Tag Archives: 20th-century

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo (1904)


If Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness dramatize the difficulty of narrating a life, confronting that difficulty by dramatizing the various subjective, generic, historical conditions that frame our experience of the world, then Nostromo ups the ante, expanding the palate of narrators (13 main characters) and opening the stage to the history of a continent and the circuits of global trade. Nostromo is “constructed” in ways similar to Jim, but this novel is not so much interested in characterization, as it is interested in how the past becomes present, and the present becomes future, and how all the various characters deal with these historical becomings.

Conrad employs a basic rectangle of characters:

Nostromo   –   Decoud (loves Antonia)

Mr. Gould   –   Monygham (loves Mrs. Gould)

On the top, two men that are killed by the silver. On the bottom, two men who are able to resist that death. On the left, two idealists. On the right, two pragmatists. Acting outside of these rectangle, are the two women, Antonia and Mrs. Gould.

Nostromo the character is a composite of what other characters believe him to be. We see him consistently fail to live up to the idea of the hero–he is literally a “man of the people” to the degree that he becomes subject to the same temptations of the silver.

When the old Garibaldi soldier kills Nostromo (not knowing that he does it), Conrad is showing who the older foams of heroic revolution are not tenable under the new regime of global capitalism.

Discuss the difference between catching a moment out of the stream of time and Mrs. Gould’s beliefe that we need to see the past, present and future within every moment….this is a different way of seeing the relationship between particular events and history in general.

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited (1944)

In two parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue that depict Ryder at war, having returned to Brideshead in order to repurpose it as a military base. Main themes include memory, war, religion, and painting. Sebastian Flight is the lovable drunkard with whom Ryder class in love as a young man at Oxford. But Sebastian slowly goes to waste and exits the novel almost all together. he dies off screen, or does not, one is not sure. His sister, Julia, takes center stage in the second half of the novel. Ryder, now a successful painter of houses and married to Celia, falls in love with Julia while on a boat. They become lovers, but when she returns to the Catholic faith at the end of the novel, Ryder and her (despite both getting divorced for each other) decide not to get married.

Curious book to put into dialogue with The Return of the Solider and other novels that mourn the loss of innocent after World War I. Here, it is War World II that triggers a memory that returns to that pre-war state. The portrait of Oxford is a bit anachronistic, compressing the days of Richards and Empson with the days Pater and Wilde. Anthony Blanche is the token “aesthete,” and Ryder finds himself caught up in a new decadence that will string between the two wars. The wars themselves seem to squeeze together to the degree that intervening years are reduced to a couple of family squabbles: Julia says famously, “I see the past and future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” Indeed, the finance capital vulgarians like Rex and the regressive Catholics like the Marchamids seem to be the only options for Julia and Ryder: they are therefore both unhappy at the end.

Use the meal with Rex to show the differences between Ryder’s older continental proclivities and Rex’s modernizing impulses, etc.

The novel gives the lie to the narrative that would reconsolidate England after the war. There are folks like Rex, who is similar to the Dalloways in his relationship to industry, his desire to ignore the war. The Marchmaid family, on the other hand, are trying to live an existence that belongs to another century. It isn’t that this lifestyle is unfit for 20th century, but that it in fact self-destructs: modernity must be described as “uneven development” with regard to its secularizing drive, etc.

As the war approaches, there is a moment in which Julia and Ryder, on the boat, no longer speak in their voices, but in the voices of the English who wish to deny that war is coming. They repeat in almost stichomythic fashion a battery of cliches about how the Germans have no money, etc.

Ryder is a painter of architecture. His painting can be seen as a synecdoche for Waugh’s mode of writing. He prefers drawing buildings that show the encrustations of each age–showing how each has made use of the building. Brideshead itself is shown repurposed multiple times, and the closing scene is of a lamp meant to be purely symbolic of epic and tragedy, hanging in a chapel, now burning in prayer for all the solders in France, etc. Relate this to Larkin’s poem “High Windows,” where he claims that each generation needs to find its own limits, and that there is not a single lyric voice that can consolidate their various attempts at self-transcendence.



Rebecca West – The Return of the Soldier (1915)

Chris suffers from shell-shock and when he returns to his wife and cousin (Kitty and Jenny) he can can’t remember the last 15 years of his life. Instead, he is living as if he is still in love with the lower class Margaret with whom he had a brief but intense relationship before he met his wife. Him and Margaret reconnect, ecstatically, but eventually a psychoanalyst intervenes and they “cure” him (by reminding him of his son that died when a child), which entails both the re-shattering of his youthful dreams and his incipient return to Flanders.

Talk about how the war pentrates domestic space. Not unlike the domestic space described in David Jones In Parenthesis or in Cummings The Enormous Room. Talk about how Fussel recounts the forceful making of English gardens in the trenches, etc…flowers that do not have nutritive purpose…the desire to create a domestic sphere that is impervious to war finds expression in the mirror image: real domestic spaces that are penetrated.

Talk about memory and its relation to trauma. The curing of Chris consonant with the death of love–the death of the object of desire itself. Interpretation in some sense kills that third term (talk about Laplanche)

The world that we thought the war killed is in fact simple another reality that has replaced an existence that was someone even more ideal than the England we thought we had lost, etc.

Talk about Hardy in reverse. In Hardy, his attempt o get into the melancholic modd reveals the impossibility of telling the difference between his current state of loss and the the loss that was always-already a part of his relationship with his wife. here, when the soldier returns (no longer a cause for mourning), the two companions realize that they were only ever substitutes for a love that already been lost. This can in turn be connected to Joyce’s “The Dead.”

The end of Chris’s life is the last day he can remember. Link this to Bergsonian notions of time, memory and durée.

Rather than read the trauma as a stark break with a past life, we can fact read it as revealing a thread of loss that was otherwise repressed. Chris as a young man had a sense of the “imminence of the improbable,” which shell-shock in some ways allows to occur–namely the rebirth of a prehistory that was otherwise consigned to wither away.

Martin Amis – Money (1981)

The novel is narrated by John Self, a American-British screen-writer/film-producer, as he self-destructs in the transatlantic flow of Hollywood money. In short, it ends up that the script he is working on, alternatively called Good Money and Bad Money, is the story in which he is playing a part; his friend Fielding Goodney turns out to be playing him all along; the movie doesn’t exist; he has signed tons of loans and debts, etc. In short, we are in a world of simulacra, with money itself standing in as ur-symbol of exchangeability.

“My head is a city, and various pains have now taken up residence in various parts of my face.” A curious endpoint to all that modernist angst about the individual in the urban. Amis turns turns the table: John Self exclaims, “I’m not allergic to the the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century” (89). The point here is that relationships to the world of consumer goods is no longer defined in terms of resistance and consumption, but only between different types of consumption. We are beyond the point where we can still define ourselves as autonomous creatures navigating an external world, but rather as creatures that have become characters in a world only partially of our making: Television is working on us. Film is. We’re not sure how yet. We wait, and count the symptoms. There’s a realism problem, we all know that. TV is real! some people think” (332)

Martin Amis notoriously appears as a character in the novel. In the tradition of Murphy, John Self and Martin Amis battle it out in a chess match at the end of the novel. Much like Lemuel at the end of Malone Dies, Amis asserts cool control over his character, eluding both his attacks, on and off the chess board. For winning, Amis requires one thing that Self has, but never says what: it become obvious that it is nothing less than his identity, his self-hood.

Interesting to put in dialogue with Philip Larkin’s poems: both the “The Importance of Elsewhere” and “High Windows.” The latter is more obvious: Amis takes the vulgarity of the opening lines and strains to make them lyrical; unlike Larking, who turns to Lyric and dramatizes its hollowness or inexpressively. In Amis, the “deep blue” air is marred with pollution. In the “Importance of Elsewhere,” Larkin comments on the ease with which one can defy national customs while traveling–in one’s own country, it is much harder to both gain objective stance and take the personal risk of resistance or critique. In Amis’ novel, the United States is a necessary elsewhere for defining the postmodern condition. Curious how this recapitulates earlier transatlantic anxieties as detailed by Alex Zwerdling in “Transatlantic Slinging Match.” In short: americans “use” the polis of Europe to produce Modernism, consolidating a “Europe” that subsumes any smaller differences. But in the post-modern these differences will again falir up, only to be subsumed again, one could argue, in the Blair-Bush years. And then we can move to McEwan writing about the 2003 Iraq war protest in Saturday.

Philip Larkin – Poems (1955-1974)

Larkin, along with Amis, Conquest, Gunn, and others, were a group post-war authors christened “The Movement.” Conquest described their mantra as “little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles,” which is an obvious continuation of Auden’s project: the destruction of error. Larkin’s paired down lyricism–a lyric stunted by discontent and a hyper-active reality principle–is clear in the tight but flexible verse forms, often with minute variations that do not draw attention to themselves. Ironically, Kingsley Amis’s rollicking Lucky Jim  was partially inspired by Larkin’s life, which points to the forms of severe restraint imposed on the expression of emotion–not so much fro the sake of restraint (a la Eliot and Pound) but because of the realization that lyric expressiveness is hollow.

This marks out his difference with Auden. Auden never attempts the honest transparency of Larkin’s expressive attempts (failing not because, like Prufrock, he cannot find the words and take the action, but because he finds the words and they still fail to matter), but holds in secret an identity protected at all costs from systems that might otherwise subsume it. Auden puts the self in question, but in secret: Larkin’s self-deprecation stages this questioning as it central image.

“Church Going” (1955) is a poem about, the way churches (synecdoche for institutional religion) no longer function to unify the basic stages of human life–birth, marriage, death–but how humans till return to these hollowed out skeletons compelled by the sense of a lost unity that needs repair. The speaker stops as a tourist, and failing to be satisfied as a tourists, asks, “What remains when disbelief is gone?” What stands between belief and unbelief? A difference worthy of Hardy poem–the speaker, like the one in Hap, Darkling Thrush and Neutral Tones, yearns for a substantial system that he can negate….but to no avail. Yet something very much like an objective “neediness of the world” (Adorno) persists over and above individual loss of faith:

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to  be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie around.

If Church Going is commenting on a contemporary lack, then “MCMXIV” (1964), which translates into 1914, pinpoints the loss of innocence as World War I: “Never such innocence again,” the poem closes. The opening line, “Those long uneven lines,” refers to the lines of men waiting to be conscripted, which doubles etymologically with the act of writing itself (script). Throughout Larkin, this sense of lost innocence is repeated again and again; it correlates with the loss of structures that would order everyday activity. So, for instance, “The Importance of Elsewhere,” comments on the difficulty of ascending to an objective viewpoint in relation to “customs and establishments.” In England, “no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” The impossibility of appeal to something beyond.

In “High Windows” (1974), Larkin attempts to link the current generation of youth’s attempts to mark out its own possibilities and opportunities (the sexual revolution of the sixties) to his generation’s attempt to escape the dread of religion. But the particularity of these two experiences, divided by thirty years, cannot be related, or sublated into a universal idea that would explain how each generation acts. The entrance of the lyric voice in the fifth stanza is empty:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows,
The sun-comprehending grass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The fiction of the lyric. The deep blue does not connect with broader network of religious symbolism, but merely signifies the lack of representation all together (shows nothing). “Sun-comprehending grass” marks out a pathetic fallacy for the 20th century.




T.S. Eliot – The Four Quartets (1936-41)

Ongoing post:

Frist the title–each poem is a quartet, but the whole thing is also a quartet of sorts. If the whole thing is a quartet, then the “four” is tautologous. Throughout the poem, Eliot will play with tautology, equivalence and difference: ends are beginnings, etc. Also, the “quartets” have five parts each, like the Waste Land. Could the think of the larger four as subsuming the individual fives: from synthesis and progress, to symmetry and order, etc.

Burnt Norton

“All time is unredeemable”: what “might have been” can only be registered as an echo in the rose garden–the past, present and future are one solid whole, which we cannot comprehend, but that nevertheless determines our existence. Past and Future press so hard one on the other that there is room “for little consciousness.” The presentness has a spatial analog–the stillness in the midst of a swirling world. This limited epistemological envelop comprises the limits of our language: poetry, for Eliot, is always too late, and words, once established, will never stay. Art, in other words, is subject to the processes of life and decay that our bodies are subject to.

East Coker

A more earthy section, that talks about seasons while trying out various styles of poetry (Olde English, Vorticists) before admitting that these are all just attempts that always fail. Living “entre les deux-geurres,” Eliot claims that every attempt at poety is a new and fresh attempt bereft of former accomplishments–“a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment.” Curious, given the resonance of  The Waste Land throughout. The past, even if does not stay put as a tool for use, reamins that from which we cannot escape even as we continue to lose it.

The Dry Salvages

Draws attention to the changes of the human–not the same when they leave the station, etc. Focuses on image sof water and the sea. Despite being composed while being bombed, the poem is surprisingly hopeful. Connect imagery of boat and drowning to the the “Death by Water” section (the poem that wasn’t written), but also to the image of the boat guided by the craftsman at the end of the Waste Land.

Little Gidding

Circularity and fire are brought together in this final poem, that connects with imagery from Burnt Norton. The image of stillness in the middle of a circulating world is born out as paradigmatic poetic practice. it maintains the tension that runs throughout the poem: between time utterly lost and time redeemed, etc.


humility of thought (cf. Heidegger)

stillness in circle (cf. Yeats)

circular exploration (cf. Molloy)

inter-penetration of the seasons (cf. The Waste Land)

experimental nature of all language (M-P, Ulysses, early modernism)

the little space for consciousness (between past and present)



W.H. Auden – Poems (1929-1948)

“It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens” (October 1929)

Nice analog to the image of Spring as it appears in Eliot (“April is the cruelest month…”). Here Easter is associated with a time of creation, finding altering lines for altering things…the tautological nature of verse is a theme that will run throughout Auden’s poetry (“Poetry makes nothing happen…”). He sees a man like the embryo of a chicken (cf. startling image in Prufrock that disrupts love song, here the elegy is interrupted by the presence of that which is to be mourned). This reminds him of the death that is necessary for this season. A weird line, but one that calls the bluff of war propaganda (connect with Wilfred Owen). The images of decline focus on Oxford (cf. Waugh and all the stuff on I.A. Richards, Quiller-Couch, Empson, etc.). Auden ratchets up the stasis of something like the Wasteland opening, with compressed, abstract gerunds:

Coming out of me living is always thinking,
Thinking changing and changing living,
And feeling as it was seeing.

This a doubled-edged move, as it equalizes the processes of living, thinking, changing, etc. How is anything new produced in this plane of equality? Auden begins to intimate a negative, regulative function for poetry (a poetry of resistance and durability). “Home, a place Where no tax is levied for being there.” His idealized utopia can only be articulated by way of comparison (connect to Auden’s exile, and also to Eliot’s Unreal). Auden’s poetics could be described: “It is time for the destruction of error.” His poetry wants to communicate, clearly. And such destruction includes “the death of the old gang,” which becomes a part of a seasonal metabolic process (imaged as grain…connect to the fields of wheat in “I walked out one evening”).

“As I walked out one evening” (November 1937)

A love poem. Told in ballad style: abcb. The “I” hears another “I” proclaim a love song under an arch of the railway. Already, that the folks on Bristol street are “fields of wheat” intimate that TIME’s scythe  will be making an appearance.  The clocks in the city say: “You cannot conquer time….Time watches from the shadow and coughs when you would kiss.” For Auden, this isn’t just the individual human aging, but the grand forces of time penetrating the everyday: “The glacier knocks in the cupboard.” Despite these realities the poem introduces a great theme of Auden’s: a commitment to the everyday despite its misery: “Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless….You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

“Musée des Beaux Arts” (December 1938)

Auden is looking at the Icarus painting by Breughel and thinking about how great human suffering is just one small part of a larger world of daily activity. Most often, people don’t recognize the great tragedies [Connect with Lukács].

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along.

Note the long prosaic line, characteristic of Auden’s expository predilections (at times). He writes in all sorts of styles, not because he wants to idealize a past, or transmit the impulse of the past (Pound); rather, all these styles are simply tools available for the master craftsman (like Pound in this way). The diminution of the tragic can be read as a critique of Yeats. “Terrible beauty” and the slouching “rough beast” get transformed into a “miraculous birth” that no one registers, and others would prefer not to happen. A horse scratches its butt on a tree [think of this poem as a combination of Easter 1916 and Crazy Jane put together (house of excrement, etc.)]. The legs of Icarus are imaged as “white legs” in “green water,” a sort of generic abstraction of colors devoid of meaning, a flat, uncreative phenomenology.

“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (January 1939)

Against the pathetic fallacy (cf. Browning on “Porphyria’s Lover” ?? and Ruskin, of course). In short, Yeats dies and it we know it was a cold day, not because of poetry or other forms of representation, but because of instruments like barometers and thermometers that can measure tese objectie conditions. [Interesting to talk about in term sof the scientific metaphors of Eliot, Woolf, etc.]

O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Auden imagines Yeats as his words become digested by his admirers (modified in the guts of the living)…in connection to Pound’s worries over Gaudier-Brezka’s relation to posterity. Yeats, in short, has nto changed much with his poetry; he hasn’t solved the epistemological problems staged in the wasteland [And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom]. The second section slides into pretty strict hexameter, a dramatic shift from the prosodic lines of the opening stanzas. Auden does say that poetry makes nothing happen, but, instead, “it survives In the valley of its saying where executives Would never want to tamper….it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.”  Poetry as RESISTANCE. Talk about in terms of Schiller and Bergson and Arendt.


“In Praise of  Limestone” (1948)

Good example of Auden’s syllabic structuring: 13 syllables, with varying accentual patterns. Lots of enjambment, little rhyme, making this poem very expository. Can be read as a pastoral of sorts, but one that does not place a golden landscape in a receding, hazy past: “examine this region of short distances and definite places.” He is talking about the Mediterranean, the limestone is built up over time, organically, and dissolves quickly because of the calcium deposits. This transience, fluidity, carelessness is contrasted to the Northern cities of England and Germany, associated with destruction and violence:

…accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed.

The theme of sculpture is also played throughout, with reference to Greek sculptures, that somehow mock the poet that confines himself to the “antimythological” tautologies of Auden’s earlier poems, which is associated here with scientist dissecting Nature’s remotest aspects (a Romantic turn?). The religious turn in the end seeks to sublimate God within a realistic vision–sorta like Kafka’s “there is hope, but not for us.” The murmuring of the underground streams picks up the murmuring river at the end of “I walked out on evening.” displacing even more the “stream” of creativity that somehow remains constant (but inaccessible).