Michael Levenson – A Genealogy of Modernism (1984)

Levenson sets out two broad tendencies in Early Modernism (roughly 1908-1914), between attention to individual artistic expression, an extreme egoism (the Stirneans, early Hulme, FM Ford) and a commitment to rigid objective formalism, an absolutism of sorts (later Hulme, Worringer, and at times, Ford). Pound and Lewis veered from one side to the other. Gaudier-Brezka was staunchly formal. In post-war modernism, Eliot emerges with a middle-way: “theory of points of view,” derived from F.H. Bradley’s theory of finite centers—apex of this view is in Wasteland, which TSE soon abandons. For both later Pound and Eliot, tradition becomes the means by which individual expression coincides with an objective structure. Narrative of argument shifts to tension between Pound (early Modernism, rupture, subversion, publicity, Blast) and Eliot (later Modernism, conservative, integration, assimilation, classicist, Criterion). Via Eliot, Modernism becomes institutionalized.
Begins with Conrad’s privileging of vision over the other senses: “to make you hear, to make you feel…before all, to make you see.” The significance of an event is no longer inferred or imputed, but is immediately accessible to the narrating consciousness. There is an attention to facts—to the point that they become values—or the shift from the merely visible to the valuable, via the medium of the illuminating artistic consciousness.

Levenson draws a contrast between Arnold’s control and Pater’s excess. Arnold called for a controlling critical authority which could restrian the excess of private, individual expression and indulgence. In calling for external authority, however, he uses a “subjective” metaphor: “By our best self, we are united, impersonal, at harmony.” Levenson turns back to Conrad: “Conrad…participates in the late-century movement toward the undermining of the sovereign individual  subject and toward the nostalgia for more traditional pre-capitalist values” (34). Tension is now between consciousness (free, memory) and authority (restricted, fact).

Moves to Hulme who, following Bergson, seeks to abandon the epic metaphysics of Yeats and the past, to escapes the restraints of the ordinary to seek a deeper truth (like Yeats). Hulme restricts the field of poetry: “modest modernism.”

Ford is anxious about social forms crumbling, and comes off as inveterate most of the time…he critiques the increasing specialization of culture and longs for nostalgic wholeness of pre-capitalist England. However, he believes that it is impossible to see life whole, unlike Arnold. But while Ford is able to attend closely to the multiplicity of social degeneration, he still is committed to the impressions of the individual, and retreats to the artistic individual as the sure defense against impending chaos. He, too, is part of the Arnoldian, Hulmean tradition. Yet what he and others pull from this tradition is dependence on the dehistoricized individual—the Vorticists would push this to and extreme.

In Hulme, Romantic (expression) becomes the new decadence, while classicism becomes a new conservative austerity. Hume goes further into anti-humanism, asserting the primacy of objective reality (à la Husserlian phenomenology).

Subject and object becomes more complicated: “Ford’s Impressionism is a subjectivity in which the subject has disappeared.”

PoetàWordàWorldàEssence   [Yeats goes all the way; pound and Ford stop before last step]

Eliot: “The life of a soul does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying (to a greater or lesser extent) jarring and incompatible ones, and passing, when possible, from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them” (qtd. 191, from Bradley Dissertation) Levesnon continues, “The principle of order [in the Wasteland] depends on a plurality of consciousnesses, an ever-increasing series of points of view, which struggle towards an emergent unity and then continue to struggle past that unity.”

Lewis: “We are not only ‘the last men of an epoch’ (as Mr. Edmund Wilson and others have said): we are more than that, or we are that in a different way to what is most often asserted. We are the first men of a Future that has not materialized. We belong to a ‘great age’ that has not ‘come off.’” (from Blasting, 258)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s