Article Index

LEON SURETTE

 

rsz leonatfallingwater

 

BOOKS

A Light from Eleusis: A Study of the Cantos of Ezra Pound, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1979. Reissued with Xlibris 2000.

The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and The Occult: McGill-Queen's Press. Cloth 1993.  Paper 1994.

Literary Modernism and the Occult Tradition: Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation 1996. Co-edited with Demetres Tryphonopoulos, UNB. (Out-of-print)

I Cease Not to Yowl: Ezra Pound’s Letters to Olivia Rossetti Agresti: Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Co-edited with Demetres Tryphonopoulos. 1998.

Pound In Purgatory: Ezra Pound’s Descent from Economic Radicalism into Anti-Semitism: Urbana: University of Illinois Press 1999. Paper 2003.

The Modern Dilemma. Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and Humanism. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2008.

Dreams of a Totalitarian Utopia: Literary Modernism and Politics, Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP 2011.  

Art in the Age of the Machine. Kindle 2013.

 


 

Leon - Mentor and Friend 

ROXANA PREDA
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U. of EDINBURGH

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I met Leon at the Brunnenburg conference in 1997. It was my first EPIC and the date was momentous because it was the first time I had felt confident enough to present a paper to a community of scholars, and Pound specialists to boot. I had just finished my thesis on Pound and postmodernism and had picked up a chapter from it that looked to me the best. It went well, people had interesting things to comment – as a corollary, my paper was accepted for publication in the conference volume, something that boosted my confidence a great deal.

I happened to sit opposite Leon at the dinner table and enjoyed the conversation, which was lively, interesting and happy. I told Leon how much I had enjoyed his Eleusis book; then I must have mentioned how I regretted that I had left a discussion of economics and postmodernity out of my dissertation. Leon had just finished Purgatory at the time - that was a happy coincidence because the next day we sat at the long table on the terrace at Brunnenburg discussing Pound’s economics. Or rather… Leon talked, but I kept up – I must have said something interesting enough to keep him going.

Some time after that I wrote to him renewing contact and we started a correspondence. Later, I mustered the courage to ask him if he would read my dissertation. In Germany, doctoral supervisors believe in leaving students to fend for themselves: I felt neglected and was looking for someone who would give me an honest professional assessment. Besides, I was pushing for publication and worried that my readers had been too uninvolved.

Leon did read it – when the emails with his comments started pouring into my inbox I tried to keep the panic away from my chest saying to myself that this was what I wanted: This was the real thing, finally my work was getting an authentic, careful critical reading. To all people who kindly wrote to me last year saying they admired my energy, I will now respond: you should have seen Leon in 2001 – a scholar near retirement, but at the height of his powers: Purgatory was foundational in Pound and economics studies, yet Leon would write three more books after that: The Modern Dilemma: Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Humanism (2008), Dreams of a Totalitarian Utopia (2011) and Art in the Age of the Machine (2013).

What I did not know at the time was the degree to which Leon believed in intellectual jousting: he hit me HARD. I can’t now recall the number of times I fell off my horse, shaking and bleeding. I gripped the saddle and hoisted myself back up, wiping the sweat and the tears off my face. I told myself that if I let pride and self-love intervene, I would lose, not only the game, but something very valuable that was happening to me. NO ONE, not my professors in my undergraduate days, not my doctoral supervisor, not my academically very successful husband had cared enough about my work to read it that carefully and to respond to it with that degree of expertise. Somewhere through my pain I intuited that Leon hit me because he cared. He was absolutely dedicated to the profession and wanted me to exercise it with dignity.

After I finished my doctorate in 1997 I fell into a dark pit. As long as the thesis was there to give a sort of meaning to time, everything was kept in a balance. But after the rigorosum, I floundered. In the German system, the PhD is not considered enough for a professorship – one has to go through a second stage, the Habilitation, before one is allowed to “arrive.” I was angling for a topic, wanted away from Pound studies and away from post-structuralism, yet I could not commit and was shaken by doubt.

Leon saved me, again through an email. He proposed that I do an edition of Pound’s economic correspondence – it was a doable project, he said, I could order the letters from Beinecke on microfilm and process them at home. I responded enthusiastically the next day – yes, that was it, that was what I was going to do. I started organizing at once, looking for German universities where I could do the research and making application for grants. The idea worked, probably also ignited by my own enthusiasm for it. I found the university (the Kennedy Institute in Berlin, affiliated to the Freie Universität) and I got four grants in all, to work in the institute for two years and to do my research in the States, mostly at Beinecke and the Harry Ransom Center. I often wondered at that email - how was it possible that Leon should know me better than I knew myself and go straight to the knot of my interest?

Throughout our acquaintance, the conversation on projects never stopped. Research and its progress, articles being written, book chapters, all of them were shared and subjected to each other’s scrutiny. But it was always Leon who led. I sometimes resented it that he was still treating me as a retarded postgrad so long after I had graduated, but by then I was not bleeding any more and defended my ideas better. I tried to give back as much as I could, feeling that Leon wanted an intelligent discussion, not someone who always told him, “yes, you are right.”

Then, finally, the moment came sometime in late 2006. The edition was ready, Florida was going to publish it. It had gone through peer review and I had made changes to the introduction, to make it clearer and better organized. It was time for Leon to read it and tell me what he thought of it. Sure enough, the lance thrusts came, but this time, I remained firm in the saddle, unhurt. It was not that I had somehow got Captain America’s shield. I just had the confidence of my research and my conclusions. I defended easily and did not budge. I had become, or rather he had made me, a scholar. 

 


 

LEON SURETTE - A TESTIMONIAL 

ANDERSON ARAUJO
________
U. of BRITISH COLUMBIA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Leon Surette has had a lengthy and influential career, now closing in on half a century with nary a pause. That much is widely known, especially among Poundians. What is less evident is the man behind the scholar. The following is but a personal snapshot, and a modest tribute.

I knew of Leon long before I met him. When Pound in Purgatory was published in 1999 I was in the final year of an Honors B.A. at the University of Toronto, the same institution where he had earned his Ph.D. under Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye decades earlier. A professor suggested the book after learning of my interest in all things Pound. To say that I read it would be an understatement—I devoured it, even if its gnomic subjects largely eluded me at the time (“A + B theorem?”). I never knew literary criticism could be so far-reaching, so hydra-headed and, above all, so entrancing. Leon’s prose is not for the faint of heart, to be sure. So I kept on probing deeper into his books. In reverse chronological order, no less. Perhaps not the best route. But the flame was lit. Two years later, I didn’t think twice about accepting an offer to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Western Ontario. I was going to study with the scholar who could parse out everything from economic theory and radical politics to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Albigensian Heresy with the same facility one might speak of the taking of a toast and tea. It was a slam dunk, or so I thought. After arriving in London, Ontario, to begin my studies it took me quite a while to meet Leon. Every time I mentioned his name in my department and my intention to work with him I heard the same refrain: “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” A slight sense of unease began to creep up on me. What if Leon had a change of heart about taking me on as a student? What if I couldn’t live up to his expectations? Our first meeting set, I walked into his office with faltering steps. Here was the formidable Poundian in the flesh. After a long chat, and with my anxiety slackened a little, I asked him point-blank whether he would accept to be my thesis supervisor. His reply was pithy and erudite, textbook Leon: “Yes, but not in loco parentis.” The Latin took me aback. But I got the gist of it. Leon would guide the way, but I would have to pull my own weight. In the years that followed, Leon proved to be much more than the aloof, remote supervisor I admittedly thought him to be at the end of our first meeting. No draft, however rudimentary, would wallow in his mailbox. No email went unanswered. No question was beyond his ken. Leon’s keen-eyed capacity to pick out in an instant where a paragraph might be enhanced, altered or outright shucked off is nothing short of mind-boggling, if at times intimidating. We met at least once a week, a schedule that, to my knowledge, no other supervisor kept up. Nor did Leon’s generosity end on campus. I was a frequent guest at his home, often leaving laden with vegetables from his garden and books on loan from his personal library. It was also during these visits that I discovered Leon to be even more of a polumetis than I had thought. The basement of the Surette household doubled as a makeshift winery, where he meticulously fermented and bottled his own brew. A vintner, gardener, and much more besides, Leon also maintained a woodworking shop, stocked to the hilt with tools. Our friendship grew, as did my admiration for his curiosity and intellect. In the final year of my doctorate, he and his wife Valerie invited me to housesit for a few months. I gladly took the offer to exchange my cramped apartment for their spacious home. When the end of my stay overlapped their arrival by a few weeks, I was able to chat daily with Leon. It was without a doubt the most stimulating period of my studies, at a critical point in my dissertation too. With unfettered access to Leon’s storehouse of knowledge, I submitted and defended my thesis before long. Following his retirement, he gave me his entire Paideuma collection, from the first issue of 1972 to the latest, a gift I will always treasure. Yet the most enduring gift is his ongoing legacy of omnivorous interests and untiring devotion to the craft of criticism.

 


 

Responding to modern Dilemmas: an Interview with Leon Surette

15-28 FEBRUARY 2015

 by Roxana Preda

On January 5, 2005, Demetres Tryphonopoulos completed an interview with Leon Surette in which he discussed Leon’s career in Pound studies to date. His questions surveyed the classics: A Light from Eleusis (1979), The Birth of Modernism (1993), Pound in Purgatory (1999) and ‘I Cease not to Yowl,’ (1998) the correspondence between Pound and Olivia Rossetti Agresti they had edited together. The interview was published in English Studies in Canada in June-December of the same year. At that time, Leon Surette had just retired from full-time teaching and was deep in a book on Eliot and Stevens, which would later become The Modern Dilemma: Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Humanism (2008). The following interview takes up the thread where Tryphonopoulos left off and follows Leon Surette’s intellectual path for the past decade.

 

RP       Marjorie Perloff argued in “Pound/Stevens” that there was a choice to be made between the two poets, who are is so many respects opposites of each other. What made you cross from Pound to Stevens, what aroused your curiosity? 

LS       Well, I didn’t think I had a whole lot more to say about Pound than I had already published – even though several of my talks on Pound had never been published, and those that were published are seldom cited. Perhaps more importantly, I have always had a taste for what one might call romantic themes that one finds straightforwardly in Stevens, and more tangentially in Eliot.  By “romantic themes” I mean the concern with the relationship of mankind with nature, that is, the rest of the cosmos not specifically human.  Pound’s concern with that theme is much too close to the occult for my taste, and Eliot’s much too narrowly Christian.  Stevens’ poetry is clearly a continuation of the Romantic mode of Wordsworth and Shelley in a twentieth century context of nearly universal agnosticism – at least amongst the European literary audience.  I find Stevens’ approach very attractive on intellectual grounds, and positively enchanting on aesthetic grounds.

 

RP       So what is then the “modern dilemma” and how exactly is humanism a response or a solution to it?rsz modern dilemma

LS       I took the term from a BBC radio series of 1932 in which Eliot participated – as well as his old mentor, and prominent atheist, Bertrand Russell. The dilemma the BBC had in mind was the loss of faith among the nominally Christian societies of Europe and its overseas former colonies. That loss of faith presented society with a dilemma on the supposition that the ethical behaviour of citizens was dependent upon some belief system that constrained them from resorting to a dog-eat-dog world of unrestrained personal gratification. Humanism was widely offered as offering an alternative to religious belief that would similarly constrain and guide behaviour.  In his contribution to the series, Russell adopted the Arnoldian strain of humanism, which relied on imaginative literature to fulfil the role that the Jewish Bible and the Christian Testaments had played in European culture for two millennia. 

An alternative, powerful and prominent response to the loss of faith at the time, was Marxism. Marx had no interest in, or patience for, humanism, which he quite reasonably regarded as just another form of false consciousness intended to maintain the bourgeois status quo. Nor, of course, did he have any use for Christianity or any other religion, which he famously denigrated as the opiate of the masses.

Neither Eliot nor Stevens were drawn to Marxism.  And both rejected humanism as a solution to the modern dilemma – which they regarded as a crisis of faith, rather than the social crisis that industrialization represented, and that Marx addressed. It is to Pound’s credit that he did concern himself with economic and political issues.  Unfortunately those concerns led him into the dark realms of Fascism and racism.

Eliot, of course, believed that Christianity could and must be restored – especially in the form of Anglicanism, which preserves the liturgical practices of Roman and Orthodox Christianity, as other forms of Protestantism do not. Roman Catholicism would have served him just as well. Perhaps the ghosts of his Unitarian ancestors prevented such a radical apostasy.

Stevens’ posture is subtler – some might say conflicted. He rejected humanism since – as its label implies – it denies any transcendent realm or entity, such as Heaven or Hell, or God or gods.  Stevens’ whole poetic output circles around the problem of articulating the presence of a reality beyond ourselves without attaching any specific attributes to it.  For Stevens, “poetry is that discourse which deals with the transcendent, with the noumenal, the reality beyond human cognition” (“A Collect of Philosophy” The Moody Lecture delivered at the University of Chicago on Nov. 16, 1951.) Clearly Stevens had a personal sense of such a reality – as have mystics throughout the ages. But his culture and society did not permit any articulation of his “awareness” as medieval Christianity and Islam did.

 

RP       You were writing your book at a time when humanism as a concept was itself controversial, subjected to metaphysical and political attack. Foucault’s anti-humanist position in The Order of Things defined man as “an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. … one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Did you focus on your authors in a historical way, bracketing out the present, or did the poststructuralist view influence your discussion?

LS       Foucault’s observation that “man” is an invention of recent date:  Although I read The Order of Things 25 years ago, that remark from his conclusion had not struck me as of great interest.  However, on looking into the matter with your help, I have discovered that Foucault’s book is essentially a cryptic application of the critique that Heidegger articulated in his attack on Sartre’s humanism in Letter on Humanism.  For a mystic like Heidegger, humanism represents a secularization of the sacred, and its disastrous child is the project of the physical sciences to reduce all knowledge to understanding of material processes.

I had not been aware that this aspect of the thought of the Nazi mystic had gone viral within what his student, Gadamer called the “human sciences.” For Heidegger, it was not the mystical nationalism and racism of the Nazis that was evil, but rather the physical sciences that made the gas ovens, carpet bombing, and other “scientific” means of destruction possible. That such a wrong-headed and vile doctrine could take hold amongst literary scholars in the 21st century is very difficult to understand.

Of course, those who revile humanism as an evil doctrine despoiling the environment have not the same motive as Heidegger. Heidegger’s opposition to humanism is the same as Eliot’s and Stevens’ – as I pointed out in The Modern Dilemma.  All three believe in the reality of a spiritual realm beyond the physical or material.  Humanism, in its modern form, denies the existence of any spiritual realm, and hence must be denounced (Heidegger), opposed (Eliot) or rejected (Stevens).  For his part, Pound had no problem with humanism or technology, but like the others, also had a substantial mystical streak.

Eliot, of course, converted to Anglicanism.  Stevens is rumoured to have converted to Catholicism when near death, but in his own published testimony, he remained essentially an aesthete, believing that the arts could provide intimations of the spiritual realm.  Pound, for his part, endorsed Social Credit as a humanist project – one that would make technology a boon to mankind, rather than a curse.

For all of Heidegger’s evasiveness, his Letter on Humanism amounts to a call for a return to belief, to a recognition that man is merely a creature – an emanation of “Being” (Sein).  As he famously puts in the opening page of the essay: “Language is the house of Being.  In its home man dwells.” For all its rodomontade, the Letter on Humanism amounts to a declaration of the creaturely condition of man: “Language is the lighting-concealing advent of Being itself.” Man is, he says, “Da–Sein,” that is, an off-shoot, a throwing off of Being: “Man is rather ‘thrown’ from Being itself into the truth of Being…” Humanism, of course, denies all this.  For the modern humanist, man is a descendent of some distant ancestor that he shares with chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas.

No doubt Foucault is so obscure about what it is that has displaced man, because he is shy of revealing his participation in Heidegger’s sentimental mysticism. Indeed, Heidegger’s name appears only once in the book. Instead, Foucault invokes Husserl, Heidegger’s teacher, a Jewish rationalist who had no truck with Heidegger’s post-Catholic mysticism.

So, to answer your question, Heidegger & Foucault had no influence whatsoever on my views or scholarly practices – except as an irritant I occasionally addressed.

Although I have written a number of articles on Saussure, Heidegger, Derrida, Gadamer, de Man et al and the issues they address that have inspired the critical movement labeled “Post-structuralism” (some of which can be found on academia.edu), I have not encumbered my discussion of literary works with those issues. 

So far as literary commentary is concerned, the post-structuralist movements have served to replace any attempt to understand the intentions of the authors whose works are under discussion, with an inquisitorial interrogation of them.  That habit reflects the French and Marxist provenance of post-structuralism, as well as the politically innocent influence of Freud. 

Then, yes, I did bracket out present day attitudes in my discussion of Modernist writers. I am a traditional hermeneut or historical critic. I believe it is the critic’s duty to attempt to recover what the authors under discussion intended their readers to take from what they wrote. In order to do that the critic must put himself or herself in the position of the author under discussion insofar as that is possible.  To do so involves familiarizing oneself with the social, cultural and political environment in which the work was written, as well as what the author was reading and with whom he or she associated. 

The model of the literary critic that I want to be is a docent, in the root sense of a guide to the wonders and wisdom of literature. The current model of the literary critic is of the inquisitor seeking out thought crimes.

 

RP       Did Eliot’s views on humanism interact with his politics? I wonder how the idea of your next book, Dreams of a Totalitarian Utopia (DTU) was born.DTU

LS       Well, yes, in a sense. Eliot’s hostility toward humanism certainly influenced his politics. He saw the need to combat the secularism that humanism represented for him. He had no sense of humanism as a handmaid to the supposed evil instrumentalism of science and technology that offended Sein or Gea-earth as Heidegger and Ellul did.  He was quite willing to grant the natural sciences legitimacy, but insisted that there was also a spiritual component to man.

Eliot’s political inclinations were very similar to Pound’s, and Lewis’s but he was protected from endorsing Fascism, as Pound and Lewis both did, by his Anglicanism.  All three men feared popular democracy, preferring governance by a benevolent elite, made up of men like themselves.

As for the Totalitarian Utopia, it arose out of an expression of interest by the University of South Florida Press to publish an expanded version of a paper I read at a conference – I don’t remember which.  Anyway, I wrote the book, but U. of Florida rejected it, so I submitted it to McGill-Queen’s who published it.  It has been translated into Spanish, but I don’t know if the translation has been published.

It represents an effort on my part to contextualize the political views of three modernist authors (two Americans and one Briton), who between them orchestrated English language modernism in literature.  The argument of the book is that they were all blind-sided by the First World War that so altered the global political landscape that they were forced to regroup in an effort to salvage their imagined future.  All three came to maturity in a world economically dominated by the British Empire, scientifically dominated by Germany, and culturally dominated by France.  The two Americans sought to orchestrate a literary conquest of Europe – much like a Henry James heroine.  Lewis was equally ambitious, but lacked the political naiveté of the Americans.

The war brought an end to British economic dominance, and tarnished German scientific ascendancy.  Although France retained her cultural caché – at least among Americans, Paris no longer dictated cultural fashion.  Pound and Eliot were among those who had believed that a new civilization was in the offing in the pre-war.  But after the war, progressive thinkers mostly looked to revolutionary Russia as a harbinger of the future.  But Communism did not appeal to Pound, Eliot or Lewis, who were quickly dismissed as “reactionaries,” an accusation that has stuck (Harrison 1969). The label is not entirely unfair, but Harrison’s use of the Marxist term, “reactionary,” is an index of the early influence of Marxist attitudes in American literary studies, even among those like Harrison, who did not think of themselves as Marxists.

 

RP       Were these political utopias clearly articulated and defended by Eliot, Pound and Lewis? What were they exactly?

LS       Well, Pound decided that Mussolini’s Italy was a prototype for his notion of Utopia.  But, in the Cantos at least he dialled back to an imagined or ideal utopia, “in the mind indestructible” (Canto 74) similar to St. Augustine’s City of God.  Eliot came much closer to articulating his notion of a community of which he could approve in his March, 1939 lectures, published as The Idea of a Christian Society, just before the outbreak of WWII, and later in Notes towards the Definition of Culture, published in The New English Weekly in 1943 – in the third year of the war.  He does not articulate any political or economic structure in these works. Instead he insists that any political structure of which he could approve would involve distinct classes, a devout clergy administering to a devout congregation, and a monarch.  Beyond that he would permit its citizens to enjoy any harmless beliefs or no beliefs, so long as the nation was founded on Christianity.  He also supposed that it would be possible to maintain a primarily agricultural economy in the twentieth century, expressing admiration for the American Agrarian movement in After Strange Gods, lectures he delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933. It is remarkable that anyone as aware and intelligent as Eliot could put forward such a Quixotic model as the barbarians were at the gate. Lewis adopted a lot of postures toward governance, but they all amount to a cynical distrust of the intelligence and good will of the average citizen.  That posture is clear from Rude Assignment, his 1950 survey of his writing career: “in a mixed society, the sciences and the arts have to be protected against Caliban; against Matthew Arnold's Philistine, Flaubert's Bourgeois, or Swift's Yahoo”  (203).

 

RP       Would you say that Pound’s totalitarian utopia was a political one, modeled on Mussolini’s state or rather an economic system the way he outlined it in Canto 74: “you need not, i.e. need not take over the means of production; /money to signify work done, inside a system /and measured and wanted.”

LS       Pound was a political naïf.  He had no idea whatsoever of political institutions or structures. Despite his descent into anti-Semitism, Pound was well-intentioned, imagining that everyone would act decently and altruistically once they understood the basic truths about money and the economy that he was constantly espousing in books and articles.  When that naïve hope was disappointed, he could only understand the failure of his ideas to take hold as the result of opposition from those of evil intent who benefitted from the status quo.  It is clear to me that his political thought never got beyond the notion of a benevolent dictator – as he believed Mussolini to be.

 

RP       Reading DTU I noticed a change of tone in the way you related to Eliot, Pound and Lewis. In the Purgatory, you had a very intransigent attitude towards Pound’s errors in economics. This time round you were more inclined to give your authors “some slack” as you said in your preface, to understand them as relating to their own time, but preserving the epistemological benefits of a historian who knows the future. What changed?

LS       Nothing changed.  Purgatory was designed to articulate the genesis of Pound’s political, economic and racial views.  Since it inevitably had to trace the origins of his anti-Semitism, it was difficult to avoid a somewhat negative tone.  I was anxious to avoid giving the impression that I was an apologist for Pound’s Fascism and anti-Semitism, while at the same time contextualizing the development of those views.

In DTU my project was to contextualize the tendency of Pound, Eliot and Lewis to endorse totalitarian governance.  The context I articulated was their common distrust of popular democracy, which – it is not often remembered – emerged within their adult lifetime.  They all feared that the “masses” would be susceptible to manipulation by demagogues, and that everyone would be the worse for it.  Given that Hitler was elected and enjoyed great popularity throughout his regime, that fear was not ill-founded. Mussolini, it is true, came to power by a coup, but like Hitler, he was wildly popular, and would have won any election, had he bothered to hold one.  Lenin was in a similar position to Mussolini.  In short, their fear of democracy did not seem irrational in the 1930s. Today, the best we can do is repeat Churchill’s (apparently apocryphal) remark that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. 

 

RP       Was your postgraduate study with Marshall McLuhan germinal for your interest in technology which would flourish in Art in the Age of the Machine (AAM)? I know you discussed McLuhan in an interview with Bob Dobbs in May last year.

LS       A common thread in the speculation of McLuhan, Walter Ong, Lewis Mumford, and Eric Havelock is their belief that the technologies we use alter, not only the way we behave, but also the way we think.

Art in the Age of the Machine is a historical survey of prominent thought about the role of technology in society from Francis Bacon to Jacques Ellul.  As one might expect response can be plotted on an arc from the horrified opposition of Wm.  Blake, D.  H.  Lawrence, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Ellul; through the cautious acceptance of Wm. Wordsworth, J. W. Turner, Thomas Carlyle and Lewis Mumford; to the enthusiastic embrace of (the little known) Horatio Greenough, Frank Lloyd Wright, Filippo Marinetti and Marshall McLuhan.rsz 51xmm6accxl 2

“Machine” in my title is really a synecdoche for technology in the age of power.  The machine is an autonomous tool – whether a turret lathe, a printing press, a cad-cam robotic factory or a 3D printer.  It is born out of the intellectual innovation of analysis – that is, the breaking down ideas or things into their component parts. Analysis, of course, goes back to Aristotle, but it took many generations before the technique was socialized in the general population.  That happened, Mumford argues, in the Middle Ages with the mechanical clock. The clock created seconds, and minutes, when before only hours and days existed.

To make a long story short: analysis applied to things, not thoughts, altered the cognitive patterns of men and women. That alteration had begun, McLuhan and Eric Havelock independently argued, with the invention of the alphabet. (The alphabet, of course, is an analysis of speech into its component elements.) 

Just as the mechanical clock altered our conception and perception of time, so the steam engine, by accelerating human movement, altered our perception of space and distance. And by magnifying power, altered our sense of strength. That we still measure mechanical power as “horse power” is a measure at once of the conservatism of human thought, and its malleability. Similarly the camera changed our perception of the world around us – at first by framing, freezing and preserving images, and then, with the cinema, by framing, capturing and preserving movement.

 

RP       AAM was published recently, in 2013. But maybe it is not too early to ask if you are involved in a new book-length project. I have recently read your article on the genealogy of structuralism on academia.edu. Is this piece a part of something larger or was it written in and for itself?

LS       I am beavering away on a reworking of a study I wrote 30 years ago in the first days of “theory,” but could not find a publisher willing to take it.  The original title was The Unruliness of Art.  It was a response to the structuralist project of articulating a grammar for literature, or perhaps for each of the literary genres.  As I wrote, structuralism was being displaced by “theory,” which still then presented itself as analogous to theory in the sciences, that is, as an articulation of first principles governing critical commentary. 

Of course, “theory” turned out to be no such thing, but rather a rhetorical imitation of scientific theory. By “rhetorical imitation” I mean the penchant of literary theorists to rely of jargon which neither the author nor the audience can translate into standard English, French, German or whatever.  Just as theoretical physics or chemistry is incomprehensible to non-physicists and chemists, so literary theory is incomprehensible to non-theorists. Of course it is also incomprehensible to theorists themselves as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont demonstrated in the hoax they perpetrated on Social Text (See Fashionable Nonsense, New York: Picador 1998).

My new study is an account of literary criticism as an institution from the days of Matthew Arnold and Wilhelm Dilthey to the present in an effort to reconstitute the discipline that has turned into a social science rather than a humane study of the human imagination that it once aspired to be.

 

RP       Professor Surette, thank you for this interview.

 

    References

 

Dobbs, Bob. Interview with Leon Surette. 5/05/2014. Web. Free online.

Eliot, T. S. After Strange Gods. London: Faber, 1934. Print.

Eliot, T. S. The Idea of a Christian Society. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Print.

Eliot, T.S. Notes towards the Definition of Culture. London: Faber, 1948. Print.

Foucault, Michel. 1967. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Harrison, John R. The Reactionaries: Yeats, Lewis, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence: A Study of the Anti-Democratic Intelligentsia. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” Web. 28/02/2015. Free online.

Lewis, Wyndham. Rude Assignment. Boston: Black Sparrow, 1974. Print.

Perfloff, M. “Pound/Stevens. Whose Era?” New Literary History 13.3 (1982): 485-514. Print.

Surette, Leon. Art in the Age of the Machine. Kindle, 2013. Web.

Surette, Leon. Dreams of a Totaliarian Utopia. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2011. Print.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory. From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Print.

Surette, Leon. The Modern Dilemma. Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Humanism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2008. Print.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres. “‘With usura hath no man a house of good stone (Pound, Canto 45): An Interview with Leon Surette.” English Studies in Canada 31.2-3 (2005): 273-292. Print.

 


 

 

Leon Surette.

Art in the Age of the Machine.

Kindle, 2013.

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review by Roxana Preda

 

rsz 51xmm6accxl 2There is a formal difference between all the books that Leon Surette published during his long academic career and Art in the Age of the Machine (AAM). In his previous books, Surette talked to other scholars – readers got a distinct impression that the theory and criticism found therein were meant for advanced study and research. This time, he tread on new ground, aiming his book at students and shaping it accordingly. AAM contains a survey of the reception of machines and technology in cultural history: it has relatively short chapters further subdivided into even shorter focused sections. Each chapter has a summary at the end and the introduction is itself a very useful review of the material included. Though the fine grain subdivisions primarily serve citation, the textbook value is clear, both in the construction of the work and in the easy-going tone adopted. Moreover, AAM has a comprehensiveness and variety that is very well served by these short sections – a galaxy of focused points of discussion illuminating the impact of technology not only in aesthetics but primarily in our way of thinking and behaving, therefore on fundamental assumptions and social arrangements. For the first time, we get a glimpse of how Surette must have sounded like in the classroom and how he must have mentored his students.

There is however a very important characteristic that AAM shares with Surette’s previous books: it has a heavy historical and theoretical bent. To the impatient reader seeking for analysis of concrete instances where the machine aesthetics impacts on the arts, the present reviewer recommends starting with the second half. The risk of such an approach is of course that readers might soon get bogged down in terminological and definitional difficulties making it imperative to return to the beginning and to the theoretical and historical framework Surette provides. I am of course recounting my own impatience and trajectory as a reader. I expected a theoretical chapter, but found six instead. The second chapter (“Architecture and the Machine Aesthetic”) was indeed a lure and a temptation – however, this section too is strongly theoretical. If we also count the chapters on Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Giedion from the second half of the book, we’ll see that eight chapters out of fourteen are theoretical discussions. This balance is not simply the reflection of Surette’s intellectual interests but rather an effort to survey a whole field of knowledge and lay the parameters for a foundational discussion of modernism in the arts seen from the perspective of technological change. My initial impatience notwithstanding, the theoretical and historical contextualization responds to a need of surveying the reception history of the machine in the work of cultural historians; it has viable terminological distinctions and looks at how thoughts on the machine coming from critics and artists have meshed together.

Surette is heavily author-oriented and structures his chapters as readings of books he constantly compares to one another: his conceptual history of the machine is woven out of the network of agreements and disagreements among the authors he chooses. Of these, Marshall McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media) and Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilisation, The Pentagon of Power) stand out. Surette’s historical approach covers a lot of ground and his book is a delight to read: historian, as well as reader are plunged into the past together, but have the privilege of knowing the future. Even if Surette’s book stops short of the computer revolution, it is still written in our time and cannot avoid comparisons and shifts of positioning. In considering what the machine used to mean and what it did to our minds, the reader is always asking herself – if technology altered our way of thinking then, what is it doing to us now? Surette never ventures on that ground, but the reader is bound to and this is what makes this book so fascinating to experience.

The shifts of perspective in the book are also a bonus. Surette defines the machine as an “instrument that transfers force from some independent source – whether animal, wind, water, thermal or electrical to a tool that performs work without the active intervention of a human operator” (AAM, §III.A). However, the book does not rest with a strict definition, but enlarges the terminological scope to include the attending technologies joined to specific inventions. Surette also has in mind the useful distinction that Lewis Mumford made between paleotechnics (machines driven by wind, water, steam) and neotechnics (machines functioning on electricity), pointing out that the latter transfer not only force to a tool but more importantly transfer information to us. He is thus referring to the machines and attending technologies that influenced the modernist arts the most: the camera, the gramophone, the radio.

It is difficult for any reviewer to make a comprehensive survey of this true galaxy of author perspectives – as he stated in the interview, Surette was primarily interested to emphasize the effects of the machine on the way we think. However, I will try and depart from this focus by concentrating on two main directions in which the machine aesthetic influenced the arts of the modernist era. All the points I am going to mention in what follows are developed in Surette’s book – I do nothing else but follow a certain strand out of the variety, occasionally bringing in other examples as well.

A first and earliest force of impact of the machine on the arts was mechanical reproduction: the printing press (1450). Literature was first to be transformed by the new invention: availability of books, transformations in subject matter, fundamental changes in readership across social classes, the emergence of prose and the novel, the habit of reading in solitude and silence. Reproducibility impacted the other arts much later, in the 19th century: the invention of photography put pressure on the idea of painting as imitation of nature, hence was instrumental in various modes of non-representation: impressionism, cubism and vorticism would have been hardly thinkable without the crisis produced by the camera. Painting was now bound to explore domains which were inaccessible to the mechanical eye: realms of fantasy (late Symbolism), emotions and subconscious, affective impulses (Kandinsky), essential values of forms and colour (Cubism). At the same time, photographers were struggling to impose the medium as a form of art and this was especially successful in the United States where Stieglitz and his circle forcefully affirmed the expressive value of photographic images, beyond the documentary mimeticism hitherto ascribed to them. Even more important was the invention of devices able to record moving images – Surette discusses the influence of Étienne Marey on the Futurists and the impact of the moving image in the Siegfried Giedion’s theorizing of abstraction.

Music began to be impacted by mechanical reproduction with the invention of the pianola, phonograph and radio. In these respects Benjamin’s discussion of mechanical reproduction as despoiling art of the aura that makes it distant and inaccessible, bringing cheap reproduction to every household and enabling the democratization of the aesthetic experience holds in the case of music as in the case of the visual arts. Artists like Prokofiev, Eliot and Pound resisted this phenomenon by valuing the authentic unmediated experience of art or of life. Pound even connected the active recourse to the ideogram as a more authentic, natural way of poetic expression with the “live” experience of the arts: he remarked in the ABC of Reading that there “is nevertheless the RIGHT WAY to study poetry, or literature or painting. It is in fact the way the more intelligent members of the general public DO study painting. If you want to find out something about painting you go to the National Gallery, or the Salon Carré, or the Brera, or the Prado and LOOK at the pictures. For every reader of books on art, 1,000 people go to LOOK at the paintings. Thank heaven!” (ABCR 23)

If the modernist artists resisted mechanical reproducibility by championing the authentic experience, there are other qualities of the machine aesthetic that were adopted. Surette found the earliest instance in an article by the American sculptor Horatio Greenough:

When the savage of the South Sea Islands shapes his war club, his first thought is of its use…. If we compare the form of a newly invented machine with the perfected type of the same instrument, we observe, as we trace it through the phases of improvement, how weight is shaken off where strength is less needed, how functions are made to approach without impeding each other, how straight becomes curved, and the curve is straightened, till the straggling and cumbersome machine becomes the compact, effective, and beautiful engine. (“American Architecture” 1843, AAM §II A).

The nucleus of the machine aesthetic then is the adaptation of form to function, an idea that would only later become popular in the slogan of the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, “form follows function,” a slogan that does not acknowledge any debt to Greenough’s formulation some fifty years earlier. Greenough is indeed surprisingly modern in his delight with the formal coordinates of simplification and essentialism that governed the adaptation of form to function. Reduction, elimination of decoration or indeed anything superfluous reminds us of Pound’s championing for “le mot juste,” his imagist principle of stripping away anything not contributing to the presentation and his later slogan “dichten=condensare.”

So while reproducibility was decried, modernist artists whole-heartedly adopted essentialism and simplification as fundamental artistic creeds. What seems to me remarkable in Greenough’s early formulation is the acceptance of the machine as a composition of form, anticipating the much later formalism of W. Lewis and such experiments as Gaudier Brzeska’s:

Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a mauser rifle. Its heavy unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful IMAGE of brutality.

I was in doubt for a long time whether it pleased or displeased me.

I found that I did not like it.

I broke the butt off and with my knife I carved in it a design through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling which I preferred.

BUT I WILL EMPHASIZE that MY DESIGN got its effect (just as the gun had) FROM A VERY SIMPLE COMPOSITION OF LINES AND PLANES. (G-B 28)

The trajectory from Greenough to Gaudier spans a wide arc from the former’s admiration for the aesthetic of the “war club” per se, to the latter’s articulation of the essentials of modernist aesthetics derived from the machine. It looks strange that both start from the consideration and beholding of weapons. Looking at the mauser rifle, Gaudier thought it unwieldy – it was probably also inefficient, a brute instrument and therefore ugly. He broke “the butt off” to destroy the gun’s function and transform it into an art object: in Kant’s terms, purposeful (i.e. intentional) but purposeless (with no other goal than being itself). The art object belongs to the realm of peace “the gentler order of feeling” which Gaudier preferred. But we see from the reactions of these two sculptors that the aesthetic distinctions they drew had to do with the simplification of the design and also with fundamental, abstract qualities: round, curved or rectilinear form, simplicity of the idea underlying it and maybe most importantly the recognition that the object in the world possessed aesthetic qualities which hitherto had been the province of art.

Surette’s book is thus extremely valuable in bringing such lines of force to our attention and making us readers draw our own constellations of meaning – for scholars and students an efficient, elegant machine of words.