I haven't done an essay in a few weeks because this particular essay took forever to read. Partially this was because I had company coming and I only clean the house before company comes so it took a while to get the house up to my mother's standards even though she's not the company coming.
Then there was the dry, academic essay itself. Then there was the fact that the Sarah Lawrence student who photocopied it from a book back in the early 1990s didn't notice there were unreadable words at the bottom of every page due to their bad copying job. (It was also maddingly stapled so that you have no idea which direction you should be going turning pages). This didn't stop me from reading it, however. It just made me stop after every three pages and take a brain rest.
The essay is an introduction called "The Idea of the Modern" by Irving Howe, most likely from his book The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts (1968). And it is good summary of what modernism is. But the essay was very interesting to me for another reason.
First I want to say there's always been something that has bothered me about modernism and I've never been able to put my finger on it (its un-scalability??) Although I did (as I was taught to) love many of its practitioners. I've felt this way for as long as I've known what modernism is/was (I think like we're still obsessed with it), going back to college or back to when we read "Prufrock" in high school.
I absolutely cannot read this essay and not think about the vitriol of politics today and how what was once a modernist fringe point of view has become a mainstream way of thinking. So the challenge for today's essay is to read it on two levels: (1) historical modernism and (2) listening for things you've heard people say on Twitter, Facebook or protest rally signs or the crazy Uncle or Aunt narc-splaining at holiday dinners or wherever you hear these basically nihilistic spews.
This is en example of how dry the thing is:"...historical categories are helplessly imprecise and that the unified style or sensibility to which they presumably refer are shot through with contradictions."
Any sentence with contains the phrase "to which they presumably refer" is a little soul crushing. But we slog on! Because we're literary warriors!
Another one, "Historical complexity and confusions are seldom to be overcome by linguistic policing." Who could argue with that? Except the linguistic police. "...the important thing is not to be 'definitive' which by the very nature of things is unlikely, but to keep ideas in motion, the subject alive."
I actually agree with the sentence but I've spent no small time wondering about how 'the nature of things' works.
The whole essay is about the "sensibility" and signs of modernity, which "seems willfully inaccessible" with its "unfamiliar forms" and "subjects that disturb the audience" and "threaten its most cherished statements."
This is what we like about it, it's revolution and irreverence. From 2022, however, we have what I would call 'mercenary modernists.' They don't care about the struggle. They're professional disturbers and threateners. In some cases they've picked a side to work for and they don't even know what the issues of the struggle are. Or in some cases, they're just trying to draw focus back to themselves for purely narcissistic reasons.
This is why we can't have nice, revolutionary things right now. Think about the caricature of the angry white male (or female) in America as you read the rest of this.
"The prevalent style of perception and feeling....is a revolt against the prevalent style, an unyielding rage against the official order."
"A modernist culture soon learns to respect, even to cherish, sigs of its division. It sees doubt as a form of health."
"It cultivates, in Thomas Mann's phrase, 'a sympathy for the abyss.' It strips man of his systems of belief and his ideal claims, and then proposes the one uniquely modern style of salvation: a salvation by, of, and for the self."
"Subjectivity becomes the typical condition of the modernist outlook. In it's early stages, when it does not trouble to disguise its filial dependence on the romantic poets, modernism declares itself an inflation of the self, a transcendental and orgiastic aggrandizement of matter and event in behalf of personal vitality...freedom, compulsion, caprice."
"Modernism thereby keeps approaching--sometimes even penetrating--the limits of solipsism."
There you go. He just said it. And then goes on to quote a prediction from Herman Hesse:
"a whole generation caught...between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standards, no security, no simple acquiescence." And Howe emphasizes, "Above all, no simple acquiescence." Howe says this "posits a blockage, if not an end, to history."
"The consequences are extreme: a break-up of the traditional untiy and continuity of Western culture, so that the decorum of its past no longer count for very much in determining its present, and a loosening of those ties that, in one or another way, had bound it to the institutions of society over the centuries."
That doesn't seem all bad though, right? Some of that traditional unity was kind of sexist and racist. But there's that scary law of unintended consequences...
"Culture now goes to war against itself, partly in order to salvage its purpose and the result is that it can no longer present itself with Goethian serenity and wholeness. At one extreme, there is a violent disparagement of culture (the late Rimbaud), and at the other, a quasi-religion of culture (the late Joyce). In much modernist literature, one finds a bitter impatience with the whole apparatus of cognition and limiting assumption of rationality. The mind comes to be seen as the enemy of vital human powers. Culture becomes disenchanted with itself, sick over its endless refinements. There is a hunger to break past the bourgeois proprieties and self-containment of culture, toward a form of absolute personal speech, a literature deprived of ceremony and stripped to revelation. In the work of Thomas Mann, both what is rejected and what is desired are put forward with a high, ironic consciousness: the abandoned ceremony and the corrosive revelation."
I'm getting exhausted reading this.
"But if a major impulse of in modernist literature is a choking nausea before the idea of culture, there is another in which the writer takes upon himself the enormous ambition not to remake the world (by now seen as hopelessly recalcitrant and alien) but to reinvent the terms of reality."
Here we go. We are there. Politicians are doing this as we speak.
"...the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs has charged, "modernism despairs of human history, abandons the idea of a linear historical development, falls back upon notions of a universal condition humane or a rhythm of eternal recurrence, yet within its own realm is committed to ceaseless change, turmoil and recreation."
Ceaseless change, turmoil and recreation. In business-speak this is called 'disruption." It makes me so tired I need to go lay down for 30 minutes.
Ok I'm back. Howe says, "...always the hope for still another breakthrough, always the necessary and prepared for dialectical leap into still another innovation." The "predictable summit...violates the modernist faith in surprise" so "culture must all the more serve as the agent of a life-enhancing turmoil."
And then we have our modernist ideas of the artist, the Genius,
"...declares Hegel in a sentence which thousands of critics, writers and publicists will echo through the years, 'it must be the public that is to blame...the only obligation the artist can have is to follow truth and his genius."
Stick a fork in it.
Modernism, Howe says, is devoted to raising questions, not answers. "We represent ourselves, we establish our authenticity, by the questions we allow to torment us." We embrace uncertainty, "the makeshifts of relativism" because "men should live in discomfort." He quotes Eugene Zamyatin: "Revolution is everywhere and in all things; it is infinite, there is no final revolution, no end to the sequence of integers."
He then lists some basic attributes of modernism:
- Rise of the avant-garde as a special caste
"an avant-garde marked by aggressive defensiveness, stigmata of alienation....Bohemia both as enclave of protection within a hostile society and as a place from which to launce guerrilla raids upon the bourgeois establishment, frequently upsetting but never quite threatening its security...the avant-garde scorns notions of 'responsibility' toward the audience; it raises the question of whether the audience exists, of whether it should exist."
It's a ready made pose for any artist seeking their artist otufit. So convenient and attractive. Just speaking for myself. But here's the thing, the bourgeois have adopted it and contorted it and now here we are.
Howe goes on to say as much, "the avant-garde writer or artist must confront the one challenge for which he has not been prepared: the challenge of success. Contemporary society is endlessly assimilative, even if it tames and vulgarizes what it has learned, sometimes foolishly...the avant-garde is thereby no longer allowed the integrity of opposition or the coziness of sectarianism; it must either watch helplessly its gradual absorption into the surrounding culture or try to preserve its distinctiveness by continually raising the ante of sensation and shock."
- The problem of belief
"Weariness sets in, and not merely with this or that other belief, but with the whole idea of belief. Through the brilliance of its straining, the modern begins to exhaust itself."
- Self-sufficiency of the work
a move "toward an art severed from common life an experience...The Symbolists, as Marcel Raymond remarks, share with the Romantics a reliance upon the epiphany....For the Symbolist poet...illumination occurs only through the action of the poem...And thereby the Symbolist poet tends to become a magus, calling his own reality into existence and making poetry into what Baudelaire called 'suggestive magic.'"
- The idea of esthetic order is abandoned
"it downgrades the value of esthetic unity in behalf of even a jagged and fragmented expressiveness" because "formal unity implies an intellectual and emotional, indeed a philosophic composure; it assumes that the artist stands above his material, controlling it...After Kafka it becomes hard to believe not only in answers but in endings."
- Nature ceases to be a central subject
Nature becomes an idea, a "token of deprivation," a "sign of nostalgia."
- Perversity--which is to say surprise, excitement, shock, terror, affront--becomes a dominant motif.
"The modernist writer strives for sensations...he has little use for wisdom."
"Sophistication narrowing into decadence--this means primitivism will soon follow. The search for meaning through extreme states of being reveals a yearning for the primal....the turning upon one's primary characteristics, the hatred of one's gifts, the contempt for intelligence, which cuts through the work of men so different as Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, and Hart Crane....is always haunted by the problem of succession: what, after such turnings and distinctions of sensibility, can come next?"
- A new sense of character
"Character for modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner, is regarded not as a coherent, definable, and well-structured entity, but as a psychic battlefield, or an insoluble puzzle, or the occasion for a flow of perceptions and sensations...into a stream of atomized experiences, a kind of novelistic pointillism."
The hero's struggle is a lack of belief in anything. "In Hemmingway's novels, the price of honor is often a refusal of the world. In Malfaux's novels, the necessity for action is crossed by a conviction of its absurdity."
Is this why we see such a lack of the heroic in our current culture? Our movies are filled with superheroes that don't seem to translate into heroic actions in real life. Maybe this because we have a subterranean disbelief in heroism and "the meaninglessness of the human scheme" and "the joke of progress."
And in the end, ourselves.
Howe quotes D.H. Lawrence, "I am weary even of my individuality, and simply nauseated by other people's."
- Nihilism, boredom
"Dostoevsky tries to frighten...by saying that once God denied, everything terrible has become possible. Nietzsche give the opposite answer, declaring that from the moment man believes neither in God nor immortality, 'He becomes responsible for everything alive, for everything that, born of suffering, is condemned to suffer from life."
I'm with that last guy.
"Nihilism lies at the center of all that we mean by modernist literature, bothe as subject and symptom."
Ok, so that's all very heavy and depressing. But Howe predicts a kind of vague end to all of it. "How do great cultural movements reach their end? It is a problem our literary historians have not sufficiently examined, perhaps because beginnings are more glamourous."
What will end modernism, Howe says in his closing sentence, is "the kind of savage parody which may indeed be the only fate worse than death."
Fingers crossed. Taking another nap now.