The revolution will be inscribed in cuneiform

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The stylus is mightier than the spear, comrade!

The accepted story of modernism goes something like this:

Once upon a time, ignorant Europeans believed in Truth, Progress, and the European Way. Then Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud turned everything they believed on their heads–Marx by saying that ideas did not determine society, but society determined ideas (1840s); Darwin by saying humans evolved from animals (On the Origin of Species, 1859); Nietzsche by saying (among other things) that our morality was a crock, and that we should worship Dionysus rather than Apollo (The Birth of Tragedy, 1872); and Freud by saying that people were controlled not by reason but by subconscious impulses and biases (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899).

Therefore, everything we know is wrong, and we must rebuild culture without using rational and empirical Enlightenment principles.

Not to diminish the importance of the aforementioned men, but this narrative is too short and simple. I think it has to be short and simple, because the conquest of modernism was a short thing–we could trace it back to Baudelaire’s poetry in the 1840s, or early romanticism circa the French Revolution, but hardly farther than that. I’m not aware that the artistic avant garde existed until impressionism in the 1870s. By 1925, modernism was triumphant among the trendsetters.

But I don’t think it’s a good explanation. For one thing, the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud weren’t really new; certainly not new on the level of Marco Polo, Giotto, Galileo, Hutton, or Newton. For another, people have been turning society on its head since society learned to walk. For this theory–set of new discoveries overturns conventional wisdom, leading to rejection of belief in progress and reason–to be a good explanation of why modernism gelled into something solid around 1910, it doesn’t just have to make a good story for “why 1910?” It has to also make a good story for “why not 1800?” and “why not 1350?” But it doesn’t.

I’m not a historian, but I’ll list other revolutionary events from European & American history that told people everything they knew was wrong. Probably there were many more that I’m not aware of. Please add candidates in the comments, or argue against these ones.

~~800 B.C.: Homer’s philosophy in The Iliad presages Nietzsche’s views of morality.

~~585 B.C.: Thales invents math and logic, maybe. He tells the Greeks that solar eclipses are natural events caused by the Moon passing before the Sun, not produced at will by the gods. He proves it by predicting a solar eclipse. Maybe (Panchenko 1994).

~~530 B.C.: Pythagoras discovers that the degree of harmoniousness of musical notes, which had been regarded as a deep spiritual mystery, is predicted by how simple the ratio is between the lengths of strings plucked to produce them. I’m often struck by how little people today seem to appreciate how astonishing this discovery is, and how conclusive it is as evidence against non-materialism.


479 B.C.: Greeks defeat vastly superior invading Persian army.

~~475 B.C.: Hippasus of Metapontum (maybe) proves irrational numbers must exist. Killed by a mob of angry mathematicians. Greeks studiously ignore non-integers for the next 600 years.

360 B.C.: Plato invents both Platonism and Freud’s theory of the id, ego, and superego in The Republic.

~323 B.C.: Alexander the Great conquers “the known world”.

146 B.C.: Barbaric Romans conquer sophisticated Greeks.

27 B.C.: Roman Republic overthrown, Roman Empire established. Rome horrified. Democratic tradition and basis of Roman pride flushed down the toilet. (That’s a joke. Because the Romans had toilets.)

~29 A.D.: Jesus crucified, after founding a religion which contrasted sharply with the Greco-Roman world by glorifying the weak above the strong. Not taken any notice of at the time, if it even happened. Turned out to be kind of a big deal later.

313 A.D.: Western Roman Emperor Constantine and Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius sign the Edict of Milan, granting religious freedom to everyone in the Roman Empire. Constantine declares himself a Christian. Rome horrified.

410 A.D.: Visigoths sack Rome. Rome horrified again.


622–750 A.D.: Muslims conquer about 4 times as much territory as Alexander the Great had, including all of Rome’s African territories, Spain, and parts of southern Italy and Greece. Christians confronted with their first serious competitor religion.

800 A.D.: Charlemagne crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope. Romans (in Byzantium) horrified. Charlemagne had by this time created a new center of learning at Aachen, which revived classical arts and scholarship. This event reversed the grim fatalism of the past 500 years, which taught that everything everywhere was always getting worse (like in a Tolkien novel), and proved that things still could get better again.

800-900: Vikings conquer half of England and raid the entire northern half of Europe.

845: Vikings occupy Paris.

9th century: Crude musical notation developed.

~900: After 100 years of constant raids by Vikings and Muslims, the Holy Roman Empire suddenly disintegrates.

~900: Musical polyphony (music with two different simultaneous parts) invented in Germany [8].

1000: Jesus fails to return. Date adjusted to be 1000 years after his death rather than his birth. (The Church never said he would return in 1000 AD, but it was a popular expectation.)

1009: The Muslim Caliph Al-Hakim has Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem obliterated. [10]

1033: Jesus fails to return again.

1054: The Catholic Church splits into the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

1066: French Vikings finally conquer England.

1202: Fibonacci introduces Arabic numerals and the concept of zero to Europe.


1206-1279: Mongols conquer about twice as much land as the Arabs did, creating the largest empire in human history. Europe is spared because the Mongols mostly ignore it and attack Muslims instead.

1277: Many writings by Aristotle, Plato, and other ancients were recovered from the Muslims and from Byzantium from 1150-1250, leading to a crisis in conflict between Christian theology and pagan philosophy. In 1277, Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, prohibited teaching or listening to 219 doctrines he said were being taught by the faculty, many based on Aristotle. Archbishop Robert Kilwardby at Oxford made similar prohibitions in the same year. [3]

~1296: For the first time since about 400 A.D., Europeans thought it was useful for maps to match the territory they represented. Before 1300, maps were usually drawn to depict their underlying symbolic, Platonic reality. The Hereford Mappa Mundi (1300), for instance, was drawn with the Mediterranean packed full of large islands, because empty spaces were considered insignificant and philosophically and theologically repulsive. Jerusalem was always shown as being at the center of the world, even after people understood the Earth’s surface had no center, with Asia at the top of the map so that the border between Asia, Africa, and Europe formed a T centered on Jerusalem, symbolizing the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to the world.

The invention or importation of the compass around 1200 meant that you could know what direction you were moving in accurately enough that you could use an accurate map. The first accurate maps, called portolani, were made for navigating the Mediterranean. The oldest that still exists was made around 1296.


1297-1299: Marco Polo dictates The Description of the World to Rustichello da Pisa, describing Polo’s travels throughout China from 1271-1295. Europeans are shocked to learn of China’s size and sophistication, and many dismiss it as fantasy.

~1300: Invention of the gradated ruler, mechanical clock, precise musical notation, perspective, and scholars theorize about measuring motion, heat, light, and color. The first realizations that reality could be measured and recorded quantitatively. (Crosby, throughout)

~1300: Music theorists such as Johannes de Grocheo begin for the first time to study music. Previous medieval music theorists, like today’s literary theorists, had reasoned about music from first principles, or studied Pythagorus, Aristotle, or Boethius, without referring to any actual music or attempting to write music themselves. (Crosby p. 153)

1303: The centuries-long battle between kings and popes for supremacy is finally resolved when Pope Boniface VIII declares that even kings must obey him, and King Philip IV of France marches troops to Rome and takes the Pope captive. The Pope dies a few weeks after the King releases him. [11] The cardinals elect a French pope, who moves the papacy from Italy to France so the Romans don’t kill him. The resulting weakening of the Church’s power in Italy helps lead to the Italian Renaissance.


1306: Giotto paints a smiling camel in a nativity scene. This was the first time in over 400 years that a European painted anyone other than demons or Jews smiling. Smiling was changing from being bad (because it was emotional and thus impure) to being good, and people were changing from wanting only kitschy paintings of idealized perfection, to wanting paintings that had something to do with life.

Giotto also developed perspective, realism, emotions, portrayal of the mundane, and most of the other principles of Renaissance painting.

1300-1500: The beginning of the Renaissance. A much bigger mental shift than modernism, but in the opposite direction.

1320: Ars nova and Ars nove musice, two treatises on the new style of music being written in Paris, advocate making deliberate changes in how things are done (in music) in order to make them better–possibly the first time anyone has proposed that idea in the past thousand years. Later, in 1355, Johannes Boen claims medieval singing is more advanced than that of the ancient Greeks. (Crosby p. 154-5)

1320s: Gunpowder introduced to Europe.

~1330: A French ship driven off the coast of Africa in a storm discovers the Canary Islands sometime during 1326-1334 (Glas p. 1), and/or the Genoese navigator Lancelotto Malocello landed there in 1312 but did not return to the mainland to report his discovery until the 1330s. This was the first time since the fall of Western Rome that Europeans had discovered lands not on their maps [2], and they were fascinated, as they had been by Marco Polo, by the idea that the world was not known, and that they could themselves discover things which the ancient Greeks had not.

1347-1350: The Black Death. About one-third of everybody in Europe and neighboring lands dies. Prayers fail. Many convents and monasteries depopulated, giving a convincing demonstration that God does not help anybody in this world.

1350s: The English poem Wynnere and Wastoure represents the bitter struggle and moral debate in the 1350s between the old fighting nobility (“Wastoure”, waster) and the rising merchant middle class (“Wynnere”, winner).

~1350, 1370: Jean Buridan and Nicole Oresme write (correctly, as Einstein later showed) that there is no real answer to the question whether the Sun moves around the Earth, or the Earth moves around the Sun.

1378-1417: The Western Papal Schism: 2 to 3 different men claim to be Pope of the Roman Catholic Church during this time period. Each excommunicates the others. As priests ultimately derive their authority from the Pope, this eventually means that half of Europe is damned–but no one knows which half. Guess we’ll find out in Heaven. (Or in Hell.)

1415: 6,000 men under King Henry V of England, nearly all archers, crush an army of 20-30,000 French, including 2000 mounted knights, at the Battle of Agincourt. The literally unchivalrous behavior of the English in using archers, and in particular tactics in this battle including killing prisoners who had surrendered, and also throughout most of the war, from the Black Prince to Henry V, plus just plain killing off perhaps most of France’s knights in one day, marked the end of chivalry and the introduction of total war. The English soldiers fought not for personal gain and glory, as the French did, but for national victory at all costs. They not only disregarded the chivalric rules of engagement, but murdered peasantry to damage the enemy economically (Bartlett chapter 6; also see BBC History Extra). The French didn’t grasp that war wasn’t going to be fun anymore until after Agincourt.

1437-1453: A newfangled device called a “cannon” enables the French to kick the English out of France, from Castelnau-de-Cernès (1437) to Castillon (1450), ending the Hundred Years’ War and making castles across Europe useless, just like in Sid Meier’s Civilization. (Cannons had been in use in Europe since about 1350, but earlier cannons were smaller and mostly used against troops.)

1453: Constantinople captured by Muslim Sultan Mehmed II. Roman Empire falls. Romans horrified for the last time. The Muslims were able to breach the walls of Constantinople thanks to one very large cannon (Freely 2009 chapter 3) [9].

1454: Johannes Gutenberg prints indulgences for the Church with a movable-type printing press.

1461-4: By a combination of translations from different sources (including Ptolemy) and possibly original work, Regiomontanus introduces algebra and trigonometry to Western Europe.

1492: Columbus discovers there’s another world between Europe and China.

1517: Martin Luther nails 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle church door.

1521: Dead Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet sails all the way around the world.

1532: Dead Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince introduces honesty to political theory. All Europe claims to be shocked and horrified. Quickly banned by Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches.

1543: Dead Copernicus claims the Earth goes around the Sun. Because the stars’ positions don’t change as the Earth goes around the Sun, Copernicus’ theory requires the stars to be very, very far away–making the volume of the universe at least 400,000 times larger than previously believed (Crosby p. 104).

1577: Tycho Brahe measures a lower bound on the distance to a Great Comet as 4-6 times the distance to the Moon, establishing that comets reside in the heavens rather than in the atmosphere. Its orbit is squashed rather than a perfect circle, and it cuts across the orbits of the planets. This proves that the heavens are changing rather than constant, that objects in the heavens don’t move in perfect circles and therefore are imperfect, and that the crystal spheres demarcating the planets’ orbits don’t exist (Crosby p. 107-108). This destroys a large part of classical, medieval, and even contemporary philosophy.

1600, or possibly ~1350: Musical accompaniment (a voice and an instrument playing different notes at the same time) invented [7, 8].

~1610: The development of new tuning methods lead to the use of the harmonic triad (what we today call a “chord”) [5], on which all Western music since has been based [6]. (Some of these new tunings had been based on the “harmony of the spheres” cosmology that Brahe destroyed in 1577 (Prins 2014).)

1649: English King Charles executed; English monarchy (temporarily) abolished.


1676: Antony Van Leeuwenhoek discovers we are surrounded and inhabited by unimaginable numbers of microscopic single-celled organisms.


1687: Newton’s Principia reveals that the world operates according to simple laws, but also introduces a force called “gravity”. Many religious people were disturbed by the use of math to govern reality; the less-religious were disturbed by the introduction of mystical action-at-a-distance, called “gravity”, into philosophy.

1689: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke. This one book accomplished more in cognitive science–the materialist explanation of thought–than the entire human race had up to this point, providing the first convincing argument that there is no need for a concept of a soul, a spiritual world, or even of “life” except as shorthand for “very complicated material stuff”.

1712: Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine begins the third (and so far, the last) energy revolution, from water power to fossil fuels. [4]

1755: In Lisbon, Portugal, on the morning of All Saints’ Day, an earthquake and following tsunami kill up to 20% of the city’s population and obliterate its buildings in less than an hour, causing Voltaire and others to doubt the justice of God.

1759: Edmund Burke re-introduces the notion of the sublime to Western thought. This is the first time since Pseudo-Longinus in 47 B.C. that a Western theorist has proposed that art has an aesthetic quality other than attractiveness (prettiness, loudness, brightness, shininess) or cleverness. It will lead shortly to the Gothic novel, horror, the picturesque, the English garden, Romanticism, the debate over sense versus sensibility, and an appreciation of Bach, and begins the re-expansion of the conception of “art”, constricted since the Romans, to more than propaganda and pretty things.

1772: Phyllis Wheatley of Boston is interviewed by 18 of the most-prominent men in Boston, including the governor of Massachusetts, about some then-popular poems which she claimed to have written. Wheatley is black, so this is obviously impossible. The interviewers conclude that Wheatley did in fact write the poems, shocking Boston.

1785: James Hutton publishes research on sedimentation which concludes that the Earth is not 6000 years old as the Bible suggests, but millions of years old.

1789: The US Constitution creates a representative democracy effective for large nations, which will soon prove that large, stable governments don’t need kings and a simple, inherently abusive hierarchy of power. The US example invalidates 2500 years of political theory. (This political theory had already been disproven 2000 years earlier by the Roman Republic, which everybody forgot about because the Roman Empire had cooler uniforms and bigger buildings and killed Jesus.)

The Iroquois Confederacy, which had occupied most of what is now New York State, had by then been a representative democracy for 200 to 500 years. (Ben Franklin is the only Founding Father who we know was aware of this.) So the birthplace of democracy in America is actually Ganondagan [1].


1791: Luigi Galvani seems to prove that the motive force of animals is not a soul, but electricity, which is then termed the “spark of life”.

~1790-1800: Early Romantic poets say we should worship Dionysus rather than Apollo.

1793: French King Louis the 16th executed during the French Revolution.


1824: William Buckland, a crank who doesn’t believe in the literal truth of Genesis, writes the first description of a dinosaur skeleton, proving that the Earth had once contained large animals now extinct. Critics object that God would not create and destroy species pointlessly. (Species that don’t interact with humans are pointless in Christian teleology.)

1828: Friedrich Wöhler synthesizes urea, a component of urine, from chemicals, showing that organic life may operate via the same chemistry as inorganic matter.

1839: The painter Louis Daguerre shows the French Académie des Sciences his photographs, accidentally transforming realism in painting from fine art to not being art at all.

1858: First transatlantic cable laid, reducing the time to communicate news across the Atlantic from weeks to minutes. The cable only worked for two weeks, and it couldn’t be replaced until 1866.

1859: Darwin’s Origin of Species

1887: Michelson & Morley prove that the speed of light always appears to be the same, breaking Newtonian physics by making the laws of physics seem to depend on the observer.

1892: Dmitry Ivanovsky shows that something much smaller than a bacteria causes disease. Viruses discovered, proving that “life” is not a valid concept.

1905: Albert Einstein fixes the problem raised by Michelson & Morley, and shows that the laws of physics are not relative or subjective, but are the same for all observers in all reference frames.

1912: Alfred Wegener argues that the continents drift around the Earth.

1914: World War I begins.

1945: The world discovers what happened in Nazi death camps.

1945: Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

1969: Humans walk on the moon.

1980: Smallpox eradicated, the first time a disease has been eliminated.

It isn’t obvious why the four examples that are always trotted out as having suddenly shocked a complacent Enlightenment world into modernism were chosen, rather than some other examples from the list. Nor can the standard story explain the timing of modernism any more.

And why is it always Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud? I think photography, unlike Marxism, evolution, or Freudian psychology, was partly responsible for modern art’s non-representationalism. The discovery of the antiquity of the Earth took the wind out of the sails of both religion and imminent eschatons (including Marxism’s). And the discovery of viruses showed that the concept of life itself is based on false premises; there is no clear border between life and not-life. So why not Hutton, Galvani, Buckland, Daguerre, & Ivanovsky?

There is a general agreement that World War I was the triggering event–yet the essentials of modern art were developed, and already splintered into many different theories movements, before the war.

Wikipedia says “Modernism also rejected the certainty of Enlightenment thinking.” Yet modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were every bit as certain of their conclusions as Enlightenment thinkers were of theirs, and with less evidence. Eliot and Pound both wrote essay after essay making grand, sometimes surprising assertions–sometimes brilliant, sometimes (in the case of Pound’s economic theories) insane–with no supporting evidence.

More importantly, the events cited as having triggered modernism–Darwin, Freud, etc., plus changing social conditions–are the same kinds of events as those said to have triggered the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. We can identify four Modernism-like events, where a cluster of discoveries that overturned previous thinking triggered a new mood in Western civilization:
the Athenian miracle starting around 500 B.C., the start of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century, the start of the Enlightenment around 1700, and the start of Modernism around 1900.

Why would a continuation of the same processes (social disruption and the discovery that the world is not as we thought) trigger an optimistic, progressive movement in the first three cases, and a pessimistic movement againstprogress in the third?

I don’t know what the right explanation is, but the standard story ain’t it.


[1] I visited Ganondagan once in the 1990s. I knew it was obscure, but what with the American religious devotion to democracy, I thought the birthplace of democracy in America would rate some visitors. The Iroquois were pushing its historical importance back then, so I figured some of them would show up if nobody else did. But I was the only visitor all day, and it was so quiet that the wind rustling the grass seemed loud. I felt like a fool for having taken words seriously.

[2] It turned out that Pliny the Elder had in 77-79 A.D. cited a now-lost report by King Juba II of exploring the Canary Islands around 50 A.D. (book 6 chapter 37), but the only record we have of it is in Pliny, Pliny did not know their location, and reports of sea voyages in the ancient world were more mythological than factual. Browsing the web, you’ll find allegations that other sailors from various nations landed there in ancient times, and even that the Vikings discovered it, but my attempts to track down the sources only led to fabulous stories about monsters and mythical islands of indeterminate location such as Atlantis, the Hesperides, or the Fortunate Isles.

[3] These and many other lists of prohibited teachings were collected in the Parisian Articles, which had to be expanded into a second volume in the 14th century.

Before starting to lecture on [Peter Lombard’s] Sentences, a bachelor of theology was required to swear: “that he shall not say, hold or dogmatize anything in his ‘principia’ and lectures, nor in any of his other actions whatsoever that are against the catholic faith, or against a decision of the holy mother church, or against good morals, or in favor of articles that have been condemned at the Roman Curia or in Paris, or that sounds offensive in the ears of his audience, but that he will hold and dogmatize sound doctrine.” In addition, the bachelor swore “that if he has heard or knows of a bachelor, or someone else, who acts against this [oath], he shall reveal this to the lord bishop or the chancellor in office at that time, within seven days from the time he came to know these facts.”
–Thijssen 1998 p. 9

(Duham 1913) argued that this condemnation marked the birth of modern science, because it forced scholars of intellectual integrity to develop ways of working outside the Church’s restriction. However, Duham made his claim at the tail end of a desperate, failed attempt by medieval scholars to show that medieval scholastics led to the development of science, and even Duham’s claim for this indirect influence is now regarded as wrong (Steneck 1985 p. 21).

[4] The first great energy revolution was animal domestication. The second was the water wheel, invented around 200 B.C., but rarely used by the Romans (Gies & Gies p. 32-36), possibly because slaves were so cheap. The Germanic “barbarians” built many more, starting in the 6th century (Gies & Gies p. 48-49), and water mills were widespread in Western Europe by 1300, where they were used for grinding grain, raising water, making rope, blowing bellows, pressing wine, and fulling (pounding) wool for cloth (Gies & Gies p. 113-117).

[5] The rediscovery in the 12-15th century of Ptolemy’s tuning scale lead Gioseffo Zarlino to advocate a new musical tuning scale in 1558. This new tuning emphasized the interval of a third, which had previously been discordant with Pythagorean tuning. Other similar new tunings, called mean, just, well, or equal temperament, were required due to the invention of the harpsichord. (There were no machines capable of measuring frequencies, so tuning was in practice done by ear and not always the same.) They also made the third more consonant. Doing so made the fifth, on which harmony had previously been based, less consonant, so it was seldom used on its own any more, but usually in combination with a third, producing a triad. Also see (Prins 2014) for astrological reasons for prioritizing the interval of a third.

[6] Unless you count the stuff Schoenberg, Berg, Ferneyhough, etc., created as music.

[7] (Leech-Wilkinson 2002) contains extensive discussion of different theories about when musical accompaniment was invented, which dated it from 1300 to 1600 A.D.. The key dispute appears to be over whether whatever troubadours did with their lutes counts as “accompaniment”, or if they even sang at all. See also (Hagopian 1981 p. 17, 31, 40).

[8] “Ancient Greek music, in common with European music in general before the Middle Ages, was monophonic, consisting of a single melodic line (Neubecker 1977: 97-98). That melodic line could be enhanced by a further musical accompaniment, but there is no evidence that the accompaniment was anything other than a support for, or at most an elaboration of, the basic melody (Barker 1995; West 1992: 205-7). Polyphony in the modern sense of a composition in which two or more “voices” sound simultaneously to the ancient Greeks.” — (Sansone 2012) chapter 4. (Sorry; no page numbers in e-books.)

[9] The cannon’s builder had first tried to sell it to Constantinople, but they said no.

[10] He planned to destroy churches and synagogues all across Syria, but decided not to in case the Christians destroyed mosques in their lands in retaliation.

[11] In 1301, King Philip IV of France arrested a Papal legate for insurrection. Pope Boniface VIII demanded churchmen be tried by Church courts, and declared in 1302 that even kings must obey him. King Philip refused. The Pope excommunicated people interfering with his orders on the matter, which happened to include King Philip. The King marched on Rome and captured the Pope in 1303, then released him 3 days later. The Pope died a few weeks later.


W. B. Bartlett 2015. Agincourt: Henry V, the Man at Arms & the Archer. Amberley Publishing.

Alfred Crosby 1997. The Measure of Reality: Quantification and western society, 1250-1600. Cambridge U. Press.

Pierre Duhem 1906-1913. Etudes sur Leonard de Vinci, Vol. I.

John Freely 2009. The Grand Turk: Sultan Mehmet II-Conqueror of Constantinople and Master of an Empire. Overlook Press. Also UK: London: I.B Tauris.

Frances & Joseph Gies 1994. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages. Harper Perennial.

George Glas 1764. The History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Canary Islands. A translation of “a Spanish manuscript, lately found in the island of Palma,” author uncredited; presumably Juan de Abreu Galindo’s The History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Canary Islands (1764).

Pamela King 2011. Medieval Literature 1300-1500. Edinburgh U Press.

Viola Luther Hagopian 1981. Italian Ars Nova Music. Univ of California.

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson 2002. The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance. Cambridge U Press.

Dimitri Panchenko 1994.“Thales’s Prediction of a Solar Eclipse.” Journal for the History of Astronomy, Nov. 1994, p.275.

Jacomien Prins 2014. Echoes of an Invisible World: Marsilio Ficino and Francesco Patrizi on Cosmic Order and Music Theory. Brill.

Rustichello da Pisa 1299. Based on interviews with Marco Polo 1298-1299. The Description of the World. Also known as The Travels of Marco PoloBook of the Marvels of the WorldThe Million, and by other titles as well. “There is no authentic original manuscript, and even if there were, it would likely not represent what Polo dictated since Rustichello asserted his own personality and familiar phraseology, especially in the standardized description of battles. Polo also seems to have made emendations himself on various copies of the work during the last 20 years or so of his life… there are some 140 different manuscript versions of the text in three manuscript groups, in a dozen different languages and dialects—an immensely complex and controversial body of material representing one of the most obdurate philological problems inherited from the Middle Ages.” —Encyclopedia Brittanica online

David Sansone 2012. Greek Drama and the Invention of Rhetoric. Wiley.

Nicholas Steneck 1985. “The relevance of the Middle Ages to the history of science and technology.” In Pamela Long, ed., Science and Technology in Medieval Society, Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences vol. 441, p. 21-27.

J. M. M. H. Thijssen 1998. Censure and Heresy at the University of Paris, 1200-1400. U Penn Press.

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Disturbing the Sound of Silence

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In 2015, the heavy metal group Disturbed recorded a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”. It became their most-popular recording by far, with 420,718,057 views on YouTube as of this moment.

I think this cover is sublime. I want to point out something specific about how they defied contemporary artistic theory when making it, which I think was essential in producing an outstanding work of art rather than just another cover.

Make it New

In 1928, Ezra Pound wrote, “Make it New.” This slogan is now often called the catchphrase of Modernism, the best succinct summary of its goals. Modernism, being dubious about the existence of objective quality in anything, said that making art good wasn’t a meaningful goal. The emphasis in modern art shifted from the content of the art to its style, from the gestalt to a context-free focus on individual techniques. Like Monet’s brush-strokes:

 

Georges Seurat’s pointillism:

 

or Rothko’s color contrasts:

Some art studios actually sell prints now that are blow-ups of tiny parts of a Monet painting, throwing out the composition entirely as being unimportant.

In literature, this turned into the contemporary obsession with having a recognizable, individual style, like Hemingway, Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy.

In music, as in all the arts, the doctrine now is that artists are expected to put their own personal mark on everything they do. When doing a cover, a band is supposed to change it to “make it theirs”. As an anonymous VH1 author wrote recently, “Make the song your own. If you are going to cover a famous song, make sure you do it in your style. … Your band needs to have a definitive style to begin with.”

Make it Good

Disturbed chose not to do that. Singer David Draiman spoke about how they approached the song starting at 1m 44s in this interview:

“Initially I thought we were going to approach it in the manner that we approach most of our covers: to make it more upbeat, more staccato, more rhythmic, more aggressive, and it was actually Danny Strong’s suggestion to not do that, and to keep it ambient and ethereal and acoustic and orchestral. And I was very hesitant with that direction, but inspired by it at the same time… [An] incredibly huge challenge, to try and pay homage to a song and do a version of it that is in the same world as the original.”

I take issue with the claim that an artist should even have a definitive style. I elaborated on this back in 2014, in Writing: Bjarke Ingels on style. The architect Bjarke Ingels said that a person’s style is the sum of their inhibitions. Bruce Lee put it even better explaining why he doesn’t believe in having a style of martial arts:

“Actually, I do not teach karate, because I do not believe in styles anymore. I do not believe there is such thing as, like, a Chinese way of fighting, the Japanese way of fighting… Styles tend to not only separate man, because they have their own doctrines, and then the doctrine became the gospel truth that you cannot change, you know, but if you don’t have style, you just say “Here I am as a human being. How can I express myself totally and completely?” That way, you won’t create a style, because style is a crystallization. That way, it’s a process of continuing growth.”

Or consider the Beatles.  They released all of these songs in the same year:

Twist and Shout
[Video here]

Yesterday
[Video here]

I Just Don’t Understand (on vimeo)

The way each one came out was of course affected by who the Beatles were.  But there’s no getting around that they used very different styles for these songs.  They were not “finding their voice” in the trivial sense of surface elements, like the guitar distortion effects to use, the tempo, the rhythm, the volume, the energy level.  Their voice comes in on a deeper level: what songs they chose to cover or write, what they found interesting, compelling, or fun. But that’s not style. That’s content.

I don’t want to fall into the usual trap of art critics, that of claiming that there’s one right way to make art. There’s room for distinctive individual styles and self-expression. But I’d like to point out some trade-offs being made.

Having a distinctive style makes an artist’s works all be unlike anyone else’s, but it also makes them all very similar to each other. If we suppose that, rather than being pure self-expression, art communicates something like a theme or opinion, then the theme or opinion of a work of art determines what styles are likely to work. An artist restricting herself to one style can thus develop a specialized style that deals with a few subjects well, but limits what ideas that artist can tackle. You can see this in artists like Monet and Salvador Dali, and in authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy.

Make it Common

I want to qualify even Bruce Lee’s statement that art is inherently about self-expression. The term “self-expression” has been so diluted now that, unless you think about it carefully, it appears to mean nothing more than saying something. We don’t want to mean this if we say we make art to express ourselves, or art would be self-expression on the same level as telling the kid at McDonald’s that you want fries with that.

Express is the counterpart of impress. One expresses something only in order to impress it on someone else. If you’re trying to express yourself, that means your purpose is to impress someone else.

I was paid to write a computer program that locates the genes in a DNA sequence. The way I formulated the problem, the flow-of-control model I used (sequential, hierarchical, logical, distributed, agent-based?), the manner and degree of organization and structure, the thoroughness of error-trapping… all these things would tell you something about me.

I had many purposes in writing that program: to identify genes in newly-sequenced bacteria, to help develop new cures, to get a scientific publication, to pay my bills, to show my boss how smart I am. This last one falls under the category of self-expression: I wanted, by expressing my smartness, to impress my boss.

But only one of these purposes tells you how to decide whether my gene-finder was a good one or a bad one: the purpose to identify genes in newly-sequenced bacteria.  No one seriously critiquing my code would say it was good or bad depending on whether I got a publication out of it or got paid for it.

Art is no different. It’s an activity people do for different reasons, sometimes (but not always) including to impress others. But to say that is the purpose of art is like saying that my purpose in writing a gene-finder was self-expression. Saying that self-expression is the purpose of art consigns you to ignoring the true reasons people have for making art. It’s then impossible to say art is good or bad, or to understand what it does, or how it does it.

I don’t believe that expressing myself is an important purpose of my art. Just the opposite: The more-important purpose to me is to express something I have in common with my audience. Doing that tells them things about me (maybe), but that’s a side-effect, not a purpose.

David Koresh’s claim that he was the Messiah was a pure example of self-expression–a complete revelation of his image of himself–but that didn’t make it art. When someone does something that expresses only ideas that only they have, and fails to connect these ideas with things other people believe, that’s not art, it’s insanity.

My stories aren’t about myself, even the autobiographical ones. There are lots of weird things about me that could make stories if I wanted to write about myself. When I write about my own experiences, it’s because I think other people have had similar experiences. The ideas in the story may be new, but they’re not worth writing about unless they’ll mean something to someone else.

Of course my experiences affect what I write, and may make me specially able to communicate one particular thing, but that doesn’t mean my purpose is self-expression. It’s just a side-effect. I do it in a way that’s unique to me, but that isn’t what makes it good or bad. I’ve written good stories, and lousy stories, and they were all unique to me. The unique-to-me-ness isn’t what counts; it’s whether that unique thing is good or bad, according to some other purpose of the art that has to do not with me, but with its effect on other people.

Make it Fearless

If I had to summarize Disturbed’s cover of “The Sounds of Silence” in one word, I would say “sincere”; but if I got two words, the second would be “fearless”. There isn’t a single ironic note. No posing as just a gimmick, no reliance on meta-musical comparisons of styles that distract from the music itself, no hiding behind “well, this music wasn’t really meant to be heavy metal anyway”.

I think this was possible because Disturbed wasn’t trying to make it theirs; they were trying to make it good. They listened to the music, and used the style that best communicated what they thought it was trying to say.  They did make it theirs in some ways, but not by making it sound like a Disturbed song.

There is another, worse trade-off being made by emphasizing self-expression: It makes failure terrifying. If the only thing that makes your art worthwhile is the you in it, then all art really consists of is stripping naked in public. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing–though it may be for some of us–but most people find it frightening. If you bare your soul in public and people boo–or don’t even look–that’s a brutal critique.

Art since ~1800 has emphasized individual expression so much that many artists become paralyzed with fear, because their art was expected to be about them, to contain nothing but the essence of their individuality. Unless you’re Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Ezra Pound, or Hunter S Thompson, you probably don’t have enough “essence of individuality” to make much from just that.

This is why so many modernists, from Mondrian to Rothko to Robert Ryman, simply make variations of one artwork for their entire careers. This is also why post-modernists adopt an ironic pose–a lack of commitment to any goal, a wink hinting that they’re not serious about this art stuff. Modern art was at least bold, but post-modern art is deliberately cowardly, “pre-committed to failure” as one poet put it. The ironic style, the references to other works, the use of mash-ups, “found art”, and conceptual art [1], are all ways to excuse the artist from failing to create art, by making references to things other people did bear all of the weight.

So post-modern art ends up not being very individualistic at all. That is the irony behind the irony.

If instead of seeing your work as representing yourself, you see it as its own thing–perhaps more like a child than a reflection, or, in the Catholic view, not as art that you created, but as a sign you made pointing to something bigger than yourself–then you won’t be focusing on yourself and on how this work makes you look, and you can have the courage to do something great.

Have Hope

(Ullyot 2016) is a recent book which says these same things I’ve been saying since 2015 about modernism being a pre-commitment to failure. A review (Matthews 2017) puts it like this:

Ullyot’s central thesis is that literary modernity is “committed to failure” (1) in a way that involves the critique of prior literary models that assume the desirability of narrative “success.” Via Adorno and Benjamin, Ullyot formulates an aesthetics of literary failure, suggesting that in order to understand this we should be focusing on how “the modernist text . . . immerses itself in the very failure it depicts, and how it carries the reader along in confusion”.

Ullyot’s own book summarizes itself like this on its first page:

Ullyot argues that these texts serve as a continuation of the Grail legend inspired by medieval scholarship of the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. Rather than adapt the story of the Grail, modernist writers intentionally fail to make the Grail myth
cohere, thus critiquing the way a literary work establishes its authority by alluding to previous traditions. The quest to fail is a modernist ethics often misconceived as a pessimistic response to the collapse of traditional humanism. The writings of James, Eliot, Kafka, Céline, and Beckett posit that the possibility of redemption presents itself only when hope has finally been abandoned.

As I touched on in “Modernist Manifestos & WW1: We Didn’t Start the Fire—Oh, Wait, we Totally Did“, and will address more in future posts, the original Modernist theorists wanted to make people abandon hope, to inspire them to revolution and the destruction of Western civilization, in the blind hope that something perfect would be born from its ashes.

So paralyzing artists with fear by telling them that art means stripping naked in public isn’t a bug of Modernism, it’s a feature.

What should be abandoned is not hope, but the search for “redemption”. I don’t even know what that word could possibly mean in this imperfect, material world, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. I would say, rather: The possibility of improvement presents itself only when the quest for perfection has finally been abandoned.

There is room for all kinds of art. But the kind most likely to do us good is art that aspires sincerely to be great, not art that despairs of perfection.


[1] I very much like some instances of these things, but they’re still examples of this impulse to avoid accountability.


References

David Matthews, 2017. Review of (Ullyot 2016). Speculum 92(2): 595-6.

Jonathan Ullyot, 2016. The Medieval Presence in Modernist Literature: The Quest to Fail. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 978-1-107-13148-4. doi:10.1086/690493

Modernist and Medieval Art

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While those paintings from my post “We Didn’t Start the Fire” are fresh in your mind, I want to talk about the relationship between modern art and medieval art. Modern art is often thought of as something new, but in many ways it is a return to the medieval artistic tradition. It began with a strong influence from primitive art [1], and it is not at all coincidence that primitive art, medieval art, and modern art share so many defining characteristics. They’re all based on philosophies situated at one extreme of what I call the principle dimension of art, which for the moment I’ll call idealism versus realism.

Cycladic head, Greece, circa 2500 BC

That’s not all there is to it, but rather than explain that, which will take many posts, let’s look at similarities between modern art and medieval art.

Color

Note the symbolic choice of face colors in Munch’s 1895 Jealousy from my previous post, Picasso’s use of blue throughout his blue period to show misery and despair, and the use of colors associated with death, disease, mold, and corruption rather than the colors of wolves for Jackson’s The She-Wolf.

Perspective


Fresco, St. Georg Church, Reichenau, Austria, 10th century A.D.


Picasso, Factory, 1909

Note the pseudo-perspective on the buildings in “Factory”, painted as as a child paints a building, where no one perspective is privileged, but each side looks more like it would if you were looking more directly at that side. This is called Cubism, and is the same approach used to draw the buildings in the Reichenau frescoes. The general multiple-simultaneous-perspective approach is also common in primitive art and is strictly mandated in ancient Egyptian art.

Essences govern medieval and modern art

A standard explanation is that Cubist painting and related styles depict the different sides of objects simultaneously, to give a truer picture of the object than one would get from a realistic drawing using perspective. I think this reveals the underlying motivation: All such paintings are made by people whose philosophies say that a realistic picture of an object is not a true picture. They are attempts to convey more of the “essence” of a subject than you could perceive simply by looking at it.

This principle governs medieval art. That’s why it’s so unrealistic. Principles of medieval art include:

– Instead of perspective, draw the most-important side of each figure.
– Size is used to show importance rather than distance.
– Colors are used for their symbolic meanings rather than to be realistic.
– Space is not represented, as it is unimportant.

All these principles recur in modern art.


Medieval painting, possibly of the Ark, source unknown


Cezanne, Four Bathers, 1890


Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907

Size and space

Cezanne’s painting places the bathers in a three-dimensional scene. There is space between them, and you can tell where they’re standing. Their sizes have been curiously inverted: the one farthest from the viewer, but most-central to the picture, is drawn the largest, while the one closest to the viewer, but compositionally least-important, is the smallest, as in medieval art.

In Picasso’s painting, size varies at random throughout each figure. Not only can’t you tell how to place these women in three dimensions, you can’t tell whether the central two are standing up or lying down. All five are scrunched together unnaturally closely, their figures filling the canvas. Space, and relations between people or things, are no longer important.

In the medieval painting, the largest figures are, perhaps, Noah and his wife, not because they are closet, but because they are most-important. They look upwards because they are closer to God than the other figures are. The sky is gold to indicate they are performing the will of God (see Benton p. 70). It’s hard to say where the other people are, or where the boat (Ark?) is. The green squiggles signify more than depict water.

In medieval paintings, every person was drawn in a position and posture indicating their relationship to God. In modern art, there is no God. The world has lost its center, and so positions and postures should remain ambiguous and unlocatable, adrift in a space without coordinates.

If you scroll through all the paintings in my previous post, you’ll see there is no space in Modernist painting, even if they’re representational. This is not AFAIK adequately accounted for by modern art critics, because their perspective does not allow them to notice that it’s missing. Space is not shown in modern art because space is not a property of objects. Modern artists, and the continental philosophy it’s based on, focus on what the essence of an object or the meaning of a word is, and have forgotten about the question of how objects or words relate to each other, or combine to give meaning.

Structure and creativity

Modern art rejects the notion of structure, whether the structure of natural objects, the composition of a painting, the dramatic or logical structure of a story, or the graceful and efficient load-bearing structure of a dome or arch as opposed to the structurally-indifferent brute power of right-angled steel bars. This rejection of structure is known as Structuralism. The idea is that rather than being aware of structures, relationships, and measurements, you need only be aware of contrasts. Mark Rothko’s paintings are the apotheosis of this notion:

It originates in Saussure’s linguistic theory, which says that words are defined not by properties of the things they denote, nor by algorithms, but by the set of words which contrast with or bound them. For instance, “tall” is not defined by an understanding of physical properties that make an object tall, but by being the opposite of “short”. “Wrist” is defined not as a particular anatomical feature, but as that word which lies semantically between “hand” and “forearm”.

Structuralism, however, is purely topological, uninterested in the metric space words lie in or the set-membership functions one might use to define them. That means they don’t care about how far apart the meanings of words are, the fuzziness or interpenetrability of their boundaries, or any unclaimed space between them. Philosophically, they’re reverting to Aristotelian logic, in which only first-order predicates exist, there are no quantifiers and no measurements, no action at a distance, and all reality conforms to a kind of Law of the Excluded Middle in which everything must be This or That. Re. the Law of the Excluded Middle, we may also observe that they’re reverting to a belief in Aristotle’s claim that empty space is impossible [2, 3].

Art of the High Middle Ages, similarly, had no notion of compositionality–the idea that a composition is more than the sum of its parts, or has some property other than the collection of the properties of its parts. I’ll give detailed support for this claim in a later post.

Ancient and medieval philosophy was focused on the idea that the answers to mysteries lay in the essences of objects, not in relationships between objects. Aquinas’ theory of imagination was that it produced images of remembered objects, and could construct a new image either by putting together multiple objects which had never been seen together, or by putting together formal properties from different known objects, “as when from the imaginary form of gold, and the imaginary form of a mountain, we construct the one form of a golden mountain, which we have never seen” (Eco p. 110).

There was no allowance in the medieval scholastic theory of the imagination or creativity to conceive of, say, a wheel, other than through having formerly seen a wheel. That would be a creative act, and to suggest that humans were creative would have been heresy.

Much of post-modern theory can be described as making the heresy of creativity unthinkable. This is why post-modernists like fan-fiction. Well, not enough to actually read it, but enough to write articles about it. They think it’s inherently uncreative (e.g., Coppa p. 231, 232, 245; Jamison 2013b; Wershler), and that it validates their claims that proper literature is not creative (Barthes 1971), but merely recombines elements of previous literature, the way Aquinas thought ideas simply recombine things people have seen before. (This belief may be technically true, but it is more misleading than informative due to the inability of humans to conceive of the degree to which the human brain decomposes sensory information.)

Summary

If you compare all the paintings in my previous post to 19th-century paintings, you’ll notice stylistic or technical differences. Modern art [4]:

– is crudely drawn
– uses a small number of colors, usually a subset of red, yellow, white, blue, black, green, and brown
– chooses colors for their symbolic or emotional values
– does little blending or shading of colors, and only for one-dimensional gradients–it never blends three colors to show realistic shadows, or shadows and a color gradient at the same time
– does not use perspective or uses multiple simultaneous perspectives
– does not depict empty space; stuffs the picture full (unless it’s an empty-canvas conceptual piece)
– does not try to depict objects realistically
– does not show people having emotions (a trend which began with Manet and Seurat’s coolly dispassionate evening parties and picnics, and harks back to neo-classicism and classical Greece)

This is nearly the same as the list of differences medieval paintings have from Renaissance paintings! Modern art, conceptually and technically, rolled back the Renaissance. This is because it’s based on a philosophy which rolls back the Enlightenment and Renaissance to return to medieval conceptions of the world. More on that later.


[1] “Primitive” is a controversial word now. In most cases it’s more precise to say “hunter-gatherer”, but we can’t for art, because we often don’t know whether an ancient society was a hunter-gatherer society. We can, however, usually look at its technological artifacts, and its art, and say whether it was primitive. If anyone is offended by the term, their presumption that the term is an insult only proves their own prejudice against primitive societies.

One good source for the influence of primitive art on modern art would be a biography of Picasso, but that’s just scratching the surface. (McGill 1984) describes a large art exhibition arguing that the influence of primitive art on modern art was more philosophical than formal and that Picasso wanted to return to irrationalism and ritualism. I would say philosophy and form always go hand-in-hand.

[2] Aristotle’s claim is cleverer than it at first appears, and might be correct in two senses. One is that a vacuum must have quantum fluctuations; the second has to do with how space is created by mass in general relativity.

[3] Much of deconstructionism can be concisely described as the claim that reality is unknowable because Aristotelian logic and physics don’t work in real life, but that’s also a topic for a separate series of blog posts.

[4] Of course there are exceptions–probably thousands or even tens of thousands of exceptions. Matisse, a Fauvist, maintained a sense of space. Georgia O’Keefe blended 3 colors to show color-realistic shadows. But these rules probably hold for more than 90% of modern art.


References

Roland Barthes, 1971. “From Work to Text.” In Leitch et al., pp. 1326-1331.

Janetta Rebold Benton. Materials, Methods, and Masterpieces of Medieval Art.

Coppa, Francesca. “Writing Bodies in Space.” In Hellekson & Busse 2014, pp. 227-246.

Umberto Eco 1959, translated 1986. Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press.

Hellekson, Karen, & Kristina Busse 2014. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2014.

Jamison, Anne E. Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking over the World. Dallas, TX: Smart Pop, an Imprint of BenBella Books, Inc., 2013.

Jamison 2013b. “An Interview with Jonathan Lethem.” In Jamison. (No page numbers in e-book.)

Leitch et al., eds., The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. New York: Norton, 2010.

Douglas McGill 1984. “What does modern art owe to the primtives?” New York Times September 23, 1984.

Wershler, Darren. “Conceptual Writing as Fanfiction.” In Jamison, pp. 408-417.

George Steiner and post-modern dialectic as improv

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Post-modernists “mean” what they say

George Steiner is a literary theorist who has had appointments at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Geneva, despite not believing in literary theory. While reading his 1989 book Real Presences, I suddenly understood how post-modern thought works, and why it is self-consistent. All you have to do to understand it, it turns out, is believe that they mean what they say [1].

I had just read Steiner’s description of modernism (p. 87-100), and was puzzled that he never used the word “modernism”. I flipped back to the index to see if it listed modernism. No modernism, and no post-modernism either. In fact, there were no concepts of any kind in the index. It listed only proper nouns. Steiner, it seemed, organized his thought entirely around references to previous philosophers, artists, and works of art.

I went back to reading and came across this sentence: “Mallarmé breaks (rupture becomes a cardinal term) the covenant, the continuities between word and world” (p. 104).

This struck me as strange. I’ve read similar sentences in many other works, but could always interpret them as sloppy short-hand for something like “Mallarmé was the first to act as if there were no covenant between word and world.”

But Steiner doesn’t do sloppy short-hand. He says what he means and means what he says. He studies every word and clause, alert to its connotations and etymology, unpacking idiomatic expressions to make sure their original historical meaning is also in tune with his intent. If Steiner says that Mallarmé broke the link between words and reality, he means that there was a link between words and reality before Mallarmé wrote, and there was not afterwards.

How could one lone Frenchman’s poetry rupture the nature of reality? It can’t. No words can. Words have no connection to reality for Steiner:

To ascribe to words a correspondence to ‘things out there’, to see and use them as somehow representational of ‘reality’ in the world, is not only a vulgar illusion. It makes of language a lie. (p. 95)

Used (misused) as some kind of representational grid or facsimile of ‘the real’, language has indeed withered to inert routine and cliche’. Made to stand for inaccessible phenomenalities, words have been reduced to corrupt servitude. They are no longer fit for poets or rigorous thinkers (poetry being thought at its most rigorous). Only when we realize that what words refer to are other words, that any speech-act in reference to experience is always a ‘saying in other words’, can we return to a true freedom. It is within the language system alone that we possess liberties of construction and of deconstruction… so boundless, so dynamic, so proper to the evident uniqueness of human thought and imagining that, in comparison, external reality, whatever that might or might not be, is little more than brute intractability and deprivation. (p. 97)

When Steiner says there was a link between words and reality, he means that before Mallarmé, everyone agreed there was such a link. When he says there is no more link, he means people now agree there is no such link. That is all that matters. The surprising thing is that, given certain peculiar environmental conditions, this can be a self-consistent worldview.

Steiner isn’t a model post-modernist, and might not like being called a post-modernist. He seems to be Catholic, and where your typical post-modernist says, “Words can’t access reality and so have no meaning,” Steiner says, “Words can’t access reality and therefore it is God who imbues them with meaning.” But this post is entirely about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and be self-consistent, not about how one can believe that we can know nothing about reality and escape nihilism. Steiner is adequate for this purpose.

Post-modernism as philosophical behaviorism

His index contains only proper nouns because he doesn’t believe in any-thing but people and texts. Modernism? What’s that? A concept that does not correspond to anything in the world. Where is “modernism” in between books? Nowhere. It is no-thing. Steiner does not refer to “modernism”, but only to the relations between the words in particular works and of particular thinkers. He uses a philosophical analogue of behaviorism: There are no thing-categories in the world in post-modernism, just as there are no concepts in the brain in behaviorism. Philosophical rigor requires dealing only in the word-streams that emanated from previous individuals, not in false “concepts” reified from those word-streams.

Steiner makes many exceptions to this, of course; otherwise he could not use language at all. But he does not think of writers as discovering categories that exist in the world. Post-modernists introduce metaphors (“rhizome”), processes for creating post-modern art (“bricolage”, “pastiche”, “mash-up”), and endless terms to describe different ways of relating art / word to meaning / reality / original (“camp”, “différance”, “incommensurable”, “indeterminacy”, “kitsch”, “language games”, “parody”, “simulacra”) and text to text (“intertextual”, “metafiction”, “meta-narrative”), but these are not the kinds of words that show up in indices. They are relationships and attributes, but not things that one talks about as bridges or sine waves are. Post-modernists aren’t taxonomists. The world of things is irrelevant to them.

Post-modernism as improv

This also explains why Steiner never worries whether the things he says are correct, contradictory, or sensible [2]. He never asks whether the sources he cites are correct or contradictory. A citation, to him, is the same as a proof. The only criteria of a proposition’s admissibility is that it has already been accepted into the game [3]. Dialectic requires embracing contradictions; it moves forward by pasting them together in aesthetically-appealing ways. Given only statements that don’t contradict each other, a post-modernist could say nothing.

That’s why Steiner only rarely says anyone is wrong, and never anyone who is an accepted part of the literary canon or of the post-modernist word-game. Because the first rule of the word game is: You cannot say anything is wrong once it’s part of the game.

This is also the key rule of improv comedy. A member of an improv troupe might say or do something that appears to paint the sketch into a corner, but the other members must never contradict it or deny it. Postmodern dialectics should not be thought of as an attempt to be correct, but as an extended game of improv.

Even when post-modernists wish to make the ultimate condemnation of a viewpoint, they don’t say it’s wrong, they say it’s “dead” (implying it was once alive and vital) [4]. Arguments are not wrong or right; they are in fashion or out of fashion. It isn’t a question of whether a statement corresponds to reality; it’s a question of whether the person who said it was playing the game correctly at the time. Aristotle can get away with talking about truth because the game demanded belief in objective truth when he wrote. A citation to something he said is a proof; a restatement of it is idiocy.

The post-modernists have been trying to explain this to us all along. They say it over and over: Words do not correspond to reality. Understanding this leads to the “freedom” to say anything. Philosophy is a word-game. Philosophical discourse is done via dialectic, in which you take two contradictory earlier views and combine them without resolving their contradictions.

Once you have all four principles, enough like-minded colleagues to play word-games with, and no fear of your games having any personal consequences to you, you can play your word-games forever.

Post-modernism versus science

Steiner devotes p. 69-86 to this puzzle: How does science produce things that work when it relies entirely on the false belief that its claims are objectively true? “The ultimate grounds of this contract [between theory and fact] remain enigmatic. Why it should be that the external world, in the naive, obvious sense, should concur with the regularity-postulates, with the mathematical and rule-bound expectations of investigative rationalism, no one knows.” (p. 71)

He suggests (p. 72) that science works because God deigns to indulge it. But he insists that science and “theory” [5] have no place in literature and the arts, and presents as proof his statement that theories of art cannot be tested, and a list of famous works of literature he has read that are all different from each other (p. 75-76).

It’s difficult to make sense of this section, but it is clear that Steiner doesn’t think scientists are playing the game. Of course they violate the first rule by calling some statements wrong, but it’s more than that. He equates theory and scientific thought with computation (p. 83-84). Science and theory, for him, are mere calculation, the turning of a crank after the appropriate meat is dropped into the grinder. Science is not as rich as language: “No formalization is of an order adequate to the semantic mass and motion of literature, to the wealth of denotation, connotation, implicit reference, elision and tonal register which envelop saying what one means and meaning what one says or neither. There is a palpable sense in which one can see that the total explicative context, the total horizon of relevant values which surround the meaning of the meaning of any verbal or written utterance is that of the universe as human beings, who are beings of speech, inhabit it.” (p. 83)

He does not address the question of how theories, which do predict reality, can be developed by playing the language game; his remarks in other sections insist, repeatedly and emphatically, that statements in language can never escape the circle of language to refer to reality. I think he is unaware that science includes creating theories by thinking. He also does not notice that he has explained the surprising power of science by saying it is less powerful than what he does when he thinks.

But he does not need to address these things. He has cited Wittgenstein; he can move on. His post-modernist colleagues will not ask whether he has used Wittgenstein “correctly”, as long as he does it with passion and style. He goes home, turns on a switch, and the room is lit; he turns a faucet and water comes out. Science works its magic, as it should. It would be beneath his dignity and the nobility of his thoughts to concern himself with such brute mechanical concerns.

Post-modernism versus the environment

Consider the environments that the most-prominent post-modernist philosophers did their major work in:

Jean Baudrillard: Paris
Jean François Lyotard: Paris
Michel Foucault: Paris
Jacques Derrida: Paris
Jacques Lacan: Paris
Richard Rorty: Princeton

The post-modern mind-view is so hard to grasp because one immediately perceives that regular encounters with reality would shatter it. Like a hothouse orchid, it can survive only in one environment: a mind that does not interact with the physical world. This is found in city-dwellers with academic tenure in the humanities. The “freedom” they worship is not freedom to think or act, but freedom from consequences. They are free, quite literally, from reality.

For two things to interact means each has an effect on the other. The natural state of humans is one of constant interaction with the environment. Consider an early European settler of the American plains. The environment continually acts on him, forcing changes in his behavior: Winter is coming; he must gather firewood. It looks like a storm; he must put off his trip to town and gather the animals in the barn. He continually acts on the environment: He builds a cabin, digs an irrigation ditch, builds a fence. He must continually model and predict the world, and take steps to achieve favorable outcomes.

Now consider a tenured post-modernist literature professor in Paris. If it is cold, he turns up the thermostat. If he is hungry, he goes out into the street and exchanges little pieces of paper for food, at stores that are open 365 days a year, nearly 24 hours a day. He never has any need to model or predict the environment. He lives in an apartment, works in a school, and commutes there by train; the sum total of the environment’s effect on him is to determine whether or not he takes an umbrella.

The main source of unpredictability in his life is the train he takes to work. Imagine our post-modernist waiting for a train that is to arrive at 8:25. At 8:26, it has not arrived. A non-postmodernist might say, “The schedule said the train would arrive at 8:25, but it was wrong.” If he were a railroad employee, this would matter; he would have to realize the train had, in fact, not arrived, and figure out what had gone wrong and how to correct it. But a post-modernist is free instead to say, “The schedule says the train will arrive at 8:25. My eyes say the train did not arrive. Life is indeed full of unresolvable contradictions.” He is so occupied in this reverie that he fails to notice as the train pulls in, and everyone else on the platform boards. After it has left, he notices, and says, “Fascinating! For them, the train arrived. For me, it did not.” Because he has no impact on the train, and because missing the train and being late has no impact on him (he has tenure), he is free to deny the objective reality of trains and their arrivals.

Likewise, he has no opportunity to influence the environment. His apartment is rented; he may not modify it. Every inch of the street he traverses is owned by someone else and subject to a thousand regulations concerning its use.

The only things that affect him are word games, with his colleagues, students, and the administration. Even gaining tenure and climbing the ladder to an administrative position are word games. The only effects he has are in word games. He does not inter-act with the real world beyond the word games.

This seems contradictory at first–aren’t many post-modernists political activists? Yes, but they would never participate in politics on the local level, knocking on actual doors to get votes to build an actual local community center. They are interested only in grand political visions: Marxism, Revolution, Globalization, Humanity. Frederic Jameson describes post-modern politics as “without a party, without a homeland [patrie], without a national community . . . without co-citizenship, without adherence to a class.” This is essential, because any <connection with reality through which post-modern rhetoric may accidentally cause an observable effect in the real world> would turn its own sword of deconstruction against itself.

The self-consistency of post-modernism

Steiner and many other post-modernist philosophers have literally crazy beliefs, but they can hold those beliefs and be self-consistent, because they live in a world where other people deal with reality for them. Indeed, a scientist put in the shoes of a literary critic would fail miserably; he would play the language-game all wrong and be kicked out of the game. Once someone has learned to play the word-game well, the natural human neural mechanisms that reinforce behavior that is rewarded will only strengthen their faith in the way they see the world.


[1] Post-modernists don’t “mean” anything in the sense of believing it, or even ascribing objective meaning to it. But the sentences they utter convey the propositions they intend to convey. You can’t ascribe the most-sympathetic interpretation you can imagine to anything a post-modernist says; that would nearly always mangle their meaning.

[2] He implies the Greeks believed Anselm’s ontological argument for a monotheistic God (p. 88). He implies undecidable languages are languages in which every sentence is undecidable (p. 61). He claims to know the motives of Cro-Magnon cave painters (p. 211). On page 78 he says Aristotle’s “Poetics” is a theory; on page 86 he insists it is not. He says critics should not write about literature other than the classics, then criticizes them for all writing about the classics. He says each sentence conveys infinite meaning; he says no sentence can convey any meaning at all. In the space of a few pages, he provides his second definition of all art in all media, criticizes the arrogance of people who create theories of literature, and then presents his third all-encompassing theory of what makes good art. He admits his own discipline has generated almost nothing but uncountable useless books and articles every year for hundreds of years, then dismisses experimental approaches to literature as “barren” after about five years and a hundred papers. The thesis of his book, that good art requires logocentrism, contradicts two of the primary claims he invokes to support it–that (1) we must accept the modernist critique of language, and (2) the modernist critique of language destroyed logocentrism.

[3] Note the resultant extreme concentration of power: Claims are evaluated not according to their truth, but according to whether members of elite institutions read and comment on them. Post-modernism is therefore evolutionarily fit as a meme in any elitist discipline, because it gives more power to those already in power.

[4] This is after Nietzsche, the ur-post-modernist, who said “God is dead; we have killed him”, not “there is no God”, and may have meant it.

[5] Steiner appears to think that a “theory” is a set of rules that can deterministically predict every last detail of the object under study (p. 77). A theory that claims to explain Hamlet, in his view, must be able to write Hamlet.

Writing (and composing): Mahler, Beethoven, Faulkner, House of Dawn, & the Wundt curve

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The first part of this post is long, and explains how bad mathematics can lead to bad music. The second part is short, and uses the first part to explain something that I think Beethoven did right in his Moonlight Sonata, and that Faulkner and Momaday did poorly in As I Lay Dying and House of Dawn.


Music and the Wundt curve

In Thoughts on listening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony three times in a row, I talked about how artists had come to praise complexity, failed to distinguish complexity from unpredictability, and so idolized randomness. I mean “idolize” (or “fetishize”) literally; they made a shoddy graven image of what they worshiped, and worshiped the image (randomness) instead of the original thing (complexity). I used Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as an example:

It seemed like a good rule to say that the less-predictable music became, the more complex and better it would be. And in fact, the commentaries on Mahler’s Fifth are full of references to the “complexity” and “interest” generated by its dissonances and irregularities.

But after some point, increasing unpredictability makes music less complex. Instead of complexity, we get mere noise. [Assuming other people use the word “complexity” the way I do.]

That’s what happened. Composers internalized the theoretical belief that unexpectedness made music more complex and interesting… They kept making things less and less predictable, even after passing the point where complexity was maximal.

Once they’d passed that point, unpredictability only made the music boring, not complex. Like Mahler’s Fifth.

A few months after posting that, I read the first chapter of Muses and Measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities (M&M). It talked about the Wundt curve. In its most basic form, the curve plots enjoyment against signal intensity.  The data comes out like a bell curve:

This applies to things like the pleasantness of a particular temperature, or the appeal of music at a given volume (low to high). M&M said that this curve applied in general to human aesthetics, and also used Mahler’s symphonies as an example:

Suppose you ask people to listen to a simple song. Chances are high that most people will find it of medium to high hedonic value. Now have them listen to a Mahler symphony. In all likelihood, the ratings for hedonic value will be lower. The explanation for these different ratings lies in the different complexities of the two pieces of music. For various reasons, we must call the Mahler symphony more complex than the song: It is much longer, is executed by a much larger orchestra, containing more different instruments that build, moreover, ever–changing combinations, and its melodic patterns are more intricate and unusual (hence it is also more “novel”). …

Suppose we expose listeners to the song repetitively, and we do the same with the Symphony. What one will observe is that after several trials, the hedonic value ratings for the song will start falling, while those of the Symphony may start rising. The complexity of the sound texture of the Symphony makes it nearly impossible for most untrained listeners to be appreciative on a first or second hearing: its richness is simply not taking in. With repeated exposures, listeners may begin to grasp its variations of melodic and orchestral patterns, it’s structure of repetitions and contrasts, and its multilayered levels of tone and rhythm.

In this standard view, complexity equals unpredictability, which equals the opposite of novelty; and where the peak in the curve is depends on how novel the stimulus is to the observer. In my view, the peak appeal in the curve is at the amount of unpredictability (or, equivalently, information) where complexity (relative to the listener) is maximal.

So far we just use different terms: the standard view uses the word “complex” to mean “unpredictable”, and says that people have some arbitrary level of unpredictability that they like best. I use the word “complex” to mean “aesthetic appeal as a function of unpredictability.”

The difference is nominal, but not trivial. I’m naming the amount of appeal some artwork has due just to its degree of unpredictability “complexity”, to make it a thing we can study. If we can reliably predict where its maximum will be, we will thereby know, if not understand, part of what makes good art good [1].

In practice, the disagreement is worse. Instead of teasing out the relations between complexity / appeal, randomness, and novelty, people using the standard view usually simply declare they all mean the same thing [2], as van Peer absent-mindedly does in the paragraphs above, and as (Berlyne 1970) and (Heyduk 1975) do as well–as if the curve were simply appeal = randomness. (In which case it would not be a curve, but a straight line. The labelling of the Y-axis on the figure above makes it not an axis at all, but a mysterious mixture of two components–all to preserve the absurd belief that “complexity” means “randomness”.)

This leads to bad music. It says that, if you start with something random enough, it starts out sounding ugly, but every time you play it, it becomes less novel, and thus more beautiful, until after some number of exposures it becomes…

the most beautiful thing ever.

Becoming an art connoisseur then means training yourself to like more and more noise and randomness. No justification is ever offered for why we don’t stop liking the canonized noise-art after hearing or viewing it enough times.

It’s true that people will come to better like a Mahler symphony, or noise by Ferneyhough, the more often they listen to it. But if we take this as proof of beauty, it would mean that anything we dislike at first is beautiful, while the things we used to call beautiful–songs, paintings by Dutch masters–are so ugly that they rate a zero on the objective scale of artistic merit. Mathematically speaking, the fraction of all possible songs or paintings that are less than or as random as those songs and those paintings, and hence no more beautiful than they are, is zero.

 

Complexity Structure

As I explained in that post, in the bad old days before 1992, “complexity” meant computational complexity, and “complexity” measures like entropy and Kolmogorov complexity are actually measures of information. They say that random sequences of numbers have the most bits of information (which they do), but it sounded like they were saying they have the highest possible complexity.

Mathematicians in the study of complex systems knew that was wrong. “Complexity”, if it means the adaptability or interestingness of a system, is maximal at a point between between the realms of boring, dead stasis and random chaos.

Coming up with a definition of complexity that didn’t give random sequences high complexity wasn’t hard. The hard thing is that there are lots of measures that do that, and it isn’t obvious that one is more right than the other. (Feldman & Crutchfield 1997) concluded that we ought to stop using the term “complexity”, and say more specifically what we’re trying to do and what we want to measure. Feldman & Crutchfield suggested using the term “structure” instead.

“Complexity” had always seemed intuitively clear to me before, but it derives from Latin “complex” (a collection of parts). It’s an interesting comment on how new our notions of structure and organization are, that we had to appropriate the word “complex” to mean a thing with an intricate causal structure and many behaviors, when in the Middle Ages it just meant a thing with many parts. “Complicated”, perhaps a related word, meant “things folded together”, which again does not have any notion of complex function or causality. “Structure” meant “to build”; “organism” and “organization” come from “organ”, which means “an instrument”. “Elaborate” is from the 16th century; “mechanism” from the 17th. Latin and Middle English had an abundance of synonyms for “complicated”, including “intricate” and “perplexing”, but neither medieval Latin nor Middle English seem to have had any word for productive complication, in which the number of behaviors, or the sophistication of behavior, grows faster than the number of parts. (I’m making a big deal of this because it’s another indication that the medievals didn’t understand creativity.) The closest they had to a word for describing complex organization was “hierarchy”, from “hierarch” (sacred ruler), meaning a top-down chain of command like that of the angels and heavenly beings.

This may be why, as I argued in Modernist and Medieval Artone of the tenets of modern art and modernist writing is the rejection of structure in art. The purpose of structure, once we get past the Renaissance with its mystical principles of composition in paintings, is to combine parts in relationships that multiply rather than merely add their power. Examples include the structures and dynamic arcs built out of repetitions, inversions, and variations on the theme in a Bach fugue, or the interlocking plots, themes, and character arcs in a novel. If modernism is a reversion to medieval thought patterns, which focused on timeless, hierarchical relationships between abstract essences or types, rather than dynamic interactions between real individuals, then modernism will be similarly less interested in structuring components in space and time.

This prediction is confirmed by Schoenberg’s modernist 12-tone music. Its basic principle is to use all the tones in a scale before re-using any of them. This tends to maximize the entropy and randomness of the music. It’s as if he designed his theory specifically to make structure in music impossible.

 

Maximal musical complexity: Already attained

Let’s say music can be complex in three ways: Melody, rhythm, and harmony. Consider the first movement of Beethoven’s moonlight sonata:

Melodically and rhythmically, this music is dead simple. Why did Beethoven write such a boring, simple melody and rhythm?

Because harmonically, it’s crazy. Here’s the chord progression in the first 13 measures:

c#m c#m7
A D G#7 c#m G#7 Cdim c#m/E c#m
G#7 c#m f#m
E B7 E em
G7 C em F#7 bm

I’ve never heard any other tune use the chord progression C#m F#m E B7 E Em G7 C Em F#7 Bm. Pick any equally-long pattern using C, F, G, Em, and Am, and you could find thousands of songs that used it.

The melody and rhythm are simple because otherwise you wouldn’t even be able to tell what the chord transitions were. You wouldn’t know where the transitions between chords are (they’re played one note at a time).

Beethoven decided that the chord progression was so unpredictable that it used up all his allowable unpredictability. He simplified everything else so that people could perceive the chord progression.

Similarly, a Bach fugue will have great polyphonic novelty, with perhaps eight different voices at the same time, but based on a repetitive melody, with a constant rhythm and few key changes. Negro spirituals and ragtime usually have simple tonality and melody, but complex rhythm and timing. Dixieland and some other forms of jazz alternate between complex and simple stretches. Pushing the novelty envelope in one way to achieve a distinctive effect always requires scaling back the novelty somewhere else.

 

Faulkner and Momaday: Not Enough Structure

Which brings us to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. Both of them had all of the following:

– strangely-styled, strangled sentences
– connections between events that were not revealed until much later
– chapters narrated by tertiary characters whose relevance to the story wasn’t revealed until later

I realized this was too much unpredictability when I was trying to figure out whether I bought popular explanations of the second passage I quoted in my review of House Made of Dawn. In most novels, I’d have been able to guess whether his interpretation was correct by how well it fit the events that led up to the passage, and what the old man did afterwards. But I couldn’t do that with HMoD, because there was no continuity in time between the scenes. One person does one thing at one time in one place, then some other person does something else in some other place at some other time. If the meaning were clear, I could use it to figure out the connections between the scenes. If the connections between the scenes were clear, I could use them to figure out the meaning of each scene. As nothing was clear, it was difficult to figure out anything.

I think that these modernist books, like Mahler’s Fifth, have objectively too little structure for contemporary American readers. They are so unpredictable that, though this high unpredictability means they convey many bits of information, they convey less meaning than they could with less unpredictability–where “meaning” is, as with “complexity” or “structure”, information minus randomness.


[1] Did you think it was odd that I said we might “know, if not understand” something? Later, I’m going to talk about the difference between rationality and empiricism. (It’s super-important, honest!) One of the non-obvious ways of distinguishing them is that rationalists believe you must understand things before you can know anything about them. This is epitomized by the obsession that Socrates and medieval scholastics had with defining terms. Empiricists, by contrast, believe you must begin with a collection of known facts, some of which might use unanalyzable terms you just made up, before you can hope to understand things. A classic example is gravity. Isaac Newton just made it up to name a force in his equations, with no understanding of how it worked. We know a lot about gravity, but we still don’t understand it. (This observation is from Popper 1966, vol. 2 chapter 11, “The Aristotelian Roots of Hegelianism”, part 2. Its truth is due to the scientific practice of operationalization, which means you create terms as shorthand for what you can measure rather than as shorthand for definitions of what you want to measure. When I say complexity is what the Wundt curve measures, I’m operationalizing complexity rather than defining it.)

[2] With novelty being 1 – randomness, or 1 / randomness, or some other inverse measure of randomness.


References

Berlyne, D. E. “Novelty, Complexity and Hedonic Value.” Perception and Psychophysics 1970, 8: 279-286.

David Feldman, James Crutchfield 1997. Measures of statistical complexity: Why?

Heyduk, Ronald. “Rated preference for musical compositions as it relates to complexity and exposure frequency.” Perception & Psychophysics 1975, Vol. 17(1), 84-91.

Karl Popper 1966. The Open Society And Its Enemies, 5th ed., Princeton University Press. 1st ed. 1945.

Willie van Peer, Jemeljan Hakemulder, & Sonia Zyngier 2007. Muses and Measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Modernist Manifestos & WW1: We Didn’t Start the Fire—Oh, Wait, we Totally Did ·

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Literary history is written by the winners, who in recent years have been people who don’t believe in truth, so it shouldn’t be much surprise that contains lies.  You can’t trust a literary history written after 1960; you must check the original sources.

One example, which I’ll blog on later, is the agreed-on misrepresentation of the ideas of the New Critics.  Another is the myth, promulgated by musical modernists, that the music of the great Classical and Romantic composers was thought to be just as discordant in their day as modernist music is today.  Another is, arguably, the claim that post-modernism is a thing that both arose later than modernism and can be usefully distinguished from it.  Today, though, I want to talk about the revisionist story that World War 1 was a critical influence on modernism.


1. The Big War and the Big Lie

Some quick Googling tells me about “the galvanic impact of World War I” on modernism (New York Times) and “how World War I gave birth to the modern” (CNN).  Wikipedia says, “Among the factors that shaped modernism were the development of modern industrial societies and the rapid growth of cities, followed then by reactions of horror to World War I.”

English professor Jarica Watts said,

This was Modernism, a reaction against the conventions of liberal, bourgeois, material, decadent, Western civilization. It’s what we might call the avant-garde, or bohemian or abstract today. But for the lost generation of post-war Europe, it seemed to be the only way out of either depression or suicide. In a world now proven to be without values, what else was left but experimentation—to try, by putting the pen to the page, what had not yet been accomplished before.

The Los Angeles TImes wrote,

ART FOREVER CHANGED BY WORLD WAR I

Along with millions of idealistic young men who were cut to pieces by machine guns and obliterated by artillery shells, there was another major casualty of World War I: traditional ideas about Western art. …

“It created an epoch in art,” said Leo Braudy, a USC professor of English and author of “From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity.” “The question is, what was on one side and what was on the other?”

The simple answer as to what lay on the near side of World War I is Modernism, that slippery but indispensable term denoting a wide range of new sensibilities and aesthetic responses to the industrial age. Modernism took shape decades before World War I, but its clamorous arrival was vastly accelerated by the greatest collective trauma in history to that point.

The Amazon blurb for Susan Cole’s 2012 At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland says,

Literature has long sought to make sense of the destruction and aggression wrought by human civilization. Yet no single literary movement was more powerfully shaped by violence than modernism. As Sarah Cole shows, modernism emerged as an imaginative response to the devastating events that defined the period, including the chaos of anarchist bombings, World War I, the Irish uprising, and the Spanish Civil War.

[Ezra] Pound felt the best part of his generation had been ravaged by an absurdly wasteful war, and he expressed some of his bitterness in his most powerful poem of the period, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”: … He loathed Western civilization because it had no room left for its artists, and because it seemed systematically bent on its own extinction through warfare.
— (Tytell 1987 p. 6)

In visual art, Surrealists and Expressionists devised wobbly, chopped-up perspectives and nightmarish visions of fractured human bodies and splintered societies slouching toward moral chaos….  Amy Lyford, a professor of art history and visual arts at Occidental College, said that Surrealism developed partly from artists’ desires to depict the massive traumas the war inflicted on individual human beings.
Art forever changed by World War I, page 2

Yet, looking for these pictures, the closest thing I find is Hitler-inspired paintings by Dali.

“Hitler turned me on in the highest.”
–Salvador Dali, the most-influential postwar Surrealist painter, quoted in The New Statesman

The accepted narrative about the development of Modernism, as shown above, is that it was created as a humanistic reaction against the mindless violence of World War I.  There are several problems with this theory:

– An inspection of easily-available facts shows that modernism was already fully-formed before the start of the war.  I have searched in vain for any style, technique, doctrine, or attitude in any of the many variations of modernism which can be traced to an origin in the events of World War 1.

– What you’ll find instead is that the founders of modernism were often pro-violence and anti-humanistic, and did not react to the horrors of war because few of them went to war.  Modernists were more excited than most people about the revolutionary potential of violence, less likely than other young people to go to war, less likely to write about or make art about the war, and much more likely to rush to embrace the violent solutions of fascism or Stalinism almost immediately after the war.

– War veterans who wrote about the war did not usually use modernist techniques.  Modernists stole their legitimacy by declaring that writings about the war were by definition modernist.


2. Pictorial History of Modern Art

Modernism was fully-formed before World War I started.  It had some growing left to do, but its adult shape was already clear.  Frank Lloyd Wright had been building “prairie houses” for a decade. Chicago, Buffalo, and New York City were already sprouting glass-walled skyscrapers. Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was already famous, though he didn’t invent 12-tone music until 1915.

John Cage’s supposedly post-modern masterpiece 4′33″ (1952) is an exact duplicate of Alphonse Allais’ Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1897), except for having a different duration [1].  The Red Badge of Couragewas published in 1895.  And it’s hard to say whether anyone has ever written a more post-modern novel than Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759).

Rather than a long argument, here’s a series of paintings I collected by googling “art 1890”, “art 1900”, “modern art”, and “modern art 1920s”.


Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Gachet, 1890 (link)


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1890 (link)


Monet, Wheatstacks, 1891 (link)


Edvard Munch, Jealous, 1895 (link)


Henri Matisse, Le bonheur de vivre, 1906 (link)


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 (link)


Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 (link)


Picasso, Girl with Mandolin, 1910 (link)


Francis Picabia, 1912, Tarentelle (link)


Franz Marc, Fate of the Animals, 1913 (link)


Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle), 1913


Wassily Kandinsky, Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913 (link)


Fernand Léger, Contrast of Forms, 1913 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition XIV, 1913 (link)


Lyubov Popova, Air Man Space, 1913


Amadeo Souza-Cardoso, Untitled Still Life, 1913 (link)


Fernand Léger, Discs, 1918 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition With Gray And Light Brown, 1918 (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition III, 1917 (link)


T. van Doesburg, Simultaneous Counter-Composition, 1930 (link)


Pablo Picasso, Tête de Marie-Thérèse, 1932 (link)


Joaquín Torres-García, Locomotora con casa constructiva (Locomotive with Constructive House), 1934 (link)


Picasso, The Weeping Woman, 1937 (link)


Georgia O’Keeffe. White Shell with Red, 1938. (link)


Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, 1942 (link)


Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, 1943 (link)


Stanley William Hayter, Cinq Personnages or alternately Atelier 17, 1946 (link)


Jackson Pollack, Summertime Number 9A, 1948 (link)


Hans Hofmann, The Gate, 1959–60 (link)


Seb Farrington, Venus Isle, 2010 (source)

 

I think it’s clear that the inflection was between 1907 and 1913, not 1913 and 1930.  This wonderful chart gives a good picture of modern art’s genealogy, which shows that all that was added after the start of the war was Dadaism, Surrealism, and architecture.

Although personally, I think this is a better summary of its progress:


Alphonse Allais, Negroes Battling in a Tunnel, by Night, 1884 (source)


Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (source)


Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Print, 1966 (link)


Robert Ryman, Allied, 1966 (linkGuggenheim)


Dimitris Tragkas, Circle, 1988 (linksource)


Robert Ryman, Connect, 2002.  Recently sold for $10,775,500.

Robert Ryman is a good figure to end our survey of modern art on.  He has painted nothing but white squares for the past 50 years, and is now #5 of the list of most expensive living American artists, with sales of on average $14 million per year.  The fact that he can reliably sell paintings which Google image search classifies as bathroom tiles for over $10 million is perhaps not as disturbing as the fact that modern art, a movement whose two most-often stated aims are to fight bourgeois capitalism and to make art more pure, has resulted in an art world that ranks artists by how much money their paintings sell for.


3. English Literary Modernism

Literary modernism in English did appear mostly after the start of WW1.  Not entirely; Gertrude Stein had already written Three Lives, for instance [2].  But Modernism was already fully-formed on the European continent, including its philosophies.  Either English literary modernism is the migration of European modernism to England, or it is not Modernism.

I think there is some distance between English literary modernism and “modern art”, but still–all the important English modernists met each other in Paris, not in London or America, where they looked at French paintings together in Gertrude Stein’s apartment, or met at Shakespeare & Co. or one of Ezra Pound’s other hangouts, and discussed French art and artistic philosophy.

Considering that they were young people writing immediately after the close of a World War, who had little adult experience but the war years, what’s striking is how little some of them wrote about the war.  Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Stein never mentioned it in their work that I know of.

The most-notable books that fit the “war art” narrative are The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane, 1895), All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Remarque, 1928 or 1929), and A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929).  Aside from the question of whether these books use any modernist techniques–I would say the first two are Naturalist [7.5], and only Hemingway is Modernist–we have problems with the timeline.  Stephen Crane didn’t go to war, and his book came out 30 years after its war, and 20 years before WW1. Remarque and Hemingway went to war, but didn’t publish their books for 10 years. We can hardly say modernism received a formative impact in 1929. [3]  And if Hemingway was so traumatized by the war, why did he volunteer for both the Spanish Civil War and WW2–and spend much of the time in-between travelling around the world to shoot big animals?

And let’s look at some poems by the most-famous “modernist war poets”.  I’m adding one from WW2 just to show that the pattern continues.

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?
–Siegfried Sassoon, “Absolution”, 1917

Why are they cheering and shouting
What’s all the scurry of feet
With little boys banging on kettle and can
Wild laughter of girls in the street?

Oh those are the froth of the city
The thoughtless and ignorant scum
Who hang out the bunting when war is let loose
And for victory bang on a drum

But the boys who were killed in the battle
Who fought with no rage and no rant
Are peacefully sleeping on pallets of mud
Low down with the worm and the ant.
–Robert Graves, “November 11th”, 1918 (first published in 1969)

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
–Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum”, 1921

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
–Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”, 1969

In what sense are these poems modernist?  The first would be called kitsch if it weren’t about the war; it is exactly the sort of Victorian or Georgian poem the modernists hated [4].  Also, it’s the sort of pro-war YOLO jingoism that Kipling would have written; WTF? The others are sentimental poems with clear, concrete meanings and regular or nearly-regular meter and rhyme.

These, by contrast, are modernist poems:

A lea ender stow sole lightly.
Not a bet beggar.
Nearer a true set jump hum,
A lamp lander so seen poor lip.
–Gertrude Stein, “Yet Dish” #2, 1913

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.
–Wallace Stevens, “Disillusionment Of Ten O’Clock”, 1915

Tumbling-hair
picker of buttercups
violets
dandelions
And  the big bullying  daisies
through the field wonderful
with  eyes a little  sorry
Another  comes
also picking flowers
–e e cummings 1923, Tulips and Chimneys #3

She, then, like snow in a dark night,
Fell secretly. And the world waked
With dazzling of the drowsy eye,
So that some muttered ‘Too much light’,
And drew the curtains close.
Like snow, warmer than fingers feared,
And to soil friendly;
Holding the histories of the night
In yet unmelted tracks.
–Robert Graves, “Like Snow” [I can’t find the year]

The war poems aren’t modernist in any way [5].  Heck, (Jarrell 1942) said modernism was dead 27 years before he wrote that poem.

There is, as far as I can see, a less-than-expected intersection between poems about the war or poets who wrote about the war, and poems or poets showing modernist techniques.  Modernist poems were less about the horrors of war than other poetry.  The first-rank modernists were notable for not going to war and for seldom writing about or painting about the war.  Calling the war poems “modernist” is a PR coup in which the 4Fs, rich kids, and draft-dodgers stole the legitimacy of the war veterans by saying “We’re angsty, too–you’re one of us!”

TS Eliot seems on the surface to be talking about the war in “The Waste Land”, but it doesn’t resemble the poetry of war veterans as much as it resembles the weary, angsty, disillusioned poetry of TS Eliot before the war [6].

And, wait–Graves again?  Well, I put Graves in the first batch as a ringer.  Could you tell him apart from the “modernists”? He’s not considered a modernist at all, despite writing more-modernist poetry.  Graves was a model modernist poet in the 1920s–he came back from the war traumatized, and (allegedly) rejected patriotism, marriage, conventional morality, modernity, and reason.  The problem was that, unlike other WW1 poets, he didn’t die and he didn’t stop writing poems. He began to get better, instead of staying in the permanent state of disillusionment and near-psychosis so conducive to modernism, and as he did, he found himself more and more at odds with other modernist poets.  In (Riding & Graves 1927) he disapproved of their reliance on technical gimmicks, their focus on style rather than content, and their focus on social and political issues rather than on the poet’s experiences and vision. He tried to introduce a more-nuanced view and use of modernism, which was not at all what the other modernists wanted.  Graves disliked modernity, but simply returned to classical studies and to humanistic optimism about the possibility of improving society rather than tearing it down and starting over. (Quinn 1999, see esp. p. 44, 52, 54) Rather than being remembered as a dissenting modernist, he has been cast as the arch-anti-modernist, to keep modernism ideologically pure, and, I suppose, to avoid drawing attention to the fact that the only major WW1 poet I know of who kept writing abandoned modernism.


4. The Two Families of Modernism

At the start of WW1, “Modernism” in the sense I wish to use it–as a term describing a set of artistic approaches that all claimed the same influences, all looked pretty similar to each other and vastly different from everything else, and were advocated at the same time by people who all had the same sort of background and behaved pretty much the same way–included groups with opposite attitudes towards modernity.

Architectural modernism tries to “be modern” by finding beauty in forms that are rational and efficient (“form follows function”).  Futurist modernism originated in Italy and celebrates the power of the machine. Constructivism originated in Russia, inspired by Marx & Engels’ writings against the fine arts (Shiner 1990 p. 236) and by Futurism (theartstory.org, “Constructivism“) and art in France.  It supported modernity in the service of communism, though it was close to anti-modernity Dadaism in its anti-art stance.

The mostly-victorious branch of artistic and literary modernism, on the other hand, reacted against being modern, rational, and efficient.  That branch is what people mean by “modernism”.  They often call Futurism and Constructivism “avant-garde”, an umbrella  term which means anything descended from weird French stuff developed after 1850 that most people didn’t like, but is generally reserved for the period before 1900.  However, both are much more like the rest of modern art that they were contemporaries of than they are like the many forms of avant-garde art that came before 1900.

Virginia Woolf, writing in 1924, said English modernism began in 1910.  People in 1910 said “the revolution” began in the 1890s with the French avant-garde movement.  People in the 1890s said it began in the 1870s with Rimbaud’s poetry, or maybe with the Paris commune of 1871.  People in the 1870s said it began with Gustave Courbet’s realist paintings of 1849-1851 or the French Revolution of 1848, and people in 1848 said they were completing the French Revolution of 1793, which Wordsworth (Vondeling 2000) and Beethoven were both enthusiastic about at the time.

Randall Jarrell wrote an excellent essay in 1942 which used this continuity of revolutionary spirit from modern art back to the French Revolution to argue that modernism is better seen as the next stage of romanticism.  The key qualities they had in common were:

  • a disdain for all art that had come before
  • fetishizing “originality” and constant change
  • calling ugly, discordant, or senseless things “art” as long as they were new
    • this makes more sense if you’re familiar with late 19th-century French Symbolist poetry–I’m not, but I’ve read articles about it; basically the French were writing proto-modernist poetry in the 1870s.  (See below on Stéphane Mallarmé. Also see Martindale 1990 chpt. 3, “Crucible in a Tower of Ivory: Modern French poetry”.)
  • hatred of science, industrialism, humanitarianism, and the notion of progress
  • a desire to return to an idealized past that is literary, theological, and personal

GhostOfHeraclitus has just posted a short companion piece on Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898).  Its conclusion is:

“In summary, a lot of what was supposedly purely Modernist was written by Mallarmé first, and this penchant for experimentation suffused with the vision of art as new religion for a world that’s gone and killed God was transmitted to the Modernists either through Mallarmé’s fame or through his famous salons. This ‘new religion’ business is especially vital as it speaks to the (more paleo- than neomodern) notion that meaning had gone from the world and that Art-with-a-capital-sodding-A must put it back.”

1914 is a ridiculous date for the birth of modernism.  The 1890s would be a better date. But moving the date up to 1914 has several advantages to the winners.  It makes modernism seem newer, gives its perpetual childish outrage and arrogance an excuse, and, perhaps most importantly, lets them kick out the Futurists, who had split from the rest of the modernists by 1910.  Saying modernism began during WW1 is thus akin to saying that the Russian Revolution began when Trotsky was expelled from the Politburo in 1926.

(If you want to read a counter-argument, the New York Times published a piece in 1996 defending the official date of 1914 or later against a book by Peter Stansky arguing that “in 1910 England was belatedly introduced to the modernism that was already taking the Continent by storm.”)

The futurists didn’t adopt the anti-modern modernists’ nihilistic doctrines such as the unimportance of the artistic subject or content.  Also, their art was a little more popular because it was representational and energetic.

Umberto Boccioni 1912, Elasticity (link)

Giuio D’Anna, 1930 (link)

The surviving modernists are, amazingly, still hurling invective at Futurism’s corpse over 100 years later, as shown by this 2012 Smithsonian article calling Futurists a dark and dangerous set of artists whose influence we should be wary of, conveniently ignoring the equally loathsome political views of most non-futurist modernists.

The artistic and philosophical revolution, as often happens, preceded the military one.  (The Renaissance, for instance, can be seen as the artistic half of a long revolution against the iron grip of medieval feudalism, while the Age of Enlightenment was the scientific and political continuation of it.)

The modernists weren’t reacting against a devastation caused by the callous indifference of science to the plight of real people, because the modernists came first.  If anything, the poison of their own fanaticism, their screams for rage, violence, and destruction, and their loathing of those ordinary people, cheered on the coming devastation.


5. Modernist Manifestos and World War One

Many people have tried to define modernism, but they mostly observe its products rather than giving it what it’s crying for–psychoanalysis.  A glaringly obvious characteristic of modernism, which people are now so used to that they don’t even notice, is its furious, political, totalitarian nature.  Most famous modernists (I haven’t counted, but I’m pretty sure it’s most; see for instance Will 2012 [7]), were political extremists, either fascist or Stalinist.  The two most-important literary modernists, in terms of organizing modernism into a movement, were Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein.  The same Pound that Tytell said was bitter about “an absurdly wasteful war” signed the Blast Manifesto in 1914 with its calls for a great purgative violence, and later made radio broadcasts for the Italian fascists during World War 2.  Stein supporters claim that she was just being ironic when she said “Hitler deserves the Nobel Peace Prize”, but she supported the Vichy regime too consistently to make this excuse.

There were modernist manifestos going at least back to the Symbolist manifesto in 1886, but from 1909-1921 modernists competed to see who could crank out the angriest, craziest manifestos.  I don’t know how many there were. Enough that “manifesto studies” is now a thing.

From F. T. Marinetti​’s “The Futurist Manifesto” , 1909:

2. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, daring, and revolt.
3. Literature having up to now magnified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy, and sleep, we want to exalt the aggressive gesture, the feverish insomnia, the athletic step, the perilous leap, the box on the ear, and the fisticuff.
7. There is no more beauty except in struggle. No masterpiece without an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent attack against the unknown forces, summoning them to lie down before man.
9. We want to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world–militarism, patriotism, the anarchist’s destructive gesture, the fine Ideas that kill, and the scorn of woman.
10. We want to demolish museums, libraries, fight against moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian cowardices.

It is in Italy that we launch this manifesto of tumbling and incendiary violence, this manifesto through which today we set up Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, of archaeologists, of guides, and of antiquarians.

I think you all know how that went.

This next bit is a long quote, but I think it’s worthwhile.  It shows the violent and political atmosphere of the European art world in 1912, and one account of how modernism came from a Hegelian synthesis of classicism and romanticism.

Also notice that Hulme, the modernist, is rabidly pro-Christian and anti-scientific, and skeptical of ‘Progress’ (hence the snide uppercase P).  (He says he’s anti-rationalist, but he’s using the term to mean something like “science”, without regard for how it and its cognates were used during the previous 2000 years.  Christianity is rationalist, while romanticism is anti-rationalist.) This is a point I’ll hopefully get to sometime this year: modernism and post-modernism are religious, theocratic, rationalist, anti-scientific movements.  Post-modernism in particular is very Catholic, and looks back to the Middle Ages to find ancient philosophies to replace modern scientific beliefs. (This shouldn’t be surprising, as it arose in France from people with classical educations but no scientific understanding.)  Hulme’s view is that romanticism needs an injection of God.

From a speech by T. E. Hulme, 1912, published in 1924 as “Romanticism and Classicism”:

I know that in using the words ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ I am doing a dangerous thing. …  I ought really to have coined a couple of new words, but I prefer to use the ones I have used, as I then conform to the practice of the group of polemical writers who make most use of them at the present day, and have almost succeeded in making them political catchwords…  If you asked a man of a certain set whether he preferred the classics or the romantics, you could deduce from that what his politics were.
The best way of gliding into a proper definition of my terms would be to start with a set of people who are prepared to fight about it–for in them you will have no vagueness. …
About a year ago, a man whose name I think was Fauchois gave a lecture at the Odeon on Racine, in the course of which he made some disparaging remarks about his dullness, lack of invention and the rest of it. This caused an immediate riot: fights took place all over the house; several people were arrested and imprisoned, and the rest of the series of lectures took place with hundreds of gendarmes and detectives scattered all over the place. These people interrupted because the classical ideal is a living thing to them and Racine is the great classic. That is what I call a real vital interest in literature.  They regard romanticism as an awful disease from which France had just recovered.
The thing is complicated in their case by the fact that it was romanticism that made the revolution.  [I suppose he’s talking about one French Revolution or the other.]  They hate the revolution, so they hate romanticism.
I make no apology for dragging in politics here; romanticism both in England and France is associated with certain political views
People of all classes, people who stood to lose by it, were in a positive ferment about the idea of liberty.  There must have been some idea which enabled them to think that something positive could come out of so essentially negative a thing. There was, and here I get my definition of romanticism. They had been taught by Rousseau that man was by nature good, that it was only bad laws and customs that had suppressed him…  This is what made them think that something positive could come out of disorder… Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir  of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.
One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him
… the classical view … is absolutely identical with the normal religious attitude…  That part of the fixed nature of man is the belief in the Deity.  This should be as fixed and true for every man as belief in the existence of matter and in the objective world.  It is parallel to appetite, the instinct of sex, and all the other fixed qualities….  The repressed instinct bursts out in some abnormal direction. So with religion. By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism, your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way.  You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism.

Hulme is a rabid conservative, on the anti-liberty, monarchist, Classicist side, and was a Catholic convert.  Classicists or Catholics who became modernists became High Modernists (or paleomodernists), like Joyce & Eliot, and often supported the fascists after WW1.  Romantics who became modernists became neomodernists, like Stein, and often became Marxists if they were not Catholic.

We all know that modernism is about God being dead, right?  So why does theology keep entering into it? Well, modernism and post-modernism are both movements that believe God is dead, but desperately want Him back to give the world a firm footing.  Modernism is what happens when romantics acquire a purely intellectual atheism, but still have a God-shaped hole in their hearts.  Futurists and paleo-modernists searched for replacements for God. More conservative and backwards-looking modernists, like TE Hulme and TS Eliot, decided they must have just had the wrong God, and would try out the Catholic one instead.  Post-modernists gave up and said reason only leads to contradictions because there is no God. (Not directly, but it becomes clear if you notice that their arguments come from rejecting scientific understanding and instead falling back on medieval beliefs about reality, which were carefully designed and selected to lead to contradictions if there were no God.)

If, as Hulme said, classicists were conservatives and romantics were progressives, what were modernists?  I’m going to call them radicals. I’ll explain why in a later blog post, “Conservative, progressive, and radical art.”  But I think this next selection from the Blast manifesto will make the point equally well. It was written mostly by Wyndham Lewis (who in 1931 visited Berlin and wrote a book praising Adolf Hitler, a fact not mentioned on the Wikipedia page dismissing charges against him of Nazi sympathizing), and signed by Ezra Pound.  Lewis said the name “Blast” meant “the blowing away of dead ideas and worn-out notions.” The strange |6/ is supposed to represent a bomb exploding (as suggested by other words in the manifesto).  The messages of Blast were that (1) Futurists are bad; and (2) art is inherently violent, and springs from the same sort of thuggish vitality that the Futurist Manifesto praises.  It characterizes art as an explosive energy, like a bomb, so an artist must be “savage”, “primitive”, “violent”, and find his stimulus in “a chaos of imperfection, discord”.  It was published on June 20, 1914, 8 days before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist, triggering World War 1.

From “Long Live the Vortex!”, Blast (1), June 20 1914  (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edition, vol. 2, p. 2010-2012):

The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously.
WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY—their stupidity, animalism and dreams.
We believe in no perfectibility except our own.
Intrinsic beauty is in the Interpreter and Seer, not in the object or content.

WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel it’s [sic] crude energy flowing through us.
It maybe said that great artists in England are always revolutionary, just as in France any really great artist had a strong traditional vein.
Blast sets out to be an avenue for all those vivid and violent ideas that could reach the Public in no other way.

AUTOMOBILISM (Marinetteism) [Futurism] bores us. We don’t want to go about making a hullo-bulloo about motor cars, anymore than about knives and forks…
Wilde gushed twenty years ago about the beauty of machinery.  Gissing, in his romantic delight with modern lodging houses was futurist in this sense.

[from here on you need to see the typography]

I realize that the Archduke was killed by a nationalist, not an artist.  The point I’m making is that those times were full of political violence by nationalists, Marxists, and anarchists–and the modernists thought that was totally cool.  They wanted to be a part of the violence. The anarchists, nationalists, Marxists, and modern artists were all part of a revolutionary culture of anger that glorified explosive energy and violence.

Look back at that sequence of paintings up above.  It looks like I selected a whole bunch from 1913 to show you what art was like immediately before the war started, doesn’t it?  I didn’t. It just happens that if you randomly select a bunch of paintings from the history of modern art with probability proportional to how many web pages there are about them, a large number of the important paintings were made in 1913.

The years immediately preceding World War I witnessed two parallel developments in the arts: landmark works and innovate styles appeared in such rich profusion as to make this period (1910-1914) one of the apogees of modernism; and, far more than in preceding years, artists in nearly all media formed and joined groups of fellow artists… the group structure intensified modernist innovation by enabling otherwise isolated artists to develop aesthetic ideas collectively… and… to dare to present their innovative art to a hostile, yet potentially curious public…. So aggressive were these modernist groups, so eager for combat, that fighting spilled over into their competition with each other for survival and prominence.
–Cohen 2004 p. 1-2

In other words, modern art was bursting with energy and action, at its peak strength, immediately before WW1 started.

And yet, I haven’t got a single painting from the 1920s.  But I tried. I searched for “modern art 1920s”, and all the images I clicked on turned out to be from before or after the 1920s, or didn’t have a specific date given, except for a bunch of Mondrians which all looked the same [8].  Modern artists didn’t emerge from the war energized to create new art in response to their experience. Modern visual art was apparently dormant immediately after the war.  Modern art wasn’t a reaction against violence, it was a violent reaction–and people were tired of violence.

World War 1 broke out at just the time that all of Europe’s upper and middle class was burning with rage over art–classicists, romanticists, and modernists all denouncing each other as barbarians.  The classicists were not a serious threat. The French modernists were hard-pressed to decide who they hated more, the German Romantics (their old enemy), or the Italian Futurists (the heretical modernists).

Wait, I’m not going to argue that World War 1 was split along artistic lines, am I?

No; Wyndham Lewis will.  In Blast issue 2, July 1915:

Germany has stood for the old Poetry, for Romance, more stedfastly and profoundly than any other people in Europe. German nationalism is less realistic, is more saturated with the mechanical obsession of history, than the nationalism of England or France.

This paper wishes to stand rigidly opposed, from start to finish, to every form that the Poetry of a former condition of life, no longer existing, has foisted upon us. It seeks to oppose to this inapposite poetry, the intensest aroma of a different humanity (that is Romance) the Poetry which is the as yet unexpressed spirit of the present time, and of new conditions and possibilities of life.

Under these circumstances, apart from national partizanship, it appears to us humanly desirable that Germany should win no war against France or England.

… and a few pages later:

A fact not generally known in England, Is that the Kaiser, long before he entered into war with Great Britain, had declared merciless war on Cubism and Expressionism.  Museum directors, suspected of Cubist Ieanings, were removed from their posts. Exhibitions that gave shelter to Pablo Picasso or even Signac, were traitorous institutions. … This good Emperor smells the Divine, the Sober and Sheet-Iron puritanism underneath these art-manifestations, and he feels his trade would suffer. …

(Do note that Blast 2 describes modern art as divine, sober and sheet-iron puritanism.  That will become important in later posts.)

I mentioned earlier that Arnold Schoenberg didn’t invent 12-tone music until 1915.  That was a major development in modernism. So… maybe that was his response to the mindlessness of WW1?

Schoenberg drew comparisons between Germany’s assault on France and his assault on decadent bourgeois artistic values. In August 1914, while denouncing the music of Bizet, Stravinsky and Ravel, [Schoenberg] wrote: “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God!”
–Wikipedia on Schoenberg, citing Ross 2007, p. 60.

Schoenberg said later that he suffered terribly from the corrosive effects of war.  But at the time, he was enthusiastic about it, enlisting in 1914. He only finished his training in the autumn of 1916, and was released from service in November 1916 (Ewans 2004 p. 309-313).  As far as I can tell, he never saw action, thanks to the efforts of “his colleagues” to keep him out of danger (Roshwald & Stites p. 140).

Schoenberg, the German, identified France with the bourgeois, while Wyndham Lewis identified Germany with the bourgeois.  “Bourgeois” allegedly meant “upper middle class”, yet it was by then used only as an insult, and only by members of the upper middle class.  By 1914 it had already come in artistic circles to refer not to any economic class, but to anyone who did not appreciate avant-garde art.  By intersecting revolution and avant-gardism, It expressed in one word the sentiment that people who did not like modern art must be killed.

Is the idea that a fight over art made people eager to fight WW1 any more ridiculous than the current teaching that they fought it for no reason at all?  Is it any more ridiculous than the idea that one major reason Rome fell and Europe plunged into the Dark Age was a religious internal and external war lasting from 300-800 A.D. over exactly how literally to interpret the phrase “God’s only begotten son” in John 3:16? [9]  Or that disagreements over art helped cause the Holocaust?

But the modernists quickly saw the error of their ways, right?  During the War they began to draw some link between their cries for mindless violence, and mindless violence, right?

Like Dada.

Dada was born out of negative reaction to the horrors of World War I.
–Dona Budd 2005, The Language of Art Knowledge Cards

Dada was an art movement formed during the First World War in Zurich in negative reaction to the horrors and folly of the war.
The Tate Gallery’s website

Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.
–Wikipedia, Dada

Dada emerged amid the brutality of World War I (1914–18)—a conflict that claimed the lives of eight million military personnel and an estimated equal number of civilians….

For the disillusioned artists of the Dada movement, the war merely confirmed the degradation of social structures that led to such violence: corrupt and nationalist politics, repressive social values, and unquestioning conformity of culture and thought. From 1916 until the mid-1920s, artists in Zurich, New York, Cologne, Hanover, and Paris declared an all-out assault against not only on conventional definitions of art, but on rational thought itself. “The beginnings of Dada,” poet Tristan Tzara recalled, “were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust.”
The Museum of Modern Art’s website

There are no world-renowned Dadaists on the scale of a Hemingway, or a Shostakovich, or a Picasso, and no Dadaist produced a particularly large body of work– not least because so many of the good ones killed themselves as the ultimate expression in Dadaist performance art….  Dada was a fully-realized, soulless expression of Dionysian excess. A howl of existential despair. And a casualty of war.

… The Dada movement is believed to have begun on October 6th, 1916, at the Café Voltaire in Zurich, part of neutral Switzerland, where Ball and others… congregated in order to discuss art and vent their spleen against the war lighting the sky all around them…. Their outrage was real, a genuine reaction to the horrors of the war.
History of the Dada Movement, dadart.com

So the Dadaists were, like, hippies, right?  They just wanted to give peace a chance. Get people to be reasonable.

A small part of Tristan Tzara’s “​​Dada Manifesto​“, 1918:​

The principle: “love thy neighbor” is a hypocrisy. “Know thyself” is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No pity. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind… All pictorial or plastic work is useless: let it then be a monstrosity that frightens servile minds, and not sweetening to decorate the refectories of animals in human costume…

I assure you: there is no beginning, and we are not afraid; we aren’t sentimental. We are like a raging wind that rips up the clothes of clouds and prayers, we are preparing the great spectacle of disaster, conflagration and decomposition….

What is divine in us is the awakening of anti-human action. … Morals have an atrophying effect, like every other pestilential product of the intelligence. Being governed by morals and logic has made it impossible for us to be anything other than impassive towards policemen – the cause of slavery – putrid rats with whom the bourgeois are fed up to the teeth, and who have infected the only corridors of clear and clean glass that remained open to artists.

Let each man proclaim: there is a great negative work of destruction to be accomplished. We must sweep and clean. Affirm the cleanliness of the individual after the state of madness, aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits, who rend one another and destroy the centuries. Without aim or design, without organization: indomitable madness, decomposition. Those who are strong in words or force will survive, for they are quick in defence, the agility of limbs and sentiments flames on their faceted flanks.

Morality has determined charity and pity, two balls of fat that have grown like elephants, like planets, and are called good. There is nothing good about them. Goodness is lucid, clear and decided, pitiless toward compromise and politics. Morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all men.

What is Dada and what does it want in Germany?  The international revolutionary union of all creative and intellectual men and women on the basis of radical Communism.
–the Berlin Dadaist Manifesto, 1920, quoted in Egbert 1970 p. 633, as cited in Golomstock 1990 p. 59

Dada is German Bolshevism.
–Carl Richard Hülsenbeck, founder of German Dadaism, quoted in Egbert 1970 p. 633, as cited in Golomstock 1990 p. 59

To make literature with a gun in my hand had for a time been my dream.
–Carl Richard Hülsenbeck, En avant Dada, 1920. Translated and cited by Wikipedia: Richard_Huelsenbeck

After 1923 “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” was born from the meeting of Dadaism and Expressionism; this was probably the most pointedly social movement in the art of its time…. Some saw in it the highest manifestation of the German or Nordic spirit, others were attracted by its aesthetic extremism, its refusal to accept bourgeois tastes and morality, and its open criticism of the capitalist system. Among those who sided with it where the communists George Grosz and Hans and Lea Grundig, the Soviet sympathizers Käthe Kollwitz and Max Pechstein, together with Emil Nolde, the father of the movement and one of the first to join the national Socialist party.
–Golomstock 1990, p. 60

The Dadaists weren’t hippies complaining about violence.  They were radical left-wing draft-dodgers who wanted a different kind of violence.

It’s not easy to make sense of the Dada Manifesto–sense was one of the things it rejected–but we can note consistencies in it:

– It uses the language of racial or religious purity, comparing people who disagree with their theories to disease, vermin, decay, and filth that must be wiped out.
– It speaks not of persuasion but of strength and violence.
– It continues the modernist association of art with madness.
– It speaks against compromise, morality, charity, and pity, insisting that only total destruction of the bourgeoisie and their culture is acceptable.
– It says little about the war.  Mostly just the part in the quote above.
– It says a lot about the basic principles of post-modern theory: subjectivity, relativism, amorality, the non-existence of truth, the inapplicability of logic and rationality, the deconstruction of arguments as having ulterior motives.
– It’s not outrage against violence; it’s outrage that it isn’t the violence they wanted.

In other words, this “reaction against the mindless horrors of war” is panic that the pent-up rage they were hoping to unleash for their vaguely-Marxist revolution is getting wasted.  They’re trying to get in on the mindless violence, before it’s too late.

Also notice that the wartime Dadaists were in Switzerland.  None of them went to war.

What about the famous modernist writers of the 1920s and 1930s?  James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald [10], William Carlos Williams, D. H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens?  Despite all being of draftable age, only Hemingway went to war–and he seemed to like it pretty well; he went back for two more. (In WW2, Hemingway was court-martialed for fighting too much–he organized unauthorized operations against the enemy.)

Same with the other artists.  Picasso, Le Corbusier, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp–none of them fought in the war.  (BLAST artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska went to war, found trench warfare “great fun” (Moody p. 259-260), and was killed in 1915.)  In a Europe where most young men went to war, modern art was very noticeably practiced mostly by young people who did not. If it was a reaction to the horrors of war, why were people who didn’t go to war so much more likely to have this reaction?  (It’s not because everyone who went to war died. About 1 in 6 did.)

And if these modern artists were shocked by the horrors of war, why were they so eager to embrace or cooperate with Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin so soon after WW1? (Note that article lists only the fascists, and still they outnumber the moderates.)  Marinetti-Mussolini (Tryphonopoulos & Adams 2005 p. 191), Picasso-Stalin [11], Dali-Hitler, Pound-Mussolini, Gertrude Stein-HitlerKnut Hamsun-Hitler, Dadaism-communism, Surrealism-communism. There are too many cases of famous modernists praising fascism or Stalinism, and too many books asking why, for me to bother enumerating them; just Google the subject on your own.  The interwar history of modernism contains a great deal of politics, often as farce [12], as both fascist and leftist modernist extremists strove to win over a proletariat who found them both, frankly, revolting [13].


Picasso’s portrait of Stalin, drawn in 1953 “as a token of respect and affection” (link)

But artists were done with revolutionary violence after WW2, right?  Genocide wasn’t cool anymore. No more allying modern art with radical purges against the bourgeois and/or the fascists, right?

​From ​George Maciunas’ “Fluxus Manifesto“,​ ​1963:

Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, “intellectual”, professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, — PURGE THE WORLD OF “EUROPANISM”!

PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART.

Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.

[Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music (published posthumously in 1973)] argues that music must expunge all familiar sounds and conventional notions of the beautiful. In a world of triumphant kitsch, composition can justify its survival only by becoming a mirror image of physical and spiritual destruction…. Stravinsky, who, at the time of the “Philosophy,” was still working in the neoclassical mode, stood for falsehood and regression. There was, of course, something fascistic about Stravinsky. Adorno did not base this argument on the fact that Stravinsky himself voiced sympathy for Mussolini in the nineteen-thirties; instead, he felt that a Fascist mentality was ingrained in the music, simply in its reassertion of tonality after Schoenberg’s putative annihilation of it…. Merely by choosing to write in the key of A minor, Stravinsky is acting like you-know-who.
–Alex Ross, “Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music”, The New Yorker, March 24 2003
(Adorno was an extremely influential Marxist art critic and cultural theorist)

The Modernists had no reason to feel bad about WW2–they were the only winners.

It was thought that no music resisted the Nazi taint more thoroughly than the modernist school that Hitler detested. Thus did Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of atonality and of twelvetone composition, become a heroic figure in the post-war years; he had stayed, it seemed, absolutely pure. After 1945, a new morality of music evolved, based on two questionable but potent syllogisms: (1) if Hitler liked it, it must be bad; (2) if Hitler hated it, it must be good.
–Alex Ross, “Ghost Sonata: Adorno and German Music”, The New Yorker, March 24 2003


6. Modernism Today

Okay, but all that batshit insane revolutionary madness is irrelevant now, right?

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”  — The Matrix, 1999

…sounds like a reference to a (postmodern, deconstructionist) passage in Tristan Tzara’s “​​Dada Manifesto​”:

With the blue eye-glasses of an angel they have excavated the inner life for a dime’s worth of unanimous gratitude. If all of them are right and if all pills are Pink Pills, let us try for once not to be right…  There is no ultimate Truth. The dialectic is an amusing mechanism which guides us / in a banal kind of way / to the opinions we had in the first place.

What am I saying–that the Wachowski brothers (now sisters) were secretly deconstructionists referring to an 80-year-old radical manifesto–that the point of the Matrix wasn’t (as the first film suggested) that there was a reality beneath the simulation, but that it was simulations all the way down?  How deep does the rabbit hole go?

So the first movie is sort of classical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist, and it assaults all of the things that you thought to be true in the first movie, and so people get very upset, and they’re like “Stop attacking me!” in the same way that people get upset with deconstructionist philosophy. I mean, Derrida and Foucault, these people upset us. And then the third movie is the most ambiguous, because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning…
— Lana Wachowski, Movie City News, October 13, 2012

I don’t believe in the Wachowski’s rabbit hole, but the modernist movement hasn’t hit bottom yet.  That’s not surprising; it’s just one part of a very old pseudo-intellectual tradition. That tradition began at least as far back as the Arian Wars and runs through medieval scholasticism, splits across continents between the Puritan and the Hegelian / Marxist traditions, then rejoins in modernism, and continues through post-modernism, right up to the Social Justice Warrior contingent of today’s left–and it goes straight through America’s English Literature departments.  But that’s a topic for future blog posts.


7. Why were modern artists so combative and so totalitarian?

This table shows the number of artworks chosen to be shown at the Paris Salon Exhibition, and the population of Paris (the city) at the time.

Year    # artworks  Population of Paris (census year)
1740      127
1750      151     565,000
1761      157
1771      320
1781      318     630,000 (1789)
1800      537     546,856 (1801)
1810     1120     622,636 (1811)
1819     1615     718,966 (1817)
1831     3182     785,862
1840     1349     935,261 (1841)   The entry notes that artists were protesting that the Salon jury was rejecting too many works.
1850     3915   1,053,262 (1851)
1861     4097   1,696,141
1870     5434   1,851,792 (1872)
1880     7289   2,269,023 (1881)

Modern artists had to fight for attention.

A young artist can’t be easily recognized for being “good”, since art is so subjective.  As the number of artists kept growing, in order to get shown at exhibitions, to distribute their little magazines, to get reviews in newspapers, young artists had to form herds, draw up doctrinal manifestos, and act like a political party to promote their work (see Cohen 2004). Art, like academia, developed its own politics.  Romantics were individualists. Most modernists could not be.

Meanwhile, between the French Revolution and WW2, the spread of democracy and the West-wide loss of faith in religion was breaking up totalitarian culture, which had previously thrived among monarchists and the Catholic Church.  People with a totalitarian nature require hierarchy, order, stasis, uniformity within their culture, distinctness from all other cultures, doctrine, and some guiding transcendental logos such as Church or Crown.  Europe in the latter half of the 19th century was full of totalitarian souls in search of a new God, and the options on offer were Marx, nationalism, and art.  Like pagans throughout history, many played it safe by creating a syncretistic religion combining 2 or all 3 of them. Artists of a totalitarian bent could colonize or organize the new orderly herds of modernists, and replace religion or the crown with a religious devotion to art.  This explains the fanaticism, and the consistently totalitarian politics, of modern artists.

Between WW1 and WW2, the various new Gods shook out into a few new totalitarian systems, which each settled on their own compatible artistic style by the end of 1934, plus today’s mainstream anti-modern modernism, which attached itself to academic culture among Germany and the Allies.  And so totalitarian culture, whose God had lost face and whose monarchs had lost their thrones, found new footholds among the Nazis, Stalinists, fascists, and in academia.

All this did not cause WW1.  No kind of modern art was then popular in any country.  Furor over art did not cause the mobilizations of Russian and Austria, the bungled diplomatic reactions to them, nor the unforgivable use of the Schlieffen Plan.  The jingoism of traditional art probably did more damage than the factious rage within modern art.  But modern art was on the same side. If, as Kant said, the social conscience is a product of art and education, modernism helped silence that conscience in the lead-ups to WW1 and WW2, by convincing progressives that instead of opposing violence, they should try to ride the tiger themselves.


Footnotes

[1] Honestly.  Not one note is different, because there are no notes.  Okay; seriously, I realize Cage’s stated intent was different.  I still want my 4’33” back.

[2] Three Lives has a plain style which probably influenced Hemingway.  The relationship of Hemingway to modernism is an interesting question: his style is minimalist, and in that sense modernist, yet the typical “modernist” literary style is more the opposite of Hemingway: convoluted, difficult to follow, dry, symbolic arguments, rather than Hemingway’s literal, sentimental, non-articulated sensory real-life experiences.  Hemingway’s main qualification as a modernist is his bleak view of life, as in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

[2.5] All Quiet on the Western Front has been called part of the German “New Objectivity” in order to somehow claim it for Modernism.  But New Objectivity wasn’t even a literary movement, and a glance at New Objective artworks shows they’re not realistic.  They’re just representational (not completely abstract):


Helmut HerzfeldHurrah, die Butter ist Alle!, 1935


George GroszThe Eclipse of the Sun, 1926

All Quiet is straight-up 19th-century Realism, which is a literary style.

[3] We see the same pattern in Word War 2 and Vietnam:  the books expressing the trauma come out 10-30 years after the end of the war.  The most-notable books deconstructing World War 2 were Catch-22 (1961) and Slaughterhouse 5 (1969).  The first Vietnam book that comes to mind for me is The Things They Carried (1990).

[4] I agree.  With respect to the author’s experience, it is a bad poem.  “Horror of wounds and anger at the foe, And loss of things desired”, etc.–it’s half histrionic hyperbole, and half cliches and bland, generic infodumps.

[5] Inb4 someone says they’re modernist because they’re about the futility and pointlessness of war: No; that’s my point. Modernists didn’t write about that more than anyone else did. War veterans did. Then modernists claimed the war veterans as modernists, because “everybody knows” that modernism was shaped by the experience of veterans in WW1.  Now they hold up the poems by war veterans, who were stamped as modernists for writing about the war, as proof that modernists wrote about the war. It’s circular logic.

[6] Although “Prufrock” was published in 1915, he wrote the first version of it in 1911.

[7] Those who’ve read T. S. Eliot’s political views may argue with his presence on that list.  I expect that he’s listed as an authoritarian because he longed for a return to a powerful medieval-style state Church.

[8] Mondrian painted the same painting repeatedly from 1917 (“Composition III”) to 1942 (“Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue”).  Way to milk it, Piet.

[9]  Like Modernism, Arianism was hopelessly tied up with politics (Hilaire BellocNew Advent).  And just as Modernists today still hate the Futurists even though they’re all dead, Christian scholars today, especially Catholics, are still angry at Arianism, calling it “debasing” and a “plague” (Gwatkin 1900) or a “taint” (New Advent’s online Catholic Encyclopedia), and writing extremely biased “reviews” of it.  Christianity Today published an argument against Arianism in 2005, writing, “If the Arian belief in Christ as an exalted creature won the day, the gospel itself would be lost.”  Father Longenecker wrote a joint condemnation of Arianism and humanism in the National Catholic Register in 2015, saying that “Today Arianism takes a different form, and comes to us in the guise of humanism.”

[10] “Near the end of his life, Fitzgerald wrote that the two greatest regrets of his life were not having seen overseas combat, and not being big enough to play college football.” (Schmoop)

[11] It is educational and entertaining to read this attempt to interpret Picasso’s drawing of Stalin as critical: “Only step by step I started to grasp Picasso’s idea of Stalin – moral monstrosity is not something exceptional to human nature and to human beings. It is enough to be rude and instinctive, to perceive the world as a place of fight, not to be emotionally warmed up by the disinterested contact with other human beings, to have ambitious and rivaling predisposition, and not to be educated – to be prone to behave indifferently, hatefully and destructively. It is enough, like Stalin, not to be nurtured by the serious art, and to be a believer in power over life and other people – to become a relaxed lout and brute, and a silent murderer.”

[12] As, for instance, Ezra Pound’s failed attempts to write popular verse plays to teach the proles high culture (and good luck finding any mention of them on Google), or the time when the Parisian Dadaists dragged a token workman off the streets to pose with them for a group portrait.

[13] Sorry.


References

Theodor Adorno 1973. Philosophy of Modern Music. Seabury Press.

Dona Budd 2005. The Language of Art Knowledge Cards. Menlo Park, CA: Pomegranate Communications

Milton A. Cohen 2004. Movement, Manifesto, Melee: The Modernist Group, 1910-1914. Lexington Books.

Donald Egbert 1970. Social Radicalism and the Arts in Western Europe: A cultural history from the French Revolution to 1968. New York: Knopf.

Michael Ewans, Rosalind Halton, John A. Phillips, eds. 2004. Music Research: New Directions for a New Century.

Igor Golomstock, translated 1990 by Robert Chandler. Totalitarian Art in the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China. Harper Collins.

Henry Melvill Gwatkin 1900.  Studies of Arianism: Chiefly referring to the character and chronology of the reaction which followed the council of Nicæa.

Richard Huelsenbeck.  En avant Dada: Eine Geschichte des Dadaismus.  Hanover: Paul Steegemann Verlag, 1920.

Randall Jarrell 1942. “The End of the Line.” The Nation. Reprinted in Praising it New: The best of the new criticism, p. 213-220.

Wyndham Lewis, ed., 1914. BlastNo. 1, June 20 1914.

Wyndham Lewis, ed., 1915. BlastNo. 2, July 1915.

Colin Martindale 1990. The Clockwork Muse: The predictability of artistic change. Harper Collins.

A. David Moody 2007. Ezra Pound: Poet: I: The Young Genius 1885-1920. Oxford University Press.

Patrick J. Quinn, ed., 1999. New Perspectives on Robert Graves. Susquehanna University Press.

Laura Riding & Robert Graves 1927. A Survey of Modernist Poetry. Haskell House.

Aviel Roshwald, Richard Stites, eds. 2002. European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment and Propaganda 1914-1918. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Alex Ross 2007. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-24939-7.

John Tytell 1987. Ezra Pound: The solitary volcano. NYC: Doubleday.

Tristan Tzara 1918. “​​Dada Manifesto​“.

Johanna Vondeling 2000. “The Manifest Professional: Manifestos and Modernist Legitimation.” College Literature 26(2): 127-145.

Barbara Will 2012. “The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein.” HUMANITIES, March/April 2012, Volume 33, Number 2.

Review: House Made of Dawn

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House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1968)

I’m trying to read all some of the Pulitzer winners; this is one.

Momaday is a Kiowa, and this short book is very Native American. I don’t know if a book could have been “Native American” before the homogenization of Native Americans thru movies, historical revisionism, pow-wow culture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but today there is a Native American way, and even a Native American accent, which I’ve found everywhere from the Creek of Florida, to the Iroqouis of New York, to the Hopi in New Mexico.

The book is in four parts, and four is the number of wholeness to the Navajo (and perhaps to the Kiowa as well), just as three is to whites. More “Indian”, though, is the reluctance to exclude or explain thing.

I remember trying to learn to make blowgun darts from an old Creek in Georgia. I told him the seed-fluff I was using for fins was too tangled, and he turned his back on me and started doing something. I was angry until I noticed he was making a tool to straighten them. He was trying to solve my problem; he just didn’t want to explain in words.

Momaday uses lots of words, but in the Indian way, of observing and pointing things out, rather than the “white man” way, of categorizing and summarizing. By the end of the novel, I wanted some white man words.

Realist, modernist, and especially post-modernist writing assumes that there is something unsavory about authorial intent, and that the job of the novelist is to record what is there. Along those same lines, this book is not an instantiation or proof of a theme, but a gestalt, and so it moves in expanding circles, from Abel, to his father, to the white woman who fucks him, to the priest who doesn’t realize he wants to fuck the woman, to the dead priest whose diary that priest reads.

But can a novel work simply by reporting lifelike events, and trusting there is something worthwhile in them? No. If so, we would live life, or perhaps read newspapers, instead of reading novels. The author must know, or at least sense, some themes.

Are these stories connected thematically? Most of the narrators want something from Abel, or from the Native Americans. Is that important? No commentator seems to think so, and I don’t think so. Why are Father Olguin, Angela, and the other priest in the story? They have no narratively-significant connection to anything else in the story, yet take a third of the book. Possibly they are to illustrate other ways of failing to connect with others. The priest does not acknowledge his own desire and deliberately isolates himself; Angela desires Abel and has him sexually, yet fails completely to touch or understand him in the way that she wants to.

Many people say the story is about Abel’s inability to connect with either the Kiowa or the city. But there is less than one paragraph in the entire book about Abel’s difficulty going back to the reservation after prison. If the story were about Abel’s alienation from his own people, it would have to have something in it about why Abel is alienated from his own people, but it doesn’t. If it is supposed to make a general point about the Native American condition of alienation from modern society, it would have to make a better case for why Abel is alienated from the city than the fact that he killed somebody and so is hassled by parole officers and social workers. Most Native Americans haven’t killed anybody lately.

This book would have made a good series of poems, or one good short story. But it isn’t a novel, unless I’m missing the story.

Stylistically, it is equal parts exhilarating and infuriating. You’re either going to love or hate this stuff:

In the early morning the land lay huge and sluggish, discernible only as a whole, with nothing in relief except its own sheer, brilliant margin as far away as the eye could see, and beyond that the nothingness of the sky. Silence lay like water on the land, and even the frenzy of the dogs below was feeble and a long time in finding the ear.

It’s beautiful for one paragraph, but becomes a slog when this goes on for pages. Perhaps a fifth of the novel is description like this. When Momaday wants to show how a character feels, it’s hardcore show-don’t-tell:

Something there struck beneath the level of his weariness, struck and took hold in his hearing like the cry of a small creature–a field mouse or a young rabbit. Evening gives motion to the air, and the long blades of corn careen and collide, and there is always at dusk the rustling of leaves that settle into night. But was it that? All day his mind had wandered over the past, habitually, beyond control and even the least notion of control, but his thoughts had been by some slight strand of attention anchored to his work. The steady repetition of his backward steps — the flash of the hoe and the sure advance of the brown water after it – had been a small reality from which his mind must venture and return. But now, at the end of long exertion, his age and body let go of the mind, and he was suddenly conscious of some alien presence close at hand. And he knew as suddenly, too, that it had been there for a long time, not approaching, but impending for minutes, and even hours, upon the air and the growth and the land around. He held his breath and listened. His ears rang with weariness; beyond that there was nothing save the soft sound of water and wind and, somewhere among the farthest rows, the momentary scuffle of a quail; then the low whistle and blowing of the mares in the adjacent field, reminding him of the time. But there was something else; something apart from these, not quite absorbed into the ordinary silence: an excitement of breathing in the instance just past, all ways immediate, irrevocable even now that it had ceased to be. He peered into the dark rows of corn from which no sound had come, in which no presence was. There was only the deep black wall of stocks and leaves, vibrating slowly upon his tired vision like water. He was too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was. He set a blessing upon the corn and took up his hoe. He shuffled out between the rows, towards the dim light at the edge of the cornfield.

I’ve read that four times now and still don’t know what it’s trying to say. I think I’d have given up if I hadn’t been stuck for five hours in an emergency room with nothing else to read.

Momaday has a poet’s eye for fine descriptions, but sometimes he will describe the smoke curling from the houses before he has told us that there are houses. He throws up a barrage of details about the land without telling you where you are, and you’ll have to read four paragraphs of similes about clouds and sunsets and hills before you realize you are in the same valley he has described three times already. And he has combined Faulkner’s substitution of puzzles (scenes out of chronological order, with unidentified narrators) for depth with the affected ungrammaticality we’ll see later in Cormac McCarthy. (A couple of the scenes cannot be attributed definitely to any character, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a scene break indicates a new narrator, but that may be a device to suggest continuity beyond the individual.)

The characters are described similarly to the scenery: with poetic detail, yet in a way that often leaves me with no clear picture. There are two entire pages describing Abel’s fight to the death with the albino, which skillfully convey Abel’s physical feelings; but very little to tell us who the albino is, what history they had between them, or why they fought, and so we learn little about Abel from this dramatic central scene.

I think the Pulitzer committee chose the book for political reasons, but I don’t think they were wrong to do so. With great power comes great responsibility. This was the first well-known novel by a Native American; many others followed soon after. If you have the power to bring attention to the literary work of an entire race, then you ought to do that sometimes.