Thursday, June 09, 2005
The Aura of the Masterpiece: Marjorie Perloff
I recently got an announcement about the formation of a new journal called Modernist Cultures. It is going to be a free journal, accessible outside of Project Muse (hooray), and fully online. The only small thing they ask is that you register, but at least initially the login will be the same for everyone.
Marjorie Perloff’s essay (PDF) inaugurating the first issue of the journal might be of general interest to the readers of this blog. The short version of it is, she looks at a large swath of continental, and then postmodernist theory about “high modernism,” which she find to be irrelevant in assessing the real value of modernist “masterpieces.” She cites the glowing Amazon reader reviews found for works like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land and Proust’s Recherche as instancing a kind of reification which trumps our critical metanarratives about what’s “in” and what’s “out” of literary fashion. What I’m going to do below is summarize some of the main points of her argument, and raise some questions that come out of my reading of the essay.
There was a brief moment when the modernist masterpieces in literature as well as visual art were actually transgressive objects. But they were quickly reified (or “thingified"), and lost much of their transgressive power (see the Jameson argument in Postmodernism). By the 1960s, critics like Frank Kermode were looking at the modernists as essentially aligned with the establishment, and ideologically suspect. This view predates the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, where the anti-Canonical impetus was amplified considerably from Kermode, also becoming (briefly, I think) a good deal less nuanced. Perloff quotes a Cynthia Ozick piece in the New Yorker from 1989 as a representative version of a strongly ideological dismissal of T.S. Eliot: “We no longer live in the shadow of T.S. Eliot. . . High art “High art is dead. The passion for inheritance is dead. Tradition is equated with obscurantism. The wall that divided serious high culture from the popular arts is breached.”
Perloff argues that it was Adorno’s 1970 Aesthetic Theory that planted the seeds of a “rescue operation” for the modernist masterpieces, including those authored by people whose real-life politics we don’t like. And, skipping a generation, many of Adorno’s arguments can be found in the 1990s appearance of an interdisciplinary sub-field called “Modernist Studies,” where it is not considered bad form to write dissertations on T.S. Eliot, though the interest is usually more historicist (what jazz records did T.S. Eliot listen to, which might have inspired his unpublished “King Bolo” poems?) than formalist (say something original about The Waste Land, damnit). The modernists, even the un-PC ones, are cool again, though they are now studied in an expansive framework, in which ‘high’ and ‘low’ are looked upon equally, and the experimentalism of Joyce, Stein, or Woolf is no better or worse than the more conventional narrative (or prosodic) techniques employed by contemporaries like Elizabeth Bowen or W.H. Auden. According to Perloff, this trend renders Jameson essentially irrelevant:
Accordingly, so Jameson argues in the famous “Postmodernism” essay, “the high-modernist conception of a unique style, along with the accompanying collective ideals of an artistic or political vanguard or avant-garde, themselves stand or fall along with that older notion (or experience) of the so-called centered subject.” And there is much talk, in the pages that follow, of the demise of the bourgeois ego, of the distinctive brush stroke, of “a self present to do the feeling.” Modernism, it seems, can no longer speak to us. Thus, in his “Conclusion,” Jameson raises questions like “Is T. S. Eliot recuperable?” or “What ever happened to Thomas Mann and Andre Gide?” “Frank Lentricchia,” he posits, “has kept Wallace Stevens alive throughout this momentous climatological transformation, but Paul Valéry has vanished without a trace, and he was central to the modernist movement internationally” (303). Indeed, the “great modernist works” have “become reified . . . by becoming school classics. Their distance from their readers as monuments and as the efforts of ‘genius’ tended also to paralyze form production in general, to endow the practice of all the high-cultural arts with an alienating specialist or expert qualification that blocked the creative mind with awkward self-consciousness and intimidated fresh production” (317).
This was written, or rather published, in 1991, a short thirteen years ago. All the more astonishing, therefore, how fully Jameson’s theory of Modernism has lost ground. More recent cultural critics like Michael North, Jennifer Wicke, and Carrie Noland have been at pains to show that far from excluding all popular culture and the realm of everyday life, the “great” modernist works like Ulysses or avant-garde poems like Blaise Cendrars’s “Prose du Transsibérien” were permeated with the language of advertising and commerce, that the “great divide,” at any rate, was always more apparent than real. In Reading 1922, North concludes that “Beginning with Wittgenstein,” whose Tractatus was published in England in 1922 along with Ulysses and The Waste Land, “the notion that truth is local and particular came into being as a reflex of the attempt to make it global and universal” (213). Modernism, by this argument, was never accurately characterized by the autonomy and elitism attributed to it; it was always thoroughly contaminated by its rapprochement with the discourses of everyday life.
This is an interesting argument – the aesthetic implications of Jameson’s “postmodernity” (“Paul Valery has vanished without a trace”) are off-target because, in some sense, the philosophical conditions of postmodernity can be seen operating in the work of the modernists (and, I suspect, in the versions of “everyday life” evident in pre-20th century texts as well). But Perloff doesn’t really follow through with this line of thinking, which raises numerous questions. Such as: Couldn’t we reverse the trend of the argument, and say that Jameson hasn’t become irrelevant to the New Modernist Studies, but rather all too relevant? As with any number of intellectual reversals, it may be that what has happened is that Jameson’s perspective has been so thoroughly assimilated that it now seems wrong.
In the second half of the essay, Perloff points to a series of Amazon reader reviews of current editions of modernist masterpieces by Proust, Eliot (the new critical editions of The Waste Land), and Stein (Tender Buttons). For Perloff, these reviews generate, naively and authentically, a very conventional view of the ‘aura’ of the literary masterpiece. In some sense, the literary work will retain its aura and power no matter what we critics and theorists say to displace it. Eliot, Stein, and Proust are alive for contemporary readers from many different walks of life; reification is not an ideological problem, but a measurable phenomenon experienced by readers – who, in this age of blogging and online communities – are almost all writers and critics themselves.
I would be curious to hear more from Perloff about the efficacy of this argument. On the one hand, it seems to suggest what many non-academic book/lit bloggers already say about the function of professional literary criticism – that it’s on the wane because of the numerous amateur-driven means of transmitting ideas of literary value. But looked at more skeptically, this could also be read as a kind of disowning of a long tradition of literary debate about the means by which value might be determined. One could also criticize Perloff on the fundamental methodology of going to Amazon reader reviews of literary masterpieces, which are often a good deal more ‘studied’ than she allows.
A better test, it seems to me, would be to look at the reader reviews of someone like Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), whose works have never quite made it to Canonical status, and where reader response is going to be much less predictable. A quick look at the customer reviews of H.D.’s Collected Poems at Amazon gives us only two comments (to 40+ for Proust, Eliot, and Stein), which seem a little fomulaic. And the customer reviews of Trilogy are more descriptive than they are effusive. In short, the customer reviews, too few in number and not especially personalized, don’t tells us anything that corresponds with what people say in response to the canonical writers Perloff cites.
If you think this might be an interesting experiment, try scanning the reader reviews for critical editions by other pre-contemporary writers, canonical and non-canonical. Are there recognizable patterns? Do you consider this a legitimate way of thinking about literary value, and if so what does it really tell us?
It seems to me that we should separate “reader response” from English Department socialized response, or conventional interpretive pieties. Less taught books would tend to the former, but my guess is that you’re not, as your example of H.D. points to, going to find that on Amazon. What is it that someone is thinking when they post an Amazon review? The rubrics of rating and trust used by Amazon encourage formulaic, safe responses.
Value. Now that’s a word I haven’t heard in a very long time.
Perloff likes the Amazon reader reviews because she believes them to be completely divorced from English department socialization. Here’s another quote from her essay:
I suppose Jameson might respond that these customer reviews testify to the thorough commodification of The Waste Land, what with their naïve enthusiasm and assessment of Eliot’s subject matter. But I would argue that this sheer enthusiasm, on the part of non-academic readers who have nothing to gain from writing their commentaries tells us something very different.
Later in the essay she also talks about other values she sees Amazon readers privileging: “uniqueness,” the ability to give pleasure, and density of language. In essence, she likes the reviews because she sees them as confirming spontaneously what Ezra Pound said 70 odd years ago ("Dichten = condensare").
The more I look at this argument, the less I believe it.
Statisticians might also have a problem with basing any conclusion on the output of a self-selecting group of people who feel strongly enough about a work to post a review about it on Amazon. I’ve bought hundreds of books from Amazon and have yet to post a review...whereas some people commit hours a day to posting reviews of books they read years ago. If you want to understand how those sort of people respond to literature, then Amazon’s an excellent resource; if you want to know how actual readers feel about them, Amazon’s likely to yield some strange findings.
On the topic of “uniqueness,” well, that’s the kind of evaluation that really requires a lot more information (e.g. literary historical) than the average reader has available. They might stumble first on Hart Crane and declare him the most unique writer in the history of writing...and not know a thing about Joyce, Eliot, Pound, etc. (That’s an oversimplified example, of course, but it’ll do.)
Although I find much of Perloff’s other evidence persuasive, I doubt the commensurability of Amazon review writers and “the broader English-speaking public that communicates on the internet” (4). A good friend of mine took a graduate course in which one of the assignments was to pick a book related to the topic of the seminar and write a review of it (see the Cyberliteracy review. I’ve only heard of an Amazon review’s being assigned in a course in this one instance, but it’s possible that other professors might do it too.
Also, now I know Eliot, Stein, and Proust aren’t doing this, but remember when authors were busted writing reviews of their own books under pseudonyms?
H.D. might not be the best test case. As I happen to know from some odd circumstances, every year in Bethlehem, PA, students go en masse to H.D.’s grave and leave sea-shells. There may be enough readers from Bethlehem to populate Amazon with reviews that are sparse but still treat her work as caononical.
Interesting that you mention that. I organized one such expedition this past September (on H.D.’s birthday). Nisky Hill cemetary is walking distance from my department. I even brought the shells last time, because I was actually commuting to Bethlehem from New Haven, CT, where there are beaches.
H.D. is indeed a figure of some veneration for her fans. But I mentioned her as a counter-example because it seems to me she has never quite achieved “standard” status in the syllabi of university surveys.
Could you say more about the evidence in Perloff’s article you find persuasive?
Interesting to hear from someone who actually organizes the trips; I hadn’t even made the Lehigh connection. Which class(es) do the students come from, and do they bring sea-shells because of H.D.’s _Sea Garden_ ?
Yeah, I should have made it clearer which claim I was talking about. Literary studies isn’t my field, so I come at this as an outsider—you know, like Schwartzenegger. I’m not qualified to evaluate Perloff’s interpretations of Jameson or Adorno or speak to the reversal you’re talking about, Amardeep. However, I know enough to disagree—if this is what Perloff really thinks—that there’s such a seemingly monolithic thing as “Left criticism” that uses “more useful and disinterested cultural history and theory, with the methodology of anthropology whereby artworks and literary texts can be seen as so many cultural phenomena” (11).
Also, whether it’s an aura or not, I agree with the general stance that a reader shouldn’t dismiss and can fully appreciate aesthetically a work by an author whose politics he or she doesn’t agree with. By the way, is anyone actually arguing against that? But to your question, Amardeep: I was thinking of the broader claim that modernist art is garnering renewed interest. I’m not conversant enough in modernist studies to say whether it is or it isn’t, but I found Perloff’s numbered list of 2003-2004 events to be more persuasive than the Amazon reviews. I thought she made a good point on page 10, too:
All of the above produced volume after volume of poetry – but unlike so many of their post-modern successors, the modernists were prolific in other forms of writing as well. They were dramatists (Stein, Williams, Pound, Eliot), fiction writers (Stein, Williams, H.D.), critics (all of the above but especially Eliot and Pound), autobiographers (Stein, Williams, H.D.), translators, editors, essayists, and often, as in the case of such British modernists as Yeats, Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf, brilliant letter writers.
I’m not under the impression that talent in multiple forms of writing is unique to the modern period—Oscar Wilde and Audre Lorde are other examples—but if there’s a contemporary group of writers who write so well in so many forms, they aren’t as well known.
This essay was pretty good I suppose. The author made some good points about Modernism and I think her discussion of Amazon reviews was pretty interesting. However, the author used a lot of jargon that wasn’t very helpful and the essay got a bit boring about half way through. I found myself struggling to finish the whole thing. I give it three to three-and-a-half stars. P.S. I hope the author makes the next essay shorter and less jargony.
If Perloff actually had something to say about the value of modernist writing the essay would be interesting. But the point is that it’s valuable because it’s valuable, and the proof is on Amazon. I thought it a pretty slight essay full of straw men and non arguments. I particularly liked the line about Stein: hers “is a work that never quite fits the proposed category . . . The one thing Stein inevitably was, however, both chronologically and geographically. . . was a Modernist."
There you’ve got a version of the classic stance of literary academia: modernism is the (incredibly capacious) category of literature that can’t be categorized. All its virtues therefore are (non)formal, and there’s really not much to say about it except, “cool.” (On “The Waste Land”: “the charm of its distinctive rhythm and its deployment of a language that is somehow extraordinary.” What a banal sentence about literary greatness!) The Amazon review format is actually pretty fitting.
The real irony, I think, is that the postmodernism Perloff distances herself from here may actually more consistent with her aesthetic values than the classic literature she celebrates. I suspect it’s that way for the Amazon reader, in any case. My guess is that people want to read those books because they’re actually about something. They do have views, and the views are integrally related to their powerful and beautiful expression. You don’t read The Magic Mountain for the charm of its distinctive langauge alone, and I’d venture to say the same is true of Recherche or Women in Love or Waste Land.
(I did also like the reader who gave her 6 year old nephew Tender Button when he was starting to read. Cruel!)
She is right about the resurgence of interest in modernism, and I also think she’s right in the way she characterizes the general drift of the new scholarship. Everything can be included at the big MSA conference, though it’s not quite clear where that leaves us.
There’s another way of looking at it, of course, and that is that “modernist studies” didn’t really come to exist until “modernism” as a literary style—a way of thinking—is neutered. A friend of mine met the cultural critic Stuart Hall at a conference, and when she told him that she was excited about the explosion of the Modernist Studies Association, he laughed and said, “Now modernism must really be dead!”
The other point, about the prolific writing of several of those writers, in numerous genres, is one that might give us pause, though. For one thing, the same could be said of the Victorians—they wrote and wrote and wrote.
For another, the only way to realy slog through all of the works of someone like Gertrude Stein—including that 900 page tome called The Making of Americans—is if you are really intrigued by Gertrude Stein the person and personality. Last night I read a great piece on Stein by Janet Malcolm in the latest New Yorker (an earlier piece by Malcolm is also mentioned in the Perloff essay...), where she argues that the key to The Making of Americans, a book that otherwise seems incoherent or even unreadable, is really in Stein’s biography. Stein wrote it to exorcise herself of her demons—her mother’s death, and a failed romance with a woman named May Bookstaver.
But that raises a whole bunch of annoying questions about biography....
Perloff’s argument seems pretty dang effective to me - she even found empirical support! (albeit of the most anecdotal variety) Admittedly, readings of Eliot or Joyce are likely contaminated by the “reification” of their works, even in popular culture, but in the cases of Proust and, even moreso, Stein, I doubt many readers approach with overly much regard for what they “should” think of the work. In fact, it seems to me that non-academic readers are more than ever displaying a casual disregard for what they are expected to take from a work and instead responding only to what has meaning to them(witness Hamlet’s 4/5 reader rating on LibraryThing.com). And I think this is at the heart of Perloff’s broader point - that despite postmodernism’s insinuations to the contrary, poetic meaning continues to be just as powerful and relevant as ever to the average reader (always “news"), and that modernism, when it achieves the intensity and immediacy that it strove for, carries very strong poetic meaning. The most relevant part of all this for the litcrit crowd will be the suggestion to distance, or even divorce, the poetic from the political, but more significant as far as I’m concerned is the discussion of intensity as a potent bearer of meaning in art. While I think Perloff paints with too broad a brush in attributing exceptional intensity to, say, Stein and Joyce, it is certainly the great distinguishing characteristic of Cendrars and Lawrence, and its contribution to the lasting and unique power of their works deserves far more attention.