LATE CAPITALISM AND THE AVANT GARDE

 

Modernist and post-modernist avant movements of every stripe present themselves, in one way or another, as authentic, revolutionary attempts to smite late capitalism.

Ron Silliman, the good Leftist, revels in Modernism and Neo-Modernism, with his Leftism seemingly rising out of the very Modernism he celebrates.  Ron’s example, one of thousands, is perfectly normal and unquestioned.

Yet, the truth of the matter is that Modernism and neo-Modernism are the very essence and expression of Late Capitalism.

Capitalism and Modernism share self-indulgent caprice, the wide gap between elites and the many who don’t ‘get it,’ chic vulgarity, market excess and manipulation, control of wealth and taste by the few, and the final proof is that the artists themselves, from Ford Madox Ford to Pound to Eliot, to the Southern Agrarian new critics, were “revolutionaries” of the Right, not the Left—even when some, like William Carlos Williams, paid lip service to the latter. 

Perhaps, standing where we are, in the early 21st century, with the true nature of the actual modernists themselves fading away in the mists of delusionary nostalgia, we are too far away from the truth to be aware of the truth.

Randall Jarrell, however, saw it in 1942, and wrote in his essay “The End of the Line:”

“For a long time society and poetry have been developing in the same direction, have been carrying certain tendencies to their limits: how could anyone fail to realize that the excesses of modernist poetry are the necessary concomitants of the excesses of late-capitalist society?  (An example too pure and too absurd even for allegory is Robinson Jeffers, who must prefer a hawk to a man, a stone to a hawk, because of an individualism so exaggerated that it contemptuously rejects affections, obligations, relations of any kind whatsoever, and sets up as a nostalgically awaited goal the war of all against all.  Old Rocky Face, perched on his sea crag, is the last of laissez faire; Free Economic Man at the end of his rope.)  How much the modernist poets disliked their society, and how much they resembled it!”

How well Jarrell puts it; and what he describes is much more than mere left/right politics; I certainly don’t intend this essay to be some cheap political grudge match—where I try and score points for some ideal Leftism; that I point out that the Modernists are far Right and so many of their fans, like Silliman, are far Left, is for mere amusement only; the real issue is much larger than gasbag, contemporary, cafe politics: right now it’s a simple issue of mostly pure ignorance—how ignorance reigns in Letters and what we ought to do about it.

Few know that a key Old Rocky Face supporter was T.S Eliot—which doesn’t make any sense in the way we typically read 20th century letters.   The horrors of the 20th century were, of course, inhuman, and Modernism, as Jarrell saw, was often inhuman.  The mystery of Modernism is difficult to solve, like Poe’s mystery in the Rue Morgue—because of the murderer’s nature.

Centuries hence, Modernist art and poetry will be seen as sick, not great.

Of course, most of believe, without realizing it, what Thomas Mann told us: that art is sick, and therefore, yes, poetry like “The Waste Land” is a triumph.

For now.

MAD SCIENTIST MODERNISM AND ITS MONSTER, ROMANTICISM

When you make yourself into a god, you always have problems.

The English Romantics were anti-religious egotists.

We got the genius of beauty (Keats and Shelley) but also the quixotic anti-intellectualism of Byron (who bragged from Italy of reading no English magazines), the bucolic bathos of Wordsworth and the goth-pedantry of Coleridge.   (It can be argued that the two friends, Wordsworth and Coleridge, invented both modern and post-modern letters and culture between them.  Throw in Poe to fill in some popular and professional niches, and there you have it.)

English Romanticism was foul and fair, golden-tongued but satanic-milled, a Tory workshop-empire of mercenary, merchant, soldier and mad king, the opium-trading empire America sometimes, in its better moments, defined itself against. 

Southey and Coleridge dreamt of going to America to live on a commune like Brook Farm; this noble communist impulse was strong among intellectuals and artists during the Romantic era, both in England and America. 

In places like India and China, the people there were on England’ s farm whether they wanted to be, or not.

Randall Jarrell could not have been more wrong in his dyspeptic, “modernism is dead” essay, “The End of the Line” (1942) when he claimed that Modernism was not a counter to Romanticism but an extension of it.   T.S. Eliot was an extension of Shelley?  Er…I don’t think so.  Jarrell was actually giving too much credit to Modernism; Eliot seems increasingly like nothing more than a Victorian with an added drop of the sordid picked up from the 19th century French.

Thomas Mann’s early 20th century trope that the artist was a misfit and art was essentially a symptom of disease is well-known.

Modernism’s rejection (see T.S. Eliot’s essays) of overly emotional and egotistical Romanticism played into the whole notion that the once-revered Romantic artist was a clown, a fop, a seducer, a low-life, a dabbler, an amateur, not only quixotic, and deluded, but even irresponsibly vicious, and worse, a bad-dresser, bad hair, and finally, unwashed.  To Eliot, the Romantics were not in the least respectable.  

It’s no surprise Mann and the Modernists were closer to the Nazis than the Communists, especially during the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s before the war. 

Influential reactionary Fugitive and Writing Program founder John Crowe Ransom (a friend of Paul Engle’s), who defended the ways of the Old South with “I’ll Take My Stand” (1930), was a suit-and-tie poet who called for a new university professionalism of poetry criticism in his 1937 essay, “Criticism, Inc.” 

The early to mid-20th century Modernist poets were suit-and-tie men. 

Harvard-connected Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot were not exceptions because they were poets who wore suits and worked in offices, as many have naively pointed out, they were the rule: the Thomas Mann/Modernist and reactionary professionalism counter to Romanticism’s fevered amateur-ism. 

And, it goes without saying, that mad-scientist Post-modernism and its post-war, nutty-professor manifesto-ism, is nothing more than an academic extension of reationary, professional-crackpot Modernism. 

The mad scientist (Modernism) descends to the mere nutty professor (Post-modernism).  But all very professional, of course.

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