Saturday, January 13, 2007

Old writing. 1987-95 or thereabouts
We generally assume that the intellectual and esthetic preoccupations of high modernism were antithetical to narrative or allegory. We think less often however of the ways in which this stance is responsible more than anything else for the failure of the many attempts of a self-consciously enlightened modernism to engage in politics and indeed in the world at large. Society is the product of dialectical processes very unlike the personal dialectics we find within one person's deliberately isolated imagination, yet this isolation remains the central image of modernist culture, indeed of all intellectual and high-cultural life up to and including our supposedly post-modern present.

My interest in the first part of this essay is to lay out and define the parameters of modernism and its relationship to the world; not the relationship desired necessarily by any of the participants, but the ones that existed. It is important to note at the outset that all aspects of culture were affected by the changes of the modern world. The template was the same, regardless of how the participants saw themselves; though some chose advocate for ‘progress’ and others for conservatism or reaction. The story of modernism is the story of how those groups or desires (often overlapping in the actors themselves) grew together and apart and together again, in ways few or any were able to foretell, least of all those who tried to.

High modernism’s preoccupations were twofold and contradictory: on the one hand in absolute identity, in self as opposed to society, and on the other in abstract principles as opposed to the individual elements, actions, or people, to which they were applied. Formalism, or structuralism (in its most general sense) describes an interest in the infrastructure of ideas and processes and was meant to oppose, or escape, any implicit and therefore metaphysical predisposition toward one or another technique or methodology. The goal was not so much to choose but to study the process of decision-making, since preference for A or B could be merely that, and not an objectively agreed-upon truth. It was this master allegory of objectivity and not objectivity itself that gave modernist political rhetoric its power. The paradigmatic form of this objectivity in intellectual life became an idea of analysis, in all of the ways in which we are now familiar with it, and its implication of scientific method.

Artists. thinkers and others at the beginning of the last century who were not comfortable with what was becoming an activist modernism were in a bind. Many were more comfortable with a known past than an unstable present and turned to what they considered the higher ground of the 19th century bourgeois. This chimera –it was not more an that- could not do well against the concrete reality of scientific and mechanical progress and the power that electric lights, and motors, and soon automobiles and airplanes could carry as popular and later universal metaphors. But if the recent past was seeming more remote it was still within living memory; how else do we describe Thomas Mann, Henry James, Eliot, Joyce or Proust, but as moderns -not modernists- remembering the time before modernism, documenting the change through the mediation (form) of often very up-to-date language.

If some succeeded, however unhappily, in living with their grief -this new anxiety-, others chose the lesser but equally Victorian sibling of 19th century high culture, the demimonde that followed in the literary footsteps of the Marquis de Sade. There tastes were for the sensual and an ideal of metaphysical immediacy. The Marquis, an anti-materialist from another generation, fought against an enlightenment that he could not take part in and a past that that he could not escape. If he desired release, if he desired an easy out from the social obligations of discourse, from the banality of conversation as chitchat, he could he no more accept the pretensions of those who argued for a Christian god than Alfred Jarry, over 130 years later, would accept the pontifications of those whom he would personify as Ubu. The willful self-destructive acknowledgement of impotence that marked de Sade would also mark his descendants, from Sacher-Masoch to Jarry, to Dada, Surrealism, and on. These esthetic radicals in turn share the fringes of modernism with conservative fantasists: Jung, Gurdjieff and painters such as Nicholas Roerich, all best defined as the defenders -or the shadows- of the 19th century metaphysical narrative tradition. With them they share an inability either to shut out, or control, the memories of the 19th century which artists such as the politically conservative but thoroughly modern Eliot or the vaguely left wing Picasso were able to do.


The issue is one of successful mediation. ...

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