The new culture will flower on the stem of the old
cultural stagnation and waiting for modernism
With all the talk of cultural stagnation— recently fromand the New York Times, last year from Christian Lorentzen (and also the New York Times), before that from Ross Douthat—it feels like we are waiting for another Modernism, a way of making it all new again.
But how will we know when the stagnation (assuming it exists) is over? After all, no-one much praised Prufrock and other Observations when it appeared in 1917. Modernism started not with a bang but with a whimper. Similarly, no-one thought Moby Dick was any good when it was first published. The first reviews panned Gatsby. What hidden masterpieces are among us now?
“If there were more like you, we should get on with our renaissance,” Ezra Pound told John Quinn, the man who bankrolled Modernism. Pound and Quinn did a great deal of the work required for the new movement to flourish. Quinn’s funding followed Pound’s advice. Pound is problematic, but was, along maybe with Maxwell Perkins, the most important finder and developer of literary talent in the twentieth century.
Notice that Pound called modernism a renaissance—a rediscovery. He advised Iris Barry not to read Wordsworth (“a dull sheep”) or Byron (“rotten”) or Kipling (“debased”) or Yeats (“sham Celticism”). Instead, he told her, read the Romans. The poetry of the past was essential to Eliot too. As Virginia Woolf said, after reading Eliot’s early writing, and talking to him,
I think he believes in ‘living phrases’ & their differences from dead ones; in writing with extreme care, in observing all syntax and grammar; & so making this new poetry flower on the stem of the oldest.
Eliot’s whole poetics is to make the dead live. The image of death and birth conjoined recurs in Eliot’s writing. “I had not thought death had undone so many,” the narrator of The Waste Land said. In The Journey of the Magi, “this Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” In Four Quartets, Eliot compares attachment with detachment from “self and thing,” talking of them as plants,
and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives — unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle
Indifference is the true emptiness, not death. Death is a rebirth. But to begin with, we won’t know what’s taking over. Ezra Pound sent thousands of letters. He translated, composed, proselytised, polemicised for years before Modernism became the renaissance he wanted. He was working through another period of stasis and change takes time.
Our own stagnation might be economic—Ted Gioia thinks streaming is bad for music; Lorentzen blames marketing for making culture boring. There’s an argument that chasing an online audience is a race to the bottom. The internet makes it easier to produce a mass of low-grade entertainment that’s easier to sell than a new Modernism.
But that’s not all the internet does. It means we are all staying at home to watch Netflix rather than go to the movies, but it also allows us all to have our own niche cultures and to explore them much more deeply than ever before. Since deep connection to the past is an essential part of any renaissance, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This new cultural reality is so different from what came before—we lived in a world of books, radio, and TV, and now we live in the internet!—it is no wonder if the adjustment is taking some time.
And still, remarkable writing occurs. The novel is no more dead than you or I. Before modernism were the much-derided Georgians, between Tennyson and the Romantics a great gap, before Lyrical Ballads a generation of late Augustans largely forgotten now, between Chaucer and the great age of the English lyric was an era of now-unread poetry.
If there is a stagnation today, maybe someone somewhere is preparing to make the new poetry flower on the stem of the oldest.