Modernist Studies by Marjorie Perloff

As a newly emerging movement, modernism was highly hailed at the beginning until it countenanced an attack during the 1970s, as a retrograde and elitist movement. Perloff encapsulates such attacks upon modernism under two categories: the first, attacks modernism as an elitist movement at best, the final phase of the great Romantic revolution; the second, however, bears purely negative connotation as it regards modernism, at worst, as the aesthetic reaction formation to an alienated social life that had close links to fascism.

Modernism today has become less a degrading term than a neutral one referring to the earlier twentieth century. Resonating with this, Cary Nelson in his Repression and Recovery accepts modern as a time period and argues that the accepted modernist poetic anon is unsatisfactory. It is because this canon serves to repress those other modernist poets like women, blacks, and proletariat writers whose works have made quite a remarkable cultural difference in the study of modernism. Perloff, in this essay, bases her discussion on the attacks upon modernism rendering them meaningful since the attacks have strong bearings on reality. Then, she conforms to the argument made by Nelson to show that the inclusion of marginalized writers is inevitable to make a revisionist study of modernism. Thus, by raising such issues at hand, Perloff’s essay seeks to redraw the boundary of modernist studies.

Modernism, though seemingly a revolt against the traditional modes of literary expression, remained merely an aesthetic revolt limited within the canons set by the accepted modernist writers like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Thomas Hardy, and others. By virtue of their being new and deviant, the first literary texts by these modernist writers, however, appeared more revolutionarily and were counted as a defense at ‘new writing’ at that time. Eliot’s lyric “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, at the beginning was dismissed “as the senseless rambling of a confused mind”. Similarly, shrugged off were the works by other modernist writers like D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and Gertrude Stein. These canonical writers were highly valued modernist who, according to Edmund Wilson, represented the culmination of self-conscious and very important literary movement. Notwithstanding this emerged such a forceful current drive towards revisionist history that the radicalism of modernism was bracketed into oblivion.

Contribution of New Criticism to the Rise of Modernist Studies

New Criticism, as a concerted theoretical method developed concomitant with modernism attacking three traditionally established beliefs-that literature is a moral force; that literature is a propaganda for certain intended meaning, and that literature is the substitute for life. It took its impetus from the principles of modernist writers like Eliot, Yeats, Frost, or Auden. New Critics showed their high regard to Eliot as their master. One of the prominent new critics Cleanth Brooks and even social critic Lionel Trilling followed the doctrine put forward by Eliot that form and content were inseparable and that a poem or a novel or a play was first and foremost and unique work of art. It was concerned more with the question whether a text is a good poem rather than with what the ideological underpinnings of the text are, even what the text means.

Regarding close reading as an important tenet of new criticism, Brooks paid even higher respect for Eliot’s The Waste Land. The text became much more laudable for Brooks on the grounds that it showed coherence by embedding a central paradox and ironical contrast with the use of surface parallelisms in abundance. Moreover, with an application of the principle of complexity, Eliot, according to Brooks, has enriched Waste Land with the basic method of the poem as it is replenished with the tenets of good poems like unity, integrity, and wholeness. While new critics were paying their high regard to Eliot as their master, they paid less regard to the writer on the left- Cowley, Burke, and Matthiessen who had similar predilection and assumption for the master. Despite this uncomfortable feelings about Eliot’s view of life, Matthiessen exhibited equally high appreciation for the former’s poetic quality in terms of the use of metaphysical conceit, objective correlative, the clear-visual images and auditory imagination.

New Criticism acquiescing with the accepted modernist writer as the trend setters of its method of close reading merely gave rise to the canon formation of modernism. As trained to fine a “key design,” the critics just look for that in the modernist texts and become a fly in the jar marmalade gathering a reverting experience and leading to nowhere.

As such modernism, which was a frisson nouveau for Wilson, Leavis, Matthiessen and Brooks, simply became a “tradition” by the mid 1960s, requiring explanatory “backgrounds”. Richard Ellman and Charles Feidelson have categorized these backgrounds with nine different parts in their book The Modern Tradition: Background of Modern Literature. They consist of symbolism, realism, nature, cultural history, the unconscious, myth, self-consciousness, existence, and faith.

Modernism as a Belated Romanticism

Modernism, coupled with new criticism, could hardly sustain for long, for its monolithic character was called into question after 1950s. Meanwhile, some critics like John Bayley, Robert Langbaum, and Frank Kermode felt a need to establish link between modernism and romanticism-the two supposedly opposing ideology. This need was further fulfilled by Albert Gelpi’s Coherent Splendor-one of the best studies of modernist poetry by showing some strong ties between romanticism and modernism.

However the credit for advocating the most radical case to establish this link goes to Harold Bloom-who deals with revisionist study of Yeats, Hardy, and Stevens in The Visionary Company by pointing out an inexplicable link between romanticism and modernism. Standing on the foundation of Emerson’s famous dictum that “it is not meters but a meter making argument that makes a poem,” Bloom goes on to emphasize poetry as the genesis of visionary content rather than form. Moreover, the modernist poetry carries on the romantic polarized between subject and object, and also between the “isolating creating self” and the “hostile” universe. Bloom also dismisses Ellman’s modernist Yeats as being primarily the poet of complex symbolism and dramatic irony, and establishes that Yeats is not a rhetorician, nor a public man but a Shelleyan “antithetical” quest of visionary power. Such assessment by Bloom paved the way for a whole series of antithetical studies beginning with The Anxiety of Influence stressing that poetic strength can come only from the triumphant wrestling with the greatest of the dead writers. Therefore, the poet must always misinterpret the father by crucial act of misreading. As such, as Bloom postulates, modernism is no more than a belated Romanticism.

Thus, Bloom’s radical remarks to associate modernism with romanticism have left a great impact on the redrawing of the boundary of modernist studies.

Modernism as an Elitist Movement: A critical Reassessment.

At a time when modernism was underlying a critical phase, Frank Kermode, in his book Sense of an Ending sets stage for much more critical reassessment of modernism by showing a strong link between modernism and authoritarian politics. As the modernist writers like Pound, Eliot, W.B. Yeats and Windham Lewis took recourse to explanatory myth and system building in their apocalyptic fiction, Kermode contends that they took a dangerous turn by projecting a degrading and frightening world view through their works. Under the pretence of portraying the alienated social life of the sad, dejected and pessimistic post-war people, they nearly encapsulated the world of the elite people establishing close ties with authoritarian politics.

Moreover, the esteemed modernist writer like Yeats turned his back at the reality of everyday life of the common place people for the sake of “system of aesthetics”. This further gave rise to deepening correlation between early modernist literature and authoritarian politics. According to Kermode, even Eliot’s cult of tradition is nothing but a longing for the continuity of empirical deposits-a persistent nostalgia for closed, stagnant, hierarchical societies. This notion has stood modernism on equal footing with elitism.

Marxist Revisionist Study of Modernism

Marxist critics seem to have taken a different stance to modernism which appears to be a more critical approach to make revisionist studies of modernism as a capitalist project. Jameson shrugs off the modernist texts on the ground that they adopt the values of a business society, in their language and narrative structure, and search further ideologies that reveal the contradictions of the capitalist economic structure. According to him, the text can render the objects meaningful only by establishing their link with human labor and production. But the link is missing in the modern industrialized society, for the object themselves are reified and hence hold upper hand over the human laborers. Joyce’s grand treatment of newspaper office as the cave of winds in his Ulysses is a good example of human character’s subordination to the objects.

Likewise explication de texte, the significant method of modernist criticism, becomes another search for the ideologeme-the smallest intelligible unit of the essentially antagonistic collective discourses of social class.

Thus, according to Jameson, a modernist text is inevitably marked by a definable “political consciousness”. Hence, modernism is not a revolutionary movement but objectively corresponding to fascist tendency, as Russel A. Berman concedes.

Another Marxist critic Lukacs, avers that modernist drive towards symbolism rather than realism of the great nineteenth century novels in an indirect admission of its failure. Because a modernist text is unable to portray life without erecting a wall of a verbal mediation, i.e., taking recourse to symbolism, modernism cannot be a representative movement of literary criticism. Instead, this situation of modernism, for Lukacs, signifies the artistic decline of modernist literature.

Jameson’s unpacking the political unconscious of the work and Lukacs’ preference to nineteenth century realism over modernism, however, is not sufficient to redraw the map of modernism. They have, nonetheless, generated the issues of power and inequality as fruitful indicators to reread the trends of modernism.

Minority and Feminist Remapping

Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery and Shari Benstock’s Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 heralded new dimensions to redraw the map of modernism. The former helped establish an important chapter in American cultural history by making remarkable efforts to unconceal the marginalized writers and bring them forth to the main stream modernist scenario. The latter, similarly, was written with a desire to replace the women writer in the Paris context from which they had been removed by standard literary histories of modernism.

Nelson postulates that the project of modernism remains incomplete and unsatisfactory due to its exclusion of the marginalized writers like women, blacks, and writers on the left. As such he attempted to reverse the modernist canon by making revisionist study of these marginalized writers. He also challenged the modernist trend of encompassing only the canonical writers and their texts in literary criticism and brought in pamphlet anthologies, self-sheets, and broadsides as equally essential works of criticism to be dealt with by modernism. Such voice raised by Nelson in Repression and Recovery adds a new dimension to redraw the map of modernism.

Resonating with Nelson’s voice, Benstock, through her Women of the Left Bank, had made a critical reassessment of modernism by underscoring feminist remapping of it. Benstock hints at the possibility of recapturing Anglo-American modernism as a very different phenomenon with the writing of women, so far suppressed by the mainstream literary canons. She does not only open up the horizon of rich feminist writings in modernism, but also establishes the power of women writers as an impetus to produce modernist criticism. Gilbert and Gubar are the other women writers who have adduced to the feminist campaign pioneered by Benstock.

Benstock and Gelpi have also contributed to expose the concealed identity of another marginalized women writer H.D., who was no more considered than a minor imagist affiliated with Pound. But she is now understood as a very different sort of modernist whose imagination in her books Hermoine and Hellen in Egypt foregrounds dialectic between male and female, homosexual and heterosexual, violence and peace, science and beauty that really has no direct counterpart in the poetry of Pound or in the fiction of Joyce.

Hugh Kenner as a Modernist Critic

Notwithstanding any school of thought or any group of writers or critics, the critic of modernism who had made probably the greatest difference is Hugh Kenner. For him, modernist revolution is merely a question of reforming the language in the light of late nineteenth century deadness and middle-brow cliché. His dismissals of women writers, his indifferent attitude towards Pound’s fascism and Eliot’s anti-Semitism, and perhaps, his unconscious homophobia have earned him hatred to many academics today. However, his view of modernism is one of scholarly inside view by virtue of which he seems to be a belated modernist. Like Pound he bears the fear of abstraction, but unlike new critics, he has championed the writers like Pound, Williams, Conrad, Joyce, Windham Lewis and Marianne Moore as the true modernists. Beckett is, to his mind, however, the great successor in the next generation.

Thus, Kenner’s is the anti-symbolist and literalist side of modernism in line with William’s dictum “a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words.” As such good literature, for him, is a source of intense pleasure irrespective of all the theorizing.

Despite different critics’ effort to put the extra ordinary body of modernist work away from the grip of history, it is still too close to their modernist parents and is completely captivated. By this, it is apparent that modernism has not been able to bear the stamps of history away from its side. As such even at the end of the 20th century modernism still holds the charm of history as our primal scene to lock our memory before we trace out any theory of modernism.