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"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cool Hand Luke: What Louis Menand Gets Right – and Not So Right -- about Eliot & Modernism

I’ve written about Luke Menand here before and my problem, if it even is one, with his compelling brand of intellectual history. Just to be clear here: I came away from my experience as his teaching assistant for “Art & Thought in the Cold War” at Harvard with nothing but admiration. He is a brilliant lecturer, a consummate professional, and despite what appears to be at first a slightly distant, somewhat awkward, reserve, stemming entirely, I think, from an intense shyness, a decent, down to earth guy.

My frustration with the way he often frames his accounts of cultural history is inseparable from my fascination with the appeal of his style. As David Bromwich notes, somewhat snarkily, in his review of American Studies, once Menand covers something, it stays covered. Case closed. Bromwich is vexed, though, and he can’t be alone, in wondering what it is, exactly, that Menand stands for in any of his summary pronouncements. It’s less a matter of evading a position, then an aversion to taking positions at all. He’s like the Cheshire cat of intellectual history, a sly smile fading out over the scene of writing.

The success of that writing hinges on appealing to a reader’s craving for being in the know. Menand satisfies this craving with a carefully qualified performance of knowingness. But its often achieved more through rhetorical strategies than analytical persuasion. The fascination is frustrating – how does he do what he does? Where is that shaky line drawn, exactly?

In his new review of T.S. Eliot’s two-volume letters Menand draws on his earlier account of how Eliot invented himself. That book was about Eliot’s self-fashioning as a modernist. Indeed, self-fashioning is the thread that runs through many Menand essays. Such an approach provides a bright hook but I suspect Menand’s interest in it – whether writing of Holmes and James, Kerouac and MacDonald, or Friedan and Warhol – runs deeper than that. It’s not just that such a framing of literary and cultural history lines up with his pragmatist approach: things turn out the way they do because people are the way they are. There’s something autobiographical, or autotelic, to it as well. It takes a self-fashioner to know one.

What Menand gets right about Eliot is his centrality for the New Critics and the evolution of the modern English Dept. What annoys me about this is the reductiveness of such an explanation, as though modernism came about because Eliot had a bad case of the yips. Marked by his characteristic cannyness, his seductive sense of giving the reader the inside scoop, he somewhat naively follows the Hugh Kenner model – modernism was hatched on the spot by the valiant Men of 1914 (Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Lewis). I ate this up the first time I read The Pound Era, when I was 20. But there’s no room in this superhero origin story for Woolf, Richardson, HD, Moore, Stein, Loy, Cather, Williams, Hughes, or Stevens. Lawrence is slightingly alluded to in his clever (and pragmatic) riff on modernism as a turn inward and below the waist.

If this protest seems excessive, try to imagine this: a Menand essay (or one by the Salinger-idolizing Adam Gopnik -- Salinger? Really? But then The New Yorker is nothing if not self-congratulatory) of equal gravity and full-dress staging on the correspondence of William Carlos Williams. Right.

Menand is terrific at assessing the relation of the individual talent to the tradition of institutional history; not so good at detailing the fine grain of modernism as it actually happened. Granted, it’s a review of TSE’s letters – not a grand overview of a moment. That said, the bias of the piece is to collapse the moment into Eliot’s hollow soul. To reduce modernism to the Men of 1914 is rather like claiming that postmodernist poetry in America sprang from Lowell’s Life Studies, without mentioning Olson, Duncan, Levertov, Creeley, Ginsberg, and Baraka.

Reading The New Yorker piece alongside Michael Levenson’s excellent new book, Modernism, offers a useful counterpoint. Levenson, taking the wider range of reference that a book-length study allows, places Eliot’s prewar poetry alongside Blaise Cendrars. The value of such a comparison is that it rejects “the clarity of the contrast,” as he puts it, inviting us to “recognize the sheer spread of experiment” that marked this moment. But of course Levenson, a distinguished
scholar, is writing for a different audience.

This is where Menand as scholar hews a bit too closely to The New Yorker’s house style and its commitment to entertain. It’s a style that he’s both ably critiqued and exemplified. Scholarship and journalism are uneasy bedfellows, and the need to produce popularizing accounts of complex historical and aesthetic moments often leads a writer to lean too much toward his audience. I suspect Menand doesn’t so much acknowledge as wish to abolish the distinction. This is part of his success and charm as a writer. The Metaphysical Club, for instance, though dutifully more circumspect in tone, nevertheless reads like a very very long New Yorker article. (And much like a New Yorker piece, it all boils down to a simple comforting explanation: the Civil War produced American modernism out of the pragmatist’s aversion to totalizing theories). That is one of the reasons for its enormous appeal – the book is a sheer pleasure to read. And it's what I love about Menand’s work: he sees no reason why smart writing about difficult subjects shouldn’t also be pleasurable.

(Hence this slightly left-handed homage: as Ben Jonson translates Quintillian on writing: "First, seek to emulate the best").

In one of his essays – on Trilling, I think – he remarks that the process of becoming a writer is rooted in pleasure; it arises from wanting to learn how to make sentences the way someone like Trilling does. It’s a model I subscribe to myself. It’s something every writer feels, I think. Yet in treating such a significant figure as Eliot, the pleasure tends to get in the way of the history; the need to score the witty apercu overshadows the entanglements and ambiguities of modernism. T.S. Eliot didn’t invent modernism so much as suffer it.

Menand reproduces without comment Pound's famously flabbergasted remark to Harriet Monroe about Eliot having modernized himself. But did he really? This trucking in moth-balled myth does modernist studies no good. As Menand himself notes, "Prufrock" could not have been written without the example of Jule LaForgue (nor, before him, Baudelaire). So much for autogenesis.

Nor did Eliot, as Menand’s very good book on him puts it, even discover modernism. Rather, he made himself into a modernist through a combination of a violent, that is, original style, and some shrewd (if now rather hollow) obiter dicta which captivated the imagination and practice of a generation of scholars in search of a method. That it spread like crabgrass is no achievement on Eliot’s part, even if he did little to discourage it. Here’s where I could do with a little less pragmatist bottom-lining and a little more Frankfurt-style dialectics.

Menand is very good at locating Eliot’s poetics as both a symptom and a critique of modernity. And he’s certainly right, and funny, about the way the Notes to “The Waste Land” have been read by critics as some kind of paratextual holy of holies. It’s all in all a deft summation of a career whose influence it’s difficult to overestimate. But that deftness, which is driven more by narrative concerns than the needs of literary history, also feels impoverished; marked as much by what it excludes as what it includes. He’s rather too cavalier about TSE’s involvement with Action Francaise, while his account of Eliot’s marriage to Vivien strains for an impersonal and unsympathetic tone that is greatly at odds with the acute misery of the couple.

What Menand seems to find most admirable in Eliot is not the poetry, nor even the powerful early criticism, but the pace and resolve of Eliot’s industry. It’s not so much what he did as the impact that he had which he finds impressive, even enviable. That the critic should pay homage to the critic is no surprise. But is Eliot still, nearly a century after the publication of “The Waste Land,” “the most important figure in 20th Century English language literary culture”? I thought we’d moved beyond the Great Man cult. Menand’s co-editor for The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Lawrence Rainey, makes a more subtle case in his essay on Pound/Eliot about the critical obsession with literary hierarchies, and even Marjorie Perloff, whom Rainey is riffing on, seems, in her “Avant-garde Eliot,” to edge carefully toward their position, re-claiming early Eliot as an exotic species for her prewar garden of the avant-garde.

I’m not sure I buy it.

What’s at stake here, really? Verifying that Ivor Richards was right all along in consecrating Eliot as the Next Big Thing and that time and consequence have done nothing to change that? Eliot’s sphinx-like qualities lend him to all manner of template-making and revisionary ratios. we can read whatever we want into The Man Who Was Not There -- But Who Really Was. Personally, I’m at a loss as how to account for the distance between my own intoxicated enthusiasm for his pre-“Ash Wednesday” work when I was young and my defensive guardedness when I try to teach “Prufrock” or “The Waste Land” all these years later. What’s changed? Well, for one thing, I've learned a lot more about what modernism is and how it got that way. Same poem, different page.

Which is to say that all these years later it's Dr. Williams of Rutherford, NJ who seems to me more and more to claim the cardinal role in the early avant-garde.
Spring & All
, recently re-issued in a beautiful facsimile edition by New Directions, came out in 1923, one year after "The Waste Land" set off its detonation, first in The Dial, then in the Boni & Liveright book, with the newly added Notes. (Rainey presents the definitive textual history of its publication, including all the background negotiations conducted by Pound and John Quinn -- who deserves his own monograph for his role in modernism -- and the extraordinary amount of money the poem fetched its author). And of course, Williams saw the writing on the wall. As he noted later, in his "Autobiography," the appearance of "The Waste Land" was “the great disaster to our letters — it gave the poem back to the classroom.”

More and more, Eliot's "modernism" looks like an extended freak-out about the erosion of self and the disappearance of the past -- one node in Marshall Berman's account of modernity -- while WCW's breakthrough book appears, alongside Stein's Tender Buttons, as the other node -- celebratory and truly innovative -- the singular exemplar of a modernism that was truly modern -- that is, that attended to the new while it contended with the ghosts of the old. "The Waste Land" mourned the dispersal of the Great Traditiion. Spring and All unapologetically made the case for a modernism without the tears.*

Eliot may have invented, willy-nilly, the modern English dept. Though even here Menand's account is biased in favor of the cult of genius. The trend toward a quantitative metrics in literary study was already underway. It would be more accurate to say TSE was its poster boy. At any rate, the tautology that places him as its fountainhead is also one that suppresses an enormous, vital, and equally significant history of literary development that opposed the Eliotic method and continues to flourish today. The history as Menand gives it is a bit too pat, and altogether too settled. The case is not closed.

* I credit Ron Silliman with making the case that nudged me to this consideration, That, and teaching the book for the first time last spring to my class at Amherst College, a week or so after the section on Eliot.

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