Monday, August 27, 2007

How German Is It?

The age of criticism has begun. For the past couple of days I've been reading Aesthetics and Politics, a handy little primer which chronicles the Marxist response to Modernism through essays and letters by Bloch, Lukács, Benjamin, Brecht and Adorno, with a wrap-up afterword by Fredric Jameson. What I like about Marxist criticism, as I was saying to Emily over a burrito last night, is that whether or not one agrees with the ideology, it's bracing to see that level of rigor applied to ideas, to see writers straining themselves to do justice to both their theories and historical facts, and to organize themselves into coherent positions vis-à-vis each other. It's that passionate rigor which is almost always missing from contemporary criticism, whether academic or otherwise: sadly, it may only be purchasable at the cost of being kind of an overzealous asshole.

Anyway, just a small thing for now. Jameson, in his conclusion says that "[t]he legacy of German Expressionism provided a more propitious framework for the development of a major debate within Marxism," and explains this fact by saying that "in the writings of the surrealists, and particular of Breton, the problem of realism largely fails to arise — in the first instance owing to their initial repudiation of the novel as a form. While for their principal adversary Jean-Paul Sartre … the realism/modernism dilemma did not arise either, but for the opposite reason: because of Sartre's preliminary exclusion of poetry and the lyric from his account of the nature and function of literature in general. Thus in France, until that second wave of modernism (or post-modernism) represented by the nouveau roman and the nouvelle vague, Tel Quel and 'structuralism,' the terrain for which realism and modernism were elsewhere so bitterly to contend — that of narrative — was effectively divided up between them in advance, as though in amicable separation" (197).

An interesting claim, that, and a difficult one to assess without a great deal of historical research. I think there are problems here. For one thing, it suggests a too-easy equation of poetry (and lyric in particular) with the subjective and fiction with the objective and committed that smacks of Lukács at his worst. Poetry is often spoken about, it seems to me, as some sort of means of escape or forced marginalization, perhaps for the simple reason that it's so much less popular than fiction. But when we're dealing with experimental literature, it really seems to me that this is a sort of category-error: it's only that modernist novels seem to be the same sort of things as popular novels that we think of them as being a more realistic or objective, more world-embracing, form than lyric poetry. In contrast, by the mid-20th century, there is no popular poetry really: it's all degrees of specialty interest.

But let's leave that aside, for now. Another thing that interests me here is Jameson's characterization of France as the province of a sort of complacent radicalism which remained outside the important debates about Modernism until the 60s. This is especially surprising given that the majority of the literary authors at issue throughout the book are French, including Balzac, Baudelaire, Proust, Valéry, Sartre, and, if we want to be provocative, we can count Beckett too. (The other major names that get thrown around are Thomas Mann, Joyce, Kafka and, of course, Brecht.) And in fact, after the initial exchange between Bloch and Lukács, Expressionism itself is little-mentioned in the debate: perhaps because it was quite literally destroyed by the rise of the Nazis, who viewed it as "degenerate art."

From the Marxist perspective, then, France is not ahead of the times (as most British and American intellectuals tended to think) but behind them, or rather it provides the times' most interesting literary symptoms, ready-made for German dialecticians to diagnose. Given this structure of cultural economy, it would be more accurate, it seems to me, not to dismiss France but to name it as a particular kind of site of literary production, just as Germany (or, to be more precise, Germans, since much of the writing in Aesthetics and Politics was produced in exile) as the source of the most sophisticated and influential literary theory of the period, is another. The whole book, read slightly against the grain, provides an interesting example of the division of labor among national intellectual communities in the Modernist period. In this scheme, it's usually French writers — or writers with the seal of French approval, like Joyce and Beckett — who are received as important; it's German critics (mostly Marxists and Critical Theorists, including Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer) who fight out the issues of Modernism on the terrain of aesthetic theory and provide ground for later philosophical justifications; and it's American entrepeneurs (Sylvia Beach and Ezra Pound, of course, spring immediately to mind) who publicize and canonize the great works that this transnational cycle of cultural production throws up.* This model holds good more or less up until the sixties, when Tel Quel and the post-structuralists finally supersede Marxism in the affections of American academics; which, of course, is also the moment in which Jameson himself comes of age.

[* This leads me to a further unwarranted speculation. Each nation got the version of Modernism its philosophical heritage could best imagine: Germany, with its tradition of idealism, produced the tortured distortions of Expressionism; France, home of Cartesianism, the proudly subjective but self-evidently present (because provocative) excesses of Surrealism, etc. England is a trickier call: I don't really see Humean skepticism or Russelian logic underlying the development of British Modernism (Empson, maybe?), but one way to explain this would be to say that in England literature was always more important than philosophy: therefore, its Modernism evolved in dialectic with the previous tradition, rather than starting over from some newly adopted position. (The negative way of putting this is that, in England, the new boss was the same as the old boss.) Finally, in America, the legacy of pragmatism produced a literature primarily committed to bringing artistic methods up to date, a milieu in which artists looked over each other's shoulders and commented on particularities of construction, rather than decimating each other's metaphysical foundations as in so much European literature (and literary theory). Pound, obviously, would be the classic example here. (I'd say this is also why the American academy was the most welcoming to Modernism in general, as well: because so much of its energies went into carving out a place for contemporary literature in the public sphere.) ]

Correction appended: It was morning, not night. And it was a breakfast burrito.