Literary Modernism Explained


I’m trying to catch up on 150 years of literature and literary theory. Now I’m listening to the Teaching Company audio course, Literary Modernism by Jeffrey Perl. It uses a division by Frank Kermode of modernists into paleomodernists (TS Eliot, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence, the late Yeats) and neomodernists (Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf).

Paleomodernists wrote enormous poems and books sprinkled with Greek & Latin quotes, with footnotes or explanatory texts without which they could not be read. They valued art, and believed that some works were good and some were bad. They were likely to be Christian (Eliot) or fascist (Pound, Lawrence, Yeats), possibly because the fascists hated neo-modernism. (The neo-modernist Gertrude Stein was also a fascist in the 1930s.)

Neomodernists wrote short poems in English. (They thought Greek and Latin quotes were bad by definition because they were elitist.) They believed that all viewpoints and all works were in some sense equally good (though not in any sense that would tolerate paleo-modernist work), and that it was “better to call all birds nightingales than to silence some.” Perl thinks that was their main battle with paleomodernists: Paleomodernists sought quality and perfection; neomodernists said that was elitist and undemocratic, and that it was morally necessary to value all values equally. They naturally preferred anarchism to government or religion.

Both camps believed there were serious problems with the meanings of words. Paleo-modernists believed that meaning resided not in referents like frogs and rocks, but in the context the words invoked, their etymology (hence the obsession with Latin and Greek–or more likely the causation was the other way around), and their associations. Neo-modernists believed all those associations made words too tied-up to use, and so they wanted to use words in a strictly “realistic” sense, like Williams’ red wheelbarrow or Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”, and present them in sentence fragments without context, as in ee cumming’s later work, with the idea that they could shatter language into fragments and strip off those unwieldy associations. The painter Marcel Duchamp, whom I’ll call neo-modernist, said that a stained glass church window would be more beautiful if you smashed it from its frame to lie in fragments on the floor, which is basically what the neo-modernists did in their poetry. For example, here are the first verses of Gertrude Stein’s neo-modernist poem “Yet Dish”:

IPut a sun in Sunday, Sunday.
Eleven please ten hoop. Hoop.
Cousin coarse in coarse in soap.
Cousin coarse in soap sew up. soap.
Cousin coarse in sew up soap.

A lea ender stow sole lightly.
Not a bet beggar.
Nearer a true set jump hum,
A lamp lander so seen poor lip.

Never so round.
A is a guess and a piece.
A is a sweet cent sender.
A is a kiss slow cheese.
A is for age jet.

New deck stairs.
Little in den little in dear den.

A paleo-modernist would reply that the neo-modernists were thus descending into non-sense, because stripping words of their associations leaves nothing behind but a set of letters. (We can perhaps equate paleo-modernism with structuralism, and neo-modernism with deconstructionism. The overthrow of structuralism by deconstructionism in linguistics paralleled the overthrow of paleo-modernism by neo-modernism in literature.)

Both camps mingled art and politics. I can’t assign any political view consistently to one or the other, other than to say that their political positions were sometimes based on their own private fantasies about the upper class, the middle class, the lower class, fascism, and communism.

Both camps of modernists spent much of their time writing metafiction that was not actually novels or poems, but novels or poems that were allegories for their philosophy about how novels and poems ought to be written. This includes Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, William’s The Red Wheelbarrow, and Moore’s On Poetry.

They are both part of the broader sweep of modernism and post-modernism, which Perl explains as taking romanticism and realism, which are complete opposites, and saying that they’re both right and both wrong, and in fact everything is always both right and wrong.

Much of modernism and post-modernism can be described as semantic sleights of hand to prove that you can’t prove anything. The problem is that this implies that science doesn’t work. This is explicit in the work of modernist historians of science such as Thomas Kuhn, who say that science does not progress, but is a purely social game in which theories replace other theories not because they explain facts better, but as the result of academic power struggles. (Kuhn later denied saying this, but he was lying.)

The problem for all these modernists is history. All ways of knowing and all ways of answering questions are equally valid, they say. But who was it that figured out figured out that cholera was spread through water? Astrologers? Alchemists? No; it was scientists. Who developed the steam engine? Engineers and scientists. Who explained electricity and magnetism so that we could harness their powers? Poets? Literary critics? No; scientists. Who predicted the existence of Uranus? Scientists. Who predicted the gravitational bending of light rays? Scientists. Who built a rocket to the moon? Who sequenced the human genome?

It sounds silly when you imagine it the standard way, that a bunch of literary theorists all decided at once that literature should be about epistemology, and they just never noticed that they were flatly denying the existence of science, even while driving their motorcars and installing electric refrigerators. Why did they never once say, “Hey, these scientists seem to know something about truth–why don’t we look into how they do things?” Not once in the history of modernism, as far as I know, did anyone ask that question except when, as with Eliot and Kuhn, their purpose from the start was to discredit science.

It makes more sense, I think–though I just made this opinion up today–to see modernism as a reaction to science.

It’s long been my opinion that most philosophers are (with exceptions such as Aristotle, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Russell) people who want to do science, but don’t have the knowledge or critical thinking skills to do it. The modernist literary theorists wanted to do philosophy, but didn’t have the knowledge or critical thinking skills to do that. So they tried to gum up the works and deny that either philosophy or science should tackle important questions.

I think that paleo-modernism, neo-modernism, post-modernism, and deconstructionism are all unconsciously aligned. Their battles with each other are, taken as a whole, a distraction to keep people from noticing that science is gobbling up their territory. All those schools are, at root, claims that literary question such as what words mean, what a poem or novel means, the validity of subjective vs. objective knowledge, the beauty of artifice versus nature, and so on, do not have answers and thus are not in the domain of science or of philosophy, but of poets and novelists. (That was, in fact, the conclusion of TS Eliot’s doctoral dissertation.) All these schools are confused and obscure because they all use the method of exaggerating the ambiguity of language in order to claim that no questions have answers, and because all of them dissolve if you stop the entertaining circus-barker’s vitriol and the semantic shell game long enough to apply their own claims about language to their own ideas.

I don’t really believe that this was deliberate. It’s the natural result of people trying to do epistemology without a scientific background. TS Eliot was aware of the profound difficulty of saying what a word means. The problem was that he operated with a child’s notion of what scientists think. He thought that scientists created words and theories (true) and believed that they were absolutely true and precise (false). But no one knows better than a scientist, after dozens of failed experiments and confusing results, that their categories and their theories have exceptions and may be wrong, and are just generalities used in certain situations to solve certain problems. (Teachers may impart scientific knowledge without understanding this.) Eliot said that “there is no such thing as precision”, when a scientist would say, more correctly, that all statements and categories have a precision. Eliot built his entire elaborate thesis about the illusory nature of knowledge on the foundation of his own misunderstanding of this point.

So I’ve just explained most of literary theory from 1900-1970 as being a deceptive, self-serving, desperate attempt to discredit science before it steals more territory from literary theorists.

Next question?

I could also tell a story claiming modernism was a response to Marx, Freud, Darwin, Nietzsche, World War I, relativity, and quantum mechanics. This is a common explanation; Marx, Freud, Darwin, & Nietzsche are sometimes called the first modernists. All those things shattered the 19th century’s faith that they understood the world nearly perfectly. Maybe the sudden demonstration of the power of science made people lose faith in science and progress, just as when biologists today discover new things about nutrition it makes people lose faith in biologists, for changing their story. But still we come back to science. Was it a loss of faith in science, or fear of its efficacy?

I favor the “fear of science” theory. The old “loss of faith” story doesn’t make sense, because novelists before the 20th century weren’t interested in epistemology. Novelists had dealt with their own questions in their own ways for thousands of years. Science was over there, minding its own business. There was no good reason for novelists to care if it suddenly seemed (to them) less reliable at whatever it was doing.

I’m not being fair to modernist writers, who wrote some very interesting books and some very good books. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Kafka, and Woolf are considered modernist writers. They developed the unreliable narrator and stream of consciousness. I’m bitter towards them, and all of modernism, because it created the current environment in which art is supposed to always be obscure, inaccessible, ambiguous, and avoid making conclusions, and artists are supposed to be judged on their philosophy and politics more than on their art.

I’m especially not being fair to all the writers who’ve been called modernist writers just because they wrote in the period 1920-1950. These include Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, and, for goodness sake, H.G. Wells, who was about as anti-modernist in his beliefs as a writer could be.


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