Introduction: English 385. Fall 2001
"You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ a heap of broken images"
“We can only see ourselves as outlines, cadaverous, sculpturesque.”
“On or about December 1910 human character changed.”
"As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me." (George Orwell, 1940)
There was a time when 'British modernism' referred to five of six European authors and about 30 years of time (1910-1940). These were the accepted "great" writers of the period, and whatever modernism was -- past tense since this narrow conception of the "modernist" era only emerged in the academy in the 1960s -- one assumed, could be derived from a reading of the ‘big six’: Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Yeats, Woolf, and maybe Lawrence. No one seemed particularly bothered by the fact that Eliot was an American and that Joyce and Yeats were Irish, and at times wrote bitterly about English colonialism. Why is it therefore still "British"? Nor were many critics troubled by the fact that these five or six writers really are very different from one another, both philosophically and formally. First, in terms of style: some of the canonical writers use “stream of consciousness," some use radical syntax and populate their writings with neologisms and snippets of various languages. But others write much more conventionally. Both Woolf and Lawrence wrote novels -- radical novels, rather unlike any people had written previously -- but still decidedly novels, with complete sentences, with conventional grammar, semi-conventional characterization and plot, etc. If modernism is whatever Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Yeats, and Woolf are, what would that be exactly?
Secondly, the matter of theme. Many modernist writers focus on personal alienation -- from tradition and history, from family life, including heterosexual norms & values, as well as from consumer culture. In terms of theme, we might say that modernists are intentionally, perhaps even revolutionarily, rude: they write manifestoes, are perpetually intoxicated (Freud: cocaine; Joyce: booze), and sleep with whomever they want to, boy or girl. These are the best-known attributes of modernism in form and in theory, but even this very limited group of authors did not express alienation consistently in their writing. T.S. Eliot became a devout Catholic mid-way through his career. Yeats was deeply interested in eastern mystical traditions like Theosophy. And Pound became a fascist, who ranted on Mussolini’s radio stations about the degeneration of Europe before being, eventully, institutionalized. And Woolf also struggled with mental illness, though never quite as publicly. What do these different trajectories have in common, if anything?
If the conventional approach is to look at the Big Six (authors) and define modernism as whatever it is that they are, a goal of this course is to define modernism from the opposite direction. I would like us to try and define modernism, first, from its historical context -- modernism in twentieth century world culture, responding to World War I and other historical events and processes -- as well as from its philosophical and formal principles. This isn’t something we will talk about every day; indeed, my primary interest on any given day is in talking about the literature at hand – reading closely, whether or not our discussions have anything to do with “modernism”. But from time to time, and certainly at the end, it is something I’d like us to come back to.
My instinct is that the fact that there is a multiplicity of approaches to modernism is a good thing, an interesting mess. However, if there is one approach to reading that I am opposed to, or if not actively opposed at least pointedly not interested in, it is the approach to literature that reads everything in terms of archetypes. In archetypal reading, every character is a version – a retelling – of a single primordial story that has been told over and over again, and must continue to be told by writers in the present moment. In this mode of reading, there are a limited number of stock characters or narrative possibilities open to us, and we must repeat them, perhaps with small variations, indefinitely. Many archetypalist readings, especially of modernist texts, are especially dependent on language derived from rather crude readings of Freud and Jung. Responding to Freud, people often look for the Oedipal conflicts and anxieties (an alienation from the father that is also a desire to replace him). Responding to Jung, literature is a way of accessing our collective unconscious; we can see traces of ancient histories even in modern texts. People who read, for instance, Joyce’s Ulysses this way tend to emphasize the parallels to the Odyssey over the myriad aspects of the text that seem to have nothing to do with Homer or ancient Greece. In a gentle form, archetypal reading can remind us (productively) to think about history – there’s a precedent for just about every apparently original idea out there. But in its extreme form, archetypes chains writers (and readers) to tradition in a way that is entirely unhealthy. As if we are trapped in TV land, and everything new must be a version of something that came before. All plots and devices must be adaptable to the sit-com format – deadening.
I have been suggesting that the connections between and among the canonical modernist writers is one we might question, and indeed, rather than pull these various writers too closely together, a goal of this course is to pull them apart – find out what makes these texts unique and different from one another. So you might be wondering, why even use the term “modernist” if it creates so many problems, and if it seems inadequately represent the true variety of spirit and style of all of the important writing of the time? In fact, I am not that attached to the term “modernist.” For now, it is an open term; its definition will evolve as the course develops. Whatever term or terms people decide to use to describe literature of the early twentieth century, the language we choose should be there to assist us in understanding the literature as well as the period, rather than the other way around.
The only consistent rule I have used in designing the syllabus for this class is that all of the texts here are amazing pieces of writing. Otherwise, I have had to be somewhat arbitrary. In some cases I’ve had to stay away from key texts (such as Pound’s Cantos; Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake) for purposes of manageability. And even though I believe that some texts from the latter nineteenth century belong firmly alongside the great novels of the early twentieth (and there are a number of texts from after 1945 that might also fit), I have generally limited the chronology to 1900-1945.
With only one exception, I have focused on writers that seem to belong in a rough configuration of the “British.” This includes T.S. Eliot and Joyce, but it also includes colonial subjects like Mulk Raj Anand and Rabindranath Tagore. “British” then refers to writers of any nationality who wrote in Great Britain, or writers from British colonies. The exception I should mention is Aime Cesaire, a Francophone writer from Martinique, whose early surrealist poetry is so important, and yet so widely overlooked, that I felt it necessary to include him despite the linguistic and historical differences entailed.
The first consequence of a revisionist approach to the concept of "modernism" such as the one I have been outlining is that the canon of relevant authors explodes. Let us do away with the ‘Big Six’; in fact there were dozens (hundreds) of writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, dancers, and architects who were engaged in serious literary and aesthetic experimentation in England in Europe more broadly, and even outside of Europe. As importantly, upon actually reading, for instance, The Waste Land or Ulysses, one sees immediately that Eliot and Joyce are themselves incorporating many outside sources (or 'intertexts') into their high modernist "masterpieces" (Are they even masterpieces? Perhaps we might think of them are merely brilliant experiments -- "No more masterpieces!" the French surrealist Antonin Artaud once said -- I think I agree). To be quite radical, we could say that writers like Eliot and Joyce are not so much 'authors' in the conventional sense, as collage artists. What would be the implications of this reconceptualization?
A side point: some recent biographies of writers like Joyce and the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald have used their personal correspondence to reveal the remarkable extent to which both writers plagiarized their wives in designing their women characters. What might this do to our conception of their unique authorship? Should the author of The Great Gatsby now be given as Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald???
In keeping with the anti-masterpiece line of thought, this course approaches modernism not as a very limited canon of high literary texts, but as a series of textual, cultural, and philosophical explosions. The texts in this course are all radical, and they do all signify 'modernist', but they do so in ways that are highly varied. The emphasis is on reading in the interest of drawing connections between and among different authors and events, as well as on learning about the transformations occurring in British (and to an extent, world) culture between 1900 and 1945.
The formal inventions of modernism, primarily stream of consciousness writing and the growing emphasis on abstraction, are closely intertwined with modernism's social and philosophical themes. Some of the most important of these I have begun to allude to: the unraveling of social boundaries and the alienation of the subject; the crises produced by industrialization, capitalism, and the mechanization of war, and the intense sense of spatial displacement produced by imperialism.
I might end with a word about the title of the course. The course is called 'The End(s) of the Human' because an overriding modernist theme, present in all of the texts we will study, is the collapse (or explosion) of established Renaissance (and Enlightenment) ideas of the 'human'. If the greatest achievement of Renaissance art was the discovery of perspective and depth of field, it was used not to represent architecture and space so much as the form of the human body. And it is this form that seems to have vanished in the world-view of the modernists. If Da Vinci thought it was extremely important, an act of grandeur, to figure the human body in three-dimensional perfection, as a concrete object in time and space, Picasso looked at the people posing for him (often, interestingly women) and thought of jumbling up bodies with their backgrounds, imagining them from multiple perspectives. Modernism in painting was partly a fad, but it also represented a new fascination with abstraction, a fascination that I see everywhere in the literature of this course.
There is no more “human”: neither as a flesh-and-blood entity (the machines and robots take over), nor as the center of the 'civilized' world ('savages' and women take over), nor as the autonomous individual (individuals become part of faceless humanity; ownership and authorship dissolve into mass collectivities).