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More on Modernism

The late, great Paul Fussell once wrote, “A Modernist is a late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century artist or artistic theorist who has decided to declare war on the received, the philistine, the bourgeois, the sentimental, and the democratic.” I’ve been thinking about this shrewd comment after reading Dan McCarthy on modernism and conservatism and after noting Philip Larkin’s views on the subject. What’s especially interesting about Fussell’s view of modernism is its implicit acknowledgement that all of those traits/positions/persons (the bourgeois, the philistine, etc.) can be critiqued from both ends of the political spectrum, and sometimes by people who don’t fit anywhere discernible on that spectrum.

It’s worth remembering that T. S. Eliot, who appears in our minds as a kind of mandarin, was a great fan of the music hall comedienne Marie Llloyd and, later, of the Marx Brothers — as commemorated in the correspondence between him and Groucho. The Eliot of rarefied aristocratic tastes was real; the Eliot who guffawed at pratfalls and puns equally so. It’s worth remembering that his original title for “The Waste Land” was “He Do the Police in Different Voices.”

It was middle-class culture that Eliot was consistently critical of, as were many of the Modernists of his generation, with the signal exception of Joyce, whose Ulysses is among other things a hymn of praise to the thoroughly bourgeois and philistine Leopold Bloom. Eliot’s famous review of Ulysses (quoted by Dan McCarthy) commended Joyce’s “mythical method” as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” But it is not at all clear that Joyce would have agreed with that description: he was, I think, more concerned to show that the lives of ordinary people like Mr. Bloom were rich and full and that contemporary history, seen from street level, wasn’t futile or anarchic at all: futility and anarchy were, Joyce believed, introduced by the imposition of metanarratives like that of Christianity or of Irish nationalism.

All this to note that Modernists pursued highly non-traditional and often experimental aesthetic forms for different reasons; their dissatisfactions had different points of origin. Joyce was, as he often said, a simple man with simple tastes, fully prepared to accept the good things of a commonplace life without asking for anything more. Eliot was different: he longed for a meaning both permanent and transcendent. He took great pleasure in the comedy of Marie Lloyd, but he could never forget that his education and intelligence had put him beyond the possibility of an unselfconscious absorption in the joys of the music hall. Low culture he could not fully enter; high culture, he came to believe, lacked the power to save. It was only in something beyond culture altogether that he could find peace and rest, and the assurance that “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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