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the preceding generation into the absolute embodiment of modernity and to scorn whatever preceded it as hopelessly out-of-date.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…

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