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What is Modern?

The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature

edited by Richard Ellmann, edited by Charles Feidelson Jr.
Oxford, 953 pp., $13.75

The full title of this substantial and ambitious anthology twice uses the word “modern,” thus stressing modernity as the key concept that binds together a miscellaneous collection of literary and philosophical essays dating from the second half of the eighteenth century till 1960. On the other hand, the title also contains two words which, at first sight, seem to contradict this claim: “tradition” and “backgrounds.” The various appeals for modernity recurrent throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth century very deliberately set out to demolish tradition and to replace the literary past by actual experience; when Rimbaud, for instance, speaks of the need to be “absolutely modern,” he means that we should free ourselves precisely from those ideas that are likely to be found in anthologies and strike out instead on our own. That such new departures are often short-lived or illusory should not blind us to the fact that they do nevertheless occur. It is all too easy to point to apparent repetitions in the history of the human mind for proof that there is nothing new under the sun, but this can only be done by confusing tradition with the commonplace and by mistaking the stagnation of one’s own mind for the stagnation of history.

The editors of this anthology certainly cannot be accused of slackening the élan of modernity by a stifling approach to tradition. In their Preface, they make it very clear that they are perfectly aware of the paradox involved in the phrase “modern” tradition. Although it is in the nature of modernity to be without precedent, the phenomenon of modernity itself is by no means unique: “modern” movements, each with a distinctive content of their own, occur again and again, and become the very articulations of history. It is characteristic of periods that live off the capital accumulated by their predecessors, so to speak, that they would think of their era as the only one worthy of being called truly modern. The Thirties and the Forties undoubtedly were such a modernistic period: following a generation of considerable inventive power, the writers of the period were bound to mythologize the preceding generation into the absolute embodiment of modernity and to scorn whatever preceded it as hopelessly out-of-date. Not so long ago one could still find considerable intellectual satisfaction in dismissing Victorian and Romantic ideas as old-fashioned. Things have changed over the last ten years; none of the younger literary critics would consider himself the least bit disgraced by writing about, say, Wordsworth or Matthew Arnold (or even Gray and Pope) rather than about Stevens or Valéry—nor would he feel that he is doing something essentially different, or dealing with altogether different problems, when he is interpreting a late eighteenth-century rather than a contemporary poet. This probably indicates that our own period—unlike the Thirties and the Forties—is in the process of developing its own modernity, since it is again able to interpret the previous “moderns” as part of a historical process—an undertaking that is entirely different from denying them genuine modernity in the name of a conservative theory of tradition. Any attempt to expand our historical awareness in this manner is itself both modern and useful and, in this respect, this anthology is an admirable undertaking. Nor could one have wished for more competent and informed editors than Professor Ellmann and Professor Feidelson, both in their own right distinguished interpreters of important sections of modern literature.

Begun under such favorable auspices, it is somewhat disappointing to find the anthology representing so little of the emerging modernity which it strives to define. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the editors themselves are still partly laboring under the fallacious pre-war illusion of modernism. It is not altogether clear, on the basis of the principles that command the selection and organization of the texts, whether the term modern still refers to the literature of Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Proust, Valéry, Gide, Mann, Rilke, and Kafka, or whether it refers to a later period for which these authors are already part of history. More than half of the anthology seems to conform to the first definition. It offers theoretical background material useful for a study of early twentieth-century literature; some of the main documents of nineteenth-century aestheticism (Wilde, Pater, etc.); a few selections on realism, rounded off by some representative texts from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson, and Croce. Little attempt is made to depart from the obvious in presenting a period that has been so abundantly studied and documented elsewhere. But some other selections, as well as the emphasis upon certain themes (such as existential theories of consciousness, neo-realist and neomarxist writing, negative theologies, etc.) seem to point towards later and different developments of Western thought and literature. This tends to suggest that the modernism of the first quarter of the twentieth century should be seen in a wider perspective, starting, for instance, not with the aestheticism of 1880 but earlier, with Romanticism, and ending, not with Yeats-Valéry-Rilke or Proust-Joyce-Mann, but with writing that does not belong to the heritage of symbolism. The editors obviously made a serious effort in that direction, since they included passages from Kant, Vico, Rousseau, Blake, and Wordsworth as well as from Robbe-Grillet, Dubuffet, and Sartre. Nevertheless, they fail to convey a convincing picture of the larger movement that contains the modernism of the early twentieth century as a moment in its growth, and not as its ultimate outcome. They missed the opportunity of clarifying the relationship between the rather specialized aesthetics of symbolism and realism, and the broader intellectual current that gives unity to the 200-year time span covered in the anthology. If “modern literature”, is to be defined as romantic and post-romantic rather than as symbolist and post-symbolist—and this seems to be the challenging assumption on which this book is based—then the best texts of the period should be linked by a coherent itinerary, a meaningful network of themes. That the editors suggest such a network is indicated by the headings under which they group their selections, and by their preference for a thematic rather than a chronological organization of the material. Yet it is by no means certain that their scheme succeeds in capturing the originality and inventiveness of the modern mind.

Precisely because they have an appearance of impersonality about them, encyclopedias or anthologies can be among the most subjective of documents. In this case, a careful effort was made to present a balanced picture and to offer a wide range of ideological trends (reaching from Marx and Engels to T. E. Hulme) which would allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Nevertheless, a general pattern of interpretation soon becomes apparent, not only because the editors reflect a definite point of view—that of an enlightened American liberalism—but as a result of the ideological weight of the texts themselves. This pattern is somewhat misleading: it overstresses certain aspects of contemporary thought at the expense of other, perhaps more decisive ones. I am referring, for instance, to the deliberate bias against all analytical modes of thought, to the tendency to overrate currents of irrationalism, and to the somewhat confusing mood of pseudo existential nihilism combined with a messianic desire for redemption that characterizes many of the selections. When one meets a similar emphasis in such writers as Erich Heller or Karl Löwith, then this appears to be the altogether legitimate and interesting expression of a certain point of view. But when it is applied to some of the greatest names of modern literature and philosophy, the impression can be dangerously misleading. Not only in their choice of the main currents, but in the manner in which these trends are presented, the editors’ judgment is often open to question.

This may well be the result of the natural tendency of anthologists to prefer very general, programmatic texts that sound like manifestoes to more detailed or methodologically oriented passages. If one were compiling an anthology of the eighteenth century, it would not be too difficult to find essays that combine a wide programmatic interest with concreteness of particular detail; that century still possessed a sense of the unity between the universal and the specific that enabled it to be of general interest even about the most specialized of topics. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the relationship between part and whole, between text and context, became a great deal more complex. The tendency to generalize has not, of course, disappeared, but it has become increasingly dependent on the minutiae of highly detailed, technical and rigorous analyses that cannot be separated from the general statements. Read by themselves, the generalities are often vague and pompous, and they take on meaning only within contexts that are often ambiguous or ironic, and always very closely particularized. This is true of philosophers as well as of poets and novelists. No philosopher, for instance, can make a greater claim for generality than Hegel; yet the philosophical power of Hegel’s thought can never be extracted from isolated, summarizing statements, but rather from the careful examination of very tightly articulated dialectical movements. Nietzsche tends towards aphoristic formulations, but as every reader who has tried to make sense of his entire work has found, these assertions are qualified by a network of contradictory counter statements that demand close contextual study on the part of the interpreter. Poets like Mallarmé or Valéry seem to offer us, in their prose essays, a running commentary that clarifies what may remain hidden in the refined diction of their poems—but, upon closer examination, the relationship between the critical essays and the poetry turns out to be so involved that it becomes impossible to consider one part of the work independently of the other. The same is true of a poet like Yeats, whose prose works simply cannot be taken at face value, since they are part of an intricate creative process directed primarily towards the elaboration of the poems. One can very well read Voltaire’s historical works in their own right, without having to concern oneself with his tragedies or poems, but anyone who reads Yeats’s historical speculations in A Vision out of the context of Yeats’s poetic work will fail to do justice to world history as well as to W. B. Yeats. Professors Ellmann and Feidelson would certainly grant this about particular writers, yet in their selections they have inevitably reached for the most sweeping, oracular statement possible, and often presented it in excerpts so truncated and fragmentary that the uninitiated reader, unassisted by notes or comments, is likely to be led astray.

Let us take, for instance, the case of so well-known a writer as Jean-Paul Sartre, who is represented by no less than five selections. Whatever opinion one may have of Sartre’s thought, his importance in the shaping of the modern temper certainly more than justifies his presence here. His influence stems from his ability to combine the technical treatment of specific philosophical problems, in such books as Being and Nothingness, the Critique of Dialectical Reason, and the early work on Imagination, with the very accessible version of related problems in drama and fiction. This has made him into something more than a powerful popularizer of ideas that did not always originate with him; he also gives the impression that he is able to put these ideas into practice, and although this impression is in part an illusion, the effectiveness of his action nevertheless stems from an unusual combination of theory and praxis. At his best Sartre, therefore, is either purely theoretical or altogether literary: in the philosophical work or in novels like Nausea, The Wall, or the recent autobiography The Words. In between lies the generalizing, preaching, boring Sartre who freezes himself into static formulations which his nimble mind fortunately will not allow him to maintain. A text such as Existentialism and Humanism, a kind of campaign-speech which used to be read in many European cities after the war, is all too typical in this respect—and this is precisely the text from which the editors have taken all the extracts for their anthology. In this manner, they help to spread the mistaken conception of existentialism as a dogmatic but irrational stance, a dramatic stoicism invented to help cope with situations of crisis and derived from the darker insights of Dostoevsky or Kafka. In fact, the sources of existential thought, including Sartre’s, are not literary; the relationship of existentialism to literature is problematic and varies considerably from writer to writer; the importance of the movement is primarily methodological and heuristic, far removed from general definitions or value theories, and tied to a specialized and not very felicitous terminology. One is not likely to discover these facts from the chapter on Existentialism in The Modern Tradition. Not a single excerpt illustrates the phenomenological rigor or the critical acumen of good existential writing; the two short excerpts from Heidegger, almost completely meaningless out of context, and also taken from the least suitable of texts, do not remedy this situation in the least. We are offered some vague talk about authenticity but very little authentic language, in an area of modern thought that has at least some to offer.

Or one could take the excerpt from Lukács on realism as another example. It showed initiative on the part of the editors to include a writer who is still little known in the U.S. and who has exercised a strong influence on recent European criticism of fiction. Again, Lukács’s writing, especially during his Marxist phase, is frequently stilted and doctrinaire when he indulges in generalities, but he can show penetrating insight in matters of detail. I remember Etiemble’s remark that what first impressed him about Lukács, was not some general theory, but the manner in which the critic compared the horse race scenes in Anna Karenina and Nana. Ellmann and Feidelson (alas!) offer us very few horse-races, but the dreariest of introductions of Lukács’s rather gray book on realism that is not likely to fire any student’s curiosity. Yet, if one wanted to include some sociologically oriented writings on literature, it would not have been difficult to find more exciting passages, in Lukács himself, or in Walter Benjamin’s so truly “modern” essay on “The Work of Art in the Era of Technical Reproduction,” or in Herbert Marcuse or Adorno. In general, one regrets that the editors have included so few samples of literary criticism or specific writings about literature. We hear a lot about art as ethics, as mission, as religion, as mysticism; a lot about history, the unconscious, Being, dread, guilt, God, and faith. But we lose sight of the all important point that nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature is primarily a reflection on literature itself which can provide a great deal of lucid insight into the nature of literary language. Furthermore the reports of writers on their own work are not always or necessarily the most illuminating. Keats’s or Flaubert’s letters, Baudelaire’s Salons or Mallarmé’s Divagations, may well reveal a degree of consciousness close to that found in their purely literary work, but this is certainly less so for Stevens, Yeats, Eliot, or Rilke, while the critical essays of a writer like Valéry lag far behind his poetry in reflective penetration. Granted that there was perhaps little point in reprinting some of the better known and easily available essays by American critics, nevertheless a text like the last chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis, or an essay by E. R. Curtius on European literature, would perhaps have done more to illuminate the modern literary consciousness than theoretical prose written by the poets themselves. The editors, after all, did include some actual critics, such as I. A. Richards and Lukács, but why did they stop there? With their method of selection, only those writers who have expressed themselves discursively about their art are represented, and this is bound to result in an incomplete and lopsided picture. Here again, one has the feeling that a great deal of repetition and dispersion could have been avoided by resorting to more particularized statements. And a more accurate picture of the modern mind would certainly have emerged.

For it is the persistent attempt of a consciousness to reach an understanding of itself that characterizes modern thought at its best, whether it be literary or not. The very tension resulting from this effort leads to certain aberrations that the editors do not entirely avoid. As a consciousness develops and progresses, it is bound to encounter an increasing resistance to its own growth. The more it understands its own progression, the more difficult or even painful this progression becomes. Naturally enough, this increased resistance leads to a nostalgic regret for earlier, less advanced stages of self awareness that may seem surrounded by an aura of innocent simplicity. Hence the tendency, in periods of acute self-consciousness, to regress towards more primitive levels of experience and to idealize them into something very different from what they actually are. All modern writers and thinkers have moments during which they give in to such regressive tendencies, especially when they feel tempted to undertake vast, general syntheses. The editors of this anthology seem to have a marked preference for moments of this kind. Why for instance, as one example among many, include without warning the highly untypical and juvenile essay of Mallarmé here entitled “Art as as Aristocratic Mastery” (L’art pour tous), written when Mallarmé was less than twenty years old, and likely to strengthen the worst oversimplifications about the moral irresponsibility of aestheticism? Each section (as well as the book as a whole) suggests that although the ideas of the “modern” period were first articulated by rational means, this attempt was soon stifled and fell back into primitivism: from the philosophy of history one regresses to the crudeness of the nearly inarticulate (the section on History begins with Hegel and ends with Henry Miller!); from history one moves on to the unconscious, and from the unconscious to myth. In the most important section of the work, entitled Self-Consciousness, we reach the truly central insight of modernity, for here the selections are intended to show how self-understanding can lay bare the divided structures of consciousness: irony, alienation, conflict of appearance and being, etc. The choice of texts, at this point is altogether sound (despite the inadequacy of Baillie’s translation of Hegel’s famous passage on the Unhappy Consciousness, where the twenty-four paragraphs of this tightly organized argument are arbitrarily truncated to the first four). But when one moves on to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and to the pages on overcoming the self in Zarathustra, one is inevitably led to believe that the attempt at self understanding begun in the eighteenth century and pursued into the first half of the nineteenth ended in a hopeless impasse and that violent, apocalyptic modes of thought had to take over. The liberating effect of Nietzsche’s and Dostoesky’s rebellion is thus placed in the wrong light. And when this section leads into the chapter on Existence, presented as an irrational cult of the absurd, and then concludes with a section on faith, one has indeed been well prepared to accept Maritain’s denunciation of “The Errors of Modern Rationalism” which falsely presents Descartes and Rousseau as the initiators of an anthropocentric naturalism. Indeed, instead of The Modern Tradition, the title for this work could well have been taken from one of Lukács’s bleakest and most doctrinaire works about the same historical period, The Destruction of Reason (Die Zerstörung der Vernunft, 1962).

The same bias leads to a mistaken emphasis on the privileged role of literature in modern thought. Literature is the unchallenged hero of the anthology, an emphasis to which one can subscribe for many reasons: the ideological and philosophical importance of literary thought since the eighteenth century is overpowering. However, one gains the impression from this anthology that literature achieves this prominence because it is the repository of the irrational forces in man, forces that lie beyond the reach of consciousness. Literature therefore becomes the activity of the mind of which to fall back once the “destruction of reason” has taken place: it is the language in which our darker powers find expression. One may well believe the opposite to be true, that the oppositions between rational thought and irrational poetry, between existential and analytical philosophy, between faith and consciousness are false and misleading polarities. The best modern writers and philosophers have made human consciousness the center of their concern and language the medium of their exploration; perhaps the only genuine opposition is between them and the positions of extreme objective positivism or equally extreme subjective primitivism which have surrendered the autonomy of the conscious mind to the unquestioned hegemony of the physical world. It is clear, from their own books, that the views of Professors Ellmann and Feidelson on these matters are enlightened; all the more reason to warn readers of this challenging anthology that it needs to be counter-balanced by a great deal of complementary reading.

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