"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words. " ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Thoroughly Modernism

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Édouard Manet


Manet's Folies-Bergère was part of Fry's exhibit

as was Cezanne's Great Pine

(click to enlarge & see Item #20, bottom left)

Roger Fry's 1910 Exhibition of Manet and the Post - Impressionists marked a new direction for impressionism, so distinct in fact that Virginia Woolf hailed it as the onset of Modernism:
"And now I will hazard [an] . . . assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December 1910 human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910. The The first signs of it are recorded in the books of Samuel Butler, in The Way of All Flesh in particular; the plays of Bernard Shaw continue to record it. In life one can see the change . . . All human relations have shifted . . . And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910." (4 - 5)
"Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown", 1924

In addition to the 1910 Exhibition, another good place to look for the essence of Modernism is James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. By way of Stephen's theorizing, this novel contains all the major characteristics of Modernism and becomes a kind of textbook dramatization of these tenets. Stephen makes a conscious decision to break away from previously upheld beliefs. Taking an essentially Modernist stance, Stephen follows a spiritual and aesthetic path of complete abandonment and reorientation rather than trying to salvage or maintain the status quo: "His soul was still disquieted and cast down by the dull phenomenon of Dublin" (78).

What makes Stephen Dedalus a Modernist? He resorts to his imagination in a crisis. He triumphs over his enemy through language. He conquers through irony. Portrait is ultimately ironic and irony, which becomes a distinction of the Modernist canon. Even as a child, Stephen employs imagination, language, and irony, envisioning his own death and the disgrace of Wells:
"Wells too would be there but no fellow would look at him. The rector would be there . . . and there would be tall yellow candles . . . And they would carry the coffin out of the chapel slowly and he would be buried in the little graveyard . . . And Wells would be sorry then for what he had done. And the bell would toll slowly.

". . . How beautiful the words were where they said Bury me in the old churchyard! . . . He wanted to cry but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music. The bell! The bell! Farewell! O farewell!"(24 - 25)
What makes Stephen an artist? Because he wants "to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld" (65). He wants to resolve conflict. Take, for example, the discussion of religion, country, and family which arises at the dinner table. The self - evident truth that these three factors or even two of them cannot be reconciled leads to such an unreliable and undesirable state that Stephen is eventually motivated to create a realm of beauty in contrast to the unsavory chaos of reality. Unfortunately, recognition of the conflict is also admission that the problem is unsolvable, that despite moments of ostensible harmony, the world is a fragmented mess:
"How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interests and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tide within him. Useless. From without as from within the water had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbled mole . . .

" . . . it wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world's culture and that the monkish learning, in terms of which he was striving to forge out an esthetic philosophy, was held no higher by the age he lived in than the subtle and curious jargons of heraldry and falconry." (98, 180)
In the face of fragmentation and uncertainty, the artist's role in Modernism is to try one solution after the next. In his artistic growth, Stephen experiments with (1) the desire to be his own father, to generate himself out of and into perfect autonomy, reflecting the goal of Modernism that the text creates itself; (2) his sense of order, perceived via integitas, consonantia, and claritas, thus arriving at quidditas; (3) the questions he has set himself, the answers to which explain his aesthetic ("Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? Is the portrait of Mona Lisa good if I desire to see it? Is the bust of Sir Philip Crampton lyrical, epical or dramatic? If not, why not?"); (4) the need to separate himself from the world and even from his work, "like the God of creation . . . within or behind or beyond or above . . . indifferent"; (5) his reliance on "silence, exile, and cunning" and fearlessness (212, 214, 215, 247):
"You made me confess the fears I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too. . . . I will take the risk."
I have always admired Stephen's list and been intrigued by the possibility that his declamation alone is enough to increase his courage and confidence. Whereas T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh show us "fear in a handful of dust," James Joyce portrays fear as a call to action. Although Stephen Dedalus says the opposite, he enumerates the very things he fears the most and, by denouncing, conquers them.

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, August 14th

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my shorter, almost daily blog posts

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