27 February, 2012Issue 18.4LiteratureWriters

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The Territory of Modernism

Joe Kennedy

BritishAlexandra Harris
Virginia Woolf
Thames & Hudson, 2011
191 pages
ISBN 978-0500515921


One strand of the pugnacious satire of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel The Map and the Territory has gone largely unremarked upon by reviewers. For some time now, the cartoon villain of contemporary French letters has drolly eulogised the insipid surfaces—the all-in resorts, the one-stop hypermarkets, the airport bars, and motorway cafés—of late capitalist modernity, offering them up as the bearers of an authenticity which far exceeds that of the back-to-the-land alternative lifestyles frequently presented as antidotes to supposedly superficial consumerism. In The Map and the Territory, the present-day fad for the terroir, which is to say the sense of place found in “Old France”, is depicted as absurd: why, Houellebecq wonders, would anyone wish to rear their own hens or make their own clothes when eggs and underwear are available in Monoprix and Carrefour? Given the price structures in the new marketplace of principles, isn’t the fashion for all things organic and artisanal less a worthy reclamation of some kind of existential autonomy than a reinforcement of middle-class hegemony masquerading as moral logic?

That newspaper critics have failed to laugh with Houellebecq on these points, or even acknowledge that he’s making them, is telling. Broadsheets from all sides of the (mainstream) political spectrum have played a crucial part in this land-grab for authenticity and ethical pre-eminence, with a number of prominent, and often formerly radical, journalists becoming heavily invested in an English terroir. In fact, the presentation of food and craft as new loci of politics has often seemed motivated by the guilt experienced by veterans of the libertarian left over their mid-life accession to middle-class respectability.

A younger generation of critics, radicalised by the financial crisis but trapped on the wrong side of an employment bottleneck, may well hold the key to exposing the pseudo-political nature of the new pastoral; and such a thought must provoke dread in those who have espoused its worth. This anxiety goes some way to explaining the applause, disproportionate to its scholarly achievements, which greeted Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns in 2010. Mired in generalisation and dusted only lightly with argument, this work asserted the peculiar claim that England, by which Harris nearly always meant southern England, more or less abandoned the universal aspirations of international modernism in the mid-1930s (the period, lest we forget, in which Britain’s first surrealist exhibition was held) in favour of a more vernacular version. From this perspective, the romantic (evasively defined by Harris) resurfaced as a humanist response to the dead-end of modernism, which Romantic Moderns conflated inaccurately with pure abstraction and an ideologically driven obliteration of the specificities of terroir.

This was music to the ears of those who wanted to give farmers’ markets and rural gastropubs a modicum of intellectual clout. In an inadvertently hilarious review, possibly the most calamitously amusing assessment of an academic work ever committed to print, Kathryn Hughes, a long-time champion of the middlebrow, proclaimed that Harris had proved that “while high modernism hung out in smoky jazz bars, romantic modernism tended to pile on the jumpers and sit round the kitchen table, scoffing a delicious stew composed of ingredients foraged from the hedgerows.” Notwithstanding the fact that her equation between aesthetic achievement and social and comestible preference was extremely fuzzy, Hughes’s write-up brimmed with an antipathy toward high modernist radicalism, giving one the curious impression that she believed all Beckett, Mondrian, and Webern ever really wanted was to abolish vegetation and Mrs Beeton. Another reviewer, The Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin, made this paranoia more explicit, evoking the anarchists of Conrad’s The Secret Agent in an unprovoked attack upon “junior critics” who have “pompously opined on [neo-romanticism’s] humanism and provincialism in contrast with those thrilling avant-gardists sur le continong.”

With friends that embarrassing, Harris barely needs enemies. Such passive-aggressive reviews betrayed the way in which the critical duties of the literary supplements have increasingly become indexed to the function of the modern broadsheet as an arbiter elegentiae for the discerning middle classes. It’s now all too common to see novels, collections of poetry, and exhibitions being praised or dismissed in terms not dissimilar to those used to discuss a dining experience. Whether or not she intended to—and I suspect that, if pressed, she’d have no great desire to reduce artworks she manifestly loves to mere lifestyle choices—Harris has played a role in the annexing of cultural criticism to more general preoccupations with the good life. Her new book on Virginia Woolf, the rushed feel of which renders it even less durable in critical terms than its predecessor, does nothing to dispel the sense that its author is still in thrall to the approval of those “senior critics” under whose watch this drift has occurred.

Harris belongs to a generation of thinkers who have arguably been coerced into exhibiting a deferential attitude. For example, many who studied for postgraduate degrees in the first decade of the 21st century seemed to internalise the mantra that the hard intellectual work (of, for example, the theory wars) was done, and that their research would only add confirmatory footnotes to the ideas of their immediate forebears. In this spirit, Harris’s writing on Woolf is coy rather than assertive, and doesn’t so much enter a debate as suggest that it doesn’t really see the need for one:

Every reading of Woolf will vary in its emphases; in Woolf’s phrase ‘the accent falls differently from of old’. My own accents here are provisional, and I expect in future I shall want to move them.

In other words, this is a book which seems to feel that all the major chords have been struck already. Harris cites a number of game-changing, politically savvy studies of Woolf, including those by Rachel Bowlby and Laura Marcus, but falls back herself on a caveat some of us have doubtless crossed out in red pen while marking undergraduate essays. At a stage so early it debilitates the entire project, it becomes clear that this is criticism manqué, ginger about committing itself to a point and reticent when it comes to staking its own claims to political or theoretical territory.

Such a realisation leaves us with the problem of what niche the book is supposed to fill. It might, for example, be a biography (although, by its own admission, it leans rather heavily on Hermione Lee’s more comprehensive work when it comes to Woolf’s life); it might be a “study” in the quaintest sense of that word. Likewise, it’s rather difficult to tell who it’s for. At times, it presents itself as a work for those initiated into the sometimes invigorating, often dull world of Woolf criticism, but it seems afraid to lose the potential market of those whose familiarity with the author of Mrs Dalloway consists of an in-flight viewing of The Hours. Harris tries to cover for this lack of definition by hedging her bets, stating her desire for the work to be at once “a first port of call for those new to Woolf and […] an enticement to read more.” This is all well and good, and a number of critical biographies have pulled this off successfully. However, introductory studies are duty-bound to provide some kind of summary of the material they seek to open paths into; Harris, by contrast, often throws down comparatively obscure details about the novels without setting them in a narrative context. All too frequently, this gives her efforts at exposition the feel of an unruly, dilettante outburst more worthy of To the Lighthouse’s Charles Tansley than of the meticulous Woolf herself.

The main position of this work appears to be that, although a modernist, Woolf was deeply attached to middle-class, specifically tastefully agrarian middle-class, life, and that her work was just as much about family, furniture, and terroir as it was about formal experimentation. One might nod in agreement with this, even though it’s basically a moot point: it was by far the minority of modernist artists who genuinely desired to purge their work of social particularity (even Kafka, Beckett, and Robbe-Grillet’s abstractions fail to do away with a certain social embeddedness). However, the real problem with this book is that Harris is quite simply not equipped with the critical apparatus to describe precisely how Woolf’s work is “experimental”, something she has to do to flesh out the “modern” part of her Romantic Moderns-derived thesis.

Most trained literary critics would find elucidating some basic ideas about Woolf’s formal imagination as easy as a trained structural engineer would find describing the principles which allow a suspension bridge to work. After all, Woolf’s capacity to understand novelistic shape was at least equal to that of Kafka and Faulkner, and played as important a part as those authors in the development of the radical experiments in fictional structure which came after the Second World War. In trying to evoke this technical prowess, however, the writing almost always flops onto a crash-mat of unearned, often swiftly-abandoned metaphors: Between the Acts, we’re told, is “restlessly, acrobatically experimental” (this surely requires more elaboration) while The Waves is apparently “devoted to the undoing […] of labels” (the copy-edit should surely have replaced “undoing” with “unpeeling”). Even a novel presenting as intense an aesthetic experience as To the Lighthouse can’t draw forth revelations beyond the detail that it served Woolf as “a portrait of her parents” in middle-age. What remains is a series of underdeveloped biographical details and vague, twee parodies of critical insight.

In essence, this is an extension of a previous work which was highly successful because of its zeitgeist-sensitive celebration of terroir. What is acknowledged in neither this book nor Romantic Moderns is that there are important critical battles to be fought at the moment, not least about the way in which the English pastoral and the British romantic tradition in general are being co-opted by a worldview which seeks to depoliticise and to consolidate its own gains. For some time now, young intellectuals in Britain and further afield have found themselves driven toward whimsicality because they’ve been told that the real struggles are complete. Some, like Harris, have managed to acclimatise to this, satisfying themselves with bien-pensant eco-criticism or, in cases such as hers, more or less unadulterated nostalgia. It seems inevitable, not to mention highly desirable, that this state of affairs will be contested with increasing energy in the coming years. Once it becomes clear that there are still a multitude of critical conflicts to be fought, works like this might come to be seen as period pieces characterised by the quaintness they so fervently admire.

Joe Kennedy received his PhD from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2009. Since then, he has held a lecturing fellowship at UEA, worked in adult education, and written for a number of publications.