Archive for the ‘modernism’ Category
Very strange, and not at all sure what to do with this yet. Might just be a false echo… But as I’ve indicated on here before, I’ve long been fascinated by the final paragraph of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Namely…
Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural levelling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.
I discuss it, for instance, in a (strange, wandering) post here. At any rate, I’ve been getting ready to give a lecture today on T.S. Eliot’s essays, and found the following in his 1921 piece The Metaphysical Poets.
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
The play of simplicity vs. difficulty (and the gap of a few very important decades) does make me wonder whether there’s a responsive echo going on in Auerbach. Something to look into… (If only there was a good Auerbach biography in English!) What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is that arch-small-c-conservative Eliot is in the midst of laying out his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility” that somehow happened after the seventeenth century (hmmm) while – if very obliquely – Auerbach seems to be suggesting a sort of “re-association of sensibility” in the aftermath of modernism…
More soon if I can find a way / get a chance to look into this further…
Will Self has a piece in the Guardian about his relationship to modernism – and the fact that he intends to write in a more modernist, less reader-friendly form moving forward. Feels a bit like a deathbed baptism from a man to young to go in for such a thing, and we’ll wait to see what the output of Self as born-again avantgardist looks like. But in the course of this, Self says some highly interesting – and fascinatingly inconclusive – things about his relationship to J.G. Ballard and his works – things that speak volumes I think about the strange nature of Ballard’s influence on “innovative” British fiction in recent years.
First, Self describes finding inspiration, a “sense of traction,” in the course of rereading Ballard in the 1980s.
In the winter of the following year I was living – in slightly more congenial circumstances – a few miles away in Barnsbury, north London. The flat was better-heated, but the chill winds of modernism were still blowing through my mind. I was reading JG Ballard’s novels – or, rather, rereading them, because as an adolescent SF fan I had gobbled them up along with Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, never pausing to consider that Ballard’s psychic probe into what he termed “inner space” was an altogether more seriously artistic endeavour. But in 1987 I got it: reading especially The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash, I was gripped by an unaccustomed sense of traction – I could see a way to get on. It was an experience I hadn’t had since, on reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time, aged 16, I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.
Then – this is where it starts to get interesting – Self seems to acknowledge that Ballard’s not actually all that modernist. That is to say, that rather than formal experimentation, what we have in most Ballard (aside from The Atrocity Exhibition and a few other minor works) is outré content strung out along rather conventional narrative frameworks and constructions.
In his memoir Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his own Josipovici- (or Self-)style modernist moment: a prolonged rubbing and itching induced by the old-style corsetry of English fiction in the 1950s. Ballard turned to science fiction – he said – because “what interested me were the next five minutes”, rather than a simple past to be evoked by the simple past tense. Ballard, who I knew personally, could be a little disingenuous about the extent of his own influences, preferring to be seen – in literary terms, at least – as entirely sui generis, but this is a forgivable foible in a powerfully original writer. Apart from the advanced experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which exhibits elements of the “cut-up” and “fold-in” methods originated by the Dadaists and channelled into English by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the great majority of Ballard’s fiction has altogether traditionally realist formal properties. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of these hokey characters and straightforward plot lines with the outlandish psychogeographic content of Ballard’s fictive inscape that makes the books so profoundly unsettling, and ensures that they have remained surfing the zeitgeist to this day.
Following on from this judicious doubling-back on Ballard’s ostensible modernism, Self shifts to discuss Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash. (Some of this document is available here.) He’s exactly right to do so: Ballard’s introduction to Crash, which was written in 1995, twenty years after the original book, is a fascinating and utterly modernist document, a vivid take on what’s wrong with the contemporary non-experimental novel, and how what’s wrong with the novel has something to do with changes in culture itself. In fact, one might be tempted to think of the introduction (I certainly am) as a bizarrely anachronistic contract, drawn up two decades late, that the novel itself that it introduces almost entirely fails to fulfill.
Most of all it was Ballard’s introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash that lit a path for me. In it he united his own modernist sensibilities with what he termed “the death of affect”, a wholesale loss of feeling occasioned by the impact of the atomic bombs that ended the second world war, and then irradiated through the emergent mass communications technologies of the postwar period – in particular TV. It was this, Ballard wrote, that made it impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God. [...] A year or so after my reimmersion in Ballard’s oeuvre, while I was commuting to work at a Southwark office from the flat I shared with my first wife in Shepherd’s Bush, I began to work seriously on what would become my first published book, the story cycle The Quantity Theory of Insanity.
So, is it suggested here that it wasn’t so much Ballard’s fictional works as this one introduction to Crash that spurred Self on to his own work? His own work, written in a way that he is, in this very piece, now renouncing? A few paragraphs later, Self parallels himself with Ballard yet again, but in a negative light: “Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation.” So, in this article about the origins of Self’s modernist impulses, Ballard features as a key figure who, in the end, doesn’t live up to what it says on his tin.
Quite interesting, isn’t it? Through Self’s article – and without Self quite saying it straightforwardly – we get a picture of Ballard as a writing whose work seems to gesture in the direction of the avant garde but doesn’t quite, an author who had important thoughts about the future of the novel but failed to follow through on them, a novelist incredibly influential to English writers who intended to disobey the normative mandates of fiction in this country but who, because they were following someone who didn’t live up to his own advice, perhaps have consistently failed to do so – in fact have one after another managed to write moderately modernist works that never quite get around to problematizing the fundamentals of fictional form (character, plot, description, etc) nor the ideologies that underwrite them.
I could give you a list of who these writers are, but that would be impolitic. Anyway, I’m writing something about this at the moment, something that uses Adorno’s concept of “moderate modernism” to think through the workings of Crash and a work by a contemporary author. So you’ll probably see more notes like this on here soon.
In his fine review of McCarthy’s C, Leo Robson refers to a review-cum-manifesto that McCarthy wrote recently in the LRB. I was absolutely sure that I’d written something on here about this, and in particular the very passage that Robson astutely cites, but as it turns out there’s nothing more than this, which isn’t very helpful. Probably there’s something frozen deep in drafts that never quite made it up. But at any rate the relevant passages from the LRB piece (a review of a couple of novels by Jean-Philippe Toussaint) are these:
What this aesthetic shares with its uncomic nouveau roman forebears is an anti-naturalist, anti-humanist bent: we’re being given access not to a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on – but rather to an encounter with structure. In a wonderful sequence in Camera, Toussaint sets up a scene of dialogue in a restaurant and, having placed a bowl of olives on the table (as a naturalist writer would do to provide background verisimilitude), suppresses the scene’s dialogue entirely, and describes exclusively the movement of hands as they reach towards the bowl, the trajectory of fruit from hand to mouth, the ergonomics of pit-transfers from mouth to tablecloth and, most striking of all, the regularly spaced imprints made by the back of a fork’s tines across the skin of the lone olive the narrator toys with before stabbing it. We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.
In The Bathroom, this logic frames the entire book, which – prefaced by Pythagoras’ rule about the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides – assumes a triangular form, its three sections entitled ‘Paris’, ‘Hypotenuse’, ‘Paris’. When the hero, in a willed narrative refusal to go out into the world and make something happen, takes to his bathroom and decides to stay there, he luxuriates in the tub’s parallel sides and in the patterns formed by the towel-rails, as though space itself was like the olive, embossed with evenly spread lines. Watching his lover move round their flat, he discerns the ‘curves and spirals’ described by her arms. We exist and assume subjectivity to the extent that we occupy a spot on or traverse the grid: an implicit assertion that’s part Descartes, part Deleuze. Geometry is not just an aesthetic: it is, to borrow a term from Deleuze, our ‘habitus’. When the narrator finally leaves the bathroom and the flat whose passages he’s ‘stalked’ (shoes intercepting shafts of light, half-open doors on each side providing symmetry and rhythm), he travels in the cube of a train compartment to a Venetian hotel, there to install himself in a new bathroom, to stalk new hallways, all of which he describes in careful detail. His lover, joining him, tries to entice him out to see Renaissance works of art, but he’s not interested. Pictures can’t be inhabited, unlike the neutral, unanimated surfaces and planes of corridors and door-frames.
OK. A few things about this:
1) Robson wonders the following about McCarthy’s pseudo-manifesto:
McCarthy, for his part, is fed up with “middlebrow aesthetics” and “liberal humanism”, especially as manifested in the kind of bourgeois novel that offers access to “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on”. What has he been reading? If McCarthy thinks that is what most novels are like, it is little wonder he doesn’t enjoy them.
I think this is slightly unfair on Robson’s part. Sure there are exceptions, but by and large the norm that McCarthy names remains fairly hegemonic. For instance, I’ve reviewed a bunch of novels in the last few months – some I asked to do, some I was asked to do – and I can’t think of one that didn’t conform fairly solidly to McCarthy’s description. Some were better than others, but each indeed centered on “a fully rounded, self-sufficient character’s intimate thoughts and feelings as he travels through a naturalistic world, emoting, developing and so on.”
But there’s something else that’s operating behind McCarthy’s assumption I think, something a bit interesting and almost funny. I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time, and in fact I’ll cop to teaching it frequently, despite the fact that I hate it, and putting it to just such a use. And further, it just now occurs to me that I’ve written and said more about Saturday this summer than any other work of fiction. Odd, and worthy of more reflection I think, its seemingly unspoken but universally acknowledged bad architypicality. (Just finished another piece the other day – and one that drew heavily on Marco Roth’s excellent piece on the neuronovel from n+1).
2) But there’s something even more important to say about McCarthy’s initial manifesto. It should be clear from my other posts that I definitely agree with him in his frustration about the novelistic norm, the stasis that it brings, the sclerosis that’s engendered. But what bothers me about his pronouncements here as elsewhere is that he never explains why we should make the turn that he is advocating. “We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.” OK, sure, a bit vague – actually really vague – but why do we want that? There seems to be an politics lingering behind these pronouncements, and to be clear no one’s asking for the novel of the future to maintain rigorous fidelity to some sort of vivid political rubric, but I still want to know what the use-value, however amorphous, of the changes that McCarthy proposes might be. In the work I’m doing on the aggregate – which of course is more than simply a critical or theoretical proposition on my part – it’s something that I’m struggling, successfully or not, to put into artistic practice – I am trying to be as clear as I can about the reasons why the changes I am sketching would be an improvement over the status quo.
At any rate, pseudo-avant garde propagandising without purpose simply doesn’t appeal to me. It comes to seem like a marketing tactic, a repetition of the worst bit of modernism: that ultimately economically mimetic utterance “Make it new!”, a translation into art theory of the barest and blindest logic of capitalism.
From the description of Gabriel Josipovici’s forthcoming What Ever Happened to Modernism at the Yale University Press site:
Modernism, Josipovici suggests, is only superficially a reaction to industrialization or a revolution in diction and form; essentially, it is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities. And its origins are to be sought not in 1850 or 1800, but in the early 1500s, with the crisis of society and perception that also led to the rise of Protestantism. With sophistication and persuasiveness, Josipovici charts some of Modernism’s key stages, from Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes to the present, bringing together a rich array of artists, musicians, and writers both familiar and unexpected—including Beckett, Borges, Friedrich, Cézanne, Stevens, Robbe-Grillet, Beethoven, and Wordsworth.
Very much in agreement with this approach, I must say, and genuinely excited by the prospect of this book. But it also bears noting that this sort of move, the everything good was always already modernist play, when committed by younger scholars of modernism (say, at a job interview) can land one in a world of hurt – or at least deliver unto you frantic and belligerent questioners. On the other hand, every modernist who has spent some time delivering her or his work to mixed audience is familiar with the argumentum ex Shandy, in which agitated 18th-centuryists, Rennaissancers, medievalists or even ballsy classicists impatiently explain that there was nothing new under the early 20th-century sun…
Even more interesting stuff comes at the end of the paragraph that I just cited:
He concludes with a stinging attack on the current literary scene in Britain and America, which raises questions not only about national taste, but contemporary culture itself.
Wait! What’s that? A work of literary criticism released by an academic publisher that dares to approach the question of What is to be done? here and now – that takes literary production itself as a going, if troubled, concern? What is the world coming to? Nothing to lose but our utterly indifferent irrelevance, I guess…
Hurrah for Josipovici then. Will have more to say about him soon, as I’m currently reading some of his stuff….
(via the perpetually excellent This Space)
If you had to teach a seminar on Gertrude Stein, and the seminar was to be focused on “queerness” however construed, which text would you discuss?
Filling in a bit of a glaring gap here, as it were. I’ll admit it.
Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, argues that the very category of the literary is born of the tormented working through of a true contradiction by certain artists . The contradiction arrives in the attempt to reach classless autonomy via a bourgeois, instrumentalized form – to create works that escape the mediocritizing determination of the market within the market itself.
We can extrapolate that the ineluctability of the contradiction is what leads to the privileging of failure as a literary motif during and after modernism. The very structure of the situation determines the fact that there is no winning this game. Le mot juste and all of the other juste things that were strived after in order to escape the banalizing forcefield of the market are of course nothing more than impossible, self-deconstructing chimera.
Let me put it another way. Pierre Bourdieu, in the opening section of his The Rules of Art that deals with Flaubert and Baudelaire, determines the very definition of the literary to be misery. Contradiction, double bind, antinomy were always already the devalued currency of this dysphoric realm.
Think I just, whilst having my 30th cigarette of the day down below my office *, broke the back of the last and hardest part of my book-in-revision. In mind if not yet on paper. It’s an analysis of one of my favorite scenes in literature, and just happens to be a scene about masturbation. What’s there is based on an ancient piece I wrote, my first good publication, and I just now, ten years later and in an instant figured out how to make it fit properly.
Making it fit properly, by the way, involves an interesting expansion upon the text that gave this blog its name. **
How about a little help, though, to get me rolling. Scenes from modern literature – preferably say 1850 – 1940 – that feature signficant chance encounters. Baudelaire’s “A une passante,” Bouvard and Pécuchet on their parkbench, Leonard Bast and his umbrella and the Schlegel girls in Howards End, Peter Walsh seeing Septimus and Rezia on the parkbench in Regent’s Park (ah Regent’s Park) in Dalloway.
Now your turn, go on….
* I’ve been working too much (12 hour days, eight days in a row, in my office) and smoking too much while I do. Yesterday, a colleague knocked to chat, entered, and said in a knowing tone: ADS! You’ve been smoking in your office during reading week! I responded that it was just my disgustingly nicotine-inundated jacket hanging on the door. Embarrassing. Today I wore the only other light jacket I own, a sporty Adidas windbreaker, that just looks wrong in an academic setting and has been drawing wtf? stares from everyone all day. But I can’t worry about these things! I have a book to finish!
** UPDATE: Ha! I’d forgotten that I sneak my blogname into this chapter. Just came across this:
In the section of The Coming Community entitled “Without Classes,” Georgio Agamben, compares the life of “single planetary bourgeoisie,” who have inherited the world in the wake of the rise of capitalist modernity and the arrival of secular nihilism, to an ad without products. With the dissolution of diversity, social identity, and meaning, they are brought face to face with the “phantasmagorical vacuousness” of inauthenticity without end:
[T]he absurdity of individual existence, inherited from the subbase of nihilism, has become in the meantime so senseless that it has lost all pathos and been transformed, brought out into the open, into an everyday exhibition: Nothing resembles the life of this new humanity more than advertising footage from which every trace of the advertised product has been wiped out. The contradiction of the petty bourgeois, however, is obstinately trying, against all odds, to make their own an identity that has become in reality absolutely improper and insignificant to them. Shame and arrogance, conformity and marginality remain thus the poles of all their emotional registers. (62-3)
Just as Agamben’s post-historical actors go through the motion of acting out the ad, whistfully staring at the car in the garage (except there’s no car), ravenously devouring the entrée (except there’s no food on the plate), going to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster (except there’s nothing on the screen)…
…and then back to the lit text at hand. How tricky am I!