Modernisms

Frank Kermode

  • Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement by C.K. Stead
    Macmillan, 393 pp, £27.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 333 37457 6
  • The Myth of Modernism and 20th-century Literature by Bernard Bergonzi
    Harvester, 216 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 7108 1002 4
  • The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts by Roger Shattuck
    Faber, 362 pp, £15.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 571 12071 7

The advantages and disadvantages of modernity have long been canvassed, so that you could say the topic is ancient. Pancirolli wrote a very popular book on it in the 16th century, and it was often remarked by self-deprecating moderns that they were like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. The antiquity of this figure is the subject of a very learned and also very amusing book by Robert Merton; the received wisdom is that it goes at least as far back as the 12th century. So there is nothing very modern about worrying about what it means to be modern, and even if you think that being modern requires a total rejection of the past, like Tzara or Artaud, you become dependent on the past if only because you need to have it around to reject. As Paul de Man observed in his subtle essay ‘Literary History and Literary Modernity’, ‘the more radical the rejection of anything that came before, the greater the dependence on the past.’[*]

What blurs these continuities is the fact that in the natural course of things the topic takes on different shapes and tones in different eras. In the 17th century some scientists wanted to get rid not only of Aristotle but of natural languages as modes of recording natural observations: at the same time, critics were keen to purge poetry of falsities and opacities, epic machinery and ‘strong lines’. The response of Swift was to ridicule the scientists and also the pseudo-scientists whose language went to the other extreme; the response of Milton was to update the machinery and refine the rhetoric. This is what normally happens, and histories of the arts are histories of past modernities, even when the demand for the New is most strident, as, for instance, in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kandinsky.

However, it is now taken for granted in some circles that there was something qualitatively different about our modernity; that there was a decisive coupure around 1870 (the date varies), or that a wholly original understanding of linguistic functions simply made the past out of date; the differences between before and after are variously described (‘classic’ as against ‘modern’, for instance, or, to name names, George Eliot as against Joyce). It is probably useless to protest against the almost universal scholarly passion for periodisation: to have cardinal dates and canonical works associated with those dates is convenient, a useful fiction of which we forget the fictiveness. Another modern(ist) tendency is to explain that from where we stand – in our uniquely privileged moment – we can perceive certain truths about art that were concealed from our predecessors because they were trapped in their now obsolete epistemic myths.

This is not at all to deny that in any given situation thinking about quite other subjects may rub off on the arts. Early Modernism is in part a matter of new technology; the designers of dreadnoughts and flying machines had to do new thinking about ships and vehicles, to get away from the notion that a warship was just any old ship with guns on it, an aeroplane an automobile with wings attached. If you looked at poems and novels in the same way, you came upon a similiar notion – namely, that the design potential was far greater than anybody had realised, that literature was carrying too much weight, that the longest poem in the language would come out at about the length of The Waste Land if it was imaginatively designed. Roger Shattuck has an interesting but fragmentary piece in his book about the aesthetics of the fragment, very much to the point. You could now put poems, novels and films together on principles which had hitherto lain hidden. Their realisation called for a lot more work from the reader, so the alienation of high art from the general public, already well established, now grew greater, and continued to do so until the dons moved in and taught avant-gardism to their captive audiences.

It is the fault of the dons, I fear, that Modernism is both a period and a stylistic description. We should have learned long ago of the confusion arising from such practices: Wellek’s essay on Baroque is forty years old, and Lovejoy’s on the discrimination of Romanticisms (we use the term to mean so many things that it ends by meaning nothing) is over sixty. Perhaps some vague memory of these classic admonitions played a part in the invention of the term ‘Modernist’ – or rather its adaptation to modern conditions, for Swift used it in the Tale of a Tub, and it was a term of abuse, particularly of recalcitrant Roman Catholic theologians, right into the Twenties of the present century. But now ‘modernist’ is used of the modern works one happens to admire or regard as central or canonical. To be merely a modern author is to have chickened out of Modernism. As for the period, it is thought to have come to an end with Finnegans Wake or thereabouts; the admired experimental work that came later, and is judged to be in the same tradition, is called Post-Modernist. Like ‘Modernist’, it is what is nowadays called a ‘valorising’ description.

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[*] The essay is in Blindness and Insight (1971). Yale French Studies, No 69, recently published, is a memorial volume called ‘The lesson of Paul de Man’. It contains the speeches made at his memorial service at Yale and a collection of essays by friends and disciples, but it will be valued most for a transcript of de Man’s last lecture, a brilliant comment on Benjamin’s essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, in which he often catches out Benjamin’s own translators. That they somethings give the exact opposite of Benjamin’s original is the occasion not merely for pedantic merriment but for further reflections on literature and Modernity.