Jan 7, 2008

Modernism as Endless Heresy

Peter Gay, that fine scholar of modern times, has put out a book that has pertinence to the study of Yvor Winters. The Lure of Heresy has been called Gay's most ambitious work since his widely praised book on Sigmund Freud. The subject of more than a dozen reviews in the major journals, the book explores the once-shocking modernist rebellion that, beginning in the 1840s (as is thought), transformed art, literature, music, and film through the rejection of traditional forms. The publicity on the book calls this rejection an “assault” (though I do not think this word is quite accurate). The subject is an important one because Yvor Winters played a small role in the movement with his early poetry and criticism. Few poetry readers realize nowadays that he did so, though his early work still attracts and inspires many poets and critics to this day. Indeed, many critics and poets who know something of Winters prefer his early work to the later classical writings. I would say that Winters wrote some of the finest modernist poetry at the height of the era, which also has been the claim of a few prominent poet-critics, such as Robert Lowell. I have quoted a couple of these poems on this blog, but to illustrate this phase of Winters’s career, let me offer another early free-verse poem that I find striking and powerful:


Frigidity the hesitant
uncurls its tentacles
into a furry sun.
The ice expands
into an insecurity
that should appall
yet I remain
astray in this
oblivion, this
inert labyrinth
of sentences that
dare not end. It
is high noon and
all is the more quiet
where I trace
the courses of the Crab
and Scorpion, the Bull,
the Hunter, and the Bear --
with front of steel
they cut an aperture
so clear across the
cold that it cannot
be seen: there is no
smoky breath, no
breath at all.

Winters wrote a lot of poems in this style and a lot about this sort of experience -- Gay argues that this turn to personal introspection was central to modernism -- before he became a classicist in the late 1920s. Still, even after his turn to classicism, he was trying to keep alive whatever was valuable in modernism, particularly the intensity of perception that the movement fostered (which is nicely illustrated in many of Winters’s poems from the early period). Peter Gay begins his study with Baudelaire, whose poetry was central to Winters’s thought and art, especially in his change of direction to modern classicism. Gay finds Baudelaire’s poetry “lurid,” and it did scandalize the French cultural leaders of his day. But I encourage you to read Winters to comprehend how Baudelaire’s work in many ways was actually a development of classicism, not an “assault” upon it. This is a subject much in need of reconsideration. Even John Fraser in his New Book of Verse tries to reclaim at least some of Baudelaire’s major work for modern classicism.

Gay traces the revolutionary path of modernism from its Parisian origins to its emergence as the dominant cultural movement in such major cities as Berlin and New York. Winters first tried to develop his art within this movement, but soon rejected it because of its limitations. Gay’s book appears, upon a skimming, to have breadth and brilliance, but it’s hardly unique, as some have claimed, in surveying modernism, which has been the subject of many studies of greater breadth and depth than Gay’s. It parades a typical pageant of “heretics” before us: such as Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, and D. W. Griffiths; James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot; Walter Gropius, Arnold Schoenberg, and (oddly) Andy Warhol. I find much of the achievement of these artists to have been pretty thin, but some are the authors and artists Winters took seriously, often argued with or against, and remain worth knowing.

There is no mention of Yvor Winters in the book -- I would admittedly have been shocked to find one. Gay does not study anyone from the Stanford School, though you could study the Southern Review, Second Series under Donald Stanford’s editorship (1965-1984) to gain just about as fine an overview of modernism as Gay’s -- and partly from the perspective of modern, Wintersian classicism. As far as I have been able to discern in skimming the book, Gay does not look at reactions to modernism’s so-called heresies, though many artists and critics besides Winters opposed or disparaged the movement for one reason or another.

In the area of poetry, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” interests Gay most -- ho hum. I just realized something about that poem: if it really had as much influence as is regularly claimed, it succeeded well in creating the “waste land” it supposedly described (created it in poetry at least; thus, the poem might have been a self-fulfilling prophesy). Gay also offers little on Ezra Pound, which seems an oversight. And he has almost nothing to say about Wallace Stevens or any American poet besides Eliot. He doesn’t even mention William Carlos Williams, who is responsible for so much in the direction modern poetry took, in my view.

Yvor Winters wrote about moderns writers and critics extensively, but he had little to say about “modernism” as a movement. He appears to have thought that what we call modernism was simply an outgrowth of Romanticism, as a form of self-expression. Just to whet your appetite to reconsider the views of Yvor Winters on the subject, here is a sample of his commentary on such matters from the "Foreword" to In Defense of Reason:

The Romantics, however, although they offer a relatively realistic view of the power of literature, offer a fallacious and dangerous view of the nature both of literature and of man. The Romantic theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience, that man is naturally good, that man's impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life. When this notion is combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to impulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve also a kind of mystical union with the Divinity: this, for example, is the doctrine of Emerson. Literature thus becomes a form of what is known popularly as self-expression. It is not the business of man to understand and improve himself, for such an effort is superfluous: he is good as he is, if he will only let himself alone, or, as we might say, let himself go. The poem is valuable because it enables us to share the experience of a man who has let himself go, who has expressed his feelings, without hindrance, as he has found them at a given moment. The ultimate ideal at which such a theory aims is automatism.

There is a lot in that passage to take in and to discuss. But for now I will leave it to your own study. My point is that the “heresy” of modernism did not seem to Winters to have been a heresy at all. It was a consequence and outgrowth of Romanticism. That’s a theory that someone in the Stanford School should find worth re-evaluating.

Gay's book also examines the hostility of totalitarian regimes to modernist freedoms. This is a troublesome topic, for Winters was often unfairly suspected or accused of being some sort of weird fascist because of his rejection of modernist aesthetics. Such scurrilous charges, I believe, damaged his reputation and played a part in keeping Winters from wider influence. I suspect that they still affect his reputation.

Finally, I find Jacques Barzun’s recent delineation of modernism in From Dawn to Decadence to be stronger than Gay’s. Even the use of the word “heresy” in the title doesn’t quite ring true in my ears. Modernism wasn’t exactly heretical, a purification, as heresies have usually been. Though it seems wholly experimental, a seeking of complete freedom, I think Winters was onto something more important in seeing it as a foreseeable development of Romanticism. For his part, Barzun calls the overarching concept that formed modernism and many of the movements leading up to it “Emancipation,” one of Barzun’s main intellectual “themes” of the last 500 years in the cultural history of the West. Here is a snippet of what Barzun says about what he calls the decadence that seeking Emancipation has engendered:

All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

I think Barzun’s Emancipation theme and his lengthy discussion of it more clearly reflect what the moderns were after than Gay’s term “heresy.” It would require a long essay to make my case, but I do not have the time or inclination to write about this issue at the moment. But comments on this and all other matters pertaining to modernism and Peter Gay’s study of it are welcome, as always.

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