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the other modernism

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So you end up broken in half, as a student of modernism, by the split in the period and in its emblematic works. On the one hand, the hyper-psychologized dystopias of individual complexity and political ineffability. On the other, the union of form and function under a banner of progress (even real progress). The former is the reflexive stance of the modernist literary text; the later, of modernist architecture and design. Think Joyce vs. Corbusier. Woolf vs. Niemeyer, Kafka vs. Tiege. You find the architectural / progressive motif more attractive – more potentially useful today – as a seed for revivification. But, on the other hand, you work with literature – this is what you do for a living.

It is tough to mine the latter from the former, the simple from the complex, the beautiful utility from the gratingly indifferent. It is tough to find, in short, the other modernism in literary texts. After all, literature doesn’t love hopeful contentment, and work (vs. dark dreamlife) toward that end – and most of all, it does not love utopia, whether actual or anticipated, whether exuberant or fadedly just OK.

Or maybe it’s just you, er, that is, me, as Owen Hatherley has found it hiding in plain sight in a J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands.

[T]here is only one instance of a speculative community approaching a Ballardian ideal – a site where we definitively leave the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cautionary, anti-Modernist dystopia – and that is in Vermilion Sands. This is a 1971 collection of stories spanning his first published story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) to 1970, all set in the same community: a dead or dying desert resort, populated entirely by the elegantly, wanly idle, most of whom are involved in strangely calm psychodramas. Vermilion Sands is a synthetic and synaesthetic landscape of psychotropic houses that respond to their inhabitants’ desires and fears, singing sculptures, and a place where everything in sight seems to glitter, to take on the qualities of crystal, a flickering chromaticism suffusing everything from stairways to hair colour and eye pigments. It is, as Ballard writes in the 1971 introduction, a picture of an ideal he wanted and expected to see realised. The dystopian tradition is refuted in this introduction: ‘very few attempts (in SF) have been made to visualise a unique and self-contained future that contains no warnings to us. Perhaps because of this cautionary tone, so many of science fiction’s notional futures are zones of unrelieved grimness.’ So could there be here a sort of affirmative retort to the insistence that all Modernist or utopian communities inevitably end up in dystopia?

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May 9, 2007 at 12:14 am

8 Responses

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  1. a dead or dying desert resort, populated entirely by the elegantly, wanly idle, most of whom are involved in strangely calm psychodramas

    But wait, isn’t this Huysmans writ large? Isn’t it morbid? Isn’t it, to an extent, Nietzsche’s last man spending his last year at Marienbad?

    Joseph Kugelmass

    May 9, 2007 at 1:16 am

  2. Good question…

    Caveat: I haven’t yet read the Ballard book – the library was out of it and the amazon marketplace copy I ordered is still dieselling across the US to me. So… better to ask Owen, perhaps. Maybe he’ll even stop by and answer your question here for you…

    But… my quick response is it is different to ensconce the “calm psychodrama” in an already-resolved (in terms of social dysfunction) world. You say Huysmans, and I think Wilde, and when I think Wilde, I think of “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” as the key explanatory text in the oeuvre. The “Soul of Man” essay configures the rest of the texts as at once dystopian (only a priviledged few have access to banal degeneracy) and utopian (this is what it might be like for everyone, were socialism the order of the day).

    In a certain sense, not to be cheeky, but I actually can’t imagine a better world than one that my – and everyone else’s – material needs were satisfied, yet I was still free to pursue the exacerbation of my idiosyncratic psychopathologies… Just harmlessly. As it is, I have to keep my kinks and issues on the backburner lest I lose my eventual tenure case, and with it, health insurance…

    Isn’t it, to an extent, Nietzsche’s last man spending his last year at Marienbad?

    And what would be so wrong with that?


    May 9, 2007 at 1:28 am

  3. Ha! The Wilde utopia-as-everyone-being-Des Essientes is a wonderful idea, and very like what Vermilion Sands is actually like.

    What it isn’t quite, though, is the missing link between the two modernisms: perhaps a fusion of this and The Atrocity Exhibition would be such a thing. The latter book is only in part a dystopia anyhow: in AE and in Crash there is a kind of Marcusian ‘transcending reification via reification’, which Mark K-P’s paper at the Ballard conf brought out. What I was (sort of) trying to do in my paper was imagine Ballard writing an equivalent of say, Chermyshevsky’s What is to be Done, or Bellamy’s Looking Backward, or even News from Nowhere…mind you, these are all books which are rather formally conservative.

    However if you want a figure who links the two modernisms (textual experimentation/utopian practice) then there’s always Mayakovsky…


    May 9, 2007 at 9:52 am

  4. Thanks, Owen. Very helpful. (My copy of VS just came today…)

    I’ll leave it at what you said except to say I am very much invested in reading things like News from Nowhere as modernist texts – this is exactly where my new work is headed. This is exactly the issue that I’m after: the automatic limitation of the term “modernist” to literary texts that are characterized by (a certain sort of ) “textual experimentation” and “complexity.’ It is a line of thought provoked, in part, by a sidelong glance at alternative cultures of modernist art, such as architecture and design…

    And things get really interesting when we find a resistance to complexity in the complex masters themselves, like Woolf, Joyce, and the rest…

    Anyway, thanks for your comment. I think I see what you mean, even as I have just begun reading the book…


    May 9, 2007 at 11:54 pm

  5. The difference I see between Dos Essientes, in A Rebours, and “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” is that Wilde appears to hold out some hope for individualism without lethargy or jade. Of course, that law would be broken by individuals, some of whom are still going to wear faded roses in their buttonholes. But if the whole resort is populated by wan aesthetes, I begin to wonder whether Ballard has taken fully into account the way that conscience saps the strength of characters like Dorian Grey.

    In other words, we live an excitable, quarrelsome, passionate world, albeit not a very just one. For all that vivacity to disappear suggests a curious absence of hope. A utopia without hope (hence the reference to Nietzsche); how could this nourish everyone’s idiosyncratic psychopathologies unless something else was in the air?

    Joseph Kugelmass

    May 10, 2007 at 3:45 pm

  6. JK: with your first paragraph, I think that’s just the point that I was making, telegraphically: I think that the “Soul of Man” essay proposes a Dorian Gray figure, universalized, who doesn’t have to deal with the conscience any longer. Isn’t the “Soul of Man” essays socialism grounded, from the first, in the material abolition of guilt?

    (I’d write up a post about this, but it comes a little too close to my “real work” and thus is ineligible for inclusion here on AWP. No “real work,” only para-work, allowed!)

    Could you expand the “utopia without hope” bit at the end slightly? I think I know what you mean but I want to be sure.


    May 10, 2007 at 11:51 pm

  7. CR,

    Right, Wilde is after the abolition of guilt. He doesn’t even think people alive right now should feel guilt, even though the social conditions around them are piteous.

    That said, there are lots of historical reasons why the aesthete would have emerged into literature in the form of a cold fish. First of all, much of this literature is queer literature, and those passions could only be expressed surreptitiously. You certainly couldn’t have a happy family, with lots of kids and a big manor house, run by Lord Henry and his wife Dorian.

    Second, there was a great deal of oppressive ugliness, as there still is today. Dos Essientes might always be the sort to stay shut in, with his window closed, regardless of conditions outside. He might not. We don’t know how it would change aestheticism if its advocates had believed it possible to fill more than tiny pockets of the world with splendor.

    By a utopia without hope, I mean that the eerie calmness of that resort strikes me as the tone of a prison, where everyone is under the death sentence. Where are the boisterous, rosy-cheeked children? The passionate engagements, proposed and accepted on bended knee? The splendor in the grass? The glory in the flower? The cricket matches? Where is the angry adolescent, wandering off into the desert to find God?

    Zeal is not mandatory, but the idea that our current hopes all point to a state of well-fed anemia is a very odd lens by which to espy the future.

    Joseph Kugelmass

    May 11, 2007 at 3:18 pm

  8. We don’t know how it would change aestheticism if its advocates had believed it possible to fill more than tiny pockets of the world with splendor.

    Wilde does sound a bit Morrisite in Soul of Man, no? If I had time, I’d pull some passages for this thread, but just think about his resistence to “barracks-room socialism” in the essay… That is why the Soul of Man piece is so interesting, right? Lord Henry’s Emersonian individualism gets universalized and then translated into a leftist political program. And of course it’s weird and probably wrong to think about a Dorian Gray utopia, but we can’t help it – Wilde is leading us there.

    By a utopia without hope, I mean that the eerie calmness of that resort strikes me as the tone of a prison, where everyone is under the death sentence

    No of course. And this has been the perennial difficulty of the literary minded before utopia or even Very Significant Improvement from the 1890s on or even before. But a resort ain’t a prison.

    (A lot of my work to date is grounded in the issue – in Benjamin and elsewhere – that there is a strain of self-sabotage in left/literary thought which valorizes the plot crisis or turn over banal improvement. Utopias make shitty novels (except when people are very, very clever…) We all know this. But what if the literary dysfunction that informed modernism – and here comes my next book – in fact was an attempt, consciously sometimes or unconsciously elsewhere – to write through this very problem.)

    Anyway, this is fun. I’m sorry I’m self-censoring a bit and very hurried and exhaused – so I’m definitely not coming through clearly…..


    May 12, 2007 at 12:16 am

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