A century after the annus mirabilis of literary modernism
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
A god can do it. But will you tell me how
a man can penetrate through the lyre’s strings?
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus 1,3
THE VERY NEXT line of the third sonnet of the first cycle in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus presents us with a dilemma we have endured for a long time. How to translate “Sein Sinn ist Zwiespalt…”? Rather literally, it would be “His/One’s senses” (Sein Sinn). The practice in English has been to render it “His mind”. But was Rilke in his feverish imagination talking about the god’s mind or the man’s? Then Stephen Mitchell, in his seminal 1980 translation (source of the epigraph), decided to make it “Our mind”. That seems more double valence than resolution. And “Zwiespalt” would appear to give the impression of a conflict in god’s or man’s or our mind, not exactly caught by “divided” or “split”. But then, mind and sense are not synonymous either. Now was it Syed Mujtaba Ali who, at some point on his existential arc extending from India through Afghanistan, Germany and North Africa to Bangladesh, remarked that the original and its translation are akin to the two faces of a Persian carpet? You appreciate the beauty of both, but they aren’t quite the same.
A hundred years ago, in February 1922, in what he himself called a “savage creative storm”, the Prague-born Rilke would write the 55 sonnets in a mere three weeks and finish the Duino Elegies begun ten years ago, sheltered in the Château de Muzot in the Rhone Valley. The two masterworks would not be published until 1923 but about a month before February 1922, another Prague-born writer had begun a novel that would come to be called The Castle. Between them, Rilke and Franz Kafka could epitomise all that was great and good and noble about a world that had already disappeared. A century later, we still debate where one Bohemian-Austrian poet was going with his metaphors and what he had in mind when using a particular pronoun and we are still intrigued by a Jewish-Bohemian novelist who perhaps never took himself, and life, very seriously. The map of the 20th century would not be the same without these two German-language writers, defined as it was by their vanished world.
But neither Rilke nor Kafka is top of our mind when we look back at 1922, a year that in retrospect has posthumously existed between the parentheses of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in its entirety in that self-same February by Sylvia Beach (of the original Shakespeare and Company forced to shut by the Nazis in 1941) in Paris, and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, first published in his Criterion in October and two months later in book form. For Ezra Pound, the publication of Ulysses was the end of an era and the beginning of another. In fact, believing it called for a new calendar, Pound wrote HL Mencken: “The Christian Era ended at midnight on Oct. 29-30 of last year [when Joyce wrapped up]. You are now in the year 1 p.s.U.” The “p.s.U.” stood for “post scriptum Ulysses”.
Virginia Woolf, whose Jacob’s Room would make no little contribution to indexing 1922 as the “annus mirabilis of literary modernism”, riding the full force of her classist Bloomsbury snobbery detested Joyce with his “dregs of a mind” and his work (“the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges”, or, more infamously, “An illiterate, underbred book…the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking & ultimately nauseating”). But her dear friend Eliot saw things differently. In his review of Ulysses in The Dial (November 1923), Eliot wrote: “In using the myth in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him… It is a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”
It wasn’t just the end of the novel form (“The novel ended with Flaubert and with James”, Eliot) and the birth of a new literature but the beginning of the 20th century all over again—born once in or about end-1910 (“On or about December 1910 human nature changed” in Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1924; the significance of 1910 being the ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ exhibition at Mayfair’s Grafton Galleries organised by Roger Fry and Clive Bell), its blossoming interrupted and then transmogrified by the Great War. But much of what Eliot had to say about Joyce also applied to his own poem, paralleling past and present, synthesising myths, languages and texts, and seeing itself as a universal epic. A new form for a new sensibility. A new ordering of the reality of a new chaos. And yet, so little of it ‘new’.
In 1922, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu began to appear in English (it would be a long time again before someone would think of renaming “Remembrance of Things Past” as the more literally and literarily correct In Search of Lost Time). Katherine Mansfield would publish The Garden Party and Other Stories and the arch-modernist, über-Freudian ‘The Fly’ (collected in The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories in 1923) the same year. Across the Atlantic, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned appeared in book form in March. WB Yeats (to be awarded the Nobel the following year) published Later Poems in 1922, demonstrating what “[a]n old man’s eagle mind” meant. Of course, no one ran about in the street hankering after copies of Ulysses or Waste Land; they hardly made a ripple in the pond of life outside literary circles. But Joyce and Eliot would eclipse everything else published in 1922, with the exception of Proust and perhaps the most important non-literary publication of the year: the English translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published the year before in Austria, not under the Latin but everyday German title Logisch- Philosophische Abhandlung.
Neither Rilke nor Kafka is on our mind when we look back at 1922, a year that in retrospect has existed between the parentheses of James Joyce’s Ulysses and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. For Ezra Pound, the publication of Ulysses was the end of an era and the beginning of another
As the 1920s were just beginning to roar in America, in Berlin and in Paris, the BBC made its first broadcast late in 1922. Acknowledging that the age of radio had begun, US President Warren G Harding delivered a speech using the medium in 1922, although hardly anybody cares anymore that this was also the year of the first facsimile picture, “sent” via phone lines. Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One (2012), despite the hackneyed and rather limited form of a year-biography, is an excellent source of the accidents, coincidences and patterns that informed the annus mirabilis of literary modernism and its milieu. Alas, anecdotal history, even when doing its best to tie up loose ends and disparate narrative trajectories, hardly lends itself depth or the 360-degree critical view needed to connect patterns. Conversely, it can create an illusion of pattern where none exists. For those broader connections of the magical year to the intellectual-cultural future of the planet, Michael North’s Reading 1922 (1999) is recommended reading. Nevertheless, when Jackson’s book came out, it did alert readers and critics with a decade to go before the centenary, although they have since hardly been waiting for the clock to strike midnight on December 31st, 2021.
Which brings us to a point of contention: Why 1922 and why not, say, 1925? That latter year saw the publication of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, her so-called stream-of-consciousness answer to Ulysses (which it was not), a novel that more than any other demonstrated that the only reality worth engaging with anymore was the one inside, not least because of the unfortunate Septimus Warren Smith and what the war had done to his mind. It also changed the narrative voice in fiction forever from its famous opening lines. 1925 was also the year of publication of The Great Gatsby and the short-story collection In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway’s debut. The list for either year could go on. And there’s no right or wrong of this debate. But for the votaries of 1925 who argue that the middle of the decade saw the consolidation and mainstreaming of modernism, that in or about 1925 modernism slipped into the public consciousness without the public even noticing, and therefore it was the more significant year, here’s a simple counter: Would what happened in 1925 have happened if what happened in 1922 hadn‘t happened? And oh, Fitzgerald’s most famous novel happened to be set in 1922. And Woolf wrote “Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street”, the first of the stories that went on to become the novel, in 1922.
One of the most definitive intellectual cases for 1922, rightfully with caveats, was made recently by Michael Levenson: “Other years can make miracle claims of their own: we can’t go far resting on accidents of the calendar. But the advantage in beginning with 1922 is that many of the year’s works displayed intersecting forms and intellectual contents that give sharper outline to the movement of modernism. These works registered the effects of both the devastating war and the first acts of recovery from it. In some ways, the most surprising feature of 1922 is the scale of ambition. After the unprecedented violence, not only were careers resumed, but also the challenges of modernism were extended, and the canvases of experiment enlarged” (The Cambridge History of Modernism, edited by Vincent Sherry, 2016). On the centrality of the war, Levenson—referring to e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room and Hemingway’s response to the “banality of wartime prose” through his terse minimalism—says: “The war was more than inescapable content; it was a force field of new forms.”
In October 1922, the fascists took power in Italy. In November 1923, the Munich Beer Hall Putsch was quelled. Neither Marxist promise nor Weberian apprehension could stop history. But between them, these two influences on art worked their way into a political awareness
Although the scope of this essay is literary ‘high modernism’, the story of 1922 and the decade can’t be fairly told without a look at what was happening in the other arts. In its aesthetic ambitions, the 1920s were helped by the pre-war radical experimentations of the avant-garde. The war had followed, not preceded, imagism, futurism (Filippo Tommaso Marinetti would first write the Futurist Manifesto in 1909 and embark on a promotional cross-continental raid before co-authoring the Fascist Manifesto in 1919), expressionism (while expressionist art had begun practically with the century, even German expressionist cinema had debuted before the war and only resumed and intensified, producing its greatest films, in the 1920s, including Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu in 1922 and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927), cubism (Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was first exhibited in Barcelona in 1912 and then, more famously, in New York’s Armory Show in 1913) and Dada.
If Joyce and Eliot were attempting a “grand synthesis” in Ulysses (begun, incidentally, in 1914) and Waste Land, post-war, Pablo Picasso, as a case study, was already moving towards a “synthetic” cubism from “analytical” cubism.
Whereas analytic or analytical cubism broke the object down and studied a fragment of it, synthetic cubism became an art of restoring, putting it all back together, in the process flattening the image and removing all semblance of three-dimensional space. As evidence, see the paintings of Olga from the closing years of the war till the mid-1920s before the implosion of the marriage and her transformation into Picasso’s surrealist nightmare.
The first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde The Rite of Spring was at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in the spring of 1913. But this revolution in music, composed for Sergei Diaghilev, was not recognised for what it was till the tide of modernism had crested—after 1922. In 1919, Josef Matthias Hauer had developed a twelve-tone technique that would be overshadowed by Arnold Schönberg’s more famous twelve-tone technique in 1923.
If 1922 is seen as the beginning of “World Literature”, that is, an acknowledgement of other literatures from the heart of a transatlantic Eurocentrism, long before formal academic “comparative studies” and the question of “literature in a globalised world”, as the decade rolled on, the contradictions and conflicts within modernism broke through the surface. No study of the post- 1922 development of modernism in Europe and America, let alone that of the Harlem Renaissance, can afford to ignore Jean Toomer’s largely forgotten novel Cane (1923). In its formal experimentation and refusal to speak uncritically of blacks while not pandering to expectations of white readers, Toomer created a masterwork that made a lot of people uncomfortable, including WEB Du Bois. Cane was a child of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) but Toomer’s achievement was not merely the mixing of forms and genres or the polyphony but equally the foregrounding of the “regional”, shoring up the fragments of the “folk-spirit” against its ruins on the “modern desert”, before it disappeared altogether. “It was a song of an end” (Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Geneviève Fabre and Michel Feith, 2001), an unfulfilled promise of resolution and of the American North and South, of white and black. Notably, Eliot’s “universal epic” prompted William Carlos Williams to move in the opposite direction: the provincial, the ‘authentic’ local. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury would, of course, close the decade in 1929.
“The later twenties…can be seen to begin already in 1923. As Eliot moves beyond The Waste Land…towards a classicism, as Pound invented new forms for his epic… as Lawrence looked to ‘change the world,’ a series of currents within modernism converged in accepting the political force of art” (Levenson). Even as modernists continued interpreting the nature of time and space, illusion and reality, fiction (poetry being its supreme example according to Wallace Stevens) and the world, under the shadow of Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud, 1922 remained its crest. And the newer shadows falling across the spectrum of art were those of Karl Marx and Max Weber, as different as those were.
In October 1922, the Fascists took power in Italy. In November 1923, the Munich Beer Hall Putsch was quelled. Neither Marxist promise nor Weberian apprehension could stop a history that need not have been lived. But between them, these two influences on art worked their way into a political awareness and alertness visible from Soviet montage to German expressionism. In 1925, Kafka’s The Trial (written in 1914-15), almost making the Weberian word on bureaucracy flesh, was published posthumously (but wouldn’t appear in an English translation for another decade). Luigi Pirandello’s play-within-a-play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, published in 1921 was translated into English in 1922. André Gide’s novel-within-a-novel, The Counterfeiters, was published in 1925 and appeared in English two years later. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain came out in 1924 and got an English translation in 1927. Fascism would soon claim Ezra Pound as an adherent, Mann and Schönberg would flee Nazism, Eliot would take a lyrical and religious turn, Joyce would persist in his pursuit of universal narratives, Gertrude Stein would parade her personal and political conflict to the point of collaborating with Vichy France (while being Jewish)… DH Lawrence (his contribution to 1922 was the novel Aaron’s Rod and the short-story collection England, My England) would die in 1930. But while in looking down from above and dismissing the reader, some of the literary modernists also made themselves vulnerable to the charms of the idea of the great individual, it was always unfair and a leap of logic to connect, say, Lawrence’s “blood aristocracy” directly with the gas chambers. Modernism, in any case, did not die. It dispersed and morphed.
In common parlance, post-modernism succeeded modernism. While there is the distinctive case for a new ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ that proclaimed itself between the end of World War II and the 1970s, the timeline of the postmodern could be stretched back to the 1870s when it was first used for the emergent post-Impressionist aesthetic. But the idea of postmodern took solid form and evolved into the meaning we now associate with the term more recently. Harking back to Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History (1947) and his identification of 1875 as a point of departure and the beginning of a new age, Stuart Sim in his Irony and Crisis (2002) says: “Already in Toynbee we have a vision of post-modernity as a journey into unknown territory where the old cultural constants no longer apply, and our collective security is potentially compromised. The postmodern spells risk: as one cultural historian [Bernard Rosenberg] put it in 1957, ‘the postmodern world offers man everything or nothing’.”
If 1922 is seen as the beginning of ‘world literature’, an acknowledgement from the heart of a transatlantic Eurocentrism long before ‘comparative studies’, as the decade rolled on, the contradictions and conflicts within modernism broke through the surface
The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason as it was called earlier, was being given a burial. Postmodernism was defining itself, primarily, in questioning the uncritical belief in reason. At first, it didn’t have its political and wider cultural connotation. Thomas Docherty underscored the inherent tensions of the term: “On the one hand it is seen as a historical period; on the other it is simply a desire, a mood which looks to the future to redeem the present… But it is in the theories of architecture and in the discourses of literary criticism that the peculiar tension in the term begins to articulate itself…there is a tension between, on the one hand, thinking of the postmodern as a chiliastic historical period which ‘after modernity’, we either have entered or are about to enter, while on the other realising that we are condemned to live in a present, and adopting a specific—some have said ‘schizophrenic’—mood as a result of acknowledging that the present is characterised by struggle or contradiction and incoherence… This tension is one which also lays bare the underlying tension between an attitude to postmodernism as an aesthetic style and post-modernity as a political and cultural reality; that is, it opens a question… on the proper relation between aesthetics and politics” (Postmodernism: A Reader, 1993).
In as much as postmodernism challenges the intellectual-cultural assumptions of the Enlightenment, that is, of modernity, it dismisses all of its “grand narratives”, as famously formulated by Jean-François Lyotard. All of modernity’s grand narratives ‘fall’ in or about the last decades of the 20th century, including Marxism and liberalism. Now, challenging the intellectual-cultural and aesthetic assumptions is what modernism was doing too. Faith and god were long dead and reason was no longer seen as quite the substitute. What then was the problem? It would seem that in challenging the grand narratives of its day, modernism itself had become one and had to be put in its place. (As should happen with postmodernism if and when we decide that’s where we have been for a long time.)
What Eliot had said wasn’t off the mark—that modernists would one day be recognised as classicists, after their death. It is only comparison and the passage of time that have allowed us to understand what we meant by modernism. 1922 shows us the truth of that
After all, what Eliot had said wasn’t off the mark—that modernists would one day be recognised as classicists, as the thing to compare things to, after their death. And it is only comparison and the passage of time that have allowed us to understand what we meant by modernism. Through rupture we have retrieval, continuity despite disruption. Thus, the things postmodernists have been accused of are the very things modernists were accused of. And all we have to do is go back to 1922 to see the truth of that, with one difference—postmodernism, in its “play”, has repeatedly claimed not to take itself half as seriously as modernism.
In the war between god and man, there was no winner. Each movement, each epoch, political or aesthetic, like each new generation demolishing the monuments to yesterday, thinks it’s ending history. Perhaps all they hear is that unspoken admonition of Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: “…for here there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life.”
Postscript: Hardly anyone from the reading public noticed The Waste Land and Ulysses when they were published in 1922. The so-called ‘global bestseller’ from 1921 to 1923 was ASM Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes.