Modernist Literary Theory and Criticism

“Modernist” is a term most often used in literary studies to refer to an experimental, avant-garde style of writing prevalent between World War I and World War II, although it is sometimes applied more generally to the entire range of divergent tendencies within a longer period, from the 1890s to the present. Modernism is an international movement, erupting in different countries at different times; in fact, one characteristic of modernism is its transgression of national and generic boundaries. My main focus here, however, is on English-language modernism. As a historically descriptive term, then, “modernism” is misleading not only because of its varying applications (to the historical period or to a highly organized style characteristic of some but not all writers of the period) but also because it is typically more evaluative than descriptive. In its positive sense, “modernism” signals a revolutionary break from established orthodoxies, a celebration of the present, and an experimental investigation into the future. As a negative value, “modernism” has connoted an incoherent, even opportunistic heterodoxy, an avoidance of the discipline of tradition. This critical overtone has sounded periodically since the eighteenth century, from the time that Jonathan Swift, in A Tale of a Tub (1704), lampooned the “modernists” as those who would eschew the study of the ancients through the late-nineteenth-century reform movement in the Catholic church, which was labeled “modernist” and condemned as the “synthesis of all the heresies” in the papal encyclical Pascendi of Pope Pius X (1907). It is interesting to note that in the recent debates over modernism versus postmodernism, the characteristic unorthodoxy of modernism has been displaced onto the postmodern; in a motivated reversal, modernism is characterized as the corrupt, canonized orthodoxy (identified, misleadingly, with the new critcism attributed to T. S. Eliot, among others), with postmodernism as its experimental offshoot.

The project of identifying a modernist criticism and theory is vexed not only by the imprecision and contradictory overtones of the word “modernist” but also by the category “theory.” Certainly many modernist writers wrote criticism: Virginia Woolf published hundreds of essays and reviews; W. B. Yeats’s most important literary criticism has been collected in Essays and Introductions; Ezra Pound’s voluminous criticism is well known for its informality and directness; Eliot was as important a critic, especially in his later years, as he was a poet. But the most interesting theoretical dimension of modernist writing is not always explicitly presented as either criticism or theory but is instantiated in the writing itself; the theory can be deduced, however controversially, from the practice.

One axiom of modernist theory that was importantly articulated by T. E. Hulme in “Romanticism and Classicism” (1913-14, posthumously published in Speculations, 1924) is an acceptance of limits that are identified with classicism. Hulme argues: “The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas” (120). The classical style, Hulme states, is carefully crafted, characterized by accurate description and a cheerful “dry hardness” (126). He asserts that “it is essential to prove that beauty may be in small, dry things” (131); Hulme’s preference is for the visual and the concrete over the general and abstract, for freshness of idiom, for the vital complexities that are “intensive” rather than extensive (139).

Hulme’s sounding of the note of classical style as one that is local, limited, intensive, and fresh resonates widely through the work of other modernist writers. Pound’s dictum “Make it New,” Eliot’s objective correlative (“Hamlet,” 1919, Selected Prose 48), James Joyce’s epiphanies, Woolf’s moments of being, and the explosive power of the concrete image celebrated in Imagism are all instances of a “classical” technique, a preference for the local and well-defined over the infinite. In Dubliners, Joyce defined the sickness of modern life as paralysis, a loss of local control, and he set about designing his fiction in a way that requires the reader to understand its individual, local parts before the whole can assume a meaningful shape.

The classical style is characteristic of much, but not all, modernist writing (D. H. Lawrence’s work being one well-known exception). However, the classical theory begins to bifurcate, producing political implications that are diametrically opposed, when the insistence on finitude is applied to the individual. Both groups of classical writers accepted the view that the individual is limited, but one group, which included Woolf, Joyce, and Yeats, began to develop a theory of supplemental “selves” that points toward a celebration of diversity as antidote to individual limitation. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf has Clarissa propose a theory that she is many things and many people, “so that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them” (1925, reprint, 1981, 52-53). Yeats worked out an analogous idea in his theory of the anti-self in “Per Arnica Silentia Lunae” (1917), a notion that each individual is implicit in his or her opposite, which eventuated in the complex theory of interlocking personality types outlined in A Vision (1925, rev. ed., 1937). In Ulysses (1922), Joyce also pursues the idea that the self is luxuriously heterogeneous, a heterogeneity brought to the surface by multiple encounters with difference. He makes his hero an apostate Jew who is defined on either extreme by a “spoiled priest” and an adulterous woman, and in these slippages between limited individuals he celebrates such limits, such insufficiencies, as conditions of communal possibility. As Stephen Dedalus explains in the library, the varied world represents the potential scope of a disunited selfdom: “Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves” (Ulysses, 1922, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, 1984, chap. 9,11.1044-46).

The same recognition of the limitation of the individual produced in other modernist writers an insistence on strict, authoritarian regulation of the individual, the germ of fascist tendencies for which the movement became notorious. Hulme again articulates the premises of this position: “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” (116). He speaks of liberty and revolution as essentially negative things, citing the French Revolution as evidence that when you remove the restraints on individuals, what emerges is their destructiveness and greed. Like Eliot, Hulme appreciated religion for its power to control human depravity through traditional order.

The problem with controlling “human depravity” through institutional restrictions is that the controlling “order” tends to legislate sameness, so that some orders of existence are seen as preferable to—less depraved than—others. And this is where the seams of “classical” modernist theory split: not over the limited nature of humanity, but over the question of the value of difference. The split was a jagged one; some writers, such as Pound, could cultivate difference in their writing and denounce it in society (as he did in his infamous radio broadcasts of the 1930s). The different premium accorded to ethnic, social, religious, and sexual differences by writers who agreed on the limited nature of the individual, however, explains how the offensive tirades of Wyndham Lewis and the brilliant feminism of Woolf, the anti-Semitic propaganda of Pound and the Jewish hero of Joyce’s Ulysses could stem from the same “classical” root.

Virginia Woolf

In a period that was to culminate in World War II, racism was an inevitably controversial issue. The related cause of feminism was also hotly debated during the period, since women had only been granted suffrage after World War I (1920 in the United States, 1928 in Great Britain). Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own, details clearly and unpolemically the historical and material restrictions on women that prevented them from full participation in artistic and professional life. Her best illustration of the greater circumstantial constraints on women is her invention of a wonderfully gifted sister for Shakespeare named Judith, his counterpart in everything but freedom and opportunity. Woolf outlines what would have happened to this young girl if she had wanted to act in London, as her brother did; she sketches in the ridicule to which she would have been subjected, the ease with which more experienced men could have taken advantage of her, and the passion with which, upon finding herself with child, she would have killed herself: “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” (1929, reprint, 1981, 48). Woolf’s main argument is that women need space—a room of their own—and economic freedom (a fixed income) for their hitherto pinched genius to flourish.

Finally, no discussion of modernist criticism and theory is complete without an account of the collapse of plot and its replacement by intertextual allusion and the “stream of consciousness.” In a much-cited review of Joyce’s Ulysses called “Ulysses, Order and Myth” (1923) Eliot argued that developments in ethnology and psychology, and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, had made it possible to replace the narrative method with what he called the “mythical method,” which was first adumbrated by Yeats. The mythical method works not through narrative but through allusion to different mythical narratives that, when fleshed out and juxtaposed, illuminate both the text in which they appear and each other in surprising and often revisionary ways. For example, Yeats’s early poetry worked to contextualize his hopeless love for Maud Gonne within the competing and mutually reinforcing contexts of Greek myth (Helen of Troy) and Celtic myth (Deirdre of the Sorrows; the magic of the Sidhe). In Ulysses, the main mythic parallels are the Odyssey and Hamlet, although individual episodes are further complicated by allusions to other intersecting narratives, historical, fictional, or mythic. Eliot’s The Waste Land provides the densest illustration of the mythical method, where the range of allusion includes a variety of Christian, Greek, occult, Scandinavian, Judaic, and Buddhist references, as well as allusions to music, drama, literature, and history.

Eliot chose to highlight myth as the key to modernist stylistics, but actually myth was just one category of narrative accessed through allusion; one might say that all kinds of narratives were situated behind the page, identifiable only through “tags” in the text, and that the interplay between these narratives produces a submerged commentary on it that imitates the pressure of the cultural unconscious (in narrativized form) on any individual performance. The stream-of-consciousness technique is yet another way of drawing the reader’s attention from conscious, deliberate, intentionalized discourse to the pressure of the unsaid on the said, of the repressed on the expressed. The apparent randomness of associative thought prompts the reader to question the submerged “logic” of connection, to listen for the unconscious poetry of repressed desire. This attention to the unknown as the shadow of the known is reversed in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in which it is the known that is obscured by the highly organized distortions of language and history as processed by the unconscious mind and the “mudmound” of the past. It is no surprise, in light of this sensitivity to the muted voice of the unconscious in the literature of the period, that another great modernist theorist was Sigmund Freud .

In fact, the opposing political tendencies of modernist writers bear a significant relationship to their different attitudes toward the unconscious. Bounded by the eruption of two world wars, the modernist period can be read as a historical enactment of the tension between Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The Dionysian power of the unconscious was making itself felt, and the writers who sought to contain or deny it through the Apollonian power of civic or religious authority were, like Pentheus in the Bacchae, torn apart. Others sought to express the creative potential of the unconscious, its capacity to unify without homogenization, to proliferate via division, and it is the writing of this group that is most animated by the zest of manifold contradictions. As Yeats wrote near the end of his career in the voice of a crazed old woman,

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on Love intent;
But love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’

(“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition, ed. Richard J. Finneran, 1983, rev. ed., 1989, 259-60)

T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” (1923, reprinted in Selected Prose of T S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode, 1975);T. E. Hulme, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art (ed. Herbert Read, 1924, 2d ed., 1936); Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (1927); Lawrence I. Lipking and A. Walton Litz, eds., Modern Literary Criticism, 1900-1970 (1972); Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929, reprint, 1981); W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (1961), Mythologies (1959). Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, eds., Modernism: 1890-1930 (1976); Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971); Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (1957); Michael H. Levenson, A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine, 1908-1922 (1984); Sanford Schwartz, The Matrix of Modernism: Pound, Eliot, and Early Twentieth-Century Thought (1985); Vincent Sherry, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism (1993).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Modernism, Philosophy

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