Am I too critical of modernism?

Sam B. writes:

In your comments on the neocons, modernism, and the New Criterion I get the impression that you see modernism as a baleful influence in U.S. (and world) culture. I’m sorry to see that you see modernism in such negative terms. Yes, liberals, neocons, are admirers of modernism—as are many conservatives. The word modernism or modernist is applied, especially in literature, to the works of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Ezra Pound (who had an enormous influence on 20th century poetry, pace his—literally crazy—anti-Semitism), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and the other Lawrence, T.E., E.M. Forster, Saul Bellow, George Orwell, W. Somerset Maugham, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Maddox Ford—a veritable honor role of 20th century literary giants.

On the other hand, post-modernism, a movement in conscious rebellion against modernism was designed to “deconstruct” not only the work of its predecessors to a limbo of meaninglessness, but to bring into question all meaning, not only in literature, but in life, and to deny any hierarchy of values (This is good, this is bad, this is inferior, this is great—in effect a celebration of Nietzschean nihilism that Nietzsche himself would have condemned.) …

If anything, I believe modernism should be defended against the destructive (deconstructionist) depredations of the post-modernists. I hope that you will modify your broadside against modernism after you’ve had more time to rethink.

LA replies:

I am not saying modernism as such is bad. Modernism has done many worthwhile and even great things. Modernism has values that are worth defending against post-modernism.

I am saying, however, that people whose primary framework is modernism are by definition liberals.

Let us apply to modernism Seraphim Rose’s useful definition of liberalism as the denial of the inner truth of our Tradition, while keeping some of the outer forms and expressions of that truth. A symbol of such modernism is the Riverside Church at 120th Street and Broadway in New York City, constructed by the Rockefellers in the 1950s. From a distance, the church has the shape of a Gothic cathedral; from up close, it is devoid of all the detail and meaning of a Gothic cathedral; it is sterile and godless, a cold rejection of the Christian Tradition more than an expression of it.

Modernism still believes in truth, but it is a thinned-out, alienated version of truth, as we can see in painting, literature, architecture and academia.

Mark Rothko was a great modernist painter of the New York School. His abstract compositions of three blocks of color are deeply moving portrayals of an inner dimension of human consciousness. But it is a human consciousness cut off from any objective natural, social, or divine order. Ultimately, Rothko committed suicide.

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, there is a sense of an eternal truth about life, embodied in nature, but the characters are cut off from that truth, or only experience it in an indirect way in the midst of the disorder and lostness of their lives. Or, rather, they inchoately sense this larger reality impinging on them, calling to them, but don’t follow it, caught up as they are in their pre-occupations. Also, there are numerous references to the Catholic Church, but only to show how Christianity plays no effective role in the character’s lives. There is, however, an ethos of decent or right behavior, as when Brett gives up her 19-year-old bull-fighter lover, because, she says, “I’m thirty-four, you know. I’m not going to be one of these bitches that ruins children…. I’m not going to be that way. I feel rather good, you know. I feel rather set up.” Yet merely decent behavior, the mere refusal to engage in disgusting behavior, cannot be said to be an expression of a spiritual order. Even the repulsive movie American Beauty shows the main character declining to take advantage of a teen-age girl; the movie would like us to believe that this is some great thing that justifies the protaganist; it is not.

In Ulysses, the single most celebrated modernist novel, Joyce uses and re-arranges all kinds of elements coming from the Great Western Tradition, but the work itself is cut off from the Tradition, not a part of it. In the end, any sense of connection, with the past, with God or truth, and with human society, is denied. Despite the interactions of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus, they remain unknown and incomprehensible to each other. While Bloom snuggles in bed next to his wife, she is fantasizing about an adulterous affair. Her final “Yes” is a yes to another man. The novel’s famous “affirmation” is deeply ironic. [See correction below.] And again, as with the example from The Sun Also Rises, the decent and considerate behavior that Bloom practices from time to time does not add up to the expression of a spiritual or moral order, though some readers would like to have it so.

(As for Yeats and Eliot, they are great modernists, but they go beyond modernism to a deeper realization based in the Tradition, so they are more than modernists. Another example of modernism that goes beyond mere modernism and connects satisfactorily with the past and with the transcendent is Lincoln Center.)

In post-war architecture, there are some splendid buildings, such as the Seagram Building in New York City, yet these buildings have broken with the Western Tradition. In the past, the Tradition went through all kinds of changes, for example, Victorian was succeeded by Beaux Arts which was succeeded by Art Deco. Yet each of these very different styles was, in its own way, based in and continuous with the Tradition. Modernist architecture breaks with the Tradition; it conveys nothing of the past.

In academia, modernists made an ideal of the “disinterested pursuit of truth.” But the “disinterested pursuit of truth” is too thin to satisfy people, which led to the demand for the freedom from all truth that is postmodernism.

So, yes, postmodernism represents a decline from modernism. But modernism itself is also a decline. Modernism has great achievements, but at the same time it is a questionable legacy. People who make modernism their primary orientation show the spiritual shallowness that is liberalism.

- end of initial entry -

Reader N. writes:

“By their fruits shall ye know them”.

To resist postmodernism while clinging to modernism is to say the children are bad, but the parents were good. It is like those Communists who claimed for years that Stalin had somehow perverted the true and good revolution of Lenin, when in reality both men were evil. Stalin was a product of Leninism. Postmodernism is a result of modernism. We should judge modernism on what it has produced, and that includes the postmodernists…or the downfall of modernism.

It isn’t that modernism is disconnected from tradition that leads to its downfall, it is that modernism _consciously_ seeks, or celebrates in some ways, a disconnect from tradition. I recall hearing a self proclaimed art critic on PBS in the 1980’s claim that if a painting or sculpture did not upset one, or make one feel uneasy in some way, it wasn’t a great work. Some canvas covered with daubs and smears was behind him as he spoke, presumably to convey the same message visually. Tell any artist prior to the 1880’s or so that his or her art is supposed to induce a visceral response of distress, and see what the response would be (leaving aside Bosch and a few others). Deconstruction is a _logical_ outgrowth of the same thinking that gives rise to modernism, taken one step further; that nothing has meaning, therefore art is anything we say it is.

Defending modernism may ultimately be an untenable position. If we still have a civilization at the end of this century, artists and writers of that time may look back at the entire period from the late 19th century to the early 21st as a ghastly parade of errors.

Scott in Pennsylvania writes:

Molly is reminiscing about the time when Bloom kissed her and proposed marriage to her in Gibraltar. She is saying “Yes” to Bloom!

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

LA replies:

I misstated. It is not that Molly’s final “Yes” is to another man. The “Yes” is to Bloom. But, as I explain in the below passage from a huge paper I wrote about Ulysses at the University of Colorado in 1977, the choice of Bloom is subverted at the last instant:

In “Penelope,” of course, we see how Molly Bloom experiences ambiguities toward her husband similar to those he feels in regard to her. By turns, she is contemptuous, resentful, puzzled, tender, attracted, indifferent. It is this indifference, finally, that makes Molly so mysterious, for we do not know finally whether she really loves Bloom or not. As her monologue builds towards its conclusion, she remembers the day when she and Bloom first made love on Howth Head, and she seems to choose him over other men:

He said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life … that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could … [767]

Her thoughts then return to earlier memories of Gibraltar and her first lover Captain Mulvey. But then, at almost the final moment of her monologue and with barely any indication of the change, she returns to the scene with Bloom:

… and how [Mulvey] kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower … [768]

The irony is as great as the ecstatic affirmation. The very moment of choosing Bloom over Mulvey and thereby supposedly showing that she is not ultimately indifferent to him, and that all men are not some undifferentiated blob in her eyes; that very shift from Mulvey to Bloom is so subtle (“Moorish wall / and I thought well as well him as another”), that, until the reader has gone over the passage several times, it may seem that the final “Yes “ of the novel is directed at Mulvey, not Bloom. The technique of unmarked associational leaps which informs the entire “Penelope” chapter (and which expresses Molly’s leveling of all distinctions) is thus brought to a fitting climax. Not only does Mulvey seem to merge with Bloom by means of Molly’s haphazard associations, but the phrase which marks her return to Bloom (“as well him as another”) radically undermines the significance of the choice. In the very act of apparently affirming her love for Bloom, she seems to indicate her ultimate indifference to him. The central theme of their marriage, and of the novel as a whole—the mutually supportive yet antagonistic relation of opposites, the merging of the “yes” and “no” in all human experience—is thus recapitulated at the final moment of Ulysses.

The paper was called “Irony and Affirmation: The Transcendent Mode of Consciousness in Ulysses.” You see how even back then I was interested in the transcendent.

Howard Sutherland writes:

Yet another interesting thread. I think you and I would agree about many things artistically—your characterization of Riverside Church is a new insight (for me, anyway) and I think it is perfectly accurate.

Still, we have our differences. Lincoln Center does not work for me. To me it incarnates in marble 1960s empty pretentiousness—modernism sliding down into post-modernism. Still, I associate it with when it was built, John Lindsay’s reign of errors, so maybe I am unfair. As for the Seagram Building, I can’t stand it. It is a black steel-and-glass box. One of the best belly-laughs (albeit rueful) I have had in recent years was reading Herbert Muschamp at the end of 1999 declaring in the NYT that it was the most significant building of the millennium then ending. What? It reminds me of what architectural barbarians like Le Corbusier wanted to do to Paris. One only has to compare it to St. Bart’s, a block away. That is a finished building and a real church, with the Christian fabric and detail that—as you say—Riverside Church lacks. They couldn’t even dedicate the latter to a saint…

LA replies:

I haven’t looked critically at the Seagram Building in years, so I won’t defend my opinion about that. Maybe if I looked at it now I would feel different. But on Lincoln Center, I think it is one of the finest things in New York and in the world. Every time I’m there, every time I glance at it passing by on Broadway, I’m lifted up by it. I love it in every way.

Let’s put it this way: Lincoln Center is to modern architecture what Balanchine is to modern ballet. It is the best of the modern, but also uplifting and classical. It is not cold as you suggest, but warm and rich. When you look at the New York State Theater or the Metropolitan Opera House from the outside at night, they seem to be alive, lit up with warmth and light from within.

Andrea C. writes:

In Sam B’s list of modernists he forgot T.S. Eliot, (Eliot’s magazine The Criterion gave inspiration for the name of The New Criterion). In Roger Kimball’s book, Experiments Against Reality, he prefaces the essay about T.S. Eliot with this quote (among others):

“For the immediate future, and perhaps for a long way ahead, the continuity of our culture may have to be maintained by a very small number of people.”—T.S. Eliot, in The Criterion, 1939

Sound familiar? = ^)

Kimball is the managing editor at The New Criterion as you probably know. His essay on Eliot therein, I think, emphasizes the poet’s strong link with tradition, especially in his criticism. I wonder if in the pages of The New Criterion the editors seek to “steer” the heritage of modernism back to the road not taken, to reestablish the connection to the tradition that was deliberately severed after High Modernism.

Kimball on Eliot: “the year after Eliot converted to high-Church Anglicanism, [a] reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement was complaining that Eliot had rejected “modernism for medievalism”… Eliot responded that it was “rather trying to be supposed to have settled oneself in an easy chair, when one has just begun a long journey afoot.” Kimball writes, “…the defining leitmotif of Eliot’s journey is a craving for reality…It is the source of Eliot’s religious convictions—“Man is man,” he wrote in an essay on humanism, “because he can recognize supernatural realities, not because he can invent them.” Eliot’s craving for reality also stands behind his repeated admonitions about the perils of accepting aesthetic substitutes—of attempting “to preserve emotions without the beliefs with which their history has been involved.”

This description of Eliot’s “craving for reality” reminds me of your recent postings about Peggy Noonan, et al, who crave the opposite, who want the essence of desirables without the substantial reality, or, want “the fruits, flowers, and vegetables without the roots and soil” as another of your correspondents wrote. The “common sense.” And finally, Eliot: “the Anglo-Saxons display a capacity for diluting their religion, probably in excess of that of any other race.”

LA replies:

I think the shallow, neoconservative, civilizationally disastrous world view of the editors of The New Criterion would tend to contradict and subvert their attempted association of themselves with Eliot-style traditionalism. How could traditionalism stand up against the neocon worship of universalist democracy and open borders?

Spencer Warren writes:

I agree with the reader who associates modernism in its essence with the disaster of post-modernism.

Take Picasso and Cubism. He all but abandons tradition for the sake of the subjective assertion of his individuality as an artist. This has led in the hands of successors who lack his genius to the subjective self-absorption that also is so characteristic of contemporary society. I think Picasso and his heirs do not aspire to an ideal of beauty, as art did into the nineteenth century, but to their own subjective assertion of the self. Duchamps’s Urinal is the artist’s equivalent of many of the films of Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. Such films and many others have helped to weaken the social fabric by promoting violence, drugs and/or nihilism. Rap “music” is a mass entertainment manifestation of developments in art that date to the early twentieth century.

I agree with Howard Sutherland on the Seagram’s Building. I think Lever House is a good example of modernism. I believe it was the first post-war modernist office building on Park Avenue. I also agree with Howard in disliking Lincoln Center. The smaller scale South Bank Complex in London, including Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre, is a bit better, in my opinion.

Your point that started this discussion—Norman Podhoretz’s praise of The New Criterion as the statement of a true liberal—is very well taken indeed.

(The New Criterion, like Crisis, NR and others, declined to publish my article defending the Hollywood Production Code and the morality of censorship.)

Sam B. responds to the critics of modernism:
Yes, the picture of a shabby “dear and dirty Dublin” in “Ulysses” and its lost characters is precisely what Joyce viewed in a civilization and a nation held by paralysis (cf. “Dubliners”), a society bounded at one end by a Church that was all form and inhuman strictures, and at the other, of venal politicians who were nothing more than a reflection of the larger venality—and anti-Semitism—of its citizenry. To have expected Joyce to superimpose a didactic moral lesson on “Ulysses” would have amounted to gilding the lily. If there is any moral center to “Ulysses,” and there is, it’s in the person of none other than sad sack Bloom, who is not only a bumptious masochist but a bearer of—even if only in a remote way—his Hebrew ethic: his very humane thoughts while attending Paddy Dignam’s funeral; his visiting a hospital to reassure himself that a woman’s childbirth is going well; his dim view of the ribald medical students in that hospital; his fatherly protectiveness of that true nihilistic rebel, Stephen Dedalus; his standing up to an anti-Semitic “citizen”—he, Bloom, proves a moral foil (in that “moral pub”?) to the amoral and immoral characters that make up the dramatis personae of “Ulysses”. (For an expanded version of this and other matters “re-Joyce,” see my “Henry Miller’s James Joyce: A Painful Case of Envy,” James Joyce Quarterly, Spring, 1999.)

N.’s view that post-modernism was an outgrowth of modernism is like saying that Restoration drama was an outgrowth of Elizabethan drama; yet the thrust of each could not have been further at odds with each other. Shakespeare & Co. (pun intended) grappled with the depths and the heights of the human spirit; the Restoration probed—if one can use that word—trivia, even if in a highly intelligent and engaging way. Yet even here, the comparison of modernism with post-modernism isn’t entirely apposite. For while Restoration drama was a falling off from the Elizabethan, the former did not declare war on the latter, as the post-modernists declared war on the modernists. And, pray, are there any post-modernist novels (the French anti-novels of the ‘50s and ‘60s?) that can even begin to rival those of the second American renaissance of the ‘20s?

Further, citing examples from Ulysses re the emptiness of modern man, hardly does justice to the entire gallery. Joyce is modernist; and so is Conrad. But in novels like “Lord Jim” and “Victory,” (both incidentally made into fine movies) Conrad gives us portraits of heroes who, one by malfeasance; the other by proud alienation, come to a recognition of their tragic flaws. Cowardice and atonement in the first; self-imposed “detachment” (alienation—“The world will bite you”) and sacrifice for another in the second.

It is precisely the emptiness and “lostness” of the Hemingway’s characters in “The Sun Also Rises” that is a reflection of the emptiness of the modern(ist?) world. In that respect, Hem, Joyce, Conrad—what they did was, as Shakespeare demanded of art, to “hold a mirror up to nature…and to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

N.’s analogy of Stalinism as an outgrowth of Leninism has some merit, in part; for the same lust for blood and hangmen filled both men whose names became eponymous with those twin “philosophies.” But it’s a bit of a stretch to compare those movements, which brought nothing but misery, mass murder, and tragedy to two distinctly—and at bottom—antagonistic literary movements. Modernism was a term applied to an organic movement in literature—poetry, fiction, and drama—after that movement was already well-established in history, after it was “post”; post-modernism’s aim was a self-conscious attempt to belittle, to wipe the slate clean of any meaningful insights into the human condition. For post-modernism has little to rival the creative and imaginative contributions of modernist writers. Their—the post-modernists’—dubious contributions to “letters” is made up of a criticism that borrows, or steals, from philosophy, from linguistics, and from psychiatry and psychology (Foucault) expressed in a miserable high-falutin jargon that confuses even its own practitioners. (Orwell would have had a field day!)

Highly recommended, an anthology that takes on the fallacies and “theories” of post-modernism: “Theory’s Empire,” edited by Daphne Patai and Will Corral.

As for painting, I plead large ignorance. I love the (pre-modern) Impressionists, the post-Impressionists, and of the Modernists—Picasso, mostly in his early periods; Duchamps’ “Nude Descending the Stairs,” and the naturalistic/”proletarian” American school of Moses and Raphael Soyer.

Sam B. continues:
Yes, Andrew C. Had it right. The New Criterion is of course T.S. Eliot’s [old] Criterion

Honored by the New. and in my list of Moderns, how could I have possibly have forgotten “Old Possum”—the greatest poet-critic of the century?

Note: your reader who lumped Picasso, “by declensions,” almost imperceptibly, with the post modern has mistaken one for the other. Picasso was the darling of the Modernists—and even of those who don’t think of themselves of belonging to any school. I don’t know what the post-modernists thought/think of him—if they think of him at all.

I like Andrew’s comments about a small group of readers, thinkers.

I subscribe to New Criterion. I usually skip the stuff on the arts—painting, music, drama (Theater?—and I think it is). But I don’t believe we—whatever brand of conservatism—should attack NC because it’s neo-con, or not Right enough. When our Islamic-leftist enemies come for us (pace Niemoler), it’ll be too late for intra-sectarian battles.

LA says:

Obviously, I totally disagree with Sam’s last point. If we were to make his stricture the general rule, half of what I’ve ever written would not have been written, since a major part of what I am about is the criticism of moder(ist) conservatism, an activity that I think is an indispensable prerequisite to the growth of a genuine traditionalist politics that can save our civilization, which neoconservatism cannot do.

By the same token, I don’t think Sam appreciates the extent to which modernism and neoconservatism, whatever their virtues, are a part of the crisis of our civilization.

John T. writes:

I don’t find it surprising that the Seagram Building evokes the reactions you describe in your recent posting. As an Architecture student attending the college founded by Mies van der Rohe, I have learned that the man was quite different from his contemporaries. Above all Mies was concerned with the Spiritual aspects of Architecture, and he looked upon his contributions to the built form as an extension of a Great Western Tradition in the art.

He admired the Architecture of Ancient Greece enormously, and like the Greeks, he was obsessed with proportion and expressing the true nature of a material. Thus the Seagram Building is the embodiment of what a steel skyscraper should be in both its detailing and its proportions.

Far from the frivolousness seen in Post-Modern Architecture, Mies was deeply concerned that even the smallest aspects of his buildings be in accordance with reason and beauty. Thus his famous phrase “God is in the details”.

Perhaps the difference is best illustrated in a reply Mies gave to a student who asked why he did not write books expounding architectural theories like other architects such as Le Corbusier, or Phillip Johnson. Mies replied: “If any one wants to know what I have to say, all they have to do is look at my buildings”. Since stated, architecture has only continued to be steeped in “Talkatecture” to a point where the art has lost its connection to the Western Tradition and therefore its soul.

Unfortunately, those who followed Mies never understood the depth of his work and hundreds of poor imitations were built across the country. This caused a rejection of modernism by the public that the architectural community is still dealing with today. Sadly, instead of returning to the understanding of our forefathers, architects are only crawling further into the abyss of Post-Modern thought.

Thanks, and please persist in your work.

LA writes:

I must qualify what I said in my old paper (which I had looked at today for the first time in many years) about the ending of Molly Bloom’s monologue. It is not certain that Molly’s imaginings are turning from Mulvey back to Bloom. My basis for saying that seems to have been that Bloom on Howth head had addressed Molly as a mountain flower, and then at the very end there is again a reference to a mountain flower. However, in Molly’s rememberings of Gibraltar she also speaks of a flower of the mountain, so in the final phrases of her monologue she could be referring to Mulvey as well as Bloom.

The real point is, it’s impossible to say, and this does not change my essential interpretation. The masculine pronoun switches effortlessly from one man to another, and all men are the same to Molly, “as well him as another.” So, in no sense is she choosing Bloom at the end. Besides, she had intercourse with Blazes Boylan in that same bed the previous afternoon, and Bloom has not had relations with her for 10 years. There is no coming together between husband and wife.

Also, in the closing pages of the previous chapter, with the question and answer format, as Bloom gets into bed with his sleeping wife, “recumbent with seed” (the seed of another man), he experiences “equanimity” at his disgusting marital situation, because Molly’s infidelities are not as bad as murder and treason, and because of (I write this from memory) “the nescience of matter, the indifference of the stars.” It’s a nihilist vision of a universe in which there is no morality. This was Joyce’s view, and the view he wanted to inculcate in his readers. Ulysses is a fountainhead of 20th century liberal relativism with its debased sense of existence, which liberals calls “humanity” and “progress.”

The people who sought to ban Ulysses made a big mistake in going after the dirty sexual content. It’s not the sexual content per se that is socially destructive in this book. It’s the denial of morality and human meaning. This book is the verbal equivalent of a terrorist bomb set off against our civilization.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 13, 2006 08:55 AM | Send

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