Modernisms Antimodernisms And New Modernisms

The reaction against Eliot by experimental poets, especially in Britain, was in part a response to his remarkably high reputation among the general public and the academic establishment. From the 1920s to the 1960s Eliot's poetry and criticism formed the basis not only for modern poetry courses, but for a whole approach to literary study. It was during these years that 'modernism' came to be defined as a period and a literary style, and it was defined largely in relation to Eliot's and Hulme's ideas.

Modernism is not a descriptive term like 'nineteenth-century literature', and if it has a meaning it is a historically specific one. It was invented as a literary category in the 1920s and first influentially used by Laura Riding and Robert Graves in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), a guide that drew most of its examples from Eliot's poetry and that of e.e. cummings, an associate of Pound's. The term entered critical use at just the point the young discipline of English was being transformed into a serious university subject and, when universities began to consider offering courses in modern literature, the intellectual rigour Riding and Graves's Survey had shown was demanded by modernism recommended it as an appropriate subject of study. When students at Columbia asked for a course on modern literature, its difficulty contributed positively to the faculty's decision. One of its members recalled the faculty's attitude as 'We shall give the course, but we shall give it on the highest level, and if they think, as students do, that the modern will naturally meet them in a genial way, let them have their gay and easy time with Yeats and Eliot, with Joyce and Proust and Kafka, with Lawrence, Mann and Gide' (Trilling 1965: 8).

Not only was modernist literature appropriately difficult, it was also morally serious. For a new generation of academics and critics in both Britain and the United States, Eliot's poetry and criticism provided a means to analyse and criticize the direction of modern culture. In Britain, the Cambridge academic F.R. Leavis and the critics around his journal Scrutiny set the study of literature against what they perceived as a national slide into mass or popular culture. In the United States, the New Critics (who incorporated the Southern Agrarian poets) posited literary criticism as a corrective to scientific and utilitarian approaches to knowledge. Eliot's key concepts of tradition, impersonality and the dissociation of sensibility defined the new literary values, and Eliot's poetry provided the paradigmatic examples of modernist literature. Hulme had a place in this new critical landscape, too: one of the most influential New Critical essays, Joseph Frank's 'Spatial Form in Modern Literature' (1945) elevated Hulme's account of Worringer's theory of abstraction to a defining principle of modernism. Frank argued that modernist literature's major innovation was in disrupting the way we read in time (one word after another), by using the cubist technique of juxtaposition. In poems such as The Waste Land and The Cantos, he argued, fragments are juxtaposed in space, requiring the reader to apprehend the fragments simultaneously, as a unity (1991: 5—66). The first substantial book-length studies of Eliot (F.O. Matthiessen's 1935 The Achievement of T.S. Eliot) and Pound (Hugh Kenner's 1951 The Poetry of Ezra Pound) appeared during this period and, like most studies of modernism until the late 1970s, they emphasized the formal and intellectual unity that Eliot's essays had trained them to recognize as the supreme literary value.

When the critical tide turned against Leavisite criticism and the New Criticism in the 1970s, it also turned against the perceived sources of its values: modernism and, especially, Eliot. The new critical approaches, loosely grouped under the label of 'postmodernism', defined themselves not only as after modernism, as the term suggests, but often against modernism, too. Though notoriously difficult to define, for our purposes postmodernism can best be understood as a critique of modernity and its major beliefs and values, such as progress, rationality, the unified self and 'grand narratives' (like religion, science or history). According to many critics of the 1970s and 1980s modernism was the artistic embodiment of these values.

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974, English translation 1984) the German critic Peter Bürger argued that modernism was not the break with the past it claimed to be, but rather the last gasp of romanticism. The real break with the past was made by what he called 'the historical avant-garde', the proto-postmodernist movements of Dada and surrealism, which became prominent in the 1920s. Previously, 'avant-

garde' had been a term synonymous with modernism, both taken to mean self-consciously experimental art, and indeed Dada and surrealism were usually described as modernist movements. Bürger, however, used 'avant-garde' in a very specific sense. He argued that the historical avant-garde did not simply create new styles of art, as the modernists did, and as the romantics had before them; they changed the nature of art itself. They did this by taking art out of its separate sphere and making it part of everyday life: they made collages and constructions of mass-produced objects and poems from newspaper cuttings, thereby negating the concept of the individual artist creating an 'original' work. They created for the crowd, rather than the individual (1984: 51—53). Bürger's argument was extended by another critic, Andreas Huyssen, who argued that modernism instituted a 'Great Divide' between high art and mass culture, and postmodernism, born from Bürger's historical avant-garde, rightly rejected that divide (1988: vii-viii).

Influential as these arguments have been, it has since been pointed out that the version of modernism presented here is somewhat of a straw man. If postmodernism is a critique of modernity, so is modernism: Eliot's and Hulme's cyclical view of history, all three poets' preference for intuition over reason and the questioning of grand narratives undertaken by Pound in The Cantos and Eliot in The Waste Land all suggest that modernism and postmodernism have significant shared interests. The modernism that postmodernism is post is not so much the early twentieth-century experimental art movement than it is the New Critical and Leavisite version of modernism, and in freeing modernism from these associations the postmodernist critique has rejuvenated modernist studies. In the 1980s critics such as Maud Ellmann, Marjorie Perloff and Jean-Michel Rabate provided vibrant new readings of The Waste Land and The Cantos that highlighted their postmodernist potential. More recently, critics have begun to dismantle canonical modernism itself, and have started to explore previously obscured modernisms, the plural form influentially used as the title of Peter Nicholls's 1995 study. Bonnie Kime Scott's The Gender of Modernism (1990) and Suzanne Clark's Sentimental Modernism (1991) have returned female writers to the overwhelmingly male modernist canon; Michael North's The Dialect of Modernism (1998) highlighted the centrality of race; and Laura Doyle and Laura Winkel's collection of essays Geomodernisms (2005) reminds us that modernism was not only an Anglo-American movement. Eliot, Hulme and Pound are by no means excluded from these new modernisms - indeed Hulme appears to be enjoying somewhat of a resurgence - but their dominance in literary history is rightly being questioned.

0 0

Post a comment