Article Index



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).




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.