STARTED A NEW NOTEBOOK the other day with thoughts on the Realism chapter. Planning to bounce off of the paper I will give (and the papers I will hear) at Alternative Modernisms in November by emphasising the failure of modernism–also looking at Josipovici in this connection. (Ofc Josipovici doesn’t it see the failure as belonging to modernism, but rather to British (English?) literary culture.)
What do I mean by “the failure of modernism”? I mean that modernist writing has failed to displace the realist paradigm well-established in the English (and French) novel by the late 19th century, and still in evidence in most “literary” fiction today.
Was that ever the aspiration of modernist writers? Yes and no. Virginia Woolf adopts a notably normative posture in “Modern Fiction” and related essays, implying that what are at stake here are better and worse ways to write.
At the same time, the pronounced tendency of modernists to operate in coteries might bespeak indifference to mass appeal, unless the coterie were intended, like a Leninist cell, to become a vehicle for the imposition of a new aesthetic on the majority. Perhaps Ezra Pound’s self-conscious adoption of Marinetti’s avant-garde tactics with the Imagist and Voriticst movements is an example of this sort of thinking.
But when Pound’s erstwhile collaborator T. S. Eliot turned to writing drama, he did so because he wanted to reach a broader audience than he did with his poetry—but with a zeal for moral rather than aesthetic reform. Just when these ambitions formed is an interesting biographical question, given Pound’s efforts on Eliot’s behalf to publish “The Waste Land” in Vanity Fair, and the fact that Eliot turned to drama immediately after “The Waste Land,” with the abortive Sweeney Agonistes.
In the event, Eliot accomplished this transition to being a writer with some degree of popular appeal (if having his plays produced in the West End counts as such) by discarding modernism. And generally speaking, where modernism’s formal innovations have impacted on post-Second World War English-language prose, they have tended to do so in the form of some variation on the realist paradigm, which basically remains intact. For all the plaudits attracted by work animated by an ongoing, uncompromising modernist impulse, something like realism nonethelss seems to have won the day.
What that “something like” comprises is really a matter for a separate discussion, but it is the substance of the critical work of James Wood, for instance. Wood (like Auerbach?) contends that there is a moral imperative for realism. I am interested in the antecedents to that view that can be found during the modernist period itself, principally in the work of Lukács, who likewise seems to view realism as a moral imperative, but based on a very differet set of moral committments to Wood’s. (Perhaps Lukács would also object to the language of “moral”–as opposed to “political”–committment.)
Hence my interest in relitigating the Mann/Kafka debate, if we can call it that: Lukács’s argument that modernism privileges the subjective experience of alienation over the objective, material conditions that cause it continues to resonate. But, there is a sense in which–and this may reconcile, to some degree, say, Eliot’s moral revanchism with his aesthetic radicalism–realism is only weakly normative. What I mean by this is that the moral imperative of realism is fidelity to the real, to the world as it is rather than as it should be. Modernism, then, might afford a writer more direct means to address the normative groundings of our forms of life.