Literary Criticism


For an interesting introduction to the subject, I recommend Michael H. Whitworth’s anthology of modernist theory in his aptly entitled book, Modernism  [which is part of Blackwell’s Guides to Criticism (2007 Blackwell Publishing)].

As Whitworth frames the issue, “modernism” was a response to various problems that artists confronted, commencing with the industrial revolution and the corresponding changes in urban society, science, psychology, philosophy and politics. He sees eight fundamental problems that gave rise to modernism (which I have attempted to summarize as follows):

1. How can art be justified in an age dominated by commerce, quantification and instrumental rationality? For the last two terms, Whitworth notes the work of Henri Bergson, who emphasized the necessity for a qualitative approach to knowledge over one that was merely quantitive, and of Adorno and Horkheimer [in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944)], wherein Adorno coined the term “instrumental reason” to reflect social, philosophical and political thought in the “machine age.”  As Max Weber saw it, reason had become divided into different spheres of art, morality and science, and this introduced the question of how imaginative and ethical consciousness is to function in a culture dominated by modern rationality.

2. What model of self is adequate to modern life? Here the problem stems from multiple considerations, starting with the question of what model can accommodate scientific discoveries and subsequently focusing on Darwin’s theory that men evolved from apes and corresponding claims about primitive aspects of the brain. Georg Simmel’s essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” posits that perception and cognition are at play in the modern world, where the self is overwhelmed by sense data and hence has no opportunity to reflect, or if it attempts to reflect must then filter out sense data and detach itself from the empirical world. Accordingly, new modern styles emerged. Whitworth cites Conrad’s work which “subjects the reader to a process of ‘delayed decoding’ in which sense impressions are reported before the described object is given its conventional name. The reader is made to feel the different competencies (and inadequacies) of each form of knowledge.”

3. What is the relationship of an art-work to its creator? Does it express the author’s feelings and, if not, does is then become “impersonal” and no longer “individual”? Whitworth makes reference to the specter of the “novel-writing machines” in Orwell’s 1984.” Noting the conceptualism movement, he asks, if the work is individual and impersonal, where can individuality be located? Although Whitworth does not speak to it here, the question brings up Barthes’ essay, “The Death of the Author,” which discounts authorial intentionality, and Derrida’s theories of deconstruction, which discount a fixed determinative understanding and instead assert that the effect and meaning of the work is always in flux, existing despite the author, and that the interaction and response by the audience/reader is a creative component of the art-work.

4. What makes art valuable? “There is a conflict between referentialism or formalism: is the work valuable for its ability to refer beyond itself or for the beauty and subtlety of its internal organization.  Whitworth quotes M.K. Spears, who states that there are “two primary impulses in modern literature,” the “first is a drive toward aestheticism, toward the purification of form, its refinement and exploration.” As the “illusion becomes more convincing and self-sufficient,” there is a “tendency for the art-world to become separate and more independent from life.” This is “countered by the opposing impulse, to break through art, destroy a possible escape into the illusion, to insist on immediate experience, the heightening of life is the important thing.” Spears says, “Both elements co-exist from the beginning: Ulysses is a world of art, but with both elements co-exist in a tension, “raw and deliberately unassimilated reality, like collage materials […] used in early modern paintings.”

The attraction of formalism is that it escapes “instrumental rationality” by virtue of its being autotelic, ceasing to be accountable to anything beyond itself. However, at the same time, it becomes “politically impotent.” In Terry Eagleton’s words, by “establishing a critical negating distance between itself and the ruling social order, modernism must simultaneously bracket off the political forces which seek to transform that order.”

5. What is the relation between art and criticism? Any “attempt to establish a difference between literary language and critical meta-language is doomed to deconstruction.” Whitworth states “the dilemma of referentiality and aestheticism I repeated in the dilemma of allying art with criticism and maintaining a clear separation.” This introduces a number of questions, which Whitworth delineates: Are there virtues of art that cannot be accommodated by critical discourse (e.g., “capturing autotelic works of art and tethering them to conventional concepts”)? Is critical explication the handmaiden of instrumental rationality?

6. What grand narratives best explain the recent course of human history? Whitworth offers two competing views of history, the narrative of decline (is man “fallen and imperfect, and in need of discipline from a higher authority”) and the narrative of freedom and intellectual progress (is man “fundamentally good” but, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s words, “born free but everywhere in chains”) .  These grand narratives are “fundamentally ideological” and each view affects “the value system through a writer views the world” and his performs his art.

7. What is the relation between art at the present moment and the art of the past? Whitworth juxtaposes the Italian Futurists, who would “destroy all the museums, libraries and academies of every sort”, and the Traditionalists, like T.S. Eliot who said that” innovation can only occur in the context of accepted norms.”

8. What is the position of the writer in contemporary society, or between the writer and his/her reader? The answer to the second questions will affect matters of “content, tone, style, diction, structure and range of reference.” The first question is relates to “the justification of art in the modern world.” “Does the writer stand outside the social and ideological conventions, and if so which conventions is the writer most widely separated from? Is the writer’s attitude towards those conventions to be sympathetic or satirical?” Where is the reader situated in respect to these conventions?

Whitworth then identifies specific features of modernist literature, using Marjorie Perloff’s taxonomy [from her essay,”Modernist Studies,” in Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles B. Gunn, eds. (New York: Modern Language Association 1992)] These are tracked in Wit Pietrzak’s book, Myth, Language and Tradition: A Study of Yeats, Stevens and Eliot in the Context of Heidegger’s Search for Being:

1. Modern literature depicts modern life, especially urban life, and shows ambivalence to it.  This addresses the issue of the justification of art by attempting to demonstrate that it is responsive to the conditions of modern life. Initially, urban life was portrayed as oppressive, clearly not “beautiful,” so initially form in modern literature was exalted over the content or subject matter.  Contemporaries of Eliot and Joyce were condemned as the “cult of ugliness.” cf. William Blake’s “London,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” James Joyce’s The Dubliners, Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Adorno saw art “as an implicit critique of capitalist society.” [However, this view matured, so that, for instance, the poetry of Frank O’Hara exalts the beauty of community, love and life in the modern metropolis.]

2. It is difficult It makes use of a wide and sometime unexpected range of reference (literary, cultural and linguistic) and removes any of the devices which would normally help the reader make sense of the text.  It is verbally ambiguous and paradoxical, and often textually fragmented, which requires the reader to collaborate actively to produce meaning.. [For example, The Cantos by Ezra Pound, The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson, the work of J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland.]

3. It contrasts an orderly past with a chaotic present. The traditionalist narrative is that history is in decline. However, for some modernist writers (gay, women, and disenfranchised minorities) this was a good sign in that the established order, the male bastions of privilege, or being toppled. These are the two grand narrative views of history.

4.  Where it displays pessimism, it often balances it with a compensatory sentiment that art can transcend the disorder. Cf. Yeats, “Paudeen” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” In this view, art is seen as orderly versus the messiness of nature. A variant of the theme is that art is superior to nature. Cf. Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and bulk of Stevens’ oeuvre stands for the organizing principle of the imagination.

5. It experiments with time, employing a larger philosophy in which time is non-linear. Modern texts possess “spatial form” and are read as if every part of the text were “simultaneously present.” Cf. Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (1991). In this way, there is neither progress nor decline, just the “eternal recurrence” of the text that elevates the form of presentation over the subject matter.

6.  Modern literature employs mythic allusion and mythic patterning as an organizing structure. Cf. Eliot’s essay, “Ulysses, Order and Myth”  According to Eliot, “It is simply a way of controlling, ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” In Whitworth’s opinion, Elliot’s analysis is “partial and flawed” because it overemphasizes the extent to which myth sits in judgment on Dadalus and Bloom, whose lives are presented sympathetically, and also misses the way it highlights the inadequacies of the heroic ideals of epic literature. It overemphasizes the degree of order in the text and the importance of myth in creating patterns of text. In fact, Whitworth notes that, we see there are recurrent deep structures, which goes to the question of whether there are grand narratives of human history, but rather a repetition of the same mythic patterns. [Here one is reminded of Sigmund Freud’s analysis in the “Oedipal complex” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s reference to the Apollonian and Dionysian strains in The Birth of Tragedy. Religion serves the same function as an organizing structure which has mostly political and social functions.]

7. Modern literature (and art) often takes man in his primitive state as a point of reference.  Cf. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow. The primitive state is seen as a “relief from enervating rationality.” In the grand narrative sense, it juxtaposes the primitive to the modern sensibility and asks which model of self is more relevant.

8.  Modern literature displays an awareness of the complexity of the mind and the self. There is an awareness of the “fluidity of the consciousness.” In Freudian terms, the “force of unconsciousness” is revealed as the division between the social self and the personal. There are “free direct” and “free indirect” to forms of discourse, and multiple linguistic registers are used to signal different levels or centers of consciousness.

9.  There is a contrast between the individual and the “herd” or “masses,” the elite versus the masses. Whitworth observes that this should not be reduced, as John Carey did in The Intellectual and the Masses, to an egocentric characterization of the modernist writers’ desire to separate themselves from the masses; it more correctly evidences a need to escape the homogenization and trivialization of literature as mass-market “entertainment” versus knowledge.

10. There are distinctions between abstraction and empathy.  The means by which earlier generations of writers would have allowed readers to identify with a character are eschewed or radically revised.  In poetry, the identifiable speaking voice of lyric poetry is avoided or is framed in unfamiliar contexts.  So, for example, complex time schemes disrupt continuity and hence our identification with character. If the narrative is out of sequence, chronologically earlier events (presented later) are viewed with ironic detachment. The narrative itself may block empathy, presenting characters as cultural constructs rather than as free agents. T.E. Hulme, drawing on Worringer’s (1908) Abstraction und Einfüling [Abstraction and Empathy] framed empathetic art as sentimental (and feminine) and abstract art as hard (and masculine).

11. Modernist literature prefers the concrete to the abstract.  Ezra Pound’s famous injunction was, “go in fear of abstractions.” However, this may be a little too broad, especially in view of the abstract work of poets of the New York School, like John Ashbery, and the discursive economic-social-political analyses of J.H. Prynne. Marjorie Perloff formulates it as a preference for the particular over the general, and the perceptual to the conceptual.

12. The subject matter of modernist text is sometimes controversial. A number of famous 1st amendment cases dealt with works by James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Allen Ginsberg and Henry Miller, leading to the expansion of free speech rights.

Because I have merely outlined Whitworth’s instruction, I encourage you to read Modernism and take in the marvelous breadth of research there.


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