The Difficulties of Modernism

by Leonard Diepeveen
ISBN: 0415940699

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A Review of: The Difficulties of Modernism
by Asa Boxer

The year of crisis is 1922, the year of The Waste Land. Negotiations between T. S. Eliot and Dial magazine's Scofield Thayer were heated. Pound had been pimping The Waste Land as the culmination of twenty years of modernist efforts. Bidding began at $2,850, which Eliot declined, convinced he could get more. Interestingly, negotiations were started without anyone having examined the manuscript. In the end, the Dial Award was promised Eliot--again without anyone bothering to take a peek at the text. "Literary history," writes Lawrence Rainey, "records few spectacles so curious or so touching as that of the two editors of a major review offering a figure nearly three times the national income per-capita--in 1986 terms, the same ratio would yield over $40,000--for a poem which neither had seen or read." Rainey calls it a "touching" spectacle because it was an act of desperation. They did not want to risk the esteemed position of the Dial-a review promising to be at the cutting edge of the modernist movement. Upon publication, tensions ran high. William Carlos Williams called Eliot's poem, "The Great Catastrophe." Virginia Woolf charged Eliot with stylistic indecorousness, referring to Eliot's use of parataxis (or lack of connectives), and to the mental acrobatics the poem required of the reader. Leonard Diepeveen, in his fascinating new book, The Difficulties of Modernism, quotes a particularly ugly review by F. L. Lucas:

"Among the maggots that breed in the corruption of poetry one of the commonest is the bookwormwhen the Greek world was filling with libraries and emptying of poets, growing in erudition as its genius expired, then first appearedthat Professorenpoesie which finds in literature the inspiration that life gives no more, which replaces depth by muddiness, beauty by echoes, passion by necrophily. The fashionable verse of Alexandria grew out of the polite leisure of its librarians, its Homeric scholars, its literary critics. Indeed, the learning of that age had solved the economic problem of living by taking in each others' dirty washing, and the Alexandra' of Lycophron, which its learned author made so obscure that other learned authors could make their fortunes by explaining what it meant, still survives for the curious as the first case of this disease and the first really bad poem in Greek.Disconnected and ill-knit, loaded with echo and allusion, fantastic and crude, obscure and obscurantist-such is the typical style of Alexandrianism."

Diepeveen argues that we are currently in an Alexandrian age, and he contends that, for better or worse, we are now stuck with the "crude, obscure and obscurantist" as an aesthetic. He admits that "the audience for difficult art will always be small, and will always need to be supported by the university classroom or some institution like it." Unlike Lucas, however, Diepeveen believes that "A two-tiered audience for the products of art is just one of difficulty's consequences, and it is not completely negative." But what or who determines the artistic value of work produced by such a system? Diepeveen does not venture an opinion on good and bad difficulty. What he does, however, is present us with the problem (and does so, notably, in eloquent and simple language). Having committed himself to a book-length study of what he admits is a major factor of contemporary aesthetics, Diepeveen dodges the evaluative issue at stake. . .
Lucas's description of Alexandrianism is especially apt to a consideration of [certain kinds of modern poetry, especially those that] contain unfamiliar diction. . .and at times, require the aid of a dictionary...
As Emily Dickinson noted, "The Riddle we can guess/ We speedily despise -." One of the problems with poetry [that is hard to decipher at first] is that once the riddle is solved, nothing of interest remains. Having rejected an aesthetic dimension, [such poetry] is exhausted by interpretation. [The successful poem] avoids this problem by striking a balance between the riddle's cognitive component and its aesthetic component, so that interpretation, instead of solving the poem, helps one return to it to marvel at its technique.
Diepeveen [is explicitely concerned with what] he calls "surface difficulty." It is of the same genus as Eliot's The Waste Land: stubbornly opposed to habitual linguistic practices, highly allusive, concerned with the structural representation of its most dominant theme (i.e. modern decadence and the search for hope in a hopelessly fragmented universe). The Waste Land. . ., however, is [nevertheless] an unprecedented sound experience, a musical intermixing of clear images, cultural voices, and foreign languages. . .
According to Diepeveen's logic. . ., wordy language is fruitful to the academy. . . The anxiety that arises when we are confronted with difficulty, Diepeveen explains, "separates many readers from academics, for most academics don't really expect simplicity in a work of art to which they have directed their attention." True, academics need something to research or they become redundant. . . [What happens when this kind of poetry is] aesthetically barren and cognitively unrewarding, . . .[when] its word-puzzles fail to achieve a significant and independent existence beyond explication and paraphrase?
Nonsense, of course, is not always a sign of bad poetry. Lewis Carroll knew a great deal about nonsense. Here is a stanza from his "Jabberwocky":

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!

By preserving regular syntax, Carroll creates a poem that any child can understand. Mary Dalton's Merrybegot uses the same principles. . .
Alice's reaction to "Jabberwocky" addresses the mechanics of this kind of difficulty: "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are!" Alice is able to follow some kind of narrative, and she remarks, "somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate." Alice knows this because enough sentence structure exists for her to follow. . .
What makes "Jabberwocky" (and Merrybegot, for that matter) intriguing is that the sense seems to be at hand, teasing, exciting. Carroll's text brings its readers back. People share "Jabberwocky". The Waste Land, The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost (add Sidney's Arcadia and Spenser's Faerie Queene) are extraordinary creations of the human imagination. They are great and have attracted study because people are drawn in time and again by the sound, the structure, the subject matter, the dark and beautiful worlds they conjure. They are attractive: they appeal to our five senses; they engage both body and intellect in pleasurable intercourse. The argument for Lee's book is that we're past all that now; the body (earth) and the intellect (world) are at odds in our modern urban setting. Be that as it may, art can appeal to more than one faculty of experience and good art engages several.
I am not arguing for a complete dismissal of difficulty as an aesthetic. I am urging us to take a more critical view of difficulty in poetry. In 1922, people saw an obscure work celebrated and awarded. The work was so oblique that many were under the impression that if you can't understand it, it must be art. Now, just about anybody can design a text to be part mindbender, part treasure hunt, and hide behind the initially negative critical reception of Eliot's poem. What seems clear is that an honest aesthetic of difficulty has yet to be developed. There needs to be a line dividing good art from bad art. . .Diepeveen's Difficulties of Modernism discusses the cultural entrenchment of difficulty and urges academics to be careful, not to dig up difficulties where none exist, not to perceive difficulty as the only viable aesthetic. Difficulty does have an aesthetic value, but when taken to extremes, it becomes a cloying gimmick, an intellectual stumble into the default mode of what can be considered "original".

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