Between centuries

Frank Kermode

  • In the Nineties by John Stokes
    Harvester, 199 pp, £17.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 7450 0604 3
  • Olivia Shakespear and W.B. Yeats by John Harwood
    Macmillan, 218 pp, £35.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 333 42518 9
  • Letters to the New Island by W.B. Yeats, edited by George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer
    Macmillan, 200 pp, £45.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 333 43878 7
  • The Letters of Ezra Pound to Margaret Anderson: The ‘Little Review’ Correspondence edited by Thomas Scott, Melvin Friedman and Jackson Bryer
    Faber, 368 pp, £30.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 571 14099 8
  • Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens: A Tragic Friendship, 1910-1912 edited by Omar Pound and Robert Spoo
    Duke, 181 pp, £20.75, January 1989, ISBN 0 8223 0862 2
  • Postcards from the End of the World: An Investigation into the Mind of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna by Larry Wolff
    Collins, 275 pp, £15.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 00 215171 5
  • Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
    Bantam, 396 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 593 01862 1
  • Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1916-1925 by Kenneth Silver
    Thames and Hudson, 506 pp, £32.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 500 23567 8

To live in the Nineties is to have first-hand experience of l’entre-siècle, a useful word I picked up from Kenneth Silver. Expect to see signs of what Henri Focillon in his book on the year 1000 identified as ‘centurial mysticism’, an affliction even more likely to be endemic when the century that is ending is also ending a millennium. These chronological divisions are meaningless in themselves, but, as Focillon argued, we tend to project onto them aspirations and anxieties which have quite other sources. Conscious of personal and social decadence, hopeful of renovation, people transfer their mood to the decade, the illusory dead weight of an old century behind them, and before them the perhaps equally illusory promises of a new one. In the arts these ages of transition tend to breed avant-gardes to whom contempt for the past is a necessary condition of radical innovation, an old calendar thrown out as the new one is hung up. Yet when we look back at such movements, themselves now parts of the past they mistrusted, we see them differently: harbingers of the new, no doubt, but mired still in the tradition they thought to displace.

Interest in the English 1890s has naturally been growing of late. Richard Ellmann’s biography looked forward, emphasising the importance of Wilde as the martyred prophet of a new dispensation. Others have preferred to look back, finding in the poetry of the period a dilute version of the Symbolism of the Eighties. But John Stokes is synchronic and aims to show how the arts were related to other aspects of the life of their own time, fixing on certain ‘topics and texts’ – the New Journalism, the New Art Criticism, the Music Hall, prisons, ‘the suicide craze’.

The result is a good book that could be added to, for it is fairly short and doesn’t, of course, cover all the angles. Stokes’s account, borrowed from contemporary press reports, of an Empire ballet celebrating the contemporary press, provides an apt overture to a study of the interpenetration of journalism and the arts. Journalists – including the likes of Shaw and Wilde – enjoyed controversy about spiritual crisis, decadence, declining morality, patriotism and so on; and editors rigged their correspondence columns to start new controversies. Wilde was not alone in being ‘adept at finding himself drawn, protestingly, into epistolary debate’. By an extension of these methods, newspapers found it possible ‘to instigate the events they subsequently reported’. The new power of the papers also created Gissing’s New Grub Street. They were execrated as open sewers, and this at a time when the split between the popular press and the ‘respectable’ papers was much less marked than it was to become.

Much has been written about the cult of music hall, and of ballet girls, in this period, but Stokes, avoiding old-fashioned chatter about the dancer and the poetic image, studies the Empire Music Hall as a social institution, harried by prudes and a salacious press pretending to high moral standards. When the Empire licence was renewed only on condition that it abolished its Promenade, where people drank, smoked and picked up girls or boys, the Daily Telegraph published 170 letters on the subject in a single week. The Empire closed, but not for long. It was inextricably mingled with the web of metropolitan culture, with Sickert and Symons, Yeats, Walkley and even Shaw; also with sex and drink. The peculiar character of music-hall entertainment – a mixture of singing, dancing, stand-up comics, acrobats – derived, it seems, from an Act of 1843, which decreed that licensees must choose between the right to serve drink and the right to put on full-length plays. The halls being therefore essentially taverns, it was unreasonable to ban drink at the Empire. Now that the music hall has disappeared, the pubs and clubs have taken over some of its functions.

Stokes’s chapter on suicide begins with a remarkable letter from a man called Ernest Clark to the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Clark explains that ‘only the transcendental and aesthetic in life are worth our thought,’ and since they are crowded out by ‘the ugliness and vile monotony’ of his existence, he will have shot himself by the time his letter is received. This very literary, perfectly sane letter naturally provoked further interesting correspondence, and there was even a suggestion that the paper had faked the letter with this in mind, inventing, as it were, a ‘suicide craze’. On these and other matters Stokes is vivid and economical. It is only a little too much to say, as the publishers do, that his is the most wide-ranging study since Holbrook Jackson’s The Eighteen Nineties.

John Harwood’s biography of Olivia Shakespear is elegant and thorough. She was one of that aspiring multitude whose fate it was and is to add to the unthinkably vast piles of unread, unremembered novels; hers are discussed here, but it is for her association with Yeats that she is now remembered. A cousin of Lionel Johnson, she was married to the much older, and apparently very dull, Hope Shakespear. Yeats met Olivia at a Yellow Book dinner in 1894. He was 29, she a couple of years older. The nervous hesitations preceding their affair, which terminated the poet’s virginity, are sympathetically described. Much was at risk, for Hope might sue for a divorce and Olivia could then lose custody of her daughter, while Yeats might have to pay the wronged husband ruinous damages, and perhaps also lose the friendship of Lionel Johnson. Another difficulty was that Yeats was still in the grip of his ‘barren passion’ for Maud Gonne, who had little interest in sex and none at all in sex with Yeats; and he, though intensely conscious of his deprivations, drew back from the prospect of actual love-making. It did not help that he was more conventionally moral than Olivia, whom he wrongly thought to have had many lovers, and certainly more so than Florence Farr, who seems to have been instrumental in forwarding the affair.

Yeats was also very poor, and to boil the pot he undertook work of the sort included in the new volume of the Collected Edition: London letters about Irish literature for the consumption of Irish subscribers to the Boston Pilot and the Providence Sunday Journal. Nobody could pretend they have much intrinsic importance, but they are by Yeats and are consequently edited with a sometimes excessive devotion, as when a passing reference to Macbeth elicits a note explaining, to readers who can’t possibly need such help, what that play is about.

It was with pittances earned by such pieces that Yeats and Olivia eventually bought a bed in Tottenham Court Road, their embarrassment augmented when they grasped the point that the bigger the bed the more it costs. It was installed in the poet’s ‘spartan and squalid’ rooms in Woburn Buildings, where after further nervous delays the poet was at last initiated. The affair was not long active – Yeats seems to have blamed Maud Gonne for his falling-off – though it was briefly resumed 13 years later.

Harwood argues that Olivia Shakespear’s influence on Yeats was far more profound and extensive than is usually thought. In The Wind Among the Reeds there are love poems usually supposed to have been written about Maud which he plausibly takes to be about Olivia. Even more important, the affair confirmed Yeats’s notion that poetry was a kind of sexual act, and one that he was probably better at, though in later years he managed both, and even had a brief belated fling with Maud Gonne: ‘the final irony,’ says Harwood, ‘is that it made so little difference.’ It was in 1910 that Olivia introduced Yeats to her friend Georgie Hyde-Lees, whom he was to marry in 1917, having given up his pursuit of Iseult Gonne – who, incidentally, had lost her virginity to Ezra Pound in Woburn Buildings. Perhaps the LCC plaque commemorating Yeats’s residence there might have been worded more interestingly. Meanwhile Pound had married Olivia’s daughter Dorothy, after much opposition from both her parents.

Besides being a woman of intelligence and sensibility, Olivia had the necessary Yeatsian qualification of occultist interests. When the poet brooded, in 1925, over ‘the woman lost’, ‘the great labyrinth’ from which he had turned aside, Harwood thinks he had Olivia in mind; and ‘After Long Silence’, written in 1933, is also about her. Olivia survived her husband for 15 quite enjoyable years, and with Yeats’s encouragement became a devotee of Shri Purohit Swami. She died in 1938, a few months before the poet: ‘I cannot bear the thought of London,’ he wrote. ‘I will find her memory everywhere.’ She was worth a good biography. Harwood points out that in her last years Olivia was virtually the sole support of the Pounds, financing from her usurious investments Ezra’s correspondence campaign against the evils of usury. The stock she gave Dorothy, Ezra reinvested in Italy, where the whole portfolio was soon wiped out.

Two more volumes of his letters provide further evidence of Pound’s energy as a correspondent. The Faber set continues with a minutely-edited series, mostly on business, which he wrote as European editor of the Little Review. Dashed off before his epistolary style grew intolerable, they demonstrate his qualities of discernment and generosity (he wanted to make a magazine where he himself, Eliot, Joyce and Wyndham Lewis could appear regularly – an annexe to the Vortex – but was determined to accept anything that had quality). Much of the detail lacks interest, however, and it is hard to avoid the ungrateful reflection that, since the fine detail is largely of concern only to scholars, photocopies would have done.

The Margaret Cravens letters have biographical substance, for there has been a mystery about Pound’s relationship with her. She was a piano student and was thought to have been in love with Pound’s friend the pianist Walter Rummel. When she met Pound in 1910 she at once offered him financial support to the extent of rather more than half her own small income. He accepted and wrote her grateful letters, from Italy and then from America (‘Dear Miss Cravens’ for a whole year) and London (‘Dear Margaret’, then ‘My dear’). The editors are convinced that her chief attachment was to Rummel, who shocked her by announcing his engagement to somebody else, but they speculate that she may have asked Pound to marry her. On 1 June 1912 she wrote Rummel a farewell letter (‘I am going away for a rest there is no tragedy no ugliness’) and wishing him happiness, and, on the same day, a briefer note to Pound (‘I have reached the height and the call has come’). The same evening she went home from a tea party at Rummel’s fiancée’s and, as tidily and considerately as possible, shot herself. She is commemorated in H.D.’s unpublished novel Asphodel, part of which is here reproduced in an Appendix. Schopenhauer, as Stokes points out, had disapproved of suicide because ‘the suicide wills life, and is only dissatisfied with the conditions under which it has presented itself to him.’ Margaret Cravens, at 30, was perhaps dissatisfied with her talents and with her friendships. At any rate, she deserves to figure in this sad small footnote to the life of Pound.

To return now to Fin-de-Siècle lucubrations: what John Stokes does with such documents as the Ernest Clark letter is what Larry Wolff attempts, using a far higher degree of magnification, with the Vienna press of 1899. His book is an extensive commentary on four criminal trials. He naturally remembers Carl Schorske’s authoritative Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1980), the book which, along with memories of Musil and Kraus, Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, Klimt and above all Freud, has formed whatever imprecise notions we may have of that time and place.

Wolff is mainly interested in two cases involving children abused till they died. These were reported in the press, especially the middle-class Neue Frei Presse, in a tone suggesting that such horrors were previously unheard of. The reports were sometimes sentimentalised – this is what can happen when country girls come to the wicked city – but also sanitised for the bourgeoisie, represented as the sort of thing only the poor could be conceived as doing. Indeed there was, Wolff claims, a generally successful sweeping under the carpet of child abuse, which remained there until the Sixties. His object in digging these cases out is to use them as a basis for sociological comment on the state of the Empire at the turn of the century, when the presence in Vienna of so great an array of talent in the arts and philosophy – not to mention politics, for Hitler was there – made that city the ‘formative crucible for the elements that shaped the 20th-century world’. (Not least among its gifts to the new century was a particularly virulent strain of anti-semitism.) Into this mix Wolff drops the ‘repressed’ child-abuse cases, placing them at the centre of his diagnosis of the fin du monde.

The idea is bold but the treatment overblown. Reprinting the newspaper reports, the author breaks in repeatedly to show their extended significance (‘By pulling carefully but persistently, one can unravel the whole social and cultural fabric of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna’). He runs into, and has to argue his way out of, obvious difficulties. How was it that, while everybody in the city was discussing these cases, Hofmannsthal seems to have left no record of his surely unavoidable interest? Worse still, Freud, at the very moment when he first announced the discovery of the Oedipus Complex, so uncovering concealed family hatred, avoided any mention of the current scandals. Why? Wolff takes no account of the fact that people frequently miss, or fail to dwell on, news items that might be expected to interest them. He needs to bring Freud into contact with the child-abusers, so Freud’s ‘silence about the mutilated ankles of Oedipus’, in The Interpretation of Dreams, published in November 1899, ‘paralleled his silence about the mutilated fingers of Anna Kutschera during the same month’. Though obviously interested in sexual abuse, Freud had famously abandoned the ‘seduction hypothesis’ in favour of Oedipal fantasy, and was more interested in the childish wish to murder a parent than in the parental wish to murder a child. Had these cases occurred three years earlier, while he was still committed to the notion of the universal sexual abuse of children, he might well have had something to say about them.

There are many of these might-have-beens in Wolff’s argument, especially when this great recognition scene between Freud and the child-abusers has to be played out. His conclusion is that Freud, finding the real thing too painful, bequeathed us the fantasy Oedipus instead. It is certainly remarkable, if true, that the battered-child syndrome didn’t make a public appearance again for over sixty years: but perhaps by focusing so intently on cases that came up in Vienna within a few weeks in 1899 the author has missed others, if not there then elsewhere. The Viennese child-batterings are hardly a firm basis for such tremendous generalisations.

Such generalisations are also the business of Modris Eksteins’s book, though the pivotal period is now moved on, surely reasonably, to 1914-18. Reminiscent in some ways of Paul Fussell’s work, and of Robert Wohl’s The Generation of 1914 in others, this book has a thesis. Like Wolff’s, it works outward from particular occasions to generalisations. One is the first night of Le Sacre du Printemps in May 1913, ‘a milestone in the development of “modernism” – modernism as above all a culture of the sensational event, through which art and life both become a matter of energy and are fused into one’. Such is Eksteins’s thesis: the arts demonstrated in advance the spirit which was to be expressed in more overt terms in the fighting. Scene Two (Eksteins arranges his book as a drama) describes the exaltation of the crowds on Unter den Linden on 2 August 1914, and makes it an occasion for a study of German expansionism and the ‘aestheticisation’ of politics and war. ‘The Faustian movement that Wagner and Diaghilev and other moderns sought to achieve in their art forms had now arrived for society as a whole.’ (The Benjaminite theme of Fascism as the aestheticisation of politics lies behind all this.) Scene Three is the Christmas fraternisation on the Western Front. The second act dwells effectively on the hideousness of trench warfare, and contains an interesting disquisition on courage and duty – why did men simply offer themselves to the slaughter? One answer might be that they’d be shot if they didn’t; but it can also be said that they strove to uphold traditional standards in a Dada context. And the war, as surely as Dada, was abolishing the past of culture and morality, making of the soldier a member of an avant-garde which had little contact or sympathy with the civilian safe at home, listening to the clergy bellowing for blood.

The third act leaps forward to Colonel Lindbergh’s flight, described as an acte gratuit, and his hysterical reception in Paris and London, This is held to reveal that ‘the pre-war form of modernism, with its positive urge, had shifted to America.’ It will be seen that there is a certain strain on many of Eksteins’s connections: Lindbergh arrives, Nijinsky goes mad, Isadora Duncan breaks her neck, the shocking Josephine Baker came from St Louis, like T.S. Eliot, the man who pronounced printemps to be cruel. The interest is in the detail, not the thesis. A chapter on Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and another on Hitler, the great aestheticiser (‘Nazism was a popular variant of the impulses of the avant-garde’), bring the work to an end. It is an odd performance, offering a lot of often interesting research but sometimes reading like something out of, or for, Reader’s Digest.

Kenneth Silver’s book is scholarship of another order, and handsome with it, for it requires ‘251 illustrations, eight in colour’ to trace the history of art from the outbreak of war to the Paris Exposition of 1925. This is achieved by exhaustive reference to little-magazine controversies, and minute analysis of particular works against a background of changing nationalist sentiment. We are familiar with the idea, common on both sides of the combat, that war was a cleanser of the decadence imported from barbaric neighbours. The French turned violently against most foreign influences, even calling Cubism German and spelling it with a K. Culture was French, and the French, contaminated by foreigners, had for a time forgotten that they were the principal heirs of Antiquity and tradition. They would now change all that. Wagner, adored by the Symbolistes, was especially corrupting. Stravinsky was Russian, therefore suspect. The métèque Picasso found it difficult to venture out of doors; Cocteau, French but non-combatant, felt compelled to wear fake uniform and fantasised his death in combat. Meanwhile, artists had to contribute to the war effort, and the story of how some artists did so without total capitulation is here resourcefully narrated – for instance, by a detailed comparison between two Matisses, a few years apart, of a similar subject.

The public preferred art to treat war in traditional styles, and the avant-garde contributed to the fight against barbarism by becoming more classical in manner. The price to be paid for not doing so is illustrated by Silver’s study of the premiere of Diaghilev’s ballet Parade, by Cocteau, Massine and Satie, a disaster in 1917. Cocteau here ignored his own caution to avant-gardistes – that they must know ‘just how far you can go too far’ – and the reception of the ballet was chauvinist in the extreme. In consequence, even the exiled Delaunay became ‘virulently jingoistic, anti-Cubist’. Silver makes much of the forgotten case of the couturier and furniture-maker Poiret, who was attacked as pro-German, munichois. The avant-garde supported him, he sued for libel and won: but it was a pyrrhic victory.

This is a remarkably detailed account of Paris at war, and although confirmed in the view that war is the great corrupter of intellect, taste and talent, one is left wondering how so much good art could have been produced under such conditions. One obvious answer is the extraordinary stylistic virtuosity of Picasso, here amply explored. Another, possibly, was the need to react to clear challenges – for instance, the Fascism of Maurras, and the anarchism of Dada. Le Corbusier wrote in 1921 that the war, la Grande Epreuve, had effected a reunion of imagination and cold reason. ‘It is the same spirit that built the Parthenon,’ now symbolically expressed by the aeroplane. Post-war France was ready for a spell of order and rightist domination, also perhaps for Lindbergh’s arrival: but by 1925 the Left was growing stronger, and Surrealism making its presence felt.

It’s impossible to suppose that anybody will ever study the French art of this period without acknowledging dependence on Silver’s huge book. In it a genuine historical crisis is studied by minute application to works of art and artistic controversies. It sets high standards for a relatively new kind of history-writing, practised at a lower level of intensity in other books noticed here, and also in the currently fashionable New Historicist school. The tensions and tumults Silver describes resulted from a real fin-de-siècle historical turbulence: 1914-18 was by no means mere centurial mysticism, but, if ever there was such a thing, a genuine fin du monde.