III. Modernism

20th century Modernism (or High Modernism) took a very different view of modernity from that of its predecessors. And that’s because its sense of time was very different. We’ve seen how the Romantic era experienced modernity as something irrevocable: key events like the French Revolution and—even more important— the Napoleonic wars had forever changed the face of Europe, so that we simply couldn’t go back to what had been before. The mid-century experienced modernity as time passing. There’s a sense of our struggling to catch up to time, of change happening too quickly for us to adjust. So if Modernism felt itself to be totally in sync with modernity and even able to control and arrange time, we might see this as just progressive: first we’re in shock (Romantic moderne), then we’re always behind (mid 19th-century), and now we’ve finally caught up. In fact, I suspect the actual trajectory is probably a bit different. The end of the nineteenth century witnessed a complete breakdown of objectivity, or a kind of extreme subjectivism. By the time we get to Modernism (1920s, say), we’re no longer in any position to be playing catch up. Instead, you might say that after complete breakdown the only thing possible is complete re-formation. And that, I think, is what we find with Modernism: no longer experiencing time as objective, as part of the world out there, and as a result forced to make up its own time. This isn’t to say people aren’t experiencing time, or that they don’t have a sense of time passing or of things changing. On the contrary: we might say people living in the heyday of 1920s Modernism felt everything to be changing very quickly. But that isn’t necessarily the same thing as experiencing time. If we think of the mid-19th century view of time as something objective, it’s then possible to talk about our being connected to time as part of being connected to the world out there. Time is an ongoing sequence of events but we’re part of that sequence, we fit in somewhere—even if we feel it all to be happening too quickly. By the early twentieth century, though, we might imagine people to be seeing time differently. At this point we no longer have objective time because we’ve lost the sense of graspable sequence—which is to say: we’re no longer sure of where everything’s going. And that means any kind of formation or arrangement of time is now possible.

My first example of this new consciousness of time as something capable of being structured or arranged in whatever way we choose comes from a novel by Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz. German modernism has been getting a lot of attention recently, and for good reason. Clearly it’s quite different from Paris modernism or the Anglo-American modernism of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce et al. Less into formalism, more into the whole sense of lived time as it was experienced in the early twentieth century, and into what we might call the phenomenology of consciousness. Because of all that, German modernism is I think at its best in the novel, where it conveys an extraordinarily fluid sense of time that’s very much contoured to what its characters are experiencing. But before we start looking at Berlin Alexanderplatz I thought it might be interesting to take a quick glance at the Berlin square after which the novel is named, at roughly the time (1929) the novel was written:

My 1st photo shows just the square itself, my 2nd the square with a bit more of the surrounding layout. Notice in the 2nd photo all the fenced-off construction material lying in the foreground. This is a motif that keeps popping up in the novel. When Franz Biberkopf first emerges from Tegel prison he’s immediately assaulted by the deafening noise of construction work all around him. Later the novel comes back to this same motif, mentioning specifi ally the work going on around Alexanderplatz, use of a pile driver, buildings going down (some with a history). But overall the impression is still positive: all this construction work is essentially formative, we can feel something new in the process of emerging. I think the reason Döblin likes to introduce construction work as a motif is to hint at another kind of formative process going on. Throughout this novel we repeatedly find time being stretched or contracted to fit what the characters are experiencing. So some events that are important to the characters—the murder of Franz Biberkopf’s former mistress Ida, later the murder of Mieze, all the trouble connected with Reinhold—keep getting replayed. It’s all part of the very plastic sense of time displayed by the novel. And then, at roughly the midpoint of the work, we get a bit of explicit authorial commentary on this process:

There are no grounds for despair. As I continue my story, and follow it through to its rough, awful, bitter conclusion, I will often have cause to repeat: there are no grounds for despair. For while the man whose story I am telling is no ordinary man, he is at least ordinary inasmuch as we exactly understand him, and sometimes tell ourselves: we would have done the same as he did at each point and put ourselves through what he did. I promise, although this is not customary, not to keep silent during the story.

It is the grisly truth that I tell about Franz Biberkopf, who left home in all innocence, against his will took part in a break-in, and was thrown under the wheels of a car. There he lies, under the wheels, having unquestionably tried his hardest to keep to the strait way. But is precisely this not cause for despair, where is the sense in this criminal, repulsive and pitiable nonsense, what twisted meaning can be imputed here, maybe even to become the fate of Franz Biberkopf?

I say again: no cause for despair. I have the odd surprise still up my sleeve, perhaps some readers can already sense something. A slow revelation is in progress, you will see Franz undergo it, and finally everything will be made clear.  (p. 205)

Clearly the novel is shaping time. And clearly there’s no anxiety about time passing, or about falling behind. Whatever Franz Biberkopf might be feeling, however out of sync he might be with the new Berlin that’s been emerging during his prison years—all that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the narrative is supremely confident it can pull it all together. But if Berlin Alexanderplatz displays this kind of confidence, it can only be because Döblin doesn’t believe in objective time. Instead, if the only kind of time we’ve got is one that contours itself around our experiences, then time will always be arrangeable, always shapeable. So there’s no reason to worry. Rather than objective time, what we now have is time as a formal construction.

Berlin Alexanderplatz 1929
Berlin Alexanderplatz and surroundings

I want to pass now to another instance of Modernist time by shifting the scene to America and specifically New York, focusing on the prologue to Hart Crane’s long poem The Bridge, entitled “To Brooklyn Bridge.” Before we get to that, however, I think it’s useful (as with Berlin Alexanderplatz) to take a quick look at the ostensible subject of this prologue, the actual Brooklyn Bridge itself. Here we have 2 photos, the first an “art” photo by professional photographer Walker Evans whose work Crane knew and admired, the 2nd a shot of Brooklyn Bridge as it looks to the ordinary present-day observer.

Somewhat surprisingly, not a huge difference between the 2 photos. It’s as if Walker Evans has just elicited or emphasized an aspect of Brooklyn Bridge that’s very much part of the actual bridge, or our impression of it: the strong rhythmic feel provided by the bridge towers combined with the suspenders connecting these and the suspension cables dropping down from those suspenders to the deck. In both instances, we feel we’re very much within a network or framework of lines, with a strong sense of movement via the suspenders going all the way up to the top of each tower. But movement is connected to time.

Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge
current Brooklyn Bridge

Hence the emphasis in “To Brooklyn Bridge” on time as arising from our impression of Brooklyn Bridge. Unlike Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz, however, Crane doesn’t see time as merely an index of our own formative, creative activity. Instead, he seems to want to define it as a way of giving structure to our experiences. So “To Brooklyn Bridge,” like Berlin Alexanderplatz, offers a Modernist shaping of time by means of human artifice. Yet in contrast to Alexanderplatz, it doesn’t see the time created thereby merely as a way of organizing our experiences, but rather as giving these something closer to objective structure. In that way, it approaches the level of the mythical.

We start with natural time: the seagull, by its circular movement of soaring, dipping down, and soaring up again produces a natural version of time. The text speaks of it as “Shedding white rings of tumult”—the blur of movement coming from the motion of its wings in flight. By being repeated, this circular movement is progressively building a vision of Liberty or freedom—the bird high above the “chained bay waters” that represent a lack of freedom, unable ever to rise above their present level.

But the bird disappears. With “inviolate curve”—the curve of its flight— the bird is said to “forsake our eyes.” The text then speaks of it as “apparitional,” comparing it to “sails that cross some page of figures to be filed away”: in other words, as apparitional as some daydream we have while stuck in our boring office work routine (accounting, it looks like, getting done in some huge New York skyscraper). Yet an apparition can often be a hint pointing to better things, as maybe here.

We then pass to our first version of human—as opposed to natural—time: the cinema. In the 1920s, the early years of cinema, viewers were probably much more aware of motion in film. So we have the speaker referring to “panoramic sleights” by which film would induce its audience to imagine a scene, by showing everything leading up to it. By hinting at but not showing, however, what cinema does is to get us to think of sequence. Sequence is what will happen next. And with cinema sequence we get our first version of human time.

To Brooklyn Bridge
Hart Crane, 1899 – 1932

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
—Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

 From cinema we then pass to something more objective: Brooklyn Bridge, seen from across the harbor. After all, cinema, like the flight of the seagull, had been “apparitional,” illusory in the sense that it’s movement that disappears without any trace. Not so the Bridge. Instead, the speaker admiringly addresses it as “silver paced / As though the sun took step of thee.” Pacing implies intervals, and from these intervals we get time. Here we can imagine the pacing as supplied by the cables hung at regular intervals from the bridge suspenders. Because of that regularity, it seems, the Bridge or human time can almost appear to dictate to natural time (“As though the sun took step of thee”)—in other words, the sun takes its cue from the Bridge. But the Bridge isn’t just motion but also potency. So the sun light it up “yet left / Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—.” My guess here is that the “unspent” motion comes from the viewer or observer: we take in the Bridge, and especially the curve of its suspenders as they rise to the height of the towers. And this is like the movement of waves, which always, as Crane says, give a sense of “some motion ever unspent in thy stride,” a sense of always having something more. Its having that “unspent” motion is in turn why the speaker can then characterize the Bridge as he does in the last line of the stanza: “Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!” It’s precisely because the Bridge doesn’t expend all its potency or capacity for movement (the wave-like curve always suggesting something more) that we can speak of its freedom—which is just another name for that potency or capacity. This potency or unspent capacity for motion is also perhaps what attracts the speaker to the Bridge: the sense it conveys of being not just motion but the source of movement.

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

 I pass over the next several stanzas more quickly: they seem to mark the long interval of day between dawn and night and—perhaps for that reason—look to be less fraught with mystery or poetry. Boredom or despair is suggested (the “bedlamite” and his/her suicide attempt), but note also the many references to time: “from girder into street noon leaks… / All afternoon the cloud flown derricks turn… / of anonymity time cannot raise.” It’s as if we’re making a long day’s journey into night.

Finally, though, we manage to get there: I take the invocation “O harp and altar” as marking the turning point. The Bridge, of course, is both: harp-like in its shape, but also suggestive of an altar because it’s a vehicle for worship of the unseen, of that potency of movement it conveys. And here’s where it begins to take on a more mythical aspect, not just the result of mechanical labor  “(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)” but hinting at something more spiritual (“choiring strings” of course looking forward to the Aeolian harp image of “Atlantis,” final section of The Bridge). So it can be “Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge, / Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry.” People look to it, in other words, for different things, of which it offers a symbolic embodiment.

And now, finally, night has come: the “traffic lights that skim thy swift / Unfractioned idiom” refers, I suggest, to the lights on the suspenders, clearly visible at night. Crane then gives us a wonderful bit of imagery: “immaculate sigh of stars, / Beading thy path.” It’s as if the lights on the suspender cable with its upward curve could be seen as the visual equivalent of an exhaling sigh, going upward. Lights = stars because of their brightness, but these can also be described as “Beading thy path” because they mark (like beads on a string) the upward curve of the suspenders. As a result of punctuating the suspender curve by their regular intervals, these lights then become a form of time. And as time they can be said to “condense eternity.” But the upward movement of the suspender curve also conveys lift, which is why “we have seen night lifted in thine arms”—a movement very reminiscent, by the way, of the end of Crane’s later poem “The Broken Tower”: “And lifts love in its shower.” In an essay on the unity of Beethoven’s late quartets, Deryck Cooke once spoke of composers as recurring to a few basic pitch-patterns. Here we might see this lifting movement as a poetic equivalent to one of those. The next stanza is both anticipation (“Under thy shadow by the piers I waited”) and retrospect (“Already snow submerges an iron year…”). But the basic sense seems to be that as the city lights go out (“The City’s fiery parcels all undone”) the structure of the Bridge becomes more visible.

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,—

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

The final stanza is almost dreamlike in its transcendence of space, its compression of time. “O Sleepless as the river under thee”: we sleep, and in sleeping dream, but the Bridge, like the river, doesn’t sleep. Nonetheless, it manages in some symbolic sense to abolish the limitations of space: “Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod.” Which is to say: the Bridge spans all of mythic America. “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend”: like the seagull at the beginning of the poem, the Bridge goes down to the lowliest, so as to take everything with it in its upward movement. “And of the curveship lend a myth to God”: here the curveship is, as we’ve seen, that of the suspenders going to the top of the Bridge towers. But this curveship is also, as we know, expressive of that wave-like potency the Bridge possesses, making it not just movement but potentially the source of future movement as well. And this is how it begins to take on a mythical aspect. Because the curve of the Bridge is indicative of movement and hence time, it takes us into itself: as time, it gives structure to our experiences, and hence to our lives. We’ve seen how the poem is about one long day’s journey into night. In that way, you might say, it’s about time and how we live in time. But while the Bridge offers an embodiment of time (“silver paced / As though the sun took step of thee”) it’s also human artifice, the expression of human creativity. In that respect we can see it as expressive, finally, of the ultimate Modernist ambition: no longer living in time as part of the world out there but instead seeking to create our own time as the objective structure in which we live.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

If Modernism is about creating time, we can see the movement called Abstract Expressionism as forming a kind of coda or epilogue to this brief history of modernity. Simply put, in Abstract Expressionism there’s no more time. And the reason time disappears is because now the work of art takes all of consciousness into itself, into a space where the only experiences we have are no longer those of our lives but those we have with the work of art itself. One painter whose work shows this especially well is Mark Rothko. Rothko wrote a fair amount about art, but if you read his early writing (The Artist’s Reality) you find it isn’t terribly illuminating about what seems to be going on in his later work. Two later statements, though, seem more useful:

Mark Rothko, “The romantics were prompted” (1947)

I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers… Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.  (p. 58)

Mark Rothko, Address to the Pratt Institute

I want to create a state of intimacy—an immediate transaction. Large pictures take you into them. Scale is of tremendous importance to me—human scale. My pictures are involved with these human values. This is always what I think about it.  (p. 128)

With these in mind, we can now turn to a later example of his work:

Like the Bridge, then, a Rothko painting is designed to “take you into” it. Unlike the Bridge, however, it’s no longer about time in any way. So although Rothko refers to his pictures as “dramas,” they’re clearly not drama in the ordinary sense—given that the shapes in the pictures are the only performers. Instead, we might say the world they occupy is purely spatial. Rothko talks about an “action” occurring within the work. In that sense we might say that while there’s action, there’s really no more time because this action is happening only within the work, not in our lives. This, then, is how Abstract Expressionism becomes a coda or epilogue to our history of modernity: by transposing what used to happen within the realm of lived time onto one that’s purely spatial. Nonetheless, the “action” occurring within the painting is clearly relevant to us: Rothko speaks of his pictures as “involved with these human values.” I see them as all about a process by which we come to recognize the rectangular shapes on the canvas as suggestive of numinous presences. Basically, to get something out of a Rothko painting you have to look at it for a long time. But when you do that, you discover that the rectangular shapes depicted there seem to be in some way growing in their luminosity. That’s what I mean by describing them as numinous presences. They suggest something more than the literal shapes they represent. It’s not too far-fetched, I think, to see them as an abstract expression of what we might call the “thingness” of things, their noumenal quality. And if we saw these rectangular shapes that way, we might see the process by which they seem to grow, achieve a kind of luminousness, as a sort of presencing, a revealing of their essential being. For Rothko, I suspect, our becoming aware of that essential being of things possessed a religious or spiritual aspect, and seems to be what he had in mind in speaking of the “action” taking place within a painting. But this action that’s taking place within a painting is, as we’ve seen, one that by happening solely within the picture plane is removed from the element of time in which we live. In that sense, then, we can see it as having brought the history of modernity to an end.

Mark Rothko, 1957 #20
Mark Rothko, 1957 #20