Modernism and Subjectivity: A Brief Essay

Kazimir_Malevich small

Kazimir Malevich – ‘Suprematist_Composition – White on White’, oil on canvas, 1918, Museum of Modern Art

One reason why there are so few decent books on modernism — pace the often excellent books and studies of individual modernist writers, painters and thinkers — is that modernism is not a term that can be clearly defined or dated. Every attempt brings risk: why this historical period as opposed to another, why this trend and not one that paralleled or preceded it? Can modernism have a specific date and place? Is there one modernism or many?
What is excluded is just as important as what is included. Should Dada and Futurism be included or should they be seen as unique challenges within the modernist movements happening across Europe. Should Vorticism and Russian Futurism be included; how should one place the short-lived collective OBERIU along with Suprematism and the artistic and other literary experiments happening across Eastern Europe and Russia, and in the early years of the Soviet Union? How to they fit into the idea of modernism? And why has modernism today retreated from the scene? Why have we returned to tired forms and nostalgia?
To understand what modernism is, it may be best not to seek a positivist account. It cannot be reduced to a defined historical period, as a part of the natural progression of art and history; or amongst its most implacable foes, as a conspiracy by academics and dealers looking to secure tenure and make money by telling people that plotless novels and blank canvases were superior to good-old-fashioned plot-driven  works and recognizable landscape paintings.
Instead, I would like to propose that modernism can only be understood as a result of the tensions that emerged within the Renaissance the later Enlightenment, in what T.S. Eliot called the ‘dissociation of sensibility,’ where the individual was now in a world were the old verities were gone, or if not completely disappeared were nevertheless under increasing scrutiny. But what was to replace the old certainties was uncertain. At the same time this was happening, there was a growing shift to living in what we would call urban environments, where life was tuned to new kinds of economic, social and political realities.
Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind outlined the psychic cost of this dissociation. Where Man could once ground the self on what were once universally accepted certainties, that was not the case anymore. In the section ‘Freedom of Self-consciousness: Stoicism, Scepticism and the Unhappy Consciousness,’ Hegel outlines how the self is now not a secure, unchanging thing that can be objectively observed, but is one in dialectical flux:

Sceptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self. It is aware of being this of self-thinking thought, the unalterable and genuine certainty of its self. This certainty does not arise as a result out of something extraneous and foreign which stowed away inside itself its whole complex development; a result which would thus leave behind the process by which it came to be. Rather consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this mêlée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved — for this identity is itself determinateness as contrasted with non-identity. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an absolutely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder. This is what it takes itself to be; for itself maintains and produces this self-impelling confusion. Hence it even confesses the fact; it owns to being, an entirely fortuitous individual consciousness — a consciousness which is empirical, which is directed upon what admittedly has no reality for it, which obeys what, in its regard, has no essential being, which realizes and does what it knows to have no truth. But while it passes in this manner for an individual, isolated. contingent, in fact animal life, and a lost self-consciousness, it also, on the contrary, again turns itself into universal self-sameness; for it is the negativity of all singleness and all difference. From this self-identity, or rather within its very self, it falls back once more into that contingency and confusion, for this very self-directed process of negation has to do solely with what is single and individual, and is occupied with what is fortuitous. This form of consciousness is, therefore, the aimless fickleness and instability of going to and fro, hither and thither, from one extreme of self-same self-consciousness, to the other contingent, confused and confusing consciousness. It does not itself bring these two thoughts of itself together. It finds its freedom, at one time, in the form of elevation above all the whirling complexity and all the contingency of mere existence, and again, at another time, likewise confesses to falling back upon what is unessential, and to being taken up with that. It lets the unessential content in its thought vanish; but in that very act it is the consciousness of something unessential. It announces absolute disappearance but the announcement is, and this consciousness is the evanescence expressly announced. It announces the nullity of seeing, hearing, and so on, yet itself sees and hears. It proclaims the nothingness of essential ethical principles, and makes those very truths the sinews of its own conduct. Its deeds and its words belie each other continually; and itself, too, has the doubled contradictory consciousness of immutability and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself. But it keeps asunder the poles of this contradiction within itself; and bears itself towards the contradiction as it does in its purely negative process in general. If sameness is shown to it, it points out unlikeness, non-identity; and when the latter, which it has expressly mentioned the moment before, is held up to it, it passes on to indicate sameness and identity. Its talk, in fact, is like a squabble among self-willed children, one of whom says A when the other says B, and again B, when the other says A, and who, through being in contradiction with themselves, procure the joy of remaining in contradiction with one another.

Later he will add:

Hence the Unhappy Consciousness the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness of self as a divided nature, a doubled and merely contradictory being.
This unhappy consciousness, divided and at variance within itself, must, because this contradiction of its essential nature is felt to be a single consciousness, always have in the one consciousness the other also; and thus must be straightway driven out of each in turn, when it thinks it has therein attained to the victory and rest of unity. Its true return into itself, or reconciliation with itself, will, however, display the notion of mind endowed with a life and existence of its own, because it implicitly involves the fact that, while being an undivided consciousness, it is a double-consciousness. It is itself the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both, and the unity of both is also its own essence; but objectively and consciously it is not yet this essence itself — is not yet the unity of both.

An important part of modernism is recognizing this new sense of the self that emerged. While many books about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment tend to place positive weight on the emergence of what we would call modern individualism that arose out of the collapse of the old ways of thinking about persons and their relationship to society and religion, these thinkers and writers have often downplayed or ignored the tensions and contradictions that arose. In the effort to undermine old certainties, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers often could not ground the new certainties any better. If old certainties were argued to be set on unexamined or arbitrary foundations, the new ones were many times set upon ones that were as unstable and prone to collapse when subjected to the same scrutiny given to the ones now removed. The self and its place in this new world was as uncertain as the foundations on which the new order was trying to set itself upon, hence Hegel’s sense that self-consciousness was unhappy when it became aware of its divided and contradictory being.
Kierkegaard recognized one consequence of this dissociation of sensibility and that is the tendency of persons to seek some basis on which to ground themselves. One way of doing so is by absorption into the anonymous urban mass. Kierkegaard recognized the consequence of this absorption, which in his A Literary Review, he called ‘levelling.’ The danger in this levelling is that it removes the will of persons to examine themselves and gives rise to inauthentic selves based on what is external. As he was to put it in The Sickness unto Death:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

By the late-19th Century, this feeling of the self under threat, of the ennui  produced by the self’s perilous relationship to mass society, of at any moment it being swallowed up, was memorably described by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria as the feeling one gets when missing a step on a darkened staircase.

Heidegger in Being and Time will take this idea of levelling to describe the anonymous ‘they’ of das Man, that of modern urban mass culture that directs persons to superficial externalities:

In this averageness with which it prescribes what can and may be ventured, it keeps watch over everything exceptional that thrusts itself to the fore. Overnight, everything that is primordial gets glossed over as something that has long been well known. Everything gained by struggle becomes something to be manipulated. Every secret loses its force. This care of averageness reveals in turn an essential tendency of Dasein which we call “levelling down” of all possibilities of Being.

We might call this public opinion or received wisdom, an all-to-easy set of prescriptions for our selves and our agency, that are external to us and un-reflected upon. This is why today, in my opinion, there is a nostalgia for the old forms, for novels written in the modes from the 19th century with its comfortable psychology; for serious music that tonally mimics earlier styles.
Modernism brings this tension to the fore, of Hegel’s dialectical self and its relation to the world with the pressures of sinking the self into modern society’s anonymous levelling of spirit. Kierkegaard waned of the dangers of the levelling affect of the public, of which nostalgia is one such consequence :

The public, however, is an abstraction. To adopt the same opinion as these or those particular persons is to know that they would be subject to the same danger as oneself, that they would err with one if the opinion were wrong, etc. But to adopt the same opinion as the public is treacherous consolation, for the public exists only in abstracto.

Modernism resists this levelling of the public, of the treacherous consolation of the old forms.

Harold Brodkey

Harold Brodkey, New Yorker Hcoale, via Wikimedia Commons

Few literary reputations have fallen as precipitously as that of Harold Brodkey.
From the time his first stories appeared in The New Yorker to the publication of his acclaimed collection First Love and Other Sorrows (1958), Brodkey was considered a writer of outstanding promise. When word got out that Brodkey was working on a massive novel, portions of which appeared over the years in several magazines and journals, it was proclaimed by some as a work of genius and Brodkey as important a writer as Proust. As years went by, with his only other publication being Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988) and various essays and occasional pieces appearing in such places as diverse as Esquire and Anteaus, critical opinion turned. Brodkey was now more often accused of being a fraud, his much-delayed novel a hoax and his literary skills negligible. Opprobrium was directed at Brodkey’s person, at the advances given to him from publishing houses to which his novel was shopped around and at those who once championed his work. Stories that once were said to be masterpieces, such as “Innocence” and “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” were dismissed with such venom that one suspected the critic making the negative comment had been personally insulted by Brodkey at some private event.
When his novel finally appeared in 1991, having undergone a title change from Party of Animals to The Runaway Soul, as well as going through extensive revisions and stylistic changes from the portions that had appeared earlier, critics and readers responded negatively. Few serious novels, in my memory, have been savaged in the way The Runaway Soul was or how its author was publicly pilloried, with some reviewers leaving the distinct impression that Brodkey had committed some grave moral offense that could not be forgiven.
While he continued to publish after the failure of The Runaway Soul, producing another novel and more short stories, along with a book about Venice and a memoir of his battle with AIDS, by the time of his death in 1996 Brodkey’s literary reputation was in tatters. Now approaching twenty years since his passing, Brodkey’s works are out of print and his name has fallen out literary conversation. There are no planned symposiums on his work or person, or a even biography in the works, that would suggest a revival of interest in his work.


It is not hard to see why The Runaway Soul did not succeed. Brodkey’s novel is demanding in ways so few novels today are. There are few incidents across its sprawling text and its focus, instead, is on the obsessive and microscopic chronicling of the sensations and shifting consciousness of Wiley Silenowicz, a stand-in for Brodkey, and his coming of age in the American Midwest; and on Wiley’s love, sometimes sexual and erotic, with the various people in his life. The novel is marked by two erotic and explicit episodes that take up a great part of the book’s explorations of Wiley’s consciousness.
Where most novelists will reveal a character’s inner consciousness as it develops over time and in chronologically laid-out incidents, Brodkey has time move at the pace of consciousness. Time becomes pliable, slowing down and speeding up in Brodkey’s focus on closely examining those handful of incidents in Wiley’s life. What fascinates Brodkey is how such incidents can never yield a single final truth, that each remembrance will offer up a new sensation, an additional fact and emotional register. It is the plenitude, excess and complexity of experience within those snapshots of time that most fascinates Brodkey. Think of it as a radical form of phenomenological realism where traditional realism, as developed in the 19th century novel, is unable to go. Brodkey’s realism also requires a new kind of writing , one that can capture the subtle changes happening to Wiley’s consciousness. What Brodkey develops is a writing that captures the different emotional and intellectual registers of consciousness, but one that is not in anyway linear or continuous. It is a style marked by excess, capriciousness and expansiveness. It is a headlong rush that can change on a dime, moving from the portentous to the subtle, from the mundane to the profound. Language is stretched to the point of breaking in the rush to capture every nuance, even if at times, Brodkey has Wiley struggling to find the right words and expression for what is happening, and sometimes failing and flailing in the process. Here is Wiley describing Ora and he in the prelude to having sex:

The way we were doing it ̶ the ironic thing and the physical effort and the showiness and the sincerity ̶ from time to time ̶ and that stuff being shown (rather than the physical mattering most) ̶ well, in body-surfing, you land on the beach and you’re okay and you think back over your recent ride so you can have it in near-consciousness, so to speak (but the memory is all rushed and a lot of what happened is hidden from you inside the sense of wondering pleasure), you have bits of a conscious large-scale stuff, and then being young and bare-fleshed and borne along by the melting green locomotive. Something unhallucinatory, something graspable, the shine of faint sweat on Ora’s face, the faint fakeries of the posture in the first place ̶ I’m not comfortably a showy fucker. I’m hammy. Ora said, Oh you beautiful man . . . But, see, it was proof of a kind of wrongness ̶ which was okay ̶ it went with the thing of sex being softly and oozingly mechanical and breath-driven, and unmechanical, and fitting and suitable, and loving and stupid ̶ and not stupid ̶ and grand really only, sublime, a little ̶ as when you were small and were on a swing and went too high and suddenly the sky was there and light and infinite air and a separation from the world which was infinite, infinite ̶ for a second. That was here judgement ̶ her view. I am guessing at it. It’s the body parts and then the motions of them. And the minds. Glittery, amazed, semi-opaque ̶ like eyes. Two wills, changeable, and then the applause, thunk, thunk, of abdomens. And the permissions, I suppose. The glimmering lights of birth are echoed here, are repeated in a kind of semi-inverted animal talk.

In ‘Grammar and American Reality,’ Brodkey argues that there is no agreed upon and no ‘polite,’ American English. “We have no real over-tongue, no equivalent to hochdeutch or serious standard-British English or Tuscan.” Instead, American English and grammar is marked by a “crudity of spirit (in the sense of not anciently derived spirit) and aesthetic hubris (in the same sense), mark any intelligent us of English . . . We unconsciously admit that a proper use of English is, ipso facto, an eccentric use; and, so, we overpraise proper or seemingly proper writers who write a rather poor but pretentiously schooled English.” And later, in “Language is Articulated Consciousness.’ Brodkey writes, “Let me being with the notion that language is articulated consciousness. Articulated how? Articulated for the purpose of comprehension in real time among the physical laws of breath and hearing or eyes and comprehension.” While neither of these two essays can be called aesthetic manifestos, they do reveal a lot of Brodkey’s own principles behind his writing, especially the shift away from the kind of proper-English, middle-class American realism that so excited reviewers when his early stories appeared in The New Yorker, to the examination of interiority and the stylistic complexity and daring that came about with that shift in focus, and which offended so many.
For those interested in exploration of the personal, of daring and complex writing, there is much to be learned from Brodkey’s work. The question is, will there come a time when Brodkey’s work and The Runaway Soul will be given their due? It is impossible to tell. Literary reputation is difficult to predict and the standing of a writer can be impacted less by the quality and aesthetic daring of a work and more by changes in literary taste and what engages critics at the moment. Literary modernism and experimentalism has been replaced by nostalgia for the 19th century novel and traditional psychological realism in the mode of Tolstoy and Dickens, and works written in the style of the middlebrow fiction popular in the 1950s. Look at the number of novels and short stories being published now to great acclaim that can sit easily amongst the same readers that made Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place a best seller in 1956.
Sometimes what keeps a writer being read is the passionate devotion of a group of dedicated readers and critics who can champion that writer’s work. Brodkey now waits for those readers.

The Balthus Enigma

Balthus By Damian Pettigrew (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known to most as Balthus, remains the most enigmatic of painters. His work seems outside the major visual movements of the past century. His is a modernism of a revival of old masters techniques with the psychological acumen of Freud. His paintings work like a foreign language, the meanings hidden until we learn to read them properly. Yet, nothing is truly hidden in Bathus’s paintings, except the viewer’s own prejudices which causes many to be drawn up short when coming across his work.
Balthus is too often regarded as a painter of prurient eroticism, of young girls in provocative poses. This is mistaking the surface for what the paintings are about. Are Thérèse on a Bench Seat or Thérèse Dreaming really nothing more than paintings of eroticised adolescence? Or is there something more going on? It would be best to contrast these works with Surrealism. Breton in his manifesto described Surrealism as, “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought.” Balthus is very much interested in the psychological. Unlike Dali, Andre Masson or Rene Magritte, however, Balthus is not interested in depicting the mechanisms of the psychic automatism of thought. Balthus is instead a contemporary of the novelist André Gide and Charles Fourier’s 19th century utopianism.

Therese DreamingThérèse on a Bench Seat
For Balthus, adolescence is a time where children come into their own. It has its own dynamism, that frisson of energy when a new self emerges and possesses the world around it. Wuthering Heights is a keystone for Balthus. Emily Brontë’s novel is a depiction, if in hysterical fashion, of how adolescence creates its own customs and sense of time. Thérèse in the paintings is a depiction of that adolescent vitality and psychic emergence, where erotic energy is channeled into what Guy Davenport, in his provocative A Balthus Notebook, describes as an “an endless afternoon of reading, playing cards, and daydreaming.” For Balthus — as for writers Alain-Fournier and Cocteau, as well — children live in their minds and contour the world and themselves around those games, afternoons and daydreams. There is an eerie stillness in emerging adolescence that Balthus captures. We are glimpsing, just for a moment, that interior self-sufficiency of the adolescent, where body, mind and world are united and creating a unique space of possibilities.

Thérèse 1938

Pause for a moment over Thérèse. Balthus paints her leaning back in an armchair. Her face is apparently turned toward the viewer, but not (if one looks closely) focused directly either on the painter, whom she is supposedly gazing towards, or us. Her pose is relaxed and understated. Raised and crossed on top her right leg, her left is relaxed with her left hand placed on the knee. Balthus’s capturing of light on her legs and face, the careful working out of such details as her hands, clothing and Thérèse’s gaze all suggest a girl within her own world. The armchair, the table and its wrinkled covering, the wall behind her are now part of the interior world of Thérèse. Thérèse is wholly within herself, looking at herself. She is far removed from Watteau’s Diana Bathing. Diana, while alone like Thérèse, is never unaware of the gaze of another. Thérèse cares not a wit for another’s gaze. Balthus’s adolescents with their provocative poses are not seeking to be gazed at, but instead gaze into their own world. The world around them is then remade in that interior view. One is reminded of Courbet’s portrait of his sister, Juliette, who possesses the same self-satisfied gaze and glance one finds in Balthus. Balthus obviously was influenced by that work.

Nude on a Chaise Longue 1950 by Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola) 1908-2001

Nude on a Chaise Longue is another painting that captures this moment, a variation, I believe, on the earlier Thérèse paintings. Here a female figure wearing only white knee socks and red slippers is on a chaise longue. She is stretched across the longue with her head back, eyes closed and one arm raised above her and another down towards the floor. Her hair is loose. The colours are muted. The female figure’s age is indeterminate. Like Thérèse, the female figure is within her own world. Body, mind and place are one within the painting. Possibilities of an emerging physical, psychological and sexual realm abound, but never is one realm privileged over another. Balthus’s old master techniques, his chiaroscuro lighting effects, his colour palate and his near architectural placement the objects in the room and the placement of the female figure bring all three realms together.
It is a mistake to see Balthus as focusing only on the sexual. Balthus often said that his paintings had no overt sexuality. I think he was not so much denying such sexuality existed, but that is was not the only thing his paintings were about, or even what they were about at all. The sexuality in Balthus is never vulgar or cheap. It is strangely protective as the gaze of all the girls is private and inward, never outward or beckoning. It is only the person who fails to understand or to truly experience what Balthus is doing and instead forces Balthus into a single meaning — in most cases today one of prurience and admonition against adolescence having any kind of healthy and meaningful interior life that is not circumscribed by adult expectations or worries over innocence and experience — that will miss what makes Balthus important.

What Role The Critic

Books on a Shelf

No one has anything good to say about critics. They are a despised lot, of a lower order to that occupied by the artist. Brendan Behan called critics “eunuchs in a harem.” Kenneth Tynan said of critics, including himself, that they were persons who know the way around, but cannot drive a car. Nabokov’s disdain of critics was only matched by the contempt he had for editors, whom he described as “pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to ‘make suggestions’ which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!'”

Even the greatest of critics are more commented upon than read. How many today read Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare or his Lives of the English Poets? Or for that matter how many know of Sainte-Beuve’s What Is a Classic? or Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher? Or Hazlitt’s Lectures on English Poets? All are confined to the connoisseur or literary specialist. It is no better for more recent critics. How many people know of the work of Viktor Shklovsky whose Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar and his essays in Theory of Prose should be on any serious literature student’s desk, next to Auerbach’s Mimesis and Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel.

One reason why critics are so poorly thought of is that proper criticism has been much diminished. Take a look once more at the small list of names I mentioned. These critics situate their subjects and ideas within larger arguments of history, philosophy and previous and current commentary. They examine how artists work and explicate upon the various strands of thought, criticism, ideas and politics at play in their works. At the same time, these critics show why certain artists are worthy of such sustained attention. They exemplify Hilton Kramer’s argument for connoisseurship, “the close, comparative study of art objects with a view to determining  their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” Criticism today is reduced to statements of preference rather than discrimination, placing all works on the same aesthetic level. Joyce is in no way superior to Henry Miller, Pound to Maya Angelou. This is criticism reduced to Amazon’s starred reviews and comments.

When criticism works, it brings forward not only the aesthetic aspects of the work under study, but the mechanism by which that work makes its aesthetic claims and thereby allow a reader to see why its is aesthetically superior to other works.

William H Gass By David Shankbone (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

William H Gass is one of America’s finest novelist and critics. In many respects his novels and stories and his criticism form a continuous dialogue, building on and developing Gass’ evolving and deepening philosophical and aesthetic insights and arguments. From his earliest essays collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life, Gass staked his esthetic mission on an argument that is difficult to refute, although many have tried, from his late and close friend and novelist John Gardner to most recently James Woods: “Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves out of concepts.” (Philosophy and the Form of Fiction, pg. 4) Shortly thereafter, “The esthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world, or a significant part of such a world, alive through every order of its Being. Its author may not purpose this — authors propose many things — but the construction of some sort of object, whether too disorderly to be a world or too mechanical to be alive, cannot be avoided.” (pg 7)

The art of fiction is, at it core, an assemblage of words, shaped by the artist who places them onto a page under mechanisms chosen by them in order to shape those words into a fiction. This can be the either be Joyce’s loose modeling of Bloom’s and Stephen’s wanderings about Dublin on Homer’s Odyssey and the creation of their interiors through various linguistics literary pastiches or to the pared-down prose of Beckett that seeks the clarity and weight of Heraclitus. The landscapes and destinies of characters, the worlds created are “indistinct from words and all their orderings.” (pg. 8) Even the realism so prized by James Woods in How Fiction Works is a mechanism, one of many that can be chosen, by which words are ordered by an author. And what is realism? It should not be forgotten that Joyce was attacked for writing about Bloom’s satisfying bowel movement and the wiping of his arse with bits of his morning newspaper. Joyce’s realism was a step too far, even among readers and critics of the time who read Zola.

Gass’ criticism pays special attention to how writers use words, to how words are ordered and what mechanisms shape that order. Gass is a master in teasing out how writers shape words and sentences to achieve the desired ends. Gass is one of America’s the great masters of the sentence. Take a look at his discussion of Gertrude Stein’s style in “Gertrude Stein: Her Escape From Protective Language.” Written as a review of “Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Works” by B.L. Reid, Gass does not so much review Reid’s book, but examines how Stein’s prose work and how Reid fails to comprehend what Stein is up to. Reid disparages Stein because she embodies principles that upset his notions of art. Gass points out that Stein has had that affect on critics from the beginning; and that is the very point of what Stein is trying to do with her prose. She wishes to challenge in the most direct way possible our notions of art and style, of or received opinions, and she will sculpt language to do so. Sculpt is the right word as I believe that Stein works with language as sculptor works with stone: “It requires us to consider again the esthetic significance of style; to examine again the ontological status of the artist’s vision, his medium, and his effect.” (pg. 87) The language of her early story Things As They Are seems to mock the title, for as Gass points out it is on the first flush or reading, pompous and vague, filled with circumlocutions and pedantic rhetoric.

One’s reaction is to give up and claim Stein a fraud. Many still do. But it is only on closer reading and looking at what Stein is trying to do with this language, especially as developed it in her later works, does one understand her strategies. She is challenging that common aspect of English writing toward what Gass calls protective language, where words — common words, phrases, social speech, simple nouns etc. — are used not as a way to confront the world, but to “gain by artifice a safety from the world — to find a way of thinking without the risks f feeling — is the source of the impulse to abstractness and simplicity in Gertrude Stein as it is in much of modern painting, where she felt immediately the similarity of aim.” (pg. 89) Protective speech is not about finding meanings, but cutting them off and limiting words to mere naming. A writer will say “John loves Mary.” It is a simple, declarative sentence. Only while the writer tells us that the character John, who may be young or old, a stock broker or a construction worker, loves Mary, possibly a teacher or a lunch counter waitress, the writer will never show them loving. Stein wants to show. Gass demonstrates how Stein’s language works to do exactly that: to show rather than to name. If we fail grasp that we fail to see how she works with words; for how Stein works with words, how she arranges them on the page, will show us how she accomplishes her goals. She will challenge how language should operate, how words should be used in order to break out of this protective language. If we fail to see how the writer does what they do, that we come instead with preset notions of what literature should do and how words should be used, then a writer like Stein will always stand as an effrontery. Take this passage from Stein’s The Making of Americans:

Disillusionment in living is finding that no one can really ever be agreeing with you completely in anything. Disillusionment then in living that gives to very many then melancholy feeling, some despairing feeling, some resignation, some fairly cheerful beginning and some a forgetting and continuing and some a dreary trickling weeping some violent attacking and some letting themselves do anything, disillusion then is really finding, really realising, really being certain that no one really can completely agree with you in anything, that, as is very certain, not, those fighting beside you or living completely with you or anybody, really, can really be believing anything completely that you are believing. Really realising this thing, completely realising this thing is the disillusionment in living in the beginning of being an old man or an old woman is being no longer a young one no longer a young man or an young woman no longer a growing older young man or growing older young woman.

Stein loves words, their sound and even their look upon the page. Protective language and criticism banishes this simple fact. Gass in his fictions as with Stein revels in words, in their vitality on the page and in ones mouth when spoken. Gass and Stein should be read out loud, the mouth savouring as one will a fine wine or as once chews a piece of meat. Gass’ criticism forces one to look anew at words and how artists work with words. We may say that characters come alive when we read them. Gass reminds us how the artists is there behind them.

Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport At Poetry Collections (

Guy Davenport is another critic and writer where the dialogue between his fictions and his criticism is constant. Many of his essays and stories should be ready side-by-side to see the sinews between them. Like Gass, Davenport is one of the masters of the sentence. Davenport’s are instantly recognizable. No one writes like him or brings the full weight of learning, lightly worn but ever present, to the sentence.

Davenport said of his stories and novels that they resemble not so much traditional fictive forms but “assemblages.” His is a collage of styles and techniques, calling attention to how the object in question, in this case his fiction, is assembled. It is closer to the Pound’s argument that master artists are those who combine a number of processes together and into a new whole. Davenport’s assemblages, whose closest parallel are Joseph Cornell’s boxes, calls attention to how he creates and assembles his work; at the same time, because of how he assembles the various object trouvés  that make up his works, he forces new ways of reading as well.

One sees the same in his essays, collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves and Form and The Hunter Gracchus. His essays and commentaries force one to look anew and more closely at how the works of certain artists are put together and how they forge new strategies of reading.

“When a density of learning began to appear in English literature, there came with it the understanding that the author would teach us what we needed to know as we read along,” Davenport write in “The Critic as Artist (Every Force Evolves a Form, pg 99-100) By the time we reach the modernist movement in literature, with Pound, Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Olson and Joyce and Beckett, the artist is asking for more careful and attentive reading than what many are often willing to give. Most don’t and complain bitterly at the work required. “Everywhere we look in modernist writing, we can see the writer trying to get us to pay attention, to wake us from some sleep into which literacy itself has lulled us.” (102)

Take the opening from Louis Zukofsky’s immense poem “A”:

A round of fiddles playing Bach

Davenport makes us pause over this simple opening. It only reveals its complexity once we begin to understand what Zukofsky is doing throughout his monumental poem, one of the great 20th century works that almost never makes it onto university syllabuses of modern poetry, much as Olson’s Maximus Poems and Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and for good measure Pound’s The Cantos are left off. Davenport tells us that to understand what Zukofsky is doing, we need a new way of reading. We must read the line as: A round of fiddles playing a work of Bach’s, with an appreciation that “playing the fiddle is work for musicians . . . These musicians playing Bach are working at Carnegie Hall in 1929 (both Passover and Good Friday that year), and they are working because union fiddlers are on strike and would not play. Work, said Karl Marx, the tutelary spirit of this part of the poem (before Thomas Jefferson take over later), should be as engrossing as play (an idea from Fourier, an evocation of whom will close the 23rd part of the poem).” (102) The task of the critic, according to Davenport, is to show how to read Zukofsky’s  poem, the techniques used by Zukofsky to explicate his themes and his images.

Each work of art brings with it its own set of rules for reading. How one reads Proust’s double images and symbolism is of a different sort than how one reads Ulysses, which needs its own set of reading mechanisms. Davenport’s great contemporary Hugh Kenner realized that the 20th century’s literature was an complete overturning of the aesthetic direction of the 19th century. We need new ways of reading Beckett, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Olson and Zukofsky. We cannot bring how we read Dickens, Thackeray or Austin to these writers.

This is from Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr:

He slouched and ambled along, neglecting his muscles: and his full-blooded blackguard’s countenance attempted to portray delicacies of common sense and gossamer-like backslidings into the inane that would have puzzled any analyst unacquainted with his peculiar training. Occasionally he would exploit his criminal appearance and blacksmith’s muscles for a short time; however: and his strong piercing laugh through ABC waitresses into confusion. The art-touch, the Bloomsbury technique, was very noticeable.   

One cannot approach this without knowing something of Lewis’s quarrels with Chelsea and Bloomsbury artists, of his Vorticism and his relationship other European avant-gardes and Marinetti’s Futurism, along with his Lewis’ own critical works such as his immense Time and Western Man. Without those, Lewis’ prose will flummox most readers.  Lewis demands a new kind of reading. The same for Olson’s “The Kingfishers”:

I thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
la lumiere”
                    but the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
                    but the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
                    he got the color of his breast
                    from the heat of the setting sun!


Davenport’s essay on Charles Olson in The Geography of the Imagination shows what kind of new reading is needed for Olson’s poem: “It cannot be avoided that we as readers are asked to become Leskenoi along with the poet, to leave the polychorme images and finely modulated rhythms of the poem, learn some things, and then return as a worth participant.” (Olson, pg 89) The critic makes the reader a participant in reading.

‘Listening’ to Music

Walter Benjamin By Photo d’identité sans auteur, 1928 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

CBC Radio recently aired ‘Twilight of the Gods,’ a history of the recording industry by Robert Harris. It ran through the usual suspects of why the recording industry has declined in recent years. What caught my attention was a moment when Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility’ — or as it is often translated, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ — was referenced in relation to a work of art’s ‘aura.’ The program argued recorded music and its mass production and distribution offers a more authentic experience of music. Through recorded reproduction, listeners form a profound emotional attachment with a particular piece of music or with an individual performer that is not possible in a ‘live’ setting. Far from diminishing the ‘aura’ of the work of art, mechanical reproduction enhances that ‘aura.’

Benjamin’s essay is one of his most cited; and most misread around this idea of ‘aura.’ ‘Aura’ is today  argued to be  identical to the work of art — be it a painting, a sculpture or a piece of music: it is carried forward with each reproduction. The more accurate the reproduction, the more accurately the ‘aura’ is conveyed and the more immediate is the person’s experience of the ‘aura’ of the work of art.

What this misses is Benjamin’s argument that the ‘aura’ of a work of art is something more than the moment of a work of art’s creation. A work of art has always been reproducible. Replicas were often made by apprentices learning their craft or created for patrons seeking copies for their households. Roman commissioned copies Greek statues and vases to adorn their homes and master painters often made copies of their own work to sell. However, reproduction can only go so far: “In even the most perfect reproduction, one think is lacking: the here and now of the work of art — its unique existence in a particular place . . . The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological — and of course not only technological — reproduction.” Mechanical reproduction takes a piece of art out of its place in history, eradicates tradition and substitutes a mass experience. As consumers, we are all supposed to agree that this particular painting is ‘a great work of art,’ even though most will not be able to say why a work by Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, Balthus, Freud, Newman, Bacon or Rothko is important, both in terms of the historical forces the artist worked within or the work’s technical and stylistic originality. It is enough that it is reproduced endlessly which in today’s consumer market speaks to its importance and ultimate value. Is it surprising that works that are not commonly reproduced and marketed, regardless of their quality or importance, are regulated to a lesser status? Why are El Lissitzky or Klimet Redko not more well known or more valued?

In the realm of serious music, technological reproducibility has made this detachment from tradition and mass effect even more pronounced. Today, a person has many versions of Beethoven, Bach, Schoenberg etc. to decide which to invest in, from recordings using period instruments and playing styles, to ‘historic’ recordings of works from the early part of the 20th century. One can even become a devotee of certain styles of performance or a particular interpreter’s approach to a composer. Cults accrue around Callas,Gould and Karajan, with devotees collecting every recording no matter how questionable the approach or the quality of individual performances.

Whatever reputation certain performers may have in the general public and the ready availability of modern recordings, it does not escape the fact that today most persons lack any practical knowledge of music as art. Few today can play an instrument and most have little or no knowledge of musical theory or solfege. Music is a mass produced item made to be part of one’s aural landscape, but without really having to ‘listen’ to it. Adorno warned of this. When music stopped being a part of one’s being, requiring space and silence in which one can devote close attention to, then a deep disconnect happens between music as art and background noise. Music becomes difficult to distinguish from the clatter of spoons in a cafe or a conversation on a street corner.

Can one today recognize the harmonic or rhythmic differences in Mozart, Berg, Schoenberg, Carter and Messiaen, Birtwistle, Ligeti and Schnittke? Can one place each of these composer’s works in their historic context or how they revolutionized the harmonic and rhythmic templates for those who followed? Without a knowledge of music, to read the written score or to play individual pieces to understand how it is constructed and works, that depth of understanding is impossible to do exclusively through listening to recordings.

Like the plastic arts, the fidelity of reproducibility is mistaken for the ‘aura’ of their originality. The emotional attachment one develops with a particular piece of music is not the same as understanding what makes that piece of music unique and important; more critically, why one piece of music is more important than another. Discrimination of taste and knowledge comes to an end with mass production.

Charles Ives: Still Waiting To Be Discovered


Charles Edward Ives 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ives is still not welcomed in the concert hall. One of the most significant American composers of last century is without a place among listeners and performers of serious music. His symphonies, string quartets and piano music are performed rarely, and recordings tend to be sporadic. Labels such as difficult, uncompromising and incomprehensible are often attached to his music. Even during his lifetime, Ives’ passionate followers and supporters were outnumbered by those who claimed his music was either mad, juvenile or, if more kindly disposed, just plain weird. Musicians often said his music was impossible to play.

He has not been helped by attempts to make his music more ‘normal,’ smoothing out the dissonance and anarchic qualities, his juxtaposition of high and low, of combining the most rarefied of classical traditions with American folk and popular music of the time. Or by attempts to make his music a precursor to the modernism of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The reality is that many of the ‘modernist’ elements of Ives’ music were attempts to capture the political and social events of his time. David Wooldridge’s neglected and now sadly-out-of-print study, From The Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, makes the explicit argument that Ives was a man deeply influenced, even when in opposition, to the American political and social landscape, to its literature and most profoundly to the ideals set forth by the American Transcendentalists:

“Ives had a comprehension of America’s seers and poets . . . Among these: enormous respect for Emerson, enormous admiration for Hawthorne, enormous affection for Alcott, total identification with Thoreau — these were his favorites . . . Yet more than any other it is Melville who foreshadows Ives in the use of an extended rhetoric to American man. The progressions of Ives’s music, like Melville’s prose, are born on a living speech rhythm, not on someone else’s verse. But with Ives, a Yankee speech rhythm. A collage of musical vernacular transfigured.” Wooldridge, pg. 5.

When Ives writes in his Alcott piece in Essays Before A Sonata, quoting Emerson’s son, E.W. Emerson, on how Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to the United States Court House in Boston to rescue a fugitive slave, Ives is clearly evoking that incident in the Alcott movement of his masterpiece Concord Sonata. Ives says of the incident that “helps confirm the theory — not a popular one — that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues . . .” Wooldridge, pg. 278.

To fully understand Ives and to grasp his achievements, one has come to an understanding of his engagement with his times and the works that formed the core of his being. It goes some way to explaining his neglect in concert hall repertoires today. Ives is a man clearly trying in his music to grasp and understand what is happening in his country and to evoke other paths set out by the Transcendentalist who provoke his deep admiration and influence his own sense of self and purpose. I would argue that to fully grasp Ives one needs to fully grasp Emerson Divinity School Address or later wrote “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” or Thoreau who writes “American liberty has become a fiction of the past — as it is to some extent a fiction of the present . . .” What may make Ives’s music difficult for some is this ceaseless questioning of the ‘myth’ of liberty. The too easy invocation of liberty today would likely have offended Ives deeply, seeing it as an empty term thrown about by all sorts of political and social elites. In a 1923 letter to Gilbert Seldes of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Ives writes he is not disappointed in America, but that America “is a vast unreal intermediate thing intervening between the real thing which was Europe, and the next real thing, which will probably be America, but which isn’t yet, at all.” Wooldridge, pg. 310.

Because today we can hardly grasp this sentiment, where Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne are hardly read (does anyone read Emerson today?) Ives’s music continues to remain outside of the concert hall today.

West 86th – Bauhaus: Art as Life

bauhaus1923In 1976 the German Democratic Republic repaired the Bauhaus building at Dessau. For those that visited in the years immediately after, the experience of an empty frame holds strong. The modest postcard packs produced for visitors comprised black and white photographs of the interior and exterior devoid of any human presence. Significant in formal and associative ways, the building stood emblematic of the School’s legacy and was defined in no small part by absences provoked and sustained by political forces. In the post-unification years the Dessau complex was restored fully and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. [Read More]

Rossellini and History

Roberto Rossellini, via Wikimedia Commons

Almost half of Roberto Rossellini’s film output is unknown, excepting the most ardent cinephile. For fourteen years, Rossellini concentrated on a large-scale pedagogical project that he believed broke with existing cinema. These films covered the wide-range of human development and major figures of history, from Man’s earliest struggles for survival to portraits of Descartes, Pascal and Louis XIV. Before his death in 1977, Rossellini planned to focus on Karl Marx and Thomas Jefferson, Diderot and the invention of photography.

Only a small selection of these films have been made available here, with The Criterion Collection releasing a selection, principally Rise to Power of Louis XIV, Blaise Pascal, Age of the Medici and Cartesius.

To admirers of his famed neo-realist corpus and early 1950s features with Ingrid Bergman (Stromboli, Europa 51 and Journey to Italy), Rossellini’s history films seem an aberration. Even the most generous viewers find them difficult going when compared to stereotypical historical epics produced in 1950s Hollywood or to such popular history films of today as the much praised Lincoln.

Rossellini’s history films remind some of those old educational films shown in public schools when the teacher could not be bothered to lecture. They are remembered for their stilted acting, monotone voice-overs of historical information and poor production values. They were endured and forgotten once the classroom lights were switched on.

The question to be asked: What was Rossellini’s purpose in making these films and did he achieve his stated goal of creating works where life and education were placed on an equal footing, and close examinations of historical periods and a person’s confrontations with customs, prejudices and ideas was drama enough.

Watching these films is a strange experience. What seems off-putting to many soon becomes captivating. One becomes engrossed in the smallest of historical details: the morning rituals surrounding the waking of Louis XIV or the medical examination by Mazarin; or the debates around the new science and that of Scripture and ancient philosophy in Cartesius. One soon comes to appreciate the careful exposition of ideas through dialogue and ritual.

Michael Cramer in Rossellini’s History Lessons in New Left Review offers a critical examination of Rossellini’s project and a defence of its utopian vision while acknowledging its problems, specifically with modernity and modernist cinema. This area is fraught with difficulties which Cramer only lightly touches upon and is admittedly outside the bounds of what is essay deals with — that is cinema’s relationship with the whole corpus of modernist aesthetics and cinema’s relationship between image and text, of subjectivity and its expression.

Thinkers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Peter Greenaway have remarked upon how much cinema remains confined to the narrative conventions of the 19th century novel, failing to find a means of expressing a person’s subjective experience of reality and History; of examining of History itself. Cinema fails at grasping its own possibilities of new means of representing subjective experience:

 Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently—of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed. Then indeed when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. ­ Woolf, The Cinema.

Cinema even as we have it now in 1999 is still an incomplete amalgam of other forms of art which have still not completely reached autonomy. In a real provocative moment I would suggest all we’ve seen is one hundred years of illustrated texts and maybe some recorded theater. 99.9 percent of all cinema, I believe, can be very easily deconstructed back into those three Bazin principles, where he suggested that cinema came from literature, the theater and painting. I would suggest actually that very little of cinema comes from painting, that’s one of my soapbox positions. I believe now certainly that the whole process of cinema that we’ve seen since those first steam engines came into the cinema and people ran out the exits, and since those the waves first came in and people lifted their legs in case they were going to get wet, has been exacerbated primarily by Griffith’s association with nineteenth-century literature, which was the first real experiment in American cinema, and which began the way in which we have seen images which are constantly slaved to texts. I challenge you to acknowledge the notion that when you watch ninety-nine percent of cinema you can see the cinema maker following the text. ­ Peter Greenaway, Have We Seen Any Cinema Yet?

Perhaps the reason why Rossellini’s project is so challenging for many is not simply the pedagogical assumptions, but the visual vocabulary he employed, where the human eye is now augmented by the camera, “with a gaze that allows it, for the first time in the history of the world, to surpass its own finitude, to meet up with reality in all its aspects.”