Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: modernity (page 1 of 1)

W. H. Auden, writing in The Griffin (February 1959): 

For several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Greek culture was unknown to the West except through the Latin culture it had permeated. When the humanists of the Renaissance made contact with its literature at first hand, their admiration led them to believe that, by imitation, they could turn themselves into Greeks. This belief was fantastic, but the intense study of a past culture which it inspired initiated a new process of intellectual discovery. It is not really his technology which distinguishes “modern” man from his predecessors, but his historical consciousness. The discovery of the mind by itself is discovery in a unique sense. To discover something normally means to become aware or to understand the nature of something which was already there waiting to be discovered, but the discovery of the intellect is an act of creation: “The self does not come into being except through our comprehension of it.” The most significant intellectual advance of the last two hundred years has been the discovery that by reliving the stages through which we have come to be what we are, we change what we are. 

Thesis: Our current lack of historical consciousness — indeed, it is a refusal of historical consciousness, a shunning of the past — causes a loss of what the rise of historical consciousness provided to us: an understanding of how we came to be what we are. The fully presentist mind can have no self

More on this possibility in future posts….


My friend Adam Roberts has written extensively about this book, but because I knew I wanted to read it, I have avoided reading Adam’s account. I’ll now go back to see what he says, which may make me repent of everything I say here. But there’s value in just getting your thoughts down without too much editing. Also: many spoilers ahead. 

H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay is a powerful but oddly constructed novel. It’s a bit difficult to describe that structure but here are what I believe to be the key elements:

1) It is most famously a story about commerce, and especially commerce based in advertising. Tono-Bungay is a patent medicine that does no one any good and might do them a little bit of harm – though its inventor, Edward Ponderevo, thinks that it might have positive psychological benefits that would justify his selling it. (Placebo effect, etc.) So the part of the novel most often commented on, what many critics would describe as the story, is about how Tono-Bungay is manufactured, advertised, and distributed throughout the United Kingdom. The business is, of course, a house of cards that is bound to collapse and eventually does.

2) But this is also a story about a man who is repeatedly thwarted in love. George Ponderevo, the narrator and protagonist, has a failed marriage, some casual affairs, and an unrequited or at least unfulfilled love for a woman – named, ironically enough, Beatrice – whom he meets when they are children and whom he definitively loses when they are middle-aged. One of the first important scenes in the book concerns his initial infatuation with Beatrice and – except for a coda which I will describe later – the book concludes with his final sight of her. (Because they are mismatched socially, the whole situation is quite like that of like Pip and Estella, with the unhappy rather than the happy ending.) Because his love for Beatrice is so prominent at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and because the middle of the novel is so occupied by his failed marriage to a woman named Marion, if I had to say whether this book is a story about commerce in advertising or a story about failed love, I would choose the latter.

3) The third element of the story is a contrast between the fixed character of social life in the world of English countryside and its small towns — a world controlled by a declining and ossifying aristocracy — and the immense energy and mobility of life in London. After early chapters establishing the rigidity of life on a country estate where George’s mother is the housekeeper, and in a sleepy small town dominated by another aristocratic family, the scene moves to London. We’re then treated to an extended panoramic celebration of the city narrated by the awestruck young George. “I got London at last with an exceptional freshness of effect, as the sudden revelation of a whole unsuspected other side to life.” More:

I came to it on a dull and smoky day by the South Eastern Railway, and our train was half an hour late, stopping and going on and stopping again. I marked beyond Chiselhurst the growing multitude of villas, and so came stage by stage through multiplying houses and diminishing interspaces of market garden and dingy grass to regions of interlacing railway lines, big factories, gasometers and wide reeking swamps of dingy little homes, more of them and more and more. The number of these and their dinginess and poverty increased, and here rose a great public house and here a Board School and there a gaunt factory; and away to the east there loomed for a time a queer, incongruous forest of masts and spars. The congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements; I marveled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people; whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing, drifted into the carriage; the sky darkened, I rumbled thunderously over bridges, van-crowded streets, peered down on and crossed the Thames with an abrupt eclat of sound. I got an effect of tall warehouses, of grey water, barge crowded, of broad banks of indescribable mud, and then I was in Cannon Street Station — a monstrous dirty cavern with trains packed across its vast floor and more porters standing along the platform than I had ever been in my life before. I alighted with my portmanteau and struggled along, realising for the first time just how small and weak I could still upon occasion feel. In this world, I felt, an Honours medal in Electricity and magnetism counted for nothing at all.

Afterwards I drove in a cab down a canyon of rushing street between high warehouses, and peeped up astonished at the blackened greys of Saint Paul’s. The traffic of Cheapside — it was mostly in horse omnibuses in those days — seemed stupendous, its roar was stupendous; I wondered where the money came from to employ so many cabs, what industry could support the endless jostling stream of silk-hatted, frock-coated, hurrying men.

This contrast between country and city is really key to everything else: surely Tono-Bungay is one of the great London novels. When Edward Ponderevo, George’s uncle, lives in a small town, trying to eke out a living as a chemist, he continually complains about the impossibility of making anything happen in such a catatonic place, and only when he is forced by bankruptcy to move to London and take up a menial job does he actually have the opportunity to create Tono-Bungay – and more important, to create a market for Tono-Bungay. It is the concentration of people in London that enables his creation to go viral. London, the viral city, in multiple ways.

London also puts people in touch with one another who in the countryside or in small towns would either not meet at all or meet only in constrained circumstances. George marries Marion, whom he has little in common with – something he comes to understand even before their marriage – but it’s only because they both live in London that they ever encounter one another. They have certain trivial habits or quasi-interests in common; everything between them arose from a chance encounter of strangers, the kind that almost never happens in the countryside but happens a dozen times a day in London. Their marriage ends because George has an affair with a young woman who works as a typist for his company – again, a connection that only the energy, congestion, and economic drive of the city makes possible.

It is noteworthy that George’s failed relationship with Beatrice happens almost wholly in the countryside, while his failed marriage to Marion happens in the city. His love for Beatrice is doomed by a world that’s too inflexible; his attachment to Marion – which he sees as a “hunger,” not as genuine romantic love – is produced by a world that’s too unbounded.

So one of the things that Wells wants to talk about here is London as a kind of universal solvent, a force powerful enough to disintegrate the long-established social structures of British life, and while we know where Wells’s sympathies lie – he despises the old division of social classes – nevertheless he is quite aware that a universal solvent will occasionally end up dissolving things that shouldn’t be dissolved.

At the end of the book, we get an epilogue in which we’re treated to another vista of London, this time as it appears from the Thames:

To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. One begins in Craven Reach and it is as if one were in the heart of old England. Behind us are Kew and Hampton Court with their memories of Kings and Cardinals, and one runs at first between Fulham’s episcopal garden parties and Hurlingham’s playground for the sporting instinct of our race. The whole effect is English. There is space, there are old trees and all the best qualities of the home-land in that upper reach. Putney, too, looks Anglican on a dwindling scale. And then for a stretch the newer developments slop over, one misses Bladesover [the country house in which the book begins] and there come first squalid stretches of mean homes right and left and then the dingy industrialism of the south side, and on the north bank the polite long front of nice houses, artistic, literary, administrative people’s residences, that stretches from Cheyne Walk nearly to Westminster and hides a wilderness of slums. What a long slow crescendo that is, mile after mile, with the houses crowding closelier, the multiplying succession of church towers, the architectural moments, the successive bridges, until you come out into the second movement of the piece with Lambeth’s old palace under your quarter and the houses of Parliament on your bow! Westminster Bridge is ahead of you then, and through it you flash, and in a moment the round-faced clock tower cranes up to peer at you again and New Scotland Yard squares at you, a fat beef-eater of a policeman disguised miraculously as a Bastille.

We are moving through time: from the ancient English countryside to the city whose function was, for a long time, to consolidate the power of the rural elite, and now into modernity:

And then the traditional and ostensible England falls from you altogether. The third movement begins, the last great movement in the London symphony, in which the trim scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up. Comes London Bridge, and the great warehouses tower up about you, waving stupendous cranes, the gulls circle and scream in your ears, large ships lie among their lighters, and one is in the port of the world. Again and again in this book I have written of England as a feudal scheme overtaken by fatty degeneration and stupendous accidents of hypertrophy.

Somehow we have moved, in the course of one novel and about forty years, from social sclerosis to “fatty degeneration.” Varieties of poor health: one world in which, as Edward Ponderevo always said, “nothing happens,” and another in which too much is happening; atrophy and hypertrophy. “Amidst it all no plan appears, no intention, no comprehensive desire. That is the very key of it all. Each day one feels that the pressure of commerce and traffic grew, grew insensibly monstrous, and first this man made a wharf and that erected a crane, and then this company set to work and then that, and so they jostled together to make this unassimilable enormity of traffic.”

And from there out into the Sea – the strongest possible contrast. “The river passes — London passes, England passes…”

Wells tries at the end of the story to make an accounting of What It All Means, but I will set that aside. I think what he narrates tells a rather different story than what he means to tell, though in a way he knows that there is a key “symbol,” as he calls it, here. George Ponderevo is making this final passage through London on a warship, a “destroyer” that he has built. It’s worth noting that he had begun his career as an engineer in the immediate aftermath of his divorce from Marion; and has returned to it after his final goodbye to Beatrice. A classic case of sublimation: “Eros, builder of cities” – but in this case Eros, builder of warships. At this point George has seen the loss of some he loves and the deaths of others; indeed, he himself is a murderer; and after the failure of all his loves he motors down the Thames and through the great city of London as an avatar of Thanatos. And that, I think, is what this powerful and sad book is all about: not the manic energies of Commerce but rather the end of Eros and the triumph of Thanatos.

Craig Mod:

I wish you all — all of you reading this — could teleport here right now, right in this very moment, and I could take you on a long walk around one of the peninsula’s towns on a Sunday morning, all blue skies and sunshine, to bear witness to the pride with which it’s all being maintained. Just a few folks left. And yet: streets swept, shop gates lifted, kissaten beacons flashing. One imagines flying carp in the spring and the last of the summer festival shrines carried on the shoulders of shirtless men in white-rag fundoshi underwear.

But you’d have to come now. Right now. Like a tiny nub of glowing charcoal, this brightness and warmth isn’t long for our world.

no power on earth

From Edwin Muir’s Autobiography:

During these years I began to grow aware of the people round me as individuals. At the Bu [the farm on the tiny isle of Wyre where they had lived when Muir was small] my family had been a stationary, indivisible pattern; now my brothers and sister hardened into separate shapes, and without my knowing division entered the world. The breaking up of our family, the departure of one member after another, strengthened this feeling greatly, for with my eldest brother Jimmie working in Kirkwall I could now think of him as separate from us, yet when he came out to see us at Garth he was obviously a member of the family still. This paradox of unity and separateness troubled my mind a great deal, for Jimmie in Kirkwall lived a life of his own, quite unlike our life; yet when he cam to see us he was still the brother I had known and worshipped as a child. Soon after our shift to Garth he went still farther away, to Glasgow, and after that we saw him only once a year, during his summer holidays. Then Willie, my second oldest brother, grew discontented in turn, and my, father, knowing he was unhappy, allowed him to enter a lawyer’s office in Kirkwall. The process continued; it was as if a fermentation had set up in our family which no power could stop. My third brother, Johnnie, and my sister Elizabeth had a harder struggle to get away, for they were urgently needed on the farm; but my father had to give in, though he could not understand. Elizabeth went to Edinburgh, and Johnnie to Kirkwall. At its heart the family held together; there was no inward break, no enmity: it was as if something quite impersonal were scattering us to all the quarters of the compass. If Garth had been a better farm, or if it had been twenty instead of three miles from a town, all this might not have happened, and some of us might have had a happier life; for to be a farmer in Orkney now is a pleasant lot: Orkney is probably the most prosperous, well-run, and happy community in Britain. But Garth was a thankless farm, Kirkwall was near, Edinburgh and Glasgow, from Kirkwall, seemed merely the next stepping-stone, and no power on earth could have kept us from taking that road. When my father had to give up farming he too, after a year’s hesitation, and against Jimmie’s strong advice, decided to go to Glasgow and take the rest of us with him: a terrible mistake.

Modernity in a nutshell.

governance by image

In Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), the factory in which the Tramp works in the opening scenes is controlled by a boss whose image appears in certain strategic places in order to issue commands:

Modern Times Factory More Speed

— and even to order back to work employees who sneak into the toilet for a quick smoke:

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Hey Charlie, read any Jeremy Bentham lately?

In this film industrial capitalism and the state work hand in glove, and they work by the manipulation and display of images. The boss’s image (ubiquitous and available in any size necessary) is a primary instrument of control; images of workers, conversely, are used to control them. Paulette Goddard’s gamine gets a reputable job as a dancer, but it’s her mug-shot image that allows the police to track her down and arrest her:

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Note that what she’s wanted for is, primarily, vagrancy: being “without visible means of support.” See, relatedly, this essay of mine on passports, passport photos, and the technologies by which states and their allies in the corporate world make us legible and therefore controllable. (A good deal of the movie takes place in factories and jails — remarkably similar environments, though the Tramp strongly prefers jail.)

To work, this movie suggests, is to subject oneself to panoptic surveillance and to ceaseless state and corporate control. By the movie’s end the gamine is, though better dressed and more elegantly coiffed as a result of her brief employment, close to despair over the inescapability of the system:

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But if there’s one thing the Tramp knows it’s … well, how to be a tramp. How to survive, however frugally, off the grid, out of the System, beyond the panopticon’s lines of sight — illegibly.

So off they go. After twenty years of dominating the screen, Chaplin’s Tramp says goodbye to us all. And this final view of him is the only time that he clearly takes his wandering way with a companion.

MT14 the end web 1000


Paul Kingsnorth:

This process accelerates under its own steam, as Weil explained, because “whoever is uprooted himself uproots others”. The more we are pulled, or pushed, away from our cultures, traditions and places — if we had them in the first place — the more we take that restlessness out with us into the world. If you have ever wondered why it is de rigueur amongst Western cultural elites to demonise roots and glorify movement, to downplay cohesion and talk up diversity, to deny links with the past and strike out instead for a future that never quite arrives, consider this: they are the children of globalised capitalism, and the inheritors of the unsettling of the West, and they have transformed that rootlessness into an ideology. They — we — are both perpetrators and victims of a Great Unsettling.

This is not to say that “Western” people alone are responsible for the rolling destruction of culture and nature that is overwhelming the world. We may have set the ball rolling, but the culture of uprooting is global now, and was when Weil was writing. You can see it everywhere you care to look. India has been uprooting its adivasi (tribal) people systemically since independence; its government is currently trying to undermine the power and agency of the peasant farmers of the Punjab, and have triggered a rural rebellion by doing so. The Chinese state is increasingly looking like the most efficient machine ever invented for uprooting, resettling and controlling mass populations. The Indonesian state is systematically unsettling the tribal people of West Papua, in cahoots with a cluster of multinational corporations. African governments are corralling the last of the San people. This is what states do, all over the world. It’s the ancient human game of power and control, turbo-charged with fossil fuels and digital surveillance technology.

Roberts on Taylor

My friend Adam Roberts is doing a read-through of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and I started to comment on his most recent post and then realized that I didn’t have enough room. So I’m posting my comment here. 

Adam, I think one of the weaknesses of Taylor’s book is that he doesn’t often enough remind us of the scope of his argument (and its limits). But in this case he does say, in a passage you quote, that he’s talking about a change that he believes happened after 1500. So nothing from the early history of Christianity is directly relevant to the argument.

As I read the broad sweep of his case, adding in the proper qualifiers that he sometimes forgets to add, it goes something like this:

1) The Middle Ages in Western Europe is characterized by a long process by which the Catholic Church consolidated an intellectual framework for understanding the world and humans’ place in it. We are porous selves, open to the divine and demonic alike, and the Church uniquely offers access to the former and prevents entry by the latter. By emphasizing its uniqueness, it gradually disciplines and masters much of the theological pluralism that had characterized earlier ages. (You may see this as the gaining of a valuable unity, as Catholics do, or as the imposition of spiritual totalitarianism, as Simone Weil did; but it happened anyway.) This doesn’t mean that you don’t get dissent, but dissent is dealt with

2) This understanding was disrupted by the emergence of the various movements we lump together under the category of Reformation. Great social unrest ensued, but for Taylor the significant point is that intellectual confusion ensued. “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” says Donne. “A dissociation of sensibility set in,” etc. So far, so Eliotic. 

N.B. This is where I think we get some serious slippage in Taylor, because the earlier understanding of porous selves nurtured and protected by the Church was a universal one, shared by the unlearned and the learned alike. From this point on, though, I am often confused about whether he’s describing movements among the intellectual elite or within European society as a whole. I think he has a kind of trickle-down theory, but he doesn’t account as he should for the widely varying speed of the trickling in different cultures. Sometimes he writes as if the changes he describes are happening all over Europe, when in fact they’re only happening, in a serious way anyhow, in England and the Netherlands. 

Just as he operates with an implicit trickle-down theory of intellectual change, Taylor also, I think, holds the “ideas have consequences” view of social change: that is, he treats intellectual changes as occurring within a largely intellectual causal environment, after which those ideas have social effects. I think this is wrong. I am not an economic determinist, but I do find much more persuasive those accounts that see economic and intellectual changes in a dialogical or dialectical way, as mutually interanimating — books like Dierdre McCloskey’s bourgeois trilogy or Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Anyway, onwards: 

3) Intellectuals respond to this disruption and dissociation by building what Taylor calls the Modern Moral Order, in which human beings are understood as (a) rational, (b) sociable, and (c) buffered selves who flourish through the pursuit of disciplined practices, social and personal, that are in principle available to all. Again, Taylor seems to see this concept trickle down from pointy-heads like Locke to the whole society of increasingly energetic bourgeois. 

4) But this Order, while workable for a while, comes to seem dull and flat, too limited in its understanding of human flourishing, too … secular. And that’s where the Nova comes in. The Nova is a series of increasingly varied ways to pry open those buffers and let the divine back in: Maybe through a Catholic retrenchment (Chateaubriand), maybe through evangelistic revival (the Methodists), maybe through quasi-mystical encounters with the natural world (Wordsworth) maybe through a high metaphysics of the Sacred Self (Rousseau) — or maybe, and you know this argument from me, through artistic experiences that allow us to have a temporary vacation from the Modern Moral Order without radically questioning it. Meanwhile, others double down on the MMO and embrace a wholly secularized world, as when Laplace’s cosmology doesn’t acknowledge God because he “had no need for that hypothesis.” 

In conclusion, sir: Taylor would respond to your post by saying that the Nova initiates an era of intellectual/religious/spiritual pluralism that (a) would have been unimaginable in the year 1500 and (b) is dramatically more pluralistic than the early Christian church because it makes public room for belief systems that have no use for Jesus at all, and maybe not for any kind of God. You rightly note as the great variety of Christian heresies — or of Christian theologies later designated as heresies — but in comparison to a world in which Wesley and Wordsworth and Bronson Alcott, Laplace and Chateaubriand and Ben Franklin, all rub shoulders, it seems to offer a relatively narrow set of options. 

on rum and baseball

For decades, late February and early March were for me a season of preparation: preparation for baseball. I watched my favorite baseball websites come to life in my RSS reader, I bought some books that analyzed last year’s performances and predicted this year’s, I got excited about new signings and promising rookies.

But not this year.

John Thorn, the great historian of baseball, wrote in November,

The stolen base and the bunt are on the way out. The reasons for the decline in both have to do with analysts revealing that run expectations are radically lessened not only by the unsuccessful attempt but also, in the a case of the sacrifice bunt, by the successful execution. One may blame analysis, knowledge, and science for these outcomes, but it is hard to give three cheers for ignorance.

The dilemma for owners and players and fans may be understood as The Paradox of Progress: we know the game is better, so why, for so many, does it feel worse? I submit that while Science may win on the field, as clubs employ strategies that give them a better chance of victory, Aesthetics wins hearts and minds.

This is more or less precisely what I wrote last summer, when I described the complete victory of the Earl Weaver model of baseball strategy that I cheered on when I was a kid: “As boxing fans have always known, styles make fights. What made Earl’s Way so fascinating all those years ago was its distinctiveness; and that’s what made the arguments among fans fun too…. Strangely enough, baseball was better when we knew less about the most effective way to play it.”

Thorn is exactly right that “it’s hard to give three cheers for ignorance.” Me again:

It’s important to be clear about this: Coaches and players understand the percentages better than they ever have in the history of the game, and are acting accordingly. All of these changes I have traced are eminently rational. Players are giving themselves the best possible chance of success, in hopes of more money for them and more wins for their team. Even when they don’t try to bunt or slap a single into the vast open space on one side of a shifted infield, they’re being rational, because, as noted earlier, Earl was right: those base-at-a-time one-run strategies are highly inefficient.

So you can’t blame anyone for the way the game has developed. It has become more rational, with a better command of the laws of probability, and stricter, more rigorous canons of efficiency. But for those very reasons it’s not as fun to watch.

So it’s hard to see what the solution to this might be. What are the moguls of MLB supposed to do, mandate less rational tactics? In a way that’s precisely what they do plan to do, for instance by requiring pitchers to face at least three batters, even when bringing in, say, a lefty to face only the one left-handed hitter in the other team’s lineup might make more sense. But that kind of thing is just nibbling around the edges. It’s not going to do anything to change the overall strategies that are common today, as when batters are so committed to the long ball that they are content to have created a game in which there are more strikeouts than base hits.

In this context, I keep thinking about a passage from Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a passage that’s relevant to so much in our modern order:

In Martinique, I had visited rustic and neglected rum-distilleries where the equipment and the methods used had not changed since the eighteenth century. In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, in the factories of the company which enjoys a virtual monopoly over the whole of the sugar production, I was faced by a display of white enamel tanks and chromium piping. Yet the various kinds of Martinique rum, as I tasted them in front of ancient wooden vats thickly encrusted with waste matter, were mellow and scented, whereas those of Puerto Rico are coarse and harsh. We may suppose, then, that the subtlety of the Martinique rums is dependent on impurities the continuance of which is encouraged by the archaic method of production. To me, this contrast illustrates the paradox of civilization: its charms are due essentially to the various residues it carries along with it, although this does not absolve us of the obligation to purify the stream. By being doubly in the right, we are admitting our mistake. We are right to be rational and to try to increase our production and so keep manufacturing costs down. But we are also right to cherish those very imperfections we are endeavouring to eliminate. Social life consists in destroying that which gives it its savour.

Note that Levi-Strauss speaks of “the paradox of civilization,” John Thorn about “the Paradox of Progress.” It’s the same point. I was right to be rational in cheering on the sabermetric revolution; and these days I cherish the very imperfections I once wanted to see eliminated. But the savor is now gone, and I don’t know how it can be restored.

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 (1955, 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:

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(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 hundreds 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?”


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.