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TSE  August 2001

TSE August 2001

Subject:

'Paleo' and 'Neo' Moderrnism

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Date:

Thu, 9 Aug 2001 00:05:56 EDT

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Rick Seddon writes on 8/8/01:

> Where does Dr. Perl get the idea that synthesis might apply to Modernism?
> . . .  Modernism was often deliberately jarring and disruptive. 
> It was the intent of the authors to break the intellectual
> complacency of the Victorians.  To break away from the rhetorical
> writing of poetry into a new "Modern" way.  
> . . . In your brief excerpt  Dr. Perl seems to blur between
>  Modernism as a retrospective term of critics  and as a set
> of operating guidelines for the Modernist poet.

Perl gets into this in great depth in the lectures. He distinguishes two 
braches of Modernism, "Paleo-Modernism [e.g,, Joyce, Pound, Eliot]" and 
"Neo-Modernism [e.g., William carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein]". I think the 
type you're referring to Perl would call "Neo-Modernism". I'd rather let Perl 
'speak' for himself, so I'm transcribing some of the lectures that deal with 
these distinctions. It's quite interesting.

VERY briefly, here's an example of some of the distinctions:

[Perl]:

   Although Nietzsche died in 1900 he is usually considered, he called 
himself, the "first-born of the twentieth century" and he is often considered 
the first Modernist, the first Paleo-Modernist. he gives the definitive 
answer to the question "What is the Renaissance [the French word for 
're-birth'] a rebirth of"?  I can quote him in one sentence -- it will 
summarize everything we need to know: "No one shall whither our faith in the 
imminent rebirth of Greek Antiquity". The Renaissance, in other words, was 
taken to be a rebirth of classical antiquity, and the twentieth century, 
according to its first born son Friedrich Nietzsche, was to be a rebirth of 
the great rebirth. Nietzsche called on his successors to reach back to an old 
view of humanity, a view of humanity more worldly than the view of the 
Christians, more titanic and dark than that of rationalists, and more 
aristocratic than that of liberal bourgeois democrats. . . I want to talk 
about the legacy of Nietzsche to literature. His legacy to Modernism and 
literature was a metaphor. The metaphor is, "The Mind of Europe". Nietzsche 
perceived a psychological pattern in the history of culture. He thought 
Europe had a mind. This pattern is one that Freud would borrow in structuring 
psychoanalysis. 

   The Paleo-Modern claim, the classic Modernist claim, is that Modernism 
culminates the revival of Antiquity that began in the Renaissance and that, 
consequently, Modernism is, to use one of Joyce's more famous terms, "the 
epiphany of everything that is modern" -- the climax, the culmination of 
everything that is modern.

=================================================

[To illustrate the differences between Paleo-Modernism and Neo-Modernism, 
Perl analyzes two 'Modernist' poems, William Carlos Williams' poem "The Red 
Wheelbarrow", and T.S. Eliot's poem "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service". He 
shows the stark differences between the two poetic styles of poems that are 
each called 'Modernist'. In case the reader is not familiar with 'The Red 
Wheelbarrow', it is comprised of only a few lines:

  So much depends
  Upon a red wheelbarrow
  Glazed with rain water
  Beside the white chickens.  

   In the course of analyzing "The Red Wheelbarrow", Perl says some very 
interesting things, which I will quote below] 

-----------------------------
[Perl]:

   Given that 'so much depends' on the mundane objects and daily round of our 
lives, we ought not to ignore or condescend to them. We ought not to ignore 
the white chickens or the red wheelbarrow. Now Williams put this better than 
I can put this myself in an essay in prose. He said, 'Better than to deprive 
birds of their song, to call them all nightingales.' Now I think what he 
means there is that "better than depriving SOME birds of their song (for 
example, white chickens?), let's call them all nightingales". The first step 
towards the appreciation of some sound, towards the appreciation of some 
noise, is to call it a song. Once you've called it a song, you will begin to 
appreciate it.  So Williams poem does not show HOW we are to take a chicken's 
sound, what we call a 'cluck', for a nightingale's song, but it seems to me 
the poem implies that that is what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to 
take a chicken's cluck as we take a nightingale's song. 

  The point I have been trying to get to is this: This little farm-yard poem 
is intensely ideological. "The Red Wheelbarrow" constitutes an assault on 
T.S. Eliot. It is an assault on Eliot's poetics. It is an assault on the 
tradition of which Eliot is said to be the climax. It is an assault on 
Eliot's difficulty, his allusiveness, his historical obsessions and his 
infamous defense of high culture, his infamous defense of classical 
civilization. Williams poem is addressed, I think, to/at Eliot. Williams poem 
is instructing Eliot. It is saying, "Do not say that this homely exclamation 
that you are reading, this thing called 'The Red Wheelbarrow', do not say 
that this is, by virtue of its simplicity, by virtue of its homeliness, not a 
poem. Do not say, Tom Eliot, that my poems, because they are not like your 
poems, are not poetry."   

.. . .

   Many features of Neo-Modernist art are dominant in attitudes that 
predominate now in the 1990s: First of all, a visceral and political 
condemnation of classic Modernism; and more specifically, a rejection of the 
classical canon; a reaction against Paleo-Modern internationalism; a 
rejection of classicist or perfectionist aesthetics; a distaste for the 
skepticism, or perspectivism or relativism the was the heritage of 
Nietzsche's heirs. . .

  If Nietzsche is the precursor of the classic Modernists, the precursor of 
the Neo-Modernists is, I think, Walt Whitman. He is their harbinger and he is 
Nietzsche's rough contemporary. Whitman's epic poems "Song of Myself' begins 
with an invocation to Walt Whitman -- It does not begin with an invocation to 
the classical muse, to the muse of Homer or the muse of Virgil, or the muse 
of Milton and it makes light of classic gravity. Let me read you some lines 
from the beginning of "Song of Myself". Whitman writes:

 I loaf and invite my soul,
 I lean and loaf at my ease observing
   a spear of summer grass.

All right. "To loaf" is not exactly a Homeric virtue, this is not exactly an 
Aristotelean epic virtue, and this 'spear' is not the kind of spear that a 
hero carries; this is a spear of summer grass he says. 

.... The poem says that 'coherence' is (I'm using Whitman's word) "forced". 
'Coherence' is a form of slavery. he says, "The press of my foot to the earth 
springs a hundred affections. They scorn the best I can do to relate them" -- 
and he's pleased. Coherence is furthermore, for Whitman, immoral. And it will 
be immoral also for his Neo-Modernist descendants, particularly in America. 
Coherence is immoral -- it is incompatible with democratic ethics. Whitman 
says famously, "Do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not 
something else". Remember Williams and his nightingales and chickens? Don't 
say the chicken shouldn't sing because it isn't a nightingale. Don't call the 
tortoise unworthy because she is not something else. Both Williams and 
Whitman are telling us that the classic range of sympathies has got to be 
expanded, expanded at any cost, Whitman says, including the cost of culture, 
including the cost of civilization. 

.. . . Of civilization itself, Walt Whitman writes, "It is middling well as 
far as it goes, but is that all?" Now Whitman's successors in the 
Neo-Modernist school made this genial attitude into a rigorous aesthetic. Or 
rather they turned it into a rigorous anti-aesthetic. Neo Modernists sought 
to invert the categories of Aristotle's Poetics. They sought to invert 
categories endorsed by, for example, Eliot and Joyce. Eliot and Joyce both 
saw themselves as following the poetics of Aristotle. 
==================================================

-- Steve --

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