Books October 2013

Why We're Still Struggling to Make Sense of Modernism

We may like to think of ourselves as postmodern, but the modernists upended conventions—in art and in life—in ways that have challenged us ever since.
From left: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso. (Associated Press; Corbis; Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

Beckett wrote “unenjoyable” books, says Martin Amis. Paulo Coelho believes Joyce’s Ulysses caused “great harm,” while Roddy Doyle doubts any readers are “really moved by it.” “Shabby chic” is the Financial Times’ verdict on modernist architecture. You hear it often these days, this grousing about difficult, pretentious modernism: Woolf, Kafka, Stein, and Picasso come in for it too. The emperor has no clothes. The flight from modernism—we know the names but skirt the works—may be a sign of the cultural times, a symptom of our special mix of fatigue, cynicism, and complacency. And then, of course, the art can indeed try your patience and stamina. Its demands are relentless; these are creations that decline to traffic in reassurance or open themselves to clicks and scans.

One hundred years ago, more or less, those rebel modernists were not aiming to make trouble for its own savage sake. Their forbidding work belonged to complicated, unforgiving times. Living without the gods of progress or reason—and without God—they tried this, tried that, reached further, failed, and then failed better (Beckett’s phrase). Not all: some had no clothes. But for roughly four decades, from 1890 to 1930, many risked poverty and courted humiliation. Even the most extraordinary had no idea that their works would endure, or be read by more than a few hundred committed admirers—much less find their place on college reading lists. Now, even unread, they haunt the present, ghostly images of what visionary culture might be.

Across the reach of literature, music, art, and architecture, “Make It New” (Pound’s phrase) was the uncompromising slogan that summoned a gathering of brazen imaginations. The insurrectionists collaborated and competed, calling for speech without cliché, love without embarrassment, truth without self-deception. The idea was that art could be what religion had been, and what politics had failed to become—a sphere of conviction and a site of shared value. For the most audacious, this was the gamble with history that we pay a price for forgetting. We have never been postmodern, not in any sense of living after, or beyond, the decades of rupture, the modernist break with taken-for-granted conventions. Those years set the terms for our own struggle with the New. They inform our uneasy dance between art and fashion, art and money—and our fraught debates over the claims of art, politics, and religion. If you take the view that we haven’t yet lived up to their challenges, as I do, then the question is how to rouse ourselves to an unfinished task: How can we accept the call of our modernist origins?

The flight from modernism—we know the names but skirt the works—may be a sign of the cultural times, a symptom of our special mix of fatigue, cynicism, and complacency.

In Constellation of Genius, the British critic Kevin Jackson has his own way of putting the question, and returning to the scene of revolution. He asks how it happened so suddenly, the triumph of English-language innovation in 1922, when Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” appeared. His odd, obsessive compendium of events, month by month, day by day, captures the churning disorder well. Known in the modernist trade as the annus mirabilis, 1922 saw not only the eruptions of Joyce and Eliot but also (this is Jackson’s thrust) so much else we’ve forgotten or never knew. If you couldn’t come up with a date for Nanook of the North or The Velveteen Rabbit (I couldn’t), now you know they belong to the mix of ’22. Mao Zedong fathered his first child that year. Hitchcock directed his first film. E. E. Cummings published The Enormous Room. Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape opened in March, and Robin Hood (with Douglas Fairbanks) was released in October.

At the same time, Jackson believes in the myth of the miracle year. He can’t shake the thought that everything changed during those 12 months. The introduction announces his theme: in 1922 the English-speaking literary world “finally entered the new century,” catching up to Continental breakthroughs such as Alfred Jarry’s absurdist drama Ubu Roi and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Everyone, naturally, gets a little thrill in learning that Joyce and Eliot published their ambitious ferocities in the same calendar year. Yet why make so much of the convergence—especially when it’s easy to show that Anglo-American modernists had already launched the campaign of novelty?

Eight years earlier, in 1914, Yeats threw off the “old mythologies” and began “walking naked” in Responsibilities. That was also the year of Gertrude Stein’s astonishing catalog of everyday objects in exploded sentences, the prose poem Tender Buttons. Eliot’s “Prufrock” (1915) showed just how emotionally subtle the new free verse could be, and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist (1916) took only a page and a half to change the sound of what could be heard in fiction. Singling out 1922 has been a useful shorthand, a way to heighten the shock effect that in fact recurred over several decades. (Take 1925, for instance, which delivered Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Stein’s The Making of Americans, Kafka’s The Trial, and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.) Really, it’s hype and hyperbole to present 1922 as uniquely radiant.

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Michael Levenson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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