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Newly Elastic Approaches to Modernism

Alex Niven and Stephen Ross

Romantic ModernsAlexandra Harris
Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination
from Virginia Woolf to John Piper

Thames and Hudson, 2010
320 Pages
ISBN 978-0500251713

A glance at the state of newly emergent humanities criticism in the early 2010s does not inspire confidence. An emphasis on professionalism, careerism, and micro-specialisation on esoteric topics has given rise to a sterile, bureaucratic climate in which much is published and sold, but little is read or applied (and even less is actually discussed). Quantity triumphs easily over quality. Meanwhile, the decline of both humane literary criticism and cultural theory—those onetime bitter enemies—as living intellectual traditions has created a flat, featureless critical topography. Successful academics in the 21st century have no particular allegiances to identifiable schools of opinion; as vulnerable short-term-contract professionals, they cannot afford to. Competitive business-style networking stands in for academic community; hyper-diligence replaces meaningful thought. Lifestyle, not learning, drives an entire generation of scholars.

Where does Romantic Moderns—the first full-length study by the young academic Alexandra Harris—fit into this picture? For the Guardian’s literary editor Claire Armitstead, Harris’s study of 1930s and ‘40s art provides a new and affirmative answer to critics of academia’s worth and utility. “Alexandra Harris’s groundbreaking book”, Armitstead commented at the tail-end of last year, “is a reminder of how important higher education is to literature, and to culture as a whole”. Against the backdrop of an epochal crisis in British university education, in which some much-needed soul-searching about the social function of arts research is taking place, Armitstead appeared to suggest that Romantic Moderns might help us to recapture a sense of what academia is for.

Is Armitstead right? Does Harris’s book suggest that the current crop of young scholars might have it in them to provide a new justification for cultural criticism in these troubled times? Unfortunately, the answer of these reviewers must be a resounding “no”. If Romantic Moderns is representative of higher education at the start of the 2010s, then frankly, we should all be seriously worried. This is a muddled, exacerbating book that demonstrates just how difficult defending academia will be in the years to come.

Romantic Moderns is founded on a revisionary premise. “If we think of the canonical work of the 1930s”, Harris states in her prologue, we think of it as the “age of Auden”:

… its literary culture was one of socialist politics, borderlands, ports and industrial ruins. There was also, though, a culture fascinated by the decline of aristocracy and the symbolism of the country estate, interested in the future of village churches, and drawn to the Romantic tradition in the arts.

Against the grain of a critical orthodoxy that has apparently been conjured out of thin air (who is the “we” that thinks in this reductive way?), Harris sets out to provide a polemical corrective. We should not only think of the ‘30s and ‘40s as a modernist epoch of iconoclasm, experimentation, and social activism. In fact, nostalgia and a love of things past played a significant role too:

Writers and painters were drawn to the crowded, detailed, old-fashioned and whimsical, gathering souvenirs from an old country that might not survive…There is a story to be told about this passionate, exuberant return to tradition.

For Claire Armitstead, this narrative of a return to tradition may be groundbreaking, but anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the writing and art of the early 20th century is unlikely to share her and Harris’s belief that something new is being stated here. In fact, modernism, and especially the canonical “high modernism” of the late 1910s and 1920s, has frequently been seen as an epitome of past-worshiping traditionalism. Reeling off obvious examples like Picasso’s neo-primitivism, or Le Corbusier’s rapturous treatment of Notre-Dame de Paris in Towards a New Architecture (1927), or Proust’s search for lost time, or Joyce’s use of Homeric myth in Ulysses (1922) should not be necessary to show that even at its most daring and innovative, modernism was always visibly obsessed with the past. As such, the notion of a later return to tradition in the ‘30s is a puzzling one. Perhaps the extreme wing of futurism is in Harris’s mind when she states of the modernism against which she sets her “Romantic” thesis that its “form of liberty involved the abolition of roots”. One would be interested to know what she makes of Ezra Pound’s “Canto I”, which initiates one of the most influential works of literary modernism with a poetic reworking of Odysseus’s journey into the underworld to interrogate the dead. For Pound, as for many of his artistic coevals, history and roots were indispensible parts of the modernist project.

But then Pound does not get a mention in Romantic Moderns. Perhaps his American nationality disqualified him from inclusion in this astonishingly insular, Anglocentric study, yet the English and British omissions are similarly baffling. What of Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, Dorothy Richardson, or David Jones, none of whom are explicitly mentioned even once? For many of us, these are among the names that come to mind when one mentions England and modern literature in the interwar years. Critical surveys must be selective: they cannot be comprehensive about absolutely everything, and this one in particular is a boldly multidisciplinary project. But the elision of a figure like the writer-painter Lewis, outside a very cursory reference to vorticism, in a study purporting to reassess the literature and art of this period is bewildering. What is being expunged from the records here, and what is it being replaced with? When a book about the 1930s elides the international modernism of Pound, Lewis, and Ford, but finds time for Cecil Beaton and a multi-page discussion of Lark Rise to Candleford, you begin to wonder what on earth is going on.

This is not to insist on rehashing the same old modernist narratives that have more or less been in circulation since the 50s. New perspectives, revivals, and critical reevaluations are always welcome and necessary. But if most of the major players of that narrative have been escorted off stage, we cannot help asking: who has taken their place? A lengthy passage underscoring the pastoral emphasis of interwar art (another polemical theme) might stand as a dramatis personae for Romantic Moderns:

If a Domesday Book had been compiled in the late 1930s, recording the inhabitants of villages and outlying farms, it would include most of the major figures of English art and letters: the Woolfs in Rodmell, the Pipers at Fawley Bottom Farmhouse, the Betjemans under the White Horse at Uffington, Gerald Lord Berners in nearby Faringdon, E.M. Forster in Abinger, Stanley Spencer in Cookham, Vita Sackville-West in Kent, Edith Olivier in Wilton, Cecil Beaton at Ashcombe, Evelyn Waugh at Stinchcombe in Gloucestershire, Edward Bawden in Great Bardfield, Eric and Tirzah Ravilious in nearby Castle Hedingham … It seems counter-intuitive to describe English villages as centres for the avant-garde … but [they] certainly cannot be left out of the account.

If a Domesday-style census were indeed imaginable after an Industrial Revolution which Harris at times appears to be pretending never happened, then of course it would have to include “most of the major figures of English art and letters”; in fact, it would have to include all of them, city-dwellers and residents of northern England included. But Harris uses the Domesday analogy not for its connotations of exhaustive inclusiveness, but because it evokes a very specific set of values embodied by a very specific social group. Harris’s 1930s “avant-garde” flies in the face of all known definitions of the term to designate a collection of fashionable dilettantes and pseudo-aristocrats living out fairytale commuters’ existences, a class of people we have already heard described as “old-fashioned and whimsical”, intent on “gathering souvenirs from an old country that might not survive”.

Figures like Waugh, Betjeman, and Beaton have always, quite rightly, been viewed as romantic reactionaries with a patrician disdain for modernism. What are they doing here in a book founded on the notion that the art of the period was both romantic and modern? Aren’t many of these examples merely romantic, late-imperial nostalgists, as people have always assumed? In a year of resurgent Toryism and revived popularity for the British monarchy, this attempt to paint these notoriously unsubtle ancien régime sympathizers as the forgotten heroes of English letters is worryingly apt.

The problem with Harris’s book is not its documentary scope; in fact, it’s a handy, if dizzying, encyclopedia of interwar British art and culture, handsomely produced and filled with beautiful colour plates. The problem is its strong whiff of revisionism, its eagerness to stage an intervention in a critical discourse of modernism long biased against the kind of easy traditionalism which the book champions. It is a profoundly odd intervention, not least because of its drastically flattened-out account of high modernism itself as an urbane, futurist, amnesiac phenomenon, bent on occluding the past and foisting pure forms and Spartan living on the public. The trouble begins with the first sentence of the jacket flap: “England has had a bad press from the Modernist disciples of a shiny, high-speed future.” From the start, then, modernism has been reduced to a composite caricature of Marinetti, Le Corbusier, and Mondrian (with perfunctory glances at Picasso and Stein). By contrast, the reactionary tendencies of so many interwar British artists and cultural luminaries appear bathed in the golden retrospective light of trendy contemporary localism. The jacket flap provides an eloquent résumé of this position:

In the 1930s and 1940s, artists and writers explored what it meant to be alive at that moment, and in England. Eclectically, passionately, wittily, they showed that ‘the modern’ need not be at war with the past…Through all their work runs a celebration of locality and often of the mischievous English climate. But most powerful of all is their fascination with finding—or imagining—possible homes.

In this model of British modernism, even T.S. Eliot will become a back-to-the-land acolyte. “In T.S. Eliot, we find the poet as farmer”, Harris states. Another memorably banal phrase resorts to scarcely intelligible upper-middle-class patois to describe the dichotomy at the heart of the book’s argument as “the question of straight lines versus twiddles”. But best of all: “Betjeman’s ‘year of facing both ways’ exemplified the divided allegiances of a whole Janus-faced decade, looking out on both curlicues and voids.”

Simply put, Romantic Moderns whitewashes the sense of modernist “crisis”, replacing it with a stubbornly pastoralist, na√Øve nationalism—instead of telling an alternate history of late modernism’s overlooked and misrepresented practitioners (which in any case would be welcome) it simply de-fangs the era’s more aggressive, volatile elements such as Eliot and Woolf by arrogating them into a canon presided over by Betjeman, Waugh, Piper, and the Sitwells. What does not sit well is the sense put forward that the more “experimental” modernists somehow got things wrong with their abstraction, radical disjuncture, and meddling with temporal continuity—or at least that contemporary commentators have gotten things wrong by focusing so much attention on these issues, to the detriment of the “romantic moderns”. What does not sit well is the sense that what was really needed of avant-garde art in the interwar period of political turmoil was a concerted, faintly moralistic national heritage movement.

This moralism comes through perhaps most strongly in the book’s insistence that we adopt a more generous, “elastic” approach to modernist studies. At the end of the first chapter, the author rounds off a discussion of John Piper by marveling at “an unusually elastic idea of modernity” emanating from his work. More contentiously, the author declares in the Afterword that

university courses on ‘Modernist Literature’ are now frequently elastic enough to include Elizabeth Bowen and Evelyn Waugh, while recent critical writing on canonical modernists like Eliot and Woolf has turned our attention to their investment in ideas of national tradition and local culture.

Finally, the book concludes with John Piper’s 1937 observation that “the tradition, once more, has to stretch.” Again, here we have that unnerving and irritating whiff of revisionism, propounding a miraculously cohesive fantasy version of the ’30s and ’40s (the same period, let us not forget, that Djuna Barnes published Nightwood under Eliot’s editorial care, Auden moved to America, Samuel Beckett came on the scene, and Pound made his infamous Rome radio broadcasts).

Last year, the publication of two books—Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened To Modernism? and Tom McCarthy’s novel C—breathed new life into UK discussions of “experimental” modernism. For better or worse, Josipovici articulated a forceful, if at times ornery, vision of modernism as a long-unfolding tendency defined as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities.” The book was outspokenly critical of the contemporary British novel after the lights of McEwan, Amis, and co. and of the cultural climate which exalts it. In the final chapter, Josipovici sums it all up:

Modernism has its friends over here [in England] but they are what the art historian T.J. Clark has called ‘false friends’, that is, those who defend a version of Modernism that is at once crude and superficial and therefore make it even more difficult to grasp what it truly is.

It is true that a serious discussion needs to take place about where and how academia is talking to the public. But what is equally certain is that this conversation must not take place in the crude, lifestyle-oriented terms delineated in the false friend that is Romantic Moderns. This is a book that succeeds in taming one of the most energetic and ideologically parlous periods in the history of European art so that it acquires the aspect of a quaint bourgeois era full of country walks, antiquarianism, gardening, and stately home restoration projects. This vision of what cultural criticism should be is bound to appeal to a certain kind of readership, but this says more about a much deeper malaise in British culture than it does about modernism itself.

Alex Niven [1] and Stephen Ross [2] are reading for DPhils in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. They are senior editors at the Oxonian Review.