Friday, October 22, 2010

After the Cleveland School

Lord, thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream,
An taught by time I tak' it so--exceptin' always steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see thy hand O God -
Predestination in the stride o' yon connecting rod.

 (Kipling, "M'Andrew's Hymn")

Zach Sachs shared T.J. Clark's essay about "modernism, postmodernism, and steam," which is built around the same ambiguous symbol that Kipling is using here: steam, as an emblem both of evanescence and of machinery, represents the basic tension of modernism, which is between the anarchic individualistic tendency of modern (pre-1945) thought and the contrary, regimenting tendency of industrial life. It is surprising how close the parallels between literature and art are -- when Clark says,
You could say of the purest products of modernism [...] that in them an excess of order interacts with an excess of contingency.

he might as well be talking about Ulysses. (By the way, a point this essay brings home is that WW1 was a very minor part of the story, as most of the currents of modernism had been around for years.) Of course it's much wider than that: earlier this afternoon I was leafing through Russell's History of Western Philosophy at a Borders, looking for a passage about Locke, when I found a very close echo of Clark's thesis in Russell's remarks about how the English empiricists were driven by their arguments, against their natural temperament, to a position of extreme subjectivism that was at odds with the Zeitgeist. 

So, at a minimum, the tension that Clark associates with modernism is at least as old as Hume and Blake. One is tempted to write a long essay about this but it would never actually get written -- I'm too lazy to finish anything -- and the point of this blog is to record my half-digested impressions without worrying about structure etc. So I'm just going to assemble a few notes.

1. Modernism is, of course, one of two successful responses to modernity, the other being Romanticism. Romanticism wasn't a formalist movement in any deep sense; its basic tendency (seen from the modernist end of the telescope) is escapist; still, escapism might be fruitful under some conditions, and it might be that current conditions are better suited to good escapist art than to good formalist art.

2. Related to this, High Modernism was perhaps a decadent movement in Empson's sense that it depended on a tradition that its example was destroying. The best modernist art and literature works largely through unexplained and jarring juxtapositions. The idea always seems to be to force a new emotion into existence by making you think in multiple registers, each with a certain level of vividness, at once. A lot of the juxtapositions only worked while they remained unexpected, i.e., before the first-wave modernists were assimilated. Much of the later work maintains the unexpectedness by stylizing to a degree that makes the tension unimmediate and therefore ineffective. A lot of Pound is no longer readable: the Pound of flesh is now a Pound of maggots. Looking at the pictures that accompany Clark's text, one is tempted to say that something like this must also have happened in the visual arts beginning around Picasso.

3. An excess of contingency is implicit in an excess of form: why that pattern, one could ask, rather than any other? (The number of possibilities grows with the complexity of the pattern.) Had Keats's odes been identical except for being acrostics, we might think them less inevitable. In Clark's terms, Through the Looking Glass is a deeply modernist work, being schematic in the same way as Ulysses and some of the paintings Clark discusses. Victorian writing differs from Modernist writing in lacking the element of direct shock. My sense is that the shock value was primarily about forcing people to look at the work rather than through it, by frustrating their expectations. I don't think this is feasible or interesting at present because the better sort of readers have no expectations at all.  

4. To oversimplify somewhat, the internet has resolved the central tension of modernism; the dominant tendency is currently toward solipsism, and the basic tension is between the world of windowless monads and human nature, which is reluctant to adapt to this world. (The "objective" tendency is represented by neuroscience, which "tells us" that the mind is maladaptive.) So the natural theme of fiction is psychosis, and the struggle to reimagine a reality that is perfectly intelligible on its own terms -- which are Leibniz's -- in ways the mind is at home with. There have, for instance, been several novels lately -- Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (very good!), Richard Powers's Echo Maker (juvenile and lame), etc. -- about characters who are obsessed with the fogeyish notions of authenticity and identity. (The latter two are about people with Capgras syndrome, which (for novelists) is a disorder that leaves you convinced that your family and friends are actually exact replicas of your family and friends.) I wonder if Clark has read these books and what he makes of them.


zbs said...

1. One distinct difference is that modernism is also responding to romanticism, and the reverse is not particularly notable.

2-3. I think you overestimate the importance of Early Modernism's interpretation of itself. Yes, modernism is essentially formal but that is true of the better part of successful artists from the beginning. Pound was extremely spotty, but it wasn't because the central concerns of the age were faulty (how could they be?), rather his treatment was. The frustration you identify inherent in the medium is (was) also a quality of Giotto, Cervantes, etc. Randall Jarrell in his essay on modern poetry goes into this. A reliance upon tradition is essential, the tradition of a medium and an artistic understanding of the medium are the same thing. To what extent you stress "reliance" is a value judgment (a subtle and satisfying aspect of Empson).

4. Your oversimplification, I think, is pretty good; I don't find McCarthy, et al., inevitable from there though. The "psychotic" trope strikes me as being more a sort of hollow interpretation of "postmodernism" rather than an actual human response to which living "after" modernity, whatever that is.

Zed said...

1. Sure, but that doesn't affect my point, which is that M and R are the two successful movements that have reacted to modernity, and differ greatly in approach, so it seems at least as fruitful to ask what the correct Romantic/escapist response to the present is as to ask what the correct Modernist/formalist response is.

2-3. I think one has to watch out for anachronism when reading modernist criticism of pre-1700 work. For instance, it seems unlikely that Eliot's Donne was much like the real guy. I agree that Donne wasn't Campion but nevertheless modernist writing uses shock effects much more compulsively than pre-Modernist writing apart from late Jacobean theater, and I'd argue that the overuse of these effects caused them to lose meaning. It's not helpful, imo, to dismiss not-holding-up-well as entirely about "treatment"; a lot of it has to do with tricks that once seemed delightful and now do not, and these changes have reasons.

4. The question is where the imaginative tensions are. For a long time it was the monad against the world, the "unimportant clerk / scrawl[ing] I do not like my work / on a pink official form." Yeats's beggars, Mr Bleaney, etc. all belong to this tradition. This was fine as long as science was mostly about the external world and technology was about making bigger wheels for human cogs, but now all of that stuff is dated and unusable; the "new" scientific and philosophical tensions are about the mind, e.g. that between the notion of objectivity and experimental data on the mind. A natural way to flesh these things out in a novel is to use insane characters.

zbs said...

1. Sure

2. Re: "treatment:" yes, IA Richards talks about this in one of my favorite essays, "Permanence as a Criterion" (Principles of Literary Criticism). However, I would argue that the failure of Pound isn't overuse of shock as such (and I could argue with formal shock as a particularly modernist tool, or otherwise that shock is a particularly modern aspect of life) but that his was a fundamentally poorly-tuned approach to his art. His contemporaries were as good as anyone at recognizing that. The reason some labored on about his work was because his run-of-the-mill contemporaries didn't get him at all. What he did do well was worth pointing out.

4. It is definitely about what the imaginative tensions are. I don't think epistemological crises are necessarily the nearest neighbor, though perhaps they are one in the crowd.

zbs said...

On what we've been talking about in 2-3, this Jon Mayhew post is interesting in similar terms:

Zed said...

I see what Mayhew is getting at -- I've expressed similar sentiments in the past about poetic translation -- but my point re 2-3 is more the _converse_ of what Mayhew is talking about. It is possible for work to age badly; Shelley and Swinburne are excellent examples of writers who did things that were exciting to their contemporaries but are no longer very exciting; this is partly because their work relies on being read with expectations that are no longer natural. (Dryden also belongs in this group to some extent.) Pound is admittedly not a clean example of this because a lot of his work is obviously bad; perhaps a better example is Sweeney among the nightingales, or the dreary Tiresias business in the Waste Land, which must have been exciting at the time but isn't now.

zbs said...

Yes, I agree. Here is the paper I mentioned earlier,
(from I. A. Richards, "The Principles of Literary Criticism," 1923):


The permanence of poetry is a subject closely connected with the foregoing. Just as there is a prejudice in favour of work with a wide popular appeal, so there is another in favour of work which lasts, which has ‘stood the verdict of the centuries’, or is thought likely to stand it. Both are in part due to critical timidity; if we cannot decide ourselves, let us at least count hands and go with the majority.

But circumstances which have nothing to do with value sometimes determine survival, and work which is of great value must often perish for that very reason. It never gets printed, no one with look at it or listen to it. And immortality often attaches itself to the bad as firmly as the good. Few things are worse than Hiawatha or The Black Cat, Lorna Doone or Le Crime de Silvestre Bonnard, and some of the greatest favourites of the anthologies feature there through their ‘bad eminence’.

There are, however, reasons for connecting persistence of appeal with a certain type of structure, and which is more interesting, instant fame with a failure to appeal to subsequent generations. Work which relies upon ready-made attitudes, without being able to reconstitute similar attitudes when they are not already existent, will often make an appeal to one generation which is a mystery to the generations with different attitudes which follow. But this disadvantage from the point of view of permanence of communication does not necessarily involve any lack of value for those to whom the experiences are accessible. Very often, of course, it will accompany low value; but this need not be so.

The permanence of some art has often been an excuse for fantastic hypothesis. Such art has been thought to embody immortal essences, to reveal special kinds of ‘eternal’ truths. But such debilitating speculations here no less than elsewhere should be avoided. Those are not the terms in which the matter may best be discussed. The uniformity of the impulses from which the work of art starts is a sufficient explanation of its permanence. Where the impulses involved are only accidentally touched off through temporarily being in a heightened state of excitability, we may reasonably expect that there will be little permanence. As a catchword will work one year like magic, since certain attitudes are for social reasons ready poised on a hair-trigger adjustment, and the next year be inoperative and incomprehensible, so, on a larger scale and in less striking degree, men’s special social circumstances often provide opportunities for works of art which at other times are quite inadequate stimuli. There are fashions in the most important things at least, but for the artist to profit by them is usually to forgo permanence. The greater the ease of communication under such conditions the greater the danger of obsolescence.

Far more of the great art of the past is actually obsolete than certain critics pretend, who forget what a special apparatus of erudition they themselves bring to their criticism. The Divina Comedia is a representative example. It is true that for adequately equipped readers who can imaginatively reproduce the world outlook of Aquinas, and certain attitudes to woman and to chastity, which are even more inaccessible, there is no obsolescence. But this is true of the most forgotten poems. Actual obsolescence is not in general a sign of low value, but merely of the use of special circumstances for communication. That a work reflects, summarises and is penetrated by its age and period is not a ground for assigning it a low value, and yet this saturation more than anything else limits the duration of its appeal. Only so far as a work avoids the catchword type in its method and relies upon elements likely to remain stable, formal elements for example, can it escape the touch of time.