VII. The Genesis of High Modernism

Modernism emerges from the attempt to address a problem posed by late 19th century subjectivity. That problem is transience: the fact that things pass way. For the late nineteenth century, because of its extreme subjectivism, this becomes a problem because of the way it reduces all external objects to sensation or impression, the imprint they make on the mind. The problem with sensations or impressions is that, inevitably, they disappear. And once they disappear, there’s nothing left. As we’ve seen, late 19th century art tried to solve this problem by resorting to simple archetypal forms or motifs, to which it could attach sensations or impressions via memory and so manage to preserve these. But since even these forms or motifs exist only within our individual subjectivity (i.e., through our reception of them), they too become just experiences like everything else and hence prone to dissolve within the constant process of subjectivity. Modernism tried to address this problem in a radical way. Instead of just accepting the transience of experiences, it tried to get around it by treating these spatially. In other words, it tried to spatialize time. The problem with time, from a Modernist perspective, was that once you accepted its linear sequence you tacitly acquiesced in the transience of all experiences. So rather than just live time sequentially, Modernism tried to spatialize it by relating different moments to each other within a spatial framework. Its idea was that if you could manage to relate all these different moments from the past (either individual or collective) to each other, you could then arrive at an underlying pattern to these that would resist the ravages of temporal transience. An analogy would be the process by which we remember a tune. If we try to hold onto each note individually as a sensory experience (without thinking about its relation to any others), it’s likely to slip away very quickly, a random sound within a much larger ocean of noise. But if we perceive each note as part of a tune or sequence, it’s easy to remember them all. And so with our sensations or experiences. Once we can fit them into a meaningful pattern (whose essence is spatial rather than temporal), we acquire a new way to retain them individually.

More broadly, we might say late 19th century art, from Impressionism to Brahms and Henry James, had managed (as a result of its extreme subjectivism) to dissolve all that we took away from the external world into tiny bits of objective phenomena within an ocean of subjective consciousness. But these tiny bits of objectivity could only float for so long, before they went under or dissolved into chaos. And that meant the time was ripe for a new kind of art, one that would take up all these bits of objectivity (i.e., sensations + impressions) and give them a formal arrangement.

So we come to the moment of High Modernism, which is to say somewhere around the year 1922. For over a decade, the Modernist movement had been preparing for that moment. So we have experiments in trying to create a new style, experiments with fragmentary material, experiments with seeming randomness (to see how far you can stretch the boundaries). And then, somewhere around 1922, it all begins to come together. Suddenly there’s a sense of larger patterns into which we might fit all these fragmentary pieces. This, then, is what the cultural landscape might’ve looked like at that time, seen from the perspective of someone (T.S. Eliot, for example) looking for a way to put it all together:


As you can see, this is essentially a somewhat simplified version of the overall schema I showed for my 1st talk. The key difference is that under several pivotal points in time (1850, 1900, 1922) I’ve grouped some of the sources Eliot associated with that period. So under 1850, for instance, we get Baudelaire and Charles Dickens. Yes, F.H. Bradley’s a little anachronistic here. But what links all of these sources (for Eliot) is that they’re all associated in some way with the relationship between the self and its double, or some other. Likewise, what links the sources grouped under the year 1900 is the use of music as a theme (so even though Spenser’s anachronistic for such a list, he figures there nonetheless). Finally, the 1922 list features sources concerned with order or arrangement, fitting things into some sort of pattern, with mythic patterns figuring quite prominently. Obviously, these groupings aren’t purely historical (hence the anachronistic sources under each of the different pivotal years). But they represent what we might call a sense of possibilities. What this kind of arrangement also does is to allow for a kind of “layering” effect, or stratification. With some exceptions, the sources hark back to the historical moment with which they’re associated (even the 1922 sources, though so much older, represent the cultural preoccupations of 1922). By grouping them in this way, Eliot can then represent “layers” of cultural history within The Waste Land. As a result it doesn’t just recover time, but does it in a way that preserves the structure of historical time. Nonetheless, there’s a key theme for all the sources associated with a given moment. So it isn’t just an impersonal, neutral list—instead, it should convey a sense of meaningful pattern. And when taken altogether, there should be a sense of the relation of these different groups of sources to each other, which will in turn help to create the larger structure of the poem. Hence my use of double bars or vertical lines for 1922, to signify that what we have here is specifically a formal arrangement of all these cultural/historical sources.

With that, it’s now time to turn to the larger structure of The Waste Land. Consider this schematization of the poem:

What I’ve tried to do here is briefly to characterize each section or subsection of the poem (numbers = line numbers in the text). The result is a more or less comprehensive “map” of the entire text. From this “map” what emerges, somewhat surprisingly, is that it’s actually possible to connect all these sections or subsections of the poem to each other. So material from section I of The Waste Land turns out to be connected to material that appears in sections II or III, and even in section V (in PPT 7.3 I’ve tried to connect topics or motifs from section I to those of section V directly, but it should be understood that if we drew these lines of connection through the middle sections we’d pick up a great deal of relevant material there as well. The trick here is that material from section I rarely connects to other material from section I—instead, you need to move on to section II or III (or even later) to find a connecting link. In that sense, you might say, the arrangement is “spatial” rather than temporal. In order words, if you try to read the poem temporally or sequentially, it makes no sense: what you get is material that seems totally unconnected to what comes before or after it within the same section. But once you begin to think about it in terms of connecting links to material in other sections, the whole poem begins to come together. This kind of “spatial” arrangement is often credited to Ezra Pound, who after he cut much of section IV pointed out to Eliot that Phlebas the Phoenician from that section links up with the drowned Phoenician sailor from section I. But I suspect a lot of this stuff was already in Eliot’s mind anyway. While Pound cut a lot from section IV, many other sections of the poem survived his editorial work largely intact, and when Eliot wrote section V he did most of it in one uninterrupted period, yet it goes together with what came before quite well. In other words, the connections were unconsciously already there.

If we look specifically now at the topics or motifs Eliot introduces, a few recurrent preoccupations emerge. To begin with, there’s the anxiety about sexual impotence. If we survey the entire poem, it’s surprising how often this appears, frequently in a way that isn’t always easy to discern. It’s implied, for instance, in the memoirs of the Lithuanian countess early on, and becomes more explicit with the speaker and the hyacinth girl (“Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed…”). It’s also implied, however, by the “modern nerves” episode from section II (drawn, by the way, from Eliot’s own relationship to his 1st wife Vivien, with whom he was having problems of impotence at the time). But it also comes up in the form of sexual relationships that are skewed in other ways. The rape of Philomel by Tereus, for instance, appears as part of the Elizabethan décor in section II and then recurs, more briefly, in section III, while the relationship of Queen Elizabeth to the Earl of Leicester is set among a number of seemingly lower-class relationships in section III. What links all of these instances isn’t just impotence—after all, there’s plenty of sex in some of the examples I’ve described, likewise in the typist’s affair with the “young man carbuncular” of section III—but a lack of birth, procreation. A second major theme is that of the quest, which shows up in the Tristan material from section I and then reappears with the Tempest material from sections III & V and the Chapel Perilous episode (i.e., quest for the Holy Grail) from section V. A third major theme is contemporary cultural/social decay, not just in Eastern Europe (as Eliot himself points out in his note to section V) but everywhere. It starts with Madame Sosostris and her Tarot card pack in section I and recurs in virtually every section all the way up to the end. We might see it as, in effect, the contemporary background to the poem. When The Waste Land first appeared, what struck readers most were the antique and mythological references. But in fact well over half the poem consists of all the contemporary material Eliot managed to weave into the text throughout, which has become much more noticeable to people like ourselves at some distance in time. And mostly what it conveys is the depressed state of post-WWI Europe.

If we put all these concerns together what we get is something like an anxiety about birth or creation, but probably not in the literal sense given the simultaneous presence of the quest motif. And that this anxiety doesn’t have to do with any distant past comes out through the sheer abundance on every level of contemporary references. What are we to make of this? The fact that the anxiety about birth or creation is linked to the quest motif suggests that this is really an anxiety about creation on some higher level, one that has to be pursued as an activity (as opposed to a simple event). In addition, the strong presence of the Holy Grail material implies that religious belief is somehow necessary, a hint reinforced by inclusion of the post-Resurrection New Testament episode involving Christ and his disciples on the journey to Emmaus. And of course the recreation of the entire Passion narrative in section V plays a major role here as well. At the same time, this sort of belief has to be distinguished from superstition, which there’s a great deal of as well. Nonetheless, the kind of belief required isn’t really for religion per se—if that were the case, there wouldn’t need to be so much emphasis on the quest motif throughout. We know, too, that the motif of the quest or journey bulked even larger in the original draft of the poem, much of section IV (cut by Pound) having been taken up by a kind of Odyssean voyage.

I suggest that the best way to make sense of all this is to see The Waste Land as a poem about the process of poetic creation. The anxiety over birth or creation is really an anxiety about the creation of a poetical work, specifically the long Modernist poem. This we know to have been an anxiety that had occupied the Modernist movement for years. To make good on their claims about the superiority of the new Modernist style over their predecessors, they were going to have to produce a long poem, something to set against Idylls of the King or The Ring and the Book. And for years that anxiety had been gradually building, through the wartime period and after. No doubt it was there for Eliot as he sat, night after night, facing the sheets of blank paper before taking a forced vacation as a way out of his nervous breakdown. Perhaps, too, it might’ve been the nature of his personal anxiety that prompted him to frame the problem as one of sexual impotence. The famous line from Matthew Arnold came back to haunt him, and Pound, repeatedly: “caught between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.” But it was also, I think, a special insight that led Eliot to use the quest motif as a symbol for poetic creation. After all, the Holy Grail, in the Arthurian epic, is never found (except by Galahad, who then gets removed from the human sphere). So the search for the Grail remains, in effect, an ongoing activity. And that, I would argue, is how Eliot wanted to see the Modernist long poem—not so much as a finished work, but more as an activity. The Modernist long poem, in other words, is all about the poetic process, the process of poetic creation by which we try to weave all the disparate material that makes up our lives into a work of art.

As evidence of my thesis, we might look at one strand of the poem which we so far haven’t discussed. Up to now, most of the material that the poem addresses has consisted of life experiences, with occasionally some references to earlier cultural sources (yet that material, too, often consisting merely of a narration of earlier life experiences). Only at the end of the poem do we get a more obvious sense of these cultural sources as fragments. But, scattered throughout the poem, there are, periodically, references to poetry itself:

If we think of The Waste Land merely as a poem about sexual impotence or about the depressed state of post-war Europe, it isn’t clear what we should make of these passages. But if we see the poem as centrally concerned with the whole process of poetic creation, these references become much more transparent. Specifically, I want to call your attention first of all to the “Shakespeherian Rag” of section II, which we might see Eliot as trying to offer in a “Ragtime” version that emphasizes its flashy rhythm. But this is, of course, what poetry is about on one level—rhythm. At the same time, we see a nascent “anxiety of influence”: the difficulty of overcoming the burden of the past, of doing better work than one’s cultural predecessors like Shakespeare. In section III Eliot makes use of Spenser’s “Epithalamium” and then even seems to refer to it explicitly: “This music crept by me upon the waters.” Notice how here the speaker is still passive: the music (poetry) crept by him upon the waters = he isn’t actively engaged in trying to create a poem yet, but inspiration seems to come to him nonetheless. On the other hand, it might simply be a fragment of the Spenser (or some other poetry) that he’s hearing, rather than necessarily anything of his own. By section V, however, he’s definitely more actively engaged: “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” A lot of what comes after is clearly about fragmentation: “London Bridge is falling down…” and “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Toward the end, however, there’s a hint of how things might come together: “Why then Ile fit you” (from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, meaning Hieronymo will adapt his play to suit the relevant circumstances) and the final commands from a Upanishad: give, sympathize, control. Taken collectively, these 3 commands might well represent the entire poetic process. To give is necessary because without that there isn’t the openness to the world that makes poetic creation possible. Sympathy is the process by which we reach out to others, take them into ourselves. And finally control is how we impose order on all the fragments we’ve assembled.

But The Waste Land doesn’t just talk about the process of poetic creation. We’ve seen how the quest motif can be found throughout, from the Tristan material in section I to the Holy Grail allusion in section V. So the entire poem can be seen as a kind of quest for what will make the Modernist long poem. But because poetry, as Modernism sees it, is more activity than finished product, this quest for the Modernist long poem is, simultaneously, the poem itself: the “process” of the poem is the process by which all those “fragments I have shored against my ruins” are brought together, and the theme of the poem is the potential for genesis out of these sources. In that sense, you might say, The Waste Land is both text and meta-text: it’s a text that talks about itself. And in the process of talking about itself, what it really does is to create itself.

From The Waste Land we pass to another equally important High Modernist text that spatializes time in a somewhat different way: Joyce’s Ulysses. Unlike Eliot, Joyce didn’t try to deny temporal sequence. In fact, Ulysses even talks about events more or less in the order in which they happen. On top of that, Joyce actually gives us a great deal of the subjectivity of his 2 main characters. Which is to say: he allows his characters to experience time, the passing of thoughts, feelings, sensory impressions. And that would imply he doesn’t try to avoid the problem raised by late 19th century subjectivism. But if he deliberately allows this problem to arise within his novel, we might well ask how he manages to address it.

Consider this schema as a way of representing his strategy:

Here the two double-strand red lines stand for the plot-lines or time-lines of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. You’ll notice how they curve around each other in what might be described as a “double helix” shape until they finally come together close to the top of the schema. By that I want to show how although they’re moving in the same direction temporally (blue arrows = upward movement = forward progress or flow of time) their paths don’t actually cross until they meet at the maternity hospital. Note also the one other horizontal line that cuts across the upward flow of time: the moment of Lord & Lady Dudley’s cavalcade, around 3pm in the afternoon. This could be considered a significant point in the narrative, not so much because of the cavalcade itself, but because Joyce employs it as a reference point to “place” virtually every one of his characters: at the moment the cavalcade passes through the streets of Dublin we’re told exactly where every character is, and what he or she’s doing.

In a way, we might say that what the cavalcade episode (episode 10, “Wandering Rocks”) does points to what Ulysses does throughout: it “freezes” time. By that I don’t mean it stops the flow of time, the process by which one moment gives way to the next. On the contrary. But what it does (if we can describe it this way) is to freeze the flow itself. Here we might think of instant replay as an analogy. Instant replay doesn’t stop the action (of a game, or whatever). On the contrary—the whole point is to let us see that action again. So what we see in instant replay is precisely the flow of the action, or, in effect, of time. But because of the potential for endless “replays” of a specific event, it’s as if that event is frozen in time. The whole point of normal time, by contrast, is precisely that we don’t get to replay any given moment or event. Instead, it moves on, inexorably, to the next moment or event. So whenever we have the capacity to look at any given moment again, to “replay” it (so to speak), we’re no longer feeling what gives time its distinctive quality—the inexorability of its movement, its constant passing away. Nonetheless, it isn’t as if Joyce “replays” the action of a given episode in Ulysses over and over. So if we get the feeling of the flow of time being frozen in Ulysses, we might ask how exactly he manages to achieve it.

One way, I suggest, is by his compression of all the action of the novel within a single day: June 16, 1904. Right away, Joyce makes it clear this is a very typical day in the life of Dublin, not much different from most other days. That in turn means the actions or events that mark this day are largely repeatable (remotely like those of instant replay), which has the effect of making time essentially cyclical. But cyclical time is already moving away in one respect from time as we largely know it today: if an event gets repeated over and over (as it did, presumably, in the medieval agricultural cycle), we no longer sense the inexorable passing away of a given moment, no longer have the feeling that we can never experience it again, the feeling of its uncapturability, its unrepeatability.

A second way Joyce manages to freeze time is by his use of reference points or points of comparison. Let’s suppose he devotes a certain amount of space to telling us what Stephen Dedalus was doing at a given moment of the day. Typically, at a later point, he’ll then go on to tell us what Leopold Bloom was doing at that same moment. The use of Bloom as a reference point helps to fix or place Stephen’s action (and vice versa). Once we have each as a reference point for the other, the moment or event in which each is engaged will no longer just disappear into the onward flow of time. Instead, we’ll always be able to locate it, place it precisely. Normally it’s difficult to place any moment very precisely: usually, we’re very much caught up in what we’re doing, focused on the action or process in which we’re involved. Having an external reference point (“at the moment Stephen was doing this, Bloom was doing that”) is like treating a moment spatially rather than temporally: we’re no longer so interested in the process or event going on at that moment, but rather how it can be placed or located by other things happening at the same time. For that reason, I like to think of my schema (PPT 7.5) as the equivalent of a “cylinder” of time: if we imagine it as a 3-dimensional space, every point within it (which would correspond to what some character in Ulysses is doing at a given moment) can be related to any other point within the cylinder. In this fashion, all the actions of all the characters get placed “spatially.”

A third way Joyce freezes time is by the use of what we might call large, almost archetypal processes in the novel. Perhaps the biggest one might be the father’s quest for his lost son, which spans virtually the entire book. We know Leopold and Molly lost a son years ago, which Bloom occasionally still thinks about. So when Bloom sees Stephen at the maternity hospital and (on noticing his drunken, helpless state) tries to look after him, it’s as if he’s the archetypal father trying to recover his lost son. And that, I suspect, is where the significance of the novel would seem to lie for Joyce: in the way we enact or carry out these large, archetypal processes. In other words, it isn’t about being able to establish parallels or correspondences between every episode in Ulysses and a similar one in Homer’s Odyssey (even though Joyce himself did that). All of that can easily be described as mere scaffolding. In fact, the meaning or significance of Bloom’s quest for his lost son isn’t to be found in the Odyssey or in any other classical text. It lies, rather, in the way such a process transcends any of its individual instances, whether in the Odyssey or elsewhere. What Joyce realized, I would argue, and what he tried to convey in Ulysses, is that these larger, archetypal processes, because they happen over and over again, transcend time. And that means they transcend everything we lose in time. Bloom will never recover his son Rudy, but by helping Stephen he recovers his lost son on another level. In this way, then, we get beyond subjectivism and the inexorable passing away of things in time. These larger, archetypal processes are in one sense timeless, precisely because they happen over and over again. And, set against the extreme subjectivism of so-called stream of consciousness, which by itself can never hope to recover the losses of any given moment, that repeatability is precisely their virtue.