T.S. Eliot: Who the hell was this guy, really? What the hell was Modernism, really?
The way in certain parts of the country summer arrives in a single moment after the vagueries of spring’s warm and chilly tease, Modernism made its entrance quite suddenly into English-speaking Letters in the person of T.S. Eliot around the year 1915.
A rumor got started when Modernism began (early 20th century) that Poe’s poetry was admired by the French more than it should have been because of what was lost/gained in translation. Poe-hater Harold Bloom called it the “French Poe” phenomenon. It was troubling to certain moderns that the French, those subtle, ingenious, Parisian inventors of modern poetry, were besotted with Edgar Poe. As an English-speaker, you couldn’t admire Poe if you were truly modern; Poe was too Byronic, too classical, too fussy, too correct, too chaste. (Poe also disliked Emerson—whom Bloom champions) Poe was timeless, not modern.
If Modernism was anything, it was irreverant; it was naughty and naughty now. Not Poe at all.
Despite all the talk, it all comes down to this.
Nice. v. Naughty. (Even as the “naughty” might be covered up in “learned” blather to keep things “honest.”)
Poe was icy, and the French, hot and cold, found Poe’s temperature bracing, and to their liking, but their modernism could survive the addition of a stranger speaking a foreign tongue, one like Poe who made it quite known that he preferred the French to the British.
So in the beginnings of English-speaking Modernism, Poe—the American, who conceived a new genre of literature whose detective was French, and who was both classically chaste and a loud critic hearkening back to the correctness of an Alexander Pope—Poe was all wrong. Poe wasn’t decadently subtle and seedy enough, and for men like Pound and Eliot, Poe was a horror—Poe had to be kept hence.
Aldous Huxley, who was born 6 years after Eliot, a wealthy, connected Englishman who died in California while on LSD, burned Poe at the stake, calling him “vulgar” and stating that Poe’s French admirers had made a grave error because of the language difference. Henry James, the teacup author, a blood-thick anglophile like Eliot, also dripped with scorn in putting Poe in his place: boyish-loser.
You can’t be a tweedy, pessimistic, world-weary, experimental British modern if you are brightly USA-ish and boyish.
Eliot supplied Modernism with its tone of mature pessimism. Poe was a hopeful “Tom Swift” adventurist, by comparison.
But if Poe, the whiz-bang American, was distorted favorably by the sophisticated, avant-garde French, perhaps Modern Anglo-american poetry was nothing more than a favorable distortion of the French going the other way: Eliot admired certain ‘bad boys’ of decadent, 19th century French poetry, and modern English poetry, reaching for that irreverence which distinguished it, found in a poet like Jules Laforgue the French lens which could justify and validate its practice in English.
The Longfellow War (street-wise journalist Poe v. Harvard academic Longfellow) continued in the 20th century in a Paris salon.
Was Jules Laforgue a great poet? Or, more importantly, did Laforgue’s poetry hit like a bomb because of the particular way it innoculated a certain tribe of Americans as a French vaccination? If one of Pound and Eliot’s pals had written Laforgue’s poetry, they would have probably envied it as the product of a unique, eccentric personality by a fellow-traveler; but as it came from a recently dead Frenchman, it sprang upon them as a kind of cultural-aesthetic truth. Laforgue’s petty sentimentalism and vulgarity, through the distance of its translation, became towering irony and sophistication.
Innovative success in the arts invariably involves foreign influence; it provides that necessary stamp of worldliness and learning, that automatic ‘otherness’ which frightens some and encourages others in the home country—the ensuing tension, camp-arguments,and general excitement feeding the revolutionary (moral-loosening) change.
The importance of Paris to Modernism cannot be underestimated: avant-garde, after all, is a French word.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armory Modern Art Show in New York, as the American public caught wind of European modern/Cubist art; art and poetry swirled about, hand-in-hand, like two dancers, as Modernism began to become popular just prior to World War One.
Laforgue influenced both Eliot and Duchamp. The early modern art collector who gave the opening speech at the Armory show, John Quinn, negotiated the publishing deal for T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.” Quinn, a secret associate of Aleister Crowley, was also Eliot and Pound’s lawyer. It was the same joke: the ugly having a laugh at the beautiful. As the wife of a Cubist painter who befriended the young Duchamp, before his “Nude Descending A Staircase” made a big splash at the Armory Show, put it:
[Duchamp and Picabia] emulated one another in their extraordinary adherence to paradoxical, destructive principles, in their blasphemies and inhumanities which were directed not only against the old myths of art, but against all foundations of life in general. —-from Picasso and the Chess Player
It really had nothing to do with theory or aesthetics. Modernism sought to tear down, on a whim, the virtues of the past. (Or to put it more simply, virtue.) Which, naturally, becomes a theoretical-aesthetic issue (of which any reasonably intelligent person can blather on about)—but Modernism was an act of irreverence first, an issue of aesthetics, later.
No art movement is going to announce to the world that it seeks to be immoral. This is neither sensible, nor even cool. But this is the unspoken truth of Modernism, and the unspoken truth of it is precisely why it quickly became covered in terms like “symbolism” and “cubism,” terms that were never accurate or agreed upon (even by the so-called “symbolists’ or “cubists” or “imagists” themselves) by anyone, merely betraying to the wise what was really going on: the “symbol” is merely to distract you from the fact that poet X, some years ago, completely lost his mind, and requires your pity, not your admiration.
We love the modern arts the way we pity wounded animals: it is not love or admiration, but it is a strong feeling.
But isn’t this what the artists always do? They trick us into strong feelings.
The “science” of Modern art has always been suspect—the “fourth dimension” of Cubism, for instance, was something Picasso and others merely laughed at; Modernism has always been Romanticism by other means, the “other means” in this example the fourth-dimension of Cubism, which helps the ‘validity’ of the modern art industry if at least some rubes swallow its “learned” nonsense.
Conceptual art, which “Modernists” like Duchamp created when they were still “Modernists,” evolved out of Modernism only because Modernism’s trappings—existing to cover up the fact that it was an emotional continuation of Romanticism—naturally went in that direction; faux braininess covering up mere hysteria, passion and tears.
The Scarriet March Madness poem-entry by Eliot is miles from Pope, Byron, Shelley, Poe, Tennyson, but not from any technical innovation or revolutionary approach; it is merely a poem of feeling sans morality and beauty. Eliot is far more emotional than Shelley, for instance; Eliot veers into hysteria, and thus more realism and less art is required to keep the hysteria in check.
Jules Laforgue, who died at 27, in 1887, a year before Eliot was born, has long existed as a profound, partially-hidden influence to the whole modern art/poetry world. Stephen Spender pointed out that young Eliot—from a respectable Boston American family with Emerson connections and re-settled in St. Louis—was not only profoundly influenced by Laforgue’s cynical, jokey, naughty, pessimistic poetry, but also by the way Laforgue dressed: formally, like a gentleman banker.
The Romantic trope: a Shelley with shirt open, panting beneath the full moon at midnight was cleverly reversed by the T.S. Eliot persona via the Jules Laforgue persona—for several reasons, not immediately obvious to unsuspecting readers of poetry.
Even regular readers of Scarriet may not know the answer. Here it is:
1. With the impending rise of the Program Era (Robert Lowell teaching at Paul Engle’s Iowa after leaving Harvard to study with Alan Tate (Princeton Writing Program teacher) and John Crowe Ransom, Eliot and Pound’s American Modernist Fugitive/New Critic university foot-soldiers), poets would soon be the ‘teacher wearing suit’ model, not the Shelley model.
2. The art collector/banker/lawyer was the new persona of the elite art/poetry world in the 20th century.
3. Eliot’s buttoned-up image masked the fact that Modernism was far more emotional/hysterical than Romanticism, and, in fact, hysteria was the whole of Modernism, all its so-called “theory” a distracting ruse.
Modernism is the very opposite of what is advertised; it does not present less pure, floating emotion, but more—and this is the sole reason why formally it is what it is—and the trick is that there really is no “formal” reality whatsoever to Modernism—it is whatever bit of catchiness can be made up by word-smiths on the fly, (the Apollinaires, the Cocteaus, the Pounds) who are beholden to the art dealers and wealthy patrons who fund the parties, and buy-low-sell-high at the art auctions.
Let’s call the “ism” what it really is: Money-ism.
Duchamp journeyed to New York in 1915. He was met at the pier by the art dealer and Armory Show organizer Walter Pach. Pach worked for John Quinn, T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s attorney. Enter another Walter: Walter Arensberg, wealthy art patron and poet, who put up Duchamp in a Broadway apartment and hosted plenty of orgies and parties in another lavish apartment nearby. Walter Arensberg, who translated Jules Laforgue, was the co-conspirator in Duchamp’s “Fountain by R. Mutt” (urinal) museum “ready-made” publicity stunt in 1917.
The poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams (Pound’s friend) also belonged to the modern art investor Walter Arensberg’s circle.
Below is a quote from a just-published book on Picasso and Duchamp, Picasso and the Chess Player by Larry Witham, University Press of New England, 2013. We see in it the familar rhetoric of modernism/post-modernism history: we always get some “theory” by way of a catchy phrase which the author dutifully quotes from one of the (con) artists—in this case, Ezra Pound. Rhetoric is all it is, since, in this particular instance, “objects” have always been, and always will be, a part of art and poetry: the theory is of no importance; it is only a smokescreen to cover the ‘buy low/sell high’ enterprise—and the elite, hysterical, socially-connected parties. Modernism wasn’t about “word-objects;” it was about “sentiments:” celebrities and their hedonism. Modernism was “Realism,” because it was Romanticsm outside of the art—at the parties. The “theory” was mere bait for the newspapers—and “scholars,” whose talk puffed up the cash value of the “art.”
All around [Duchamp] the new aesthetic was about photographs of objects and the new poetry, which a’ la Gertrude Stein and others, was about word-objects. A mere object—and any would do—could be photographed and called fine art, as Stieglitz had shown. [by photographing Duchamp's urinal.] A poem, by the same token, could be simply a string of words about objects. This was the modernist poetry advanced by Stein in Paris, Ezra Pound in London, and William Carlos Williams in the Arensberg circle: the focus was on objects, particulars, not the big ideas, symbols, sentiments, or themes of past verse. As Pound said, “Direct treatment of the ‘thing.’” Besides chess, the modernist view of language was the intellectual content of the otherwise hedonist Arsenberg salon: the group was interested in linguistic games, puns, and little magazines. —Larry Witham
After all that introduction, here is Eliot’s poem in the 2013 Scarriet March Madness Romanticism Tourney:
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her
teeth were only accidental stars with a talent
for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps,
inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally
in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by
the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter
with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading
a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: “If the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden,
if the lady and gentleman wish to take their
tea in the garden …” I decided that if the
shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of
the fragments of the afternoon might be collected,
and I concentrated my attention with careful
subtlety to this end.
Eliot’s opponent is the French Romantic poet, Gerard de Nerval.
GOLDEN SAYINGS (trans Richard Sieburth)
Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855)
So you alone are blessed with thought, free-thinking man,
In a world where life bursts forth from everything?
You are free to dispose of forces at your command
But the universe is absent from your well-laid plans.
Honor each creature for the mind in which it takes part:
Each flower is a soul turned towards Nature’s face;
Each metal hides some ancient mystery of the heart;
“All things feel!” And all you are is within their art.
Beware, even blind walls may spy on you:
Even dumb matter is imbued with voice…
Put not its precious stuff to impious use.
The most obscure of beings may house a hidden god;
And like the new-born eye pouched within its lids,
Pure mind drives its bud through the husk of stones.
Nerval’s poem warns, “honor each creature” and of objects (“dumb matter”) “put not its precious stuff to impious use.” He’s seems to be talking to the reckless, hysterical “impious” moderns.
Of course, Nerval’s poem, as wise as it is, does suffer from didactisim; Eliot’s poem is realism, squeezed out of actual social horror.
Guiltily, we prefer Eliot’s car-wreck.
The crowd pushes forward, rooting for Eliot; it is impossible for Nerval to concentrate.
Madness in the arena!
The referees are making strange calls!
Eliot wins, 99-77!