Six hands at an open door

David Trotter on Modernism

  • Intertextual Dynamics within the Literary Group: Joyce, Lewis, Pound and Eliot by Dennis Brown
    Macmillan, 230 pp, £35.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 333 51646 X
  • An Immodest Violet: The Life of Violet Hunt by Joan Hardwick
    Deutsch, 205 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 233 98639 1

Dennis Brown concludes his celebration of Anglo-American Modernism with an account of Ezra Pound’s death on 30 October 1972. ‘That year I ended an obituary of Pound in a Canadian student newspaper: Pound is now dead and no poet remains of his stature. But poetry is “NEWS that stays NEWS”. READ him: Read HIM.’ The capitalisation is very much of the period, and it may he that the message is as well. For the poet’s death was shortly followed by a critical work, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1974), which placed him at the head of the ‘Men of 1914’, and chronicled in elegiac terms his lifelong struggle to reanimate a moribund literary culture. Brown shifts the emphasis from Pound Era to Group Era, but his approach is otherwise remarkably similar – remarkably, that is, when you consider how much has been written on the subject since 1974, some of it tending to a qualification of Kenner’s thesis. Criticism, after all, is news that doesn’t necessarily stay news.

Brown begins modestly, stating that insofar as his book is concerned with literary influence it belongs to ‘quite conventional academic criticism’. In this respect, his chief contribution is ‘to argue for the stylistic influence of the early Vorticist prose of Wyndham Lewis on key texts of Joyce, Pound and Eliot and to reaffirm Lewis’s important role within the Modernist venture’. However, his study of these texts has led him to the ‘distinctly unconventional hypothesis’ that they should be considered ‘less in terms of individual stylistic development than as a series of moves within an overall intertextual group-game’. Each of the four writers played his part in ‘a concerted project to create new literature for the new age, our own’. Two claims – for the radicalism of the ‘Men of 1914’, and for their mutual influence – combine to form an ‘innovative theoretical thesis’ which will exceed the limits of ‘normal literary scholarship’.

But what are the limits of ‘normal literary scholarship’, where Modernism is concerned? During the 1980s, a generation of American scholars – Ron Bush, Reed Dasenbrock, Michael Groden, James Longenbach, Lawrence Rainey – set those limits by mapping in great detail the relations between the various literary Modernists and examining the genesis of their major writings. Mutual influence is by no means the sole topic of such enquiries, but it certainly features. Brown does not seem to be aware of them.

He is right to draw attention to Lewis’s striking and influential Vorticist prose: the short stories about Brittany and Spain begun in 1909 and finally collected as The Wild Body in 1927; the unstageable play, The Enemy of the Stars, published in the first issue of Blast (1914); and the Vorticist novel, Tarr (1918). But normal literary scholarship is no stranger to Lewis’s strangeness. In The Literary Vorticism of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (1985), Reed Dasenbrock argued that The Enemy of the Stars, although practically unreadable, had ‘a large (if previously undiscovered) impact on other writers’, precisely on account of its ‘difficult style’. He analyses the strengths and weaknesses of that style, and its impact on Eliot, Pound and Joyce. His efforts lessen the impact of Brown’s claim that the play has been given little room in accounts of Modernism, and that ‘its importance lies not in some autonomous value but in its fertilising power.’ Dasenbrock’s account of its style is the more detailed, his account of its influence the more nuanced.

Brown adds to our understanding of such matters in one respect. Inside a had book about Modernism, there is a potentially good book about the relationship between Lewis and Joyce, the two most rebarbative members of the group. Their mutual influence has long been a matter of claim and counter-claim, but Brown does give some substance to the various assertions. His excavations of The Apes of God and Finnegans Wake reveal the presence in each text of a feared and respected rival.

Outside this particular combat-zone, he is less convincing. Where there is no explicit reference to other members of the group, he discerns ‘talk-hack’, or elaborately disguised allusion. Thus, in ‘Journey of the Magi’, the tavern ‘recalls’ nights in Paris with Pound and Lewis, while the journey-sequence (‘And the villages dirty and charging high prices’) ‘may well encode experiences touring in France with both Ezra and Wyndham’. Furthermore, the glimpse of six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver ‘may well transcribe a fear of betrayal by the others in the gamble of making it new – with the “open door” the birth-canal of the literary future’. Both ‘encode’ and ‘transcribe’ are weasel words which cast a faint aura of higher nonsense over otherwise unadorned examples of lower nonsense. (No mention, alas, of the refractory camels ridden by Eliot’s Magi, or of ‘the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.’) Equally nonsensical are the suggestions, furiously hedged about, that the Men of 1914 appear as the tempters in Murder in the Cathedral and as the elements in Four Quartets (Eliot = fire, Joyce = water, Lewis = earth. Pound = air).

I suspect that what really interests Brown is ‘the gamble of making it new’, and that the concentration on intertextual dynamics is simply a way of making the new appear even newer than it actually was. He argues that English literature ‘has not been characterised by strong group-activity’. This gives the Men of I914, who did engage in group-activity, an even greater claim to newness. But what about the loose network which connected Crane, Conrad, Ford, Wells and James? What about the Auden Gang? Both sets of writers have been the subject of group-biographies which, like Brown’s, delineate rivalries and influences. To acknowledge such examples would he to dispel some of the glamour surrounding the Men of 1914: to suggest that group-work, far from being a unique distinction, is the fate of writers who wish to make their way in the world.

Brown’s book is in the end less striking as an argument than as the expression of a need to believe that our modernity is more modern than anyone else’s has ever been. The idea of Modernism encourages us to think of experiment, not as a constant focus of creativity and self-assertion throughout history, but as the product of a specific (if undefinable) historical crisis. No doubt such ideas have themselves been a focus of creativity and self-assertion throughout history. But some commentators do seem to have raised the stakes considerably. They won’t allow the literature of our own age to be the product of anything less than a crisis, a revolution of the word. In this respect, Brown’s argument echoes the apocalyptic thinking embedded in post-Marxist theory (in Derrida. Foucault, Baudrillard). The idea of Post-Modernism has thickened the brew even further, since it encourages us to believe that we differ from the Modern primarily in the degree of our modernity, our distance from ‘traditional’ habits of mind. Its advocates don’t just want apocalypse. They want apocalypse squared.

Modernism clearly has a descriptive function. It allows us to characterise certain writers by, say, their difficulty and their self-consciousness. It allows us to discriminate between them and their immediate predecessors. We can suggest that part of the Modernism of Joyce, Lewis and Pound was to renounce renunciation. The paths taken by Lambert Strether, Merton Densher and Emilia Gould, for example, would not be taken by the paganised protagonists of Modernist fiction.

As a label, the concept seems indispensable. It has served to characterise and to legitimate a generation of extremely gifted writers. Recognising its usefulness, some critics have tried to refine it further. Frank Kermode, for example, once suggested a distinction between different phases of Modernism, between ‘paleo-modernism’ and ‘neo-modernism’. But the suggestion never caught on, because for many people accuracy of description was not really the point. The point was to fashion a slogan. Modernism consequently acquired an explanatory, or causative, function. It came to signify a cultural event or force which determined the way writers wrote. To write in a Modernist fashion was to write in the conscious or unconscious knowledge that things had changed utterly – in 1910, or 1914, or whenever. ‘If the new art is Modernism’s dream-child,’ Brown writes, ‘its birth-cry tells of a world where healthy issue has become impossible.’ Here, Modernism is the creator, the work a an a child born with the knowledge that things have changed utterly. The First World War has a talismanic presence in his argument, as the objective correlative of Modernist extremism, because it did change things, or at least perceptions, utterly. But Lewis’s Vorticist paintings and writings preceded the battlefields they arc said to evoke. So Brown has to postulate events or forces – ‘a civilisation in death-oriented crisis’ – responsible for both.

The problem with this use of the term is that it is a blatant mystification. Again and again Brown uses the metaphor of birth to describe the emergence of a ‘new art’. Modernism’s dreamchild. What the metaphor does is convert a cultural process – the modification or overturning of literary conventions – into a natural one. Unable to explain literary revolution, Brown portrays it as childbirth. The metaphor informs us that it would be impossibly vulgar to enquire about the mechanics of change, the inglorious fumbling compromises of revision and adjustment.

Brown’s choice of anecdote is revealing in this respect. He tells us about Eliot and Lewis visiting Joyce in Paris in 1920, bearing with them ‘the symbolic presence of the group leader’ in the form of a parcel containing a pair of old brown shoes. The anecdote serves the heroic-pathetic myth of Modernism perfectly; such getting-by and making-do throws the epic literary achievements of the decade into splendid relief.

We don’t, however, get to hear about another occasion, when Pound, Joyce and Eliot met the ambitious young publisher, Horace Liveright, also in Paris, on 3 January 1922. Liveright, who had already published Pound, was touring Europe in search of new writers. Publisher and poet courted each other assiduously. The outcome was that Liveright agreed to publish Ulysses ($1000 against royalties) and The Waste Land ($150 advance against 15 per cent royalties). He also offered Pound a contract guaranteeing $500 annually for two years plus translator’s fees. At this point, Eliot hadn’t even finished The Waste Land (Liveright’s only concern was that it might prove ‘too short’).

Modernism was a marketing strategy. As Lawrence Rainey has shown, Pound knew that some publishers and magazine editors were looking for avant-garde product, and that he could sell The Waste Land, to Liveright and to Scofield Thayer, editor of the Dial, by stressing its modernity. He was, in effect, emulating the old-style American entrepreneurs eulogised in the early Cantos, and we have reason to be grateful for his success. There is really no need to disguise this strategy as a ‘birthing of the new’. The Men of 1914, Lewis said, were a ‘youth racket’ invented by Pound.

Modernism has another, equally enduring function, as a criterion of value. Writers who didn’t respond to its promptings can he said to have blinded themselves not only to history but to the sources of their own creativity. Writers who did can be seen as prophets, without honour in their own age, but the creators of our own.

Brown prefers Tarr to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man simply because it is more experimental, more Modernist. A Portrait, he says, is ‘neo-Paterian’. It ‘replicates’ the Victorian conventions and ‘discourses’ which form its subject-matter. Joyce had not yet modernised himself. ‘The Men of 1914 would work to create a radically new literature – not produce beautifully-finished Aestheticist set-pieces.’ In Tarr, on the other hand, a shining example of the new literature, Lewis ‘anatomises pre-war European aggression’. Where the bad book replicates, the good book anatomises. Yet readers who don’t accept Modernism as a criterion of value might well feel that A Portrait anatomises aestheticism, while Tarr replicates the aggression which is its subject-matter.

The irony is that Brown’s argument itself replicates the orthodox view that the Fin-de Siècle produced little except beautifully-finished neo-Paterian set-pieces. If you concentrate instead on late 19th-century writings about ‘the nature of gender and human sexual response’, as Alison Hennegan has done in a recent essay,[*] you come to a rather different conclusion. Hennegan revels in the subversions of normality which colour the literature of the period and which, although checked by the outcome of the Wilde trial, were never stamped out altogether. Other views of the Fin-de-Siècle are possible, of course, but she does demonstrate that it was a beginning as well as an end. Contributing to a volume with a historical focus (it includes essays on scientific technological and industrial developments, as well as painting, music, sport and the mass media), she is riot obliged to suppose that British culture was in a derelict state before the arrival of Modernism.

The greatest beneficiary of this supposition has been Ezra Pound, inventor of the youth racket. Brown holds the view, prevalent during the Seventies, that internment at Pisa made Pound a better and a wiser man, and re-opened the vein of elegiac lyricism which is his chief asset as a poet. He portrays Pound as a ‘Modernist Lear’, forced, in the cage, to ‘test on the nerve-ends of his skin, the breakpoints of his psychic defences, the limitations of Modernist literary-aesthetic hubris’. But the hubris in question was not merely literary-aesthetic. A central concern of Pound criticism over the last ten years has been to demonstrate the mutual dependence, at every stage of his career, of writing and politics. As Peter Nicholls has shown, there is not much in the Pisan Cantos to suggest that Pound felt his allegiance to Fascism to have been misplaced.

Brown grants Pound a kind of absolute literary authority which transcends the muddle of his politics. He claims, with an insouciance worthy of Rip Van Winkle, that the challenge laid down by Canto CXVI (‘I have brought the great ball of crystal;/ who can lift it?/ Can you enter the great acorn of light?’) has never been met. ‘Nothing in English creative writing or criticism since those words were written in the late Fifties really seems an adequate response, except perhaps the via negativa words of the male heir of Modernism, Samuel Beckett, and the myriad murmurings of Modernism’s literary daughters.’

The literary mothers of those literary daughters have generally been dismissed by or excluded from celebrations of Modernism. Recently, however, there has been a surge of interest in ‘Modernist women’: H.D., Bryher, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson, Djuna Barnes, Harriet Monroe and many others. These women experimented not only in their writing, but also in their lives, by rejecting conventional sexual roles and by establishing networks of support and patronage. Unfortunately, however, the concept of Modernism is still used to evaluate rather than describe: to distinguish between those writers who are considered innovatory, and thus worthy of study, and those who aren’t. The implication is that a rejection of ‘male’ realism was the necessary condition of personal and political freedom. Women writers who led ‘unconventional’ lives, but wrote in a ‘conventional’ manner, get short shrift, even in feminist criticism. Two victims of such discrimination are Violet Hunt and May Sinclair. As Joan Hardwick’s biography demonstrates astutely, Hunt led a far from conventional life, and was active in promoting new art and new writing. She was neither celibate nor lesbian (she brusquely rejected Radclyffe Hall’s advances). Even so, her friendships with Sinclair and Ethel Colburn Mayne, and her involvement in the suffrage campaigns, surely qualify her as a radical, an innovator. But she made the fatal mistake of not being a Modernist. She never abandoned realism.

Hunt established herself by writing the kind of witty and cynical novel about High Society which was popular during the 1890s. A Hard Woman (1895) is about a professional flirt who favours black metallic dresses, and contains some impressively metallic dialogue. Hard women, or women hardened not by fashion but by the need to earn a living and to express or even enforce their own desires, became her theme, in novels like The Workaday Woman. ‘There never was such a gallery of English demi-vierges,’ wrote Sinclair, Hunt’s best critic, such a gallery of women ‘betrayed by their own minds’. Hunt was an innovator. Daughter of a Pre-Raphaelite painter, she was clearly aware of and determined to exploit the radical potential which Alison Hennegan discerns in Aestheticism. She wrote about desirous women, about working women, at a time when it was not usual to do so. But she wasn’t licensed by Modernism. She didn’t abandon external description for stream of consciousness, narrative for epiphany. So she has no place among the literary mothers. Hardwick is right to insist on Hunt’s achievement. Let’s hope someone will do the same for Sinclair.

There is something badly wrong with a concept which elevates one writer to the status of a tragic hero because he worked a successful youth racket, and dismisses another because she did not. The solution is to deny the concept an explanatory or evaluative function. It should he possible to describe Joyce and Dorothy Richardson as Modernists without thereby implying that they had a head start down the birth-canal of the literary future.

[*] In Fin-de-Siècle and its Legacy, edited by Mikulas Teich and Roy Porter (Cambridge, 345 pp,. £35 and £11.95, 13 December 1990, 0 52134 108 6).