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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October 9, 2009

Conflict Resolution: Ralph Bunche’s Nobel Prize (3)

Image (49)Today, October 9, 2009, President Barack Obama learned that he was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; some believe that it was given in anticipation of the pacific and internationalist diplomacy that his administration would embody.  Since I have been writing for months here on progressives and their confidence in the efficacy of “conflict-resolution” as the jewel in their crowns, I am commenting on two figures today who also advocated an end to war. First, here is Woodrow Wilson, thirteen years before he commenced his promotion of the League of Nations; indeed the last of his famous Fourteen Points called for precisely such an international organization. But in the speech below, it is clearly the class war that alarmed him while he was still President of Princeton University. (The material that follows is the conclusion of my blog https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/ ):

     Representing the American Whig Society at the Sesquicentennial Celebration at Princeton University, a quaking Wilson addressed his magnificently dressed international audience, October 21, 1896; his topic “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” “The Old World trembles to see its proletariat in the saddle.” “The literature of your own race and country” would instruct the masses, and neutralize “the work of the noxious, intoxicating gas which has somehow got into the lungs of the rest of us, from out the crevices of [the scientist’s] workshop…I should tremble to see social reform led by men who have breathed it; I should fear nothing better than utter destruction from a revolution conceived and led in the scientific spirit. Do you wonder, then, that I ask for the old drill, the old memory of times gone by, the old schooling in precedent and tradition, the old keeping of faith with the past, as a preparation for leadership in the days of social change?” Closing his remarks, a calmer Wilson elaborated his pacific model of the perfected university, breeding ground for democratic leaders to be trained in the ascetic ideal, hence liberated from Sumner’s ruptures, Margoth’s foul wind[s],[1] and the example of Europe’s runaway horsy proles. Serving “the nation,” it would be

           ” the home of sagacious men, hard-headed and with a will to know, debaters of the world’s questions every day and used to the rough ways of democracy: and yet a place removed–calm Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun, not knowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer; and Literature, walking within her open doors, in quiet chambers, with men of olden times, storied walls about her, and calm voices infinitely sweet; here ‘magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,’ to which you may withdraw and use your youth for pleasure; there windows open straight upon the street, where many stand and talk, intent upon the world of men and affairs. A place for men, and all that concerns them; but unlike the world in its self-possession, its thorough[2] way of talk, its care to know more than the moment brings to light; slow to take excitement; its air pure and wholesome with a breath of faith; every eye within it bright in the clear day and quick to look toward heaven for the confirmation of its hope. Who shall show us the way to that place?”

   With science safely closeted and purified, the South would rise again. Wilson’s home was a typically Southern one: quieted, for a time, but not subdued. In the late 1930s, one writer stated flatly that the South had justifiably hated the North, and without remission: ” The late war had seemed to them a test between the strength of men and the strength of things, between a spiritual philosophy and a materialistic philosophy; and they were convinced that the result of it would be the extinction of everything they valued. They felt that more-and-more and not better-and-better was the inevitable motto of the new order; and they believed that such a premise was comfortable only with the standardized and the un-polite; the essentially un-human.” [3]

The genteel South, like much of the anti-consumerist, anti-commercial 1960s counter-culture and New Left, would not be railroaded by Yankee Puritans; would not be uplifted by “geologic Jew[s]” into the modern age. [end excerpt, Margoth v. Robert E. Lee]

     Also, on this website, I have suggested that the Southerner Wilson viewed “self-determination” as analogous to “state’s rights,” and that his collectivist ideology, in a typical “progressive” gesture erased the individual and epistemological materialism in general in favor of “community” or “the public interest” (as defined by elites). Add to that the numerous blogs in which I likened the now omnipresent “peace studies” or “conflict-resolution” exercises in the schools, to a kind of “coerced harmony” from above, in which the artful, manipulative, but always rational and neutral “mediator” brings to the table two irrational entities, whose lust for war, in this industrialized but disorganized world of deadly weapons widely distributed to the crazies, will ignite the planet in a war that will destroy everyone with unprecedented ferocity.

     The fear of apocalypse was present in the imagination of Ralph Bunche as he was given the task of mediating the war of 1948, after the new state of Israel was invaded by her neighbors. His labors as mediator earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, but as he states (privately) in his papers, he thought that he should have given it back. The armistices that he negotiated were not peace treaties at all, but the result of unanticipated Israeli military victories in late 1948 that had brought Egypt to the table, lest Israel expand further beyond the borders agreed upon by the United Nations partition resolution of November 29, 1947. For the Arab states, the armistice agreements were stopping points in a war they would never relinquish until the Jews and their State were out of the Middle East.

    Nor was Bunche the disinterested figure that has been painted by hagiographers. His papers show that both during the period he was assisting Count Bernadotte and after he became Acting Mediator (Bernadotte had been assassinated in September 1948) he was transmitting the strategies advanced by the U.S. Department of State and the Foreign Office of the U.K., for instance in the designs that the U.K. had on the Negev as a site for a military base. I see the armistice negotiations as a charade, but Bunche’s success is made the inspiration for student exercises in effective conflict-resolution in a booklet prepared by the National Center for History in the Schools (UCLA), A Unit of Study for Grades 9-12. It is entitled “Infinite Patience, Indomitable Will, Ralph Bunche, His Struggle for Peace and Justice,” while the publicity for the Spingarn Medal awarded to him in 1949 restores the Great Man theory of history.

   A few scholars have noted Bunche’s real influences and the dynamics of conflict that led to the armistices between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria (Michael J. Cohen and before that, J. C. Hurewitz), but in the material presented by UCLA Magazine, he is lauded “for his success in negotiating a peaceful settlement….” as if the United Nations intervention alone had led to a resolution of conflict.

    To link these three sections together (Wilson, the spirituality of Southern Review, and Bunche), my complaint is not against conflict-resolution as such, but rather the invisibility of irreconcilable conflicts, grounded in competing material economic, political, and cultural interests, in the minds of many advocates of “peace studies.” When Wilson relegated “science” to the nunnery, he was throwing overboard the only methodology that could minimize future violent conflict: that is, narrowing the difference between the rich and poor nations through economic, political, and cultural development. Unless the meaning of “spirituality” is changed to the unblinkered search for the multiple material and ideological causes of conflict, we have nothing but words, words, words along with glittering medals that signify nothing.


[1] Herman Melville, Clarel, 2.26, 1-24. Margoth has insulted the Roman Catholic Church, declaring that “All, all’s geology, I trow.” Margoth is first introduced in the text at the dung-gate. The narrator explains that it marked where “By torch the tipstaves Jesus led,/ And so through back-street hustling sped/ To Pilate./ Odor bad it has/ This gate in story¼.” (1.24, 16-20).

 [2] Compare to Wilson’s description of the Radical Reconstruction program: “Thorough” in Division and Reunion.

 [3] From Southern Review Vol.3 (July-April 1937-38), “What The South Figured 1865-1914,” by John Donald Wade. See also Frank L. Owsley, “Jefferson Davis,” Southern Review, Vol.3, 762-768. Affirming the State’s rights position, Owsley points out that, despite modernization, differing sectional interests remain. The majority may not tyrannize minorities. Cf. Geographer Sumner’s survey of the American continent in “Are We A Nation?” Our rivers and mountains confer natural unity on the nation. In the same volume of Soutern Review see also Donald Davidson, “Regionalism as Social Science,” 209-224, for his preference for Turner over Beard. The essay may be read as supportive of multiculturalism and postmodernism. For a repudiation of Robert E. Lee’s too passive stance, see Andrew Nelson Lytle, “Robert E. Lee,” SR Vol.1 (1935-36): 411-422. “[It was not Lee, who submitted, and trusted in God’s mercy, but rather] those who led the Ku Klux Klan, that society which made survival possible.

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