The Clare Spark Blog

June 9, 2011

When did “modernism” begin?

Ze’ev Sternhell

[This is an updated comment I once made on the Melville discussion group “Ishmail” in 2003. It reflects my reading at the time.]

First, was “modernism” as an art movement, modern, or was modernism a revolt against “feminized” Victorian culture/liberalism and rationalism, an entity that is for me the very model of modernity? Roger Sandall, a conservative anthropologist, sees the lot of modernists as romantic primitivists and a bad thing that influenced recent trends in the humanities (postmodernism). I have no doubt that the irrationalists Sandall excoriated were terrified of modern women. [Update: I should have mentioned the invention of the printing press as the beginning of modernism, but was not aware of this dating until I started noticing how “liberals” attacked autodidacts as assassins in the late 1990s. This became a major theme of my book on the Melville Revival (2001).]

Second, were 1930s cultural figures who expressed vicious statements about “the Jews” and their baleful influence in bringing about the transformations generally called modernity (but not always), also opponents of artistic modernism? I think that (leftist) Ze’ev Sternhell’s book Neither Left Nor Right: Fascist Ideology in France treats the problem in France and Italy, but I can recommend a run of a particular journal that shows how slippery these labels can be (Robert Paxton dislikes Sternhell’s “middle way” interpretation, rejecting the notion that France was ever fascist, though fascist writers and intellectuals surely existed there).

 American Review was published by Seward Collins, a supporter of the Southern Agrarians, and from whose ranks many of the New Critics emerged. Frankly profascist, it appeared from 1934-37, and attempted to synthesize the thought of New Humanists (incl. Irving Babbitt and More), the English Distributists (incl. G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc), the Neo-Thomists (incl. Robert Maynard Hutchins), and the Southern Agrarians (incl. Alan Tate, Donald Davidson). I read most of every issue, and I recall the animus toward James Joyce and Alfred Stieglitz, contrasting with the admiration for Eliot and Pound. In 1934, they published T. S. Eliot’s famous Barbour lecture at the University of Virginia in which he made his remark about limiting the number of freethinking Jews lest community cohesiveness be jeopardized.

I have described a lot of the materials in this fascinating journal (and it was a revelation to me) in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, as a number of their writers were great fans of Herman Melville.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/, for names of famous critics who published in AR.) There was also some crossover with the writers of American Literature, founded in 1929 I think. I have yet to go through Southern Review or other literary periodicals of the 1930s with similar politics.

The Trotskyists of Partisan Review were a confusing lot also. Picasso published a piece decrying the Stock Exchange in an early issue. They published T. S. Eliot (in 1943 I believe) and their writers were in the front lines defending Ezra Pound in the Bollingen Prize controversy of 1949, insisting on the separation between art and life.

It is only lately that I have discovered that “modernism” is seen as prefascist by more than Ze’ev Sternhell. I am reading (Catholic) Richard Noll’s history of The Jung Cult and was amazed to see Freud, Nietzsche, Wagner, Jung, and other “bourgeois” and crypto-Protestant cult leaders all grouped together as promoting the romantic individual, hence part of the supposedly volkisch ideology that fed Hitler and the Nazis. Theodor Herzl is similarly classified with these very bad, very modern fellows in a biography by Amos Elon.

I raised this issue on my KPFK program once (probably in the 1990s), and got a phone call from a frightened academic who said that it was professional suicide to make distinctions between the left-wing and right-wing modernists. If you are interested in the ideology of the New Critics who were so influential in the reconstruction of the humanities curriculum in the late 1930s, please read https://clarespark.com/2009/11/22/on-literariness-and-the-ethical-state/. You will see why my radio caller was afraid to be identified, even by his first name.

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