 and 1925, that most people have learned about modernism, learned to think of it as a phenomenon of the first half of this century, and learned also that it is supposed to entail great difficulties, both for the writer and for the reader.

The peculiar and contradictory nature of that difficulty is the subject to which I can now turn. The necessity of difficulty was put in an unabashedly intimidating way by Eliot in an essay of 1921, "The Metaphysical Poets." "We can only say," he writes, "that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning." There is a most unappealing quality in Eliot's prose when he is in this particular mood, a Brahmin indirection, as of a fastidious gentility reluctantly, but no less arrogantly, taking on the whole of the twentieth century. "We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present …"

But Eliot's statement is only arrogant on the face of it. His explanation of why modern poetry is of necessity "difficult" is in fact a self-protective, reductive, and defensive apology for "difficulty." The passage translates difficulty into social and historical causes which in themselves were not at all as peculiar to "our civilization" as he makes them out to be. It is an attempt, that is, actually to vulgarize the necessity for "difficulty," and it might make us wonder how much of his difficulty derived from causes more intimately personal and sexual. Self-serving or not, the representative importance of this insistence on the necessary difficulty of poetry and prose in the twentieth century—Eliot makes even more pointed remarks on the subject in his essay on Ulysses—ought to be apparent. It became the bedrock of literary criticism and the study of literature from about 1930 onward. No one can object to difficulty or to any effort to cope with it. At issue are the implications that the difficulty was something only the poet could confront for us, and that the reader should be selfless and humble and thankful for the poet's having done this.

It has been said that modernist texts have been misread in the interests of making them more available, more rationally organized, more socially and historically referential than they truly are, and that instead of demystifying these texts, criticism ought to protect their inherent mysteriousness and their irreducible power to baffle. But can it not also be claimed that one reason for the kind of reductive misreadings and interpretations that modernist texts have received lies in the works and the writers themselves? Modernist texts make grim readers of us all, that is, by the claim that most people are inadequate to them. We are met with inducements to tidy things up, to locate principles of order and structure beneath a fragmentary surface. We work very hard at it. And then we are told that in fact we have been acting in a witless and heavy-handed fashion, embarrassingly deficient of aristocratic ease. We should have let things be, problematic and un-resolved, the meanings perpetually in abeyance. This may seem like a contradiction, but in fact there is not even a choice. We are left precisely within the alternatives, and honestly to recognize this situation as our own allows us, at last, to recognize the writer as being in a situation not very different. It encourages us to humanize the work, the industry of modernist writing, to locate a self and a personality in it. Against Eliot's dictum, it is time to insist that the man who writes is also the man who suffers. In this view, the modernist writer is working within the same contradictions as the reader. The text becomes a drama wherein the culturally or biologically determined human taste for structure or for structuring is continually being excited into activity, and just as continually being frustrated. Each thrust toward order proves no more than another example of the urgency to achieve it.

Modernist literature is tough going, and there is no point in deluding ourselves, and especially our students, with talk, too slowly going out of fashion, of "an erotics of reading," or an escapade of reading, for claims for the sheer fun that awaits us in the pages of Pound or Pynchon. In an engaging book on Ezra Pound, for example, Donald Davie proposes that the best way to read the Cantos is to read them "many at a time and fast":

This indeed is what irritates so many readers and fascinates an elect few—that the Cantos, erudite though they are, consistently frustrate the sort of reading that is synonymous with "study," reading such as goes on in the seminar room or the discussion group. It is hopeless to get at them cannily, not moving on to line three until one is sure of line two. They must be taken in big gulps or not at all. Does this mean reading without comprehension? Yes, if by comprehension we mean a set of propositions that can be laid end to end.… Which is not to deny that some teasing out of quite short excerpts, even some hunting up of sources and allusions, is profitable at some stage. For the Cantos are a poem to be lived with, over years. Yet after many years, each new reading—if it is reading of many pages at a time, as it should be—is a new bewilderment. So it should be, for so it was meant to be. After all, some kinds of bewilderment are fruitful. To one such kind we give the name "awe"—not awe at the poet's accomplishment, his energy, or his erudition but awe at the energies, some human and some non-human, which interact, climb, spiral, reverse themselves, and disperse, in the forming and reforming spectacles which the poet's art presents to us or reminds us of.

This is a charming prescription with which I am anxious to agree, and it is impossible to live up to. It is impossible because Pound has made it so, just as have Eliot and Joyce, Beckett and Pynchon.

These writers lent themselves to and encouraged a programmed and widespread misreading. For reasons to be argued later, the notion that every reading is a misreading seems to me theoretically acceptable if you wish to quibble but wrong and misleading when it gets down to specific cases. The misreading in question—with its emphasis on order and design—is demonstrably less synchronized with the "work" than are misreadings that like to play fast and loose. That most readers were led away from the nerve centers of these books by the stimulations of merely external design cannot be explained by claims that for historical reasons literature "must be difficult" in this century. There has been instead, on the part of the writers themselves, a curious will to reduce and impoverish what the texts potentially offer. The kinds of clues supplied by Eliot's famous Notes, Joyce's handouts, Yeats's system, Faulkner's Christian symbolism—all tended to nullify a reading experience which was in itself meant to mock the efficacy of such clues. As a result, there have been for most readers at least two texts of works like The Waste Land or Ulysses. One is full of marginalia by which the work is translated into something orderly, fit for class discussion, lectures and articles; while the other is remembered with fondness for all sorts of fragmentary pleasures. There has been almost no critical acknowledgement that these works are a sort of battleground: the flow of material wars against a technology which, however determined, is inadequate to the task of controlling the material. This imbalance is, of course, a contrived one, meant to demonstrate the break-down of any technique or technology in the face of contemporary life, and it received its most articulate expression first, I think, not in Henry Adams but in Henry James, when in The American Scene, he remarks that "The reflecting surfaces, of the ironic, of the epic order, suspended in the New York atmosphere, have yet to show symptoms of shining out, and the monstrous phenomena themselves, meanwhile, strike me as having, with their intense momentum, got the start, got ahead of… any possibility of poetic, of dramatic capture."

Pynchon is a remarkable instance of a writer who uses literary technique as an analogue to all other kinds of technology, and does so in order to show that where technique or technology work, it is always at the expense of the material it processes. He seems to call for a labor of exegesis and to encourage the illusion that he will be best understood by those who bone up on entropy or quantum theory or theories of paranoic closure. In fact, his works can best be appreciated by those who can, like Davie's supposititious reader, take his arcane knowledge for granted and be in no way confused by the elaborateness of his "plotting," treating it not as a puzzle to be solved but as a literary symptom of social, historical, economic plotting, an image of the so-called network. But, again, no such reader exists, and it is of no practical use to badger ourselves into thinking that we might become wholly adequate to a text like Gravity's Rainbow. It is absurd to posit ideal readers—a favorite exercise of literary criticism—in instances where there cannot be one. But this is where our reverential concessions to literary difficulty have led us. No one can be the right kind of reader for books of this sort—open, excited, titillated, knowing, taking all the curves without a map. Some of the exhortations to do this in critical writing smack of high cultural fantasy, the aristocratic pretension that one can be at the same time casual and encyclopedic.

Let us try to tell the truth: writers as well as readers of twentieth-century classics have to do more book work than writers or readers have ever had to do before in history. Why is this the case, even for people from educated households? And why have so many assented to its being necessarily the case? At issue is not the basic difficulty of gaining the competence to read almost anything that is fully aware of the resources of its own language—Shakespeare or Spenser, Milton or Marvell, Wordsworth or Frost. For all the learning and allusiveness in such writers, they only infrequently exhibit the particular kinds of difficulty encountered in what I would call modernist literature. Granting Eliot's proposition—that "our civilization at present" requires a "difficult" kind of writing—why need that difficulty register itself as at once compendiously learned and disjointed, at once schematic in its disposal of allusions and blurred in the uses to which it puts them?

There is a clue, curiously enough, in that plainest of all modernists, Hemingway. Hemingway is not a difficult writer; to read him requires no special knowledge and a familiarity with only a limited repertoire of vocal tones, of sentence sounds. So the connection is made with the proviso that only after the difficult bookishness of Joyce or Eliot has been mastered, if it ever can be, can the reader then fully appreciate their sensuous and rhythmic pleasures. Ideally, that is, the apparatus of Eliot or Joyce functions the way bull fighting or boxing functions metaphorically in Hemingway, and the apparatus therefore probably deserves, though still on the other side of a bookishness Hemingway does not require, the same kind of response from the reader. The learning, the cultural displays, the mechanics of structuring, are forms of partial discipline, of willful signification in a situation where it is being admitted that acts of signification refer themselves to no authority other than the will. They offer an opportunity for making a kind of form which is effective precisely because it is temporary, satisfying only because it is allowed to remain local and finite. It is appropriate to invoke the great William James here, and to use, rather freely, a passage from his "Humanism and Truth." We might say that form in modernist literature is imagined as "the advancing front of experience." And as James so beautifully puts it

Why may not the advancing front of experience, carrying its immanent satisfactions and dissatisfactions, cut against the black inane as the luminous orb of the moon cuts a caerulean abyss? Why should anywhere in the world be absolutely fixed and finished? And if reality genuinely grows, why may it not grow in these very determinations which here and now are made?

Any "form," in a memorable phrase of Robert Frost, our most William Jamesian poet, is no more than "a momentary stay against confusion." And how momentary some of these can be is evidenced in Eliot's Notes where he is not giving the reader much of anything except an example of how he can cheer himself up with bits and pieces: "The interior of St. Magnus Martyr is to my mind one of the finest of Wren's interiors. See The Proposed Demolition among Nineteen City Churches: (P. S. King & Son, Ltd.)." Thus also the relish of Joyce in lists, parodies, schemes. The best way to read such persistent schematization is an act, an action, something a writer is doing in a posited situation; and the posited situation, conceived by Joyce and Eliot as being more unique to their historical moment than either William James or Frost would have allowed, is one in which all more encompassing orders have become as arbitrary and as subject to deterioration as any they are themselves proposing. It is not, to repeat, so much the substance as the act of allusiveness or of schematization which should occupy the reader. In general it can be said that middleclass anxieties about culture and about some possibly terminal and encompassing acts of interpretation, both fostered by the mythologies of general education, were only further increased by the often trivial or boned-up cultural erudition of the middle class "great" writers of the twentieth century, with their religious and cultural nostalgias.

Eliot and Joyce are not romantic writers; they are not classical writers either. In Eliot's telling phrase about Joyce, they are "classical in tendency." "Tendency"—they are what they are in an action, and by virtue of a kind of self-monitoring by which a writer interprets the forms he has just offered up for interpretation. It is said, with no embarrassment about being obvious, that the reader helps in the creation of the text and therefore functions, in his reading, like a poet. It can be said, less obviously, that Eliot and Joyce must be classified as readers of the text they are writing. Critical reading, that is, is simultaneously a part of the performance of writing, and to some degree it always has been. At the outset of "Tradition and the Individual Talent" Eliot remarks that "criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds as we read a book and feel an emotion about it, for criticising our own minds in their work of criticism." This is precisely what he does in his poems.

In thus suggesting the kinetic, the volatile nature of both the reading and the writing, Eliot calls our attention to an active authorial presence even while forswearing it. That presence is supposed to be notoriously hard to find, according to him; it does not have a "voice" even in the great varieties of style displayed in modernist writing. But it can be found, if not in any of the styles, then in the mode of variations among them. It is to be found not in any place, despite all the formal placements made available, but in the acts of displacement by which one form is relinquished for another. Recall how Faulkner described the reading-writing experience that gave us The Sound and the Fury. He wanted to tell a story that occurred to him when he saw a girl with dirty panties in a tree. He told it from a point of view that proved inadequate. So he told it again from another point of view, and on reading the second version he found that it, too, was inadequate; so he told it a third time from yet another, and when that did not satisfy him, he told it in more or less his own voice. That, too, was unsatisfactory, but the whole thing, the four versions, constituted the novel as we have it, a novel made from Faulkner's having read what he had written as a source of what he would then write. Apropos of this is an offhand remark by Gore Vidal which is altogether more useful than his considered and therefore superstitious observations on contemporary fiction: "In a way I have nothing to say but a great deal to add."

Eliot is so much a poet of probing additions, additions seeking a destination, that he could easily accept most deletions and abridgments made by Pound in The Waste Land. The penultimate admission in "Preludes" that "I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images, and cling: / The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing" comes from a poet for whom narrativity—with a destination—would have been an act of presumption. He can never take anything in stride; he moves, falteringly, toward the formation of images and concepts which dissolve as soon as he has reached them. The indecisiveness was as pronounced after as it was before his religious conversion. In the later poetry of The Quartets, as Leavis shows, the reader is not invited to translate abstract concepts about "time present and time past" but rather to witness and participate in the intensity of Eliot's personal engagement as he tries to arrive at some security, never actually achieved, about such abstractions and the feelings engendered by his use of them. Eliot became a poet precisely because he embraced those conditions which prevent others from becoming one—of being "moved" by something even while not knowing what to make of it. Writing for him was more or less indistinguishable from a critical reading that was all but crippling.

For Eliot's use of images that remain at once evocative and random there are well documented poetic precedents in Laforgue and others. But the images do not refer only to other images; they refer us also to a man named T. S. Eliot and to a feeling in him—we are allowed only faintly to sense it—that is close to an envy of natures more masculine, or should we say more operatically masculine, than his own. It is as if he imagines that for some other man the images in a poem like "La Filia ché Piange" would not remain transient and painful. They would instead initiate and sustain a plot. Eliot is someone—man as well as poet—incapable of initiating a plot within which the images could be secured and pacified.

Joyce exhibits, flamboyantly, altogether more psychological, sexual assurance. It is a commonplace that the Joycean hero is customarily on the fringe of activities—a game, a dance, a family dinner, a boisterous conversation. Other people can take pleasure in these activities unconscious or careless of what the hero knows about them: that they are bound by sometimes deadening rules and clichés, that the activities are programmed and encoded without consultation with the participants. Privileged consciousness, as Poulet would have it, is not at the center but on the circumference of the area of inhabited space, and it is ready to move still further out into abstractions, as at the end of "The Dead." But Stephen is no more his hero than Gabriel is, and no one can read him with a deserved relish without feeling that the true hero of Joyce's writing has been identified by those who say it is Joyce himself. He took a kind of pleasure—to call it sadomasochistic is to be obvious—in the fact that a Stephen or a Gabriel is forced to confront, to be intimidated by, the power, the exuberance, the virtuosity, however prefabricated, that is emplanted in the programmed or encoded life, in codes which only a genius can release onto the page. Joyce exulted in the evidence that he was master of the codes, master of the techniques, the revelry of forms. All writers are cold and calculating, but no one more brazenly celebrates his own arbitrariness. He is unlike Eliot in the delight he takes in not feeling put upon or anguished by what he has just written. Joyce is the quintessential celebrant of literary technology.

All literature is to some extent aware of itself as a technology. But literary modernism thrusts this awareness upon us, and to an unprecedented degree asks us to experience the enormous difficulties of mastering a technology. It is this matter of degree which allows us to distinguish literary modernism from the sort of literary self-consciousness which may be exhibited by any text in any period. Modernism manifests itself whenever a text chooses to demonstrate that one of its primary purposes is to expose the factitiousness of its own local procedures. In order to do this, it must make the experience of reading in some way almost directly analagous to the experience of writing. It can be said that modernist texts are about the corrosive effect of reading, by author and reader, upon what has just been shaped by the writing.

Modernist writers, to put it too simply, keep on with the writing of a text because in reading what they are writing they find only the provocation to alternatives. "To begin to begin again," as Gertrude Stein once said. If the texts are mimetic in that they simulate simultaneously the reading/writing activity, then that is the meaning of the text. The meaning resides in the performance of writing and reading, of reading in the act of writing. This is emphatically the reverse of saying, as part of a rear-guard perpetuation of humanism, that these texts are subject to multiple interpretations. Rather, their capacity to mean different things, to take different shapes, is in itself their meaning.

It is important to insist on this as against the fashion that imposes an infinite variety of possible readings. In that proposition is one evidence of a kind of ahistoricism in contemporary theory importantly different from the kind with which this essay might be charged. Modernist texts are of enormous historical consequence as texts. They are of consequence to the extent that their meaning resides in an induced habit of reading, using that word in the broadest sense, a habit finally of analysis that can be exercised outside the literary text on social and economic structures.

Modernist texts are important less for any commentary they offer on contemporary life than for the degree that they empower us, by the strenuous demands made upon our capacities for attention, to make our own commentaries.

To say that modernist poetry and fiction exists also and simultaneously as works of literary criticism is therefore to say that literary criticism can be a unique schooling in the workings of structures, techniques, codes, stylizations that shape the structured world around us.

Of course it could be argued that the plays of Shakespeare or the poetry of Wordsworth also exist as works of literary criticism. And where Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida or Wordsworth in his shapings and reshapings of The Prelude reveal an extraordinary degree of self-consciousness about being critics of their own creation, they too are modernists. But it is well to remember that they become available to us as such only by virtue of what we have learned about the strains and difficulties of literature from Eliot, Joyce, and the like.

Modernism exists predominantly in the twentieth century only because it is predominantly there that we have been forced to become what I have called "grim readers." Modernism does not occur, that is, whenever a work addresses itself to literary traditions, the genres or tropes or topics which it shares with other poems and novels. Modernist texts include such allusiveness but are also consciously occupied with the nature of reading and writing then and there going on and with the relation between these two acts.

Modernism enters history not with a mirror, not even with a lamp, but with instruments by which to measure the hidden structure of things and the tactics of their movement. It enters history as a mode of experience, a way of reading, a way of being with great difficulty conscious of structures, techniques, codes, and stylizations. In modernist works the revealed inadequacy of forms or structures or styles to the life they propose to explain or include is meant in itself to be a matter of historical importance, regardless of whether the material is historically accredited. Our training in this could begin as easily with Melville as with Joyce. Modernist texts teach us to face the failure of technology in that version of it which we call literary technique—the failure significantly to account for all that we think technology should account for. In that sense, the reader of these works is made conscious, in Hawthorne's phrase, of "what prisoners we are," and this could be a discovery of great spiritual as well as cultural importance.

Robert Conquest

SOURCE: "But What Good Came of It at Last? An Inquest on Modernism," in Essays by Divers Hands, edited by Michael Holroyd, Boydell Press, 1982, pp. 61-77.

[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture before the Royal Society of Literature in 1979, Conquest questions the ultimate artistic and cultural value of Modernism.]

You will not expect—indeed you will probably be delighted not to have to listen to—a full conspectus of the modernist movement, tracing all the schools through cubism and vorticism and expressionism, through suprematism and constructivism and De Stijl, through Valery and Kafka and Gertrude Stein, through Merz and Blast and Transition, describing the interactions, the sectarian strife, the manifestos, the denunciations. And you will not, I hope, expect me to deal with modernism in every field—for instance in music or in architecture (though much of that, unfortunately, seems to be more lasting than bronze). I should, before this society, restrict myself largely to literature. Yet one cannot avoid some broader references. For, of course, all the arts were deeply affected; and it is even the case that painters like Picasso, for example, wrote a number of 'poems'. Moreover, the condition of painting may sometimes illuminate that of the other arts. For painting is, in its very nature, more dependent than the written word on the apparatus of culture-pushers—patrons, galleries and so on. Again, it is probably easier to inflict a striped rectangle on the consumer, who only has to give it a look occasionally, than to make the same consumer read a damned thick book or even a fourteen-line poem. And this is apart from the perhaps partisan estimate made by Auden, that

those who feel most like a sewer
Belong to painting not to literature.

More broadly, in dealing with modernism, any approach is bound to be a reflection of the reading, viewing and experience of the writer: yet I do not think that any other selection of experience would lead to general conclusions different from what I suggest.

But first let us consider our terms. When one speaks of movements, of modernism, one is using great general words. In practice there are individual books, written by men with their own characters and idiosyncrasies, not mere ectoplasm of the Zeitgeist. But I take it that I will not be held to any precise definition of modernism; in this sort of sphere above all we are surely entitled to rely on Aristotle's dictum that words should be used with the precision or generality suitable to the field. With that in mind, we may start by defining modernism in an illustrative rather than a formal way: modernism is what makes the Tate Gallery buy and exhibit a pile of bricks.

Now, when some supposed novelty of this sort is criticized, one finds to this day the rhetoric put forward that the critic is evidently a shocked and uncomprehending fuddy-duddy faced with something beyond his ken. But of course this is, generally speaking, nonsense. Modernism has been with us for some seventy years. In 1913, to take an example from poetry, Marinetti published the following lines of a type which has long since become so tediously familiar that none of us would be surprised to see them today in a state-subsidized 'little magazine':

plombs + lave + 300 puanteurs + 50 parfums
pave matelas detritus crottin charognes
flic-flac entassement chameaux bourricots
tohubohu cloaque.

No, the critic of modernism is criticising a tradition which has been established now for generations, which has been the ambience of all of us since childhood. It long ago received the seal of academic approval, which Housman calls 'the second death'; its lumpish sculpture has been taken to the heart of the most establishmentarian corporations and government departments; its half-dimensional stripes and squares masquerade as paintings on the mantelpieces of New York stockbrokers. It is a paradox unique to our time that a traditionalism which has long lost its energies and spirits should yet contrive to be 'new', so that we still have to insist that it is a post-modernist rather than a pre-modernist generation which now points out its deficiencies. It is the younger and fresher writers in the architectural journals who are now insisting that American Victorian architecture is better man me postGropius stuff. It is Tom Wolfe, from the heart of the New York art world, who (in his The Painted Word) familiarly and devastatingly destroys the pretensions of the cycle of schools of pseudoart which followed the—already bad enough—American neo-expressionists.

And so it is with literature. I should perhaps add that you can check my own case by looking at the Penguin Book of Surrealist Verse where a poem of mine written in my teens is displayed, I fear, for all to see. Indeed, while in this confessional mood, I will go further and admit that the earliest of my manuscripts that I can find is not only surrealist prose but aggravates the offence by actually being in French…

Modernism does not appear to be a literary movement in the older sense. The relation between it and the sensibility of the age seems quite different from anything that has preceded it. A special disjunction has taken place. But at what point does this occur?

I think we can, if only roughly, set up a criterion. First, by asking ourselves whether the changes in scope as seen in the novels of Proust, James, Lawrence, Svevo and the early Joyce were broader and more radical, or even as broad and as radical, as those of me novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as compared with their predecessors. We must surely answer no. So let me first of all distinguish between me 'modern', naturally different from the art of previous periods, in reflecting a different sensibility, and the 'modernist'—something, in principle, total and revolutionary, which in prose one may associate with Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein. In painting, I would place it at Kandinsky and Picasso, at the point they had reached in 1914, (when they were so nominated by Pound)—or, possibly a little earlier, with Braque's first formulation of the idea of painting without content, around 1910.

In poetry… but first let us remember the deplorable state of English poetry in the first decade of this century. While the freshest prose reading, or seeing, of the man of cultural fashion was Wells and Bennett, Ibsen and Nietzsche and Shaw, in our poetry the leading names were—William Watson and Stephen Phillips.

The point at which, among other reactions against this sub-Victorian stuff, a specific modernism set in may be taken as the conscious setting up of Imagism around 1913, and the imported impact of Futurism, founded around 1907, but reaching Britain in 1912—containing all the ideas which were to infest poetic modernism for generations—above all, what Wordsworth speaks of as a 'degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation'.

Thus, from all these dates, it will be seen that modernism was not the product of a violent period, but of a peaceful period seeking violence.

So much for its birth. What about its life and, I would argue, its recent death. But, you will say, is it yet time to have an inquest? Modernism is more pervasive than ever among a huge semi-educated class. At the Tate, in the English Departments, its momentum is not yet spent. Yet it is dead, or nearly dead, as a live idea inspiring worth-while work. So that when, for example, one reads Philip Toynbee enthusing over Mr John Berger in The Observer (June 3, 1979) it is as though one was listening, in the reign of Queen Anne, to an elderly Shaker praising the zeal of some veteran Fifth Monarchy Man. And the temperament involved does indeed seem to be that which seeks a final revelation in fields where no such revelation is possible.

Modernism is sometimes distinguished from other movements in literature by its greater programmatic self-consciousness. This might be disputed: one could put forward such documents as the Introduction to the Lyrical Ballads, to say nothing of the poetic manifestoes of French and other schools long preceding Mallarmé and Rimbaud. We may feel, rather, that it is not so much the existence as the totality, the omnipresence of the programmatic side of modernism that makes the difference.

In Ortega y Gasset's extraordinary essay 'The Dehumanization of Art' he takes the line that the urge behind the modernist visual art was to deny the public any pleasure but the purely aesthetic. But once such over-conscious ploys are adhered to, a great change has taken place. Neither Cézanne nor Van Gogh painted according to theory. It was the complex unarticulated directions given them by their own psyches which formed their work, rather than any programme.

With their successors, the role of the explanation of the painting became more and more important. The aim in the first place was to stop painting having any 'literary' appeal. First, of course, story and situation were removed; then human beings; then any physical object whatever. And so on, until in the world of neo-expressionism it was thought that some colours were more sentimental than others so only harsh shades were permitted; then it was felt that the texture still gave a sentimental result—so only smooth brush strokes of a single uninteresting colour were permitted. As Tom Wolfe says, these paintings gradually became nothing more than illustrations of verbal instruction—in fact, paradoxically, 'literary' to an infinite degree.

This implies a knowledge of the way in which art works on us. We do not in fact have that knowledge. It follows that theory must base itself on what we do know, which is to say on comparatively superficial aspects of the subject, or on ignorant fantasy.

Readers of poetry too often seemed by long training to have suppressed their direct responses and replaced them by an unnatural set of automatisms drawn from such critical theory. However, no critical machinery has yet been devised which can take over from the intelligent sensibility the job of deciding what poems are good—are readable, moving and felicitious. If you go on wearing a straitjacket long enough you lose the use of your arms.

At any rate, theory became the main driving force. Critics abounded. (That ours is an age of criticism and at the same time of frigid inventiveness is surely no coincidence. It was true to an important degree of ancient Alexandria.)

One new phenomenon of our time was the establishment of English schools and departments in the universities at about the same time as modernism arose. For the first time we had a specific and separate group guaranteed exceptionally qualified to judge literature, as against that larger, more heterogeneous set of people constituting the cultural community.

Academic critics claimed to be the only people competent to discuss poetry properly and indeed to prescribe its forms, methods, and contents. This is as if a claim should be put forth that cricket should only be discussed by professors of ballistics. The American poet Karl Shapiro remarks that though he has known scores of poets he has almost never heard from them the adulation of Eliot that is found in the text-books.

To quote from a recent book of mine:

In the old days no one paid much attention to the low-level critics. They knew their place: Grub Street. But in the first decades of this century the foundation of English schools and departments in the universities suddenly gave them status. Alf Shagpen, wheedling the price of a pint of porter from the editor of Blackwood's, became Doctor A. Shagpen, D. Litt., author of Texture and Tension in Thomas Traherne. The increase in sophistication was not accompanied by any improvement in taste, and the greater systematization of his delusions was far from representing an improvement in sanity, but the fellow was now an Authority.

Soon he found himself envying the other "disciplines". Perhaps he too could be a scientist and achieve rigour. Perhaps he too could imitate the philosophers and speak for the ultimate springs of human life. The trouble was, that he was trained in neither the scientific nor the philosophical disciplines.

We may thus feel that a central fault in all the various attitudes of modernism lay in pursuing an aesthetic half-truth, or quarter-truth, to extremes. As a result, Philip Larkin pointed out some twenty years ago, poetry 'lost its old audience, and gained a new one. This has been caused by the consequences of a cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic (three classes now notoriously indistinguishable): it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the poet has gained the happy position wherein he can praise his own poetry in the press and explain it in the classroom, and the reader has been bullied into giving up the consumer's power to say I don't like this, bring me something different… if the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions.'

One great delusion which has added to our troubles is that every country and every period now believes itself entitled to its share of great poets, authors, painters, and so forth. This is obviously untrue. There have been important periods in important countries which have produced nothing worthwhile. The rationing of talent is grossly unfair. Two great poets and one pretty good one in a century in the tiny Duchy of Ferrara and nothing to match them in the whole of Italy put together over the next two or three centuries is a typical story. Today the USA in particular feels entitled to its share of Great Creativity, so we get Jackson Pollock and de Kooning—and I say nothing of the painters that followed them—treated as though they were Rembrandt and Cézanne.

A further point is the mere proliferation of 'artists'. There are now, for example, more professional painters in the West than have existed in the whole world throughout previous history. None unfortunately is up to an apprentice of an assistant of Fra Lippo Lippi. When it comes to poets…

By about 1920, modernism had become fashionable: as Osbert Lancaster put it, 'art came once more to roost among the duchesses.' Modernism in the visual arts was overwhelmingly institutionalized by 1929—that is exactly half a century ago—when the New York Museum of Modern Art was founded in John D. Rockefeller's living room, as Tom Wolfe puts it, 'with Goodyears, Blisses, and Crowninshields in attendance.' Soon (and recognize the parallel in England with Shell advertisements) the Container Corporation of America was commissioning Léger and Henry Moore, and then undertook a long-running advertising campaign in which (as Wolfe says) 'it would run a Great Idea by a noted savant at the top of the page, one of them being 'Hitch your wagon to a star'—Ralph Waldo Emerson. Underneath would be a picture of a Cubist horse strangling on a banana.'

We finally reached the absurdity of alienation being rewarded by the establishment: of Picasso, the Lord Leighton of the period, approved by academics and patrons alike; of bigtime Bohemianism; of knighthoods accepted by anarchists and surrealists—Sir Herbert Read, Sir Ronald Penrose.

At first it had been only the academics and the duchesses who admired the new art. Ortega y Gasset remarked, 'Modern art… will always have the masses against it. It is essentially unpopular; moreover, it is antipopular. He went on to say that its works automatically divided the general public into two groups: one very small, formed by those who are favorably inclined towards it; another very large—the hostile majority. (Let us ignore that ambiguous fauna—the snobs.)'

But this description is no longer recognisable or alternatively the 'snobs' have proliferated to an inordinate degree. Starting about twenty-five years ago came a second phase of modernism. Surrealism found a new audience, this time not in an elite innovative group, but as a mass-culture phenomenon. It need hardly be said that its quality catastrophically declined in the process… But it dominated, or at least deeply affected, the fashionable young, the fashionable media.

A. E. Housman decries the soul which 'commands no outlook upon the past or future, but believes that the fashion of the present, unlike all fashions heretofore, will endure perpetually, and that its own flimsy tabernacle of second-hand opinions is a habitation for everlasting.' Nor should we imagine that even the most impressive-looking Kulturtraeger are exempt from the appeal of mere fashion. As ever, they are the product of their time and their experience. If they can go wrong even more spectacularly than their predecessors, it is because modernism, and in particular modernist pseudo-aesthetics, opens up such a wide range of pointless or meaningless effort.

The crux, the main and major disjunction in all fields, was when the artist took the decision to abandon the laity.

It may be argued that artistic alienation had been around for a century, ever since the 'superfluous man' of Lermontov, the Byron of continental imagination, the romantic idea of the mad or maddish poet, grandly isolated from the rest of mankind. As W. H. Auden puts it,

Chimeras mauled them, they wasted away with the
Suicide picked them off; sunk off Cape
Lost on the Tosspot Seas, wrecked on the
Gibbering Isles
Or trapped in the ice of despair at the Soul's

With this notion of artistic alienation came the similar, but logically distinct element of the existential human in his condition; and with the 20th century, though deriving from earlier thought, came Angst.

It has often been said that the decline of religion led to the idea that art could undertake, in some obscure way, the salvation of mankind. This is an idea which preceded modernism, and which was not in this form generally accepted by modernists. Nevertheless, they did regard their work as in some sense transcending any other. And this could not but add to their self-importance.

At a less pretentious level, it is natural that an artist gets bored with doing what he can do, and goes on to try to do what he can't do, or what can't be done at all. But the writer and artist pressed his autonomy too far, into the direction of almost total independence from an audience.

In poetry, surely, the first true modernist is Mallarmé. And indeed, modernist verse has always been much affected by its French origins. But the whole circumstances for French verse were different from English. Loose metres have been permissible here since Tudor times. Mixed images have been natural to us for centuries:

Pity, like a naked new-born babe/Striding the blast. This would have been impossible in French. In fact, French translation even of Shakespeare was unable to cope until quite recently—with Yves Bonnefoy. Earlier attempts, for example, at

She that is Queen of Tunis, she that dwells
Ten leagues beyond man's life

always came out something like:

… dix lieux par delà la distance un
homme pourrait atteindre en voyageant pendant
toute da vie

Thus, it was a theory originally produced in France to give the French poets some of the liberties already enjoyed by their English colleagues, which was supererogarorily brought to England early this century.

Even if its proponents did not say that all obscurity is profound—and they came near to saying that—they certainly said that all profundity is obscure. But a muddy puddle may pretend to any depth: a clear pool cannot. Coleridge writes somewhere that he read one of Dante's shorter poems every year for ten years, always finding more in it. This did not mean that it lacked comprehensibility at first reading; merely that in this comprehensibility there were resonances which did not immediately declare themselves.

Mallarmé's own poems are not 'difficult' as to meaning. They have no meaning, in any ordinary sense, beyond what is there, given, in their words. They have, it is true, other effects, but these are effects which are also seen, in addition to, or fused with, ordinary meaning in poems of all types. His poetry is, in fact, ordinary poetry with one of its components omitted. This is not, in itself, to say that it is inferior. And the Mallarméan argument would of course admit the point, claiming that its poetry is 'pure'—claiming, that is, that the extra content of ordinary verse constitutes a dilution.

Even on this argument, it cannot be said that his poetry has some extra level of meaning, as against an omissive technique which may or may not give some different illumination. 'Symbolism' is a misleading word. Something like Penumbrism, or Obliquism, should have been selected.

The point in favour of these procedures is that a different and possibly rewarding effect may be gained by looking from a different angle, at the object of one's attention. The counter argument is obvious—do both.

Mallarmé provided velleity, but further development of the principles which the next generation drew from his work led to Marinetti and worse, to poets of whom it could be complained, in Housman's words, 'you treat us as Nebuchadnezzar did the Chaldeans, and expect us to find out the dream as well as the interpretation.'

Modernism often got by on the simple argument that people had (or so modernists said) laughed at Beethoven. There is of course a logical fallacy involved. But more to the point is the fact that people with the highest reputation as innovators at a given period—Klopstock for example—are equally often regarded with horrified boredom by posterity.

But it is also relevant that the 'controversial' side of a 'new' artist often has little to do with any real quality he may exhibit. Indeed, when the novelty is little more than novelty pure and simple, reputations die with astonishing speed. An example is of Epstein whose immensely famous 'Genesis' is, I believe, lying in a rubbish heap in one of the keepers' compounds in Battersea Park. Quite recently, such superficial attention was briefly secured in poetry by the most extravagant soul-and-body airing by writers in the recent confessional mode, such as Anne Sexton…

When the English modernist mode began the most visible talker and writer was Ezra Pound. In examining his supposed novelty we find two main components. First, verse which is apparently 'free' but is usually in effect a sort of resolved Whitmanesque hexameter: (and right through his career we find his allegedly 'new' artifacts crammed with 'thou' and 'didst' and all that). On the other hand (leaving aside economic and other nonsense), the main run of the more admired portions of the Cantos is little more than that Imagism which Hilda Doolittle and others developed from their notion of Japanese verse. The original conception was clearly limited to fairly short and fairly unified lyrics, and would have been better if it had been left there.

As to free verse, once it had established itself in the 1920's, in England it became pervasive. The school magazines of expensive girl's schools—always keener on 'creativity' than boy's schools—were full of vague pieces of chopped up prose with vaguely emotional content by the thirties, perhaps earlier. Which may remind us that one notoriously bad effect of 'free' verse is that large numbers of people educated during the last half century no longer understand the structure of real verse.

W. H. Auden was to remark in his later years

I cannot settle which is worse
The anti-novel or free verse…

The truly astonishing discovery made by free versifier and anti-novelist alike was how much they could get away with. People have taken seriously, in recent times, novels consisting of loose pages in a box which the reader is invited to shuffle in any order he likes. It was of such things, and the many worse ones which will be familiar to all of you, that Philip Larkin writes: 'The adjective "modern", when applied to any branch of art, means "designed to evoke incomprehension, anger, boredom or laughter'" and defines modernism as 'tending towards the silly, the disagreeable and the frigid'.

In a fuller context the same writer tells us:

I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power.

No account of modernism can be complete without some reference to Freud. The extent to which Freudianism was taken as the last word on the human mind, the huge influence of the psychoanalytic myth, may surprise us nowadays. Yet it is worth remembering how fresh—and indeed shockingly so—was the Freudian concentration on sexuality. In particular every 'advanced' young man and woman was able to point to what were still thought as disreputable motives in all the actions of their elders or rivals. The idea of the Unconscious as a major—in fact senior—partner in the personality led directly, of course, to surrealism. But it also led in a less doctrinaire way to a treatment of images, in verse and prose, on a far more self-conscious basis that had yet been seen.

And then there was Marxism, which purported to give more or less final and definite answers to all matters of human society and behaviour. To this attraction was added the fact that (like Freudianism) its mechanisms were so flexible that anything whatever could be fitted in somehow.

Is there then a connection between political radicalism and the aesthetic radicalism we call 'modernism'?

The appeal of Marxism and in general of theories implying that history could now about to be brought to its final conclusion in the form of a perfect order, exhibited a certain parallel with the views taken by sponsors of modernist aesthetics—that an entirely new form of liberated art was now available, and that there would be no looking back. In both cases the predictions were false, and false for similar psychological reasons—a taste for novelty raised almost to a metaphysic, and a failure to consider that the intellectual fashions of any period, including one's own, eventually give way to something else.

Except for satire in its narrowest sense, there is remark-ably little good political poetry in English. Even really good causes, far from being productive of good poetry, seem to have been sources of bathos, and this is true even of our greatest poets. As J. C. Furnas remarks in his scholarly and sensitive study of slavery, The Road to Harpers Ferry, 'When touching on slavery, Cowper, Blake, Wordsworth and Southey produced drivel'. Less good, or at any rate less straightforward causes, handled by greatly inferior poets, are more characteristic of our own time.

Few English poets have much experience of the political. They have generous impulses, no doubt, and concern for humanity. These can be expressed in various ways and are not sufficient for a poem involving facts. On political issues it is extremely rare for the facts to be so clear, and the human involvement so direct and simple, as to approach the immediacy and undeniability of experience.

Not that even those few poets with some political knowledge and experience find it easy to produce political poems. Lawrence Durrell, one of those few, has dealt directly with political events in prose, in Bitter Lemons. But in the poem which concludes this book, as soon as he approaches the subject he had the modesty, a sense of the subject's intractibility, to write: 'Better leave the rest unsaid'. Excellent advice, for several reasons.

The Mexican painters like Rivera well illustrate one aspect of political modernism. And it is clear that an important part of the impact and the effect of their 'new' art was due far more to the political type of content than to the quasi-cubism involved in the forms chosen, In the palace at Chapultepec, one may see romantic revolutionary paintings of a century ago, showing liberators like Juarez and Diaz crushing venimous foes, etc., to the applause and enthusiasm of romantically conceived peasants and of 'The People' in general. The difference between these and the more modern Mexican paintings is not great: and indeed the later generation owes a good deal not merely to this political inheritance but also to an element of primitivism already to be seen in their predecessors.

In fact art with a 'revolutionary' component of the political sort is very much a traditionalist form. The only exception I have come across, where a genuine new impulse seems visible, is in the strange statuary of Kemalist Turkey with its earthy New Turks pushing up out of the soil. Here, perhaps, novelty may be due to a total previous lack of representational art.

One should also note a sentiment not exactly political but strongly tied up with attitudes to politics: the attraction avant-garde art had for those among the rich and privileged who felt guilty about their status. Just as with supporting or appeasing enemies of the bourgeoisie from Lenin to the Viet-Cong, there was (as Tom Woolfe puts it) 'a peculiarly modern reward that the avant-garde artist can give his benefactor: namely, the feeling that he, like his mate the artist, is separate from and aloof from the bourgeoisie, the middle class'—(though as I quote this I have to add that many unaffected by radical chic in politics were susceptible to its manifestations in the arts; that the right-wing National Review for example, is still a bastion of Poundism and so forth.)

This enmity of artists to 'capitalism' and the 'bourgeoisie' is a sign: precisely of this radical temperament—. Of course, the notion that 'capitalism' is hostile to art is in itself absurd. In fact, capitalist or bourgeois patronage has often marked a great flowering of art: the Medicis; Venice and Holland; or, to go further back, the great merchant-republic of Athens.

In the first and second decades of this century there was an immense ferment of revolutionary-sounding attitudes and these attracted precisely some of the aesthetically radical—Marinetti into Fascism, Mayakovsky into Bolshevism. Lenin, indeed disliked the futurists, and referred to Mayakovsky's views as 'hooligan communism', but his cultural Commissar Lunacharsky supported them. It is hard to remember now that political posters by Chagal were plastered on the trams in Vitebsk after the revolution. And outside Russia, a typical enough figure of time was Ernst Toller, modernist playwright and revolutionary prisoner.

The revolutionary temperament emerged vis-à-vis a prerevolutionary society, and this involved sharp and continual criticism of everything. But when a revolution comes, the ruling party is committed to a single truth, and thus to the destruction of the hitherto powerful critical faculty within its own ranks. So it was of course wholly misleading when the Nazis denounced modernism as Kulturbolschewismus: official Soviet art, by the mid-20's, had become clearly Victorianised. Even so, some Soviet attraction remained.

Surrealism, of course was, in its origins, a highly doctrinaire and tight little movement, and one with a political commitment to communism. Andre Bréton, as its chief theorist, took this into a more Trotskyite, anti-Soviet direction. But many of its adherents turned to Stalinism, in particular Louis Aragon but also to some degree Eluard.

And, even though orthodox Communism repudiated modernist principles, there were plenty of 'modernists' from Picasso to Neruda, who happily went along with it even in its most Stalinist phase.

And on this issue, Brecht, whose intense artistic commitment to extremes of honesty is spoken of in the most lachrymose fashion in the drama departments of universities around the west, was totally dishonest at every level when it came to politics. No one, not even Sartre, has such a despicable record: and yet, politics formed a decisive element in his aesthetics. There is a certain paradox in the comparison between the subtlety and complexity sought by such writers in the structure of their prose and verse, and the complete crudity of the politics they embraced.

And what good did come of it at last? When we look back we can, surely, say that the great revolution which the modernists thought they were bringing about simply failed.

But that is not the whole story. First of all, even if they were not as world-shaking as they imagined, they may still have left us some valuable, if peripheral, work. Such a modest contribution, after all, is all that Mallarmé claimed: 'Pour moi, le vers classique—que j'appellerai le vers officiel—est la grande nef de cette basilique ia Poesie franaaise'; le vers libre, lui, edifie les bas-côtes pleins d'attirance, de mystère, de somptuosités rares.'

It is a remarkable fact that despite the opposition of well-established academics, (a real priesthood of modernism), the more recent works which have against these odds forced themselves on the educated mind as the best writing of the last two or three decades are almost entirely 'non-modernist'. In Britain the novels of Anthony Powell and Graham Greene have little resemblance to Finnegans Wake or To the Lighthouse. The poetry of Auden and Larkin is almost ostentatiously 'unmodern' and mostly in traditional forms. But is there something of value that these writers of our generation have after all inherited from modernism.

I think there is.

Our rhythms have been loosened; our rhyme and assonance scheme has broadened; obliqueness—in verse or prose—is available on those occasions where it seems to work.

Such things as the attempt, in painting, to disentangle pattern from content may have its point in providing some sort of partial insight into why a great painting of the Quattrocento produced its effects, even if as a prescription for present work it failed. (It is a curious thought that even today, of our two most successful playwrights, one presents more or less emotional plays with a minimum of rationality; the other rationality carried to the point of lecturing.)

The inventiveness sometimes produced charming or interesting results as with a 'poem' of Arp's consisting of a square or oblong with, instead of pictorial detail, the words describing each part of a presumed painting, nicely phrased.

There was, also an element, and often a very attractive one, of joking in the early avant garde. Dada showed this to a very high degree. But the Dadaists mostly went on to Sur-realism. And although the latter contained an element of rather heavy-handed wit, this came largely a matter of ageing charlatans like Salvador Dali, embraced by, instead of shocking the bourgeois taste. On the whole, surrealism and its derivatives were merely solemn. As Auden writes:

With what conviction the young man spoke
When he thought his nonsense rather a joke;
Now, when he doesn't doubt any more,
No-one believes the booming old bore.

Still one finds the saving note of the comic not only in E. E. Cummings, but also in Dylan Thomas for example—even at his most portentous he seems to fit Lautreamont's description of Byron: 'L'hippotame des jungles infernales' : more sympathetic, even as a monster, than the tyrannosaurs then infesting the continental countries.

Then, we are (of course) much freer on sexual themes, and even in the use of obscene words—which are to be found even in such works as A Dance to the Music of Time. But it is hard to believe that the uptightness which came into its own round the end of the last century and went on in publishing circles for another 30-40 years, would not have anyhow given way to a more liberal view as previously puritanical episodes have always done. In fact the 'modernist' contribution proper, whether associated with Freud, with radical anti-bourgeois notions, or with verbal theory, seems if anything to have been comparatively harmful—in that a gross excess of obscenity was thrust upon us in such things as the works of William Burroughs.

When it comes to a general consideration of modernism, was there another way open, back in the years following the turn of the century? Perhaps not. The arts were, it seems, driven in new directions in part at least by the mere exhaustion of the old at that particular time.

I think we should recognize the freshness, the excitement, which affected the young as they came for the first time in contact with these new works which their elders found shockingly incomprehensible. In my teens, I will recall the first surrealists, the first copies of New Verse and Twentieth Century Verse. (It is true that one found almost equal excitement in science fiction and jazz, both of which reached one through more ordinary channels: Wells and Verne preceding Astounding Stories, ragtime preceding swing.)

Of our reading of the time, what has survived? First of all, I think one should say that the victory of modernism in the minds of the young was never that total, that totalitarian sweep envisaged by its true believers. We (and Auden and Eliot too) continued to read Housman and Kipling.

But who would we regard as a 'modernist' poet in English? To us, today, Eliot, Yeats, Auden appear traditionalists. With Dylan Thomas one may perhaps think that something wholly novel has been achieved. His poems, or many of them, are indeed the declamatory output of images scarcely connected at any conscious seeming level. Still, there is nothing new in this idea of merely incantatory poetry, with little obviously 'rational' content. It was no less a product of classicism than Gibbon himself who spoke of the alternative aims of poetry being to 'satisfy or silence our reason'. Moreover, incomprehensibility and pointlessness are not the same thing. There is nothing 'incomprehensible' about a pile of bricks or a 'concrete' poem…

What I am suggesting is that many writers claimed as modernist were merely modern. Which is not to say that they were not affected by modernism, or experimentalism, proper, to various degrees. Thomas can properly be regarded, surely, as at least heavily charged with modernism: and we can add that it is his more 'modernist' verse ('altar-wise by owl-light') which fades most quickly from our view—together to be fair, with some of his slacker and later poems. Yet much remains—as can also be said of that true surrealist Kenneth Allott, though it may be noted that in both these cases disjunction of sense is matched by considerable rigour of form.

We have indeed been enriched by modernism: though, as I have suggested, the damage its attitudes have done in deadening both audience and mass sensibility by mere excess remains with us still.

In 1960 Pasternak, himself a modernist of the Russian Silver Age, said that

… all this writing of the Twenties has terribly aged… our works were dictated by the times. They lacked universality… I have never understood those dreams of a new language, of a completely original form of expression. Because of this dream much of the work of the Twenties which was stylistic experimentation has ceased to exist. The most extraordinary discoveries are made when the artist is overwhelmed by what he has to say. Then he uses the old language in his urgency and the old language is transformed from within.

That seems a very good summing up. Modernism was above all an attempt to create something which was not merely new in the sense that previous movements have been new, but radier a commitment to total and endless modernising and remodernising, a Permanent Revolution.

When this led to the pointless and the meaningless, it became the main mission of the modernist type of mind less to produce or even procure this rubbish, than to explicate endlessly on its supposed value.

Having said all this, let me nevertheless quote a recent poem of that arch-anti-modernist Philip Larkin:

Mussels, limpets
Husband their tenacity,
In the freezing slither.

We may agree that such lines could hardly have been written but for the modernist interlude and its effect on the language.

To justify the destructive side of it is another matter. Above all, modernism as such has failed heavily in its claim to be fresh, new, lively. The expression 'The Lively Arts', if in a decadent and degraded way, represents the essential claim made. On them, at least, we may suggest an epitaph.

Their constant cry
Was Never say die,
Which they're dead
Without having said.

William A. Johnsen

SOURCE: "Toward a Redefinition of Modernism," in Boundary 2, Vol. 2, No. 3, Spring, 1974, pp. 539-54.

[In the following essay, Johnsen suggests a new definition of Modernism based on the rejection of such "binary oppositions" as order and chaos.]

Deux dangers ne cessent
de menacer le monde:
l'ordre et le desordre.

—P. Valéry

Students of modern literature of whatever period have always justly admired the emerging artist's compulsion to be modern, to make it new. Western civilization's obsessive use of the adjectives "modern" and "new" to describe its current cultural artifacts has never been more prevalent than in what we call, appropriately, the Modern Century. Yet these adjectives also create a climate of relentless avantgardism that makes heavy demands on both emerging and pre-existing art. If our task as modern scholars is to do more than merchandize the newest sensibilities, we must investigate that compulsion to be modern as well as its latest manifestation. In fact, we cannot adequately define our period style until we understand the dynamics of modernism, for every attempt to finish off Modernism becomes another Modernism.

With few exceptions, discussions of the Modern period of Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce are based on Eliot's formulation of the "mythical method." The Moderns faced a world devoid of order; fearing entropy, they intuited, primarily through the potentialities of metaphor and myth, an order behind, within, or above the chaos of modern experience. Yeats' gyres, Eliot's Classicism, Joyce's system of allusion and cyclical history are descriptions of this order released through assuming masks, personae, or other modes of impersonality.

The general movement to define, even circumscribe, the sensibility of the Modern period is complex—generated at times by the feeling that we cannot sustain the special intensity of Modernism, at times by a sense that we have fashioned or must fashion for ourselves a new sensibility different from or in opposition to the canonical Moderns, perhaps, in some cases, by a resigned admission that if we are to get on with the business of describing historical periods we must somewhat regretfully close the door on further specimens.

Harry Levin's 1960 essay "What Was Modernism" is a representative attempt to distinguish Modernism from a postmodern sensibility. Levin feels a kinship with Dryden looking back from the Restoration to the Elizabethans, contrasting earlier strength with later refinement. Levin's gentle farewell to Modernism allows for the new sensibility only the task of consolidating and assimilating the fruits of Modernism, but his intuition that it is time to distinguish the modern from the new sensibility is shared by other students of Modernism with a more energetic sense of what the new sensibility must do.

Charles Olson sought to extend the musical quality of verse reclaimed by Pound and the Imagists to include the breath making the music. At first glance, Olson's 1950 essay "Projective Verse" merely consolidates and assimilates Imagist principles and, in particular, Pound's later conception of the poem as a high energy construct but, in fact, Olson's extension of Modernism subtly but effectively alters the Modernist relation of poet to audience. "What we have suffered from, is manuscript, press, the removal of verse from its producer and its reproducer, the voice, a removal by one, by two removes from its place of origin and its destination. For the breath has a double meaning which latin had not yet lost." Olson extends Imagist esthetics to suggest what the reader is to do with that energy Pound would transfer via the poem. In Modernist esthetics, a poem contains a quantum of energy gotten from somewhere, transferred by an impersonalized or masked poet to an unseen audience. Olson's poet uses the typewriter to program an oral performance of the poem that reproduces, reincarnates his spiritus through the reader's own voice. Robert Duncan's "An Owl Is An Only Bird Of Poetry" provides a nearly perfect example of Projectivist esthetics. Next to Figure 2, a drawing of the interlocking fingergrip necessary to reproduce the hoot of an owl, mouthpiece pointed towards the reader, are the lines

The consonants are a church of
hands interlocking, stops
and measures of fingerings
that confine the spirit to
articulations of space and time.

The hands, like the poem, urge the spirit to a sacrament of immanence: articulations of space and time. The reader is invited to put his mouth to the poem, take a deep breath necessary to play the poet's fingering, thus drawing in the poet's spirit that he will reproduce with his own breath. The implications of this revisioning must be left for another time, but we can note at least how far we have moved from Stephen Dedalus' notion of dramatic art—projectivist esthetics is closer to Longinian ecstasis than Aristotelian catharsis. Contemporary poetry as a whole, in so far as it can be described as more personal than dramatic, attempts to achieve that Longinian relation of poet to audience which Northrop Frye describes as an "ideal union in which poet, poem, and reader participate."

William Spanos has distinguished the modern from the postmodern imagination by their attitude towards time. For Spanos, the moving spirit behind Imagism, Stephen Dedalus' esthetics, Yeats' artifice of eternity, and New Criticism has its

specific source in the obsessive effort of the modern literary imagination to escape the destructive impact of time and change, of which a disintegrating cosmic order has made it acutely and painfully conscious, by way of achieving the timeless eternity of the esthetic moment or, rather, of "spatial form."

Thus, argues Spanos, the Moderns' interest in Worringer's theory of abstraction and empathy: man, at home in the world, imitates its natural forms; at odds with a dreadful world, he prefers a geometric art. The choice between empathy with a hospitable world and transcendence of a hostile world avoids the third possibility of encountering a dreadful world that the postmodern imagination is now and should continue to explore through an art that confronts rather than flees from time.

Iris Murdoch, in "The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited," diagnoses Modern literature as suffering from the pervasive influence of Symbolists like Eliot, Hulme, and Richards who believed that art had been erroneously conceived in human terms. What they wanted, she argues, were small, clean, resonant, self-contained things of which the image or the symbol was the type: art, including literature, should be the creation of such unique self-contained things. The motive for this purity is a fear of contingency, a yearning to pierce through the messy phenomenal world to some perfect and necessary form and order. The self-contained art work is an analogon for the good man, the self-contained individual. Modern literature presents us with the triumph of myth as a solipsistic form. Modern Man is Totalitarian Man, alone, intolerant toward the messiness of experience and complex, contingent other selves. For the Modern novel, a tightly wrought Symbolist pseudo-poem which extends the author's thinly disguised fantasies and obsessions for private contemplation, Murdoch would substitute a novel open to the undramatic messiness of existence, and complex, contingent other selves that are not mere reflections of the author's troubled psyche. Jake Donaghue, the first person narrator (conventionalized author) of Under the Net, Miss Murdoch's first novel, discovers that his compulsion to see himself as the center of a vast symbolic drama has obscured his perception of others. He learns that he must stop projecting his own plot onto other lives if he is to see them at all. He gives up self-definition for vulnerability, sensitivity, and a sense of wonder towards others.

Richard Wasson has used Murdoch, Robbe-Grillet, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon to characterize the new sensibility of the late fifties and early sixties as "antimyth and antimetaphor."

Contemporary literature reacts against the literature we call modern, the literature represented in English by Yeats, Eliot, and Joyce, in French by Proust, in German by Hesse. Contemporary writers are skeptical of modernist notions of metaphor as a species of supra-rational truth that unifies paradoxical opposites and modernist conceptions of myth which makes it a principle of order for art and of discipline for the subjective self.

Unification, order, discipline, keep the self isolated from an alien world. The Contemporaries would exchange the totalitarian esthetic of the Moderns for an openness to the undramatic relationships between the subjective self, and the world of other men and things. The new sensibility represents an epistemological break with the canonical Moderns, but on a deeper level it is another symptom of our compulsion to be new: postmodernism, out-moderning the moderns.

The Contemporary strategies of antimyth, antimetaphor, being against interpretation, and postmodernism, have a deceptively obvious theoretical similarity; all define themselves by rejecting earlier modes of thought, especially modes peculiar to the Moderns of the early twentieth century. The negative prefix often defines the newest sensibility; Beckett emphasizes that his work is not Joycean, Murdoch calls for a novel opposed to the Modernist delight in order and myth, Robbe-Grillet calls metaphor into question, Susan Sontag is against interpretation, William Hamilton says that the new optimism was born the day T.S. Eliot died.

The new sensibility consistently defines itself by characterizing pre-existing works as old, repressive, and neurotic, then rejecting these works for new works which will provide or make possible what the pre-existing works repressed. A classic Oedipal drama: the tyrannical father and rebellious son fight to save culture from out-rage.

The work of anthropologists, literary critics, and linguists, within the structuralist movement, suggests that the opposition of postmoderns to Moderns contains one of the most typical gestures of the human mind. Many structuralists theorize that man compulsively orders his world by means of differentiation and binary opposition. Edmund Leach has suggested the color spectrum as a useful pedagogical model for explaining these two terms. Man differentiates seven primary colors by ignoring the way each color blends insensibly into the next color. These differentiated colors are further opposed for the sake of further order: red/green, black/white. Structuralists who see this technique as the primary strategy of the human mind have sought the binary opposites common to most cultures, such as hot and cold, raw and cooked. The presence of common underlying structures reveals that opposites such as black and white are inverted mirror images of each other, mutually dependent, ordered by a common point of view (the absence or presence of light).

Contemporaries reject Modernist use of metaphor, history, and myth to support a totalitarian obsession with order, by embracing the freedom of disorder. Their interest in contingency and disorder reveals their attempt to become truly new, to escape what the structuralists see as the common element of all thought: structure, order, and myth. Edward Said, reviewing Lévi-Strauss' The Savage Mind, calls this compulsion for order that structuralism formulates and perpetuates "totalitarianism of mind":

the structure's impulse to totalization derives from the logical observation of the rule of the excluded middle: if there is order and meaning, it must be everywhere. Conversely, if there is no order, there can be no order at all. There is no third possibility. The mind elects the first alternative, perhaps because it cannot tolerate "the blank stare" of a "virgin landscape… so monotonous as to deprive [even] its wildness of all meaning."

Said's description of Lévi-Strauss' system helps us to recognize the underlying principles of the compulsion to be modern. The postmodern sensibility defines itself by differentiating itself from its immediate ancestors, and placing itself in opposition to them. The postmodern conception of Modernism parallels the first alternative Said describes; the order and meaning created or perceived by the poet is expanded over the world. The new sensibility sees itself as exploring the second possibility mentioned above; the lack of personal order is expanded to suggest there is no order at all. Structuralism reveals that these two choices of order or disorder are binary opposites. The Contemporaries are still participating in the closed systems of structure, order, and myth. Their definitions of the new sensibility depend on the old sensibility the way a prefix depends on a noun or verb: disorder, antimetaphor, antimyth. The new is incomprehensible without the old; the new is the old turned upside down or profaned.

A more rewarding approach for modern scholars, especially those with new sensibilities, is not to reject Modernism, but to reread the canonical Moderns through the sensibilities of the Contemporaries. A Contemporary reader, distrustful of the uses of history, metaphor, and myth, finds that same mistrust in Modern writers—finds, in fact, the image of man in Modern Literature confronted by the same polarized alternatives of order or disorder, knowledge or experience, Aristotle or Longinus, Classicism or Romanticism, art or life, speech or silence, faced by the Contemporaries before they choose the second of these opposed terms.

By studying the compulsion to be modern, as well as the latest manifestation of Modernism, we begin to perceive some underlying connections between Moderns and Contemporaries necessary to start writing the literary history of the Modern Century. If one avowed purpose of a modern work is to escape its predecessors, another effect of Modernism is to liberate unperceived insights into pre-existing works: the Contemporaries' aversion to the totalitarian esthetic, sharpened by the insights of structuralism, gives us a new look at the Modern period itself. Newly sensitized to the Moderns' own mistrust of myth and metaphor, we find, allowing for individual permutations, Moderns such as James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence articulating a common, three-fold pattern of experience: (1) Man suffers the frustrating disparity between a fallen outer world of disorder and a more perfect inner world; he exchanges the soft, wet outer world of disorder, contingency and chaos for the hard, dry inner world of metaphor, myth, and history. This is the process that Ortega y Gasset called dehumanization, and Worringer the urge to abstraction, the withdrawal from the natural world towards geometric form. This is the movement in Yeats towards Byzantium, Stephen Dedalus' flight into the world of myth in Joyce, the quest for nonhuman order in Eliot, and the impulse to theorize in Lawrence: 'you are Gothic,' Paul Morel tells Miriam, 'but I am Norman.' (2) Man realizes both the falsification of reality that order irrevocably produces, and his loss of immediate contact with humans and things; confronted with a world becoming ethereal and narcissistic, he returns to reexamine the real, the natural, the unordered. These two movements are represented in Joyce by Stephen's flight from and return to Ireland in Ulysses ("Dublin I have much to learn"). In Yeats, by the waxing and the waning of the moon in "The Phases of the Moon" ("Before the full/It sought itself and afterwards the world"). In Eliot, by the recognition of narcissistic withdrawal in "Ash Wednesday" ("And I pray that I may forget/These matters that with myself I too much discuss") that activates a return to the world. In Lawrence, by a return to sensuality after a surfeit of self-indulgent theory: Paul with Clara, Birkin with Ursula, Kate with Don Cipriano. (3) Facing again two polarized choices, man tries to envision an excluded middle when he comes to understand what the structuralists understand: opposed choices are inverted mirror images of each other, mutually dependent, ordered by a common point of view. Existing between polarities, the excluded middle or third possibility cannot be grasped with the same sureness as the first two stages, but it is glimpsed in Yeats' ability to view the polarities of Nature and Byzantium from some middle ground; in Joyce, the excluded middle is coincidence, the third possibility between order and disorder; in Eliot, sitting still at the still point of the turning world; in Lawrence, the impulse of some protagonists like Paul Morel and Birkin to move beyond the tyranny of polarities set at the end of the novel, of others, like Kate, a vague dissatisfaction with a set of polarized or closed possibilities.

Thus a Contemporary rereading of the Moderns suggests the coherency of the early Modern period and, better still, the Moderns offer to both the Contemporaries and pre-Moderns a glimpse of a third possibility won from their own confrontation with the totalitarian esthetic of differentiation and binary opposition. Now I shall suggest a Contemporary rereading of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus that reveals more completely the three-fold experiential pattern of Modernism and suggest, in concluding, how the reread Moderns return the favor, making possible new perceptions of Contemporary art.

Clongowes Wood College clearly represents for Stephen the soft, wet outer world of disorder, contingency, and chaos. While Stephen stands apart from the football game, watching the flight of the "greasy leather orb," his senses still register yesterday's dunking in the square ditch. Wells has caused Stephen to experience what Norman O. Brown would call an excremental vision; Stephen sees Clongowes, as he will later see Ireland, through the turfcoloured bogwater of the square ditch. He feverishly dreams of escaping this world of queer, unreasoning aggression.

Sitting in the study hall he opened the lid of his desk and changed the number pasted up inside from seventyseven to seventysix. But the Christmas vacation was very far away: but one time it would come because the earth moved round always.

Stephen is consoled when he remembers the world inevitably turns, days pass. He finds relief from a sordid, dis-ordered world by imaginatively removing himself beyond the world until earth, not the cosmos, appears to be rotating.

Imaginatively still in outer space, Stephen continues to experiment with a cosmic view. He looks down at the picture of earth on the first page of his geography book, "a big ball in the middle of clouds." Down the flyleaf he reads his cosmic address, "Stephen Dedalus/ Class of Elements/Clongowes Wood College/Sallins/ County Kildare/Ireland/Europe/The World/The Universe." Fleming, for a cod, had written a matching entry on the facing page:

Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my expectation.

Fleming has shrewdly noted the significance of Stephen's entry and parodied his aspirations. Stephen's heavenward flight is mocked by his earthly companions throughout Portrait.

Stephen's extended musings on his own flyleaf entry become his characteristic attitude towards earth. Stephen reads the list downward, voyaging from the Class of Elements to The Universe, trying to imagine what was after the universe. Attempting to understand the space that encloses all space, Stephen arrives logically at the being that comprehends all space—God, the first entelechy, form of forms. Although there are different names for God, God is the same God and his real name is God. "It made him very tired to think that way. It made him feel his head very big. He turned over the flyleaf and looked wearily at the green round earth in the middle of the maroon clouds. Stephen looks down upon the earth he has left, weary from thinking like God while still inextricably fixed in his earthly position. This weary contemplative pose compromised by earthly existence grows into a scrupulous disdain for commonness and is perfected in a Flaubertian esthetic.

The trip to Cork with his father further aggravates Stephen's hypersensitivity to the commonplace sordidness about him by documenting the decay of the Dedalus fortunes. Stephen's imagination desublimates the idealized forms of Catholic Ireland to reveal their sordid excremental base. Yet Stephen is also frightened by the interstellar spaces that separate him from his own father.

He heard the sob pass loudly down his father's throat and opened his eyes with a nervous impulse. The sunlight breaking suddenly on his sight turned the sky and clouds into a fantastic world of sombre masses with lakelike spaces of dark rosy light. His very brain was sick and powerless. He could scarcely interpret the letters of the signboards of the shops. By his monstrous way of life he seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him. He could respond to no earthly or human appeal, dumb and insensible to the call of summer and gladness and companionship, wearied and dejected by his father's voice.

We have already seen how a cosmic view wearies Stephen, but detachment is now felt as a terrifying separation from human contact. Stephen now feels beyond humanity, beyond earth—an outcast from life's feast.

How strange to think of him passing out of existence in such a way, not by death, but by fading out in the sun or by being lost and forgotten somewhere in the universe! It was strange to see his small body appear again for a moment: a little boy in a grey belted suit. His hands were in his side pockets and his trousers were tucked in at the knees by elastic bands.

The dunking made Stephen allergic to the mold of Irish decay; the resulting fever burnt out his capacity to live on earth. Stephen envisions this process as myth. The effect of the sunlight breaking suddenly on Stephen's sight recalls the fate of Icarus: Daedalus, trying to save his son (here: "when you kick out for yourself, Stephen"), unwittingly prepares his destruction. But the image of the boy that fades in the sun is Stephen's creation; Stephen has assumed the role of Daedalus, father and creator, as well as Icarus. Stephen becomes his own father; by creating, extending, then contemplating an image of himself he recreates the father-son relationship in his imagination. He purifies an earthly existence made troublesome by an incapacity to love and accept love from his father, then recreates a more vivid past self by regarding himself in the third person: an impalpable, imperishable, impersonalized portrait of himself. Earlier in Chapter II, Stephen resolved his distance from Emma by purging their nocturnal encounter of its commonness, transforming it into a poem, and rewriting, strengthening their parts. Stephen replaces erotic and familial relations unfulfilled in the real world with more perfect relations conceived, consummated, and contemplated in his imagination.

Finally, Stephen's cosmic perspective is raised to the level of esthetics.

The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Once again, Stephen has removed himself to a God-like position by refining himself out of earthly existence. The reasons for the rewriting of Stephen Daedalus into Stephen Dedalus must be left for another time and place, but the distinction between the formulation of the artist's role in Stephen Hero and Portrait represents a more critical understanding of the totalitarian mind. In Stephen Hero, the artist must adjust his spiritual eye to the exact focus to perceive an object or human situation reveal its quidditas. Life reveals itself to the scrupulous observer; the artist records these epiphanies for the enlightenment and moral elevation of the public. But in Portrait the esthetic image is life purified in and reprojected from the imagination. The artist confronts not imitations of reality, but extensions of his own imagination that have replaced the world of humans and things.

Ireland does not willingly submit to this purification; Stephen's God-like role is still compromised by earthly existence. An esthetic grounded in Flaubertian scrupulousness and clerical severity ends with "Lady" Boyle's idiosyncrasy of nail paring; a fervent, ritualistic villanelle is interrupted by the memory of the physics hall gibe about ellipsoidal balls; the identification of Cranly as St. John the Precursor is blocked by the memory of Cranly's dark womanish eyes. Stephen can preserve the private world of cosmic significance created by esthetics from the perverting effect of the earthly world of humans and things only by leaving Ireland.

Stephen's return to Dublin in Ulysses, on the strength of his father's request ("Mother dying come home father") acknowledges family ties. Stephen is fulfilling his mother's wish in Portrait that he learn "away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels," initially in Paris, but more completely at home. Stephen's remorse of conscience over his failure to be a better son to his mother is "pain, that was not yet the pain of love" (Italics mine). In Ulysses, Stephen has given up exile to renew contact with men and things: he patiently exposes himself to the law of matter in the Proteus episode, the social graces of urban camaraderie in the Aeolus episode ("Dublin, I have much to learn"), even the treachery of Mulligan and the brutality of Private Carr in the Circe episode as deliberately as he once rejected the material world, trivial conversation, and another's will to shape their relationship. Stephen now dismisses history as a nightmare, a purifying of human experience to generate a few cryptic sentences: the corpsestrewn plain of Tarentum epiphanized into "another victory like that and we are done for." Stephen now argues for the presence, not the absence of the artist's humanity in his work, in the Scylla and Charybdis episode, and persistently mocks the orders made possible by esthetics, myth, and history.

Stephen is the incarnation of the figure of man in the literature of the Modern period I sketched earlier: (1) He first removed himself from earthly existence because he found it chaotic and obscene; his imagination created a better world by inverting the world he rejected. If earthly existence is soft, moist, and chaotic, Stephen will retreat to a hard, dry, orderly world in his imagination populated with appropriate symbolic companions. (2) He returned to earthly life when he found himself separated from men and things; in Ulysses he submits himself indiscriminately to dear dirty Dublin. Ulysses develops towards the revelation of Stephen's initial withdrawal from reality in Portrait (stage 1), and his subsequent immersion in reality in Ulysses (stage 2), as binary opposites in a closed system. Stephen can't escape reality, yet he can't seem to get any closer to it either. The task of Ulysses is to suggest a third alternative to these two opposed choices.

Stephen expresses his commitment to earthly existence and disaffection for myth, history, and transcendental esthetics in the Library and, such are the ironies of Ulysses, the Brothel. His theory of the artist's relation to his work is the binary opposite of A.E. Russell's position, which has similarities to Stephen's earlier theory in Portrait. A.E. stirs the whirlpool of narcissistic, purifying contemplation of formless spiritual essences. Stephen bases the artist's creations on the rock of experiential knowledge. Yet his philosophical dialogue on the primacy of earthly experience does not, as he had hoped, bring him closer to the humanity before him: "What have I learned? Of them? Of me?" He is still in a closed system, where opposed positions are interchangeable. When Mulligan enters the Library, Stephen's position, apparently the opposite of Russell's, is now identified with it. Stephen now represents the whirlpool of all esthetic and philosophical speculation, whether transcendental or experiential, while Mulligan is the rock of sense experience itself. The only constant is his isolation: "My will: his will that confronts me. Seas between." Significantly, if ambiguously, Bloom, like Odysseus, marks out a middle course between Stephen and Mulligan at the end of the chapter, passing out of the Library between them.

The underlying similarity of Stephen's new commitment to and earlier disdain for earthly existence is re-emphasized in the Circe episode. As in Portrait, Stephen must pour his ideas into the skeptical ears of Lynch. On the surface, Stephen is renouncing his earlier belief in esthetics and myth for interpreting the world; Stephen now claims that interpretation is particular and limited, not universal. The psalms that Stephen chants to Lynch are "susceptible of nodes or modes as far apart as hypophrygian and mixolydian and of texts so divergent as priests haihooping round David's that is Circe's or what am I saying Cere's altar and David's tip from the stable to his chief bassoonist about his almightiness." Stephen's miscue substantiates his theory; the drunken interpolation of Circe's name is quite appropriate to his situation thus changing, for a while, the meaning of the psalm. This is the rationale behind the dialectics of the Library. Each reader creates his own Shakespeare: Jew, Irishman, homosexual, shrewridden.

But Stephen's whetstone (Lynch's cap) perceives the underlying principles of binary opposition below his promiscuous theorizing. "(With saturnine spleen.) Bah. It is because it is. Woman's reason. Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet. Death is the highest form of life. Bah!" Challenged, Stephen looses another dagger definition—his theory of the relation of experience to selfhood.

What went forth to the ends of the world to traverse not itself. God, the sun, Shakespeare, a commercial traveller, having itself traversed in reality itself, becomes that self. Wait a moment. Damn that fellow's noise in the street. Self which itself was ineluctibly preconditioned to become. Ecco!

Indiscriminate submission to experience will confirm the self potentially present in the imagination: "If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on his door-steps. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend." Stephen will encounter the world like Mallarme's Hamlet, "lisant au livre de luimeme." Stephen has divided the world of human experience into self (Stephen's) and not-self. In a closed system of binary opposition, opposed terms are inversions of each other, and interchangeable: notself can become self, God can become dog.

The special character of the totalitarian imagination is to expand its own private experience and perception into an assumed general condition. In Portrait, Stephen's totalitarian imagination expanded his personal sense of violation until all Ireland played a part in his drama of heroic rebellion, betrayal, and exile. In Ulysses, Stephen apparently gives up perceiving order in or imposing his own order upon the world for the sake of encountering it, but he is still totalizing his own experience of the intractability of the world to interpretation as a general condition. Further, Stephen isolates himself once more by dramatizing the perceived separateness of self and other as an agon of the self intuiting itself by encountering the notself.

Stephen's failure to encounter reality leaves him as weary and oversensitive as his failure to escape reality left him, at the beginning of Ulysses. In the Cabman shelter, Stephen turns aside Bloom's symbolic victory over the Citizen: "Ex quibus, Stephen mumbled in a noncommital accent, their two or four eyes conversing, Christus or Bloom his name is, or after all, any other, secundem carnem." Tolerance for the particularity and perceptions of others has slackened to a feeling that earthly existence makes any symbolic identification gratuitous. Stephen is still unhappy, alone, unable to live apart from or in the world. Yet by the end of Ulysses, Stephen's illtemper and weariness have been assuaged by that good Samaritan, Leopold Bloom.

If Bloom and Stephen first speak at cross purposes, they eventually establish a mode of conversation that allows easy commerce of their differing opinions. "Was the guest conscious of and did he acknowledge these marks of hospitality? His attention was directed to them by his host jocosely and he accepted them seriously as they drank in jocoserious silence Epp's massproduct the creature cocoa." Bloom and Stephen establish an ambience that makes gestures of affection and graceful acceptance of those gestures possible. By mocking the seriousness of his gesture to disarm it, Bloom makes it possible for Stephen to accept it seriously; together, jocoseriously, they drink their cocoa. Whatever its importance in an elaborate symbolic pattern, Stephen's quiet conversation with Bloom in the kitchen tells us something about Stephen's development as a human being. Molly draws the correct conclusion: "I hope hes not that stuck up university student sort no otherwise he wouldn't go sitting down in the kitchen with him taking Eppss cocoa."

Yet if Stephen can find companionship with Bloom, he also recognizes that Bloom, like Myles Crawford, Mulligan, Haines, and his mother, have asked him to play a prescribed role in a plot designed to order or reorder their lives. Bloom's plot, perceptively unravelled by Stanley Sultan in The Argument of Ulysses, is to get Molly interested in Stephen so that she will drop Boylan, and to catch Stephen for Milly by letting Molly seduce him.

Stephen does not accept Bloom's entire proposal. He considers teaching Molly Italian in return for singing lessons, and participating in intellectual dialogues with Bloom. But the offer of a room in the Bloom household was "promptly, inexplicably, with amicality, gratefully… declined." Stephen does not give himself up indiscriminately to Bloom precisely because he recognizes Bloom as a human being with his own aspirations and problems. Bloom can never be only a symbol of paternal affection, raw experience, or Hebraism in Stephen's plot because he himself is generating symbols and plots.

Stephen shrewdly decides to live elsewhere; to avoid being tyrannized by Bloom's imagination, Stephen must find new forms for their discourse. The counterproposals to Bloom's offer of sanctuary "were alternately advanced, accepted, modified, declined, restated in other terms, reaccepted, ratified, reconfirmed." Stephen accepts Bloom provisionally, but he will create new forms of companionship as the human situation requires. It is Stephen's decision to negotiate, rather than control or be controlled by Bloom, that offers a way out of binary opposition.

Stephen has achieved the state of mind necessary for liberation from the totalitarian frame: disintegration of obsession. Stephen now has the freedom to move among pockets of order and disorder, companionship and betrayal, without obsessively totalizing these experiences. Bloom offers companionship, advice, shelter, and enslavement; Stephen must recognize these various and conflicting possibilities, separate in Bloom what he wants from what he doesn't want, redeem whatever is worth redeeming, and let the rest go. Similarly, Stephen's growing awareness of his mother's love for him leads him to accept, after much agony, the tyranny of her influence. When Stephen leaves Bloom, they hear the bells of St. George's Church. For Stephen, the bells assume a special significance. "Liliata rutilantium. Turma circumdet./ jubilantium te virginum. Chorus excipiat." By making the association of bells, death agony, and the special prayer for the dying, Stephen is at least considering, and perhaps belatedly fulfilling, his mother's last wish that he pray for her. Stephen has resigned himself to the form in which his mother's affection can assert itself. Remorse is the only way Stephen can begin to feel his love for his mother. This tyranny may be painful, but it is the pain of love.

If each character in Ulysses takes part in an elaborate plot based on The Odyssey, as Stuart Gilbert, following Joyce's lead, first showed us, if much of the book seems unordered, as many sceptics since Carl Jung have suggested, another mode of human possibilities in Ulysses is coincidence—the hundreds of parallels in dreams, idle thoughts, gestures, encounters, and acquaintances that, once recognized, proliferate the novel. Coincidence is the excluded middle between order and chaos. Coincidence allows one to recognize a partial, temporary order without totalizing or tyrannizing human experience as orderly or, when the order disappears, chaotic. Coincidence prepares many of the significant human encounters in Ulysses.

This line of reasoning would suggest an adjustment of critical opinion on Ulysses. Much criticism on Joyce has been totalitarian: in Ulysses, jewgreek meets greekjew. The novel is chaotic or orderly, the Homeric parallels ennoble or mock the characters, incidents of plot, character, and narration are primarily surface or symbol. Ulysses must now be approached with a third alternative that recognizes the three modes of human possibility: order, disorder, and coincidence—the partial orders with ragged edges, achieved through juxtaposition, whose spirit defies totalization. Richard Ellmann, in James Joyce, repeatedly emphasizes Joyce's own delight in coincidence. When we accept the possibilities of coincidence we need no longer identify James A. Jackson (Robert M. Adams' nutshell example of surface mistakenly read as symbol) as either surface or symbol, not even as at once surface and symbol, but as another quality of significance that passes beyond surface and symbol. James A. Jackson as a cryptic reference to Joyce (Jack Joyce's son), or a Dublin bicycle racer who lived circa 1904, is less interesting than the name as a fortunate coincidence. When we argue that Stephen is reconciled to the Father in Bloom as Shakespeare, Odysseus, Noah, or that Stephen (or Bloom) is ignorant of the real significance of their encounter, we lose the resonance Ulysses achieves by moving beyond these two opposed choices. Bloom can, and can't be Stephen's Father, but this is paradoxical only for someone who believes Bloom can be only one or the other, or, even, only both.

It is here that I would, belatedly, recognize the fine rereadings of early Modernism suggested by postmodern critics as I try to clarify by contrast the redefinition of modernism I am suggesting. Richard Poirier has established continuities between Modernism and postmodern attitudes by distinguishing Modernism from the interpretative criticism it usually receives.

The literary organizations they adumbrate only to mimic, the schematizations they propose only to show the irrelevance of them to the actualities of experience—these have been extracted by commentators from the contexts that erode them and have been imposed back on the material in the form of designs or meanings.

The climate of compulsive avantgardism that encourages new artists to set themselves in binary opposition to their antecedents generates, in critics sensitive to their own times, a sympathetic rereading of the literature the avante garde would supersede. The best postmodern critics stand in polar opposition to earlier criticism of and during the Modern period, not the Moderns themselves. However grateful we are to critics like Poirier, Spanos, and Wasson, for rescuing Moderns like T. S. Eliot from the charge of Fascist esthetics, and making apparent the value of Modernism for a postmodern sensibility, our rereadings of Modernism must ultimately come to terms with the original contexts of these works to keep from subsuming Modernism under our own postmodern mythology. The attitude of "self parody" (Poirier's term) towards totalitarian esthetic and philosophical structures in the monuments of Modernism must be squared with the undeniable compulsion for order exhibited by Joyce and other moderns and perceived by New Criticism.

I have suggested that we can see both the quest for order and an attempt to escape order in Modernism because the Moderns, intuiting the insidious relationship between two apparently opposed choices, were feeling their way towards an understanding of, and escape from, the techniques of binary opposition which characterize the totalitarian mind. It is clear that criticism must now escape the tyranny of binary opposition. Postmodern critics, released from merely contemplating extensions of themselves by seeing their preoccupations within the context of Modernism, can return to their Contemporaries with new eyes and, possessed of a fuller conception of the Modern Century, they can go back to Milton and Homer, find and then lose themselves once again.

Let me sketch quickly what a reentry into postmodernism from a rereading of Modernism might look like. Newly educated in the possibility of the excluded middle between order and chaos in Joyce, the sign of postmodern esthetics is no longer contingency, antimyth, and antimetaphor, but coincidence. Here Carl Jung's essay "On Synchronicity" and Borges' whole corpus inherit the center of a redefined postmodernism, ranging from a metaphysical attitude towards coincidence in Kesey and Burroughs, towards urbane acceptance in Burgess and Barth. Then, our understanding of and potential liberation from the techniques of binary opposition that characterize the totalitarian mind (gained from a study of the literature of the Modern Century) might discover Milton threading his way between the narcissistic contemplation of one's own creations inherent in both Metaphysical wit and Spenserian copiousness, or Odysseus escaping Achilles' enslavement to the opposed choices of a short glorious life and a long uneventful life, by steering a middle course, being both father and son, patrician and warrior, and much else besides, polutropos. Again, we must not give up the worthy task of retrieving, as best we can, the galaxy of conditions that allows Homer to happen only once, for an indiscriminant modernism. Only when we recognize the Greek's Homer is fulfilled, but not completed, in our Homer, just as the Greek's Homer keeps our Homer from becoming a narcissistic extension of ourselves, do we move beyond the binary opposition of synchrony and diachrony—works frozen in a timeless presence, or condemned to die because they once lived.

Further Reading

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Ellmann, Richard, and Feidelson, Charles, Jr., eds. The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, 953 p.

Presents thematic arrangement of writings by novelists, dramatists, poets, artists, and philosophers.


Davies, Alistair. An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Modernism. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982, 261 p.

Includes books and essays discussing the origins, development, techniques, and cultural context of literary Modernism, and provides comprehensive individual bibliographies on such figures as W. B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot.

Secondary Sources

Bergonzi, Bernard. "The Advent of Modernism, 1900-1920." In The Twentieth Century, edited by Bernard Bergonzi, pp. 17-45. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1970.

Traces the origins and delineates prominent traits of Modernism in English literature.

Craig, David. "Loneliness and Anarchy: Aspects of Modernism." In The Real Foundations: Literature and Social Change, pp. 171-94. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Craig decries expressions of loneliness and anarchy in Modernist literature.

Dettmar, Kevin J. H., ed. Rereading the New: A Backward Glance at Modernism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992, 385 p.

Contains thematically arranged essays that consider the origins of Modernism, Modernist aesthetics, and the relationship of Modernism to popular culture, and offers postmodern assessments of such significant Modernist texts as Ulysses, Heart of Darkness, and To the Lighthouse.

Eysteinsson, Astradur. The Concept of Modernism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990, 265 p.

Examines several theories of literary Modernism, traces Modernism in literary history, and views Modernism in the context of postmodernism and avant-garde aesthetics.

Faulkner, Peter. Modernism. London: Methuen & Co., 1977, 86 p.

Outlines the development of Modernism and focuses on its flourishing from 1910 to 1930 through specific examinations of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence.

Fraser, John. "Leavis, Winters, and 'Tradition'." Southern Review 7, No. 4 (Fall 1971): 963-85.

Defends the critical positions of F. R. Leavis and Yvor Winters who rejected modernist writings that disavowed traditional beliefs and ideas.

Garvin, Harry R., ed. Bucknell Review, Special Issue: Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1980, 193 p.

Contains "Virginia Woolf and Romantic Prometheanism," an essay by L. J. Swingle discussing Virginia Woolf s concept of gaining freedom through artistic creation, and "Defamiliarization, Reflexive Reference, and Modernism," by Donald R. Riccomini.

Giles, Steve, ed. Theorizing Modernism: Essays in Critical Theory. London: Routledge, 1993, 190 p.

Reconsiders Modernism in the context of current critical theory and the dominance of postmodernism in contemporary literature. Contributors to the volume include Richard Sheppard, Bernard McGuirk, David Wragg, Mike Johnson, and Steve Giles.

Hamilton, Alastair. "England." In his The Appeal of Fascism: A Study of Intellectuals and Fascism, 1919-1945, pp. 257-90. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Documents the responses of British writers and intellectuals to the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1930s.

Head, Dominic. The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 241 p.

Identifies the short story as "a quintessentially modernist form" through an examination of works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, and Malcolm Lowry.

Hoffman, Michael J., and Murphy, Patrick D., eds. Critical Essays on American Modernism. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1992, 274 p.

Includes manifestos, theoretical statements, and critical assessments by practitioners of literary Modernism and their contemporaries as well as retrospective analyses of the movement by modern academic critics.

Howe, Irving. "The Culture of Modernism." In his Decline of the New, pp. 3-33. New York: Victor Gollancz, 1971.

Howe identifies major characteristics and underlying principles of Modernism and observes how these relate more generally to modern culture.

Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, 221 p.

Discusses the impact of modernist experimentation on American novels and poetry.

Kiely, Robert, ed. Modernism Reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983, 264 p.

Contains essays focusing on authors outside the front ranks of Modernism and on the lesser known works of major writers of the movement.

Levenson, Michael H. A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine, 1908-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 250 p.

Traces the development of modernist literary doctrine in England from the time Ezra Pound arrived in London in 1908 to 1922, when T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, James Joyce's Ulysses, and W. B. Yeats's Later Poems were published.

Lukács, Georg. "The Ideology of Modernism." In his The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, translated by John and Necke Mander, pp. 17-46. London: Merlin Press, 1963.

Marxist indictment of Modernism, concluding that "modernism leads not only to the destruction of traditional literary forms; it leads to the destruction of literature as such."

Mellard, James M. The Exploded Form: The Modernist Novel in America. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980, 206 p.

Identifies three developmental phases of the modern novel in American literature: naive—exemplified by William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, critical—represented by Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and sophisticated—epitomized by Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America.

Mitchell, Roger. "Modernism Comes to American Poetry: 1908-1920." In Twentieth-Century American Poetry, pp. 25-53. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Studies the introduction of Modernist themes and techniques into American poetry.

Raleigh, John Henry. "Victorian Morals and the Modern Novel." In his Time, Place, and Idea: Essays on the Novel, pp. 137-63. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Discusses the disparity between the strict moral code of the Victorian middleclass with the liberal social standards of the high and low classes of the time and traces two separate traditions that developed out of the great Victorian novel: the Butler-Forster-Lawrence line, emerging from the extremes and the Eliot-James-Conrad-Woolf-Joyce line, representing middle-class consciousness.

Ryan, Judith. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, 267 p.

Examines the importance of pre-Freudian psychology on the development of literary Modernism.

Sherry, Vincent. Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 228 p.

Attempts to reconcile the avant-garde aesthetics of such literary modernists as Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis with their reactionary social ideologies.

Spears, Monroe K. Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970, 278 p.

Traces the development of Modernism in poetry from W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, through the Fugitive poets and the development of New Criticism, to Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, and James Dickey in the 1950s.

Spender, Stephen. The Struggle of the Modern. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963, 266 p.

Defines fundamental qualities of Modernism in art and literature, distinguishes modernists from contemporary writers who did not pursue modernist aims in their works, and provides a context for Modernism within the development of literature since the Romantics.

Stead, C. K. The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966, 198 p.

Focuses on the origins and development of English modernist poetry, offering both general discussion of British poetry from 1909 to 1916 and individual investigation of the works of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot.

Trilling, Lionel. "On the Teaching of Modern Literature." In his Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning, pp. 3-27. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1965.

Calls attention to "a particular theme of modern literature which appears so frequently and with so much authority that it may be said to constitute one of the shaping and controlling ideas of our epoch.… the disenchantment of our culture with culture itself."

Weiss, Theodore. "The Many-Sidedness of Modernism." In his The Man from Porlock: Engagements, 1944-1981, pp. 131-44. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Favorable review of M. L. Rosenthal's Sailing into the Unknown: Yeats, Pound, and Eliot that first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in February 1980.

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Essays and Criticism