Print

THE MODERNISM REVIEW
________________

 

 

history of a shiver cocteau
History of a Shiver Jean Cocteau. A Life
modern archaics Wagner Martin
Modern Archaics               Introduction to American Modernism

 

 

 


 

 THE MODERNISM REVIEW      

________________
Jed Rasula. History of A Shiver:

The Sublime Impudence of Modernism.

Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2016. 346 pp.

______________

review by Julian Stannard

 

history of a shiver

 

 

Paul Verlaine declared “De la musique avant toute chose” (Art Poétique) and the film theoretician Riciotto Canudo, indebted to Walter Pater no doubt, maintained: “All our spiritual, aesthetic, and religious life aspires to become music” (Rasula 241). In Briggflatts (1965), that great English modernist poem written in sonata form, Basil Bunting lays “the tune frankly in the air.” In fact, History of A Shiver: The Sublime Impudence of Modernism provides a vibrant “musical” experience. And it is delivered with panache. The excitement of reading the work has much to do with the persistence of Jed Rasula’s cultural enquiry - his reconsideration of the significance of Romanticism, German Romanticism in particular, as well as the importance of the music of Richard Wagner–as far as modernism’s wider trajectory is concerned. The pleasure is augmented by the author’s palpable enjoyment of language and critical exploration. It’s not unlike being on the equivalent of academia’s big dipper. It’s a visceral, sometimes metaphysical and always heady intellectual experience. Rasula writes: “Wagnerism is my umbrella term for the crescendo of nineteenth century preoccupations that achieved an apotheosis only with the technological and political conflagrations of the twentieth century” (12). As Irving Berlin pointed out: “There may be trouble ahead…”

Meaningful criticism has its own creative energy and Rasula knows how to lay down a phrase, and quicken to “the seismic impact of melomania,” namely, “the nineteenth century elevation of music to top-dog status” (19). He employs quotation and exempla to excellent effect and there’s a great deal of erudition in his consideration of the interconnection and miscegenation of the arts. The study refers variously to poetry, prose, painting, dance, theatre, photography, film as well as music in its various guises, including visual music. The dancer Isadora Duncan claimed: “the work of Wagner flows through every drop of blood in every artist of the world, and his mighty rhythm has become part of every heart-beat of each one of us” (Rasula 78-9). In fact, throughout the study there is a pervasive sense of excitement and–if only to give the reader a sense of the “Wagnerian” grandiosity of the project–it’s useful to refer to the end of the book where we come to a sub-chapter called The Volcanic Sublime. By now, Rasula has followed the progression of movement, image and music into the creation of twentieth century film, another type of synaesthesia if you will, where the Romantic tropes of the sublime and the grotesque are marshalled into the discombobulating if breathless spasms of celluloid. Baudelaire had described modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.” Film offered up new technical possibilities for the fugal and the immutable, in effect a re-harnessing and re-rendering of the Wagnerian notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk or “Total Work of Art.” It’s worth reiterating how the German composer’s nineteenth century music, with its tell-tale employment of leitmotifs, greatly influenced the music of twentieth century cinema.

In 1923–a year after the publication of The Waste Land–Jean Epstein made a film about Mount Etna which resulted in Le cinématographe vu de L’Etna. In making the ascent, Epstein had a vivid recollection of a screening in which “three hundred people moaned when they beheld a grain of wheat germinating on the screen’’ (237-8). Rasula recalls that the Eleusinian Mysteries are thought to have involved a similar revelation of sprouting wheat, befitting Epstein’s reference to the audience’s exclamations as ‘’’religious cries’’’–an interesting case of modern technology producing the hieratic. Rasula cites Stuart Liebman on Epstein:

Epstein clearly likens Canudo’s infectious passion for the cinema to Empedocles self-immolation. The horrifying yet strangely appealing act of jumping into the engulfing lava flow becomes, for Epstein, a hyperbolic figure for watching a movie. (238)

In fact, according to George Bataille, inelegantly economical here, “The earth sometimes jerks off in a frenzy.” By the end of the book, Rasula has delivered a forceful argument concerning the way Wagner’s “endless melody” has both fuelled and collided with a relentless unstoppable modernity, where “the endless of modernity ended up overrunning everyday life”–the engulfing lava flow–where “The public sphere endures a steady shower of stimulation, the constant escalation and enhancement of which is the hallmark of technological modernity.” Rasula continues: “Wagner’s endless melody provocatively endowed the arts with that which cannot strictly be accommodated by their specific medium.” He sees it as “the second coming of that ‘sublime impudence’ bestowed on the arts by romantic theory” (247). Rasula concludes History Of A Shiver by invoking the curtain call at Bayreuth which ushers “the Wagnerites into the auditorium to experience, through the most modern means, the anti-modern Ring cycle.”

Ezra Pound declared, famously, “make it new” and, Janus–like, modernist endeavour looks backwards into a mythological hinterland, and forwards into a future of constant change and innovation–including the unchartered digital revolution of our own time. We can still hear, in the vast musical repertoire of the twentieth century, those Wagnerian notes in Eliot’s The Waste Land and we can still hear, inter alia, the death-knell of the Valkyries in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Even though Rasula makes a distinction between Wagnerism and Richard Wagner the “world-historical figure” with his “works and beliefs” who died in 1883, it is difficult not to write about the subject without being acutely aware of the Third Reich’s embrace of the German composer, including the Wagnerian pastiche in Leni Riefenstahl’s famously choreographed Nazi ceremonies, not to mention Hitler’s own emotional investment in Bayreuth itself. Wagner is associated fundamentally with nineteenth century German nationhood, which is not the same as National Socialism, yet if admirers of Wagner’s music complain that we do the composer an injustice by seeing him through the prism of the twentieth century, there’s no denying the anti-Semitic tract Das Judenthum in der Musik, which he wrote in 1850 and which he then re-issued in 1869. For obvious reasons his music is very rarely played in Israel. Roger Scruton, who sees the German composer as one of the great architects of modernism, notes in his defence that “the crimes of Hitler are read back into the operas of Wagner as though they originated in that source.” However, even if one could place him firmly back in the nineteenth century, the benefit of hindsight means that Wagner’s visionary stature seems somehow compromised.

Whether it’s straightforward ideological anxiety, or even just some kind of cultural cringe, it seems easier at times to leave him marooned in what might be seen as a pseudo-medieval fog-bound hinterland. “You may argue that Wagner, a great musician, in his manner of greatness, produced,” argued Pound “a sort of pea soup” and the American poet’s quest for the hard edge announces that fracture between twentieth century Imagism and nineteenth century Symbolism, which Donald Davie explored in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1964). In the Imagist Manifesto, Pound states his opposition to the “cosmic poet” and something of this divergence is alluded to at the end of this piece. None of this, however, should prevent us from acknowledging Rasula’s zealous and all-encompassing line of enquiry, reminding us of Wagner’s nineteenth century standing, where the artist-hero (Siegfried) steps like some martyr into Nietzsche’s godless world, somehow prefiguring, it’s hard to say otherwise, the blood-letting of the twentieth century.

I am getting ahead of myself. The writing of the book, we are told, unfolded over a decade and sections of History of a Shiver have been presented as papers at The European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies and/or have made their way into academic journals. One notes immediately, for example, not least because of the quirkiness of the title, “Wagnerism: A Telephone from the Beyond” which was published in The Georgia Review and which here constitutes the third chapter of this monograph. Studies of modernism, the author reminds us, are never short on the ground and he refers to a prolific array of titles. In effect, History of a Shiver provides an impressive bibliography, as well as accompanying OUP website material which will make this monograph an invaluable and stimulating source for scholars and students of modernism alike. 

Studies of modernism have both a genealogical and archaeological component, all part of the job description. The protean energy, the internationalist dimension and the interconnectivity mean that scholars of modernism are, like forensic scientists, invariably tempted to reach for specifics and precision, not least regarding the inception of modernism and the moment of its high season. Sometimes it feels more like a piece of alchemy: Wyndham Lewis argued, Rasula recalls, “I was present–I dimly recognised–at the passage of an entire people out of one system into another” (1) and more conveniently, as is well known, Virginia Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” wrote “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” And similar iconic movements are posited in works like 1913: The Cradle of Modernism by Jonathan Rabaté (2007)–the year in which Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed; and, yet another example, one of the chapters in Peter Nicholls’ Modernisms (1995) is entitled “Modernity and the ‘Men of 1914,’” focussing on the contributions of Lewis, Pound, Joyce and Eliot. And which teacher of literary modernism hasn’t referred reverentially to 1922, the year in which both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published? All of this, of course, makes the subject seem “emphatically twentieth century” and there is, too, a pedagogical convenience about this in that universities often favour modularisation, where the curriculum is neatly packaged into semesters. Yet Rasula reminds us that “modernism is a leaky vessel” and that “Assigning 1922 a foundational status privileges a single generation, whereas modernism was indisputably a multigenerational affair” (3). If in his 1987 lecture, Raymond Williams asked: “When Was Modernism?” Rasula suggests, in response to this perennially problematic question, “we benefit by taking the long view.” This takes us back into the nineteenth century, including the work of the French Symbolists (it’s always fascinating to consider Stéphane Mallarmé’s engagement with Wagner) and more generally, and even more significantly, the quasi-religious importance of music among the burgeoning middle-classes; in particular the music of Wagner, which, as Radula amply demonstrates, permeated nineteenth century culture in a great number of ways–both publicly and privately.

“That’s why,” argues Rasula “I’ve found it worthwhile to dwell at length on the preparatory moods emanating from Wagnerism (the first ism and launching pad of the modern as ism.”) In effect, erstwhile “attempts to elucidate on the modernist debt to romanticism have generally foundered to the extent that they’ve overlooked Wagnerism as the great transmitter, the power station that, in effect, pumped a purified concentrate of romantic initiatives into the twentieth century.” (11-12, my italics)

The stakes, therefore, are high and this is not unconnected with the inclusive drive of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and where, too, “The pursuit of synaesthesia in the nineteenth century gradually shed its various theosophical and other period associations until, by ‘1910,’ it was understood in the simple exhortation to make it new, whatever it was” (11). In 1914, the date seems cruelly ironic, Alexander Scriabin visited London and expressed his belief that “through music and colour, with the aid of perfume, the human mind or soul can be lifted outside or above merely physical sensation into the region of purely abstract ecstasy and purely intellectual speculation” (Rasula 26).

Rasula, in fact, dedicates a chapter to the Fourth Dimension, the quasi-scientific reach for a higher consciousness, perplexing in its various eccentricities, yet interesting in that it demonstrates how the arts night be seen as a form of neurological, even neo-Romantic, research. Rasula asks “How can the explorations undertaken by creative artists enhance the domain of sensory perception and in doing so contribute to a higher realism?”(214) The composer and painter Mikalojus Čiurlionis imagined the world “as a great symphony, in which people are the notes” and Max Weber, the artist, saw the fourth dimension– “that pot of gold at the mystic end of the modernist rainbow”–as “the spirit symphony heard by the senses in attendance” (214). Less harmoniously and more contentiously, the youthful George Antheil, friend of Pound and occasionally part of the Rapallo group, made his name with the Ballet Mécanique (1924). Antheil’s score involved a machine ensemble (with potentially no less than 16 pianos), which contributed to its reputation as “the very acme of demented modernism.” He claimed “My Ballet Mécanique is the new fourth dimension of music,” and he aspired to “a single and gigantic form, with music hard and beautiful as a diamond […] like a solid shaft of steel” (Rasula 201). If, on the one hand, such a position suggests a counter gesture–concrete, as it were, rather than abstract–towards Wagner’s quest for lofty transfiguration, it might also remind us of Pound’s engagement with the troubadour poet Guido Cavalcanti, and the acknowledgement of a “radiant world where one thought cuts through another with a clean edge, a world of moving energies, revealed in “the rose a magnet makes in the iron filings” (Rasula 209).

 

________________

WORKS CITED

Roger Scruton. “Man and Superman” Guardian, 12th April, 2003.

Donald Davie. Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964.

Jean Michel Rabaté. 1913: The Cradle of Modernism. Oxford: Wiley, 2007.

Peter Nicholls. Modernisms: A Literary Guide. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1995.

 


 

 

Claude Arnaut. Jean Cocteau. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016. 1014pp.
_____________

            review by Stoddard Martin

 

 

cocteau

 

 

Understanding an author may involve identifying what he is not. This is an idle game if far-fetched, but useful if focused on comparison with those to whom he was contemporary or close. Jean Cocteau, we know, figured in Pound’s pantheon of associates in Paris of the ’20s. The conjunction seems improbable in many ways and may invite guesswork about what each truly thought of the other. Living through the same historical period as Pound, Cocteau was a skin-sloughing chameleon as creator. He dabbled in a bewildering number of genres and was attached to myriad movements, from late symbolism to surrealism to neo-classicism to something resembling abstract expressionism. His very public private life was ornamented by bouts of homosexual cruising, opium-taking, occultism and Catholicism. He played the saint and the bad boy, was papal and pathetic at turns, metropolitan to a fault yet a man of the Midi. The huge new biography by Claude Arnaud offers Proustian detail on him and his milieu. Far from being an academic monograph, it is designed for the intelligent reader as a “book to go beyond all books” on arts and letters of the era, centred in Paris. Such light as it sheds on relations between Cocteau and Pound is minimal in fact yet rich in what might be construed. Full reading will exasperate those whose interest is specific yet delight others whose urge to understand a Zeitgeist is expansive.

Facts first... Arnaud’s index has a dozen references to Pound, most mere asides, a few about actual contact. Among the latter is noted a photograph by Man Ray of Cocteau, Pound, Tzara and other Dadaists “inaugurating... a bar on Montparnasse,” a grouping Arnaud ascribes to “common need for publicity.” Of Cocteau’s importance to Pound in Paris, Arnaud opines: “It was Cocteau whom Pound visited, with Picabia and Joyce, during his move to the rue de Saints-Pères, in the spring of 1921, and Cocteau he would compare to that complete man the Renaissance dreamed of, in the letter he sent regularly to the Dial... after having deemed Cocteau the most talented poet and prose writer in Paris.” This assertion is buttressed by an endnote: “Obviously, Ezra Pound had been sensitive to the use of ancient forms in Cocteau’s modernism, and to the vortex aspect – or ‘fusion of ideas endowed with energy’ – of Le Cap [de Bonne-Espérance]. Not content to use the English translation of that poem made by Jean Hugo, Pound encouraged his companion, Olga Rudge, to translate ‘Le mystère laic,’ and would later often quote Cocteau in his Cantos.” Arnaud’s characterization of Olga as Pound’s “companion” and his formulation that Pound “would later often quote Cocteau in his Cantos” indicate limits to his expertise on the American writer. (He cites Humphrey Carpenter in his notes but not David Moody.) However, it may be unfair to expect more from an author whose remit obliges him to take in hundreds if not thousands of associates of a figure ever at pains to maintain his centrality within artistic trends of the epoch.

Other Pound citations include his appearance at the Cocteau-ian boîte, Le Boeuf sur Toit, and Cocteau’s non-appearance at a supper for Pound where Surrealist “enemies” were staked out in order to thrash him – a tale based on hearsay and perhaps apocryphal. This anarchic side to the time and place had less to do with art than with expressionist manifestation – a dubious influence on Pound ultimately. More pertinent for us must be Arnaud’s notation of Pound’s praise for Cocteau’s Antigone and of Cocteau’s interest in Pound’s Villon, contemporary works showing their authors’ parallel passion for exhumation of tradition alongside modernist experiment and for free movement within and outside of genre in the direction of Gesamtkunstwerk. Beyond this, Arnaud leaves us to follow the tergiversations of Cocteau’s career with Pound in mind or not as we like. The enterprise is approached best by category: lifestyle, aesthetics, politics and legacy.

Lifestyle is not a topic Poundians often speak of, but no modernist could thrive as a social conservative in Paris of the ’20s, whether on Right or Left Bank. In a tradition harking back to Balzac and Stendhal, writers and artists made their rounds with one eye cocked to sexual and social liaison. Coming of age in the era of Proust, it would have been unthinkable for Cocteau, who mixed with what would later be called a “jet-set” and anticipates Andy Warhol, to have behaved otherwise. “Outsider” friends such as Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Picasso, Picabia and Coco Chanel proceeded similarly; and the tyro who had once eaten flowers from a table decoration at Violet Hunt’s in order to make an impact in London was hardly ignorant of the declensions one needed to master – he met Olga Rudge at the salon of wealthy expatriate lesbian Natalie Barney, who travelled in monde and demimonde alike; another of his lovers in this phase was Lady Cunard’s high bohemian daughter Nancy, who later became his useful, generous niche small press publisher. A middle class American, even if writing home like a good boy to his parents each week, could not expect to prosper long as a simple, uxorious bourgeois hereabouts – so Hemingway would shortly discover. It was a locale where eccentricity, even transgression, was the de rigueur outer sign of inner genius.

This is not necessarily healthy, sustainable or satisfying, as a mature Hemingway would lament at the end of A Moveable Feast; and there almost inevitably came a moment when countervailing seriousness set in – in aesthetics, Stravinsky’s reversion to austere classicism, for example, analogous to Eliot’s sea-change from “The Waste Land” by stages to “Four Quartets.” Cocteau, as said, was a tireless changeling in aesthetics, moving from mode to mode with the deft nimbleness required for one determined to be the arbiter of styles. Something resembling this may be seen in Pound’s shifts from section to section of The Cantos, almost tectonic with the chunky documentation of the middle group, a revived personal lyricism in the Pisans, lofty telegraphy in later cantos, gong-like ideograms etc. Polyphony throughout – an ability to move between high and low voice, in and out of accent, from savage mimicry to straight plea – gained impetus for him in the ’20s, and a talent for it he had surely observed in Cocteau: that instinctive way the poet was able to oscillate between the outrageous and the inward, the shocking and the tender, the transcendental and the guttural. That said, one should not push similitude far. These are tendencies to do with kinship in sensibility rather than with recordable “influence,” let alone imitation.

Such kinship may be what impelled both to escape the pressures of Paris for the south – Pound to Rapallo, Cocteau to Villefranche, Toulon or St Tropez. Both needed sun, sea and the Mediterranean’s timeless connection to a beloved classical world. Yet here likeness ends, for Cocteau would divert himself by seducing sailors and smoking dozens of pipes a day while Pound busied himself organizing early music concerts and holding forth to an “Ezuversity” of young visitors. Cocteau reverted to Paris while Pound made provincial Italy more and more his base. Once aged parents were nearby and other familial responsibilities up in the hills, he felt increasing compulsion to think big in a way that Cocteau neither wanted nor was obliged to; thus the fatal political dimension in him grew, while Cocteau shied away from it. Through confusions that ended with the Popular Front in France of the ’30s, Cocteau carried on as if not much had changed. Through certainties that deepened Fascist dictatorship in Italy, Pound became more and more of a zealot. Economics hardly entered the consciousness of the one and hardly left it in the other. Both persisted as writers/performers of repute after the War began, and both were confronted by the challenge of taking sides. But for Pound this was easy: he knew what he believed in and where his loyalties lay – with a regime he admired and an idea of his country which had effectively disappeared – while for Cocteau it grew tricky: he wanted simply to continue living and producing as he always had, despite attacks of nationalist “ultras” against him as an enjuivé decadent who had led France and its culture to the abyss. In the event, he found dealing with German occupiers more congenial than with the authorities of Vichy or enragé extremist fellow-writers such as Céline.

A cloud hovered over him after the War, while catastrophe fell upon Pound. Success under the Occupation provoked charges of collaboration. His many interventions to protect friends bred suspicion, as did his extolling of Hitler’s pet sculptor Arno Breker. But Cocteau ever had networks in high places to get him out of a jam, as various imbroglios over drug matters attest. Pound had protectors too, but institutions in the U. S. were less susceptible to influence than in the more tightly-held polity that is France. In any case, Cocteau’s “collaboration” was ambiguous and muted when set against Pound’s vehement rhetoric for Mussolini and against Jews. Arnaud notes Cocteau’s gestures of compassion for Pound among other literary partisans for the losing side after the War, former antagonists included. He does not comment on how their politics diverged from there, Cocteau flirting with the soft Marxism of Sartrean café society, Pound with a radicalism connecting to the MSI in Italy and precursors to an “alt-right” in the U. S. This, however, is by no means criticism of a book about a figure for whom indifference to politics remained the leitmotif. One might more legitimately hope for further exploration of how the two writers diverged in aesthetics ultimately.

As playwright and filmmaker, Cocteau had moved nearer to a mainstream of popular culture after the 1920s. This became evident during his years with the matinée idol he discovered and “made,” Jean Marais. His championing of Jean Genet during later days of the Nazis displayed continuing artistic courage, or at least fidelity to a certain strain of transgression. But these moves were in the direction of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee among American counterparts rather than the course taken by the “last rower” in Section Rock-Drill or Thrones. Affinities remained – for classicism, metamorphoses, myth, the heroic, small presses, originality, the undiscovered, against Freud – also shared characteristics, such as loyalty to old friends and attraction to new recruits. (An aging Pound would remember Cocteau fondly, if with ambivalent comment on his ability as a jazz musician, in his Paris Review interview with Donald Hall.) Both poets were showmen in their ways and knew the value of celebrity. In the end, however, one remained an exemplary chameleon while the other was too much “a serious character” to simulate such a “postmodern” persona.

Arnaud depicts Cocteau as if of us today. He presents him too as representative genius of the 20th century – a receding day-before-yesterday now. No contradiction would have been apparent to Cocteau here. He would have recognized Arnaud’s work for the signal act of devotion it is – and as a book to go beyond books about a Zeitgeist.

 

 


 

Shengqing Wu.

Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937.

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: 2013. Pp. xviii + 437.

_______________

review by Kent Su (University College London)

 

modern archaics

 

 

In January 1917, Hu Shi (1891-1962) published an essay entitled “A Preliminary Discussion of Literary Reform” (1917). This composition initiated the literary revolution known as the May Fourth Movement by proposing the radical idea that free verse could be composed in baihua 白話 (vernacular). Near the end of the piece, Hu Shi outlines the doctrines of “Eight Don’ts” 八不主義, which bear striking semblance to Ezra Pound’s “A Few Don’ts” (1913). The mirroring publication of “Don’ts” was not an absolute coincidence. When Hu Shi was studying abroad, he was heavily influenced by Imagist principles concerning precision of language. In his own manifesto, Hu Shi calls for writers to “reject melancholy” and “eliminate old clichés,” which are common characteristics to be found in the strict, regulated prosody of wenyan wen 文言文 (classical Chinese poetry) and traditional lyricism. By specifying that literary imagination should never “imitate the ancients,” Hu Shi regarded the poetry of past traditions as ideologically inert and inimical to modernisation. It has generally been understood since then that Hu Shi’s anti-traditional stance set the standard for Modern Chinese poetry.

However, Shengqing Wu’s Modern Archaics: Continuity and Innovation in the Chinese Lyric Tradition, 1900-1937 challenges the iconoclastic ideas put forth by Hu Shi. She cogently argues that Hu Shi’s rhetoric as a “hegemonic power over other contemporary discourses… is a misleading statement” (11). In other words, Wu highlights poets of the same/similar period/periods who rejected Hu Shi’s ideology. Scholarship may have suggested Hu Shi had set the standard, but Wu argues both that the standard was a weak one and that many poets refused to be influenced by Hu Shi. Wu contends that from the late Qing dynasty to pre-WWII (1900-1937), the literary scene “was a hybrid field consisting of the modern and the archaic, the elitist and the popular, and the Chinese and the foreign” (11). The oxymoronic title of the monograph, Modern Archaics, thus delineates the potential reciprocity and confrontation between the traditional and the modern. Wu asks readers to reconsider the paradox dialectically, without privileging one or the other. She attempts to illustrate this concept of “modern archaics” by exploring how poetic styles of classical and lyric writings continued to be the artistic medium for various modern intellectuals in the first three decades of twentieth-century China.

Before giving a brief summary of Wu’s book, I would like to consider how the book can help scholars of Western poetry understand how two stark traditions (Western and Eastern) occasionally overlap and/or influence each another. For instance, I discovered that these Chinese intellectuals’ attempt to reinvigorate and interact with the poetic traditions of the past appears to echo T. S. Eliot’s assertion of the “historical sense.” In other words, tradition exists in the present, and the poetic appropriation of particular literary strains from the past informs a new reading and formation in the present. Simultaneously, the present revises or co-opts the past in many different ways. This two-way influence captures the essence of “modern archaics.” Tradition becomes a poetic technique for Chinese intellectuals’ stylistic innovation and literary imagination, which in turn seems to enable them to usher in the modern age through the creation of a collective identity.

Following a compelling introduction on the tradition of ornamental lyricism, Wu’s monograph consists of three main parts, each with two subsections. The total six chapters are connected thematically. Her research proceeds chronologically through a short span of Modern Chinese history, from the year of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to the translations of English poetry in the mid-1930s.

Chapter 1 discusses the poetic genre of ci 詞, a style commonly used in the aftermath of the invasion of China by the Eight Allied Nations. Historically, ci poetry often implies a male authorial identity who adopts a female voice in order to better describe conventional concepts of domesticity or melodrama. Wu maintains this genre was employed because of its capacity to evoke sentimental feelings of loss and assist with mourning for the country’s calamity. Readers of the time supposedly needed to join in this act of grief after reading these works. Ci “was a politically charged process and was presented as a strategy to respond to the historical challenges and cultural crises…” (52). Wu limits her scope of research in Chapter 1, focusing exclusively on two literary events that employed the old-fashioned, ornamental style of ci. The first event involves a group of poets that appropriated the technique of ci to honour the tragic life and death of the Guangxu 光緒 Emperor’s (1871-1908) beloved concubine, Zhen Fei 珍妃. Wu argues that “[t]he seemingly frivolous love poems . . . are thus particularly endowed with profound meaning, becoming allegories for the crumbling nation and culture” (57). The second event discusses and selects three ci lyricists, Wang Pengyun王鵬運 (1848-1904), Zhu Zumou朱祖謀 (1857-1931) and Liu Fuyao 劉福姚 (1864 - ?), who articulated their shared grief and found collective consolation through the composition of Song Lyrics of the Autumn of Gengzi. Through their reliance on the features of the ci genre, they devote themselves to exploring themes related to the country’s downfall.

Chapter 2 concentrates on the classical, traditional forms in the poetry of Chen Sanli陳三立 (1853 -1937). Wu observes that Hu Shi consistently criticised Chen’s stilted diction; he characterised Chen as a “scrivener, slave or servant-girl to the ancients” (Hu Shi cited in Wu 113). Wu takes exception to this, arguing that Hu Shi restricted himself by exclusively using the vernacular rather than embracing it as one possible medium. She further claims that “conventional form did not fetter poets’ self-expression as much as writers such as Hu Shi and his successors would have us believe” (113). Wu points out that Chen was responsible for the revival of literary interest in Song-dynasty poetry (960-1276) through the process of “grafting,” which involves “uprooting traditional habits of expression and forcefully forging new connections in the soil” (120). I would argue that this sentiment clearly echoes Eliot’s concept of “tradition” in which the writer composes poetry with the awareness and understanding of the works from the past. Working from this place of knowledge, the writer will shape the poetic “tradition.” The writer will manage this by presenting a renewed perspective of the present, which he or she has grown to understand through several dichotomous strategies: emulation and creation, progression and fracture, reconstruction and deconstruction. In the case of Chen Sanli’s poetry, the writer reinterprets classical allusions from the Song-dynasty to accommodate his experience for modernity.

Chapter 3 examines the traditional poetry clubs and societies that were often excluded from the canons of twentieth-century Chinese literature because of their ideological differences. Wu addresses this gap, arguing that scholars dismissed these clubs too quickly and suggesting the societies provided a different venue for individuals who wished to exorcise “pent-up emotions and obstructed energy through meaningful literary and artistic experience” (167). These clubs produced a collective aesthetic understanding as a response to the sense of rupture their members’ felt had been generated by the historical situation of modernity. With the aim of recreating the lost golden ages, these individuals repeatedly returned to tradition, deliberately mimicking the elegant lifestyle, as well as other cultural idiosyncrasies, of the ancient scholar-literati class. Wu contends that this shared attitude of evoking nostalgia strengthened their cultural memory of antiquity in the face of disintegrating present.

Chapter 4 looks at the poetic career of Chen Yan 陳衍 (1856-1937), a literary contemporary of Chen Sanli. Borrowing Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of literary fields, Wu demonstrates how Chen Yan initially assumed the role of editor by compiling the Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, in which he tirelessly promoted classical poetic forms. With the advent of institutionalisation of the literary field, Chen Yan successfully established himself as “a modern literary scholar and intellectual” by incorporating traditional works into contemporary disciplines (222). Being both an editor and academician enabled Chen Yan to build up social capital and cultural prestige, thereby disseminating his knowledge and retaining his position as a prominent literary influence on later generations of intellectuals. Chen Yan’s ambitious task of redefining and ensuring the survival of classical poetry in modernity demonstrates that he was ingeniously capable of adapting to the cultural and political transformation of his time.

Chapter 5 explores the ci poetry of Lu Bicheng呂碧城 (1881-1936), which Wu suggests “has been generally neglected by literary scholars until very recently” (268). Lu’s poetic craft challenges this predominantly and ideologically masculine form by infusing the traditional genre with a unique feminine subjectivity and consciousness. More impressively, Lu’s poetry written overseas reflects how female imagination has the capacity to reject and reshape the representation of natural and cultural spaces in ci. For instance, in a poem written in Switzerland, Lu depicts the Alps as implicitly masculine and the speaker as distinctively feminine. I believe that by capturing the transcendental values of the mountain, Lu remarkably echoes a Shelley-esque moment but with a specifically female voice. In other words, Lu acknowledges the miniscule human mind in the face of majestic, sublime powers of nature. Overall, this fascinating chapter brings the re-discovery of a neglected female poet to the canon of the modern Chinese literature.

In her final chapter, “O My Love is Like a Red Red Rose: Classical Form and Translation,” Wu considers how writers would adapt the rhyme scheme and formal features of Chinese poetry when translating a Western poem. For instance, Su Manshu蘇曼殊 (1884-1918), also known as the “Chinese Byron” for his translations of Romantic poetry, borrowed what Roman Jakobson referred to as a “creative transposition” from one system of signs to another. Su rejected similes and metaphors, instead using the poetic device of xing , which Wu translates as a “stimulating or evocative image” (336). In xing , the expression of the scenery is symbolically connected with the poet’s thoughts (336). In other words, Su domesticated the original English verses into the conventional form of classical Chinese poetry. I would argue that Pound, by contrast, went the opposite direction when rendering the strict forms of classical Chinese poetry into the free verses in Cathay. The literary innovation of both Su and Pound reflects the significance of cross-cultural transmission and translation taken during the period of modernism.

The book’s last figure of discussion is Wu Mi吳宓 (1894-1978), who was a student of Irving Babbitt at Harvard. Studying abroad enabled Wu Mi to examine Western intellectual works. However, this experience led him “to adopt a more appreciative attitude toward [his] own literary and cultural past” (366). Wu notes that his translations of Christina Rossetti and Matthew Arnold “consciously cultivate a tone of languorous melancholy, exploiting the elegiac potential of the form and language to great effect” (368). He believed that translating foreign poetry would give him the opportunity to be more aware of the conventional forms in classical Chinese poetry, thereby consolidating his sense of China’s cultural heritage and identity.

Modern Archaics is an indispensable addition to the study of modern Chinese poetics, dispelling the preconceived notion that the vernacular language was the only mode of composition. Most chapters begin with a thought-provoking narrative that transports the reader to the vivid scenery of twentieth-century China. Wu then weaves each chapter with lucid prose, astute readings, archival materials and informative footnotes for consultation. What I find most admirable is the reliable and rigorous translations of classical Chinese poetry into English. Shengqing Wu executes this laborious task brilliantly. Poundians who desire to undertake the challenges of understanding the literary tradition of Chinese poetics will certainly benefit from this book. 

 

 


 

Linda Wagner-Martin.

The Routledge Introduction to American Modernism.

London: Routledge, 2016.

________________

review by Kevin Kiely

 

 

‘I Hear America Singing’

 

Wagner Martin

 

While Wagner-Martin co-opts fellow critics to explicate the vast structure established in her central argument, privileging “the African American achievement” of the Harlem Renaissance (110), the stalwarts of modernism, Williams, Pound, Eliot and Moore are given satisfactory treatment. No one movement holds singular status in this study however: the democratic vistas of prose and poetry are praised, but never amalgamated, and the copious examples cited, occasionally in shaded textboxes, are given swift analysis. The treatment of modernism also draws on Frost, Masters, Crane, and of course, Vachel Lindsay. The book has much to achieve in a small space, and particularly highlights the second-wave modernists, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Cather, (Sinclair) Lewis, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Wolfe. Her elaboration of poetry and prose as merged-obsession by writers in all genres is the leitmotif in what concerns absolute origins, while the overall focus seems to fall on the 1930s and 1940s. HD is analysed in both genres through Poundian dictates on the “constant labor of the prose artist” (46), he being “one of the earliest to include prose in his discussion of the poetic” (47). Prose is given infinitely more space than poetry, which is a serious imbalance. Realism, being presented as modernism’s definitive facet, also makes for a lopsided approach.

The target audience is the widely-read student and reader, provoked into stimulation within her vast prose-dominated terrain. Beckett’s noted phrase about Pound’s ABC of Reading “education through provocation” is the subtext. Realism in modernism is, shown to be a Jamesian hallmark. She sticks by this through Pound’s respect for HJ as “the basis of shared emotional experience,” and emphasizing that James “had never written an unnecessary word” (57). The relegation to pre-history and airbrushing out of Whitman is wholly incorrect, despite her comments that “Dos Passos was more likely to see himself as Walt Whitman instead of Prufrock” (76) and that Agee and (Thomas) Wolfe were “sons” of Walt (143).

African-American glory is well done via Jonathan W. Gray’s landmark The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) edited by James Weldon Johnson, which found ardent readers in the likes of Stein and Hemingway, Paris-based authors far from home who benefitted from “the versatility of black writing.” The émigré American writer is given due benefit in being able to fructify fabulously away from home. Her collectivism of all the writers exemplifying modernist realism is a salient feature, and at its best intoxicating as a theory of literature engulfed in the Zeitgeist.

However, it is not all plain sailing, Sheri Benstock is brought on board for gender balance since “the hegemony of masculine heterosexual values have for so long underwritten our definitions of Modernism” (61). Yes and no – certainly there is equal billing in this book and readers not in the know can discover some brilliant females alongside the long-established bulls. 

Her writers are discussed as multi-genre and being involved with “painting, sculpture, photography, and music” (3). Style becomes the focus of this study where the “image” is central and based by many writers on the impetus from journalism (5). Time is never linear as author prefers fluidity and “imaginative durée” (6) in many of the referenced works. Content tends to be political with stark social commentary: for example, in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), influenced by Madame Bovary and Ibsen’s Ghosts, the heroine chooses “death by drowning” (fearlessly!) rather than domestic life (12). Traditional lines and antecedents are thus noted. However, Dreiser’s realist gloom is hallmark “American,” and is “tinged with sufficient idealism” according to the author (14).

Social history is underpinned by occasional, engaging commentary, as in 25 million immigrants arriving in the US “between 1880-1930” (27): Wagner-Martin footnotes Emma Lazarus’s line “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” on the plinth of the Statue of Liberty as “ironic” (29). For many immigrants, Lady Liberty turned out to have feet of clay, like Shelley’s colossal wreck of Ozymandias. Anzia Yezierska typifies life “being much worse than expected” (28), in her novels Salome of the Tenements (1922) and Arrogant Beggars (1927). The poets’ mission is to be realistic, as in Lola Ridge’s “The Ghetto” and Ruth Lechlitner’s “Lines for an Abortionist’s Office” (30). Wagner-Martin quotes extensively, contrasts, develops in a strongly chronological approach, as if Modernism rolled along, reflecting a coast to coast journey, decade by decade. At least that is the feel of it, as some holdall that had to be pushed onto the disparate material.

Standard modernist poetry is discussed as evolving through the “mythic method” shadowed by “Freud, Jung, Frazer” of The Golden Bough and significant others (49). Whitman is not elevated enough as the vital father and setting off point for “performance and choral” through Robinson, Sandburg, (Vachel) Lindsay, and St. Vincent Millay (52). Wagner-Martin is agreeable and convincingly rooted when commenting on Stein’s aesthetics of cross-genre prose-poetry. Surprisingly, James and O’Neill are skimmed past, while Hemingway is granted exciting pages for the story collection In Our Time (1925) and his method of writing strongly influenced by “Cubism” (66). She highlights the story “Now I Lay Me” (69). Dos Passos is elevated higher than Hemingway by showing that the latter was “inspired,” and moved to create a “mirror image” of Dos (71).

Parallels abound as in Anderson’s Wineburg, Ohio (1919) with Lewis’ Main Street (1920) all referenced through Van Vechten’s “The Revolt from the Village.” Indeed, small town America and the flight from it is a refrain in these texts (82). Faulkner is shown as self-serving, solipsistic, in the best sense, with “that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from. But that’s all right too. It’s America too” (93). His poems are shown as important to his novels – they had taught him “the essentials of writing good prose from his collecting poems into meaningful sequences” (96) and to “create the fiction that used every word” (97). And this fully supports her cross-genre theory that poetry enabled the prose of novelists.

Back up North, the Harlem Renaissance is given full volume in Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Mountain and the Racial Mountain.” Jean Toomer’s short story collection Cane (1922) is hailed as an authentic work, as it was by Countee Cullen, like a “real race contribution, a classic portrayal of things as they are” (116). The chapter is a montage of fine material invoking Hughes’s lines (115):

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?   

It rolls on like the American plains, as she sections the 1930s and 1940s into two neat chapters as closers. Theatre is shown as dialect-authenticated, like for instance Odets’s Waiting for Lefty (1935) is social and political cutting edge and “even Red” like Hellman’s The Children’s Hour; Elmer Rice Street Scene; Dos Passos Airways Inc. (131)

As the catastrophic economic climate emerges in both fiction, (Tom Kromer’s devastating Waiting for Nothing, 1935) and non-fiction (Louis Adamic’s My America, 1928-1938) a statistical approach describes “the ravages of the Depression” (141). James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) accentuates the state of American prose always approaching the poetical: “incremental sentences suggest the writing of both Thomas Wolfe and, more directly, Walt Whitman” (143). Her own irony enters with offside remarks: when FDR was elected president in 1932 she remarks that “beyond any doubt that America was in grave trouble” (153). Her patience will not abide the popular James T. Farrell’s Young Lonigan (1932) “ranked next to the scandalous novels of Henry Miller” (151). Hey, come on, Miller is good.

Altogether, Wagner-Martin brings the reader along without gasping in disbelief, however, close to incredulity occasionally, while s/he is pushed from one critical pronouncement to the next as in “the literary progress of having the Joads leave the desiccation of the Dust Bowl (with its echoes of Eliot’s The Waste Land)” (159). These parallels often make sense eventually, either by time or acceptance, and the same is often expressed of the road to Gatsby’s as a waste land between West Egg and NY, where the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg billboard peers down in a kind of contemporary SpecSavers. She suggests that American Modernism evolved in part from the original frontier wasteland just as literature itself evolved from it, and through it. This is its appeal to the psyche, as in Carlos Williams’s “These” (160):

The year plunges into night
and the heart plunges
lower than night

Jeffers’ “The Answer” addresses the questions of the twentieth century, both as backward glance and forward perspective through modernism: “To know that great civilisations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before” (160). She sobers up entering war literature, including Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) “a ‘war novel’ only in the way state and national politics had the power to usurp the rights of private citizens” (164). Realism is political, in this instance.

There is a parade of glorious literature surveyed with perceptions, collisions and strange collusions. She is not prone to wallowing in these, as her closing salient remarks come from Elie Wiesel on the early reception of his Holocaust memoir Night: “the book sold poorly. The subject was considered morbid [...]” (169). Her logic is that the age not so much demanded, as bred the modernist approach to literature as purely realist—but this logic ultimately limits her discussion.