Monday, October 22, 2012

Unexpected worlds in 20th century Modernism

One thing that is always very difficult--and fascinating--for me in apprehending history is the coexistence of various strands simultaneously. That is to say, knowing that certain events "happened at the same time" is not necessarily the same thing as understanding that they happened at the same time. Sometimes (as with, say, everything concurrent with the creation of capitalism: the emergence of what we now think of as science, the persecution of the witches, the creation of the concept of race and the slave trade, the expulsion of the Jews, the Reformation, the trials of the heretics, the genocides in the Americas...) understanding that multiple things were going on concurrently is vital to understand the nature of all of them, because they are intertwined, interdependent. Sometimes it just gives a momentary and fairly meaningless--but enjoyable--frisson (as with, I don't know, noticing that Star Wars and David Bowie's Low were originally released in the same year).

I'm not sure which category this falls in, but I've recently had two startling experiences of encountering, as I say in the title, unexpected worlds in 20th century Modernist poetry. I don't know how shared this experience is, but it seems to me that there can be a bizarre incongruity in encountering things that strike the contemporary reader as OLD, as period pieces, in what is "supposed to" (and does) still feel "new."

I recently read through, fairly superficially, the poems in T.S. Eliot's first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, for the first time. (I had of course encountered "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" before, but I'm not certain I had ever read it in its entirety.) And I was struck by the famous conceit in that titular poem (a poem which I am not at the moment equipped to discuss in any real depth), that of the fog as being like a cat:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
For I realized what I never had before, despite how obvious it is: that this is not referring to just any old fog. It is specifically describing a London "pea souper": a phenomenon tied to a specific era of London's industrial life: a phenomenon which no longer occurs.

Reading on, there was more. Take the imagery of horse-drawn carriages and, particularly, the lighting of the gas lamps that dramatically concludes the first section of "Preludes":

The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.
All this, the pea soupers, the cab-horses, the lamp-lighting, even to a lesser extent the "broken blinds and chimney-pots," are things that we, or at least I, associate more with Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper (or at least the general pop-cultural sense of them) than with "modernity."* Obviously I have not completed this thought, but allow me to move on for a moment before I continue.

*Though I suppose we could take Alan Moore's view that Jack the Ripper, at least, ushered in the world we live in today.

Another similar encounter, though on different ground and across the Atlantic, was in Hart Crane. In "Atlantis," the closing poem/section of The Bridge, there are two oddly pastoral moments thrown in to the imagery of New York City. The first is easy to pass over in the general surface-level "incoherence" surrounding it:

We left the haven hanging in the night--
Sheened harbor lanterns backward fled the keel.
Pacific here at time's end, bearing corn,--
Eyes stammer through the pangs of dust and steel.
The second such moment, a stanza or two later, is more definitive:
Sustained in tears the cities are endowed
And justified conclamant with ripe fields
Revolving through their harvests in sweet torment.
As so often with Crane we pull out the dictionary (or, OK, I do); this time, we learn that conclamant means "calling out together," and again we are reminded that for Crane the world, and everything in it, is animate, is vocal, possesses language: the city and the fields are crying out together. But what does he mean, together?

On my first pass through The Bridge, overwhelmed, I did not take particular note of either of these moments, but to the extent that I did I think I chalked them up as a sort of high Modernist wit: modernity gesturing ironically in the direction of a no longer possible pastoral. And, well, that is to be sure part of what's going on in these lines, but there is something else--something quite literal--going on as well. My guide (or at least my first guide) through The Bridge, as so often, was Samuel R. Delany: this time his excellent essay on Crane (focusing--to the extent that any Delany essay can be said to have a "focus"--largely on his homosexuality and the meaningfully absent signs of it in his poetry). "Atlantis Rose...: Some Notes on Hart Crane," is available in Longer Views. At the end of the essay, we find this:

This study grew--as did, indeed, my novel--out of an observation my father several times made to me while I was a teenager: As late as 1924, just after he first came from Raleigh, North Carolina, to New York City--and shortly thereafter took his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge--Brooklyn was nowhere near as built up as it is today. Though, indeed, there were clusters of houses here and there, especially toward the water, my then-seventeen-year-old father was surprised, even somewhat appalled, that the road leading from the Bridge in those days decanted among meadows and by a cornfield: he was both surprised and appalled enough to mention it to me, with a self-deprecating laugh at his own astonishment at the time, some thirty-five years later.

The fields--and the corn--are both there (in the seventh and ninth stanzas) in Crane's "Atlantis."

(The novel to which Delany refers is his Atlantis: Model 1924, which I have not read but am given to understand is about a fictional-but-possible meeting between Delany's father and Crane on the Brooklyn Bridge. The seventh and ninth stanzas of "Atlantis," in part, are of course the sections I quoted above.)

The usual narratives of Modernism, I think, can't quite explain these Victorian or pastoral presences--not just references--in Crane and Eliot. I mean, I don't know how literally we're meant to take the plainly ahistorical accounts which claim that the disintegration (the usual term used) of World War I led to (as 1+1 leads to 2) the disintegration of the arts, but for Eliot, whose "Preludes" was written in 1910 and 1911 and whose "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was begun around the same time, the still essentially Victorian world in which he lived was enough to prompt his disintegrations.

This "usual narrative" to which I refer was concisely--and unskeptically--summarized by Eliot Weisenberger in his cluelessly negative New York Review of Books review of Gabriel Josipovici's essential What Ever Happened to Modernism?, in which says that

it is astonishing that [Josipovici's] is a Modernism without the rise of the city, with its factories, crowds, and anonymity; without the devastation of the Napoleonic and First World Wars; without the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, the thrill of speed, the new symbolic language of the telegraph, the international voices of radio, mass migrations, the representational “reality” of photographs and the collapse of time in film montage, anthropological investigations of tribal cultures, or the beauties and terrors of industrial products.
(The NYRB article is subscriber-only; I quote this from Stephen Mitchelmore's response.)

Beyond (or really going off of) Mitchelmore's response to this,* the steadfast, simplistic adherence to these narratives--and the knee-jerk rejection of anything which disputes or even adds to them--strikes me as a way of denying the multiplicity of these works, not to mention that of history and the "real world." It reduces the artist and the artistic process to stimulus, response, stimulus, response. And, again, much like what Delany observes about the "utopian/dystopian" lens through which so many critics view all sf (and what I said about Brian W. Aldiss's view of Kim Stanley Robinson), it leaves one unable to read what is in front of one.

*And my own, which is to think, "My god, you want another book like that? Don't we have enough already?"

Actually, these glimpses of "old" worlds in Modernist poetry remind me quite a bit of what Delany says about sf's possessing "much more potentially complex a template" than the simplistic utopian/dystopian divide. If we are to think that Modernism "is," say, a response to "the rise of the city," we must at least remember that "the city" is a very complicated place--and not just because of "its factories, crowds, and anonymity," but also because in it you can be moving along seemingly uncomplicatedly through one world, then take a turn, or open a door, and find yourself in a completely different one--one newer or older, richer or poorer, what have you.

And not only this! We must also, again at least, remember that "the city" has not always been the same as it is now: that it once included horses as an integral element rather than a nostalgic novelty; that it once included corn fields next to gay cruising grounds made of steel and concrete. And this memory must lead us to the question: at what point does the city reach the levels of complexity and pressure required to prompt the "disintegrations" so characteristic of Modernism? Cities, after all, have been with us as long as civilization itself has. (This is one of those cases where etymology comes in handy.) Is this point the same for all writers (who are, after all, individuals)? Is it, on its own, "enough"? What else might go along with it?

I think what I'm trying to get at--beyond the simple, oddly vertiginous pleasure I get when I see these sudden portals, if you will, to other, unexpected worlds, which was all I had originally intended to write about in this essay--is the danger of rubrics. If we give a list of what we think are the "causes" of Modernism, as Weisenberger and so many others seem so attached to doing, we won't necessarily be wrong, per se, but if we think that by so doing we have "explained" the phenomenon, that we now "understand" it, then we will be woefully mistaken; and the mistake may be far greater than simply not noticing what Eliot's yellow fog, what Crane's ripening corn, really are.

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