The Tradition of Return

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Unlike the Renaissance, which took its title from a “rebirth” of classical learning, the modernism of the twentieth century was named for its aggressive modernity, its refusal of custom and precedent. For Jeffrey M. Perl, however, modernism is a misnomer. Like the Renaissance, the great explosion of creative energy in the early twentieth century should be pictured as a figure turned toward the past, draped respectfully in the authority of the classics. The apparent rebelliousness of both periods has hidden their common tendency to seek inspiration or legitimation from classical ancestors. Taken together, therefore, they form a “tradition of return,” uniting modern literature in a will to escape from the forward rush of history by clutching at the anchor of privileged origins.

The raw materials out of which this argument is built will not be surprising to the student of any of the “modern” periods since 1500. Perhaps because today’s reader is still so close to modernism, however, its particular return to sources has usually been seen as a minor interruption of its revolutionary drive, reassuring to some and troubling to others, but in any case secondary. The Tradition of Return breaks with received opinion by making this return central to the modernism of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and Ezra Pound, among others. With polemical vigor and unabashed sympathy for his subject, Perl launches a full-scale defense of a retrospective or even regressive modernism. The reader should not be misled by occasional bits of more skeptical terminology, such as the appearance of the word “ideology” in the titles of the book’s two parts and in the repeated phrase “nostos ideology.” This latter phrase refers to Odysseus, whose return to Ithaca (nostos is the origin of “nostalgia”) is discussed in the introduction. Perl chooses the homeward-bound Odysseus of The Odyssey for his hero, and not the adventurer of The Iliad (like many other readers, he judges the bloody heroics of the Trojan War to be a big mistake). He presents neither his own choice nor Odysseus’ obstinate homing in on Ithaca as “ideological” in the ordinary sense of the word, nor does he define an extraordinary sense for “ideology” that would allow him to praise the return to roots and sources while also taking some critical distance from it. On the contrary, from the outset, Perl establishes Odysseus’ homecoming as an unquestioned moral touchstone, which teaches, he says, “that life’s signal adventure is the discovery of home.”

The second chapter, devoted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise (1761), extracts from that novel much the same moral. The idealistic, antisocial passion of Saint-Preux and Julie is shown to be unwise; when Julie marries Wolmar and, contrary to everyone’s expectation, is happier than before, Romanticism is checked and mated. Observing the “revolutionary normalcy” of the Wolmars’ marriage, the erstwhile romantic Saint-Preux sees the error of his assault on social convention; he “realizes that the conventional and the ultimate are one.” Conventionality does not exclude the ideal, as he had thought, but can be made to incarnate it. (Can it, though, if Julie must then die?) Moreover, there is no real alternative to home life. Outside conventions is nothing but “the Void.”

This rediscovered indulgence toward social conventionality informs the rest of the book as well. The introduction distinguishes two attitudes toward modernity, each based on a nineteenth century attitude toward the Renaissance. Jacob Burkhardt’s “nostalgia for the fifteenth-century Florentine revival,” accompanied by “an urgent intuition that a new and lasting renascence might yet occur in the nineteenth or twentieth century,” issues, however, in a “hatred born of disappointment.” Burkhardt proclaims the final incompatibility between noble antiquity and the sordidness of the new bourgeois industrial order. Walter Pater, on the other hand, represents “a second line of nostos ideologists,” whom Perl calls “theodicean”; in the view of such thinkers, “providence and the philosopher of history can agree: the battle of past and present is a fine way of bringing past and present into intense relation, and all is part of a theodicean design whose wholeness lends significance to every part.” Though it falls short of the reactionary resignation of Burkhardt, the “theodicean” line is still a far cry from “progressive” or “romantic” thinking. In order to mount an attack on Romanticism, which seems to be his primary antagonist, Perl renews the rather tired debate between Romanticism and classicism. In chapter 3, he begins his discussion of modernism proper by denying the thesis that it is a further stage of the romantic revolution, as suggested by Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, and Paul de Man. Perl does so not by confronting their arguments (they are dismissed in two sentences) but by reading sympathetically several works by T. S. Eliot (for example, Prufrock as the exorcizing of romantic personality) so as to support Eliot’s repudiation of Romanticism and his identification of modernism with classicism. Eliot, the only figure to be treated in two chapters, is clearly a central inspiration. His lines from Four Quartets (1943) might have served as the book’s epigraph:

We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.

His famous description of his religious and political beliefs may be as relevant to this book as his brand of classicism.

The rest of the book consists of self-styled case studies. Chapter 4, on...

(The entire section is 2422 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

World Literature Today. LIX, Winter, 1985, p. 163.