Notebook, 1993-

APPROACHES --- Modernism --- The Modern Tradition

Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.

Symbolism: Part - I - Part - II - Notes

The Modern Tradition - Symbolism [cont.]

The doctrine of purity has influenced even the theory of prose fiction, the art that traditionally has been most receptive to extra-artistic motives.[15] Virginia Woolf held that the novel should not imitate objective life by means of a plot, but rather should present the "luminous halo" or "semi-transparent envelope" [p. 12] of consciousness, the unsequential and perhaps irrational form in which life is really experienced. Events are no more than small islands in a mental sea.[16] Flaubert remarked to the brothers Concourt that neither plot not character interested him; Madame Bovary, he said, was intended only to convey a gray color. [It had, nevertheless, a pronounced and steady plot, and a profound study of character.] He aspired to write a book without a subject, held together by style alone--the one element which is peculiar to art. In that direction, he was persuaded, lay the future. As if to bear out this prophecy, André Gide's hero in The Counterfeiters offers to strip the novel of virtually all its customary elements. His pure novel is to be a fugue; all that will be left in it is the interplay between objective reality and the effort to stylize reality into art. Not the book, but the act of writing it, is the real subject.[17] In order to prevent any dilution of vision, these artist search for novels, poems, and pictures indefinable except as themselves.

This search leads to a symbolist axiom: the artist disappears in his artifact.[18] Though art does not reproduce the objective world, the work itself must be objective, and subjective. Flaubert would have the writer be like God, implicitly present everywhere in his creation but totally invisible as a person. Rilke's praise of his favorite painter, Cézanne, for his "unlimited objectivity," aloof from private memories and immediate concerns, falls into the same pattern. T. S. Eliot theorizes that a work of art is successful insofar as it is the "objective correlative" of the writerÍs emotion; it fails if it is only a confession. James Joyce traces a logical development in the relation between the artist and this material. The objective image becomes increasingly palpable until it reaches the stage of epiphany or complete aesthetic existence, while by a reverse process the artistÍs personality recedes from sight. The perfect literary artifact is static, as against the dynamic experience of ordinary life, and it is objectively dramatic, as against the lyrical expression of more naðve art.

The depersonalization of art, emphasizing the hard and objective thing which the artist is to produce, is related to Imagism, an effort to find concrete images that instantaneously present things and participate in their objective solidity. The image, writes Ezra Pound, is the poet's pigment; it is his primary material. Later Pound altered the term "image" to "vortex," so as to indicate a less passive, more substantial and self-propelling quality in his medium. An analogous development in painting is Dubuffet's conception of the paste he uses as having claims of its own. The paste brings subjects along with it: a cat, a trout, or a bull. The artist's medium takes control, leaving him, as Eliot once wrote in a related context, no more than a catalytic agent. [p. 13] The peculiar status of a symbolist work--neither a description of the world nor a direct expression of the artist himself--entails an equally distinctive structure, which may be characterized as alogical. Its language is set apart from that of everyday communication; the "dialect of the tribe" [as Mallarmé called it] is purified, and as Valéry says, "a language within a language" is created. Every word, Rilke declares, takes on a new and unique meaning when it enters into a poem. The symbolist endeavor to deal with problems of form alogically is well illustrated by Joyce's use of language in Finnegans Wake: words are suddenly made plastic, shaped and reshaped like Dubuffet's paste, and their lingual fusions parallel and evoke similar fusions of incident and character. Many symbolist poems, including Rimbaud's "Bateau ivre," Yeat's "Sailing to Byzantium," and Valéry's "Le Cimetière marin," are voyages through imagery, with a progression not explicable in purely logical terms. Dylan Thomas, to describe the structure of his poems, says that he seeks an extreme metamorphic form, in which one image is allowed to breed others, often contradictory, and all the images co-exist or try to destroy each other in dialectical profusion, the total work being a peace beyond their small wars. His theory denies any sequence to the poem's life; a match is struck to image after image. Hart Crane also sees in the poem a kind of internal dynamism, yet he repudiates the idea that this is illogical. It has instead a "higher logic"; metaphors may seem hyperbolical, but they particularize states of feeling in a precise and accurate way. The poem's system of connections has an order which is psychologically if not scientifically valid. In painting, Max Ernst tells how multiple and contradictory images make their unexpected appearances on his canvases. And Eisenstein, in writing about the film, celebrates montage for splicing heterogeneous images together to achieve an effect not paraphrasable or in any other way attainable.[19]

One effect of the symbolist movement has been to create out of the artist a new hero. While he does not champion conventional moral patterns in his work, his way of life has its own morality about it. The artist-hero descends into the mind, Yeats thinks, as other heroes enter physical combat. Although Flaubert chafes at the self-sacrifice, the quasi-religious asceticism, that art imposes upon him, he accepts and welcomes it too. Rilke attests that an artist surrenders love and friendship to carry on his embattled search for the understanding of things. Artistic heroism is epitomized by Paul Valéry in his figure of Leonardo da Vinci, a type of the artist as universal man. Exploring the night of consciousness, the artist discovers that the reality to which we are accustomed is but one solution out of many possible ones. He is able to divest objects of their peculiarities and, at the same time, to sense what [p. 14] consciousness is apart from its objects, to reach "the deep note of existence itself." Such a man is interested in everything, yet always seems to be thinking of something else, for his mental life is double, a drama of mental images proceeding concurrently with an awareness of the movements of thought itself. He takes responsibility for his perceptions in a way that others do not, and he is concerned not with results but with the exercise of creative power.[20]

Insofar as the artist takes risks and suffers in order to create, his life may serve as an exemplar for human behavior. But beyond this kind of imitation of the man, we may model ourselves upon his work. On this principle, life itself may come to be a kind of artifact. So Walter Pater wishes us to give the highest quality to every moment as though each were an intense artistic image. Huysmans' hero Des Esseintes, convinced that his life must be as little natural as possible if it is to have artistic shape, cultivates wholly artificial sensations. André Gide also discovers life to be a process of aesthetic creation, the formulation of a single image in which is reflected all we have done. The artist, unnaturally vigilant of his process, lives his life as he will recount it, yet in recounting it he is changed. Yeats, in the last letter he wrote, suggested that his life was an image which his death would complete, a kind of total symbolic embodiment in which his works and actions alike would have part. Going beyond Des Esseintes' conviction that to make one's life into a work of art is a fine outrage to nature, Yeats regards this process as a vindication of imagination against determinism. Rilke offers art a further purpose, to transform the earth by bringing it inside the mind instead of leaving it frighteningly aloof. Not only may we subdue life by our art, but death too, for that loses its terrors as our consciousness embraces it.[21]

Deviously but surely, then, symbolist art moves toward a recognition of the artist's role in his society. Even Flaubert sketches tentatively, and almost in desperation, an "aesthetic mysticism." There are hints in his letters that he envisages humanity as ultimately awaking, uniting, and finding a higher morality in art. Flaubert argues that, since artistic form has an intrinsic virtue, perhaps it evinces an eternal principle, a divine order. Meanwhile we may love each other in art. E. M. Forster adopts art for art's sake without his metaphysical hope. Too rashly attributing chaos to nature on the basis of Einstein's discoveries, Forster declares that works of art are the only objects in the universe that possess internal order. They are lighthouses among "the thankless seas."[22]

Flaubert and Forster are brought to make their claims for a social value in art because, it seems, they can find nothing else to uphold. A writer like Rimbaud takes the artist's part much more fiercely. For him the poet is a Promethean criminal who at infinite risk explores the unknown. A seer, or even a [p. 15] god, he assumes responsibility for man and the lower creatures, and by his painfully won discoveries enables humanity to progress. Mallarmé is by temperament more reserved: for him art is an aristocratic mystery, too sacred for the vulgar to penetrate. Yet it is an indispensable renewal of the highest human power, that of penetrating nature's faĉade; and Mallarmé extols it the more to the degree that he finds it undiscussable.

In opposition to the almost magical view of art that Mallarmé takes, W. H. Auden used to speak of art as an impersonal game, though a game of knowledge. It makes nothing happen, but is a way of naming hidden relationships. More recently, Auden has offered a conception of art as a rite which celebrates reality. It subtly remakes for man the relations of the sacred and profane, the ideal and the real, the one and the many. Unlike religion in dwelling upon the created world rather than the creator, it is characterized by a similar awe. Wallace Stevens sees poetry, somewhat as Mathew Arnold did,[23] replacing religion rather than companioning it. In an age of disbelief, poetry must supply the satisfactions of belief; it must help people to live by lending life its savor, by enabling them to perceive order in disorder, and so replacing with a human glory the lost glory of the gods. Stevens denies that the poet has any social or moral obligations, yet, without being obliged, the poet wishes to convey his imagination of things to others. He does so by forming those "supreme fictions" without which we cannot conceive of life, just as we cannot conceive of the universe without solar light.[24] [p. 16]

[The introduction/Realism, from Ellmann, Richard and Charles Feidelson, Jr, eds. The Modern Tradition, Backgrounds of Modern Literature. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.]



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