Saturday, March 15, 2014

What’s Modern(ism) Anyway?

Modernism, artistic and literary, is more than a hundred years old. If so, then what place do we occupy? Postmodernism raised its head in the 1970s, though some might claim it was earlier than that. If both of these movements belong to the past, where are we now?

I’ve been rereading Edmund Wilson’s book of essays, Axel’s Castle. It was originally published in 1931. Wilson starts by examining French Symbolist poetry, Paul Valery, Yeats, and T.S. Eliot. He then turns to Modernist fiction—Proust, Joyce, Gertrude Stein. To some extent, he’s providing an introduction to this work for the general reader, the American reader of his era. Beyond that, it’s a pleasure to come across a critic who writes clearly, incisively, and not necessarily obviously, and without descending into the morass of theory or pseudotheory. Which is to say, someone highly intelligent and sane.

Really, to what extent does Postmodern “theory” shed light on specific literary works? The name Umberto Eco comes to mind as someone who functions in the world of theory and in that of actuality. But not many others. Far too much of what has passed for literary theory is really an appropriation of texts for the critic’s self-referential and often tedious ends.  At a certain point, it all seems very dated.

And so, what is the meaning of Modernism? I’m still drawn back to Chesterton’s no doubt revanchist view that works of art don’t necessarily carry with them a packaged meaning. After all, what does “The Rite of Spring” mean? Doesn’t the experience of art, emotional and intellectual, trump any academic explanation of meaning? Wasn’t Modernism in part an attempt to circumvent established meanings and established usage? Doesn’t the art, music, and literature of 1914 carry more power than nearly anything being created today?