“We have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot?”
– Thomas Pynchon, quoted in Zadie Smith, “Love, Actually”
What distinguishes modernism’s legacies from the afterlives of other literary or cultural movements? To begin to answer this question, let’s glance back to 1941, when several writers of transatlantic renown composed what we might call obituaries for the modernist arts. Djuna Barnes’s “Lament for the Left Bank,” for example, an elegiac piece published in the American periodical Town and Country, memorialized a Paris made brilliant by overlapping arcs of collaborative innovation: Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes; George Antheil and Ezra Pound; Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Coco Chanel. The essay ends with the line, “The dreadful thing is not that all these things were done, but that they are over.” The things that were done and the things that are over: Barnes identifies the tensions that would come to mark modernism’s legacy in the twenty-first century, the dialectical occurrences of cultural continuity and discontinuity, of originality and repetition. For Barnes, Left Bank artists in the 1920s and 1930s did “things”—a single, compact word for modernism’s kaleidoscopic transformations—that were over by 1941, a conviction varied and echoed in other coeval “art-historical post-mortems,” to borrow from Richard Meyers, by Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Anaïs Nin, and Cyril Connolly.
Modernism’s singular allure for contemporary novelists and critics alike raises a number of questions, problems, and interpretative opportunities. What do these shared attachments reveal about the legacies of modernism today? What feelings does modernism inspire, and what values do those feelings imply? Why do contemporary novels invoke modernist writing with such urgency, and what conceptions of modernism emerge from these engagements? Should we take seriously the idea that contemporary fiction might affect the praxis of modernist criticism?
In A Room of One’s Own (1929) Virginia Woolf famously writes, “Chloe liked Olivia,” a line that anticipates, and even directs, feminist literary scholarship through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Woolf’s modernist feminism, in A Room and a range of other literary essays, calls for a female literary lineage as well as histories of the anonymous women whose stories have never been told. How then, after almost a century, has Woolf’s vision fulfilled itself? In what ways has her work reached global and contemporary audiences, and how have these audiences used modernist feminism to talk about their current political and cultural circumstances? How do we begin to construct a female literary canon that is based on the affective responses of one writer to another? The overwhelming international popularity of Elena Ferrante’s metamodern Neapolitan quartet, which includes My Brilliant Friend (2011), The Story of a New Name (2012), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013), and The Lost Child (2014), illustrates the affective impact of Woolf’s feminist ideas. Ferrante does in fiction what Woolf calls for in theory as she amplifies the implications of female friendship, matrilineal lineage, women’s anger, and anonymity. Through an appropriation of modernist feminist tendancies, both in content and form, Ferrante explores the psychological and subterranean currents of female consciousness and gives voice to Shakespeare’s sister, the female writer who comes into existence through the work of anonymous women. Ferrante, herself one of those anonymous women, continues the female lineage Woolf argues for. The inner worlds of the women in Ferrante’s realist prose remind us of Woolf’s call to remember the interior lives of women; yet Ferrante’s novels are very much products of post-fascist Italy and 1970s Italian feminism.
What would it mean to talk about certain strands of contemporary artistic production as in some strong, even emphatic sense, modernist? Instead of obeying Fredric Jameson’s periodizing imperatives and submitting to his privileging of the hypothesis of the break over that of continuity, we might use the model of Alain Badiou’s notion of an ethic of truths to account for how certain artists and works exhibit a fidelity to the event of modernism. A contemporary modernism would not merely imitate modernist models; instead, it would treat the innovations of Bertolt Brecht, or James Joyce, or Gertrude Stein as events whose implications required continued investigation. A change in political, economic, and technological conditions would not compel us to accept that art can no longer be modernist but would suggest that it must be modernist differently.[2
In a 2015 discussion on the state of Ireland’s literature, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, Anne Enright, observed that “since the crash a lot has been disrupted. There’s a resurgent modernism in writers like Eimear McBride and Sarah-Louise Bennett.” In attempting to answer the first question we should always ask of contemporary writing—why does this author write the way she does?—Enright connected the economic restructuring imposed upon Ireland by the EU in 2010 to a widely noticed shift in the texture of Irish fiction. The transformations of the relationships between capital, state, and citizen that resulted from the quaintly termed “Economic Adjustment Programme for Ireland”—what gets rather too loosely described as neoliberalism—are hardly unique to Ireland, and few would disagree they are one of the distinguishing experiences of our time. However, in seeking to describe what is new about Irish writing since the crash, Enright compares it to something old: modernism. While McBride has accepted her “continuity” with a “European” tradition of “diaspora” modernist writing, Bennett has rejected Enright’s description of her work as a kind of modernism, preferring instead to characterize it as writing which tries to avoid “falling into a shape that already exists”: “The term ‘new modernism’ is meaningless, but we are always looking for parity it seems, rather than being alert to what is distinct and fertile.” Bennett shows a prickly and refreshing frustration with critics who assimilate unexpected appearances of what has never existed before to the comforting familiarity of the modernism that has, and she pinpoints how the “new” acts as a homogenizing force when applied to the evaluation of culture. This, of course, was Baudelaire’s point at modernism’s primal scene in 1860s Paris, and it was intended as a damning one.
About halfway through Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the protagonist, Adam Gordon, declares that he has “achieved a new emotional state, or a state in which emotions no longer obtained.” In this state, he reports, “I now felt nothing, my affect a flat spectrum over a defined band.” At the same time, he comes to experience a sort of meta-affect, “a kind of euphoria at my sudden inability to feel” (Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station, 103). Immediately, Adam finds, he is a better poet. In this state of indifference, he feels, “for the first time, like a writer, as if all the real living were on the page” (104). He can at last imagine becoming the poet he wanted to be, the poet he thought would most impress the women to whom he was now so indifferent, “a poet who alone was able to array the fallen materials of the real into a song that transcended it” (104). He buys new notebooks to accommodate his poetic outpouring and feels a sudden invigorating certainty in his aesthetic vocation.
A moment in cultural “time,” as Jonathan Lethem has suggested, “is marked not so much by ideas that are argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted,” because the “character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense.” In part, Lethem’s statement helps us to explain why we find “the contemporary” at once so critically slippery and yet practically self-evident. Pushing somewhat more explicitly against Lethem’s own grain, we might also say that he reveals how easy it is to take the very character of contemporaneity for granted, since it will always be impossible to pin down—always remain in a state of perpetual “drift,” to borrow Theodor Martin’s keyword from his ambitious attempt to historicize the present. It can be just as reassuring to take for granted the idea of modernism flourishing beyond mid-century, in ways that facilitate conversations about its continuity and about its potential to describe the “character” of eras in which modernist production has hitherto not been located. Few would deem this inclination for expansion a bad thing, of course. And if modernism’s cartographic and diachronic enlargement arrogates intellectual capital to those objects or conditions it (newly) designates, then this process of adding value is analytically enriching and enabling. That modernism today seems more geohistorically widespread and generically mobile is a testament to how scholars are challenging us to apprehend why and where modernist innovations still happen: what they politically and formally mean in different hemispheric contexts; how they depart from Eurochronological frames of artistic influence and advancement; how the very “language and structure of modernism,” in Simon Gikandi’s words, allowed “a postcolonial experience” to become “articulated and imagined in literary form”; and how specific practices of modernism in the present might continue to effect radical change through oppositional modes of cultural production.[3