One of the more interesting recent books of popular history, Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, stakes out the period between the outbreak of World War I to almost the present. In Johnson’s intellectual framework, the boundaries of modernity are marked by two great revolutionaries: Albert Einstein, who threw the thinking world into a turmoil of doubt over man’s place in the universe, and Edward O. Wilson, who has restored humanity to a place in the natural scheme of things. However, the sociobiological revolution has had to be fought every inch of the way against the established world view of modernism, one that can only be described as Utopian.
What strange times they have been, these modern times. In the 1880’s most Americans and Europeans were looking forward to an era of democracy, social justice, humanitarianism, and peace. Instead, we modems have witnessed two appalling and barbaric world wars that saw. the introduction of poison gas, unmanned rocket bombs used against English cities, the Dresden fire bombings, Hiroshima, an d Nagasaki. There is no need to go into trifles like the Korean “police action” or the Malayan “emergency.” So much for peace, so much for humanitarianism.
Politically, the century was dominated by the great thugs-Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Brezhnev—and a cast of little thugs. Malcolm Muggeridge, who had the dubious privilege of meeting many of the mid-century’s great and powerful, lumped them together: Stalin and Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill. Perhaps it was only Muggeridge’s characteristic spleen that blinded him to Roosevelt’s better qualities, but he was hardly alone. H.L. Mencken and James Burnham both saw FDR as the ignorant but ambitious buffoon who allowed the country to be taken over by a conspiracy of Ivy League wise guys. In a very Red but unforgettable bad poem, “I Don’t Want to Startle You but They Are Going to Kill Most of Us,” Kenneth Patchen gives a pacifist’s eye view of the era:
On the wall it said Democracy must be saved at all costs.
The floor was littered with letters of endorsement from liberals
And intellectuals: “your high ideals,” “liberty,” “human justice.”
Stalin’s picture spotted between Hoover’s and a group-shot of the DAR. . . .
We came finally to an immense hall protected by barbed wire
And machine-guns: Hitler, Benny Mussolini, Roosevelt and all
The big and little wigs were at table, F. D.’s arm around Adolf,
Chiang Kai-shek’s around the Pope, all laughing fit to kill.
As soon as a treaty was signed, out the window it went;
But how they fumbled at each other under the table! . . .
The General paused to enjoy the floorshow:
On a raised platform little groups of people stood.
Flags told their nationality; orators told them what to do.
As the bands blared they rushed at each other with bayonet.
The dead and dying were dragged off and others brought on.
Sweat streamed from the orators; the musicians wobbled crazily.
The big shots were mad with joy, juggling in their seats like monkeys.
And they never get wise the General said as we moved on.
What do we do with a “poem” like this? Those of us who entertain old-fashioned views are tempted to write off the entire exercise of modem art and literature as a waste. The trouble is, where to draw the line. Some aesthetic conservatives are willing to accept everything down lo and including Jackson Pollock and Allen Ginsberg, albeit with some reservations. Others wax their mustaches, put on spats, hang Beardsley reproductions on the walls, and speak as if they had just come back from lunching with Oscar Wilde at the Savoy. American conservatives are probably most comfortable with the 18th century and declare, with Byron:
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthy.
But I have Catholic friends who reject not only Byron and the entire 18th century, but also everything written after William of Occam and the Nominalists poisoned the mind of Europe. Everything that is not infected with Nominalism is tainted with Gnosticism. That, at least, is a reasonably consistent position, although in the how conservative-are-you? mano a mano that is sometimes played out at gatherings like The Philadelphia Society, the award, really, should go to Walter Burkert, the Swiss historian of religion who traces almost every valuable human custom back to the paleolithic era. Someone should tell john Milius about Burkert.
This line of reasoning can degenerate very quickly into the sort of argument used by the abortion lobby-life doesn’t begin at conception but sometime before birth. Eight months? No, before that. Two months? No, after that. Well, three months then? Sure, three months. Are those lunar or calendar? Calendar. But if the child is conceived in January in a non-leap year, doesn’t that cheat the unwilling mother out of two or three days? Well, then, 95 days. But not 94? Temporal distinctions are rarely decisive for moral, much less aesthetic, judgments. It leads to overvaluing some writers because they were representative or revolutionary and undervaluing others, like Crabbe or John P. Marquand, as reactionaries.
The most common alternative to the reactionary search for better days is an open-arms embrace of modem art down to, roughly, the mid-1960’s. Picasso and de Koening, Joyce and Lawrence, all have merits that can be denied to, say, Robert Coover, John Ashbery, and Andy Warhol. jazz may be all right, but rock is out. “New criticism” is good, deconstruction is bad. The demarcation is primarily along the line of civility: artists willing to pay their dues, show their respect to the cultural establishment, and behave themselves can eventually be absorbed into our civilization. Those who chew glasses at parties (as Maxwell Bodenheim is said to have done), unzip their trousers (like the late Jim Morrison), or whose art is to stab themselves in a public place or tell students to write their own “texts”—they obviously do not have the right gasses for artistic or critical stardom.
Some of the favorite modernists in conservative circles are Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence. Each, I suppose, has his merits. They certainly have formidable champions. Hugh Kenner has written wonderfully on Pound and Joyce, while George Panichas and Jeffrey Hart have discovered virtues in Lawrence. We are told that both Pound and Joyce practically compel us to acquire sufficient erudition to appreciate them. In my experience, however, a man able to read Latin will have little interest in Pound’s “Hommage to Sextus Propertius,” and the un-Greekless reader will find himself pining for Homer’s clarity and reserve in the midst of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy—the rantings of a schizophrenic tart.
A strictly cultural or social approach to modernism is too utilitarian to be useful. It treats literature and painting as if they were brickbats to be used in a street fight between Nazis and Commies. If Pound or Lawrence defended the right, on occasion, that is not enough to make them better men or more effective writers. In a more unified, communal society, the arts fulfill a social function. The plays of Aristophanes and Euripides could be seen-indeed, they were seen as being on one side or another of the great social struggles which afflicted Athens in the brief days of her empire. We are not so fortunate. Our European and American civilization is splintered in every imaginable direction, and it may be enough if a man can fit enough of the pieces together that he can make out his own image in a crazed mirror. Artists, writers, and composers—to the extent that their own pursuits and passions can light the way for some of us—can be useful even to those who hold contrary Social, political, and aesthetic views.
The question for modern art is salvation—or its secular surrogate. Lawrence Durrell once expressed the hope that he would never have to write for people who had never wondered where real life begins, and it is the real, the authentic—le vierge le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui—that obsesses the best of the moderns. The past 100-and-some years may be the period of greatest spirituality in literature since the Middle Ages. Baudelaire, near the end of his life, heard an angel sounding “the victory of those whose heart says, Blessed be his lash, Lord, blessed be sorrow, O father! My soul in thy wisdom is infinite.” Barbey d’Aurevilly (to whom the poem is dedicated) had, in an article, declared there were only two options open to Baudelaire: become a Christian or blow his brains out. This was his answer.
In one way or another, it was also the answer of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn, Charles Péguy, Paul Claude!, and Eugène Ionesco, T.S. Eliot, David Jones, and W.B. Yeats, Allen Tate, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. It is more than a little ironic. This was the era foretold (accurately, for the most part) in which Western man was supposed to discover that his God was dead. The ancients faced a similar shock in late antiquity. Plutarch; in his essay on the decay of oracles, tells of the mysterious proclamation that the great god Pan was dead. Mrs. Browning, for all her occasional silliness, knew the tale had a modern ring:
And that dismal cry rose slowly
And sank slowly through the air,
Full of spirit’s melancholy
And eternity’s despair!
And they heard the words it said
Pan, Pan is dead!”
And yet it was precisely then, at the collapse of paganism, that men in large numbers began to reject the poetic stories and pretty statues and looked deeper and higher for the kingdom of heaven. The moderns have also been tried as by fire and not all have been found wanting.
Most of modernism’s spiritual rebels have been recognized as in some way reactionary. Eliot and Russell Kirk have seen the conservative side of Baudelaire, and George Panichas has devoted his best efforts to exploring Dostoevsky. But there are other modem writers, apparently less spiritual, whose works can be seen as part of a struggle against the principalities and powers of the age. Southerners will think immediately of Faulkner, but there are other less obvious cases—Kafka and Proust for example, two of the founding fathers of modern fiction.
Kafka, it will be said, was a neurotic, and Proust not only neurotic but homosexual. Do not look for Sophocles or Ben Jonson in an age of decadence. It has been increasingly difficult for powerful imaginations to deal with the realities of modern life. If Kafka, Proust, or Oscar Wilde were sick, their sufferings were common to the age. What is important is their search for wellness. In Kafka’s case, he created a powerful tool for rebelling against the absurd and horrifying conditions of life in a total state. His repellent little fables—I think especially of “The Penal Colony”—go straight to the heart of the matter: the despair that leads decent men to construct a society which compels others to be virtuous. Eastern Europeans have been mining gold from this vein ever since. Most recently, the eerie tales of Negovan Rajic, a Francophone Yugoslav turned Canadian, bear witness to the continued vitality of the Kafkan tradition.
In point of fact, Kafka had little to complain about. Life in Prague at the end of the Hapsburg empire was, by all accounts, uncommonly pleasant, and when he read his grisly tales to friends in cafes, they laughed aloud. And yet, Kafka’s special quality, as his biographer Ernst Pawel observes, is not foresight but insight, insight into a human condition that has become increasingly doubtful as the century passes.
If Kafka was a harbinger, Proust devoted his life to looking back. His long novel, the only major accomplishment of his life, can be read as a sentimental celebration of the old order in France. An ardent Dreyfusard, Proust was also an avid reader of Action Française, partly because he appreciated Charles Maurras’ prose; partly because he was an old friend of the Daudet family (Leon Daudet served as coeditor); and partly—in all probability—because he shared with the Maurrasians a sense of regret for the decay of old France. Even Proust’s bizarre metaphysics of time are part of his reactionary temper, because it is in life as it is lived and in history that we find meaning-not in the august platitudes of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The search for meaning has been largely a private and individual affair, so much so that artists have seemed to cut themselves off from the world outside themselves. Painters increasingly turned away from portraits and natural landscapes to mental interiors; composers-especially the serialists and other atonal experimenters—came to reject harmonics based on the overtone series and rooted in human perception and devised ideal systems for abstract listeners. The most serious change came in the most universal arts-poetry, novels, and drama. Rhyme and (worse) rhythm were sloughed off in favor of verse forms that are so free that no one will pay money for them or rhythmical techniques so intricate that no one can hear them. The heart of all verse, however, is the alternation of only two qualities—whether they are the classical long short or the Germanic stressed/unstressed. Rhythmic alter nation is the systole—diastole, the heartbeat of poetry. It takes more than a circulatory system to keep an organism alive (a brain helps for some of us, although Keats managed to do reasonably well without it), but it is essential. Arhythmical poetry has all the forcefulness and vitality of cardiac arrest.
If poets have given up rhyme, they-like practitioners of the novel—have also turned their backs on reason, in particular that reason which is used in reconstructing the world through narrative. In the Poetics, Aristotle put mythos, story-telling, at the center of poetry. He was thinking primarily of epic and drama, but the judgment applies to all true literature. In telling a story, we are forced to make sense of the formless flow of everyday occurrences. One event must lead to another, characters must display enough consistency to make their actions intelligible and congruent. As Alasdair MacIntyre has expressed it more recently, “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as his fictions, a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.” The rejection of plot and narrative in fiction reflects a more generalized despair of the world. The modem novelist is telling us, no less than the painter and composer of music, that there is no point in even trying to make sense of things.
But it is too easy to excoriate the writers and artists of the past 150 years for giving up on the world. In a sense, the world abandoned them first. The history of English verse from Wordsworth to Eliot constitutes a serieS of responses to a civilization that was destroying the artists’ natural habitat. In the face of industrialization and the enlightened self interest preached by philosophes, utilitarians, and liberal capitalists, the Romantic poets sought refuge in the land scapes of nature and the human heart. They discovered the quaintness of common people—Wordsworth in his ballads, Scott in his antiquarian Scottish novels, and a whole movement of English and European writers who celebrated the Folk.
As the century wore on, urbanization, specialization, and market forces pushed back the natural frontiers. Burke’s sophisters and economists were organizing Britain, France, and Bismarckian Germany into bureaucratic states. Poets withdrew even further into themselves and took refuge on Parnassus with Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Matthew Arnold, and John Ruskin. The ultimate flight was the Wagnerian delusion—shared by Mallarme and the symbolists—that poetry itself could redeem the world. Wagner’s Ring and Parsifal and Mallarme’s impossible Livre were only the most grandiose efforts to cast a spell that would save Europe from itself.
The saddest chapter was written by the English decadents—Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Arthur Symons, Oscar Wilde, and (for a time) Yeats. Each one of them was talented and dedicated to his craft, but all of them (except Yeats) succeeded in destroying themselves, willfully, perversely, pathetically: Dowson with drink and prostitutes he compared to Mrs. Browning, Wilde with overeating and vicious homosexual lovers, and Johnson (Lionel) “by falling from a high stool in a pub,” as Ezra Pound described it. Pound, of all people, got it all right in his “Mauberly”—the decadents, the philistines, “the dead art of poetry,” the war (First World):
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
Great literature (and Pound’s “Mauberly” is a great poem, unlike the Cantos) is always reactionary. Not sometimes or often but always, without exception because, whatever else they do, the most serious writers force us to measure ourselves and our accomplishments by standards higher than what, to borrow again from Pound, “the age demand ed.” The sources for those standards are limited; they derive from those occasional moments or decades, centuries even, when the transcendent seems to have broken into the everyday-like streams of sunlight through the sooty rafters of an old cabin. “The custom of the greater ones” is a literally inaccurate translation of the Latin phrase for tradition (mos maiorum), but it gets the point across. There were giants once, and a mature artist will strive to match their best work.
Progress, as every artist knows, is nothing more than the price we pay for our failure. It may be necessary, even desirable, but it is an indication of our inability to sustain the burden of the past. We have to grow and change (or else we should not be alive), but better men would not so quickly squander their inheritance. Progressive art is the product of children and the feebleminded, the dull and selfish primitives who think theirs is the best of all possible worlds to live in. If the primitives wear silk or own a computer, it makes no difference. Anyone who celebrates tomorrow as the dawn of Utopia (one thinks immediately of the futurists) is a hopeless savage who has nothing to tell us, unless we really need to be congratulated for being “not like other men.”
What the best of modem art teaches us, especially the poets, is what we most need to hear. It is a message as simple as Dirty Harry’s “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Baudelaire, Pound (at his best), Eliot, Yeats. Frost, and Jeffers all teach us at least that much, and if we can learn nothing more by wrestling with their puzzling, sometimes grotesque productions, we shall not have wasted our time.