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.

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