Sunday, March 30, 2014

“Culture” and Other Matters

Reading The Two Cultures, an essay based on the lecture delivered by C.P. Snow in 1959, I experienced a series of seemingly contradictory reactions. Nevertheless, the initial premise seems obvious, that science and the humanities involve very different modes of thought.

Snow’s contention, that Cambridge dons at high table were habitually contemptuous of their scientific colleagues, rings true—I can imagine it being particularly true of a certain kind of classics don, for whom nineteenth century literature was entirely too vulgar, never mind that of the twentieth century. Snow’s most famous complaint, that his dining companions weren’t able to explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics and that this form of scientific illiteracy was akin to not having read a single work of Shakespeare’s, is fair enough.

The problem is, Snow then goes on to attack Modernist literature as being antisocial and ultimately misanthropic—he cites Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, the two most acerbic and extreme proponents of a specific strain of Modernism. Neither Pound nor Lewis were representative of anything other than themselves—Lewis went so far as to attack virtually all his Modernist contemporaries in Time and Western Man. Pound formed his own problematic and self-defeating case. As for Snow, he clearly had little feel for poetry or art in any form, whether of the nineteenth, twentieth, or any other century.

Several years after the Two Cultures lecture, the crankily self-important literary critic F.R. Leavis launched a vehement ad hominem attack on Snow and all he stood for. Much of this makes for hilarious reading. Snow’s revenge was to cite a particularly grotesque and badly written piece of writing by DH Lawrence, one of Leavis’s literary heroes.

The entire controversy represents the collision of two distinct forms of intellectual snobbery, not to mention the colossal egos of two self-made men. And yet, the issue remains: Science or poetry? Technology or art? Mathematics or verbal reasoning? Data or metaphor?

What does all this have to do with the world we live in now, more than fifty years later? Everything. The divide between technological and literary practice hasn’t disappeared. If anything, it’s as immediate an issue now as it was in 1959. It’s just that technology is now clearly the dominant force. Literature and the humanities, these are footnotes—except to those of us who live, eat, and breathe such things.

Then again, how many of us can explain what happens when we turn on a light switch, never mind  the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

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?