. . . Modernist Class

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Modernist Class

  1. Literature is the study of artifacts made of language. Thus, as a discipline, it asserts the primacy of primary sources.
  2. Labels like Modernism and Postmodernism obscure or obliterate primary sources.
Given the overwhelming variety of international publishing in the twentieth century,
an / era / any / time / of year -- Louis Zukofsky
any attempt to generalize about twentieth century writing -- any attempt to use chronologically-biased labels in anything but a strictly chronological way -- leads to manifest absurdity. I've seen "Gertrude Stein as Postmodernist," "James Joyce as Postmodernist," and "Laurence Sterne as Postmodernist"; in fact, the "Postmodern" label seems to be applicable to any writer with a sense of humor.

These absurdities can only be kept unmanifest through ignorance. And these labels are primarily used in defense of an ignorance clung to through laziness, careerism, or the desire to maintain a restricted and reactionary canon.

If you see that the head of a university English department writes only about T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, you might guess that he hasn't read very widely or very carefully. (You might also guess that you wouldn't want any of your friends to become sexually involved with him.) But by switching his avowed topic to Modernism (with, of course, Eliot and Lawrence as his sole citations), our prof now pronounces on hundreds of writers.

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Modernist Class: Although the number of publishing venues in the twentieth century makes the meaninglessness of "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" even more blatant, the same objection could be raised against almost any treatment of almost any "literary peroid": someone has decided what the period's traits should be and then ignored anything that doesn't match those traits.

As proven by counterexample by Jerome McGann's wonderful The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, which covers a very wide range of concerns while, by arranging its selections in order of publication, bringing out the one truly essential trait of a literary period: the varying extent to which a writer responds to (builds on, argues with....) the productions of other living writers.

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Modernist Class

I remember reading to him a German translation from a speech by Radek in which the Russian attacked Ulysses at the Congress of Kharkov as being the work of a bourgeois writer who lacked social consciousness. "They may say what they want," said Joyce, "but the fact is that all the characters in my books belong to the lower middle classes, and even the working class; and they are all quite poor." I know he was a convinced antifascist.
-- Eugene Jolas
Underbred.... the book of a self taught working man....
-- Virginia Woolf on Ulysses
It's sleight of hand, a kind of shell game. A few flourishes of the shells labeled "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" keep us from noticing the writers who have not been shoved into them and from noticing the essential differences between the writers who have.

Class, for example.

Yeats's, Pound's, and Eliot's works were in defense of a dreamlike aristocratic status; they loathed the city, or, more specifically, the city's middle class and the city's poor.

Pound and Eliot first became interested in Joyce as a semi-articulate witness to those urban horrors, a sort of Dublin Dreiser. And they lost interest in him as the serialized episodes of Ulysses left realism behind: he was no longer a witness but a class-climbing eccentric who somehow assumed that the world owed him a living. (Biographers still seem to have trouble with that notion, but one should bear in mind that the world of the time seemed perfectly content to supply Yeats, Pound, Stein, Woolf, and so on with livings.)

By the time we get to Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker (if we ever do; they're still not part of standard academic curricula), those beastly New York Jews and bestial Midwestern immigrants who so offended Henry James are actually writing, without apology, as if they could possibly fit into some respectable (and quite imaginary, thank the lord!) society....

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Modernist Class

You can tell by the jarring sound of "Zukofsky" in The Trouble With Genius : Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky that Bob Perelman is better read than most academics. He's also better to read: his observations are sensible and accurate.

But those being observed are "Modernist," and Perelman is "Postmodernist." And, apparently as a result, his tone is one of such versatile hostility that no book could escape censure. He holds the proselytizing rhetoric of critics against the writers' own works, and he's pissy about these four writers in particular 'cause they weren't able to meet the supposed "Modernist" ambition of perfect synthesis of every conceivable human goal. He provides a brilliant short introduction to the unique virtues of Ulysses and then claims that the lovely object he just described is proof of Joyce's ineptitude.

But it's not all that clear that such weirdly individualistic writers as Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky actually ascribed to the dopey ambitions Perelman posits, except inasmuch as any working writer has to deal with them: Sure, we got to try to do the best we can think of doing, right? And that can get pretty inflated before it gets punched down. And what we end up with is never quite what we thought we were doing, but sometimes it's still OK, and we can at least try to have a sense of humor about the yeasty smell.

After that performance, Perelman's sequel book, a collection of upbeat reviews mostly of his fellow Language Poets, is about as convincing as the happy ending the studio slapped onto Face/Off. Despite their own lunatic ambitions, Perelman's compeers don't piss him off the same way Joyce, Stein, and Zukofsky did. Why? 'Cause they're "Postmodern" and so they're smart enough to undercut their own claims to textual mastery.

The trouble with that is that The Trouble with Genius spends most of its time showing how those stuck-up Modernists also undercut their own claims to textual mastery. I mean, out-of-control-ness is pretty much what you (and Perelman) notice in the second half of Ulysses or in almost anything by Stein or Zukofsky, and it's pretty fucking arrogant to claim that such a pleasurable (and obviously labored-over) effect is attributable to blind error with those guys any more than it is with Ron Silliman or Susan Howe -- or with Melville, Dickinson, Austen in Mansfield Park, the indomitable bad taste of Flaubert, or the wild line-to-line mood swings in Shakespeare, for crying out loud.

At the end of the book, Perelman says that blanket-statement theorists, snippy critics, and it-is-what-it-is poets are playing an unproductive game of paper-scissors-rock. Probably that's a fair assessment, at least when any of them are responding to professional challenges by the other players. But who except a rhetorically worked-up poet would say that a poem was a rock (let alone say that Ezra Pound was the Alps)? Who but an allegiance-drawing theorist would announce in print that any theorist was in any conclusive fermez-la-porte! sense correct?

What Perelman leaves out of his game and out of his book is the possibility of the reader. And publishing gets to be a pretty sad affair without an occasional appearance by that self-satisfied little cluck.

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Christina La Sala supplies this visual aid to our continuing study of Modernism:

Descent of the Modernists

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"One particular malefactor, Mrs Flanagan, inspired the name of a doll regularly abused by the Yeats children in bouts of primitive magic, since her defection was the constant excuse for their being denied a treat." - W.B. Yeats: A Life

Crazy Jane Curses the Tenant

For nothing can be sold or held
That has not been rented.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.