TOWARD THE MODERNIST NARRATIVE
MODERNISM UNDER ERASURE
ERRY ANDERSON considers modernism the last Western movement in the arts to achieve profound cultural significance: social scope as well as aesthetic stature.1
That scope and stature result, in Anderson’s “conjunctural” Marxist framework, from modernism’s historical position at the “intersection of three temporalities” (which might be labeled, after Raymond Williams, residual, dominant, and emergent):2
In my view, “modernism” can best be understood as a cultural field triangulated by three decisive coordinates. The first of these. . . was the codification of a highly formalized academicism in the visual and other arts, which itself was institutionalized within official regimes of states and society still massively pervaded, often dominated, by aristocratic or landowning classes: classes in one sense economically “superseded,” no doubt, but in others still setting the political and cultural tone in country after country of pre-First World War Europe. . . . The second coordinate is . . . the still incipient, hence essentially novel, emergence within these societies of the key technologies or inventions of the second industrial revolution: telephone, radio, automobile, aircraft and so on. Mass consumption industries based on the new technologies had not yet been implanted anywhere in Europe.. . . The third coordinate . . . was the imaginative proximity of social revolution.. . . In no European state was bourgeois democracy completed as a form, or the labour movement integrated or coopted as a force. The possible revolutionary outcomes of a downfall of the old order were thus still profoundly ambiguous. . . . European modernism in the first years of this century thus flowered in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present, and a still unpredictable political future.. . . It was the Second World War—not the First—which destroyed all three of the historical coordinates I have discussed, and therewith cut off the vitality of modernism. (104-6)
Modernism was able to appropriate aesthetic classicism and at the same time use it against itself and against capitalist degradation of culture; to appropriate the energy and dynamism of the machine age while abstracting them for aesthetic practice
from its relations of production under capitalism;3
to appropriate the “apocalyptic light” of nascent social revolution for “a violently radical. . . rejection of the social order as a whole” (105). For Anderson, modernism was the last great moment of Western literature. Although I do not agree with his blanket condemna
tion of postmodernism, I do agree with his unashamed argument for modernism’s greatness, and find compelling his account of the historical configuration that enabled it.
I am particularly interested in the “apocalyptic light” (105) of the third element of this tripartite conjuncture. The ambivalence that, as I will argue, generated the most salient features of modernist form was an ambivalence toward the radical remaking of culture and represented these writers’ response precisely to Anderson’s “profoundly ambiguous possible revolutionary outcomes of the downfall of the old order.” The downfall of the old order, linked to the radical remaking of culture, was to be the downfall of class, gender, and racial (ethnic, religious) privilege; revolution was to be in the direction of egalitarian leveling on all those fronts. This utter change was embodied in the social-political sphere in the various left-wing revolutionary movements—anarchism, communism, socialism—and in feminism. For the sake of convenience, I will designate these two forces socialism and feminism.4
The period from 1880 to World War I, during which modernism evolved, encompassed the heyday of these movements on the Anglo-American political scene, allowing of course for important national differences and for specific historical sequences of success and defeat, revolutionary activity and state suppression, and for the diversity of organizations and leaders within these general movements. What I am postulating is a profound connection between this radical history and the development of modernist form. The irresolvable ambivalence (fear and desire in equal portion) of modernist writers concerning their own proposals for the wholesale revision of culture, proposals paralleled in the political sphere by the programs for wholesale social revision promulgated by socialism and feminism, generated the irreducible self-contradiction, what I will call the sous-rature,
of modernist form. I will argue that male modernists generally feared the loss of their own hegemony implicit in such wholesale revision of culture, while female modernists generally feared punishment for their dangerous desire for that revision.
I will attempt a characterization of modernist form adequate to such an assessment of its political significance, beginning with an alternative to Jameson’s reading of Conrad’s style, and therefore of modernist form in general. At the opening of his brilliant chapter on Conrad in The Political Unconscious,
Jameson quotes, as I will, an early passage of Lord Jim:
“His station was in the fore-top, and often from there he looked down, with the contempt of a man destined to shine in the midst of dangers, at the peaceful multitude of roofs cut in two by the brown tide of the stream, while scattered on the outskirts of the surrounding plain the factory chimneys rose perpendicular against a grimy sky, each slender like a pencil, and belching out smoke like a volcano.”5
Jameson claims that he sees Conrad as a transitional figure of what he calls “nascent modernism,” where history and the world, though displaced and marginalized, are not yet entirely repressed, as they will be in what he calls “the more fully achieved and institutionalized modernisms of the canon” (210). Jameson’s actual reading of this passage, however, puts Conrad squarely in that canon. He finds in it evidence of “the impulse of Conrad’s sentences to transform such realities [the realities of society’s life under late capitalism] into impressions” (210). Jameson continues: “These distant factory spires may be considered the equivalent for Jim and, in this novelistic project, for Conrad, of the great Proustian glimpses of the steeples of Martinville” (210-11). The connection to Proust seems to me to obliterate, at least for this moment of the argument, Jameson’s distinction between Conrad’s “nascent modernism” and the “fully achieved and institutionalized modernisms of the canon.” Even though he attempts to maintain the distinction by means of a parenthetical remark in which he points to “the one obvious qualification that the latter [Proust’s steeples] are already sheer impression” and therefore require no “aesthetic transformation,” Jameson represents Conrad’s style here, I think correctly, as fully modernist.
What Jameson omits from his analysis of Conrad’s passage, and therefore from his characterization of modernist form, is what I would call its sous-raturez
its unresolved contradictoriness or unsynthesized dialecticality. As Derrida uses it, sous-rature
indicates a verbal sign that is discredited but has no adequate replacement, whose meanings are inimical to deconstruction—are in fact precisely what deconstruction deconstructs—but that is nonetheless necessary to indicate an intellectual position, germane to Derrida’s argument, that cannot otherwise be named.6
I appropriate this term here for its emblematic quality: it represents in a visually compelling way (a word that is visible but at the same time crossed out) unresolved contradiction, unsynthesized dialectic, resulting from a historical transition in intellectual paradigms. In fact, modernist writing enacts in literature the same historical moment that deconstruction enacts in philosophy: a moment not of “paradigm shift” but of the simultaneous coexistence of two mutually exclusive paradigms. Though Derridean deconstruction comes half a century later, it produces and reproduces the same “suspense between two ages of writing”7
as modernism, evolved as it is from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Deconstruction simultaneously uses and undoes bourgeois Enlightenment modes of thought and argument, just as modernist writing simultaneously uses and undoes bourgeois Enlightenment modes of narrative and poesis. As characterization of modernist form, sous-rature
indicates a system that coexists within one figure with its own undoing.8
A system that coexists within one figure with its own undoing: what sort of animal is that? In his preface to William Shakespeare,
Terry Eagleton explains, with enviable succinctness and simplicity, what critical practice is involved in applying the tools of New Criticism to literary form in order to find complex historical-intellectual structures: “The book is in no direct sense an historical study of its topic, but is, I suppose, an exercise in political semiotics,
which tries to locate the relevant history in the very letter of the text.”9
The political-semiological study of representations of gender and history in modernist form I undertake here depends on the claim that modernist writing, at the level of form, is characterized most saliently by sous-rature
(self-cancellation, unresolved contradiction, unsynthesized dialectic), a claim I will explain and illustrate by returning to Jameson and Lord Jim.
Conrad is not Jim, any more than he is Marlow (note how Jameson, in equating Conrad with Jim “in this novelistic project,” does away with precisely the distinction most important to modernist form), and yet it is from Jim’s or Marlow’s point of view that Conrad writes. It is modernist form that allows Conrad to refuse not history, not the “realities” of life under imperialist, misogynist late capitalism, but to refuse epistemological determinacy. It is from Jim’s point of view that, to use Jameson’s term again, “realities” become impressions. Jim, not Conrad, has his station “in the fore-top,” from which he can “look down, with the contempt of a man destined to shine in the midst of dangers”; the irony of the tone here is characteristic and crucial. The novel is about to show us just how little Jim “shines,” just how “grimy” he becomes “in the midst of dangers”: Jim’s failure to assist his fellow students on the training ship in an actual rescue immediately follows the sequence Jameson quotes, and it is precisely the “griminess” of the skipper of the Patna that Jim obsessively dissociates himself from but that the novel insists taints him.
It is from this extremely problematical perch “in the fore-top” that Jim redeems the “grimy” material world by converting it into the “shining” impression. Jim never learns what the novel, via Stein, so emphatically shows us: that beetles must be collected (another destabilizing figure in its ironic representation of reification) along with butterflies. If repressed, they return in the lethal form of Gentleman Brown. Conrad clearly separates himself not only from Jim’s “fore-top” point of view, but from the “impressions” he gets there: the escapist, megalomaniacal fantasy idealizations his perch allows Jim to substitute for life in the world.
Moreover, in those impressions themselves we can see Conrad’s representation of the fragility and explosive instability of Jim’s un-self-critically impressionist point of view. The factory chimneys are “slender like a pencil,” pointing to the fragility of the pencil that converts, through simile, a smokestack into a pencil, a full-bodied phallic “reality” into“slender” effeminate writing. The smokestacks are also “belching out smoke like a volcano.” First we note the wonderful disparity, the impossibility, of fragile pencils belching out smoke like volcanoes: the power of modernist writing to represent, through self-erasure, the irreducibility of a “reality” whose explosive force would be effaced, not revealed, by a realist language constructed as transparent. By itself that particular contradiction undercuts Jim’s rewriting of industrial reality as harmlessly lovely “artistic” impression. But beyond that, the connotations of barely contained, potentially monstrously destructive violence in the image of the volcano near eruption speak of the representation in Conrad and, I would argue, in all modernist writing, of precisely the impossibility, the ludicrousness, and the danger of attempting to convert the facticity of history into harmless (or transcendent) art.
Modernist form, again, continually puts itself, including its own self-consciousness, under erasure. Eliot has Prufrock represent himself with an effete fatalism, but at the same time undercuts that representation with an angry contempt for it: the “ragged claws” tear the smooth, ironic urbanity of “I have known them all already, known them all”; the crucified insect “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” who angrily and with harsh, staccato consonants wonders how it will “spit out all the butt-ends of [its] days and ways,” radically disrupts “the taking of a toast and tea.” The representation and its own negation coexist in the text in an oscillating simultaneity, an unresolved contradiction—not a “tension” resolved or contained by “organically unified” form, as the New Critics have it, but something entirely different: a coexistent doubleness that is resolved nowhere, that is reinforced in, rather than eased of, its contradictoriness by the radically disjunctive, juxtapositional modernist form of the poem.
Eugene Lunn, who, as a Marxist, is not interested in resolution of “tension” through organically unified form, lists as some defining characteristics of modernist form “paradox, ambiguity, uncertainty.”10 Sous-rature
is different in degree rather than kind from Lunn’s, and many other, formulations. I am not claiming to have discovered something new about modernist form. Rather, to use Lunn’s formulation as characteristic of consensual thought about modernism, I am separating “paradox” from the weaker “ambiguity” and “uncertainty” and emphasizing its self-canceling or self-contradictory implications as the most salient aspect of modernist form, not necessarily in every context, but in the context that concerns me here: the relationship of the emergence of modernist formal practice to tum-of-the-century feminism and socialism.
I would also like to emphasize the distinction between the American deconstructionist version of all (literary) writing, which finds unresolved contradiction everywhere, and my thesis here concerning the sous-rature of modernist writing. American deconstructionism finds, and in fact perhaps prefers to find, unresolved contradiction in texts that offer or construct themselves as noncontradictory or consistent. I am arguing not merely that we can find instances, even many instances, of unresolved contradiction in modernist writing, but that modernist writing constitutes itself as self-contradictory, though not incoherent: incoherence is the province of avant-garde experimentalism and some postmodernism.
Jameson cites Proust, with justification, as the ultimate impressionist or high modernist. But representation of late capitalist bourgeois social history is clearly one of Proust’s central narrative intentions. This representation puts under erasure Marcel’s self-transfiguring elevation, by means of the madeleine and the uneven flagstones—the eucharist and altar of the religion of literary impressionism—from moribund history to immortal Time(lessness). Again, let me make my position clear: I am not arguing that Marcel’s transcendent impressionism is discredited. Rather, the text is constructed as a juxtaposition of that impressionism with its own negation or contradiction. While passages might be cited, particularly the very end of The Past Recaptured, demonstrating Proust’s (Marcel’s) wholehearted endorsement of the impressionist religion, it is just as important to remember that Proust is not Marcel as it is to remember that Conrad is not Jim (or, for stricter parallelism, not Marlow). Also, it is clear elsewhere, throughout the text, that Proust uses Marcel’s penchant for rapturous idealization—the tone in which the famous impressionist sequences, including Martinville and the final movement of the text, are written—to provide ironic contrast to the text’s tough-minded comicgrotesque representations of the rottenness and impending demise of the French aristocracy and upper middle class. The text represents that demise as desirable as well as inevitable, at the same time that it participates in Marcel’s acolytic worship of the Guermantes and the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
Most definitions and descriptions of modernism, and many of the modernists’ own statements on aesthetic practice, resort to tropes that bespeak an aesthetic of sous-rature, tropes such as the famous irony, tension, ambiguity, and paradox of the New Criticism. I would argue that those tropes dehistoricize the modernist aesthetic situation, essentializing it as the condition of all (great) literature. Cleanth Brooks’s characterization of all poetic language as the language of paradox defined this New-Critical aesthetic, and Empson’s “seventh type of ambiguity” is perhaps its ultimate formulation: “An example of the seventh type of ambiguity .. . occurs when the two meanings of the wor...