|Christos Hadjiyiannis on Henry Mead||Claudio Sansone on C. D. Blanton|
Henry Mead. T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Review by Christos Hadjiyiannis
“Before commencing a systematic critique of a system,” Georges Sorel wrote in Unity and Multiplicity (1910), “there would often be a very real advantage in finding out the origin of the images which are frequently encountered in it.” For the revolutionary syndicalist Sorel, ideology consisted of a set of ideas, terms, beliefs, and images that needed to be studied carefully – in isolation. A key part of this process was “diremption,” which he defined as an examination of “certain parts without taking into account all their connections with the whole [in order] to determine in some way the nature of their activity by isolating them.” By using “diremption,” Sorel hoped “to put before my readers the working of a mental effort which is continually endeavoring to break through the bonds of what has been previously constructed for common use.”1
In his scintillating T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism, and in the tradition of the best Hulme scholars (whose guidance he acknowledges throughout), Henry Mead pursues a similar method to that which Sorel named “diremption.” Pushing some figures aside, he brings others to the fore. Cutting through the various European intellectual groups and artistic coteries out of which Anglophone modernism emerged, he identifies rhetorical, aesthetic, and political affinities between these different networks – but also real intellectual debts. Patiently, he disambiguates terms and concepts, providing alternative genealogies of recurring images and metaphors in modernist criticism, and painstakingly, he disaggregates (to use Michael Freeden’s more recent term) contested histories, beliefs, and ideologies.2 The result is an absorbing and enlightening (but also quite demanding) microhistory of modernism focusing, chiefly, on T. E. Hulme and his editor at The New Age, A. R. Orage. Admirers of Hulme will rejoice at Mead’s scrupulous reconstruction of this influential modernist’s thinking. Those interested in modernism more broadly will find that they need to chase up the many passing references to figures, movements, and schools that Mead brings into play – but it is hard to imagine that they too will not find reading T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism a hugely rewarding experience.
Hulme’s poetic output may have been notoriously small (he published only six short poems under his name; Mead discusses one), but the critical work he left behind when he died at the front in 1917 was substantial: he wrote lectures, articles, and notes on poetry, metaphysics, politics, art, war, and ethics. Mead considers the entirety of Hulme’s texts, from the rudimentary “Cinders” composed in his student days, to “A Notebook,” his last known work written during the war. Over the course of his study, Mead refines and qualifies various received opinions of Hulme; for example, that he borrowed ideas from others uncritically, or that he promulgated authoritarian politics. But his overarching argument, and the thesis that binds the book, is the following: Hulme was a consistent thinker who held firmly to the relativist view that all truths are arbitrary fictions, but who also saw the advantages of social, political, and moral order.
All of his writings, whatever the subject matter, Mead argues, display this doubleness, which is indicative of his lifelong pluralism: the belief that it is possible to hold distinct and potentially conflicting positions; or, as defined by William James, that multiple or competing truths could operate for different individuals within one world. Though nominalist, his early notes “reveal a longing for some shared condition of being, some kind of conceptual union” (28). Similarly, the poetry he demanded in “A Lecture on Modern Poetry” was ‘dedicated not only to individual vision but also to communicative discipline and power’ (34). As regarding the visual arts, the art that he promoted was rooted in nature – yet it was also abstract: it exposed chaos at the same time as it yearned for fixity and certainty (140). In his political essays, he sought to guarantee individual rights within a structure of discipline and order. And, while asserting objective and absolute values in his writings on ethics, he remained until the end anti-positivist: his change of heart in “A Notebook” was “an act of will, not reason,” Mead writes; a “jump from a conscious acceptance of fictions to the grandest of myths – that of an unknowable deity” (199). (Thus Mead concludes that, by the end of his life, Hulme’s pragmatist desire for order had been replaced by a non-rational, unquestioning belief in God.)
Defending someone customarily accused of inconsistency by arguing that he is consistently antithetical (pluralist and absolutist, attracted to chaos and also to fixity) may, at first, appear a cop-out – some sort of dialectical trick. But Mead is very persuasive in showing that Hulme’s doubleness was shared by many of his contemporaries, and that it was, in a sense, a product of its time. Context matters, and this is precisely what Mead so punctiliously offers. Hulme’s marriage of pluralism with a desire for order appears less idiosyncratic than at first thought when seen, for example, in light of French philosopher Jules de Gaultier’s belief that meaning is always constructed from fiction, but that this is a universal, and indeed necessary, human activity. Equally, his aesthetic views gain new valence when compared to Roger Fry’s contemporaneous negotiation between intuitive experience and formal hardness, his politics more credence when judged against Tancrède de Visan and Maurice Denis’s merging of anarchist politics with a taste for structure and clarity.
Starting as disciples of Henri Bergson, Max Stirner, and Mikhail Bakunin, both de Visan and Denis eventually turned their focus to the neo-royalism of Action Française and the neo-Thomism of the Catholic Revival. As Mark Antliff, Sanford Schwartz, and other critics have previously shown, and as Mead demonstrates here, behind such transitions lay a curious but not uncommon synthesis of vitalism, individualism, and anarchism with right-wing politics, including the classicism of Action Française.3 We are reminded that, at the time Hulme was writing, it was common practice to draw on different and diverse ideas and styles, and to conflate otherwise distinct philosophical and political positions. Especially so at a magazine such as The New Age, which Mead describes as “the most important of those publications that gave British modernists a wider audience” (4). (Rightly in my view, he is not convinced by Ann Ardis’s recent claim that The New Age’s opposition to Poundian poetics was so strong that it cannot be considered a modernist magazine proper). The New Age was notoriously open and multivocal. It owed a considerable amount of its energy to Orage, who was its sole editor from 1908. In Orage, Mead finds a pluralist thinker who valued order in a similar way to Hulme. Orage, he writes, “pursued a form of intuitive, penetrating non-rational consciousness to preserve a heightened sense of individual vitality and recommended an overarching politics of social myth to contain and intensify that individuality” (57). But although he, too, emphasised the Fall, he put equal weight on Redemption. Showcasing himself as perhaps Orage’s finest critic, Mead expertly details how Orage’s socialism was pessimistic but aspirational, and how he believed that the journey to social, political, and individual salvation was hard but possible. He also shows – in what is one of the book’s most fascinating comparisons – that Orage’s 1907 account of consciousness was remarkably similar to that of Bergson in Creative Evolution (also 1907), noting prudently that “it seems likely that this was less a case of direct influence than of shared sources” (73).
Another figure whose thought shared “components” (as Mead likes to say) with that of Hulme was the Spanish guild socialist Ramiro de Maeztu. In Maeztu, he claims, “philosophical Neo-Realism and the doctrine of Original Sin provide the philosophical and moral logic to assert the limited nature and functional status of individuals” (207). By contrast, there were considerable differences (both in degree and kind) between Hulme and the Cartesian, positivist, anti-Symbolist, and racist Charles Maurras (of the Action Française), as well as with the New Age Nietzscheans, J. M. Kennedy and A. M. Ludovici. Mead is particularly convincing about Hulme’s differences with Ludovici. Appropriating Nietzsche’s distinction between master and slave morality, and taking his notion of “transvaluation of values” face value, Ludovici sought an elite founded on brute force, whereas Hulme had no time for what he described (in “A Tory Philosophy”) as “romantic nonsense of the two kinds of morality.”
In addition to restaging the tensional politics of the New Age circle and reconstructing Hulme’s modernism, Mead’s parallel aim is to determine “which, if any of its ideological components might be salvageable as part of a liberal democratic tradition.” The answer he gives is tentative but forthright: “within the cluster that make up his thought, some elements might be reconcilable with pluralistic theories of democracy” (1). Although a carefully-weighted statement, in the pages that follow, this claim is, sadly, not fully developed: sadly, because Mead is right to challenge simplistic readings of Hulme as proto-fascist or as intransigently authoritarian. As a result, it is never entirely clear which elements exactly “Hulmean Toryism” (195) might share with, say, the value pluralism of Isaiah Berlin and John Gray’s “agonistic liberalism” (other than a general distrust of “progress”), or with the “bicameral” liberalism of William Connolly, which, Mead claims (without elaborating sufficiently), is “perhaps the clearest case of an intellectual lineage that contains Hulme” (16). Further, this means that, despite his otherwise sophisticated argument, Mead leaves himself open to objections. To mention only one, when he claims that “Hulme’s conservatism is predicated on relativism” (105) and, then, that Hulme “saw the Tory social system as a necessity – not as an assertion of eternal truths, but as the formulation of a tool to permit human organization” (230), one could plausibly interject that this kind of conservative relativism may still be authoritarian, because it still makes a relative particular (a social system) into a normative standard (the Tory social system). This kind of relativism, which has as its flipside authoritarianism, is what both Bernard Williams and Michael North (the latter with regard to Eliot) have cautioned against.4 What makes Hulme’s relativism different?
To flag up these limitations is not to take anything away from the book’s achievement. T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism is modernist cultural history at its finest, and Mead has given us a book to which Hulme scholars will no doubt refer for many years to come.
1. “Unity and Multiplicity.” Reflections on Violence. Trans. and ed. Jeremy Jennings, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 253; “From Materials for a Theory of the Proletariat.” From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy. Ed. John L. Stanley. Trans. John and Charlotte Stanley. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. 228; Reflections on Violence, 5.
2. See, for example, Michael Freeden. “Political Concepts and Ideological Morphology.” Journal of Political Philosophy 2.2 (1994): 154-5.
3. See, for example, Mark Antliff. Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993, 10, 16-39; Sanford Schwartz, “Bergson and the Politics of Vitalism.” The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy. Ed. Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 278.
4. Williams, “An Inconsistent Form of Relativism.” Relativism. Ed. Jack W. Meiland Michael Krausz, Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 171; North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 86.
C. D. Blanton. Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism.
review by Claudio Sansone
Blanton’s study of modernist epic literature in the twentieth-century breathes fresh air into a field of research that is often treated all too lightly. Including discussions of Eliot, Pound, H.D., Auden and MacNeice, but also of Toller and Freud, Blanton is able to descriptively refocus the study of epic in the inter-war period, and he does so more comprehensively than previous studies. His objective is to trace the development of the epic, which Pound defined as “a poem including history,” into a new phase of fragmentation—a disjointed monument that points to and imitates the processes of a problematized “total” historical perspective. Therefore, the first part of the book is titled “Including History.”
In his opening chapter, “Dialectical Poetics,” Blanton presents the apparent contradiction of epic writing in what seems to be a “postepic age” as intimately tied to the way Pound’s famous pronouncement on the epic is interpreted (3). What exactly are the compositional strategies that permit a containment of history—that is—when does history come to be understood as a heterogeneous totality that cannot quite be made to fit any one kind of account? Blanton makes it clear that his is not a study of Pound per se, or of the many inclusion strategies Pound adopted, but of the over-arching strategies of containment that can be gleaned from Pound and Eliot (and other modernists). In essence, Blanton suggests that by imitating the processes of history in various non-mimetic ways, modernist literature comes to contain and express history in a new perspective that is appropriate to its age, and its new visions of what history is.
Blanton makes an exacting use of Lukács to frame this question—for Lukács saw the epic as the genre that captures a total picture of an age, although he recognizes this is not done by literally containing everything. Instead, the text must set up, alongside those things it strategically highlights through inclusion, also a series of suggestive absences which point to the whole and leave history present as an interconnected series of materials that cannot be given one iteration. In the second section to the first chapter, “Negated Epics,” Blanton summarizes the above in a crucial formulation and separates the epic efforts of the twentieth century into two simultaneous “portions” (we might say, “phases”) that attempt to attain containment in two related but quite different dialectical strategies. He writes, “each portion seeks to fix a distinct mode of epic intentionality, to locate the conceptual device through which a poem achieves historical reference even while acknowledging the disappearance of historical mimesis as a formal possibility” (12). The peculiar feature of epics in the twentieth century, however, is that they make this kind of containment thematic—the contradiction becomes the content of the epic, rather than simply an accessory (a valuable one, admittedly, compared to others) in its formal apparatus.
To give these portions their first definition, Blanton compares the Cantos to the The Waste Land. The Cantos stands at the other end of the spectrum to the Waste Land in the sense that it is more diffusely encyclopedic—it gives a real impression of attempting to contain everything, and uses parataxis to imply a radically larger whole than its substantial size barely begins to encompass. Eliot’s attempt at containing history in the Waste Land, in contrast, is based on a much more conservative use of actual material, and more highly charged set of paratactic gaps. In this sense we can begin to see how the texts negate their overt principles as they attempt to reach out towards the historical.
To make this clearer, Blanton had already brought in Hegel’s concept of ‘determinate negation’ (that had inspired Lukács). Here this difficult concept is illustrative of the manner in which modernist parataxis has a determinate intentional direction, while not necessarily containing a unique or specific object. It aims precisely but generally at historical material without specifying an historical object, and this permits the poems to assume a practically quasi-total plurality of reference. The text escapes itself in so many directions just as a historical account implies and excises so many possible simultaneous strands of thought and event in order to give an intelligible picture of a specific moment. But unlike an historical account, the poems are only superficially arguing for the contingent character of specificity, and reveal this paradox precisely in their referential force. Blanton looks specifically at examples to show how this is done through various means—i.e. dialectical negation does not only assume one form but can be seen as a pattern that includes many aspects of the poetics of loss, suspicion, and failure. All of these contribute to the sense that historical accounts are necessary reductions, and that these poems can attempt to contain the principle of such reductionism as it is perceived particularly acutely in the twentieth-century, following complex and ineffable historical transformations like the First World War.
In his second chapter “An Organ of Documentation: Eliot and Order,” Blanton arrives at the book’s most surprising and powerful observation—at least in terms of setting the basis for the discussion of modernist epics as subdivided into two general groups. He persuasively reads Eliot’s wider project with The Criterion as an epic amalgam that, beginning with the ‘compressed’ principle of The Waste Land, developed into an ‘expansive’ project not dissimilar to Pound’s Cantos, pointing out along the way that the epic’s referential nature in any case blurs the question of specific authorship—such that it is not absurd to read a magazine that published very many authors under a loose but intentional editorial direction as an epic. In this move (and some might say also in his inclusion of The Waste Land as an epic, although this is much less radical) we see Blanton’s castigation of prescriptive generic notions, in this case a through disengagement of the epic from the realm of poetry alone. As he develops the more notional structures of the epic in the twentieth-century, Blanton therefore reviews how we might define such a genre in extremely novel ways. Much later in his study he writes, for example, “we have taken the idea of epic to imply, as a regulative and totalizing concept, a mode predicated on a notion that is not primarily poetic at all, but defined precisely by its extents and inclusions, by its capacity to conscript historical totality as a fundamental object and procedure” (94).
The study is a mine for this kind of conceptual reframing of the genre (or, more appropriately, mode), and should be valued also for this characteristic. To give but one more example, very early in his study we read that “there cannot be history without epic” (10). Blanton explains how epic literature gives a tangible shape to the historical consciousness of a given era, making manifest the very patterns of historical thought, and permitting these to be interpreted and modified by contemporary and later thinkers. In this respect, Blanton is not only right to point out that the epic precedes history writing, but he has been able to show that the tension between epic and history has a much wider scope than most scholars account for.
As the study progresses, Blanton evaluates Eliot’s “nomology,” the conventions through which material is assimilated and reproduced, in order to develop his specific paradigms. He then goes on to evaluate how allusive language functions quite differently to the more accepted paradigm of the “mythic method,” and provides a fruitful critique of Eliot’s own understanding of these mechanisms. A final chapter in the book’s first part deals with “Eliotic Marxism” in a very persuasive fashion, outlining the political and cultural implications of all that has been said above as a kind of coda for the descriptive outline of the epic as a twentieth-century mode.
The second part of the book, “Including Negation” then goes on to examine how these paradigms are taken up in the works of MacNeice, Auden, Toller, H.D. and even Freud. There is not the space here to go into this section in great detail—but as the title suggests, Blanton registers a shift towards a more self-conscious adoption of the negative dialectics, and the complexity of interactions within epic and other poetic modes is explored more thoroughly as Blanton descriptively restores texts to a canon that is historically highly prescriptive, and treated conservatively by most scholars.
The one criticism that can be raised is that Blanton’s brief sections of philosophical explanation could be more detailed. For example, pp. 74-76 are especially dense on this front—and the importance of Blanton’s observation is obscured by his much-too-speedy exposition of very difficult concepts in Bradley, Russell, and Husserl. The reader could benefit from a little less speed in places like these, but I do not want to give the impression that this is a recurring problem. Blanton’s style is, after all, heavily loaded but mechanically clear. It was impossible to effectively imitate his careful word-choice and technical terminology in this review, because the apparatus he sets up, page by page, is as helpful as it is complex. The reader may find this a difficult book to consult as a result of this fact—especially if she were to dive into one of the later sections (and even more so in the second part of the book) without first at least developing a familiarity with the introduction and those sections that directly precede the one that is of interest.
All this notwithstanding, this book should be welcomed for its enormous contribution to a waning field. Blanton’s vitality and perspicuous attention to detail are the hallmark of an enthusiastic return to questions that have recently only been treated in passing, and for which a more fully elaborated paradigm has much been needed. I recommend those interested in Blanton’s work on the epic to also consult the edition of the Yale Journal of Criticism that he edited with Nigel Alderman in the Spring of 2000, titled “Pocket Epics: British Poetry After Modernism.”