Some Questions about Modernism
This essay first appeared in Occident, from the University of California, Berkeley
no. viii, new series (Spring 1974). pp. 6-39.
PEPC edition 2006
We asked David Antin questions about his excellent essay on modernism in American poetry (Boundary-2, Fall 72). In responding, Antin has done more than review ideas in that essay. He has written a new essay on modernism: Considering the way it was written, this essay represents a new form of discursive art. The questions were inspired by the original essay, but, inevitably, they are external to its original order of thought; they must have been felt as both stimulating and harrassing. In any case, the result is a kind of meta-essay, sharply precise, natural in flow, that gives wide-ranging attention to the obsessions of modern art. Beginning with the special character of our feelings now in regard to some of its famous, initial examples, Antin proceeds to consider the essentially problematic achievement itself—in dance, literature, music, and painting—of major artists who define the era. Antin talks about their commitment to the elemental materials of their art and to those principles of representation wherein modern art discovers its mode or its way of meaning exactly what it is—Modern art. Antin discusses Eliot, Pound, Joyce, the difference between prose and poetry, the triviality of the novel since its invention by Bacon and Descartes, and he does an analysis of Gertrude Stein’s “prose” and the dynamics of collage. He does a good deal more, in historical reconsiderations of major artists and in the analysis of modern modes of thought, in supporting his general argument that the “essential property of modernism” is in the “radical definition of the medium, its legitimate operations and their scope.” It may occur to you, in reading Antin’s essay, that you always have believed the novel is dead; but it might then also occur to you that you probably believed it lived, once upon a time, and even flourished. For this sort of academical habituation to cliches of gross cultural effect, which probably describes most contemporary sensibility always, Antin’s meta-essay—a performance in critical and purgatorial art—offers a provocative corrective.
In your essay you refer to a “pathos” of modern art, “which is particular to itself. There is after all nothing pathetic about Baroque or Victorian Art.” Could you expand on that? The point seems clear enough when applied to Constructivism and Futurism, but surely they were the only modernist movements that contained a formal claim to perennial openness. It doesn’t seem so clear how it would apply to The Four Quartets, say, or the poems in Ezra Pound’s Personae.
Pathos isn’t a technical term, it’s a feeling. Suppose someone you knew—an older friend—that you’d been talking to on the telephone died a few months later and you received a letter from him written just before he died—maybe sent on by a relative—and you found that you could hardly understand it at all. You don’t have that kind of trouble with Milton or Browning. They were never close enough. Anything you hear from them that you can understand at all is a pure gain. What you never knew when it was alive will never go dead.
But this is a general condition, experienced again and again, in which some part of a vaguely sensed terrain that is the present is suddenly cut in two by an abrupt defining line that leaves a lot of older friends stranded on the other shore. Yet somehow it seemed that this shouldn’t have happened to the real “modernists” because, at least at the plane of their fundamental intentions, what they were after was a kind of universal openness. That they should appear arbitrary and freaky now seems somewhat surprising for artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian, Schoenberg and Varese, Laban and Martha Graham.
If you read something, say, by Martha Graham explaining how she started out to discover or invent a truly modern dance when she began teaching at the Eastman School in 1923, it appears at first sensible enough:
The first morning I went into class, I thought I won’t teach anything I know. I was through with character dancing. I wanted to begin, not with character or ideas, but with movement. So I started with the simplest—walking, running, skipping, leaping—and went on from there.
All of which is intelligible and typical modernism—the rejection of an arbitrary system of representation, in this case the cooch dance exoticism of Ruth St. Denis that was her immediate past—in favor of an exploration of dance as an art of movement immanent in the fundamental physical human acts of locomotion and gesture. At least it seems that way, until she goes on to say what she means in particular:
By correcting what looked false, I soon began creating. I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.
And then you realize that you didn’t understand what she was saying after all. What would a “false walk” be? or a “true one”? The two least likely attributes you could assign to movements are “true” and “false,” unless you have some kind of representational idea according to which a walk can become a kind of proposition asserting that it is “a liar running,” “a hypocrite skipping.” But then you realize she must have meant something else, because never in your entire experience of Graham dance have you ever seen anybody, her or her students or her imitators, involved in real (literal) walking, running, skipping or leaping. Everything you’ve ever seen in Graham-derived dance is expressivist in its intention, and all movement is honed and idealized along that emotive axis.
In Graham’s work, as in many other “modernists,” a universalist modern intention is swamped by arbitrary, period-locked romantic stereotypes. It turns out she wasn’t after the “significant gesture” but only a very special subset of “significant gesture,” the emotionally loaded gesture that is “fraught with meaning” and which is not “beautiful or fluid.” For all that, why shouldn’t modernist gesture be beautiful, nonbeautiful, fluid, jerky, fraught or facile or totally neutral? This bizarre particularity of commitment to expressivism in such modernists as Martha Graham and Kandinsky, or, at the other extreme, to a reductive elementarism and balance in Mondrian and the rest of the de Stijl group, makes their works much harder to understand than what seem to be their fundamental intentions, which sometimes makes us doubt whether we really understand their intentions.
Now this problem is a little less clear in the language arts, especially in English, because there are relatively few examples of thoroughly modernist work by Americans and Englishmen. Gertrude Stein is probably the only thoroughly modernist poet we had. Joyce is a Wagnerian soup, and, like Pound and Eliot, is so bogged down with English schoolbook “high cultural” baggage that you have to struggle to disentangle his modernism from the surrounding bric-a-brac. That’s why I don’t really understand the second part of your question. There’s nothing modern in Personae. At that time Pound was about as “modern” as Arthur B. Davies. Personae is a period piece full of fin de siecle language and poses, the work of an Anglicized schoolboy wearing Provencal, French, Roman and Chinese costumes and writing “verse.” Except for a few attempts at modernism in his Imagist and Vorticist guises, Pound doesn’t approach the modern until the Cantos. Personae is likeable because it’s so foolish, but it wasn’t modern at the time, even though Pound held certain modernist attitudes from the time of his involvement with Wyndham Lewis and Fenollosa around 1914.
The Quartets is another matter. The work belongs to the 30s, and it’s an excellent example of a late, hybrid modernist work. What I mean is this: the Quartets is modernist in its narrational structure. The work is a set of variations on a pair of related commonplaces that you can consider the motivic material, if you want to think of the work in terms of traditional (nonmodern) music. The pair of quotes from Heirokleitos that start it off say essentially that “the way up and the way down is the same” and “though there is a common truth (logos) most people act out of a private knowledge.” Taken together they could mean virtually anything, if you were concerned with Heirokleitos; but Eliot uses them as a pair of dialectically opposed commonsense observations—namely, that “the way up and the way down is the same way” but “not for anybody going anywhere on the staircase”, which is something like a double gag. These comically opposed propositions—carefully dislocated from any context provide the material—that is, their opposition provides the material for the variations. The variations themselves consist of the act of providing partial contexts for these two commonplaces by means of rhetorical shifts that constitute social-stylistic or literary stylistic and period environments. Which is essentially putting these platitudes through a series of rapid costume changes. These changes or variations are presented as a smooth but discontinuous sequence, if you are used to a poetry of conventional narration in which time and place and speaker are securely specified. If Eliot had numbered all the variations instead of numbering only larger sections, the poem might have looked a little less self-important, the essentially lightweight playfulness of’ the poetry might have been evident, and we might have avoided all the grave debates about what Eliot meant in the poem, and we could have dispensed with the Casebook on the Four Quartets, because it would have appeared quite clearly that the poem had no ideas at all, but merely played with different kinds of talk. But the excessive numbering would have interfered with the fast, elegant presentation and probably would have overworked the rather obvious musical analogy that Eliot had indicated sufficiently to suggest the poem was a typically modern “abstraction.” In fact, the work, with its rather smooth though sharp transitions, in which the edges of successive “pieces” are neatly dovetailed to each other, has a strongly unified overall surface appearance rather like the bland, middle 30s cubism of Arshile Gorky.
By now your reference to two streams of modernism, poetry running from Eliot and Auden up to Tate and the academic poets of the 50s, and the other proceeding from Pound and Williams to Olson, won’t puzzle many readers. Other discriminations and evaluations you make, might. I’m thinking of your references to Pound’s provincialism and particularly of your assertion about Gertrude Stein and John Cage that “both of them seem much more significant poets and minds than either Pound or Williams.”
Pound was a provincial in the sense that he was always building The Five Foot Shelf of Classics, he just kept shoving different books into it. But the most profound sense in which he was provincial was his facility for combining ideas that would have been mutually irreconcilable if he really understood their implications. Anyone who in 1914 could combine the notion that “all arts aspire to the condition of music” with the first proposition of Imagism, which advocated “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” would have had to be either a fool or a provincial. The first notion promotes total abstraction. Music envy is the mark of the abstractionist. Almost all of the people who discussed music from the point of view of the other arts and aspired to its condition spoke of music as “an arrangement of tones,” which is something like saying that a human being is an arrangement of proteins; but it sounded like a wonderful idea if you were advocating a nonrepresentational art. The Imagist proposition advocates total commitment to representation. Mallarmé might have subscribed to the first position in the 1880s and Stendhal to the second in the 1830s, and there’s no simple and sensible way of combining them. But Pound shows he’s not a fool by the ingeniously absurd way in which he manages to reconcile them. He asserts what is usually taken as the fundamental modernist axiom: that it is the obligation of a modernist art to define its possible operations as the manipulation of the elements of what is taken to be its uniquely distinctive medium. So it follows for Pound that “music is an arrangement of tones, painting is an arrangement of colors and forms on a flat surface, sculpture is an arrangement of volumes in three dimensional space, and poetry is an arrangement of images.” It doesn’t take much insight to observe that the kind of art you get from the fundamental axiom depends upon how you define the medium and its proper elements and operations. It is even easier to see that Pound has not placed the action of poetry on a structurally equivalent plane with music. Tones in music are distinctive and totally nonreferential—we would now probably say phonemic—while images are nothing if they are not referential or representational. This puts Pound in the position of advocating a modernist organization of quite traditionally representational linguistic elements for poetry while appearing to advocate much more radical possibilities for painting and sculpture and believing that he was a thoroughgoing modernist across the board. That’s what I mean when I say he’s provincial, his failure to understand the meaning of his commitments. But in terms of “modernism” he was too far from the action to know where the battle was, he was just standing in the way of the shrapnel. Gertrude Stein was our only pure modernist.
I say this because I think we can assert with some strong reason that the main issue of “modernism” between 1908 and 1914 was the struggle over the issues of representation, and that the art that was the most “advanced” in this struggle was not music but painting. In a sense music was hors de combat because rightly or wrongly it had long been offered as the paradigm of a nonrepresentational art. It’s true that musicologists like Arnold Schering and Gerhardt Frottscher were publishing work at that time that provided the groundwork for a very different and sophisticated way of discussing music as a linguistically representational art, but nobody that I know of in the struggle around abstraction was involved with these positions. What is ironical about the whole business is that the music most of the avant-garde abstractionists had in mind was the traditional music of the period between, say, the middle 17th century and the beginning of the 20th century, more often the period from 1700 to about 1880, and only instrumental music at that. What they were doing was offering the image of a thoroughly traditional and conventionalized musical system as the paradigm of language-like art, but an art conceived as a language without any semantics. You can still find this position in the writings of late and entrenched abstractionists like Levi-Strauss. But because this was so much taken for granted in music, music was not involved in the struggle for abstraction, which it was thought to have been born with. In fact modernism in music consisted essentially of a breakdown of the quasi-linguistic system by about 1880 with the collapse of tonality under the mounting pressures put upon it by the demands for psychological and dramatic representation. But painting had always been considered a representational art in the West, and the struggle over “adequacy of representation” in various manifestations runs through the whole 19th century. It’s a complicated history, made even more complicated by the general notion that the distinguishing virtue of a painter was “style” not “direct representation”; but the struggle over adequate representation was fundamental to the issue of French modernist painting throughout Realism and Impressionism. And to state the issue perhaps over concisely, the concentrated attack on the precise meaning of “adequacy of representation” by painting intelligences of the order of Manet, Degas and the rest of the Impressionists opened up a Pandora’s box of ambiguities in what had seemed like a fairly straightforward notion. It turned out that what was thought to be a unified thing, the visual image (“the impression”), was a complex combination of conceptual and perceptual elements that show up most clearly in the work of Picasso and Braque in the paintings of 1908-1912.
Those paintings draw most of their energy from the collision of conceptual and perceptual elements within what appears to be the fragile construct that we consider an image. These painters made a four-year career out of dramatic, comic, lyric and even expressive explorations of the syntactical and semantic constraints limiting pictorial recognizability. Sometimes only the attachment of a title was sufficient to allow a viewer to recognize the elliptical representations of parts of well known objects like guitars and people, which would otherwise have gone undetected, yet which, once recognized, seemed somehow adequate representations of some experience, like the simultaneous apperception of a man in a room and the city outside the window, several objects in the room, a piece of moulding over the door and a part of an obtruding chair. But the point of attack was upon the elements and arrangements that go to make up an image, not upon the arrangement of already constructed images.
Of all the writers in English only Gertrude Stein seems to have had a thorough understanding of how profoundly Cubism opened up the possibilities of representation with this analysis. But then she was the writer in English with the deepest interest in language, the only one with an interest in language as language. I know almost everybody will object to this, but I’ve never understood why anybody thought Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Stevens or Williams were innovators in language. Essentially all of their interest was concentrated at the level of rhetoric. The image, for example, as Pound conceived it was a psychological ensemble, “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”; but as he employed it, it was a rhetorical element rather than a linguistic one, or what could better be described as a presentational strategy mounted on the perfectly conventional English sentence. It really is not very different from the rhetorical figure Quintilian calls an image and warns lawyers and orators to avoid, because its detail is distracting and therefore more suited to the stage (“Who is that winding up his face like an old man with his feet wound up in wool?”). Eliot and Pound were much more involved with presentational and narrational strategies, the manipulation of sequences of pieces of discourse and their arrangement. Joyce comes the closest to an interest in language in his fascination with punning, which is an interest in arbitrary and often cross-linguistic homonymy. But Stein of all of them had a philosophical commitment to the problematic double system of language—the self ordering system and the pointing system—and from the beginning of her serious work she had encountered the peculiar conflict between the two, even in her early stories. She also had a thorough awareness—shared by Joyce more than any other of her English language contemporaries—of another fundamental structural ambiguity of language: that utterance is play before it is address or discourse or representation. And sometimes this mad jingling play can throw light on something in the world (“Sometimes Melanctha was so blue that she didn’t know what she was going to do”)—and sometimes swamp it in a grammatical or phonological ocean. But she was a writer with a profound representational commitment in all of its problematicalness, and she probed the subtlest distinctions of grammar for the most refined distinctions of meaning. There is probably nothing in the English language to compare with the seemingly infinite series of meaningful distinctions about living and aging and dying that Stein draws phrase by phrase for nearly twenty-one pages out of minute shifts in the aspect of the English verb in the litany that closes The Making of Americans. Coming with this refined grasp of the language as medium—and of language as medium—she was well prepared to understand the work of Picasso and Braque, who were embarked on a similar project in another medium and had in some ways made more progress than she had. It didn’t take her long to close the gap, and she was the only writer who did. Tender Buttons, which was written by 1913, is not derivative from painting, but it is the only language work that lives in the same time as Picasso’s Cubism. But Stein’s work was never adequately understood until fairly recently.
I’m not really sure why, though I think it was at least partly because of the genre problem, the question of what it was she was writing. You have to remember that at that time most of the American poetry avant-garde made a big thing of the distinction between “poetry” and “prose” and that Stein started out as a writer of narrative fiction, or at least she presented her early work in the context of the “story” and the “novel,” which were generally considered “prose” forms. But by 1908 and 1909 she had embarked on a career that could not be defined in terms of “fiction.” Three Lives may superficially resemble the story genre, and she evokes a deliberate comparison with Flaubert; but her three “stories” are much less stories than the pieces in Dubliners and much more language constructions. And if this is at all true for Three Lives, it became more and more true for The Making of Americans, and was quite clear in the portraits like Ada or “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” that what you had were language constructions not stories. Yet they were presented in a “prose” format—with capital letters beginning what look like sentences, periods closing them and periodic paragraphing. I’ve said it before, but I think it’s worth saying again: prose is a kind of concrete poetry with justified margins. It is essentially characterized by the conventions of printing and the images of grammar and logic and order to which they give rise. But whatever it looks like, a characteristic passage from “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” is poetry in any intelligent sense of the word:
There were some dark and heavy men there then. There were some who were not so heavy and some who were not so dark. Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene sat regularly with them. They sat regularly with the ones who were dark and heavy. They sat regularly with the ones who were not so dark. They sat regularly with the ones that were not so heavy. They sat with them regularly, sat with some of them. They went with them regularly, went with them. They were regular then, they were gay then, they were where they wanted to be then where it was gay to be then, they were regularly gay then….
This is a traditional phrase poetry in spite of the illusion of punctuation, with its seemingly orthodox commas and periods, that at times seem almost appropriate, but then become as irrelevant as flyspecks randomly distributed over a musical score. Stein’s language is as difficult to contain within the page punctuation conventions of “prose” as Beowulf or the Iliad, which were maddeningly punctuated even in scholarly editions. But these same scholarly editions are quite careful to present the line breaks that will assure you you are looking at “verse,” which is not the same thing as “poetry” but almost the same thing for most people. Still there’s no reason why Stein’s prose punctuation should fool a poet, even though the prose costume probably contributed to the mistaken expectations for a certain type of narrative presentation that were from then on usually disappointed. This disappointment may have led to occasional mockery by people like Sinclair Lewis of what otherwise seems like straightforward poetry, with its measured out and chained phrases, locked together by shared recurring words that are systematically placed and displaced in the slightly varying pitch curves of the different length phrases and sentences. In a profoundly traditional sense, this is a very elegant prosody; but it is a prosody immanent in English intonation, not the arbitrary conventions of meter. Still, the poetry of the portraits resembled sufficiently a poetry of incantations and litanies that, for a poet with as sensitive an ear and as generous sensibilities as Pound, was not really a problem. After all he recognized at least three different kinds of melopoeia, including the litany, and was willing to assume others as yet unknown to him (“…and with the subject never really out of my mind I don’t yet know half there is to know about melopoeia”). Pound may have been provincial, but he wasn’t really an academic; or if he was an academic, he was academic in the only sense that ever gave a positive meaning to the word. I don’t think the novelty of her work gave Williams any problems either but that’s where the sympathy for her work ended--with the Pound-Williams modernists. But even there the interest of her work was narrowly conceived, partly because these poets were surprisingly involved in the poetry/prose distinction, as most American poets seem to have been for the next fifty years. While the problem seems relatively trivial now with the 60s in back of us, it’s easy to see that the meaning of poetry itself seemed to be at stake in the question thrown at all modernist poetry: “what separates it from prose?” Generally the poets who got into the argument took one of two tacks. They either made problematic distinction between “poetry” and "prose”, like Pound, or else, like Eliot, they made an apparently banal distinction between “verse” and “prose” and as far as possible declined the gambit of what “poetry” was. But Eliot, who was assuming what looked like an antimodernist position in his criticism, could afford to do this more easily than Pound or Williams, self-declared modernists, who had an obligation to define the scope of operations and the unique medium of “poetry,” a term they were unwilling to surrender. The problem is an old one and the issues develop in the West along torturous lines filled with traps, sacrifices, tempo shifts and recoveries, all precipitated by the opening, which when handled by players of great skill on both sides of the question leads to no significant outcome because the insolubility of the problem is built into the opening. The basic idea out of which the question opens is what seems like a commonsense observation: that poetry as usually practiced is different from ordinary discourse; the next two moves are to identify all ordinary language use as ordinary discourse and then to identify ordinary discourse as “prose”; from there on the game is predetermined except for blunders. The point is that it’s worthwhile to question every single one of these assumptions. Even the first assumption, what is it? That poetry is different because it has a funny sound, a funny way of talking, and a funny way of thinking. Which is to say, it is distinguished by an arbitrary, conventional, overstructured phonological arrangement (if you like Jacobsonian formalism); and by eccentricities of syntax and eccentricities of semantic structure or mode of representation (figures of speech and figures of thought, if you like classical rhetorical notions). But “distinguished” from what? ordinary talk? It’s possible to attack the whole notion of “ordinary talk” and watch it crumble, and that’s my way, to assault the whole gambit; but Pound and Eliot as well, when he talks of poetry, take variants of the “Sublime Continuation,” articulated in slightly different ways by John Dennis, Vico, Bishop Lowth and finally Wordsworth: poetry is emotional speech (what Dennis called “a pathetickal and numerous Discourse”). Pound tracks both the musicality and the mode of representation to the emotional origins of poetry (“The Serious Artist,” 1913).
If I may say so, I think the emotion source is the most disastrous element of the Sublime theory, and it haunts most early 20th century modernism, but not quite as much as it haunts the whole of 20th century academicism. The reason for this is simply that the theory proposes to explain what is well known by what is less well known—the phonological and conceptual resources of language by the mysteries of physiology intersected by current events. The result is a pseudotheory rather than a theory. Probably Wordsworth was the experimental poet with the most refined mind and the most profound way of dealing with the problem. In the preface to the 1802 edition of the Lyrical Ballads he appears to decline formally the Prose/Poetry gambit: “…much confusion has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science”). What he actually does is respond to a more fundamental sense of the word prose, which you could call its etymological sense (“prose” from prose oratio, prosa from prorsus shortened from proversus = “straightforward,” therefore “prose” as “straightforward talk,” which is opposed by a deft folk etymology to versos, supposed from Latin vetere = “to turn” and therefore “turned talk.” But the difference for Wordsworth between the domain of poetry and the domain of science is rather more subtle than a distinction between the language of the emotions and the language of fact.
The objects of the Poet’s thoughts are everywhere, though the eyes and sense of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings.... If the labors of men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition and in the impressions we habitually receive, the Poet… will be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects ofthe Science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art, as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective Sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.” (Preface of 1802)
So that Wordsworth claims for poetry the phenomenological domain of all human experience, and if he had followed this claim back into his consideration of language he could have avoided the commitment to a language arising from “emotion” for a commitment to a language appropriate to illuminate the whole domain of human experience, whatever that happened to turn out to be. So it might have turned out for Wordsworth, the modernist, that even in theory matter of fact and matter of poetry, like language of fact and language of poetry had a very great overlap. But Wordsworth was less driven by melomania than Pound, and he certainly was capable of much more “matter of fact” poetry than Pound, if that commonsense term means very much once it is really pushed. But a theory of poetry is worth very little if it can’t deal with Wordsworth’s “flatness” or Lawrence’s, or Stein’s, when it appears. And any poetics that can’t throw light on Williams’ wheelbarrow poem or "The White Hunter" in Tender Buttons isn’t worth the name.
The White Hunter
A white hunter is nearly crazy
One of your principal themes is that modernist poetry is a poetry of collage. How would you compare that thesis with Kenner’s that the Cantos (and I assume he would say The Waste Land) use patterned energies, work like vortices?
“Vortex” is really a Futurist term—in spite of Wyndham Lewis and Pound’s expressed distaste for Futurism. There are at least two works of Balla’s from the period between 1911 and 1913 that have the word “vortex” in the title, the earliest, I think, a work called Vortex + Spatial Forces of Glass that dates somewhere after 1911. Balla uses the word in pretty much the same way that Pound uses it—to express the sense of an energy center. If I understand Kenner correctly, what he is calling attention to is a particular aspect of modernist collage structures as they exist in poetry—what you could call the “motivation” for moving from one “piece” to another “piece” in a particular work. For Pound, in particular, the “moves” appear to be motivated by an idea of maintaining a sufficient energy level instead of by some compositional notion of appropriate arrangement.
I would agree with Kenner that this idea of energy informs the Cantos and probably the work of many other poets, especially Olson; but I don’t see how you can say much about it unless you can talk about what provides the “energy” of a given “piece” of material, and I think that’s hard to discuss without a more fundamental discussion of the collage principle as a whole, which I thought was much better understood than it seems to be. After writing the piece in Boundary-2 I found a lot of people asking me to spell out what I meant by “collage” when I said that “for better or worse ‘modern’ poetry in English has been committed to a principle of collage from the outset.” I suppose the term is better understood in the “visual arts,” because it derives from the practice of pasting pieces of paper or other extraneous material into a painting in the manner of Picasso and Braque at about 1912. The early practice usually consisted of the introduction of a piece of wallpaper or some such thing in substitution for a painted depiction of it, but once the process of introducing these foreign, fragmentary readymade materials got underway, the whole idea was quickly generalized by the Futurists, Arp and Schwitters, the Surrealists, and even Picasso himself to a principle of construction based on the juxtaposition of objects, object fragments and materials drawn from the most-disparate contexts. The result was a work that no longer yielded an iconic representation, even of a fractured sort, though bristling with significations.
This work tended to occupy a rather odd semiological space. It was clearly remote from the conventional notions of representation, yet it was so filled with reference that it couldn’t be classed with the abstract, or rather nonobjective, work of Mondrian, Malevich or Van Doesburg. What I mean is that the work operated in a middle space between representation on the one hand and the kind of constructional game of Mondrian on the other; and its operation oscillated between the two possibilities of representational reference and compositional game, depending upon whether you stressed the nature of the materials and the contexts from which they were drawn, or the arrangement of the elements. To a great extent traditional ideas of arrangement, of balance or equivocal balance, so dominated the visual arts of the early 20th century that the strange indexical or referential properties of the collages of an artist like Schwitters seem to be somewhat submerged in artful arrangement and design. Yet in Schwitters and Arp, as in Picasso, Braque and Gris, there are always the peculiar semantic structures built out of the metonymic functions of the objects and materials employed. I think it was Roman Jacobson who was the first to point to the function of metonymy in the work of the Cubists and Futurists, and his essay on metonymy and metaphor in Fundamentals of Language is one of the most suggestive discussions of the subject. Unfortunately he isn’t sufficiently precise in his analysis of either metonymy or metaphor to allow his ideas to be used without further development.
What Jacobson suggests is that there are two fundamental operations through which language meaning is generated: one is a process of combination or contextualization, the other is a process of selection from a set of substitutes. He calls the contextualization operation “metonymy,” the operation of the substitution principle “metaphor”; and he sees the normal processes of language arising from the interaction of the two. The whole idea is something of an extension of the notions of classical rhetoric, where “metonymy” is a figure in which an object is evoked by naming an object closely related to it, the way a “lock” might be evoked by a “key,” a “horse” by a “cart” or a “spoon” by a “fork.” Jacobson calls the relationship between these elements, in view of their closeness, a relationship of contiguity. Classically, metaphor is the figure where the name of one thing can be used to evoke another that is not necessarily directly related to it but in some sense equivalent—”swan” for “poet,” “fire” for “passion.” Jacobson extends this idea very radically to refer to what in linguistics you would call the substitution set—which is to say the set of possible alternates from which the particular selected sign is considered to be chosen. What Jacobson means by this is that if you speak of “a red wine” there is a substitution set of only three possible color terms “red,” “white,” and “rose” (pink). The meaning of any of these three color terms is defined by the space it occupies between the other two, and the ranges of the variables red, white and pink are defined in the following way: any dark wine is “red,” any essentially translucent wine is “white,” except for the translucent pink ones, which are “rose.” The range of the variables is defined by the metaphoric function which partitions the meanings among the three variables. But the substitution set itself, or the scope of the metaphoric function is defined by the metonymic function of the context “wine,” which shrinks the number of color terms in the language to three. Whether it’s a good thing to use the term “metaphor” in this way is an interesting question; but the idea of metonymy seems more urgently in need of refinement. The idea of “contiguity” doesn’t seem sufficient to explain what happens when the notion of “color” is situated in the context of “wine.” The category of “color” in the environment “wine” is reduced from something like a 10-valued system to a three-valued one, and the category “color” has been modified to the point where its three values only accidentally indicate chromatic characteristics and primarily indicate wine “type.” But beyond this, the context of “color” characterization modifies the category “wine” to the point where you would be very surprised if a waiter told you they had “a nice house red” and he brought you a bottle of port, however fine it happened to be. Apparently there is a discourse context that is not “present” in the sense that Jacobson supposes when he speaks of the contiguity function of metonymy. The sort of people who speak about “red wine” do not apparently mean sweet wines or doctored wines. This is social knowledge provided by experience with such people and their conversations, but the cue to the applicability of the social context is provided by the juxtaposition of the color attribute and the wine. For this reason it may be better to suppose that “contexts” are evoked by the metonymic function of the elements presented, just as a potential “substitution set” is evoked by the metaphorical function of the elements presented, and that the juxtaposition simultaneously or sequentially of these presented elements generates cues which will combine to define or annul possible contexts within which the substitution set will be delimited. Consequently a “word” will in its metonymic capacity evoke a “neighborhood” of related “words.” “Forks” will evoke “knives,” “spoons,” “food,” “tables,” “ashtrays,” “air conditioning,” and “The Light Cavalry Overture” or anything else through a chain of proximal connections that is not blocked by other contexts or lack of energy in the interpreter.
Now this metonymic function is characteristic of the elements of collage, which are normally presented in such a way as to free at least some of these possible contexts that would generate representative association trains like the “spoon” “food” “tables”… “muzak” series. The reason the collage elements are more or less free is that the strategy of collage involves suppression of the ordering signs that would specify the “stronger logical relations” among the presented elements. By “stronger logical relations” I mean relations of implication, entailment, negation, subordination and so on. Among logical relations that may still be present are relations of similarity, equivalence, identity, their negative forms, dissimilarity, nonequivalence, nonidentity, and some kind of image of concatenation, grouping or association. These “weaker” logical relations allow a greater degree of uncertainty of interpretation or, more specifically, more degrees of freedom in the reading of the sign-objects and their ensemble relations.
It’s easy to see the way this works if you merely compare two early 1920s Schwitters collages that are illustrated in William Seitz’s book Assemblage (pp. 54-55). A Painting with Stars consists of an arrangement of tattered newspaper clippings, pieces of colored paper, a checker, a disc tied or lassoed by a piece of twine stretched out across the surface of the collage, a rectangular piece of wire screen, apparently associated with or attached to a piece of wood stripping that might be part of its “frame,” on which you can see a fragment of a printed word RASTI.... The collage is emphatically designed in the obvious painterly sense of recurrent contrast of curve and straight line, and is filled with staccato variations of form—rectangle-trapezoid-triangle-circle—and contrasts between internal diagonals and strict verticals and horizontals of the framing edge. All of this rhythmic variation is right out of the handbook of pure painting. But the materials are something else. The newspaper clippings approximately translated read:
OPEN LETTER E
THE CORRUPTI HUNGERS
In one sense the newspaper clippings are all members of the same class and are, in this sense, dominated by the relation of equivalence, but they add specific though ambiguous literary and political information of “corruption,” “hunger,” “controversy,” “empire,” and some kind of “bloodiness,” which in Schwitters’ elegant fragmentation of the gothic printed morpheme suggests also “revolution” because of the breaking up of blutig in such a way that the loops of the initial b and the seemingly terminal g appear as possible o’s yielding the German morpheme olutio as a result of the tearing process applied to the pasted paper, which consequently comes to look like a poster partially torn off a wall. Two kinds of “representation” have crept back into the collage: a literary-poetic one (in the referential nature of the language pieces) and a visual one (in the suggestion of the poster-covered walls), both of which combine contextually to evoke 1920 Germany. In this sense the work is truly intermedial, operating with several kinds of literary genre and several kinds of visual construction. For example, it makes use of a range of contrasts of “color type” that has both a compositional (arrangement or design) significance and semantic significance—”painted color”—”printed color”—”inherent color” (the color of materials like wood, wire) and “physical transformation color” (resulting from aging, wear, soiling). Each of these color types can evoke at least one metonymic context, and these contexts interact with each other and with the verbal literary material, which also evokes several contexts. All of this is very evident, but what is not evident is the specific interaction that takes place, or, more precisely, there is a built-in and wide-ranging variability of reading situated between broad but well defined limits. This collage also presents a good, though not especially important, example of the manner in which even an image of some kind of logical subordination can be introduced into a collage by positioning. Schwitters has placed the fragment of wire screening and the piece of wood stripping in such a way that they seem to share an edge and, though not clearly physically connected, they appear to be part of a single fabricated object—some sort of commercial screen. I say “appear to be” because the relationship is somewhat equivocal, which allows you to speculate upon whether you have one object or two materials, with the result that the metonymic contexts flicker back and forth between function and usage readings and material semantics. In this case it is not an especially important speculation, but there are apparently a considerable number of subtle ways of creating images of conceptual linkage through analogy with real or suggested physical linkages. So it happens that in the same collage, the piece of twine is looped around the paper disc that appears to hover above it; and this linkage suggests by analogy of position and connection a balloon with its fanciful association train that connects it to “child” or “innocence” or “festivity” or whatever, or even more fancifully to an image of the “moon lassoed by a string,” all of this in the violent atmosphere of hunger, empire and blood will combine to provide a tenuous image of a children’s party in a charnel house.
Yet there is no clear support for these suggestions. I suppose you could try to “corroborate” them by looking for support for them or for refutations from the notebooks, letters, the Schwitters poems or the gossip of his surviving friends. And most likely you will come to no definite conclusion, except that these association trains are too weakly motivated to insist on. But the point is that because of the nature of collage weakly motivated readings flicker about the more strongly motivated ones, contributing to the “atmosphere” in which none are entirely obliterated. The play of metonymy in collage is not as limited as under the conditions of conventional pictorial representation or the conditions of that kind of specially pointed conventional language use that people misleadingly think of as “normal discourse.”
You can find complex collage structures of this sort, where it is necessary to literally read the verbal material, even among the works of Picasso, though formalist art critics have persistently ignored the most relevant verbal jokes and anecdotes in their preference for what seem to them more important design or structural concerns. The times are changing. One of the most important features of “postmodernism” is the death of “formalism” in criticism and its associated “abstraction” in art, both of which are being replaced with much more complex notions of reference and representation. Still, there are clearly collages that are quite easily contained within formalist concerns and in a sense justify that kind of analysis. The Schwitters Merzbau of 1921 (Seitz, p. 55) and many of the later Schwitters works of the 30s use the “pieces” of things pretty much like small plaques of color for traditional esthetic arrangements based on academic notions of color harmony and notions of compositional equilibria. The metonymic function is still there, but it is quite submerged. Here it is restricted to a contrast between types of materials, (wire, wood, cardboard, paper), or mode of fabrication (lathe turned and knurled, sawed and planed, wire drawn and woven, etc.). Associations lead to nothing except a pleasant and bland sense of variation, which doesn’t encourage you to follow them up.
Probably this is one of the main reasons that 60s modernism dispensed with all notions of “composition, ” because of the deadly way in which “arrangement ” smothers any interest in the presented object in favor of a banal pleasure based on recurrence phenomena or else treats it to the red carpet presentation of a “little king.” This hostility to arrangement is what led many of us to prefer the readymades, the Dada objects, and much more radical unitary pieces of certain Minimalist sculptors like Morris and Judd. It led some artists into a hostility to collage, because they saw collage in terms of its multiplicity of pieces. They reasoned quite correctly that if there are pieces there is arrangement, and all arrangements, no matter how “random,” are apprehended as some kind of order, because randomness is conceivable but not perceivable. Personally I share this distaste for ideas of arrangement and I don’t think anyone can be very interested in doing collage work now, mainly because of the predictability of its effect. Still I think it’s possible to identify the underlying logic of collage with a strategy of presentation rather than its habit of multiplicity of parts. So I tend to see Duchamp’s readymades and Arman’s “accumulations” as falling within the limiting conditions of collage. Certainly you can imagine as limiting cases the unconditional presentation of a single thing or the presentation of the same thing over and over and over and over again. Tonal music would be no less tonal music if you only played one note, or if you played one note over and over again with the mechanical regularity of a player piano. Arman’s “accumulation” objects are a lot more interesting in detail because the triviality of arrangement allows you to focus upon the precise differences seen among the general equivalence of the multiple cameras or paint tubes or whatever.
Interestingly enough the early collage poems like The Waste Land or the Cantos are quite free of the esthetics of arrangement. Either because of the weakness of formal arrangement as an experienced feature of long language works not subordinated to some single idea or because the poets were fortunately deficient in a banal aptitude. One of the things that makes The Waste Land difficult to apprehend as a compositionally designed structure is that you are usually unclear about what the part to part relations are. So if you’re reasonably sensible you will merely discard any attempt at a coherent overall reading, because it would be a viola tion of the poem’s character. Both the Cantos and The Waste Land are of course filled with recurrences of motif of some sort, but the structural relation between the “similar” parts is not sufficiently clear either to yield a convincing reading or to be taken as clearcut formal repetition device. What you’ve got in The Waste Land is a kind of progress that approaches a narration or, even more, suggests the combination of several narration strands like some cutup Griffith movie; while the Cantos approach narrative because they are made up of pieces sewn one to the other by some kind of forward moving, smooth but not obvious association train that could end anywhere or not at all.
I suppose it was only the apparently traditionalist cultural pr o grams of these poets that concealed the direct relation to modernist collage, but it may also have been the conventional literary materials out of which they constructed their pieces—the snatches of obvious dialogue, the sermonizing, poeticized description, all taken from well known genres that distracted attention from the presentational format of collage.
“Modernism and Postmodernism” is partly concerned with distinguishing modernisms which are usually thought of as cognate—for example, Eliot’s from Pound’s. Since Eliot and Pound are usually associated with Joyce and the modernist prose movement your argument clearly would have consequences there too. Briefly what account would you make of the moderns in prose as related to the poets?
Why do you ask about “prose?” It’s like saying to me “You’ve been discussing modernist developments in mathematics and have developed a notion of modernist mathematical styles, how would you apply these notions of modernism to accounting?” The only way I can even approach the question is by supposing you don’t really mean “prose” writers: and I’m sure you don’t. Because if I said the only modernist prose writer is Wittgenstein, you’d say “That’s not what I mean.” And of course, it isn’t what you mean. Which is a relief for me, because I don’t really think that the notion of prose exists on the same plane as the notion of poetry. As far as I’m concerned there is the language art. That’s poetry. All of it. There are then genres within it. Like narration. And there’s a subform of narration. Called fiction. And a subform of that called “the novel,” a narrational form with an enveloping commitment to a certain notion of “reality,” constructed out of commonsense intuitions about character and objects, and social and psychological events, and probability. That’s not “prose.” The idea of “prose” is only an additional prop for a novel. “Prose” is the name for a kind of notational style. It’s a way of making language look responsible. You’ve got justified margins, capital letters to begin graphemic strings which, when they are concluded by periods, are called sentences, indented sentences that mark off blocks of sentences that you call paragraphs. This notational apparatus is intended to add probity to that wildly irresponsible, occasionally illuminating and usually playful system called language. Novels may be written in “prose;” but in the beginning no books were written in prose, they were printed in prose, because “prose” conveys an illusion of a commonsensical logical order. It’s as appropriate to the novel as ketchup to a hamburger, which is to say, it’s not very good but the hamburger wouldn’t go far without it. This is not to say that once you start to notate talk into “prose” that it doesn’t exert a coercive force upon what you say and how you say it. As with all notations it has conventions, writing rules and the like, that will prevent you from saying a lot of things, or at least make it difficult to get those things notated clearly, or in their full energy and perspicuity. It will also encourage you to talk in such a way as to make it easier for you to use the notation. So the conventions of printing and the “prose” notation that developed out of it encouraged the use of only certain kinds of language and discouraged other kinds in the books that were printed in “prose.” That’s why the last chapter of Ulysses and a lot of other parts of the book are not in “prose.” Because Joyce was finally getting to the stage-Irish blathering poetry he wanted to make and getting loose from that dreadful Dublin novel, even if he had to use every piece of fin de siecle mythical garbage to help him get free. Modernist? Here is this absurd, nearly blind, Irish scat poet living in Paris, Trieste, Zurich, putting the most irrelevant, arbitrary high cultural fragments into an Irish soap opera. He’s a modernist in the sense that he exploits the phonological weakspot of the language, the pun—Finnegans Wake operates in an amazing way like Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus translations. At any given place in the Wake you can convert nearly any string of words into a more or less acceptable utterance, of some more or less bizarre type, with a degree of relevance to a kind of progressive line of thought in a stage-Irish accent. This fundamental cantus firmus of Irish talk is not always the most obvious reading you would get from the graphemic notation Joyce employs. Like a cantus firmus in a motet, this talk is occasionally subordinated to other voices making outlandish and marginally related puns in a variety of other languages, if you can imagine these other languages largely in terms of spelling or pronounced in a somewhat odd way that will allow the stage-Irish English to share a phonological string with something like German for a brief moment—something which is nearly impossible if you pay close attention over any length of utterance. Joyce is modernist in his language commitments somewhat in the way Gertrude Stein is modernist. That is, Joyce breaks the long narrative down to a flickering representation that flares up and dies down fitfully as the language slips between talk and a Dada playfulness. So counting them, you’ve got Gertrude Stein and Joyce. Later maybe there’s Beckett. The rest of them are writing “novels,” and one novel is more like another than it’s like anything else at all. It may be interesting for some other reason, but there’s no room to be “modern” in it because the essential property of “modernism” is the application of the fundamental axiom—the radical definition of the medium, its legitimate operations and their scope. The idea of applying the fundamental axiom of modernism to a subgenre like the novel is too trivial to consider.
Frank Kermode is typical of critics who would say that only one Modernist Revolution has occurred (and who would agree with you that it’s fast receding) but who would deny that any real “post -modernism” has evolved. How would you respond to that position, and particularly to his assertion in Continuities that “neo modernists tend to make the mistake they often scold other people for, which is to attribute too much importance to the art of the period between the Renaissance and Modernism. By constantly alluding to this as a norm they despise, they are stealthy classicists, as the paleomodernists, who constantly alluded to Byzantize and archaic art, were stealthy romantics.”
I’d like to agree with Kermode. I’d also like to disagree with Kermode. But how do you get him to sit still long enough? If he wasn’t a licensed academic, with a long string of academic publi cations behind him, I’d say he was a collage artist. What he has to say about modernism is a jumble of insights, prejudices, information and misinformation thrown together on the few occasions he looks over his 19th-century booktops. He’s never really discussed modernism, he’s merely responded to a seemingly random set of occasions on which aspects of what look like modernism appear to have been proposed to him and suggested such a dis cussion. But supposing that the collage of reviews in Continuities were an essay and it had a point of view, that point of view, toward which the piece drifts as toward some consolatory asymptote, would be that what is now being presented as modern is not new, but merely an extension of early twentieth-century modernism, and that this earlier modernism is merely an extension of romanticism. To this he adds the suggestion that whatever this nucleus of attitudes and ideas may be, we would do well to look for it in the 17th century, or further back, if we were well enough educated, and that the better part of its intelligence and energies would be located in the earlier periods. Is this true? The only way to find out is to stop begging these questions long enough to ask them, in detail as well as in lofty and somewhat empty gener alities. Do, for example, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, Robert Morris “attribute too much importance to the art of the period between the Renaissance and Modernism….as a norm they despise?” The statement is ridiculous. So much for the details.
As for the general theory, if you like you can construct a single tradition of Modernism going back to the end of the 16th century, characterized by the serious questioning of traditional representations of reality. You could push it back further, if you want to include the assault on Ciceronian rhetoric. If you don’t want to go to that extreme and if you’re prepared to discount the fact that their questioning largely concerned the representation of physical reality rather than humanly experienced reality, you could situate your point of origin in Galileo and Gilbert. But if that seems pushing it a little, it’s easy to pin the whole “movement” on Bacon and Descartes, the twin theorists of experimental modernism. You could argue that Bacon proposed the form of the experimental novel (all novels were experimental then) in the Advancement of Learning (Book II, Ch. xxii, sections viii—xiv) and that Descartes had accordingly written one in the combined work that the Discourse on Method, the Dioptrics, the Meteors, and the Geometry truly constitute. In your support you could argue that Descartes had described the Discourse (within the Discourse and therefore reflexively) as a novel:
…For my design here is not to teach a method that each ought to follow to direct his reason well, but only to show in what manner I have attempted to direct my own… So I offer this work as no more than a tale (une histoire) or a fable, if you prefer, in which you may find several examples you can imitate and others, perhaps, you may have no reason to follow, and I hope it will be useful to some, offensive to none, and that all will take pleasure in my openness.
According to plan, Descartes then invents himself as an exem plary experimental man, beset by a snarl of traditional knowledge in his struggle to find the truth (“for I have always had an extreme desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false, to see my actions clearly and to proceed with assurance in this life“), which he naturally accomplishes. Now there is a great value in considering the Discourse and its subsequent chapters as a novel—first because it is very much like many other novels, War and Peace, say, and it is certainly more intelligent; and then “Descartes” is such a wonderful character, a little bizarre perhaps—according to the story he invents analytic geometry as a convenience, because he finds it easier to remember lines by numbers and numbers by lines—but he’s not any more bizarre than Raskolnikov or Watt. And in some ways he’s more “realistic” than most novel heroes, in that he is one of the very few who does a significant amount of real work that you get to see—the scientific discourses. So Descartes’ novel is not only the first, but the best. Moreover in constructing his novel this way Descartes follows Bacon’s experimental way (the “way of probation”), where knowledge “is delivered as a thread to be spun on ... delivered and intimated in the same method wherein it was invented.” This is Bacon’s plan for a knowledge that is “induced” rather than represented, and it is part of the attack on the traditional mode of representation (the “magistral way”), which depends upon “a contract of error between the deli verer and the receiver.” Specifically what this does is to shift from a system of representation to a system of exemplification, in which the method of presentation, referred to the materials presented, becomes a model from which meaning is inferred. as in Arp’s description of a poem by Kandinsky:
A poem by Goethe teaches the reader, in a poetical way, that death and transformation are the inclusive condition of man. Kandinsky, on the contrary places the reader before an image of dying and transforming words, before a series of dying and transforming words…
An art of representation gives way to an art of “exemplary” presentation, and Bacon and Descartes father the process pieces, not only of Kandinsky and Arp, but John Cage. All this may be true, but it doesn’t explain enough of what we really want to know. What is Modernism? Is early 20th-century Modernism the same as or different from post-Second World War Modernism? Is it over, and is what is now going on sufficiently different to deserve the name “postmodernism”?
First, I would like to suggest that Modernism is definable in terms of a single fundamental axiom: that it is necessary to begin from a radical act of definition or redefinition of the domain of the elements and the operations of the art or of art itself. I would like to suggest that this axiom is both necessary and sufficient to define modernism in the grand sense that goes deep into certain aspects of Romanticism—and if you restate this axiom more generally to determine the domain of human knowledge, its relation to truth (the object of know ledge), the appropriate methods for discovering it, representing it and communicating it, you arrive at the modernism of Bacon and Descartes as you pass backwards through Kant. A specially restricted form of the axiom is the fundamental proposition of early 20th-century Modernism: that it is necessary for art or an art to define its medium, its elements and operations in terms of what is distinctively peculiar to it as determined from a fundamental reading of its history.
I think it is clear that the relation of poetry to truth, which is a question of domain, not of medium, haunts all great Romantic art, which had rejected the more modest role of existing “to divert and to amuse.” Poets like Wordsworth launched a powerful claim to truth through a complicated poetic argument that adjusted mind to nature in the medium of the image, while poets like Keats split “truth” from “value” and lined up poetry on the side of “value,” giving this new domain of truthless value the name Imagination. Though I suppose in a rigorously logical poem like Lamia. Keats rides bravely into the cul-de-sac of his own strategies—that the truth of an illusion is an illusion of truth. The struggle over domain is a fundamental issue also in the so-called Realist painting of Courbet, Manet, and perhaps a good deal more of Impressionism than is usually admitted. But in early 20th-century Modernism, the question of domain tended to be fought over the specific issue of medium, mainly because the question of what an art should do became a question of what it could do while still retaining the character of art. You can think of this struggle as in some ways similar to a great research paradigm, to borrow a term from the history of science, in which artists offer hypothetical definitions of art or of their art in terms of specific works or bodies of work that constitute examples or counterexamples, which may often challenge, seriously or comically, the artists own or other artists’ definitions. From about the end of the 1880s the defining axiom gets applied to the question of whether representation is the “medium” through which art “communicates” or “expresses” whatever it is that a deep reading of the tradition of art suggests it should communicate or express. So following a long line of Symbolist and Art Nouveau argument Kandinsky in 1911 offered in counter examples the proposition that representation was not the necessary medium for art, because the disposition of colors, forms, and lines was sufficient for all the tasks of painting. If you accept, as Kandinsky did, a particular Romantic definition of domain—that art is concerned with the expression or communication of emotional psychic states of the “artist-seismograph” who responds to the spiritual perturbations of nature—there’s something dazzling about what he achieves in his early work: the success of Romantic landscape painting minus the picture. If you go the route of Cubism you question the meaning of representation as the medium, which is to say, you examine precisely the notion, hardly ever honored in fact, that the medium of painting is a representation of a visual image by analyzing the visual image under conditions not so specially favorable to coherency as the Impressionist mists or sun-dazzled atmospheres, and you watch the image splinter into its component parts of perception, apperception, and conceptual information of various sorts and levels.
Now while this analogy of a research program has considerable value for articulating the underlying unity of what may look superficially like very different attitudes in early Modern art, it tends to obscure the fact that these propositions and counter- propositions function in art somewhat differently than in science. In one sense they seem to resemble more closely a research program in technology rather than science, because if you advance an absurd hypothesis and come up with a valuable invention yo u’ve succeeded. Only scientists care whether or not Land’s explanations of color introjection are correct as long as he can produce a color transparency from black and white negatives with monochromatic light. But even this kind of successful “invention” isn’t necessary, because if an a rtist advances a totally absurd hypothesis that yields no significant consequences, we may love it just for the sheer arrogance of the asse rt ion. Surely we love the poetry of John Ashbery or of Robert Duncan because of the magnitude of its preposterousness. Still, I wouldn’t underestimate the underlying logicality and relevance of some of the most absurd seeming Dada p roposals. Arp describes the seriousness with which the Dadas undertook their program of redefinition.
At Zurich, disinterested as we were in the slaughterhouses of the world war, we gave ourselves to the fine arts. While the cannon rumbled in the distance we pasted, recited, versified, we sang with all our soul. We sought an elementary art, which, we thought, would save men from the curious madness of these times. We aspired to a new order which might restore the balance between heaven and hell
Arp’s elementarist concerns were specifically related to the definition of the “medium.”
From 1915 to 1920 I wrote my Cloud Pump poems. In these poems I tore apart sentences, words, syllables.
And while it’s easy in the typically vague manner of academic criticism to refer this back to Rimbaud’s Alchemy of the Word, the fact is that Rimbaud’s experiments with language structure never approached what Arp describes. Arp himself did not carry out his own experimental intentions in as full a way as he suggests. One reason for this is that he tended to accept a Romantic notion of domain, as he defines it, not too far from Blake, and this commitment to particular sorts of Romantic results tended to deprive the work of its full possible range. The Cloud Pump poems like many Dada pieces are often simple playful variations on Romantic commonplaces, minus a few minor grammatical selectional constraints on the distribution of nouns, which Arp distributes and redistributes in a series of musical improvisations, of which “Kunigundula” is as good an example as any:
the unsuspecting sky bears the inscription kunigundula
the sky trills like a polished weathercock
the cotton dolls ride their stone ships through the
sand of the clouds
the church towers polish their feet with leathern
freedom leads motion to the clotheslines
the ammonites and dragons pledge themselves to saw
the feet off motion
motion pumps itself a cellar full of larks
the leathern cocks bear sawed off feet into the clouds
the trilling noblewomen ride dragons through the polished
the towers are of leather
the cocks of freedom are unsuspecting and therefore
stuff the weather in their sacks
the sack of motion is a leathern ship
. . . . . . . . . . . .
And so it goes on musically, pleasantly and freely; but to say of this work as Arp does “I tried to break down language into atoms, in order to approach the creative” is a kind of esthetic overkill. Dada poetry is in many cases a pure pleasure, the pleasure of utterance moving from representation to the sheer play of the language system in the mouth—which is surely even more deeply rooted than the use of language for communication or representation. But this play of categories almost never reaches in early modern work the sustained power and mysterious elegance of Gomringer’s Book of Hours or Jackson Maclow’s Pronouns of which I offer the 40 th Dance as a small sample:
Many begin by getting insects
Then many make thunder though taking pigs somewhere, & many give a simple form to a bridge, While coming against something or fearing things.
A little later, after making glass boil, & having political material get in, Many, while being in flight,
Then many have or seem to have serious holes & many question many,
Many make payments to many,
& many seem to put examples up.
Finally many quietly chalk a strange tall bottle.
Yet Dada poetry can be brilliant as Tzara often demonstrates
preamble = sardanapalus one = valise
woman = women
pants = water three
if = moustache
cane = perhaps
after = decipher
irritating = emerald
vice = vise
october = periscope
which I find similar to but more dazzling than Eliot’s celebrated
fire + rose = 1
because Tzara doesn’t depend upon the tedious body of ecclesiastical cliche for the play of his metonymy. Still, it is probably valuable to consider Eliot a Dada poet himself, as Harold Rosenberg in one of his most lucid moments suggested. Anyone who could identify the spiritual and cultural resources of Europe with the Anglican Church and royalism has thrown in his lot with Dada. Probably Eliot’s strong connections with Dada humor and experimentalism would have been a good deal more obvious by now if a fair proportion of urban Jewish intellectuals had not been convinced that the decline of Christianity and the discontinuation of Latin in high school meant the sky was falling down. Perhaps the main difference between the Dada poets and the Eliot/Pound modernists was essentially a difference of anxiety levels. As Tzara put it
Is poetry necessary? I know that those who write most
violently against it unconsciously desire to endow it
with a comfortable perfection, and are working
on this project right now;—they call this the hygienic future.
They contemplate the annihilation (always imminent) of
art. At this point they desire more artistic art.
Hygiene becomes purity oGodoGod.
Must we cease to believe in words? Since when have they
Expressed the opposite of what the organ emitting them
Thinks wants and desires to think?
Here is the great secret:
The thought is made in the mouth.
I still consider myself very charming.
But early modernism didn’t really get a chance to play itself out in a single continuous development for a number of reasons. One was that the early modernists were often incapable of carrying out their own propositions, because of their own inevitable and often unconscious attachment to their immediate past. Kandinsky was a very good painter, but nobody in his right mind would say that his paintings rely on the direct force of color and form. They rely on a kind of cryptic anecdotalism, playing games with equilibrium and disequilibrium and manipulating a conceptual “tempo” based on shifts of brightness and size and so on. Nobody ever got to see a painting as a sheer wall of color until the Clyfford Stills and Barney Newmans of the early 50s. Nobody ever got to see pure drawing (without anecdote) till Pollock. Similarly nobody began to see the full strength of collage modernism in poetry until Olson. Gertrude Stein may have been richer, but the full range of her work was only beginning to appear with the publication of her works by Yale in the 50s . What’s more, her work came to be appreciated in the climate of the 60s, when many younger poets had arrived by different routes at similar concerns. Her partial obscurity was a consequence of the generally academicizing climate that came over almost all the arts in the late 20s. Almost all modernism was obscured by some trivialized version of the earlier work. In painting this consisted of a degenerate form of synthetic Cubism that could be applied mindlessly to either industrial decoration or political propaganda, or else a kind of equally flaccid geometricism that aspired to surfaces of Mondrian and de Stijl. Modernism in poetry was smothered by a pathetic and nostalgic traditionalism, represented in America by the Southern poets who centered around the Sewanee and Kenyon Review. It was only by the end of the Second World War that artists in all the arts were able to force open the doors that had closed. Once they got the doors open all of the issues suggested by the early 20th-century modernists were explored and led to inventions that the early masters had never dreamed of. Somewhere in the late 50s the most interesting of the new modernists simply abandoned the Romantic domain assumptions of psychological motivation or personal expression supposed to underlie construction. Or more precisely, perhaps it abandoned them. For it simply disappeared like the wraith that it had been. Artists as different as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Kaprow, Jasper Johns, Jackson Maclow, and many others simply co nstructed their work from a method, the sole value of which was that it provided a mechanism for getting from one place to another in construction. This happened in Europe as well as America and is as clearly seen in Stockhousen and Gomringer and the European kinetic and optical artists as it is among the Americans.
The point is that modernism—to play itself all the way out had to step away from the Romantic domain definition in order to determine to what degree the application of the fundamental axiom for defining the medium was necessary and sufficient in itself. This resulted in a new version of the fundamental axiom: it is necessary to define the medium of action, the elements that are acted upon and the operations that are performed upon them to make a work or a body of works. The defining act had become a mechanism for generating work or, to use the somewhat more appropriate computer terminology, a program. Clearly this version of the axiom does not require distinctive uniqueness for the medium because the medium is not permanent. It is not “the medium” of art or of an art, it is “a medium”—that is, a temporary arena, which may be used several times or once and abandoned without regrets. This was the modernist position developed from the middle 50s and it played itself out quite brilliantly with many successes, with Cage’s poems (called Lectures), with the systems poet ry of Maclow and Gomringer, with the painting of Stella, of Lichtenstein, the sculpture of Morris, Judd and Lewitt, Serra, some Judson dance. There were plenty of successes, and there were also successes that appeared to be obtained in the same way and were in reality quite different—the paintings of Warhol, the dance of Yvonne Rainer, Smithson’s sculpture, Kaproro’s events. But I don’t want to provide a catalog. The main thing was that by about 1967 or 1968 it was becoming clear that the whole issue of domain would have to be raised once again, because what separated “success” of a program from “failure” appeared to be based upon something more profound than programming skill or ingenuity could explain. My own sense of it was that the choice of a mechanism that “worked” usually carried with it domain impli cations of a very different sort than the ones that “failed.” Now the notion of a work “failing” or “succeeding” in the period between the middle 50s and the middle 60s was not only unpopular, it was really quite irrelevant, because we were surrounded by such an abundance of exciting works. In a sense, that period is over, and Modernism in that sense of the word is concluded. By which I don’t mean to imply that artists of any intelligence will go back to some imaginary premodern condition which is impossible. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that there isn’t significant work going on now. There is. But all of it seems to be beginning from reconsiderations of the domain question—somewhere at the place at which the Romantics blew it—at the level of the question of art’s claim to truth and what that would mean. The Romantics were insufficiently prepared to make that claim. What I see as a postmodern condition is the reopening of that question in much more complex terms than we have ever seen before.
PEPC Digital Edition
© 2006 David Antin
PEPC thanks Todd
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