Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Modernism against Modernity

This is from an interview with Aleksandar Hemon at Paper Cuts (link via BLCKDGRD), about the new collection of European fiction he has edited for the Dalkey Archive:
Q. What was the biggest surprise for you, editing the collection?

A. It was less of a surprise than a reminder: how unabashedly comfortable many of the writers are to engage with literary forms that would be perceived as experimental or avant-garde here. In turn, I was reminded how deeply conservative contemporary American literature is in terms of form. And that conservative bent is a recent development, I believe. The European form flexibility is not a consequence of some snotty, elitist aesthetic but rather of the fact that there are many stories to be told and many traditions to draw from.
I've gotten the same sense through my much more limited experience with European writers. No doubt there is much crap that is thankfully not translated into English, or otherwise brought to our attention, while all manner of Dan Browns and John Grishams are translated out. Even so, the difference strikes me as true enough. And it seems to me that it's no accident that it's the Anglo-American literary mainstream that so despises writers who "engage with literary forms", dismissing them or marginalizing them as "experimental" or frivolously avant-garde. Alongside Hemon's point "that there are many stories to be told and many traditions to draw from" is the huge political fact of hegemony and empire. The center doesn't need to listen to the periphery, or see it. England and the United States stand as the most pervasive, the most dominant empires of the last two centuries, even as England, since 1945, operates as a junior partner in the concern. Both cultures are highly technical, pragmatic, analytic. All is utility, power, confidence, containment.

Much can be said about the socio-political effects of literature, its lack of innocence. I took a preliminary stab last year myself. But what effect does politics--a political culture--have on literature?

As ever, Gabriel Josipovici is a helpful guide in these matters. Recently Stephen Mitchelmore forwarded to me the abridged text of the much-discussed lecture on Modernism that Josipovici gave two years ago (the text appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, November 30, 2007, under the Beckettian title "Fail Again. Fail Better"). Interestingly, it was the blog discussions of this lecture that first introduced me to Josipovici's criticism (I had already read and reviewed his fine novel In a Hotel Garden) and led me to his important books, On Trust and The Book of God, yet till now I had never actually read the text of the talk. It came to me at a good time, just as I was working through some of these very issues. In the lecture, he talked about "a curious case of knowing and not knowing" that obtains in the English (and certainly American) literary world today, asking "what has happened to our culture such that serious critics and intelligent, well-read reviewers, many of whom studied the poems of Eliot, the stories of Kafka and the plays of Beckett at University, should go into ecstasies over Atonement or Suite Francaise, while ignoring the work of marvellous novelists such as Robert Pinget and Gert Hofmann?" He offers three suggestions:
The first is that England was just about the only European country not to be overrun by Nazi forces during the Second World War, which was a blessing for it but has left it strangely innocent and resistant to Europe, and thrown it into the arms, culturally as well as politically, of the even more innocent United States. This has turned a robust, pragmatic tradition, always suspicious of the things of the mind, into a philistine one. Though there is something appealing in the resolute determination not to be taken in evinced by Larkin and Amis in the face of Modernism and Modernists [...] it soon begins to pall. Second, and related to this, ours is the first generation in which High Art and fashion have married in a spirit joyously welcomed by both parties. When we are enjoined to buy three books for the price of two and a serious newspaper like the Independent offers its readers the chance to gatecrash a book launch of their choice with the paper's literary editor as a Christmas bonanza, we have truly arrived at the age of uncircumscribed consumerism. Finally, as Kierkegaard well understood, it is hard to keep "the wound of the negative open", and we prefer not to remember that the price of not doing so is that the wound will fester.
I could take up a lot of space investigating each part of this paragraph, and there is as always much else in the talk worth quoting and discussing, but for now I'm most interested in the implications of the first point, the different experiences of World War II. I think this can be extended to the experience of modernity itself. It is in this way that literary Modernism is quite different, I think, from the other Modernisms (e.g., architecture, agriculture, etc). Or, rather, that, again, the historical European Modernists are different from the most famous Anglo-American Modernists--the ones most famous as Modernists; I'm thinking Pound, Stein, Hemingway as examples in the latter group, versus Proust, Kafka, Beckett in the former. Triumph versus failure. Josipovici talks here and elsewhere about the "crisis of Modernism". For the European Modernist, modernity is experienced as a calamity, and why not? Two world wars will do that. Such is not the case for England, and especially the United States. Modernity is experienced by Americans especially as our time ("the American Century"), the best time. We are the New World, we are progress, triumphant. When Josipovici refers to American innocence he is obviously not ignorant of America's many wars and other crimes against humanity. What we are innocent of, however, is invasion, of struggle, of suffering, in the grand sense--which is not to say that there are not wide swaths of Americans who struggle and suffer. But that is the periphery within the dominant culture; the overriding themes are success, happiness, positive thinking, moving forward. (Failure is our own damn fault.) We don't experience bombings, we inflict them, at a distance (with good intentions, by golly). And we get things done, we are practical, technical, tell us like it is, dammit. American writers are generally a liberal lot, even when politically conservative, generally untroubled by the problems of writing--that is untroubled by the question of whether to write, unless the question has to do with practical concerns, such as whether it pays, not so much whether the act is warranted--we need to express ourselves, have the right to be published, or so it seems, and books and stories proliferate. It might be argued that it's a good thing to hear so many voices, and I'd agree, if it weren't for the containment of these voices in the same old thing, voices trapped as they try to learn the "right" way to hone the craft which is not a craft.


Paul Dorell said...

It's true that America has been insulated from gritty realities like a Nazi occupation, but that isn't as true for Britain, which was bombed to smithereens during WWII (my grandparents had a bomb shelter in their back yard), nearly lost the war, and never fully recovered economically. I think the differences between Anglo-American modernism and continental modernism probably have deeper historical roots. If you look at the history of western philosophy, the Anglo-Americans have favored empiricism and logic as far back as John Locke, while the continent has embraced rationalism in its many ethereal and insubstantial forms. The English have been skeptical about everything French ever since the Battle of Hastings, and this feeling cropped up recently here with "freedom fries."

The problem with America is that it is in essence little more than the full realization of Calvinism: work hard, make lots of money, and God will reward you. The idiocy of this mantra was evident as early as Thoreau, yet the country has never changed course and has only become self-congratulatory while it has stumbled onto the world stage with the delusion of exceptionalism. Most of the history of American art has in fact been the history of American artists moving to Europe to cut their teeth. The issue became confused after WWII when artists like Duchamp came to New York, which was where the money was with Europe in ruins.

M.F.A. programs teach American writers to find their "voice," and the academy is there to tell us which "voices" we should listen to, but what may be missing is an inherent richness and depth in the life and culture of the New World.

Richard said...

Hi Paul - of course you're right about England's experience of WWII. I wasn't forgetting that, or meaning to diminish it, but I should have been clearer. Likewise, I think you're quite right that the differences between the modernisms have deeper roots. In fact, this was one of my points, though again I know I wasn't as clear as I'd have liked. I do hint at it in the post (and have touched on such points more explicitly in other posts) when I refer to pragmatism, utility, analysis, etc. But, I move too quickly from Josipovici's separate point involving WWII to the experience of modernity, which itself obviously begins long before the World Wars (and indeed, the modernists I names, in both camps, are beginning writing well before the wars, except for Beckett, who himself was writing well before WWII).

I'll have to expand on the points I make here (which was obviously, and intentionally, full of massive generalizations) later on, but for now I wanted to at least register my awareness of that. Thanks.