This is about failure: my own failure to think forward, my own failure to see the future. Perhaps this piece can provide an opportunity to reflect on what can emerge from individual failures as well as our field’s reckoning with its wider failures: failure to grapple with racism and white supremacy, failure to support emerging scholars, failure to intervene meaningfully in the dismantling of the university as a site of serious thought and the generation of transformative ideas.
“What should we do with the art of terrible men?” asks Emily Nussbaum in I Like to Watch. Reading this book reignited my anger over #MeToo. Nussbaum asks a question that was inescapable in the fall of 2017. The question is difficult, in part because it frames a complex set of issues as resolvable with a single answer. To get an intellectual handle on the question, I had to lay out the nesting-doll questions hidden inside the big one. Two of them are the focus of my essay: what is the role of literary criticism in the era of #MeToo? Do modernist critics have distinctive responsibilities or knowledge pertaining to #MeToo? My answers to these questions emphasize praxis: what those of us working in the field of modernist literary studies can do to ensure the lessons of #MeToo aren’t forgotten. Modernist scholars assume many roles, of course. The essays in the cluster “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” address the implications of #MeToo for modernist pedagogy. This essay complements the cluster by directing our attention to a different (though sometimes overlapping) role, that of the literary critic. I outline in practical terms some of the implications of #MeToo for modernist criticism in the hopes that such concrete thinking will spur conversation about ways to embed the lessons of #MeToo in our critical practices.
The year is 1949. It’s the moment of the culturally searing Bollingen controversy in the United States, which erupts when the prestigious prize for “the highest achievement of American poetry,” issued by the Library of Congress, is awarded in February to American modernist poet Ezra Pound for the “Pisan Cantos”: this is the recent lyrical segment of the Cantos, Pound’s Dantescan long poem in progress, composed while he is held at an American military detention center near Pisa, Italy, during World War II, in 1945, after indictment for treason by the US government. On the Bollingen selection committee sit leading literary figures such as W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter, Karl Shapiro, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. At this moment, Pound is known as the once leonine figure of American and modernist letters brought low by a charge of treason emerging from his support of the Italian Fascist government, in the form of speeches broadcast over Rome Radio. The topics of these vary: some denounce international finance; some signal support for fascist Italy and Mussolini (whose heroic strong-man persona Pound has venerated for years); some include anti-Semitic diatribes; many are garbled and even raving in ways suggesting instability of mind.
The figure of Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936) looms large in the development of modern Spanish literature, as thoroughly demonstrated by Leslie Harkema’s Spanish Modernism and the Poetics of Youth. By carefully tracing the literary and cultural impact of Unamuno’s writings, letters, and public lectures from the 1890s to the 1930s—four crucial decades for the development of Spain as a modern nation—Harkema presents an important and necessary critical rereading of the literary history of Spanish modernist and avant-garde movements. At the core of Harkema’s book lies a sophisticated critical examination of Unamuno’s work and influence that successfully overcomes old clichés and previously established commonplaces about the influential Basque polymath (poet, novelist, academic, politician, philologist, and philosopher, in no particular order), while at the same time newly presenting Unamuno’s philosophical and literary conceptualizations of youth in relation to a complex constellation of key networks of literary and cultural production in modern Spain.
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.
Ghostbusters (2016) has floated across the summer blockbuster landscape like so many colorful balloons of popular entertainment before it: an airy bauble destined to disappear. However, its ascendance into the box office heavens has been weighed down with some surprising (and unsurprising) baggage.