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SOURCE: "Problems of Modernism," in The Snowflake on the Belfry: Dogma and Disquietude in the Critical Arena, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 24-43.
[In the following essay, Balakian considers the variety of meanings and manifestations of Modernism.]
Each generation of writers had the habit of reacting against the past by declaring itself "modern." The quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns used to be a cyclical phenomenon. "New" is in itself empty of meaning, a connective word between what was and what is to come. In early uses the word had a pejorative meaning, implying that what was new and modern could not be as good as what had the prestige of approval over a period of time.
Baudelaire as both poet and critic was one of the first to splice the meaning of "modern" in a modest article relating to his viewing of the art of his time. In his piece called "La Modernité" he first gives the image of a little man running around searching for the modern and expresses the normally accepted derogatory meaning: "the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent," but then adds "that which is capable of drawing the eternal from the transitory."
Since the middle of the nineteenth century critics as well as artists in the broader sense of the word have compounded ambiguities on "modern" by using it in both senses. Succeeding generations have been calling themselves modern and allowing the word to lose gradually its defensive tone and instead assume an attitude of contestation and even arrogance. It has become in many cases a cry of rebellion, and sometimes what the late Renato Poggioli called agonism, no longer apologetic but rather challenging. Others have claimed the label "modern" in the Baudelairian sense that while reflecting the passing climate of the time, what is modern has caught "the eternal and the immutable." Critic-readers have learned to distinguish between these two definitions by calling the protesters avant-garde and have retained for the latter the label "modern" and even "high modern" cast in solid gold.
In both cases there has emerged an added aspect of the confusion. There has developed a tradition of the antitraditional, and the label of "modern" has been retained for works of the past. Let me explain. With the passage of time each era claiming the advantage of a little distance used to delimit what had passed with a more precise label and claim for its own rebellion or renewal in the arts its own modernity. Ours is the first era on record in which succeeding waves of moderns carry on their backs the memorabilia of their ancestors and sustain the myth that modernism, proclaimed and acknowledged at a moment in time for a group of works, forever retains that label in reference to those works, that it survives in a cumulative form, generation after generation, and that avant-gardes as well as golden-seal moderns can follow each other without a posteriori appraisal, which might result in a more permanent label than the temporal one of "modern."
Seen from the Anglo-American perspective, Joyce, Proust, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, all so different from each other, remain under the label of "modern" on the basis of their capability of retrieval of the eternal from the transitory, and writers as different from each other as Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, AndreéBreton remain "modern" from the avant-garde angle of protest and rebellion. The French, more pedagogical in their classifications, have adhered to Baudelaire's definition in one sense but, unable to define their own modernism, have virtually abandoned the label itself and created newer "ism" labels. The Spanish still cling to "modernismo" with its special reference to Rubén Darïo and his particular brand of Symbolism. They complicate the chronological problem by following up with "postmodernismo," which is not of the vintage of the Anglo-American postmodernism. The Germans associate modern with Expressionism and Dada, the Russians hang on to Futurism as the ultimate modern before the curtain came down on any further movement in the arts. The common agreement among all of them is to call a certain moment in time modern and surrender the word to it for eternity. In calling the past modern the commentators would let their elders retain the label and in amazing timidity would relegate to their own era the rank of reargarde, paradoxically labeling the contemporary scene "postmodern." Then the sometime literary critic, sometime philosopher Jean-Franc̈ois Lyotard comes along to usher us into the post-postmodern in his book entitled The Postmodern Condition. Has there ever been such ancestor worship recorded on the part of writers and artists themselves or of critics and literary historians? In terms of literary criticism the ambiguity simply tells us that out of the plethora of books on the market on "modernism" or "the avant-garde" there is very little chance that they are discussing the same artists or writers or the same period in literary history.
Jean Weisgerber, in structuring his two volumes on modernism in the twentieth century for the monumental project of the Comparative History of Literature in European Languages, tried to eliminate the problem by using the collective title Les Avant-gardes littéraires. But thereby he raised a new problem; in borrowing a term metaphorically from military terminology one expects the garde itself after the avant-garde. For more than two decades in the course of various communications I have been asking, "Where is the garde of the avant-garde?" I have heard no answers. Instead we observe in studies of theories of the avant-garde such terms as "old avant-garde," "the return of the avant-garde," "post-avant-garde" (although I can't quite see how you can be out front and at the tail end simultaneously), "academy of the first avant-garde," "other avant-garde," "the twilight of the avant-garde," and most recently "the neo-avant-garde." The implications of these two labels, the meaningful and meaningless one of "modern" and the uncomfortable one of "avant-garde," suggest the inability of the current moderns to provide self-determination or in retrospect attribute to past "moderns" more precise and discrete qualifications. It is no solution to suggest, as Ihab Hassan has in relation to Surrealism, that "these movements have all but vanished now, Modernism has proved more stable." Existentialism and Minimalism, the two most recent efforts at group classification, have already outlived their recentness. The end of the century that has had in its existence so many ruptures with the past has not yet had the vision and the courage to proclaim the past moderns as pre-something that would define changes in literature and art in our era reflecting our society and at the same time preserving those of its qualities that may have resilience and permanence.
The reason that one sometimes denigrates a phenomenon or task is the realization that one cannot cope with it. That is perhaps why literary history is a bad term these days and the practice of analysis has priority over attempts at synthesis. We have dwelt on the most comfortable assumption that ruptures in the realm of arts can be paralleled with political revolutions, but in doing so we may be overlooking the fundamental cohesions that existed beneath the many "isms" of the first half of our century, alternately called modern and avant-garde.
My perspective tells me that there is something else that is understressed: throughout the century all literature and art that could be termed modern in its time and that laid the foundations of what exists today as "the arts" and qualifies as our modernity is related to radical concepts, not politically radical but scientifically so, that have altered our philosophy of existence and thereby reshaped our notions of aesthetics, mimesis, representation, and creativity. Such are the drastic changes in concepts of reality, time, nature, causality and chaos, indeterminacy, and above all, in terms of all the arts, the notion of communication and reception.
As the spectrum of reality enlarges, replacing the old opposition between real and supernal, a progressive distinction is perceived between mimesis and more sophisticated representations of the relative notion of reality. And we have gradually understood that the unconscious is not simply the opposite of the conscious but part of a continuum within the totality of human experience. The old and sage dichotomies between the real and the unreal, the conscious and the unconscious, simply no longer hold, and the dialectics involving them have been run into the ground. The famous phrase of the early decades of the century, "the juxtaposition of distant realities," so often cited as the basis of daring associations created in poetry and paintings by the still so-called moderns and a governing principle of so many works of art and poetry, has lost much of the meaning it had at its inception because we know now that distance exists only in the eye of the beholder, and that if the creative artist has brought two entities together, it is because on some level of sensorial lucidity a connection was made.
In the same way, disordinate perceptionis—such as what Rimbaud called the reasoned disorder of the senses—and their representation reflect disorder only if the natural world is perceived as a network of determinable and tested physical laws producing predictable results. But we have discovered that every law of physics does not have a Newtonian regularity or if it does it is not yet within our capacity to grasp, and we have also learned that there are phenomena which cripple at least temprarily our perception of a logical, precise universe. And in accepting these facts we, as a society, have had to develop the ability to express with mathematical precision the indeterminacies of the material world. Because this ambiguity or presumed randomness is part of our reality, it can be said that the writers or painters who once were considered avant-grade because they performed in an unrealistic or irrational way are from a more educated view no longer avant-grade because they are still holding the mirror up to nature when they represent this indeterminacy: it is not that the mirror is distorted but that nature is discovered to have parameters beyond those previously known and areas of the unknown but not unknowable realities. In other words, the perceived disorder is part of the system of laws whose supposed randomness may be only an appearance manifested in our partial knowledge of the totality.
Early in the twentieth century, Guillaume Apollinaire, whose voice was more European than French, said in his essay Les Peinters cubistes: "Great poets and great artists have the social function to renew unceasingly the appearance that nature assumes in the eyes of humans." Obviously even then he did not consider nature a constant but an ever changeable factor.
From hard ground to soft terrain, the writer moves with the scientists, stunned by his own ignorance, which he characterizes as indeterminacy, replacing previous attitudes of positivism and determinism. In his isolation and sense of loss of control, he drifts into a nonanthropocentric universe. And whereas most observers of the strong element of alienation in the literature of our century may continue to attribute it to psychological disturbances and social maladjustments, the alienation may more correctly be explained by cosmic causes.
The sense of dispersion emphasized by neophilosophers such as Derrida and Foucault is not new to modernism. All self-named moderns have had it. An early avant-gardist, Hugo Ball, often too exclusively associated with Dada but closer in reality to Rimbaud, described the condition of the modern man of his time in an article on Kandinsky in 1917 during a devastating war. Curiously, his apocalyptic fresco is not politically inspired but reflects a metaphysical anxiety: "The world showed itself to be a blind juxtaposition and opposing of uncontrolled forces. Man lost his divine countenance, became matter, chance, an aggregate. He became a particle of nature… no more interesting than a stone: he vanished into nature… a world of abstract demons swallowed the individual… psychology became chatter."
If, in responding to the effect of this condition on the arts, Ortega y Gasset coined the phrase "dehumanization of the arts," "dehumanization" means something quite different today from what it meant in the early part of the century. We can each select a cast of characters to reflect this dehumanization from the annals of literary and art history of the seventy-five years since Hugo Ball's statement and Ortega y Gasset's definition: from Marcel Duchamp's mockery of art in his ready-mades to the latest involutions of abstract art, from the boldness of collage to the whimperings detected in the techniques of fragmentation in all the arts, from the suddenly meaning-stripped world of Sartre's then modern, now classic character Roquentin in La Nausée to the nameless soldier in Alain Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth, from destruction of time-perspective in John Hawkes's novels to the randomness of images in William Burroughs's writings. All were "modern" in a moment in time, and all can be said to hold the mirror up to nature as nature was perceived at that moment in time. In that sense, in each case the classical dictum of a Boileau or a Pope was applicable to his aesthetics and in that sense his forms of representation are from our vantage point mimetic. If his expression of nature is being called antirealistic by some contemporary critics it is so only in terms of previous definitions of reality and nature. The minute one considers our changed perception of reality, such writings and art expressions fit the changed definitions of reality. The disparity between the perception of the critics and the artists is due to the fact that critics are clinging to the older notions of reality and nature, and they are not as agile in grasping the ontological changes. They are bridging the gap between their superannuated notion and the artist's more updated one with the convenient use of the label "modern."
One of the most important transitions—oh so gradual but so irreversible once it is made—in the changing characterization of "modern" is the manner in which the "modern" artists are reacting to the passing of a centrality of purpose and of a supernal presence. Instead of mourning they are accepting the plurality of the universe, of which their predecessors had been warned three centuries earlier but had not seriously implemented, that changes their art forms. There was to be a giant difference between the Nietzschean proclamation that God was dead and the proposition that God never existed. As the poet-artist Jean (or Hans) Arp observed, "Dada was the revolt of the nonbelievers against the disbelievers." The concept was there, but not many practitioners in the arts were implementing that view. It had not yet been ingrained. The revolution in the arts that I would call a postapocalyptic posture is a more radical one than reactions to the kind of sociopolitical events that are generally attributed to avant-garde manifestations and their reflections on the arts. I would suggest that modernism today, responding primarily to passing political winds and ideologies, is modern only in terms of the first part of Baudelaire's definition, "transitory, fugitive, contingent," or in my own words I would call them contemporary works dependent on circumstantial events, reserving the label "modern" for those which anchor their vision on phenomena relating to decentralization and decontrol in what is perceived to be an indifferent universe.
Among those who share these deeper disquietudes there are some who reject the continuity more generally perceived between themselves and earlier moderns; instead they sense grave schisms separating them from their predecessors. Nathalie Sarraute has expressed this distance with some irony: "The works of Joyce and Proust already loom in the distance like witnesses of a closed era. It will not be long before we shall be taking guided tours of these historic monuments in the company of schoolchildren in silent respect and in somewhat mournful admiration." By habit and respect, Joyce, Yeats, Thomas Mann, Proust, and others of their generation may still be called modern, particularly from the Anglo-American perspective because neither England nor the United States had an early-century onslaught of "isms." But the fact is that in terms of their works, the signifier "modern," still applied to them, has subsequently acquired another set of signifieds. These great writers of the recent past are indeed part of what Mallarmé called an interregnum; they are waiting for literary historians to give them a more permanent classification than the temporary and provisional "modern" can sustain, and if such a designation does not come forth they will simply join the ranks of the classics without any special label of their own.
Even if we isolate the writers and artists who gave form as well as expression to their sense of the decentralization and instability of the dimensions of reality and apply to them the label of "modern" in our time, we will find great disparities in the ways they reject or represent their adjusted vision of human and physical nature according to Freud and according to Einstein (just to mention two of the many shakers of our reality).
From this angle it is now possible to view as premodern some of those who are still being called modern in literary history and in books on modernism. Such are the makers of Symbolism and Dada and other refugees into language. Of the Symbolists, an early twentieth-century critic, Raoul Hausman, denigrated their resistance to a drastically changing world; he called their act a "naive nostalgia to see the world through human will as if it was imagined by man." The symbolist nihilism, and in some countries it was called aestheticism, was quiet and introverted. In man's quicksand entrapment, the literary icon was able to create an artificial world to serve as the vitalizing power of the writer's slipping individuality. The second mode of the premodern was a direct attack on the growing notion of a nonanthropocentric world. It was a much more hostile and sometimes teasing reaction in verbal terms. It was flamboyantly represented as we know by Dada: "Dada wants nothing, it is a sure thing that they will achieve nothing, nothing, signed by Francis Picabia who knows nothing, nothing." This was a modernism of rupture, asserting that the assumption of a meaning-free cosmos reduces the perceiver to an equally meaning-free status. Simultaneous with a rejection of language expressed in such structures as phonetic poems was the development of a language of rejection. This rejection was paralleled in the plastic arts with a challenge of the objects to which aesthetic qualities had been attributed.
If the rejection of language developed a language of rejection, it is also true that in the reality of language others sought their sole comfort and strength, a replacement of the divine Logos by a new confidence in language which would equate naming with the act of creation. Stephen Hawking, an eminent popularizer of science, suggests in A Brief History of Time that neophytes viewing the changes catalyzed by recent scientific activities take the advice of the philosopher-mathematician Wittgenstein and in their perplexities seek refuge in language. Earlier poets had done that in a premodern era. Vicente Huidobro, Pierre Reverdy, James Joyce, the early surrealists had perceived language as an armor and a staff in the resistance to chaos. To quote Hugo Ball again, "You may laugh, language will one day reward us for our zeal, even if it does not achieve any directly visible results. We have loaded the word with strengths and energies that helped us to rediscover the evangelical concept of the word (logos) as a magical complex image." And a number of years later, Octavio Paz: "Against silence and noise I invent the Word, freedom that invents itself and invents me every day." To this day language has had a main hold both on poets and in major areas of philosophy.
But I see three other modes directly confronting the decentralized universe, modes in which language is not an end in itself but a means of making responses to the cosmos. They are the modernisms dealing with identification, representation, and revision, all responding to the expanded definition of nature.
Identification (or imitation) with the decontrolled universe is expressed by simulation of it, signaling direct involvement with it. This form of mimesis is demonstrated in the random spirit of collage, in happenings theatrically staged, connective structures suggesting sequence replaced by gaps suggestive of dark holes in thought, action, or human perception of time, in the fragmentation of language or object in text or canvas or celluloid to suggest correspondences between the dislocated narrator and his incohesive surroundings, wherein anger and indifference are personalized not in pathos but through irony and complacency, as if the joke were not on man but on the universe. If life is a travesty, let art be a game! In adopting an amorphous structure and discarding even the elementary codes of art, it is as if the writer or artist were confirming that nothing short of the negation of art can be the symbol of a terminal era. It is this involvement of the perceiver with the perceived chaos, using irony as the only weapon against total dissolution and silence, that has become the literary fortune of Dada among those modernists of today, self-identified as postmodern.
If indeed there are many evidences of authors and painters who identify with flotsam and chaos through their subjective and lately minimalist response, there is also in evidence the representation of human dispersion in the form of personas who are not identified with the narrator but are his cast of characters in a dramatic narrative, creating a distance that protects the narrator from pathos and self-entrapment. I view as such the works of Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, John Hawkes, Günter Grass, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and many so-called neorealists or antirealists in British, Italian, and South American literature. When Molloy, and not Beckett, says "I listen and the voice is of a world collapsing endlessly, a frozen world under a faint and untroubled sky," we, the readers, are joining the author in the act of observing his characters struggling with a redefined notion of reality, and in sharing the detachment of the author we are immune to the element of the tragic. (The voice is not necessarily that of the author; why do critics assume that every somber utterance must necessarily represent the author's attitude?)
It is significant that some of the most prominent writers who have taken the decontrolled, decentralized universe in their stride use the myth of the labyrinth.
Molloy searches for the lost center in the metaphor of the return to the Mother. Robbe-Grillet's nameless, faceless character searches out his memory-stripped consciousness in a void. In neither case is mere an Ariadne in sight. These new Theseuses are engaged in what RobbeGrillet calls "an interminable walk through the night," going nowhere, dying everywhere. A situation of impasse is very structurally staged, the decor is selected, landmarks on the journey are consciously chosen; the central character pirouetting has no recourse to human support, or reliance on a benevolent nature or outside force. There is no possibility of battle or an act of courage at the end; because no single danger can be identified, diere is no opportunity for risk and no need to manifest resistance.
Robbe-Grillet's unidentified protagonist copes with the ambiguities not only of space but also of time. We have the excellent example here of architectonic form without a content of supplied meanings. There is the structure of allegory, explicit in the title and implemented in the geometric engineering of the composite events, but the author warns us that there is no allegory of values implied; if no interpretation is invited, then all meaning is exterior and polysemous. If human memory is emblematically present in a box that the protagonist carries around in an eternally present moment, there are no questions as to where or why. The loss of identity is spelled out in a series of maneuvers, compounding each other, and yet the character never says "I am lost." This is not an imitation of the randomness perceived in nature or a thrusting of the author into the whirlpool of nothingness but a staging of it.
Similarly, in Claude Simon's The Grass the author tackles the age-old theme of the devastations caused by the passage of time; the metaphor of the grass is used as the emblem for the imperceptibility of the passage of time, as a measure of growth whether on a physical or a psychological basis. To demonstrate the difference between Proust's handling of time and the newer manipulations of the time dimension, let us presume that Proust views the past as a contained package of memories that he can retrieve according to the power of the faculty of remembering: voluntary memory, involuntary flashback, association memory, etc. The newer novelists represent not so much hindsight as the degree of clarity of their troubled eyes, which are not at all sure that anything remains; they believe only in the centrality of the moment. In describing the precarious quality of the moment, man's meager and sole possession, Octavio Paz sees it as a form of instantaneous eternity in his meditative essay "The Dialectics of Solitude," included in The Labyrinth of Solitude.
Previous novelists, modern in their time, have presented alienated heroes. Famous among them are Kafka's protagonists, Dostoevsky's underground man, and Sartre's nauseated Roquentin. But it is important to note that in the case of Kafka and Dostoevsky the social rather than the ontological factor underlies the alienation; in the case of Sartre's hero, there is strong author identification rather than objective representation of character, and at the end there is a therapeutic solution to the malaise with autobiographical overtones.
Characters not judged, time deprived of continuity, space used circularly, objects distanced from their functional associations, characters unidentifiable with their creators, acceptance of inconsistencies in personality attributed to the normal interplay of degrees of consciousness, use of verbal and phenomenal chance as acceptable factors of life as of art: these features prevalent in recent modernist writings separate them from earlier concepts of the modern and necessitate newer classification for past moderns.
I have referred to identification and representation. The other mode, that of modernism, of revision, is the mode of those who, instead of representing a changed perception of the universe, take artistic control of it. André Breton's most important contribution of the groundwork of the literature of modernism as it is shaping up today was his earlier adjustment to the new factors in a way to make literature and art and their need for determined absolute values viable in a relativist world. He called upon a moral rather than an aesthetic motivation to free the various forms of art from engulfment in the unreliable. The so-called moral value of such willed revision would make both writer and painter, as well as reader and beholder, better able to cope with daily life, as he thought. Such an objective contains a philosophy directed to a concrete and pragmatic achievement rather than to abstract levels of dialogue.
Viewing surrealism in the context of realism—a correction Breton made in his definition as he proceeded from the First Manifesto to Surrealism and Painting—he explained that there can exist a process of transformation of the real into the artifact. The primary function he demanded of himself and of his fellow surrealists was to recuperate the random and the senseless, the automatic and the fortuitous, and to submit them to the control of the artist. The artistic universe need not be decontrolled to match a decontrolled universe. Beauty, for instance, can survive the demolished canon of an art representative of an orderly world only if it is made to correspond to an unpredictable universe: it has to be convulsive in order to suggest that convulsive nature the poet or artist accepts; but here we have a process neither of imitation nor of representation; instead the surrealists resort to subterfuges of controls to recreate the turbulence on their own terms: not through breaks in grammar or ruptures of syntax but through self-referential associations opening up limitless meanings and interpretations, not the destruction of familiar objects but their dislocation or recycling. It is not an attempt to represent the indeterminacy of nature but a creation of indeterminacies in those very aspects of nature that are presumed to have remained constants. But expecting neither sympathy nor meaning in nature, the poet or painter began to project his own countenance onto the world around him.
The poets and painters acted according to consorted theories that brought about great understanding of each other's work. But the painters' manifestations, as it turned out, can be more graphically perceived: the defiances of the laws of gravity painstakingly manifested in the paintings of René Magritte; the dislocations of familiar objects, their change of function in Dali and his imitators; the annihilation of the barriers between the kingdoms of the animal, vegetable, and mineral in the spectacular amalgams of Max Ernst; the efforts to create new objects and new horizons in the case of Yves Tanguy; the surrealist signets such as the Minotaur and the Mandragora that suggest a correction of nature's separation of man and animal. All these manifestations can be summarized as the poet-painter's effort to engender purpose where we can outwardly perceive none. The ultimate question proposed to modernisms of the future is whether human desire can give direction to objective chance. In their self-referential structures the best of surrealists appeared to think so.
The prophetic Apollinaire had foreseen two kinds of artists in modern time. One instinctively and intuitively lets the representation of modern humanity seep through him into the work of art; in that respect the postmoderns are justified in claiming that there is a touch of everyman in the so-called work of art and that it is therefore a collective possession. The other category, in which Apollinaire named Picasso as the original force, recreates a universal model, an aggregate of stylized projection to what might be called a cosmic scale of naturalism. Picasso has been much more recognized of course than his counterpart in literature, Breton. But even in Picasso's case, I wonder whether that admiration has been sufficiently focused on that moment of epiphany when he slipped out of his blue period into the stream of light coming from the depths and the edges of night.
A fundamental argument emerges among moderns concerning the destiny of the metaphor. Robbe-Grillet declared some twenty-five years ago that in view of the absence of human meaning in the universe, the practitioners of the arts should eliminate analogy in their works and thereby suppress the metaphor. But the neosurrealists, particularly the poets of Hispano-America, have increasingly sharpened the image as the sole device to guard what Breton had recognized as the creative spirit in its efforts to overcome what would otherwise be a solipsistic existence "when the primordial connections have been broken." The aim would then be to readjust and conciliate the apparatus of the poetic analogy to the new materialistic data. To quote Breton again: "For me the only evidence in the world is controlled by the spontaneous relationship, extra-lucid, and insolent, which becomes established under certain conditions, between such and such things which common sense would avoid confronting.… I am hopelessly in love with all that adventurously breaks the thread of discursive thought, takes off suddenly into a stream of light, illuminating a life of extremely fertile relationships." In fact Breton and those who have followed him into today's modernism are compelled to inquire into the nature of nature, which is the ultimate subject of modern inquiry.
As we know, the element of rebellion, which is an essential feature of any and all modernism, can be expressed—and indeed was spectacularly expressed early in this century—by deconstructions in perceptions of aesthetics and in sociopolitical activisms. But the rebellion involved in the moral concerns of any serious artist penetrates a deeper level of the art of expression.
Apollinaire described the evolution of Picasso as the calm after the frenzy; "calm" in that context means mastery of process as an answer to unilateral, belligerent attitudes toward the conditions of life in the twentieth century. What Apollinaire perceived in the development of the art of Picasso is the transformation of circumstantial rebellion into the multitiered image of subversion in painting, in poetry, in film, whereas frenzy is the overt exercise of uncontrolled, unsparing movement. One of the great changes in subsequent manifestations of modernism is the channeling of these energies of rebellion so that they are no longer the outer garment of the artist but assume through shocking analogies the double-edged meaning of reconstruction, constructing while deconstructing, espousing no single issue but catalytic of any issue.
It is too early to take inventory of all the avant-gardes that constitute the self-perpetuating modernism of the twentieth century. What matters for the moment is to proceed beyond the attempt to understand motivations, beyond tolerance of each and every one, because indeed to love the avant-garde has become as popular and trendy as it previously was to shun it. Instead it may well be time to go beyond tolerance to critical discrimination. The distinctions between modes should be helpful in discerning the degree of craftsmanship in any such modes. If there emerges what appears to be sloppy composition, is it because the artist wants to represent a sloppy state of existence or is it simply a sloppy state of composition for lack of technical and aesthetic expertise? If the plot dissolves, if character remains flat, is the structure an intentionally reductive form of art, an act of artistic minimalism, or is it due to a lack of imaginative resourcefulness or a unilateral desire to shock and nothing more? If there is no ending, is it because the author believes that the elimination of a sense of ending suggests the quagmire in which humanity is engulfed or does it betray on his part a lack of inventiveness or a weakness in the mastery of the particular art? When does the excremental image lose its power of analogy to return to its original signification of waste? When does erotic language and its objectification lose its luxurious quality to become standard pornography? Are awkwardly shaped figures on a canvas or tedious repetitions of geometric lines a statement about the destruction of human form or a sign of haphazard bluff? Is it time to ask at what point even the most flamboyant avant-garde artist gets repetitious, tired, boring? Or, on the other hand, when do minimal linguistic discourse and gaps of total silence, hailed as achievements of the most recent examples of modernism, become merely indicative of clinical aphasia or verbal deficiencies?
One of the greatest powers of the modernisms of the past has been the overtone of sincerity and commitment; how far can the ironic element of author distancing from reality be carried out without bringing about reader-spectator distancing as well from the work declared as art?
The time has come, I think, when answers to this type of questioning may have to replace the more current, simplistic responses to the avant-garde—which have consisted either of rejecting it totally and in principle or accepting it and embracing it totally and without reservation and without even recognizing that in a single writer or artist there are better and lesser degrees of achievement. I bought some time ago at a book fair the latest work of a very personable playwright whose fame as a "neo-avant-garde" is fast rising. The title was "Burn This," and after reading it I had the feeling that the title was very appropriate. But this piece of trash received acclaim and an award. Audiences used to be too resistant to the avant-garde; now either they have become pushovers if the work is overt or they run away if it is a bit subtle—and the artists are becoming too eager to please.
Renato Poggioli, whose Theory of the Avant-Garde has become a universal reference in any serious discussion of the question of modernism in spite of the availability of many books subsequently written on the subject, thought that it was too early to evaluate. He therefore made his classifications according to the sociological factors involved. But his book is of 1950 vintage. It is hard to believe that we are designating moderns in the same way more than forty years later. Political protest and social negativism are still being rated as the basic elements of modernism and it is no longer too early to begin evaluation. It is time to look empirically at achievements rather than intentions. There is good and bad avant-garde no matter what standards of evaluation we use. A torso on canvas hanging on the wall may shock the viewer. Maybe it is a protest against violence and as such it is perhaps a sociological document, but it has to fulfill certain other criteria to be classified as art, and to be judged as modern it has to have a quality that extracts out of the transient something of the eternal. I have suggested certain categories of the modern. My distinctions are arbitrary and have to do with my own reading lists and philosophy of art. My intention is not to impose them on anyone else but to indicate that it is time to establish values, or at least guidelines, whereby we can regroup the moderns of the past with a good triage in the bargain, and gauge what to expect in current and even future moderns as eventually viable classics. With the everchanging political and social scene, it is time to minimize the element of protest as a signal of the modern and to ask, what else is there? It is time to scrutinize the various powers of construction rather than be overwhelmed by the destructive intensity of the work. It no longer matters who shouted loudest, who shocked most widely. The question now is who shaped a permanent ticker tape of pleasure behind the instant notoriety, who went beyond talk about the unconscious to really give verbal approximation of unconscious or dream discourse, who conveyed the power of reality in the midst of concurrent processes of awareness and unawareness, whose work nourished the works of others instead of cloning itself endlessly?
Underlying the great variety of forms and attitudes loosely grouped and retained under the provisional title of "modernism" there emerge new encodings in search of new classifications. Writers and artists have had to make choices between identifying with new challenges to new notions of time, space, chance, consciousness, and reality and distancing their art from these factors, revising the parameters of the arts accordingly. The transitory label of "modern" must be passed along to new editions of modernism while the great work of separating the chaff from the wheat is carried out as we weigh the viability and degree of meaning and change of meaning of previous modernisms.
I am concerned as I read from the pen of scholars with solid reputations such subservient remarks as "from Lacan we know," "from Foucault we learn," "Derrida tells us." Academic scholars acquiesce too much and thereby plant in their disciples dangerous seeds of docility. Has it occurred to some that Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida could learn a few things from those of us who have been reading literature rather than psychology, archaeology, and philosophy?
As the post, post, post accumulate they seem to announce the ultimate end. Whereas some commentators on our era are eager to proclaim the death of literature, others obsessed with the prefix "post" are laboring under the assumption that we are witnessing the inevitable afterglow of a setting sun. How discouraging this attitude must be both to young writers and to their prospective critics! The paradox is that with the radical changes in the meaning of meaning, the broadening of the channels of communication, and the multiplication of the inner and outer aspects of nature, there has never been such an auspicious moment for the creator as well as the receiver to discover the imminent modern.
SOURCE: "The Nonhomemade World: European and American Modernism," in American Quarterly, Vol. 39, Spring, 1987, pp. 27-36.
[In the following essay, Bradbury focuses on the divergent origins and development of Modernism among American and European writers.]
At the beginning of A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975), Hugh Kenner performs an elegant act of metaphorical magic by yoking violently together two items in the history of modernity separately much celebrated, but not usually associated. One is the flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the first serious proof of powered flight, and a clear triumph of American technological inventiveness. The other is a work of fiction started the next year in which the image of the artist as modern flyer has a striking place. That fiction, of course, is Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen Dedalus's flight into the unknown arts provides us with a figure for the rising spirit of artistic modernism. Metaphorically juxtaposing the one with the other, Kenner can now link two powers, those of American modernity and those of European modernism. As he says of the Wrights: "Their Dedalian deed on the North Carolina shore may be accounted the first American input into the great imaginative enterprise on which artists were to collaborate for half a century." The cunning connection gives him his book. American flyers came to the First World War, and also to the not much less embattled bohemias of Paris and London, where the new arts were being forged. At this stage American technological dominance and European forms were separate. To most Americans, Modernism was foreign; but since it was modern they wanted it, but made in a homemade way. Poets like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, and many American novelists, musicians, and painters obliged, becoming Modernist without even going to Europe, exploring the new preoccupations as an aspect of the problems of the American language, the needs of American perception and American consciousness, American plenitude and American emptiness. This Kenner explains: "That doctrine of perception, like general semantics, seems peculiarly adapted to the American weather, which fact helps explain why, from Pound's early days until now, modern poetry in whatever country has borne so unmistakably American an impress."
I have done little justice to Kenner's cunning book; but I start with it because it serves as an example of a familiar historiographical process, providing as it does both a narrative of an American act of artistic appropriation and a skillful critical mechanism for reinforcing it. It is a way of telling Modernism's story largely by dislodging the venturesome modern spirit in the arts from a European soil, in which it appears unrooted, to modern American soil, where it prospers and fertilizes, grows with the American grain,...