THE MODERNISM REVIEW
|V. Sherry. Modernism and Decadence||P. Adams Sitney. The Cinema of Poetry|
Vincent Sherry. Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2015.
review by John Allaster
Vincent Sherry’s Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence argues that the sensibility of Decadence was not simply influential in the development of what we now refer to as modernism, but is rather one of its earliest and most important constitutive elements. Thus Sherry attempts to intervene in the typical critical narrative of the formation of modernism by reading Decadence back to the failures of the French revolution and forward through the turn of the century into the modernist period. Sherry sees the phenomenon of Decadence – the sense of a late historical time and its associated apprehension of cultural and literary decay – as the bridge between the second-generation Romantics, such as De Quincey, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, and modernist writers such as Pound and Eliot, whose experience of WWI magnifies this Decadent sensibility. In tracing this legacy, Sherry also demonstrates that Decadent influence has been critically suppressed in favor of that of Symbolism and he wrestles with Arthur Symons, Edmund Wilson, and Frank Kermode to prove it. After establishing his alternate history of Decadence, Sherry turns his gaze on the literature of modernism to demonstrate its Decadent tendencies: he wrote chapters on the novelists James, Conrad, Chesterton, Lawrence, Manning, and West, an inter-chapter on Imagism, as well as one chapter each on the poetry of Pound and Eliot.
Sherry asserts that Pound’s application of Decadent thematics was one of the primary aspects of his development as a poet. He examines several poems from Pound’s earliest repertoire, which were not chosen for inclusion in the 1926 Personae: “In Tempore Senectutis,” “In Tempore Senectutis (An Anti-stave for Dowson),” and the volume A Quinzaine for This Yule, among others. These poems, Sherry argues, demonstrate a ready, albeit at times superficial interaction with the sensibilities of Decadence insofar as they express an apprehension of a late historical period and a working vocabulary of Latin. Sherry then moves on to the wartime period of Pound’s poetic development to show his engagement with the realities of war and their effect on his poetics and frame of mind by examining “Affirmations VI,” Blast, “The Coming of War: Actæon,” and a relatively unknown project called This Generation (which is housed at the Beinecke archive).
Focusing on two of Pound’s major poems of the post-war period, Sherry’s examination is at its most revealing as he reads “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” to demonstrate how Pound portrays the conditions of his historical present with the resources of literary Decadence. To focus on just one of the two poems as demonstrative of Sherry’s argument, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” reveals a parallel between Propertius’s historical circumstances and Pound’s own that intrigues Sherry. Because Pound’s experience of the “imbecility” of the British Empire echoes Propertius’s similar experience with Roman Empire (as Pound explains in a 1931 letter), Sherry argues that Propertius’s avoidance of high Augustan martial verse exhibits a Decadent sensibility in relation to his surroundings and that Pound’s own retreat into anachronistic Latinisms in his poem demonstrates a similar poetic revolt. One example of the Latinity that encroaches on the prosody and language of the poetic English comes from section VIII of the poem:
Jove, be merciful to that unfortunate woman
Or an ornamental death will be held to your debit,
The time is come, the air heaves in torridity,
The dry earth pants against the canicular heat,
But this heat is not the root of the matter…
Sherry argues that the nonce-Latinism of “canicular” and the obscure English word (derived from Latin) “torridity,” are two examples of a greater pattern in the poem as a whole, and demonstrate a recovery of Latin as a language that makes contemporary English seem obsolescent.
For Pound scholars, though, the interest in Sherry’s study should not be limited to the inter-chapter on Imagism or the chapter on Pound alone; this is the kind of exciting study that demands attention from all scholars of the modernist period because of its bold attempt to reassert the formative element of Decadence in modernist literature. Sherry’s overall argument that a sense of the loss of the revolutionary power of poetry can be traced back to the failure of revolution in the Romantic period and forward again through Decadent and modernist poets, for the most part, is quite convincing; however, his inter-chapter on Imagism is less so because he fails to substantially establish his argument concerning the “repetition that fades” (a frequent refrain throughout the book) of Greek literature for the Imagists. Sherry argues that part of the condition of the poetics of Decadence is a secondariness, a temporal decay, exacerbated by the phenomenon of literature being literally written on a page, and that the initial Imagist appropriation of ancient Greek literature was symptomatic of this secondariness. This is a highly particularized reading of the foundation of Imagism, which fails to consider many of the alternate influences on the movement such as the philosophy of Henri Bergson, Chinese and Japanese poetics, as well as the Imagists’ attempt to transcend the written record of the page. Furthermore, if part of Sherry’s overall argument is the palimpsestic nature of literature and Imagism, especially with regard to the appropriation of Greek literature, there has to be a significant examination of H.D.’s contributions to Imagism, which Sherry does not provide.
Sherry’s argument regarding the Imagists’ relationship to Greek literature also feeds into a central argument of the text: the unseating of the unwarranted valuation of the pursuit of “novelty” in early modernist experimentation, which is evidenced by a reference to Michael North’s recent study Novelty and by the fact that Pound’s “make it new” slogan was not actually articulated until 1934. For example, in his reading of the Latinisms in “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” Sherry asserts that Pound “makes it new,” but in a way that runs counter to the meaning of the phrase. Instead of really “making it new,” Pound, in a sense, “keeps it old”; however, this reading creates a false dichotomy between the sensibility of Decadence and the attitude of “making it new.” While Pound may not have articulated the slogan “make it new” until 1934, the spirit of the slogan can be found in many of his earliest works. One example can be drawn from “The Renaissance” series of essays from 1915 where Pound argues that a poet is to draw on models of poetics as primary pigments in order to create a new work of art. This metaphor acknowledges the sheer impossibility of radical novelty in a system of art and language that must be appropriated and disseminated through shared experience: to a certain extent one is always “making it new.” In that sense, the “keeping it old” of “Homage to Sextus Propertius” can be understood as both Decadent in its awareness of the British Empire’s late historical time and improvisational in its deployment of Latinate anachronisms to achieve that critique. Perhaps, Sherry is right in asserting that “make it new” was not an “ordaining precept” of modernism, but if it was not an “ordaining precept” it was certainly a common law that obtained its legitimacy through experimentation and practice from a very early point in the history of modernism. Nevertheless, the contingent sense of “making it new” and the sensibility of Decadence do not necessarily preclude each other because, as Sherry acknowledges in the title of his book, the modernists had to reinvent Decadence for themselves.
P. Adams Sitney. The Cinema of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.
review by Mark Steven
Prose Kinema Revisited
On Adams Sitney’s The Cinema of Poetry
Ezra Pound’s encounter with Pier Paolo Pasolini ranks as one of the twentieth century’s most politically charged intersections between two aesthetic ideologies. Their meeting took place in Venice, in 1967, and Pasolini wasn’t even supposed to be there. As we know, he stood in for an associate slated to interview Pound for the third time, but who had been called away to attend his sick father. Olga Rudge was right to be suspicious of the firebrand director, poet, and essayist – though the cause for antipathy is never made fully explicit, it seems that Pasolini the communist was there to hold the elder poet responsible for his wartime fascism. “Oh let an old man rest,” Pasolini recites Canto LXXXIII back to its author. “That’s how this Canto ends. I know well, Pound, that I’m here to disturb your rest.” (26) While the interview is mostly focused on literary matters, and on Pasolini’s interpretation of Pound the man via Pound’s poetry, what makes it even more fascinating is the blunt hostility that attends a confrontation between the Italian communist and the American fascist. That hostility would resurface several years later, retroactively making its presence here known, in Pasolini’s final completed film.
Released in 1975, the year of its director’s death, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is Pasolini’s lacerating satire on fascism, which takes shape as an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s unfinished novel into the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, where the atrocities imagined by the seventeenth century libertine find their historical match under Mussolini’s governance. “Despite my total fidelity to de Sade’s text,” Pasolini wrote in a forward that appears on a title-card before the film,
I have however introduced an absolutely new element. Instead of taking place in eighteenth century France, the action takes place practically in our own time, in Salò, around 1944 to be exact. The means that the entire film with its unheard-of atrocities which are almost unmentionable, is presented as an immense sadistic metaphor of what was the Nazi-Fascist dissociation from its crimes against humanity.
Within this circumambient literary frame, there are multiple allusions to artistic modernism, and to Pound’s modernism in particular. The palatial mansion in which the film is set functions as an ornate death-camp, though it is also replete with artworks that are fascist kitsch as well as artworks by those Pound admitted to Pasolini as having “liked most,” including Fernand Léger, a pastiche of whose cubist paintings papers most interior surfaces. “On the bridge of Perati,” one of the fascists drunkenly echoes Cantos LXXII and LXXIII, “there flies a black flag, the mourning of the Julian regiment that goes to war. On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag. The best young men lie under the earth.” In the film’s final scene the fascists torture a band of kidnapped adolescents, who are taken outside and burnt, choked, eviscerated, scalped, sodomized, and whipped to death while the four men take turns watching from a second-floor room and through binoculars. As the penultimate participant arrives to observe his three accomplices he jokes about drowning communists and, as the scene draws to its end, Pound’s disembodied voice is heard over the transistor radio, reading Canto LXXXI. “The whole tribe is from one man’s body,” he asks: “what other way can you think of it?”
What we encounter in this scene is not just the film’s damming implication of poetry within the sphere of biopolitical violence, but also a stylized reaction to the intrusion of literature into a different medium. That the fascists watch the violence from a distance, through binoculars, allows for the film to formally occupy their shared perspective: the cinematic apparatus foregrounds itself in the binocular distortions, and those distortions detach from embodied points of view to become a framing device for the scene as a whole. Subjective experience thus shapes objective matter in a series of unattributable and distancing wide shots taken from the exact position of the spectating fascists. As Joan Copjec once suggested, in this scene the form itself “seems to be affected by what it describes.” (206) Here we are witnessing the operation of what Pasolini describes as a “free indirect point-of-view,” a technique in which the visual frame warps to its characters’ perspective but without being attributable to any one character. It is an iteration of what Pasolini’s most discerning reader, Gilles Deleuze, would call the “perception-image,” which he describes as “the purest vision of a non-human eye, of an eye which would be in things” (83). For Pasolini, this technique is the principal means by which cinematic art competes with literature in attaining to the status of poetry – small wonder it does so, here, in reaction to the adversarial presence of Pound’s Canto.
Adams Sitney’s excellent new book, The Cinema of Poetry, takes its title from the 1965 essay (“I’l ‘cinema di poesia’”) in which Pasolini proposes this theory of a free indirect point of view, which for him responds to but is not identical to its literary equivalent. To be sure, it should be thought of as a reactive form, with which cinema demonstrates its autonomy from literature whilst nevertheless absorbing literature’s privileged access to subjective experience. Sitney quotes the director on the nature of this intermedial dynamic, insisting that a free indirect point of view liberates “the expressive possibilities compressed by the traditional narrative convention through a sort of return to the origins until the original oneiric, barbaric, irregular, aggressive, visionary quality of cinema if found through its technical devices” (23). Sitney’s opening chapter provides a valuable reconstruction of Pasolini’s sometimes painfully elliptical theory by emphasizing the films in which its author discerned cinematic poetry of this kind – beginning, naturally, with the dreamlike sequences of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. The films include Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso with its colourfully neurotic worldview; Bernado Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione where the “obsessive immobility of the frame” (25) is analogous to a loving fixation; and Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part, in which stylistic intrusions are said to betoken an unrestrained vitality. The free indirect point of view shots of these films are contrasted, illustratively, with the direct point of view shots belonging to the coffin-bound corpse in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.
This example-rich yet largely theoretical chapter informs the book’s first half, “Poetry and the Narrative Cinema in Europe.” In this half’s remaining three chapters, Sitney explores how “the cinema of poetry” manifests in the work of three significant European filmmakers: Dimitri Kirsanoff, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrey Tarkovsky. Kirstoff’s 1926 film, Ménilmontant, is approached as an early and imperfect iteration of free indirect point of view insofar as the director’s refusal to utilize intertitles enables a “larger aesthetic strategy of utilizing both ambiguity and rhetorical indetermination to maximize the connotative effect of his shots and cuts” (35). The chapter on Bergman surveys a handful of films – Tystnaden, Persona, and Fanny och Alexander – to show the conditioning force of a psychosexual trauma. “At the heart of the neurosis that generates the free indirect point of view of the film,” Sitney describes Persona, “I found a primal scene disturbance: a fascinating and terrifying fantasy of parental intercourse after which the analysand imagines himself as an unwanted byproduct, the survivor of an unsuccessful abortion” (42). The final chapter on European cinema is dedicated to Tarkovsky’s astonishing Zerkalo, a film whose oneiric style – singularized by elemental fixations and bravura sequence shots – results in part from a sublimation of poetry written by the director’s father first into the narrative’s psychical agon and then into its visual logic.
That first half of the book is written in accord with Pasolini’s 1967 clarification on his thesis: “speaking of a cinema of poetry, I have always meant to speak of narrative poetry.” (33; 106) The book’s second half, “Poetry and the American Avant-Garde Cinema,” explores the possibility of a non-narrative cinema’s relationship with lyrical (though not necessarily lyric) poetry – what Sitney follows Pasolini in calling “poetry-poetry.” (110) With this half of the book, Sitney takes seriously Parker Tyler’s suggestion (originally made to Maya Deren) that we distinguish between “the theory of poetry, its possibilities as such in the film medium, and on the other hand the practice of poetry, as concentrated in the avant-garde film.” (108) Shifting from theory to practice means a shift from poetics to poetry, and then from poetry to specific poems. Indeed, the remaining chapters all feature directorial responses to named poets and poems: Joseph Cornell to Emily Dickinson; Lawrence Jordan to H. D.; Stan Brakhage to a whole range a writers, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Olson; Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler to John Ashbery and George Oppen; and Gregory Markopoulos to the poetry of Ancient Greece. The chapter on Brakhage provides the clearest engagement between the grammar of film and poetic form. “Absorbing the lesson of Stein’s astounding sensitivity to language,” we read at one point, “the young Brakhage quickly made himself the most subtle and the most comprehensive master of cinematic rhythms” (155). However, it is the last chapter, on Markopoulos, which yields the most interesting results – not least because Markopoulos’ masterpiece, Eniaios, constitutes a truly promethean realization of the philosophical belief in poetry as an ontologically constitutive force, a nurturing substance in which humankind should dwell. Eniaios is an eighty-hour cycle in twenty-two films, edited down and spliced together from the director’s previous works, and designed to be projected on a hillside in Markopoulos’ ancestral village, Lyssaria, in South-western Arcadia. Here it is not just the film’s architectonic that responds to poetry; additionally, the spectatorial experience of cinema itself, as a collective event, is brought to realization as the post-romantic ideal of a fully articulated Gesamtkunstwerk.
This book is important and should be read because it provides an authoritative account of poetry’s impact on cinema, without ever reducing the mutually reactive operations of either form to merely analogical reflections of the other. While there are plenty of studies on the transformative absorption of film into poetry – think, for instance, of the variously convincing accounts of a multimedia modernism – Sitney presents us with some major insights into the other side of things. It shows us that, for cinema, poetry is stylistically constitutive and aesthetically determining. Aside from that overarching thesis, what this reader enjoyed most about Sitney’s book are the numerous moments of thick, loving description. That is what we encounter here, for instance, in an account of the “inspired poetry” that is the final sequence of Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo:
From the recital of ‘Euryduce’ to the end of the film, the filmmaker offers a sustained paean to the Russian landscape and to the image of the mother as a presence within uniquely cinematic time. He follows the swimming shot with a wonderfully constructed dolly through an empty room of the dacha in color. The camera pushes past a lace curtain into the sunlit room, where the only movement besides that of the camera dolly is a puppy playing atop a bureau. As if representing the point of view of Alexei – his free indirect discourse – the tracking shot turns in the room toward a window. On the sill a volume of poetry is open, its pages moved by the breeze. But as soon as the image tracks beyond the book, we see the boy outside; he appears as if materialized from the volume of poetry walking toward his mother, now the old woman played by Maria Tarkovskaia. He carries a feather as an emblem of his poetic vocation. If this detached perspective constitutes Pasolini’s ‘free indirect point of view,’ it is in the service of a cinema of poetry of a lyrical intensity beyond what Pasolini would allow for the poetics of filmmaking. (90)
What makes descriptions like this one so satisfying is their willingness to attend both form and style. What makes them not only satisfying but also exciting is the necessary conjecture, when form and style behave in such a way as to force the viewer into speculative figuration (“As if”; “appears as if”), for it is moments like these that cinema overcomes its brute objectivity to occupy the utopian space of an immaterial poetry. Here, in Sitney’s analysis, the cinema of poetry is not just a concept, idea, or theory; it is also a critical practice – a way of viewing and writing that, following David Bordwell, we might call the poetics of film criticism. Sitney finds recommendation for such a poetics in the words of Tarkovsky himself: “artistic texture,” claimed the director, “is always richer than anything that can be fitted into a theoretical schema” (100).
Copjec, Joan. Imagine There’s No Woman. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum, 1986.
Pasolini, Pier Paolo. In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology. Ed. Jack Hirschman. San Francisco: City Lights, 2010.
Sitney, Adams. The Cinema of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.