Saturday, April 13, 2013

Medieval Modern: Art out of Time 

by Alexander Nagel (my review from Amazon).

Arguably, Meyer Schapiro was the greatest art historian ever produced in America. His two fields of concentration were medieval and modern art. This pairing was not accidental, for Schapiro recognized that the two periods share a common disregard for illusionism and the cult of beauty, principles inaugurated by the ancient Greeks and revived during the Renaissance. In a word, medieval and modern art are both anticlassical.

In this light there has long been a need for a systematic account of the felt affinity of medieval and modern art. Unfortunately, this book does not meet that need. Nagel conveys no sense of the historical sequence of medieval civilization, a complicated matter in which most readers will need guidance to thread their way through the historical narrative. Yet the author rejects periods in favor of a kind of an "episodic" approach, hopping from one topic to another. Moreover, he complicates the Middle Ages by adding such figures as Michelangelo and Titian, Parmigianino and Bruegel--artists who can in no sense be characterized as medieval.

The author's sense of modern art is almost as muddled. Unaccountably, he fails to discuss the evocation of medieval buildings by Monet (Rouen Cathedral), Matisse (Notre-Dame de Paris), Delaunay (Laon Cathedral; and St.-Severin) and O'Keeffe (Taos church). In each case these works were important milestones in the individual artist's development.

Setting these deficits aside, what does one actually get from Nagel's book? It is a kind of grab-bag of aperçus and speculations, generally proceeding from some casual encounter with a modern or contemporary work. The effect is one of blundering into a room in which the speaker conducts an endless grasshopper conversation. Taken on these terms, though, the book may be stimulating.

The last page offers a conclusion of sorts: "It is hard to think of any category of current work whose terms were not set in the 1960s. The medievalism that was such a constitutive part of the development of the 1960s is, therefore, now encoded (usually unrecognized) in the DNA of contemporary art." Unrecognized--and unrecognizable.

On the positive side, the publisher has embellished the text with many striking photographs. Whether this lavish feature will be enough to compensate for the narrative deficit of the text must be left for the reader to decide.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Some years ago I noticed that the work of advanced artists of the nineteenth century, including Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and some members of the William Morris circle made selective use of medieval themes and stylistic forms. In addition, there were important paintings of medieval churches by Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Delaunay. Architectural historians have long recognized parallel themes. In fact, I recently published an article on “Le Corbusier and Medievalism.” What is interesting about these examples is the medieval allusions are not merely citational. Rather the artists used the medieval touchstones as devices to aid creative innovation. This innovation was not merely individual, but central to the establishment of a new aesthetic in the visual arts.

The new aesthetic sought to escape from the bonds of the Renaissance tradition with its reliance on perspective, chiaroscuro and cast shadows, features reflecting an overall commitment to idealistic illusionism. For this tyranny of illusionism and fictive depth the pioneering modernists substituted a new primacy of design, the conscious arrangement of forms and colors on a two-dimensional surface.

To the best of my knowledge there is no overall study of this great theme of the midwifery of medievalism in the birth of modernism. Yet there has been considerable attention to two tangential themes: the Gothic revival and Primitivism.

From the mid-15th to the mid-18th century Gothic architecture and the minor arts attendant on it were generally disparaged. Then, in the second half of the 18th century both England and Germany witnessed a reexamination of the matter. This led to a full-scale revival in the following century. For some, such as A.W.N. Pugin, who gave the Houses of Parliament in Westminster their neo-Gothic stamp, the revival of the Middle Ages was not simply a stylistic matter but a question of recapturing a lost--and valuable--ethos, one that had once united Europe. Thus the Gothic was the Cinderella of the visual arts. Long banished to the scullery, its cogency and beauty were finally realized.

The other subject that has been well canvased is the “taste for the primitives.” Long before this concept found application with regard to the art of tribal peoples, it was used for the pre-Renaissance art of Europe, Italian, French, and Flemish. A series of pioneering collectors found in these works a sincerity and sense of design absent, in their view, from the more polished examples of Renaissance idealism.

Another aspect has to do with nationalism. The barbarian invasions of the early middle ages established the basic outlines of future European states. The names of England (from the Angles) and France (from the Franks) attest to this fact. When, centuries later, the medieval revival appeared, it took different forms in various countries. The English and Germans disputed the honor of inventing the Gothic style. Eventually, though, scholars established that it was French. Gothic forms also took root in Catalonia and North America (among other places) with specific valences of their own. Here in New York City, we may take note of the different connotations of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Woolworth Building (the “Cathedral of Commerce”).

The course also involves a reconsideration of changing currents in medieval scholarship, and of the conceptualization of modernism.

The discussion can be extended into other arts. For example, medieval exemplars play a role in major works by Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, and Guillaume Apollinaire. There are also musical derivations, as seen in Richard Wagner, Hugo Ball, Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messaien, Benjamin Britten, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener.

Finally, there is a curious congruence of the medieval and the modern in the treatment of sexual love. This has both “high” and “low” aspects. The concept of courtly love anticipates modern ideas of this bittersweet experience. At the low end, such motifs as the Sheela-na-gig anticipate today’s erotic art.

The course is dedicated to the memory of Meyer Schapiro, whose superb scholarship exemplified the marriage of the medieval and the modern.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bonus posting: Medmod in film

Following a crude rule of thumb films may be divided into two broad categories. First, there are narrative works, intended to be commercially successful. These derive their plotting devices and characterizations from nineteenth-century novels (themselves often filmed), and ultimately from age-old conventions of story telling.

Then there are experimental films, influenced by modern movements in art. Some simply manipulate expected ways of story telling, while others border on, or are completely abstract. The latter group, generally consisting of short items, impose formidable demands on the audience. (An exception is Andy Warhol’s “Empire State Building,” which reputedly takes 24 hours.)

In fact, experimental films seem to show few medieval affinities, though it is easy to see how a modern director might use effects derived from enamels and stained glass to achieve striking uses of color. This does not seem to have been done, at least not very often.

Even in the commercial narrative films, the influence is mainly in the level of plot and costuming, as in the numerous movies about King Arthur and Robin Hood. These creations developed their own conventions, appropriately satirized in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975). The conventions observed in these genres have little to do with the Middle Ages.

There are exceptions. Andrei Tarkovsky, a Soviet director, claimed to be influenced by a range of painters, from Duccio to Fra Angelico to Rembrandt and Ge´ricault. For these artists,the relationship seems to be mainly indirect.

Matters are different in his film on the fifteenth-century icon painter Andrei Rublev. Outwardly, the film deals with the classic conflict of whether the artists should participate in the political struggles of his own time, or remain aloof, pursuing the truths of art. In terms of style, however, Tarkovsky innovated by trying to translate the qualities of permanance and transcendence he found in icons into filmic terms. As icons are an art of fixity and film unfolds over time, this endeavor was a considerable challenge. There is general agreement, though, that the results are striking and moving.

Predictably, the film encountered official disapproval in the old Soviet Union, and was not released until 1972, after a battle with the censors.

Ingmar Bergman has sought to capture aspects of the ethos of the late middle ages in such films as “The Seventh Seal” and “Silent Spring.” Today, they are often judged, iunfairly in my view, as pretentious.

“The Seventh Seal” is an existential Bergman masterpiece of 1957 It concerns the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) across a plague-ridden landscape. The best-known scene features the knight playing chess with the personification of Death, his life resting on the outcome of he game.

The film’s title refers to a passage about the end of the world from the book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words "And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour" (Rev. 8:1). Bergman developed the film from his own play “Wood Painting.” The film was Bergman’s breakthrough work, heralding his world reputation as an avant-garde director.

The knight's faith is war-weathered, a theme that is salient in one of the scenes in the film. The knight gives confession to a priest about his doubts whether God actually exists; he tells the priest how he challenged Death to a game of chess and reveals his strategy, only to find that the "priest" is actually Death. In another powerful scene—of a witch-burning—the knight is asked by his squire whether he sees, in the victim's eyes, God or simply vacancy. Disquieted, the knight refuses to acknowledge the victim's emptiness (and, in a way, his own) despite his doubts about God. The knight realizes that he would rather be broken in faith, constantly suffering doubt, than recognize a life without meaning. While doubt was not unknown in the Middle Ages, Bergman here gives it a peculiarly modern inflection. (Bergman was himself to die until 2007.)

Bergman is particularly harsh in his depiction of the clergymen, who profit from the atmosphere of terror engendered by the plague. They offer no real spiritual comfort to their people, and are represented as little better than thieves. The witch is burnt at the stake for “having caused” the plague, in the community's grotesque effort to end the contagion.

While he loses the contest with Death, the knight achieves one significant act that gives his life meaning: he allows the young couple and their child to escape. With the knight and his followers led away over the hills in a medieval dance of death, the young family live to continue their journey.

Some of the film's images are derived from medieval art. For example, Bergman has stated that the image of a man playing chess with a skeletal Death was inspired by a medieval church painting from the 1480s by Albertus Pictor.

With its reflections upon death and the meaning of life, “The Seventh Seal” became something of a talisman for "serious" European films and, as such, has often been parodied in film and television. The representation of Death as a white-faced man in a dark cape has been the most popular object of parody, most notably in Woody Allen's “Love and Death” and in the film “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, in which the heroes beat Death in contests of Battleship, Clue, electric football, and Twister.

Again set in medieval Sweden, “The Virgin Spring” (1960) is a revenge tale about a father's merciless response to the murder of his daughter. According to the film introduction, the story is based on a thirteenth-century Swedish ballad that was adapted by screenwriter Ulla Isaksson.

The film tells the story of a prosperous Christian whose daughter, Karin, the "light" child, is appointed to bring candles to the church. She is accompanied by her foster sister, Ingeri, the "dark" child, who secretly worships the ancient Norse deity Odin. Along the way the two separate, and Karin sets out on her own. She meets three herdsmen (two men & a boy), and invites them to break bread with her. Later on the two older brothers rape and murder Karin, then leave the scene with her clothing. The herders then, unknowingly, seek shelter at the home of the murdered girl. Her parents discover that it was the goatherds who killed their daughter when they try to sell the mother some of her daughter's clothes. Locking them in their chamber, the father then kills the two murderers, along with the not quite as guilty younger brother. The next day, the parents set out to find their daughter's body. Her father vows that, although he cannot understand God, he will build a church at the site of his daughter's death. As her parents lift her head from the ground, a spring begins to flow from where she was lying. Ingeri now wishes to wash herself with the water.

The concept of a parent’s revenge for his daughter’s murder could be taken from the evening news. Yet the reference to the heathen god Odin places it firmly in the Middle Ages.

The twentieth century produced two major versions of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” on film. Laurence Olivier’s version, shot during World War II, uses colorful pageantry to convey a patriotic message. The film offers several scenes directly influenced by the Très Riches Heures of the brothers van Limbourg.

If Olivier’s version was all light and color (at a time when Technicolor was something of a novelty), Kenneth Branagh preferred shades of brown and gray. In 1989 was endorsing the idea that “war is hell.” Branagh’s somewhat grim vision owes much to the tradition of visual realism that arose in the nineteenth century, specifically the photographic tradition that began with Matthew Brady, the photographer of the American Civil War.

“The Name of the Rose” is a 1986 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on the book of the same name by Umberto Eco, the noted Italian semiologist.

William of Baskerville and his apprentice Adso of Melk (narrating as an old man, it later transpires) arrive at an abbey where a mysterious death has occurred ahead of an important ecclesiastical conference. William, known for his deductive and analytic mind, confronts the worried abbot and gains permission to investigate the death--a young translator appears to have committed suicide. Over the next few days, several other odd deaths occur, and the two discover that not everything is what it seems in the abbey.

Investigating, and eager to head off suspicions of demonic possession (which nevertheless eventually lead to the burning of two innocent men at the stake), the protagonists discover a labyrinthine medieval library, occupying multiple levels in the abbey's forbidden principal tower. It becomes clear that the only remaining copy of Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics is somehow related to the deaths. William deduces, thanks to a scrap of parchment with hastily written notes, that all of those who died under mysterious circumstances had read the book. His investigations are curtailed by the arrival of a noted Inquisitor, summoned for the conference and keen to investigate the deaths.

Ascending the forbidden library, William and Adso come face to face with the Venerable Jorge, the most ancient denizen of the abbey, who reveals the book, which contains a description of comedy and how it may be used to teach. Being afraid of laughter and comedy—the traditionalist firmly asserts that Christ never laughed and jocularity is a blasphemous sin—Jorge has poisoned the pages to avoid the spread of what he considers dangerous ideas.

Realizing that William knows of the poisoned pages and will not fall for the same trick, Jorge throws over a candle, starting a blaze that spreads quickly in the tower, the internal structure of which is completely made of wood. As it contains many rare and unique books of infinite value, this devastates William, who insists that Adso flee while he desperately tries to save as many tomes as possible. The fire destroys both Jorge and the Aristotle manuscript, but miraculously, William does make it out with a few precious books.

“The Da Vinci Code” is a 2006 feature film, based on the bestselling 2003 novel of the same name by Dan Brown. The success of the novel had created a kind of cult, which the film latched onto.

The plot is too complicated and improbable to summarize here. Suffice it to say that it revolves around the Holy Grail, a perennial object of fascination here identified with Mary Magdalene.

In the film we see the Mona Lisa (actually a copy) in the Louvre, the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, Westminster Abbey (actually two other cathedrals were used), and Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The film aroused protests by Roman Catholics in a number of countries. The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was considered particularly abhorrent.

The film’s star Tom Hanks publicly denounced those who sought to boycott the film because of its biblical and historical inaccuracies. Yet he admitted that the film's story "is loaded with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense."

Critical response to “The Da Vinci Code” was mostly negative. Many critics described the film as boring, full of absurd plot twists, and excessively anti-Christian and unhistorical. Critics were said to laugh out loud at some of the lines in the movie despite their serious delivery. These include "you are the last descendant of Jesus Christ" and "quick, we must find a library!"

These adverse reactions notwithstanding, “The Da Vinci Code” went on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time. It has substantially augmented the cult engendered by Dan Brown’s book, so that travel agencies now regularly book tours to the sites featured in the story line.

NOTE. For more information on this general topic see the following books: John Aberth, Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. New York: Routledge, 2003; Richard Burt, Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; and Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shictman. Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. See also the Wikipedia entry on "Medievalism and Film."

UPDATE. Not known to me when I wrote this piece was the term "historiophoty." Here is a bried definition. "Historiography and Historiophoty" is the name of an essay by literary theorist of history Hayden White first published in 1988 in The American Historical Review (AHR). In the essay Hayden proposes the term Historiophoty to describe the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse. Hayden says historiophoty ".. is in contrast to Historiography which is the representation of history in verbal images and written discourse."

Hayden coined the term in response to an essay by Robert Rosenstone in the same issue of AHR entitled "History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the possibility of really putting history onto film." White was not necessarily claiming that historiophoty exists, or that it ought to; his essay was a thought experiment exploring what historiophoty would be like if in fact such a thing did exist.

Whatever Hayden's intention, since the publication of his 1988 essay the word historiophoty has obtained some currency in public and professional discourse. For example, Brian Le Beau wrote "Historiography Meets Historiophoty: The Perils and Promise of Rendering the Past on Film" in American Studies, 38:1 (Spring 1997). A book has been published with the title History of Western Historiography, History of England, Historiophoty by Liang-kai Chou.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Summary of Lecture Fourteen

At the outset we revisited the case of Marcel Proust. A seeming paradox is that, with all of his admiration for John Ruskin, he disregarded the central insight of the English thinker, that is, that societies and their art/architecture are organically linked. According to Ruskin good societies will produce good art and architecture; bad societies bad work. By most people's lights, the beau monde of turn-of-the-century France was a decadent society. From this supposedly repellent material, however, Proust wrested what many regard as the finest novel of the 20th century.

In fact, we have grounds for thinking that Ruskin's organic linkage is not valid, for ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire produced remarkable works, yet both were ruled by despots. Another counterexample, a contemporary one, is that New Zealand and Norway are generally accounted very fine places to live, but they do not seem to be producing notable art and architecture. Perhaps, we may hazard, a certain complexity--a mixture of good and bad--is required for happy creative results.

We also reexamined Proust's architectural metaphor (cathedral or church) for the structure of his great work. It would seem the height of hubris to challenge his testimony, but the comparisons of this kind take us only a little way. The reason is that the organizing principles of the arts of time (music, poetry, novels) are different from those of the arts of space (architecture, sculpture, and painting).

By way of a footnote, we examined Proust's enthusiasm for the "greatest painting in the world," Vermeer's "View of Delft." To Bergotte, his ideal writer, Proust ascribes a terminal illumination provoked by the little patch of yellow. We may assume that this tiny passage in Vermeer's painting played the role of a talisman for Proust also.

We turned then to the issue of primitivism. In art history we are familiar with one definition of this concept (though it has become controversial in recent years). "Primitivism" means, it seems, the inspiration that Picasso, Modigliani, and some German expressionists derived from tribal art (African and Oceanic).

However, the idea of primitivism has an older, and perhaps more interesting pedigree. The historians of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas have identified many passages from ancient Greek and Roman society, arguing that human history is not a record of progress but, instead, of devolution. According to one common scheme, we progress from the age of gold, to that of silver, then bronze, and finally iron (in which we now live). In these nostalgic evocations of past splendor, Lovejoy and Boas
distinguished between "soft primitivism" (an age of leisure based on abundance) and "hard primitivism" (in which scarcity shaped human endeavors, at the same time blocking the effects of luxury and decadence).

Such concepts underly the emergence, some 200 years ago, of the admiration for the Italian and French "primitive" artists. Artists such as Duccio, Cimabue, and the Van Eycks came to be seen with a new sympathy. It was felt that the design elements achieved in their works made them the equal, if not the superior of later artists.

Hence, at some point perhaps around 1520, art and culture "went off the rails." Our task is to return to those exemplary models, including those of the Middle Ages.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Summary of Lecture Thirteen

The fact that the troubadours wrote in an obscure tongue (one that is now to all intents and purposes dying) means that their accomplishment is easily underrated. In fact they constitute the second (and last) instance of a major cultural revolution. In ancient Greece we are familiar with the achievements of such lyric poets as Sappho and Alcaeus, who revolutionized the art of poetry by creating works with an intensely personal stamp. Distinctive qualities of imagery, rhythm, and diction make their works, as it were, copyright. With every word each poem of Sappho says "I belong to Sappho; I am just on loan to you the reader." This personalism is the diametrical opposite of the collective approach of the singers of epics (Homer preeminent among them). A similar revolution occurred in Provence at the end of the eleventh century.
As far as I can see, these are the only two instances in Western civilization.

As in ancient Greece, the troubadours included women poets (the trobairitz). The poems of the Countess of Dia reveal a realistic, almost postmodern concept of love, breaking with the courtly love tradition.

The "Nothing Song" of William IX is often taken as an anticipation of the claim that certain modern works, notably nonobjective paintings, are "about nothing." Whatever the merits of this overall claim, it does not seem to apply to the main part of William's poem (see the appendix to the last lecture). It looks to me as if it constitutes a challenge, a testing of the limits, as it were of the triumphant new reign of subjectivity. Instead, William posits (if only as a thought experiment) a contrasting concept of the fluid indeterminacy of personality. As Pound suggested (though in different terms), the troubadours were, among other things, analysts of psychology.

Pound raises several issues that call for revisiting. First is the critical ploy of separating the "good Pound" from the "bad Pound." It seems that we can do this by sticking to the work prior to 1920. However, this body of poetry leads almost seamlessly to The Cantos, with their intermittent advocacy of crackpot economic theories and enthusiasm for Mussolini and his surrogates.

How could Pound, an intelligent person, have fallen for Mussolini's fascism? Nowadays scholars have reopened the issue of fascist culture, as there were indeed progressive aspects. One occurred in architecture. Terragni's Casa del Fascio in Como is not only a perfect specimen of the International style inaugurated by Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, it may be the finest building built anywhere in the 1930s. The alliance between fascism and Futurism bore fruit in the Second Futurism of Fortunato Depero and others. Some have even detected "green" elements in fascism, as in the draining of the Pontine Marshes. A medieval feature is his revival of the idea of guilds (corporazioni).

In due course the regime was done in by its weaknesses. Mussolini lacked the economic resources to raise Italy into the status of a major power. His predatory militarism alienated those who had been formally his admirers. And his insulation from criticism ("Mussolini is always right.") was an open invitation to folly.

We mentioned some human foibles of Ezra Pound, as seen in his treatment of women and his children. Unfortunately, his residence in the mental asylum tended to reinforce, rather than cure his delusions.

The second hour discussed an entirely different case of catalytic medievalism, that of Marcel Proust. At the end of his life, Proust stated that his great novel had the structure of a cathedral.

For five years of his life, beginning in 1900, Proust devoted himself to the writings of John Ruskin (he published two translated books). Ruskin's immense influence (both Tolstoy and Gandhi were admirers) reflected in part his hypnotic prose style. In the Dickensian squalor occasioned by the Industrial Revolution many subscribed to Ruskin's equation of architecture and morality. Put bluntly, a good society produces good architecture; a bad society produces bad architecture. We Victorians, he held, are in the latter situation.

Ruskin then was a kind of latter-day prophet, excoriating the glaring faults of society. Here we see, I think, a divergence from Proust, who recorded, but did not condemn, the "decadent" society of France in his day.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Summary of Lecture Twelve

The main theme of the discussion was literary modernism in the English-speaking world, especially High Modernism, which flourished from ca. 1914 to the mid-fifties.

Broadly speaking, there is a distinction between modernity and modernism. The first term is descriptive, the second prescriptive. Modernity is the situation in which we live. It is something that is simply given, today just as in former times. Bt contrast, modernism is a cause, a faith, a commitment--in short, an ism. Modernism requires allegiance or rejection, It attrracts passionate defenders and passionate opponents.

As regards etymology. the term modernismo stems from the Nicaraguan poet and journalist Ruben Dario in the 1880s. However, the poetry produced by Dario and his confreres was a form of late romanticism with cosmic overtones--a protomodernism, if you will. Catalan modernisme comes closer to the mark, with (as we have seen) distinct medieval overtones.

There are two modernist attitudes to the role of the past. 1) Proscription: true modernity means absolute renunciation of tradition and the past. We must embrace the present without any compromise. The Futurist leader F. T. Marinetti suggested a drastic solution, with his vision of the flooded museum, its masterpieces floating out to sea. (A new form of iconoclasm.) More constructively, he suggested (in his 1909 manifesto) a contrast between the Nike of Samothrace vs. a speeding automobile. In his view, the latter talisman replaces the former.

2) The other view entails a selective retention of past monuments. This approach transpires from Le Corbusier’s 1923 book “Vers une architecture” (English version seen in class). Buildings are much harder to get rid of than fragile oil paintings. By studying old buildings we learn essential principles of construction and proportion. The latter are as it were given in the nature of the universe (Pythagoreanism).

We turn now to high HIGH MODERNISM (as distinct from protomodernism and from semimodernism; the first anticipates, the second adopts only partially).

The English-speaking world rejoices in five quintessential high modernists: TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein. (I take this list from a Harvard professor of literature; it would be widely endorsed.) Three characteristics are required for admission to this exclusive club: the members are major figures, each with a large body of significant work; the work is “full-strength modernism”; challenging and difficult: in consequence, they are not widely popular, though they receive the homage of fellow practitioners. In the quintet two are primarily poets; the other three mainly prose writers.

The following group characteristics are generally applicable.

1) Exile (this applies to all except Woolf). Abroad, they retain an intense attachment to their native country. Joyce labored mightily to recapture one day in Dublin in 1904. Stein sought to capture qualities of American language (“You bet!”). Pound’s showed an eccentric attachment to the US Constitution and the Founders (note the comparison of Jefferson and Mussolini). Woolf’s fragile mental health precluded travel; yet she was, so to speak, embedded in Francotropic Bloomsbury. Eliot, the most assimilated, sought to make himself into a facsimile of an Englishman; yet he returned to US fairly often to give lectures. With his love-hate for Ireland, Joyce is a special case. These exiles shared a sense of the provinciality of their homelands. In the previous generation Henry James was the model of the cultivated expatriate.

2) These writers exhibit an intense response to language, their own and others. Joyce was the most fluent linguist. He could, seemingly mimic any language. As a young man he learned Norwegian in order to read Ibsen. Residence in Italy, German-speaking Switzerland, and Paris improved his facility. Joyce spoke to his children in Triestino dialect! His situation may reflect the peculiar status of the Irish in mastering English, a language not originally theirs. Pound had a romance-language attachment; later he learned to read Chinese. Eliot studied Sanskrit at Harvard, yielding the incantatory words that conclude “The Waste Land.” Arguably, the deployment of these exotic languages adumbrates a sense of global culture.

3) There was an emphasis on consciousness and stream of consciousness. Joyce’s revival of the technique of stream of consciousness was echoed by Virginia Woolf. Stein had studied with the Harvard psychologist William James, who was interested in phenomena that existed on the borders of consciousness. Pound revealed an early devotion to Browningesque personae, usurpations of the consciousness of another.

4) Hence the notorious difficulty of the High Modernist works. While proficient in several varieties of French, Stein does not overtly display this knowledge. Instead she uses English in unexpected ways. In some respects her core texts are the most hermetic of all. This difficulty has engendered an academic industry of explication. What did they really mean? Eliot supplied “The Waste Land” with footnotes (which have not deterred later commentators). Joyce related to Homer; Pound to Dante. Even devoted Joyceans are dismayed by his terminal masterpiece “Finnegan’s Wake,” which seems to represent the ne plus ultra of difficulty.

5) Perhaps the key feature is discontinuity. The modern world presents an endless, disconcerting jangle of messages--a broken bundle of mirrors, in Pound’s words. Modern urban life features a bombardment of sense impressions, as conveyed by advertising, for example. We are set in this “booming, buzzing confusion” without a compass, except perhaps that of science--but scientists continue to differ on key points (eg the classic contrast between quantum physics and Einstein). Modernism means facing these discontinuities squarely, and using them as central features in one’s art.

6) The high modernists cause discomfort, because they are not politically correct. Their politics are disturbing, witness Stein’s dalliance with the French right; Eliot’s royalism and anti-Semitism; Pound’s adhesion to fascism; Woolf’s snobbery; Joyce’s elitism.


Born in Idaho, Ezra Pound was actually brought up in comfort in a Philadelphia suburb. The year of birth was 1885, so he came to maturity in our Gilded Age. Taken to Europe as a boy, the experience evidently “took” He was good at Latin, and so admitted to he University of Pennsylvania at the age of 15. He did not do well there, and transferred to Hamilton College in upstate NY. There he caught the bug of medieval literature, especially Provençal.

Here some background is required. Speaking very broadly. we may say that there are two medievialisms, that of the Latin Middle Ages and that of the vernacular Middle Ages. The Latin Middle Ages was often intertwined with polemical concerns, e.g. the Protestant-Catholic quarrel and the emergence of modern nationalism (the Monumenta Germaniae Historica). Connected with the rise of Romanticism, the vernacular Middle Ages recovered the earliest texts of Europe’s modern languages. The rediscovery of the text of Beowulf, preserved in a single manuscript in the British Library is an example. Other epics also reappeared: the Nibelungenlied, the Chanson de Roland, the Cantar del Mio Cid. There was an underlying quest for origins, entailing the notion that Provençal should rank as the primordial romance language. This is not so. Nonetheless, with their insensely personal lyrics, the troubadours created the first art language in a vernacular tongue. To Pound, the craft aspect--including the intricate trobar clus-- appealed. And so did courtly love.

After taking his M.A. Pound accepted an instructor’s appointment at Wabash College in Crawford, IN. In February 1908 a single act of generosity determined his entire future career. Going out one snowy evening, he discovered an actress who had been abandoned by her troupe. Pound took the young woman back to sleep on his couch; apparently nothing further happened. But the two maiden landladies, finding the young woman, were scandalized. Pound was immediately fired Concluding that his fledgling academic career was over, he borrowed money from father to go to Europe, where he would learn to be a poet.

First he went to Italy, then to London, the epicenter of Anglophone culture. He published a series of small volumes of poetry, and also lectured occasionally. Pound developed a flair for translation (integral to his Provençal interests); arguably, his innovative practices in the realm are the foundation for all succeeding English-language translators.

Pound’s poetic medievalism shows five spheres of engagement: 1) “The Goodly Fere” and Primitive Christianity; 2) The Saxonism of “The Seafarer”; 3) The Troubadours; 4) Dante and Cavalcanti; 5) François Villon. The engagement with the Troubadours is clearly the center of gravity.

The Pound scholar Richard Sieberth has argued for Pound’s 1912 walking tours of the south of France as his pivotal experience. Here he learned to experience the Troubadours in his own body, so to speak. Historically, the South of France produced three innovative phenomena: Romanesque architecture; the Troubadours; and the heresy known as Albigensianism or Catharism. The Albigensians had in fact a very strict sexual morality, but they were pilloried by their enemies as libertines. As such, they could be portrayed as the dark side of courtly love. At any rate, the concept of “hidden history” has a perennial appeal. Pound responded with his concept of the “love code,” hinting that the Troubadours preserved a pre-Christian mystique, linked to Eleusis.

In progressive literary circles, Pound found that his medievalism elicited ridicule as a Victorian survival. He took this criticism to heart. It was only after his involvement in Imagism, Vorticism, and above all Chinese poetry, that he was able to incorporate medieval components into his High Modernist magnum opus, The Cantos. The Procne-Cabestanh material, involving cannibalism, was cited as an example. Its gruesomeness is atypical, but of course that huge poem contains a good deal of controversial material.

APPENDIX. William IX: “The Nothing Poem/”

(We will discuss this tour de force next time). This translation derives from excellent comprehensive site

Farai un vers de dreit nien,
Non er de mi ni d'autra gen,
Non er d'amor ni de joven,
Ni de ren au,
Qu'enans fo trobatz en durmen
Sus un chivau. etc.

I'll write a verse about nothing at all,
it isn't about me or about anybody else,
it isn't about love nor about youth,
nor about anything else,
because, in the first place, it was conceived while sleeping
on a horse.

I don't know at which time I was born,
I am neither happy nor sad,
I am neither a stranger nor a native,
nor can I do anything,
because I was so bewitched one night
on a high hill.

I don't know when I'm asleep,
nor when I am awake, unless I am told!
I almost had my heart broken
by a deep pain,
and I don't care at all,
by St. Martial!

I am sick and I'm afraid to die,
but I don't know more than I hear around.
I'll call for a doctor as I feel,
but I don't know which one:
he is a good doctor if he can heal me,
he isn't if I get worse.

I have a mistress, and I don't know who she is,
because I never saw her, by my troth,
nor did she do anything I'd like or dislike,
nor do I care
since I never had either a Norman or a Frenchman
in my house.

I never saw her and I love her much,
I never had meed, nor did she ever wrong me;
when I don't see her, I do rather well,
I don't care,
because I know a kinder and prettier one
who is worth more.

I have written the verse, I don't know about whom,
and I'll convey it to the one
who'll convey it to someone else
towards Poitiers,
since I would like, of that etui,
to have the second key.