Modernism has been of paramount interest to Scarriet.
Not only the theory, but the social milieu.
The latter tends to get ignored—by the same social science avant-garde that embraced, and continues to embrace, Modernism’s “progressive” aspect in the first place.
The avant-garde and all its “post” manifestations are concerned with “what:” What did Ezra Pound and WC Williams write like? What are the experimental textualities of the new writers? Etc. Biographical anecdotes are dutifully subordinate to the impact of the “what?” on literary history, while history proper, the actual social relations, are background only: mere anecdote.
Alan Cordle’s Foetry.com (2004-2007) was more avant-garde than the avant-garde, because it “named names,” because it focused on “who” rather than “what.” This alone made it different and brought it into contact with social history too mundane or bourgeois for the radical, theoretical, text-obsessed avant-garde.
The avant-garde asks “what is this sausage?” But they never ask “who made this sausage?” “What an interesting sausage,” asks the avant-garde, but never, “This sausage benefits whom?” The artist—who is the god of the avant-garde, escapes unhip society into hip art and the hip circles who appreciate and “understand” the hip art: there is a closed-off aspect inherent in the enterprise itself. Once you ‘go with Allen Ginsberg,’ you don’t come back. You end up a Ginsberg advocate to the end, or a bitter drunk like Jack Kerouac who falls off the radar screen. And when Scarriet asks, “who,” we don’t just mean who was Allen Ginsberg? But, who was Mark Van Doren? Who made the sausage? “Who” is not just about the “stars,” but the entire gamut of social relations which produced those who produced the texts.
Investigating literary persons demands more than biographical anecdotes which support the various texts. The avant-garde always excludes eveything else by looking at the text, or the idea of the text, the “what” of the text: Derrida’s “no life outside the text,” the New Critics’ “close reading,” or studies that treat Pound’s politics as unimportant compared to his “work,” are examples that come immediately to mind.
There are reasons, of course, why “what” is preferred to “who.”
Academics will dismiss investigations of “who” as “gossip.”
In a crime investigation, what has been done is often less important than who did it, and for what reason? To focus on “who” creates social unease as if we were looking for someone to blame, or reducing art to crass motivation.
But there is no reason why “who” cannot be explored as objectively as “what.” Ironically, anxiety of social relations is behind the rejection of investigations of social relations.
It is difficult to be factual and objective about social relations, but should the difficulty be a bar to our study? Scholarly objectivity demands we don’t use decorum in studying a text; why then should we use decorum in studying (or not studying) Pound’s or Poe’s or Ted Genoways’ associates?
Why should we be scared of investigating the author and his social environment? Some readings, sure, claim social environment as key, but they remain essentially text-bound, since they focus on the social environment of the text, not the social environment of the author and his (often non-literary) connections. Because we study literature, we are blind to those non-literary connections, dismissing them as irrelevant. The text is always relevant—or so we say. But this is to be bent-over and naive.
Texts are residues of the human; humans are not residues of texts, despite the arguments of constructionist bookworms who would have text-centered complexity replace Pope’s “Study of Man.”
This is not to say texts are not central in the quest to understand society. Derrida understood that he needed a further argument to support his radical thesis than merely the self-evident fact that scholars seeking the fresh air of real life in their dead subjects gain almost all their information from texts, and we do not deny this. I know what I know of Pound and T.S. Eliot and Ford Madox Ford from books. But imagination and reason ought not to be cooped up in books. Modern French theory’s “signified” has a real existence and it ought to be revealed, not hidden, by our study.
The Modernist revolution hid more than it revealed. It is not just a matter of finding the actor hiding behind the complexity of a text, but the actors. “Who,” in such study, invariably is a crowd, or the machinations and motivations of a self-aware clique—aware enough to give off false scents to throw any investigator off the trail.
Writing, as Socrates understood, and as Shakespeare later agreed, is a record of speech, not the living speech itself. Socrates was a prime target of Derrida and his friends—who argued that writing was more than important than speech—all of Derrida’s rhetorical strategies were aimed at securing written signs (and their manipulation) an equal standing with life—the mere “signified” of the “signifier,” as if reality were essentially a word. But there is life outside ‘the communication,’ and ‘reading between the lines’ is done outside, not inside, the text. Text matters—but it is not all, or even central all the time.
In an ideal world, texts would be all that mattered—but science asks that the object be described with precision; if to know history is to understand human behavior, from body language to murder, with literary texts essentially an extension of that behavior, it is a more scientific approach to study “who” than “what,” despite the erudite airs of New Critics and all their academic progeny.
Shakespeare has survived precisely because he is performed. To merely scrutinize the text of Shakespeare would be to kill him, as Eliot tried to do in his ridiculous critique of Hamlet. Bow-tied, near-sighted “close readings” of Shakespeare would have buried the Bard for being too purple, hyperbolic, and melodramatic, just as the 20th century did with Milton, Byron, Burns, Poe, and Shelley (all targets of Eliot, the godfather of both Modernism and the New Critics), all abused for being jingly—the Emerson method, which is to regally and beneficently over-state and expand the definition of poetry in the abstract, while damning with faint praise the actual music of one’s flesh-and-blood rivals, as Emerson does in “The Poet.”
Yes, he’s a master of tunes and songs, but I find his jingling a bit annoying. Indeed, he’s a popular author, but he appeals to the young. This abuse was directed at Poe by an historical, 3-part chorus: Emerson, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot—whose grandfather was a Unitarian, transcendentalist colleague of Emerson’s.
A single step brings us to Henry’s brother, William, the nitrous oxide philosopher who invented automatic writing and taught it to Gertrude Stein at Harvard—from which Modernism poured. Ford Madox Ford, the tweedy Brit with Pre-Raphaelite roots, another central but shadowy figure in Modernism, befriended Henry James and Ezra Pound, and ended up in America with Tate and Lowell teaching creative writing. Lowell’s family psychiatrist—who ordered young Lowell to travel south to study with Ransom in the company of Ford Madox Ford—was a member of Ransom’s Fugitive circle.
Damning with faint praise is the best way to rub out competitors; a frontal assault will just as often backfire, as happened with Poe; the more he was damned with the libel of drunk and drug fiend, the more popular he became. Social criticsm is tricky, no?
Shakespeare would have been damned for being too purple and jingly by the Modernists, too, had he not been triumphing all over town in live performances. Shakespeare had escaped the box of the text. When the Modernists with their stakes opened up the grave, he was gone.
The question remains: what should we be looking for when we observe “who” rather than “what?” That is entirely up to the investigator. The best use both “what” and “who” to find out the eternal questions: “how” and “why?”
Scarriet, of course, will be pursuing these questions, like the bloodhound that we are.