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.

That Ulysses, Modernism’s reformation of the novel, was published not by a major publishing house but ‘at the risk of an American lady who had opened a bookshop in Paris’ is taken by Kenner to indicate the timidity of the age, and the heroism both of the American lady and of the book’s initial purchasers, who knew a triumph of the will to literature when they saw one. Rainey is having none of it. To him, the event marks ‘the decisive entry of Modernism into the public sphere via an identifiable process of commodification’. Ulysses was first published, by Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, in February 1922, in a deluxe edition of 1000 copies which sold at three different prices, and was offered to booksellers at considerably less than their normal 33 per cent discount. The target audience, then, was not the common readers who read common novels, and the common shops which supplied them, but collectors of rare books, and, more importantly, dealers in rare books, some of whom would hold back copies until the edition had been exhausted and its market value had risen accordingly. The American lady meant to ‘transform the reader into a collector, an investor or even a speculator’; the key to her success, Rainey maintains, lay not in the individual purchasers whom the standard accounts list in ‘an academic variant of the epic catalogue’, but in the anonymous dealers and export agents who between them soaked up well over 60 per cent of the edition. And the lady knew exactly what she was up to, as Ezra Pound did when in mid-1921 he advised his parents to invest in a copy as much on financial as on aesthetic grounds. The Modernists, Rainey charges, ‘were eager to demonstrate that their work could be successful now and to construe market success as a justification for their aesthetic and cultural claims’. In his view, the success of the deluxe edition of Ulysses was not the confounding of philistinism it has always been thought to be, but an ‘immense tragedy’, a ‘scandal’. The scandal lies in the confusion of aesthetic value with speculative investment.

The Modernist will to literature found its most vivid polemical expression in Wyndham Lewis’s Blast, organ of the Great London Vortex, which managed two violently iconoclastic issues, in June 1914 and July 1915, before collapsing. Kenner devotes some apocalyptic pages to Blast, in which the journal causes immediate and widespread offence, costs Pound his job as a contributor to the Quarterly Review, glowers pucely on an aristocratic garden table during a summer storm, and is eclipsed by the guns of August. Rainey will have none of this, either. The context he provides for Vorticism is the publicity the Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti generated on his visits to London between 1912 and 1914. In 1912, Pound was getting by on patronage ($1000 a year from Margaret Cravens, whom he had met in March 1910) and ‘erudite exoticism’ (he was an authority on Provençal culture). He must have known that this particular game was up when, on 19 March 1912, his fiancée Dorothy Shakespear told him that she would be attending a lecture that evening: not the lecture he was due to give to an audience of fifty at the Kensington home of Lord and Lady Glenconner on the poetry of Arnaut Daniel, but the one Marinetti was due to give to an audience of five hundred at the Bechstein Hall on Futurism. ‘“Futurist” Leader in London,’ reported the Daily Chronicle, ‘Makes an Attack on the English Nation.’

If you can’t beat them, join them – or copy them. In 1912 Pound sought some notoriety by launching his own movement, or school, Imagism, which Rainey regards as a feeble response to Marinetti. ‘Though lmagism is commonly treated as the first avant-garde in Anglo-American literature, it was really something quite different – the first anti-avant-garde.’ In 1913, and then in 1914, Marinetti was back in London and, gallingly, his cheerful assaults on cultural piety – ‘Every day it is necessary to spit on the Altar of Art!’ – again received widespread coverage in the mass-circulation press. The problem for Pound was that the altar Marinetti spat on was the one at which he himself continued to worship, Imagism notwithstanding: the altar of ‘élite bourgeois culture’. He had better summon some juices. Blast was meant to extinguish not only Marinetti’s music-hall expectorations, but his own allegiance to élite bourgeois culture (those blasted in its first issue included Lord Glenconner of Glen). It didn’t work. The critics had seen it all before. They had no time for imitative gestures, for Futurism and water. ‘Blast,’ Rainey concludes, ‘was indeed a dull affair.’

Rainey completes his survey of Modernism plc with chapters on the marketing of The Waste Land, on Pound’s efforts to incite Mussolini to a programme of patronage which he himself would direct and on the reinvention of H.D. during the ‘canon wars’ of the Eighties. The emphasis remains on the confusion of aesthetic value with speculative investments. So successful was Pound’s boosting of The Waste Land, for example, that editors and publishers scrambled for the right to publish a poem most of them had never read, simply because they thought that publishing it would identify them as champions of the new. They were bidding for what Rainey, in one of his strategically chilling phrases, terms ‘discursive hegemony’. Their reading of the poem was not the ‘close reading’ since practised by generations of scholars and students, but a ‘not-reading’: a grasp of its meaning and value as a commodity in the cultural marketplace. ‘We might learn from them,’ Rainey adds.

Chilling or not, the arguments advanced in Institutions of Modernism find ample support in a wealth of evidence drawn from archives of every conceivable kind. If Pound gave a lecture in a particular room on a particular day in 1912, we are told what was in the room that day, and how it got there, and how the people who put it there got there, and what they hoped to achieve by putting it where they put it. This book has set a new and formidable standard for the study of Modernism in its historical contexts. If it has weaknesses, they are the product of its strength. It doesn’t always stop short of self-congratulation. One would have to feel very sure of the advantages of not-reading to dismiss as a ‘dull affair’ a magazine whose first issue included Lewis’s ‘Enemy of the Stars’ and whose second issue included Eliot’s ‘Preludes’. The mistakes, however, are in the tone rather than the substance of the argument.

The Pound Era begins with an encounter in a street in Chelsea between Henry James and his niece and Ezra Pound and his wife Dorothy. For Kenner, this is a moment of benevolent transition, as the older man hands the will to literature down to the younger. ‘James’s great sensibility brought in a generation.’ The encounter which interests Tim Armstrong was between James and Horace Fletcher, a dietary reformer whose main recommendation was that food should always be chewed to a liquid (they met for lunch: a largely silent occasion, one imagines). Fletcher believed that chewing food to a liquid would ensure perfect digestion and ‘internal antisepsis’. His major obsession was with the purity of faeces; he thought they should have the consistency of factory-made pellets, so that one could collect them by hand, or mail them to interested parties for inspection.

James adopted Fletchcrism in May 1904, as he was finishing The Golden Bowl his last major novel. Extolling ‘the divine Fletcher’, and taking an hour over a modest meal, he chewed slowly for almost six years, a period which coincides closely with his rereading and rewriting of his literary corpus for the New York Edition. Armstrong’s hypothesis, supported by analysis of James’s descriptions of the process of revision in letters and prefaces, is that the chewing-over and purification of bodily process is equivalent to that of the process of revision. The connection is more than metaphorical: both body and corpus are ‘constructs’, Armstrong insists, ‘amenable to a pragmatics which seeks to regulate flows and accumulations in the name of an ideal’. Finally voiding himself of the Edition, James was able to turn with increased efficiency to more productive work; to the late autobiographies and the last two novels. And he abandoned the chewing cure.

For Rainey, the Modernist will to literature is at best a noble dream and at worst a venal self-deception, but for Armstrong it is real enough, although it can be understood only in relation to a will to power whose genealogies have been most productively examined by Nietzsche and Foucault. Armstrong’s focus is the aspect of ‘bio-power’ concerned with active interventions (medical, mechanical, judicial, behavioural) in the human body. Interventionism, in short, is in his view the mark of the modern. The urge to intervene could be seen in the effort to control the flows of energy and nutrition by diet and exercise, in electrotherapy and drug regimes, and in transsexual surgery. It also manifested itself, Armstrong would argue, in the literary preoccupation with making it new. His interest is in those writers who sought to reshape or re-energise a ‘corpus’ at once literal and literary.

The Modernist who most vividly imagined himself in need of a good surgeon was W.B. Yeats: ‘Yeats constantly sought to renew himself in later life, to overcome his feelings of age and to undergo a rebirth.’ In Romantic fashion, he had always associated self-renewal with a renewal of creative impulse. But his understanding of the basis on which both self and corpus might be renewed took a new direction during the winters of 1913-16, which he spent with Ezra Pound in a cottage on the edge of Ashdown Forest. Kenner envisages Pound absorbing bardic technique from the poet who said he made poems out of a mouthful of air; Armstrong envisages him ‘engineering’ a decisive shift in the bard’s attitudes to life and art by his insistence on the sexual (or glandular) basis of creativity. The next time Yeats scheduled a rebirth, after a period of barrenness in the early Thirties, he did it the Modernist way, by bodily intervention. The surgeon Norman Haire, a leading figure in English sexology, performed the Steinach operation on him in 1934. The purpose of the operation (a vasectomy) was to divert energy from the production of semen to the production of ‘hormone’, and thus to revitalise the system by substituting internal for external secretion. Peter Schmidts, the doctor whose book on The Conquest of Old Age (1931) explained all this to Yeats’s satisfaction, was a disciple of Nietzsche. The ‘Gland Old Man’ of Irish letters, as Dublin gossip had it, found his will to literature as effectively regenerated as his will to life.

The overall effect of Rainey’s emphasis on institutions is to consolidate both the object and the method of study. Attention centres on the Board of Directors: Pound, Eliot, Joyce. And while many readings of the Cantos and The Waste Land and Ulysses are possible, there will only be one not-reading: it is hard to imagine anybody doing again the work Rainey has so indefatigably done. The effect of Armstrong’s emphasis on the body, by contrast, is of dispersal and transposition. This is a stakeholder Modernism: anyone who did bodies counts. We learn that Yeats’s operation set him ‘on the fringes of the world of Modernist sexology’ – suddenly it’s the surgeons, not the poets, who make it new. The topics included in his book range from Theodore Dreiser’s interest in electricity and electrocution, through Mina Loy’s poems about bodily mechanisms and her pamphlet on Auto-Facial-Construction (1919), to the Danish artist Einar Wegener, who in 1930 underwent one of the earliest sex-change operations. Armstrong’s two concluding chapters consider Gertrude Stein’s preoccupation with automatic writing, and the arrival of sound in cinema. The addition of sound to previously produced but unreleased films was apparently known as ‘goat-glanding’, a reference to the revitalising hormonal implants pioneered by the Russian surgeon Sergei Voronoff, and popularised in America by ‘Goat Gland Brinkley’, a Kansas quack.

The degree of dispersal can prove distracting. It seems odd, for example, that a book crammed with German-speaking sages and sexologists should have nothing at all to say about Franz Kafka, whose interventions in his own literal and literary corpus were systematic to the point of mania. And there is also a certain fluidity about Armstrong’s terms of analysis: the fact that a point of view is developed with great conviction in one chapter does not necessarily mean that it will survive into the next. But then his topic is less a topic than a mercury-slither of ingenuities, aspirations and phobias; and he has done well to capture as much of it as he has. This richly speculative book sends one back to Modernist writing and Modernist performances with goat-glanded enthusiasm and awareness.

The somatic is scholarly box-office these days, and hot on Armstrong’s heels comes Harold Segel’s Body Ascendant, about the Modernist preoccupation with varieties of physical culture, from pantomime and dance to blood sports. ‘The campaign against tradition was dynamic and aggressive, and it sought to subordinate the virtues of the mind to those of the body. Passivity yielded to activism, the rational to the irrational, the conscious to the unconscious.’ In Armstrong’s account, Modernism aspires to surgical intervention; in Segel’s, it aspires to bullfighting and wordlessness. My feeling is that the innovative surgeries offer a more accurate fix on literature’s raging self-renewal than an appetite for physical expression which had begun to make itself felt well before the turn of the century. Thus Segel’s informative chapter on the cavalry charges, safaris and solo flights undertaken by Roosevelt, D’Annunzio, Marinetti, Gumilyov, Jünger, Hemingway, Montherlant and Saint-Exupéry omits to indicate whether any (or some, or all) of these gentlemen should be thought to have renewed literature by his choice of blood-thirst, and if so why.

Like Rainey, Douglas Mao is a consolidator. The ‘solid objects’ he has in mind are those reflected on (and with) by a quartet of eminences: Virginia Woolf, from whose short story the book takes its title, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Each eminence gets a chapter, which charts in monographic fashion the development of his or her reflections on objects and objectivity. The field of study is thus not the play of discourses or the political unconscious, but the literary career.

Mao argues that a regard for the physical object as object – ‘as not-self, as not-subject, as most helpless and will-less of entities, but also as fragment of Being, as solidity, as otherness in its most resilient opacity’ – is a malady and/or revelation peculiar to the 20th century. The writers he writes about came to think of the creation of material culture, and in particular of the work of art, as the standard of meaning and value by which a life should be led: they put ideas about aesthetic autonomy to the test of production. This is also an important theme in The Pound Era, which demonstrates that the luminous details out of which the poets made their poems were more often than not acts of making (even the furniture Pound fashioned for himself is said to register a ‘habit of mind’). It is the tension, Mao suggests, between an investment in production and an investment in the objectivity of the object world ‘that lends Modernist writing its dominant note of vital hesitation or ironic idealism, and that leads Modernists, as thinkers and artists, to that impasse in which all doing seems undoing, all making unmaking in the end’.

Mao shrewdly varies the angle by beginning with Woolf, whose only appearance in The Pound Era is as one of the ‘treacly minds’ by which Eliot found himself surrounded after the break-up of the London Vortex, and by adducing in a fresh and authoritative manner the various philosophies which could be said to share Modernism’s concerns with thingness and productivity: not just Bergson and Moore, but Heidegger and Sartre, Adorno and Baudrillard. In a splendid coup de théâtre, Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out (1915) and Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway (1925) are fingered as precursors of Roquentin, in Sartre’s Nausea (1938), the man who had such trouble with doorknobs and cardboard boxes. With those philosophies in mind, Mao lays greater stress than Kenner ever did on production’s inherent risk: the danger that the object, whether a table or a poem, might be reduced in the process of manufacture to a mere agent or reflection of the subjectivity which made it. His argument is implicitly and explicitly ecological in emphasis. This is a will to literature, indeed, but a will to literature which has acknowledged its own wilfulness.