Modernism's our Ancient Greece. The ideas and the writers and the books we have, chiefly American and British, from the second, third, and fourth decades of this century provide a closer and more reasonable example of the sort of glare a group of thoroughly elitist, absurdly educated, utterly dedicated men and women in perpetual reaction against all they considered bad and inspired by all they thought good can produce. And they, unlike the Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, had the benefit of being able to read the Greeks (and the Romans, and the Provenšals, and the Italians, as well as the early English and the late French) in the relative tranquility that centuries' distance offers. These people-T. S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Marianne Moore-also had the good sense to exist in one of the last generations before the postmodern industrialization and proliferation of publishing extinguished the possibility of anyone ever again being as culturally monolithic-and therefore as culturally significant-as they managed to become.
And we have Hugh Kenner to thank for a good deal of our appreciation and basic interpretation of that time.
Hugh Kenner, a Peterborough native born in 1923, moved early to the States, after Marshall McLuhan, a college buddy, advised him that it was where all the smart people were going. So after arranging a meeting with Cleanth Brooks, at the time Yale's Gray Professor of Rhetoric, to get him into the English program there on very short notice, off he went to the States, where he's been ever since.
None of the English departments in Canada were paying any attention at all yet to twentieth-century literature-something Kenner's work over the next decades was going to do a lot to change.
His first book was a general introduction of Ezra Pound to the reading public and college curricula, entitled The Poetry of Ezra Pound. It was composed in about six weeks, he says, at his place in Peterborough after meeting the poet, known by some as the Invisible Modernist, the backroom boy who made Eliot's The Wasteland what it is, who mentored, in some way or other, all the writers mentioned above, including the much older Yeats.
Kenner met Pound with McLuhan in 1948 at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C., where Pound was living at the time. He'd been put there by the Americans, in part because he had spent a good deal of the Second World War broadcasting English-language criticisms of American policy over Mussolini's radio waves. The anecdotes covering this first meeting are some of the best in Kenner's recent, thoroughly entertaining series of Massey Lectures called The Elsewhere Community, which are about the value to one's intellectual development of going elsewhere, both physically and through books (and, later, the Internet).
He tells us in one of these lectures that a single bit of advice from Pound-namely, that a young thinker has an obligation to meet the great minds of his time-changed his life. He took the advice, and after meeting Pound and Brooks (who, along with his older contemporaries, John Crowe Ransom, I. A. Richards, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, formed the early academic arm of the Modernist movement), travelled to Europe for the first time, and met T. S. Eliot and Yeats's widow, Georgie. At various times he also met and spoke with Marianne Moore, the by then almost completely physically incapacitated William Carlos Williams, and the still very vital Beckett. It made all the difference.
Kenner speaks, in his lectures, of the tradition of the Grand Tour and the effect that this monumental experience of Elsewhere had on many writers and thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and later in different ways on Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Beckett). He makes the case, simply but well, that removing yourself from your own context-whatever context that is-and confronting the past, or the culturally different present, and monuments and epochs and people grander than anyone or anything from your hometown ever could be, allow you to see your own world, your own culture, your own self, through new eyes.
But as he gets on in his lectures, he inflates and eventually explodes the concept of Elsewhere. Starting as a geographical thing-the Continent and, most specifically, Rome, for the Grand Tourists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-Kenner ends up defining Elsewhere as pretty much anything other than your own kitchen table.
He has special difficulties incorporating the Internet into his theories, knowing that there is a great deal of Elsewhere there, but not being able to do the geographical implications of cyberspace the justice that others before him have done. His cataloguing of various technologies and the primary repercussions thereof reads like an early appreciation of rock and roll by someone raised on the Lindy Hop. There's a good deal of fogeyism there that gets in the way of any very useful analysis or much very enlightening commentary.
He also, as his final lecture, "And Now, The Invisible Tourist," begins, defines Elsewhere as mere collaboration. And though of course a case can be made for this, and he makes it with references to Pound's influence on Eliot, and George Russell's on Paddy Kavanagh, it's at this point that one feels a little betrayed by Kenner's Elsewhere. It's at this point that the build-up of definition reaches critical mass and bursts. Collaboration with another and collaboration with the world (or history), though related, are surely separate enough concepts to deserve separation, and the theory of collaboration with the world surely could have filled up at least as much space as Kenner was allotted by the Massey Foundation and CBC Radio (over which these lectures were first broadcast last November).
It's at this point, too, that we get the sense of abbreviation, that if Kenner's task was, in fact, to connect these two types of Elsewhere collaborations, he has not been able to do it in these entertaining but somewhat padded and quite brief lectures. There is not, in short, as much here as there was in the previous Massey Lectures-John Ralston Saul's The Unconscious Civilization-or in most of the other lectures in this luminous series, which dates back to 1961 and whose contributors have included R. D. Laing, Noam Chomsky, Northrop Frye, Doris Lessing, and Carlos Fuentes (and a dozen others whose texts are still in print from House of Anansi).
Instead of his peroration on personal collaboration and the effects of technology, I would much rather Kenner had applied his idiosyncratic and enormously personable mind to the implications of the cult of celebrity-for which his buddy McLuhan is partially responsible. This cult has built up protective walls around the well-known to discourage increasingly mobile nuts from gaining access, and has also made increasingly unlikely the sort of visits undertaken by Kenner, Gore Vidal, and other young writers of the 40's and 50's.
But as the Globe said in its review, these lectures do, above all, assert the value of things those of a modernist mind consider valuable. And though we in our post-, or perhaps now neo-post-, modern age might wonder about the inherent value of imitating eleventh-century Provenšal poetry and other similar flights of erudite fancy characteristic of Kenner and those he loves, the love, here, is the important thing. He, like Pound and Eliot and the rest, loved learning, loved things through which they had no reasonable expectation of advancing their careers. And in a day in which Clinton's level of education has actually counted against him in the polls, in which articulateness is often taken for pomposity or elitism, a loving look at these unapologetically learned, unabashed elitists can't help but expand our current notions of the possible and the desirable.
Bert Archer is a Toronto writer.