the late history of modernism

first outline of some ideas to be developed later

The long-standard account of literary modernism posits a kind of Heroic Age of High Modernism marked by a series of titanic masterpieces by writers of fiction — Joyce, Proust, Mann — and large bodies of revolutionary poetic work by Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Rilke, and so on. One might add to this the writers of smaller fictions who serve as a kind of bridge linking the poets and the epic chroniclers: Woolf, Kafka, and so on. The goal of these writers, again in the standard account, is to produce what Wallace Stevens called “supreme fictions”: comprehensive accounts of experience by which experience might be grasped. The unnamed singer in Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” might be seen as the model and aspiration of all the High Modernists.

In this account, the heroic age effectively concludes with the publication of Mann’s The Magic Mountain in 1924, or at the latest with the appearance of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in 1927. Yes, there are a few stragglers: Yeats’s late poetry, Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Pound’s endlessly unfinished Cantos — perhaps Eliot’s Four Quartets, though those might better be seen as a repudiation of modernism than a fulfillment of it. But by the late 1920s the torch was being passed to a next generation, a passing that may be said to begin with the (private) publication of Auden’s first small book of poems in 1928, and may be said to end with he death of Samuel Beckett in 1989.

I’d like to argue that even if this standard narrative bears a lot of truth, something else happens that has not been widely noticed: the shifting of the ambitions of High Modernism into genres other than the novel, the epic, the lyric. Here are the last great High Modernist masterpieces and their genres:

  • Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941, historical travelogue)
  • Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur (1946, literary history)
  • David Jones, Anathemata (1952, fragmented collage)
  • Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1962, memoir)
  • Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971, literary/art criticism)

I really do think that The Pound Era is the last achievement of High Modernism, and not the least in that company. It’s a really great book. Kenner’s day job as an English professor misleads us: he should be thought of not (or not primarily) in the context of academic literary criticism, but rather as a writer, like the writers he writes about.

The way in which literary history and criticism can extend and develop modernism is suggested by Colin Burrow, in his introduction to a recent reissue of Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages:

This particular book certainly is a world. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages belongs with Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis as one of the three most inspiring works of literary criticism written in the twentieth century. All three of these works demonstrate a kind of literary criticism that involves looking for the large patterns and histories behind a wide range of texts, and which requires the critic to work across large swathes of time and national boundaries. All three books also combine that breadth of vision with the philologist’s microscopic concern for detail.

As will be clear, I think Burrow ought to add The Pound Era to his list, but I like the list, and I like what he says about the particular kind of greatness those books embody. Those authors’ ambitions, and the skills that underwrite such ambitions, are closely related to those than enabled Ulysses, the Cantos, and the longer poems of Stevens. (The Sense of an Ending, as Kermode freely admits, is Stevens modulated into critical prose.)

But why did High Modernism end in 1971? why have there not been further pursuits of its distinctive ambitions? Kenner himself makes a fascinating suggestion, though it is only a suggestion, in his book The Mechanic Muse: “Technology alters our sense of what the mind does, what are its domains, how characterized and bounded.”

In this book he associates the work of some of the great modernists with particular technologies: Eliot with the telephone and its “disembodied voices,” Pound with the typewriter and its techniques of spacing, Joyce with the print shop (and especially, though not exclusively, that of the newspaper). “There’s a real connection, in short, between literary Modernism and what Richard Cork has called The Second Machine Age: the age, say 1880 to 1930, that saw machines come clanking out of remote drear places (Manchester, Birmingham) to storm the capitals and shape life there.”

Telephone Switchboard Operators in the Past  27

What the telephone, the typewriter, and the print shop in the early 20th century have in common, says Kenner, is that they are socially transformative but also transparent — you can watch them and see, at least generally, how they work.


What starts happening in the middle of the century, in the aftermath of Turing’s work on computable numbers and Claude Shannon’s contributions to information theory, is the disembodiment of information, its removal to an impenetrable, unobservable digitally-generated world. And Kenner sees this transformation encoded in the work of Beckett, for whose characters information, or what wants to be information, is increasingly detached from all material contexts, social and technological alike. Thus, says Kenner in an especially brilliant moment, you can take a sentence our of a Beckett novel and readily turn it into computer code, in this case Pascal:

IMG 3726

(In candor, Kenner admits that while this is “reasonably idiomatic Pascal, … if you’re fluent in the language you’ll have noticed that it doesn’t give the computer anything to do.” Which perhaps makes it even more Beckettesque.)

At the outset of the book, Kenner notes that

High Modernism did not outlast transparent technology. Beckett, its last master, already carries it into the intangible realm of information theory. And Beckett, it’s become commonplace to say, is a bridge to the so-called Post-Modern. That is: to our present world of enigmatic “text,” or foregrounded codes and redundancies, of microchips through which what moves may be less interesting than the process of moving it elegantly. All of that absorbs, in Silicon Valley and at MIT, intelligence of a rarified order. It’s another subject.

A subject Kenner does not take up in The Mechanic Muse, or indeed elsewhere. But what a prodigious suggestion! One might anticipate an argument going something like this:

In an especially beautiful poem, Richard Wilbur speaks of Creation as a manifold word in which we read ourselves: “What should we be without / The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return, // These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?” But what if this is true of our technologies as well? What if we require, in order to stimulate deep reflection, technologies that are transparent to us, or at least translucent? It is already widely understood that the opacity of our technological order has socio-political consequences — see, for instance, this reflection by James Bridle on “the wider, networked effects of individual and corporate actions accelerated by opaque, technologically augmented complexity” — but what if it has imaginative consequences as well, that is, what if it depletes imagination altogether? In that case, then what we write produce “may be less interesting” than the code that makes the transmission of our writing possible. In that case the next book for us to read will be Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime

But Kenner — a man shaped and formed by older tools but preternaturally attentive to newer ones — did not live to make that argument. And I am not inclined to make it myself, in large part because I have been instructed by David Edgerton that old technologies, old technological environments, do not simply go away when new ones arrive. But still, I might hazard a thesis like this: As people grow more fully immersed in opaque technologies, their work becomes progressively less interesting than the work of (a) those whose work remains responsive to transparent technologies and (b) those who created the opaque technologies. 

But the question remains: might it be for people to contract and order their technological environments in such a way that the ambitions of High Modernism might be living ones for them? I’m not sure. But this much I do know: If there are such people, few very, if any, of us know who they are.

CODA: In the very last of the hundreds and hundred of letters, one thousand eight hundred pages of letters, gathered in this two-volume set, Hugh Kenner types to Guy Davenport: “Are you still non-tech, or have you by any chance an e-mail address by now?”

ancient feelings

Why doesn’t ancient fiction talk about feelings? “I’d often wondered,” says Julie Sedivy, “when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?” Let me put this as politely as I can: What the hell are you talking about?

If you read the Iliad you’d know how Achilles felt when Agamemnon took his “prize,” or how he felt when his beloved friend Patroclus was killed. If you read the Odyssey you’d know how Odysseus felt when his men were being eaten by Polyphemus, and how he felt when he fell, at last, into the arms of his beloved wife Penelope. If you read the Oresteia you’d know how Orestes felt when faced with the task of killing his mother. If you read Antigone you’d know how the title character felt when told she could not bury her brother. If you read the Aeneid you’d know how Aeneas felt when he saw his fellow Trojans painted on the walls of a palace in Carthage — sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears for things, possibly the most famous line in ancient literature — and how Dido felt when she learned that Aeneas would leave her. If you read Beowulf you’d know how Beowulf felt when, after slaying a dragon, he lay dying, abandoned by all but one companion. If you read the Divine Comedy you’d know how Dante the pilgrim felt about everything, from getting lost in a selva oscura to disappointing his guide Vergil to meeting his old friend Casella the musician to being reunited with Beatrice.

I’m old as dirt and have seen people take many ridiculous positions in my time, but none more ridiculous than this.

Trollope and Brexit

Trollope’s Phineas Redux, like the other Palliser novels, has a domestic plot and a political plot, and the political plot here spins out from the decision by Mr. Daubeny, the Prime Minister, to come up with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England. (Daubeny is a stand-in for Benjamin Disraeli, who never did anything quite like this. But we’ll set aside the real-life correspondences for this post.) This a curious, indeed a shocking, decision because Daubeny is a Conservative, and the Conservative Party in the Victorian era was very much the party of the Church. How could be betray the very heart of his constituency this way?

The answer is that in the recent election his party lost their majority, and in ordinary circumstances it would be incumbent on him to resign. So he creates extraordinary circumstances. His idea, it appears — we are not privileged to know his mind — is that most of his own party will stand with him as a matter of disciplinary obedience, while the many Liberals who have long wanted disestablishment will vote with him across party lines. Thus, on the basis of this single bill-to-come — he hasn’t produced it yet, only announced his plan to — Daubeny can remain in his place as P.M.

Some Liberals are willing to join Daubeny; some, following their leader Mr. Gresham (= Gladstone), are determined to oppose him; some are uncertain. Those uncertain ones want to see the Church disestablished — and, by the way, not necessarily because they dislike the Church: some of the most devoted churchmen in England have long wanted disestablishment in order to free the Church to preach and teach the Gospel without political interference — but they do not believe that Daubeny would do the job properly. They suspect that anyone capable of acting as cynically as Daubeny does cannot possibly carry through the process of disestablishment in a competent and appropriate way.

All of which puts me in mind of Brexit. As a strong proponent of subsidiarity, I am temperamentally disposed to welcome any effort at devolution. I’d love to see Britain freed from accountability to Brussels — and, for that matter, Scotland freed from accountability to England. (I’m even open to the restoration of the Republic of Texas — but that’s a story for another post.) I will always seek to move in the direction of localism and will always be suspicious of institutional cosmopolitanism. I am therefore supportive of Brexit in principle.

But a Brexit designed and managed by these people? I don’t think so. They are more cynical than Mr. Daubeny and less — far less — competent. It’s a feeling I often have with the Trump administration as well: even on those relatively rare occasions when I think they have a good policy in mind, I simply don’t believe that they can carry out that policy honestly, fairly, and successfully. In politics, principle is important; but good principles can produce political disasters when implemented by buffoons.

the gifts of the Owner of the World

To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those others whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.

The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story. Do you hear me? . . .

So why do I say the story is chief among his fellow? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters — Recalling-is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus-fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbours.

—an old man, in China Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah [1987]

Crowley, Pynchon, and the hippies

In The Solitudes, the first volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, the series’ protagonist Pierce Moffett reflects:

He had the idea that not many children had been conceived in the year of his own conception, most potential fathers being then off to war, only those with special disabilities (like Pierce’s own) being left to breed. He was too young to be a beatnik; later, he would find himself too old, and too strictly reared, to be a success as a hippie.

Pierce was born in 1942 — the same year as John Crowley himself, whom he does not in other obvious respects resemble — which means that he would have been a child when the beatniks emerged, but well into adulthood when the Era of the Hippie began. Pierce was therefore born between two possibilities of rebellion against bourgeois conventionality, possibilities at which he could look longingly but into which he could never fully enter.

Thomas Pynchon is five years older than the fictional Pierce Moffett and the nonfictional John Crowley, but in his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories, he describes precisely the same experience. When he returned to university (Cornell) after spending a couple of intermission years in the Navy, he found that he and his classmates “were at a transition point, a strange post-Beat passage of cultural time…. Unfortunately there were no more primary choices for us to make. We were onlookers: the parade had gone by and we were already getting everything secondhand, consumers of what the media of the time were supplying us.“ The Beats had faded, but their commodified leftovers could be picked up at the local five-and-dime — or, by proxy, on TV.

So “when the hippie resurgence came along ten years later,“ Pynchon’s primary feeling was one of “nostalgia”: nostalgia for something he never quite had, and at his age at the time (early 30s) could no longer grasp. He was again an onlooker.

For Tom Wolfe (born 1931) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, observing the hippies’ world produced a mocking disgust; for Joan Didion (born 1934) in Slouching Towards Bethelehem something more like bemused contempt, leavened by occasional moments of gentle envy. But for Thomas Pynchon and Pierce Moffett and, I think, John Crowley the feeling is more wonderment at a vast world of possibility — possibility for the hippies, but not, alas for those condemned by their age to watch the marvelous parade from the sidelines.

Many readers of both Crowley and Pynchon find their obvious affection for the Sixties hard to swallow, but that’s because we know how it all turned out. The utopian or millenarian hopes of the era — the belief that the Age of Aquarius was being ushered in (Pierce, a historian, keeps telling people that they’re a few hundred years off, though he may be wrong about that) — seem comical in retrospect. Bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, Wavy Gravy, bathetically pseudo-visionary art by Peter Max….

And whatever elements of it tapped into something genuinely powerful — well, there were people who knew how to commodify that and to do so more thoroughly than those hidden persuaders of the Fifties could have dreamed of. (A point to which I shall return.)

But those bedazzled onlookers like Pynchon and Crowley didn’t know that at the time. It could have worked out differently … could it not?

The great theme of Crowley’s Aegypt is: “There is more than one history of the world.” The past, as well as the future, is a garden of forking paths. Here’s how Pierce explains that theme, about which he hopes to write:

“It’s as though,” he said, “as though there had once upon a time been a wholly different world, which worked in a way we can’t imagine; a complete world, with all its own histories, physical laws, sciences to describe it, etymologies, correspondences. And then came a big change in all of them, a big change, bound up with printing, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler, and the Cartesian and Baconian ideals of mechanistic and experimental science. The new sciences were hugely successful; bit by bit they scrubbed away all the persisting structures of the old science; they even scrubbed away the actually very strange and magical way the world appeared to men like Kepler and Newton and Bruno. The whole old world we once inhabited is like a dream, a dream we forgot on waking, even though, as dreams do, it lingered on into all-awake thinking; and even now it lingers on, all around our world, in our thought, so that every day in little ways, little odd ways, we think like prescientific men, magicians, Pythagoreans, Rosicrucians, without knowing we do so.”

And the emergence of those new sciences changed not only the future — the future they would bequeath to us — but what preceded them. The world of the magicians and astrologers and mystics, of John Dee and Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and all the disciples of thrice-great Hermes and the wisdom he learned from ancient Aegypt, not only disappeared but became retroactively false. Until the Cartesian moment magic worked and always had; after the Cartesian moment magic didn’t work and never had. The paths fork both ahead and behind.

But if the world can be changed in such a way that the validity of magic is erased from its past as well as its future, might it not possibly change again? Might not the 1960s and 1970s have been another decisive moment, another fork in the path, the initiation of a true novus ordo seclorum?

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.

These are the possibilities of that moment as discerned by Crowley and Pynchon, and because they discerned those possibilities then they have remained ever since deeply attracted to the ideals of that era. Had the hippies won, our histories of thought would feature John Dee where they now feature Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno where they now feature Descartes; and who knows what the shape of our social order might be?

But the hippies didn’t win. What won instead is the Californian ideology. And if you want to picture the moment when the victory of something genuinely “spiritual” and non-commodified and non-panoptic became impossible, when the fusion of fake spirituality with commerce and governmental control ascended its throne, here you go:

Bruce Chatwin at Sotheby’s

For me, his great gift – on the page and in person – was visual generosity. He made you see different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted. On the wall of his attic room in Albany, the apartment block in Piccadilly, was the king of Hawaii’s bedsheet: apricot-coloured, patterned with a shoal of jumping fish, looking like a Matisse. Chatwin had turned up at Christie’s on his bike to buy it in the 1960s. In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson – pleated like origami to hide his books – he hung pictures he had made by cutting coloured drawings from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic. In all his houses, he kept a prayer inscribed in Latin by the artist-poet David Jones: “May the blessed Archangel Michael defend us in battle lest we perish in the terrible judgment.” When he fell ill he took it with him in and out of hospitals.

Susannah Clapp

© 2019 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑