VI. Literary Rivalry

For this last talk I’m going to do something different from what I’ve done in all the earlier talks of this series. So far, each of the talks for Modern Literature II has revolved around a topic that stretches chronologically for most of the period 1800-1922. This time, I’m going to focus exclusively on Modernism. The reason for my doing that is to present an idea I’ve recently had about how the Modernist era might be organized or structured. A couple years ago, when I was preparing for for my initial Modern Literature series, I happened to read or look at some of the recent surveys of Modernism. In doing that, I couldn’t help noticing that most of these seemed to give relatively little thought to how the whole period might be conceptually structured. I realize that because of the international scope of Modernism it’s a bit harder to get traction on this period than it might be, say, for earlier epochs of 19th century literature. The prevailing or current notion seems to be that rather than talking about a single monolithic form of Modernism we should recognize a plurality of Modernisms in this period. In itself that’s all well and good, and it certainly goes some way toward making us more receptive to a number of movements or tendencies that might be active in this period. My own engagement with Modernism goes way back to my undergraduate days. At that time, High Modernism clearly enjoyed a hegemony over this period. People were still trying to understand the conceptual scheme behind The Waste Land or Ulysses, and if anyone thought about Virginia Woolf, or D.H. Lawrence, or anyone else, there was usually an effort, subconscious or otherwise, to assimilate these authors to what we now call High Modernism. Since that time, there’s been a lot of change in the Modernist landscape. Many of the forgotten writers of the 1930s and 1940s have been resurrected, and some of the other people who used to be loosely associated with High Modernism (Gertrude Stein, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Langston Hughes) have come in for a lot more attention independent of their connection with that movement. Nonetheless, there hasn’t been much effort to provide an overall structure for this period, and even influential recent surveys (like that of Michael Levenson) seem largely content to just add more figures to the Modernist array. So when I started thinking about Modernism again, I thought it high time for me to find out a bit more about the Bloomsbury group, which I’d been only vaguely aware of in my early Modernist days. And as I got deeper into the work of people like Roger Fry, Clive Bell, E.M. Forster, some of the lesser known Virginia Woolf stuff, and even John Maynard Keynes, I couldn’t help feeling that here was a group that seemed to have some internal coherence of its own (quite apart from their longtime personal association with each other), and that furthermore seemed quite different in fundamental ways from what we call High Modernism. So I began to feel that maybe it wasn’t quite right to try simply to assimilate this group to High Modernism—after all, they don’t by and large share that formalist sense of an art work as composed of fragments or pieces more or less opaque in themselves that have to be connected conceptually. Then it occurred to me that maybe it might make more sense to see it as a competing Modernist group. And then I started looking around to see if other people or groups might be treated the same way. So gradually I evolved an idea of seeing the Modernist era as structured by a rivalry between different groups, each having its own very different agenda. The following talk is an attempt at working out this idea.

I want to start with the 3 images you initially see for this talk: they loosely represent the 3 Modernist groups I’ll talk about:

(1) reactive

(2) Bloomsbury < knowability of world out there >

(3) High Modernism < chaos, creation of new formal order >

I’ll begin by saying a bit about the 3 images. The first, a photo, shows a group of WWI soldiers in the trenches. Note that, although a few soldiers are making a somewhat painful effort to smile, on the whole the group doesn’t look terribly happy. And no wonder: covered with mud and grime as they are, life doesn’t seem particularly pleasant. For many people, World War I came as a shock. It was different from anything they’d known before, and dying happened brutally quickly and unexpectedly. As a result, some people (Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, for example) tried in various ways to register the shock. And so a literature arose which might be described as reactive. It consists of authors trying to register the shock not only of the War, but also, on a larger scale, of the ways modern life has become radically different from what we knew before, and of how hard or painful it is to adjust. The second image is of a Cézanne still-life, one of his many paintings of fruit on a table. The exact subject isn’t especially important—either to Cézanne or to us. What’s important is the attempt to convey something of the essence of these fruits, a sense of their volume, of their palpability as objects. That’s what Cézanne is all about, and that’s what makes him so much a favorite of Roger Fry, the leading art critic and one of the most influential members of the Bloomsbury group. What this group believed in, above all, was the knowability of the world out there. Like the first, purely reactive Modernist group, they too knew something of the difficulty of modern life, of all the challenges brought by modernity. But unlike the first group, they believed this brave new world of modern life was knowable, and that by knowing or understanding how it worked, you could come to redeemability. The third image is of a Picasso painting, from his Cubist period. Once again the subject’s unimportant —but this time it’s not easy to say even what that subject might be. What’s important, though, is the breakup or fragmentation of the material into various aspects of things—quite often you get what looks like a guitar or violin, scraps of print, parts of other objects like fruit or some of those typical still-life objects, and even—occasionally—the suggestion of a perceiving eye. This perceiving eye is there for a reason. Its presence is meant to say that while the brave new world of modern life comes to us all broken up into fragments or pieces because it’s inherently chaos, the perceiving eye—and, ultimately, the mind which it symbolizes—is what holds it all together, makes possible the creation of an order which is what a work of art is all about. And that, essentially, was the programme of High Modernism: attempting to create order out of a world it believed—especially after WWI—to be essentially chaotic rather than essentially knowable, yet believing that if it could somehow create order out of these chaotic fragments, it could nonetheless bring that world if not to redeemability then at least to something bearable.

Of the authors who might fall into the first, reactive Modernist group, I’ve chosen to go with D.H. Lawrence. Unlike Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, Lawrence didn’t write very much about World War I, but he did try to address many of the other aspects of modern life that made it shocking to those used to what had existed before. In The Rainbow, a story of various people but mostly of one young woman named Ursula Brangwen, Lawrence focuses on a number of the most shocking aspects of modernity. One of these is the savage, essentially amoral nature of children (the new generation), who no longer have the moral values of their predecessors. As a schoolteacher, Ursula comes into contact with all this in a particularly shocking way when she has to beat a schoolboy just to keep her classroom from spiraling out of control:

She knew if she let go the boy he would dash to the door… So she snatched her cane from the desk, and brought it down on him. He was writhing and kicking. She saw his face beneath her, white, with eyes like the eyes of a fish, stony, yet full of hate and horrible fear…. In horror lest he should overcome her, and yet at the heart quite calm, she brought down the cane again and again, whilst he struggled making inarticulate noises, and lunging vicious kicks at her. With one hand she managed to hold him, and now and then, the cane came down on him. He writhed, like a mad thing. But the pain of the strokes cut through his writhing, vicious, coward’s courage, bit deeper, till at last, with a long whimper that became a yell, he went limp.
(p. 370)

The whole experience is shocking because at the heart of it there’s something like pleasure in subduing this boy, inflicting pain on him. “In horror lest he should overcome her” she says to herself, but what she has by beating him down, conversely, is the pleasure of overcoming him. Note, too, the presence of something like a rhythmic quality in the beating: “she brought down the cane again and again. . . .” And the way it moves, strangely, to what almost seems like a kind of sexual climax: “till at last, with a long whimper that became a yell, he went limp.” Beating, in other words, as a kind of sadomasochistic pleasure.

Prepared by this, we’re then able to recognize many of the same emotions as they come to Ursula in her relationship with her lover Anton Skrebensky. As in her beating of the schoolboy, there’s the pleasure of overcoming someone else. But this time it’s even more extreme, since what’s involved isn’t just overcoming Skrebensky but even, on the subjective level, the pleasure of annihilating him

She took him in the kiss, hard her kiss seized upon him, hard and fierce and burning corrosive as the moonlight. She seemed to be destroying him. He was reeling, summoning all his strength to keep his kiss upon her, to keep himself in the kiss.

But hard and fierce she had fastened upon him, cold as the moon and burning as a fierce salt. Till gradually his warm, soft iron yielded, yielded, and she was there fierce, corrosive, seething with his destruction, seething like some cruel, corrosive salt around the last substance of his being, destroying him, destroying him in the kiss. And her soul crystallised with triumph, and his soul was dissolved with agony and annihilation. So she held him there, the victim, consumed, annihilated. She had triumphed: he was not any more.
(p. 299)

Here what Ursula experiences is the shock of realizing it’s somehow more pleasurable to destroy Skrebensky by loving him, by overwhelming him through the force of her passion, than it is to love him. Nor is it just a physical, sensual pleasure. Instead, the real pleasure seems to come from knowing she’s destroyed his subjectivity, his ability to feel that his love’s stronger than hers, by proving the opposite to him. And her shock is finally less about her discovery of her capacity for destructiveness than it is about the pleasure involved, and the discovery that that pleasure is somehow linked to a feeling of fecundity.

While the reactive Modernist group is all about trying to adjust to the shock of modern life, the Bloomsbury group, I would argue, believed it was possible to do better. Last winter, as part of my exploration of this group, I spent some time reading John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. As a sequel to Ricardo, it gives one a lot to think about in terms of trends or tendencies. Because unlike Ricardo, Keynes isn’t interested in the kind of tight, really elegant theoretical model Ricardo offers. Instead, you can’t help getting the feeling that Keynes is quite willing to make any ad hoc adjustments necessary to his theory, to ensure all the explanatory ground is fully covered. At bottom, I think, it all came from a deep belief that the workings of the economy (except, maybe, some of the stock market vagaries) are fully explainable. And that came from a broader belief that the world out there is knowable. But for the Bloomsbury group perhaps the most influential voice in many ways was that of Roger Fry. These days we’ve sadly lost sight of how important he was in his time. For instance, it’s interesting to know that he was for some years the curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and J. Pierpont Morgan’s advisor when Morgan was the driving force behind the effort to build up that magnificent collection. Fry was also the mind behind the Post-Impressionist show at the Grafton Gallery in London that (as Virginia Woolf somewhat pompously says) changed human nature. Well, it probably didn’t quite change human nature, but it certainly did something to change the way art was perceived. And if Fry was a major force behind the effort to change the perception of art in England, the driving motive behind Fry was something he’d gotten a glimpse of in the Post-Impressionist painters:

Now, these artists do not seek to give what can, after all, be but a pale reflex of actual appearance, but to arouse the conviction of a new and definite reality. They do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life. By that I mean they wish to make images which by the clearness of their logical structure, and by their closely-knit unity of texture, shall appeal to our disinterested and contemplative imagination with something of the same vividness as the things of actual life appeal to our practical activities. In fact, they aim not at illusion but at reality.
(Vision and Design, p. 167)

In other words, what the post-Impressionist painters are trying to do is to get at, and convey, the essences of things. But that assumes the essences of things are knowable. And that was what Fry believed. The fruit depicted in a Cézanne still life really is a particular kind of volumetric mass, plastically shaped in a particular way, with a particular kind of color tint and textural feel to its surface. This doesn’t mean that Fry thinks we’ll get to know everything there is to know about the atomic structure of an apple by looking at a Cézanne painting. But in the sense of giving us what that apple is as a thing, as an object, Fry clearly believes the Cézanne painting is capable of rendering it. As he says: “. . . shall appeal . . . with something of the same vividness as the things of actual life . . . .” Another way to look at the matter would be to ask what Fry thinks is the difference between Post-Impressionism and Impressionism. And here I can think of no better source than Virginia Woolf’s Roger Fry, which is also, incidentally, extremely useful for insight into her own work:

The contrast between the two groups has been gradually becoming apparent…. The difference may be explained by their approach to the thing seen. The older men are all more or less impressionists, that is to say, they approach nature in order to analyse it into the component parts not of the thing seen but of the appearance…. But the younger men, really going back to an earlier tradition, carry the analysis further, penetrating through values to their causes in actual form and structure.
(p. 114)

The “component parts” of an appearance consist of aspects of our perception of it. In other words, they go back to us, to our way of seeing or looking at things. But the “causes” of these visual or perceptual “values,” which Fry says can be found in “actual form and structure,” go back to the things themselves. For Fry, Post-Impressionist painters think about those things themselves, and how they produce those “values” in the mind by which we get a sense of what they are. Or, to put it another way, they study or look for the properties that make these things knowable for what they are.

In a very different sense, knowability is also, I think, the key theme in the work of E.M. Forster. From a High Modernist perspective, Forster can be pretty difficult to talk about. Clearly, he doesn’t have the kind of brilliant virtuosity, the narratological fireworks of a Joyce or even the multiple perspectives of a Ford Madox Ford. But if we see him from a Bloomsbury standpoint, where the crucial issue is a desire to make sense of the world out there, it all becomes much easier. In effect, trying to make sense of things, coming to knowledge or awareness of the way things really are, is what Forster’s characters are all about. So we’ve got Philip Herriton forced to go down to Italy with Caroline Abbott because his ex-sister-in-law Lilia Herriton has committed the indecency of falling in love with a young Italian named Gino after her husband’s death, and even—further indecency!—had a child with him. While down in Italy, however, Philip meets Gino and comes to see Lilia’s situation, and her love for Gino, much more sympathetically because he now comes to a knowledge of the passion and other circumstances of place and social scene that made it possible. More comically, we have, in Forster’s slightly later novel A Room with a View, Lucy Honeychurch supposedly in love with and engaged to the totally prim and proper Cecil Vyse, but discovering on a trip to Italy (the place in Forster where all these discoveries are made) a passion for the young George Emerson, who’s much more passionate about her. Nonetheless, once back in England, she goes on pretending, until finally Mr. Emerson (George’s father) has to point out to her how she’s been “lying” to Cecil, to George, to Mr. Beebe, to practically everybody—but most of all to herself. Fortunately, thanks to this timely heads-up, Lucy does come to knowledge or awareness of how things really are. How the same theme would work in Forster’s later and more complex novels, Howard’s End and A Passage to India, is of course a more complicated story, one I have to defer to some other time. But hopefully these brief remarks on two earlier novels will give some sense of how it might be worked out.

Since I’ve discussed High Modernism in much more detail in my initial “Modern Literature” series, I also want to touch on it just very briefly here.We might think of a line near the end of The Waste Land where the speaker sums up what’s been going on quite neatly: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Or, in slightly more elaborate fashion, consider the well-known passage from Hart Crane, “The Broken Tower”:

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice

Like the speaker of The Waste Land, the narrative voice of “The Broken Tower” also seems to see the world as broken up, fragmented, so that any attempt at order is perhaps only precariously transient. Nonetheless, the notion of its being possible to trace “the visionary company of love” suggests that, underlying the chaos, some deeper tendency toward communion might well be working to make that order possible.