Hauteur

Adam Phillips

  • The Short Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme by Robert Ferguson
    Allen Lane, 314 pp, £20.00, November 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9490 8
  • Paranoid Modernism: Literary Experiment, Psychosis and the Professionalisation of English Society by David Trotter
    Oxford, 358 pp, £35.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 19 818755 6

What is now called trauma theory informs contemporary biography as much as it does the academic practice of literary history. Belief in trauma as a kind of agency, as a cultural force – in events as the real heroes and heroines in life stories – turns up historically when people are beginning to lose faith in God and character and cause and effect. Despite the fact that the relationship between being shocked and being changed is indeterminate – many shocking things make little real difference, and the unnoticed and the unnoticeable can have astonishing repercussions – the idea of trauma reassures us that we can find a beginning, and that there is a beginning worth finding. It puts a plot, if not a plan, back into modern lives.

T.E. Hulme believed that we needed to get back to a time before human nature was deemed capable of radical change, before the idea of progress distorted our sense of reality – a time before Romanticism. He loathed anything without the ballast of original sin in it, and was one of the first people to defend the Modernism of the abstract art of Bomberg, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska against the apparent progressivism of Roger Fry and Bloomsbury. He had found his preferred version of human nature in Byzantine art, and its recovery in these abstract Modernists. One of the many things that is so interesting about him, and that Robert Ferguson illuminates in this first thorough biography, is his redescription of original sin as the best way of talking about ineluctable human limitations. In his own combative, unacademic way he was trying to work out why original sin, even in its secular versions, was an idea we should not be trying to do without. And clearly no modern writing has yet been able to do without a version of it, whether as something to be acknowledged or as something to be defied. The problem of original sin, secularised as the problem of anti-social behaviour, has been remarkably resilient.

David Trotter believes that what we have learned to call Modernism is more akin to the cumulative trauma of secularisation, and that if we can’t get a wholly convincing sense of the beginnings of Modernism, we can get the next best thing: a sense of what the Modernist generation and in particular the Modernist artists thought they had lost, which was, among other things, the assured place of the artist, his or her necessary significance within the culture. The self-cure for insignificance is paranoia, and Trotter’s Paranoid Modernists are marked, above all, by a sense of what is unbearable about modern life. They weren’t exactly trauma theorists themselves, but much of the writing of the period has a manifesto-like quality, and the manifesto – the address to the enemy – is the paranoid genre par excellence.

Yet even the most committed modern trauma theorists must be wary of the ways in which their theories smuggle back the sacred in the guise of the secular. The idea of something beyond our control intervening in our lives in a way that ineluctably changes them is not exactly news; nor is the sense that radical unpredictable change confounds us, and usually makes us ask what we have come to think of as deep questions about life. Trauma theory is only properly secular when it stops needing to be morally reassuring; when it stops having to reinsert a plot. When we were being told that the world would never be the same after 11 September, that we would never forget that day, we were being reassured – i.e. coerced into believing – that we can still recognise a meaningful event when we see one. It is a difficult fact of life that we can be horrified by things that we don’t find meaningful; that don’t matter to us despite our wish for them to matter (and with so much horror around not caring becomes a kind of forbidden pleasure). The appetite for inevitability or a sense of inevitability – for the idea of things having to happen in a certain way, known to someone – is hard to give up. Paranoid Modernism came into being, Trotter suggests – and Hulme is an exemplary instance of it – because many of the most important Modernist writers were writing out of the fear that they would have to make their own systems or be trapped in a world without system. ‘The beginning of paranoia,’ Trotter remarks in one of many arresting formulations, ‘is the deep sense that it all hangs together’; ‘paranoiacs . . . find themselves by eliminating muddle.’ ‘Paranoia’, in other words, was the Modernist word for sanity. It was sane to believe that life made sense, and that the sense it made could keep us going.

Trotter has a complicated story to tell, but he tells it with admirable lucidity. It is part of the artfulness of his book to make plain – but not too plain – what it might mean to tell a story about paranoia that hangs together. In this context the scholarly apparatus of debts and sources and references, telling us where things come from and where they can be followed up, might make us wonder whether gratitude is not itself ironically of a piece with the paranoid strategies of Modernism that Trotter unmuddles for us. It is one of the many boons of this erudite and exhilarating book that Trotter makes a case for paranoia that is never merely the case against it. If anything, Paranoid Modernism shows us that as a solution, paranoia is a remarkably imaginative recognition of the problem. The paranoiac is the person who has noticed what a mess we are in; who knows that the only sense he is going to get is the sense that he can make. ‘Nothing is bad in itself except disorder,’ Hulme remarked. As one of Trotter’s Paranoid Modernists, Hulme would have no truck with the idea that the inability to bear disorder might in itself be bad. Or that being unable to bear disorder was being unable to bear what life was really like. The modern paranoiac has realised that since God is dead someone has got to be god: someone has to know what is going on.

Most of the stories about so-called Modernism are trauma theories: theories about the ways certain writers in the early decades of the 20th century found of bearing the things they couldn’t bear. Trotter’s story began in a series of fascinating sketches – in Cooking with Mud, an elaborate prelude to this more focused, but no less eloquent book.[*] Mess became a preoccupation in art around the middle of the 19th century: the litter in Turner’s landscapes, the spitting in Moby-Dick, the chance occurrences in L’Education sentimentale are all evidence for Trotter of various kinds of chaos being kept at bay. And determinism, what Trotter refers to as ‘the method in paranoia’s madness’, was seen as a grand consolation in a world in which people seemed to be doing nothing more coherent or impressive than taking their chances. The great 19th-century determinisms – economic, evolutionary, psychoanalytic – were the secular plots that replaced Providentialism. Determinism, Trotter wrote in Cooking with Mud,

is the easy option: the choice we make without knowing we have made it . . . Determinism is never not productive, and we should be thankful for the bounty it brings. But the hardest thing of all to think about is chance, which denies the very form and purpose of thought itself. Mess makes this possible.

For all their apparent rupturing of the sacred order, the determinisms are attractive by virtue of their continuity with it; they satisfy our desire for inevitability; they are, as Trotter says, a comforting form of bad faith (if we can’t help it, we can’t help it). In ‘Modern Art and Its Philosophy’ (1914) Hulme (quoted by Trotter) said that in the modern revolution of ‘sensibility’ there seemed ‘to be a desire for austerity and bareness, a striving towards structure and away from the messiness and confusion of nature and natural things’. Paranoia is a solvent for messiness and confusion; a hotbed of convictions. But if a preference for clarity and coherence is an indication of paranoia we may wonder whether there is a viable alternative now to paranoia as a way of life. Abstraction – ‘striving towards structure’ – is an unpromising cure for contingency. Trotter looks to the ‘representational strategies’ of the great literary Modernists – Lawrence, Conrad, Ford and Wyndham Lewis – for ways to work through these new dilemmas. ‘The writers and painters of the period,’ he writes, ‘acknowledged by the interest they took in mess that a realism that did not want to know about the operations of chance would be no realism at all.’ Once you get interested in chance, your sense of human agency begins to change. People have to find ways of describing the (new) fact that, like everything else in nature, they are nothing special. Even the people who are considered to be especially good at this kind of description, the writers and painters, are nothing special.

The paranoiac, it turns out, is at the centre of a world that has no centre. The history that Trotter tells suggests first that the so-called crisis of modernity was a legitimation crisis, with writers merely the most articulate complainers about the fact that everyone was (and is) now marginal because in a secular world nature is all margin and no text; and second that hierarchy within the human world was increasingly determined by a new, secular magic. With the gradual redistribution of wealth went a redistribution of magic. ‘During the 19th century,’ Trotter writes,

the status the upwardly mobile professional classes sought for their expertise was the status of a magical power: a status previously or otherwise afforded to qualities such as wealth or warlike valour . . . Sometimes, when they did not find it, they made it up. Paranoia is a delusion of magical power . . . Paranoia, the psychiatrists maintained, was the professional person’s madness of choice.

Paranoia, one might say, is the ambition to go on believing in ambition. And the ambitions of the Modernist novelists are exemplary, for Trotter; these novelists and the heroes of their novels are insistently preoccupied by the nature of their expertise (if they have any) and by the ironies of their ambitions. What, these writers wonder, is the ambition to be a novelist an ambition to be? What kind of symbolic capital do writers have that bankers or lawyers or psychiatrists don’t have? In what sense is writing a profession? Birkin, Lord Jim, Lewis’s Tarr are all men of uncertain worldly status. (One of the characters asks of Tarr: ‘What sort of prizes could he expect to win by his professional talents? Would this notable arriviste be satisfied?’) They are the kind of people, one might say, who aren’t properly qualified and about whom the other characters, like the writers themselves, may want to ask whether they are sound or fraudulent. Hulme, one of the most strident unofficial theorists of Modernism – who, as Ferguson shows in telling detail, was unable to get or stay qualified or licensed in anything that mattered to him – is an example of the self-assertiveness required by the modern man without (officially legitimated) qualities. Indeed, Hulme emerges, in this shrewd biography, as uncannily similar to the intense, vagrant heroes of Conrad, Lawrence and Lewis. He was, Lewis wrote in Blasting and Bombardiering, ‘a very rude and truculent man. He needed to be.’ He carried a knuckleduster, and was very explicit about what he couldn’t bear. Belief in original sin has always sanctioned bad behaviour, and Hulme’s life sometimes seems like a series of scrapes; as though he didn’t want to be better than he felt himself to be, but was quite happy to be a bit worse.

Hulme was born in 1883, the grandson of a successful pawnbroker and the son of an affluent ceramics manufacturer. His childhood, in Ferguson’s brisk account, sounds relatively untroubled, and compared to the childhoods of the other great Modernist writers, unusually privileged. Gratton Hall, the family home where Hulme was born and grew up – ‘a handsome two-storey brick mansion on a grassy hilltop commanding fine views of the rolling North Staffordshire countryside’ – seems to have been what is now called a secure base. The family had gardeners and chauffeurs. The Hulmes were not interested in the arts; Hulme’s father had a passion for fishing and shooting. But he was also ‘a man with an explosive temper . . . a remote and hard man whom his children feared and respected’. It seems to have been the aggression, above all, that Hulme inherited (though Ferguson does warn us, in an odd non sequitur, that ‘Hulme had the kind of strong personality that discourages psychoanalysis’). At Newcastle High School, where he spent almost a quarter of his brief life, Hulme was ‘lazily brilliant and rather loutish . . . first and foremost a great debunker, popular with the others for his sense of humour and his awe-inspiring lack of respect’. One of his friends, quoted by Ferguson, describes him later at Cambridge, rather winningly, as ‘far too original and radical to be content to be merely unconventional’. And yet Ferguson’s Hulme seems to be a man whose originality, aggression and flair for provocation amounted to a quest for authority. He was a great hero-worshipper, first of Bergson, whom he translated and wrote about, and then of Jacob Epstein, whom he promoted as the redeemer of modern art. It has been difficult to get a sense of just how influential Hulme was as an art critic and a political theorist, not to mention as a poet, because so little of his writing has been kept in print. Herbert Read published what was effectively a miscellany of his prose writings – jottings, literary criticism, political theory, writings on modern art – in 1924, and called the book, rather blandly, Speculations. The extent of his writings on Bergson and on contemporary artists only became clear when Karen Csengeri edited her superb Collected Writings for Oxford, which was published in 1994. As a freelance cultural critic, before his death in action in 1917, Hulme made it his project to put an end to the world he believed he had inherited. If there is sometimes a gauche lordliness in his writing, the reason is perhaps that it takes a certain bravado to rewrite an inheritance. It was, Hulme asserted, ‘the business of every honest man at the present moment to clean the world of those sloppy dregs of Romanticism’. Among those sloppy dregs was the unique entitled individual so dear to liberalism, and so costly, in Hulme’s view, for the vitality of culture.

One of the most striking things about all the great Modernist writers in English, other than Joyce, is the scale of their contempt. Like people in shock, they found a great many things unbearable. In retrospect their scorn for the masses, or democracy, or women, or Jews, or Bloomsbury, or Romanticism, is staggering. Not since the Augustan satirists have fear and loathing so defined a literary moment. Suspiciousness of motives, a kind of sceptical hauteur, is everywhere in the writers Trotter deals with. ‘All arguments on reasons given,’ Hulme wrote, ‘is absolute waste of time, for the real reason is something not given.’ Just to know this keeps you ahead of the game; but only a belief that there is such a thing as the real reason makes such insights possible. It is the paranoiac’s primary project, as Trotter shows, to single himself out; never to be merely one among many. So hatred and the provocation of hatred, which go together, are integral to the structure of Paranoid Modernism. ‘Paranoid symmetry,’ Trotter writes, ‘adjusts the degree of fantasised grandeur to the degree of fantasised persecution . . . They hate me because I am special; I am special because they hate me . . . the degree of persecution becomes the only appropriate measure of the degree of achievement.’ If paranoia is a quest for recognition of one’s significant status, one will only be reassured by the most urgent forms of attention. The (modern) paranoiac invites persecution out of a fear of invisibility. To be hated makes him feel real; he has made his presence felt. To be unforgivable is to be unforgettable.

There is a by now familiar before and after story here, a historical trauma theory. There was a time when people had a place and knew their place; and then there was a time, which we are still living in, when for various reasons they didn’t, when more and more people had to find a place in the world instead of simply inheriting one, when prestige was up for grabs. The project of the modern, unmoored, displaced individual is to find his value in the eyes of other people, and to resent this. It is a predicament that breeds new forms of megalomania and new forms of servility. The whole notion of ambition, of what people might want for themselves, is transformed. Trotter brings Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital and Harold Perkin’s story about the ‘rise of professional society’ to bear on his discussion of those writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries ‘who only have their own integrity and an esoteric knowledge guaranteed by certificate to sell, rather than muscle, or the possession of land, or existing wealth’.

It is his contention that the writers he talks about were acutely aware of all this because, as writers, they had a profession that wasn’t one. Their capital was symbolic, but there was no available certification. There was no institution – other than the market, which is a kind of counter-institution – to tell writers that they were the real thing. Paranoia was the self-cure for those who couldn’t take it, for all those modern and Modernist writers with substance anxiety. One is in a paranoid state of mind when one’s insignificance is unthinkable.

The aesthetic consequence of this is an aversion to mimesis. ‘The paranoiac,’ Trotter writes, ‘wishes above all and at almost any cost to be recognised for what he uniquely is, and the loss of identity which mimicry always entails is fatal to his project.’ Trotter shows how the protagonists and antagonists in the novels that concern him – in Caleb Williams, for example, or The Woman in White – ‘share a conviction that private judgment is superior to the judgments delivered by individual law’. This idealising of inner superiority was hardly conducive to a politics of consensus. What Trotter calls the ‘charismatic professionalism’ of the Modernist writers he discusses – charisma being a magical (modern) form of self-legitimation, qualification without examination – tended towards a paranoid politics which he calls, perhaps hedging his bets, post-liberalism, and which can be described as a preoccupation with the violence that seems to make democracy impossible. ‘We still want to know,’ Trotter writes, ‘why radical literary experiment proved conducive to flirtations with Fascism.’ Part of the allure of Fascism is that it satisfies contradictory impulses; it is perhaps not surprising that for writers like Lawrence and Lewis the utter anonymity of the mass and the unprecedented singularity of the leader seemed to offer the best of all possible worlds.

In the legitimation crisis that is Paranoid Modernism, the self exists only in its assertions of itself (I say ‘I’ therefore I am). The paranoiac is the person who has realised that he is no different from anyone else, and that performative utterance is the name of the game. The idea of individuality, in other words, emerges at the point at which it begins to occur to people that there may be no such thing. People may be unique, but their uniqueness may be insignificant. Finding the right tone to write, or to write off, the utter inconsequence of modern human life became the Modernist project. Post-liberalism, Trotter implies, is a sense of the irrelevance of politics, a sense of the political as an exhausted project; a doubt about the value of values; Fascism as despair about politics. Lewis and Lawrence are the heroes of Trotter’s book because they were able, at least occasionally, to ‘own up’ to their paranoia, to see it as an option rather than a truth.

‘Paranoid Modernism,’ Trotter writes, ‘was markedly – though by no means without exception – English, male and novelistic.’ This could lead one to believe, and Trotter intimates as much, that the story he wants to tell about the ‘crisis’ of Modernism was also a crisis of masculinity. ‘Paranoia’ wasn’t so much the modern word for sanity, it was the modern word for masculinity. Paranoid Modernism, as Trotter acknowledges, is a book about male writers for whom ‘mess’, ‘disorder’, ‘luck’ (good and bad), ‘accident’, ‘contingency’ and ‘waste’ were all words descriptive of femininity. Male paranoia demands female abjection. The man who is happily nothing special is the secret sharer of Trotter’s Paranoid Modernists. Not the man without qualities whose very quality-lessness makes him unique, but a man for whom uniqueness is no longer the point. Ferguson tells us that Hulme’s ‘favourite injunction’ to a woman was: ‘Forget you’re a personality.’ In its various versions that was the Modernist motto. Personality has proved rather difficult to forget. Paranoia keeps reminding us what a desperate business it is.

[*] Reviewed in the LRB, 10 August 2000.