R.I.P. “proto-modernism”

If you’ve ever taken a college-level English course on literature written before 1900, the odds are pretty good that you’ve encountered a strange beast known as “the proto-modernist text.” Very often, this is a text written by a 19th century poet (Whitman, Swinburne, etc.), but that’s not absolutely required. It can be Huysmans. It can be Baudelaire. It can be Swift or Sterne. According to critic J. Hillis Miller, Miguel Cervantes was not a mere proto-modernist. He was, in fact, a proto-postmodernistI’ve heard the same claim made about Chaucer. Perhaps the further back you go, the more modern it gets.

Of all the hopes I Ziploc’d away in my dissertation, two were quite straightforward. First, I hope more people read Finnegans Wake. Second, I hope everyone stops using the term “proto-modernist” (to say nothing of “proto-postmodernist”). It is wrong, it is unnecessary, and it leaves us confused about both modernism and its predecessors.

This may seem like a trifling matter of academic semantics, but in fact a great deal is at stake. The modernists experimented with literary form for a reason. They were not, for the most part, radicals from the get-go. They began experimenting because they were concerned about the political situation in Europe. They wanted to create literature capable of affecting politics, promoting freedom, and bettering people’s lives, and they felt that realist literature — the “novel of purpose,” epitomized by writers like Dickens and Zola — had been unsuccessful.

Realism was too literal. Every reader was encouraged to do the same things. (For example, in A Christmas Carol, the theme is giving away money. In Little Dorrit it is eliminating debtors’ prisons.)

Realism’s proposed reforms were too incremental. If a rich man gave away money, that was a kind act, but it did nothing to change Europe’s unjust economic systems.

Finally, realism itself was too oppressive from a modernist perspective. To them it was another species of propaganda. For all of these reasons, the modernists started writing experimental texts in order to create a viable alternative to realism.  

I will return to the subject of 19th Century writers in a moment, but for now, it should be plain enough that any text written before the heyday of Realism cannot be “modernist.” What appears “modern” in earlier writing is mere coincidence. Every literary era has had its radicals, its experiments. We accomplish nothing by calling such texts “proto-modernist.”

Because modernism was so political, it is intensely frustrating when I see modernism confused with eccentricity and zany behavior. For example, I recently read through a syllabus that chose Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as the quintessential modernist, not because of what she wrote, but because of her strange and wonderful hats. Many modernists, notably T. S. Eliot, were conservative in both politics and temperament. These writers backed into radical forms because there seemed to be no choice. There is nothing wrong with studying the more colorful modernists, but there is a great deal wrong with using them to make modernism seem a superficial cult of personality. Using Freytag-Loringhoven to understand James Joyce or Ezra Pound is a bit like using Salvador Dali to interpret “Guernica.”

Of course, there was a movement against realism prior to modernism: Aestheticism, which spread from France, to England, to Italy and the United States. Calling an Aestheticist like Oscar Wilde a “proto-modernist” is unhelpful. It is hard to see how “The Importance of Being Earnest” anticipates “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It would be more accurate to say that modernism is the last phase of Aestheticism. It had the same political concerns. It had the same concerns about realism. It too believed that art could regenerate society. All of the modernists read the Aestheticists avidly, and were in dialogue with them throughout their careers. Virginia Woolf rejected Walter Pater. Joyce got a feeling of freedom from Gabriele D’Annunzio. Eliot called out Matthew Arnold in one essay after another. Calling modernism an offshoot of Aesheticism makes a great deal more sense than calling every Aestheticist clairvoyant.

Finally, modernism was effectively over by the 1950s. Modernism ended because its political hopes were dashed, not because writers were done trying out experimental forms. To call something “postmodern” is really to say that the text despairs of modernism’s extremely utopian ambitions. A book like Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, with its lofty vision of Tesla inventing machines that could solve our energy crisis, is really a modernist work. It is therefore an anachronism — that’s why Against the Day seems so isolated, excessive, and quaint.

The popular conception of modernism as either an elegiac movement, or a carnival of daring forms, is a whitewash. Calling modernism despairing or elegiac makes it narrow; there’s nothing all that elegiac or traumatized about Ulysses, although there is conflict and regret. Calling modernism “experimental” is misleading, especially when one considers influential writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example) who were far more conventional than their predecessors. When Ezra Pound said, “Make it new!” he was not using “new” in the same way as someone saying dubstep is the “newest big thing.” In fact, that pernicious overlap was one of the many things that brought modernism low.

When somebody calls a text “proto-modernist,” they are trying to sell us on it. The term is like MSG — instantly, the text becomes more interesting, the author more of a maverick. Relevance begins to rise like incense from every page. We no longer have to fear becoming bored! All this says a lot about us. It speaks to our ingrained consumer tendencies and our ambivalence towards literature. But I am not willing to trade modernism, with its dream of a better society, for that sales pitch. Instead of using one set of texts to make the others seem new, let us try to give our own era the literary identity it lacks. Let us make a new modernism.