...

Tagmodernity

counternarratives

For each movement of modernity, there has developed a comprehensive counternarrative. The idea that modernity is associated with the secularization of our institutions has given rise to fears about the rationalization and “disenchantment” of the world; the rise of a market economy and the commercial republic gave way in turn to an antibourgeois mentality that would find expression in politics, literature, art, and philosophy; the idea of modernity as the locus of individuality and free subjectivity gave rise to concerns about homelessness, anomie, and alienation; the achievements of democracy went together with fears about conformism, the loss of independence, and the rise of the “lonely crowd”; even the idea of progress itself gave rise to a counterthesis about the role of decadence, degeneration, and decline.

— Steven Smith, Modernity and Its Discontents

 

That fantastic has always borrowed enthusiastically from premodern folklore, fairy tales, and myth, of course. Fantasy as a genre is a modern literature, however, born primarily out of Gothic, a kind of bad conscience of the burgeoning ‘instrumental rationality’ of capitalist modernity. ‘The dream of reason,’ as José Monléon persuasively points out (quoting the title of Goya’s famous picture), ‘brings forth monsters.’ In essence, for fantasy to be fantasy, to break down the barriers that were keeping the irrational at bay, society first had to construct those barriers and thoroughly embrace the supposedly ‘rational.’”

— China Miéville, from his introduction to H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness 

[James] Wood praises [Hilary] Mantel for her “cunning universalism”, a slicker version of CS Lewis’s unchanging human heart. But there are great historical novels that insist on the past’s fundamental difference: William Golding’s The Inheritors, for example. Variations in behaviour in that book are not merely a matter of social constraint, as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

It may be that the historical novel genre is as unjammed with greatness as the crime genre, the science fiction genre, the romance genre and the “literary fiction” genre (come on, On Chesil Beach seemed to be rated by David Cameron and most book reviewers, but precious few readers). I rather suspect that Wood’s frustration is with “historical romance” in the true 19th century sense, rather than any of the novels mentioned above. Whatever differences we have, I always agree with Wood that the great is rare and precious.

Stuart Kelly. I like Kelly’s defense of the historical novel here, in opposition to Wood’s prim condescension, but he seems not to know that Lewis coined the phrase “the doctrine of the Unchanging Human Heart” in order to refute that doctrine. As a shrewd and learned student of the past, Lewis knew that those people didn’t think as we think at all.

Which leads to the chief problem with Hilary Mantel’s novels about Tudor England. Wood likes what he calls the “universalism” of making Thomas Cromwell seem modern, but that’s what’s wrong with the books. Mantel could only pick as her protagonist a figure whom she can plausibly construe — or so she thinks — as rather like a modern educated Englishman: shrewd, skeptical, tolerant when it serves him but ruthless when he needs to be. As Wood points out in his New Yorker review (not online at the moment) of the new book, Mantel seems neither to like nor to understand her “religious” characters, like More and Cranmer. (Operating in the narrow royal and aristocratic world that she does, she doesn’t have to confront someone like Tyndale, which is just as well.) Moreover, while it’s certainly possible that Cromwell was the pure pragmatist she portrays him to be, it’s also possible that his attitudes towards religion were more complex and more interesting.

By making Cromwell her protagonist, the one through whose eyes we see much of what happens in these books, and then making Cromwell so much like herself, Mantel evades the most serious challenge a writer of historical fiction can face: how to make characters vivid and human when they’re not at all like us.

For the early-twenty-first-century literary writer, the primary way that people from the past are “not like us” is in their religious beliefs. Aside from Marilynne Robinson, how many highly-regarded writers today even make an effort to imagine what religious belief might feel like from the inside? It’s odd that James Wood, who has written so intelligently and movingly about the displacement of religion from the center of European high culture, and from his own life, is blind to the problems this neglect poses.

C’est pourtant le grand défi de l’Occident, s’adapter au monde qu’il a créé. Un beau sujet philosophique.

— Michel Serres. The concluding sentences of that interview. As concise and pressing a way of describing the current situation as I have seen. We have made a cultural (and material) environment that we do not yet know how to adapt to. I think of some lines from Auden’s poem “Friday’s Child” about the human Mind:

Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Starting from the idea of historical uniqueness, Auden developed an elaborate vocabulary for different kinds of social order and for the analogous kinds of formal order that give shape to poems. Unique persons create different kinds of social order from those generated by impersonal forces. Historical individuals, Auden wrote, join into communities united by their shared voluntary love of something; a community is historical because it has no bureaucratic impersonal structure. Communities tend to create societies that can carry out their purposes; societies are natural, not historical, because they have a bureaucratic structure in which individual members have roles distinct from their unique personalities. A group of music-lovers is a community but its love accomplishes nothing; a string quartet is a society that puts into effect the community’s love.

A crowd, unlike a society or community, is a mere plurality of things that happen to be together. “The subject matter of poetry”, Auden wrote in 1949, “is a crowd of past historic occasions of feeling”, some portion of which the poet hopes to convert into a community; but the poem in which that community is embodied is a society, something that the poet must assume will remain unchanged and eternal once it is written. Crowds of feelings are not especially dangerous; but in the real world the extreme version of the crowd was the Public, that faceless purposeless mass that anyone can join when one is no one in particular.

The Public has always existed, but one effect of the mass media is to make it easier than ever to be faceless and impersonal. The culture of celebrity is one result of the growth of the Public: “the public instinctively worships not great men of action or thought but actors, individuals who by profession are not themselves.” The moral consequences are all too clear: “The public, therefore, can be persuaded to do or believe anything by those who know how to manage it. It will subscribe thousands of dollars to a cancer research fund or massacre Jews with equal readiness, not because it wants to do either, but because it has no alternative game to suggest.”

Modernist studies is a vibrant and exciting area of study, and many new postgraduates are being drawn to the field. The future is likely to mean more interdisciplinary work, increased attention to the transnational and post-colonial aspects of Modernism, and more discussion of the material culture of Modernism. Seeking to revive the radical energy and experimentation that drove earlier forms of Modernism is no bad thing in a contemporary cultural environment that often seems overly attached to the safe and the familiar. Debate will continue around the use of terms such as avant-garde, modern and Modernist to describe past as well as current works of art. And it is not inconceivable to imagine a time when the talk is once again of Post-Modernism, but the Modernism that it might supplant will this time be more accurately represented and considered. At the moment, however, the more likely picture is one in which diverse Modernisms continue to inform our cultural and artistic futures.

Times Higher Education – Making it new all over again

Pardon the academic note, but I would just add that study of the most famous modernists — Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Woolf, Yeats, etc. — has been languishing for many years, and languishing, I think, because they found in the first decades after their death a set of scholars whose intellects rivaled their own. Richard Ellmann and Hugh Kenner, in the second half of the twentieth century, created a portrait of magisterial Modernism that has never really been displaced, but has never been strongly challenged either. They ruled the scholarly roost in their own day and they effectively rule it now, if only because no great rival accounts have yet been forthcoming.

And I’ll add this: the work of literary criticism I most wish I had written is Kenner’s The Pound Era. What an amazing, beautiful, constantly surprising book. I believe that one day it will itself be seen as one of the monuments of Modernism.

© 2018 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

css.php