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On or About November 2016, Modernist Studies Changed

Cover to Kingdom Come, by Batista Gilliat-Smith

On November 9th, 2016, I was teaching my last class on Hemingway’s in our time. I had only one North American student in the room, and everyone was silent. It was silence of a kind that my neighbourhood, even deep in the night, never finds. We’d covered the 1923 textual state of what would become In Our Time with the materials from the Exiles number of The Little Review, including “They All Made Peace—What Is Peace?” Now we were closing the 1924 version with the hanging of Sam Cardinella, the dead bull, the dead horse, and the dead matador. And the Hungarian communist jailed near Sion with the ghosts of two dead Hungarians only pages earlier. But for my class it was all in the shadow of the Conference of Lausanne and “But the Armenians. How about the Armenians?” In those times, there weren’t any Armenians left above water on Hemingway’s iceberg to speak for themselves in the text.

I’ve taught several students from five of the seven countries under the 2017 #MuslimBan (and students who have lived in all of them), including a Libyan in my “Radical Political Thought” course during the opening days of the Libyan crisis and Arab Spring. A student from Syria presented to classmates on homeless shelters in Vancouver for a freshman seminar. It was meant to foster solidarity among students as well as familiarity with resources to which they could lead each other in exigence (the food bank, free and anonymous medical clinics, the rape crisis centre, Title IX…). He found he had to use the same shelter next door when family assets were frozen. How about the Syrians? Well, the Syrians.

And how could my classroom discussion of diplomatic editions matter at all in the face of it? I’d faced this fifteen years earlier when, on the morning of September 11th, 2001, I made coffee and walked to campus to teach Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” (I’ve only just heard of her death as this post is going out). I haven’t had cable television since 1998 and don’t like morning radio. I taught to students who wouldn’t make eye contact, virtually all of whom were from the same city in northern Alberta (as far north as Moscow, but colder). They had driven from home to campus with radios telling them that taking notes in first-year English couldn’t possibly matter in the face of what was unfolding, yet there I was, failing to get any response out of them for a story about the Air India bombing. Entirely unknown to me, the world had made the text new again in a vital way I didn’t even understand while working through it for students whose silence was screaming at me. They didn’t need to read it so much as they needed to rewrite it. I was walking them through a discipline that would mean something very different for the world they will inherit—someday.

But today with Hemingway, my one Canadian student eventually expressed a view that seems to have been common in many of my colleagues’ classes that day, classes in both Vancouver and New Jersey, and for friends across and outside of North America: “This is like what Hemingway was experiencing. It’s fascism.” It was sound to ask about populism and Mussolini, but at the same time it was something she clearly didn’t expect would directly affect her personally (nor did I). Outside of the classroom I might also describe a politician as a fascist (or maybe all of them), but part of that is because I don’t expect to be taken to a camp, taken off a flight, or sent back to an unsafe home. It’s one of my many privileges as a working class, first generation post-secondary, white man. “Some of my best friends” still work in lumberyards, but I did my dissertation on modernism.

The room was silent while I waited to see if anyone else wanted to say something, to make Hemingway new again in 2016. A very bright student from Korea, who had made some stunning comments in prior classes, sat beside her. He’d been sitting all class with one arm across his abdomen and the other across his chest with his hand on his neck, looking down at the floor. There are moments when we know not to talk.

“I’m afraid they’re going to increase my military service to four years…”

I’m not sure what I taught him that day, but I’m sure my one Canadian student learned a lot as that conversation unfolded. They all knew that what Hemingway was doing somehow mattered now, even if they couldn’t put their finger on it, but they also knew that being in a classroom in which almost every student came from somewhere else or spoke a different mother tongue was suddenly a lot less of a gimmick and a lot more something they wanted to protect and share. It was something they’d not thought much of but that now suddenly appeared to be the most important thing they might do.

I’ve tried hard to imagine my Syrian students reading Frantz Fanon while their home falls to pieces. My Saudi students reading Thoreau. My Zimbabwean students reading Harlem Shadows. Or my Persian students or Yemeni or Qahtani students reading T.S. Eliot. . . . Eliot? Indeed, even Eliot was made new for me by Ghanim Samarrai’s “Rejuvenating T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land” where he outlines the Arabic translations. And I now include his work when I teach The Waste Land since I always have a student eager to explain why this matters today. Eliot matters in Iraq not because of a course on modernism on a Canadian campus of an American university, but because of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.

I teach in classrooms in which it is perfectly normal to not have more than one student from any specific national or ethnic background and in which no two students share a mother tongue. In my “Postcolonial Literature” course this term, not only are students reading Mulk Raj Anand and will later look for allusions to Hemingway in Alex La Guma, but there are no more than 3 students from any shared background and not a single student from any country represented in the readings (neither colonizer nor colonized). What does Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed mean to students from Zimbabwe or El Salvador? It creates unique challenges, but it also radically reinvents texts I’d thought were now fixed in place on the end of a pin, or as Debra Rae Cohen puts it, “the most impervious modernist objects.”

I’ve always read Susan Stanford Friedman’s “Definitional Excursions” as arguing that the meaning of modernism is not only plural and conflicted in its own moment but also in our moment, looking back and (re)deploying the term for new purposes and for our changing needs in these times. Those needs are powerful and productive, and among their chief outputs is creating new knowledge: in this instance, definitional work on modernism that is consensual as well as contested, definitions that gather together while also excluding, and always based on need. Yet while we might dispense with fixed definitions, we still have opposed meanings that tell us a great deal about the conflicted forces at work and that manifest in our scholarship. “It’s fascism” indeed. And if Orwell’s 1984 is back to top the bestsellers list, how do we discuss its Cold War deployment against Stalinism while remembering its atomic bombs were written more than a year before the Soviet Union acquired the technology?

It’s the same thought that leads me through Edward Said’s Orientalism and the familiar insistence that Orientalism as an academic discipline and body of knowledge (a department with colleagues who call on us for solidarity) was neither a nefarious plot nor a neutral repository of knowledge—it is instead a “distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.” That is to say, as we well know, modernism is perpetually “new” for fresh needs and demands, just as the contested notions of it are perpetually refreshed by re-creation. It may not take the form of Pound making a Latin remaking of Homer new once again (almost a negative interest rate encouraging spending), but rather asking how the cultural products of 1914-1945 (as a loose outline of the unequally mapped terrain) are made new in these times. What’s Big Brother’s new brand if he’s back to Uncle Sam?

When my students from China want to read Cathay, those from Saudi (with or without the niqab) want to read Woolf, and those from the USA, Canada, and Germany desperately want to know why, there’s the opening of a possibility not only for the New Modernist Studies but also to recognize what’s around these students in the classroom: the distribution of one way of seeing the world into our scholarly definitions and their newness for our new times. If on or about November 8th, 2016, modernist studies’s character changed, then the change itself is the record of our new external demands. And if institutions confer subjectivity, then my classroom of 14 students the day after were all students of modernism. They were from ten or more home countries, nearly all with different mother tongues, and each demanded of modernism an answer about today that they could share as a group of people with one passionate thing in common from the institutions that conferred some form of identity: their unity in difference.