Will to Literature

David Trotter

  • Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture by Lawrence Rainey
    Yale, 227 pp, £16.95, January 1999, ISBN 0 300 07050 0
  • Modernism, Technology and the Body: A Cultural Study by Tim Armstrong
    Cambridge, 309 pp, £14.95, March 1998, ISBN 0 521 59997 0
  • Body Ascendant: Modernism and the Physical Imperative by Harold Segel
    Johns Hopkins, 282 pp, £30.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 8018 5821 6
  • Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production by Douglas Mao
    Princeton, 308 pp, £32.50, November 1998, ISBN 0 691 05926 8

Modernism must be reckoned one of the lengthiest and most strenuous campaigns ever undertaken in the name of literature. Acutely conscious at once of the burden of the past – the intimidating totality of what had already been written – and of the present’s lightness, its free and easy way with burdens, its failure to be intimidated, the Modernist did not propose to carry on as before. To be literary at all, in such circumstances, one would have really to mean it, to work at it. And the best way to mean it was to begin all over again, to rebuild literature from the ground up, to demand obtrusively the privileges of inauguration. For it might be possible to alleviate and even to resolve one’s own anxiety by making other people anxious.

Consider what the Modernists did to the novel, which was all set, in its competent and agreeable fashion, to carry on as before. According to Henry James, in 1899, the novel had become a universally valid form, ‘the book par excellence’; according to Ford Madox Ford, in 1930, it was still indispensable, ‘the only source to which you can turn to ascertain how your fellows spend their entire lives’. And yet in the interim a feeling had arisen that the imaginary worlds portrayed in the novel as traditionally conceived did not, in fact, correspond to the way one’s fellows spent their lives. This feeling was most fully and influentially articulated by T.S. Eliot, when he argued, in ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’ (1923), that the novel had in effect ‘ended’ with Flaubert and James: the very formlessness which had once made it the adequate ‘expression’ of a previous age, an age not yet formless enough to require ‘something stricter’, now prevented it from expressing a modernity characterised above all by the loss of form. The novel, he thought, suffered from a literature deficiency.

Eliot admired Joyce’s use of Homeric myth as ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’. The solution to literature’s inadequacy in the face of futility and anarchy was more literature: the novel would render itself less ‘novel’, less abjectly the expression of an abject age, if it began to keep company with epic. One could never be literary enough. By minute attention to abjectness – to a day’s events in Dublin in 1904, to a dog urinating against a lamp-post, to a river awash with empty bottles and sandwich papers – Modernist writers brought into view and made palpable a resistance to literature on the part of the world at large, which they knew would yield (and yield only) to the excess literature they happened to have at their disposal. This tendency in Modernist theory and practice might be thought of as a will to literature.

Modernism’s will to literature received its fullest critical acknowledgment in the period between Richard Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce and Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971). Kenner’s book, based in part on interviews with Pound, presents itself as a parting glimpse of an age of demi-gods. It marvellously exhibits, by a vivid survey of encounters, pilgrimages and epiphanies, the will to literature in action. The demi-gods, assembling the ‘luminous details’ which will populate their poems and paintings, occupy to the full a particular place at a particular time. ‘We are to imagine’, Kenner instructs, T.S. Eliot in 1919, ‘rucksacked, deep inside a mountain’, inspecting drawings made with magnesium oxide mixed in bison grease, while, twenty kilometres away, ‘the Pounds, fortified with chocolate, were climbing the southwest face of Montségur to the white walls that ride its summit like a stone ship’. And all this, Kenner reminds us, without any real hope of recognition from an increasingly philistine culture.

By the late Seventies, when the Author lay dead or dying, the Modernist demi-god had dwindled to a ghost in the textual machine. The play of discourses could not easily be made to accommodate rucksacks loaded with chocolate. Nor, indeed, could the great discovery of the Eighties, the ‘political unconscious’: rucksack-exegesis became feasible again, but the only evidence it yielded was of the will to literature’s collusion with patriarchy and Fascism. Now, as the emphasis shifts once more – to institutions, in Lawrence Rainey’s study of Modernism’s patrons and publishers, and to the body, in Tim Armstrong’s study of Modernism’s absorbing interest in glands, healthfood and electrotherapy – the world Kenner delineated has come back into focus. Patron, publisher, dietician, therapist: each flamboyantly inhabits a particular place at a particular time. Encounters occur, pilgrimages are undertaken. What’s missing, however, from these new histories of the Pound era, is the heroism. Kenner’s Modernist pilgrims embark on a strenuous quest for luminous detail; Rainey’s ask for directions to the nearest bank. What Armstrong’s need is a good surgeon.

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