Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Modernism, Marks, and Nausea

Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall" stood out among the short stories of Monday or Tuesday, for me for a number of reasons. In terms of its Modernism, the story seems to be a good example of the break from narrative form and from art that imitates the outer state of things. Of course, it is clearly not a break from mimesis in that the story's aim is to chronicle the inner life of its narrator. The mark itself strikes me as an example of Eliot's objective correlative or Clive Bell's significant form—it is a vivid image that encapsulates the emotional content of the story. That we do not know for most of the story what the mark is seems to affirm Bell's notion that significant form need not be representational to be effective. Indeed, it is the mark's form that is suggestive, and though the narrator has the impulse to decide what the mark actually is, the mark's actual nature is secondary in importance to its form. I found myself wishing at the end that I did not know that the mark is a snail, and I wonder still why Woolf would have included that information other than to highlight the idea that the mark's "true" nature is secondary.
This particular story also arrested me because I identified with the woman's contemplation of the mark on the wall. When I was younger I spent my fair share of time staring at the shapes I perceived in the popcorn finish of the ceiling, and though these shapes did not cause me to question the nature of reality then, the tendency to try and make sense of the haphazard, random, and really senseless things has led me in more recent times to the thought that perhaps nothing makes sense.
In this context, I cannot help but to place "The Mark on the Wall" as a sort of precursor to Sartre's Nausea. Having myself placed Existentialism as a sort of "masculine" philosophy, it was strange—and wonderful—to find it in Woolf. When the narrator writes, "How shocking and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms" (51), I immediately thought of Roquentin sitting under the chestnut tree thinking about the inadequacy of the word "root" to describe the thing that almost assaults him with its uncompromising presence. The "intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom" strikes me as an example of a kind of nausea, though one that is not cast as negatively. Even the narrator's description of the stalks of flowers and her inability to distinguish these from people or trees reminds me of the scene in Nausea where the trees seem to become these grotesque phalluses…
On another topic, I noticed that the predominance of green and blue in the Woolf stories in general is also a feature of Nausea, and I wonder if Sartre actively appropriated Woolf, or if not, if those colors are used to represent what you see if everything in vision becomes blurred. The sky and the earth blurred appear as nothing but blue and green perhaps?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thinking About Posts

In thinking about Modernism in terms of the first Post-Impressionist exhibition, it has become even more clear to me that Modernism contained the seeds for Post-Modernism. The quest for unity that seemed to preoccupy Moderns like Pound, Eliot, and Hulme clearly begins to fall apart with the Post-Impressionists. The name Fry attributed to Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, the Nabis, and others in itself represents an inability to locate a unifying principle.
As MacCarthy explains in his introduction to the exhibition of 1910, the apparent paradigm shift was one from trying to represent nature to one of self-expression. Classical detachment gives way to romantic individualism once again, but it is a romantic individualism not contained by the standards of an academy. The lack of coherence that results from the juxtaposition of individual expressions makes the Post-Impressionists impossible to pin down. I think Picasso's cubist paintings, detached and analytical (classical) as they were, makes the unity of the grouping even more suspect—he seems to contradict and embrace the paradigm shift Fry believed in at the time of the exhibition. I suspect that this is why Picasso's cubist paintings were left out.
The attempt to combine individualism with a unity of purpose continues after the exhibition with Clive Bell's idea of significant form. Again, the movement away from complete artistic detachment is apparent; instead of approving of the separation of inspiration and creation, Bell seems to want to close the gap between the two as much as possible, though he recognizes them as separate moments: "The creative impulse is one thing; creation another. If the artist's form is to be the equivalent of an experience, if it is to be significant in fact, every scrap of it has got to be fused and fashioned in the whit heat of his emotion" (103). The emotions, though they must be channeled, cannot be allowed to cool. Bell's "significant form" seems to be the equivalent of Eliot's objective correlative, except for this emphasis on keeping the emotional fire stoked. Instead of emotion followed by detachment, we get emotion and detachment coinciding at once—creation is fractured rather than linear.
What I found most refreshing about Roger Fry as an art critic is that he is able to adapt, to allow for contradiction in his own thought. In his "Retrospect" he writes, "Fortunately I have never prided myself upon my unchanging constancy of attitude. . ." (397). Of course, it is important to not the "but" after this utterance: ". . .but unless I flatter myself I think I can trace a certain trend of thought underlying very different expressions of opinion" (397). This "trend of thought" is a form of unity certainly, but I think the trend of thought to which Fry is referring is his constant attempts to be honest to himself about his reactions to art: "One can only watch for and try to discount these, taking every opportunity to catch one's sensibility unawares before it can take cover behind prejudices and theories" (398). In other words, what Fry was trying to do—admirably I think—was to react as an individual rather than letting prevailing theories or opinions blind him.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Whatever Happens to Isabel Archer?

If we can assume that the lady in Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" is an Isabel Archer figure if not the Isabel Archer portrayed in the Henry James novel, then Eliot's poem can serve as a kind of answer to the above question. Interestingly, this poem also seems to function as an illustration of what will happen to Prufrock should his indecision become decisive inaction.
The novel The Portrait of a Lady ends with Isabel rejecting Caspar Goodwood's passionate plea (with its attendant passionate kiss) that she leave her cruel and loveless husband Gilbert Osmond and stay with him (Goodwood) instead. Of course, at the time I read of her decision to go back to Rome and to Osmond, I was disappointed, but it made sense for Isabel to do the passionless thing. Anthony Mazzella has argued convincingly that Isabel's rejection of Caspar Goodwood had everything to do with her fears of "annihilation of the mind by the erotic" (611). As Mazzella also mentions, this kiss provokes a sense of "archetypal drowning" (611): "The world. . .seemed to open out all around her, to take the form of a mighty sea, where she floated in fathomless waters" (Portrait 489). It is this fear of the erotic and its encroachment upon the mind that seem to be the most significant links between the James novel and the two Eliot poems.
In Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady," Isabel, or someone like her, is living with the consequences of her rejection of passionate human connection. She has apparently befriended a young gentleman (I assume it's a gentleman?), but she can only hope for a limited connection: "But what have I, but what have I, my friend,/ To give you, what can you receive from me? /Only the friendship and the sympathy/ Of one about to reach her journey's end" (lines 64-7). The gentleman is as much averse as she once was to human connection. His reaction, ". . .how can I make a cowardly amends/ For what she has said to me" (69-70) along with the later callous references to her probable death—"Well! And what if she should die some afternoon"(114)—seem to indicate that this offering of herself is to the gentleman the "fornication" the epigraph portends. The lady becomes the object of the same kind of revulsion that motivated her own rejection of someone like Caspar Goodwood. She finally offers herself and it is too late—her life becomes a "'dying fall,'" a decrescendo, the opposite of triumphant. Like Prufrock, who has "measured out" his "life with coffee spoons"(51), she embraces the mundane, repeating, "I shall sit here, serving tea to friends" (68, 108).
Whereas the lady in "Portrait" no longer has a choice in the matter, Prufrock is still undecided. In the closing stanza, he expresses his fear of the human connection using the same image James uses to describe Isabel's distress—that of drowning: "We have lingered here in the chambers of the sea. . .Till human voices wake us, and we drown" (129-31). Tellingly, it is the human voice and not the sea itself that causes the drowning. As Prufrock explains earlier, the sea is not an unwelcoming place to inhabit: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas"(73-4). Of course, the condition is that the seas must be silent. Of course, Prufrock is ambivalent, and he has not decided what his answer to the "overwhelming question" (10) will be. I think the question has to be Should I connect? or possibly Is there salvation in connecting? If he does not connect, he will end up like Eliot's Elizabeth Archer--willing to offer himself when it is really too late.

The citation for the Mazzella article:
Mazzella, Anthony J. "The New Isabel." The Portrait of a Lady: Norton Critical Edition.2nd ed. Ed. Robert D. Bamberg. New York: Norton, 1995. 597-619. Print.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Well vs. the Bucket
In the past when thinking about Modernism, I tended to think about the removal of limits: vers libre, stream of consciousness fiction, enormous canvasses, etc. What I see in our reading for this week, however, is the very opposite: modernism as an imposition of limits. These are limits that echo Forster’s emphasis on “proportion”; however, Hulme, Eliot ,and Pound explain more concretely how this proportion is to be attained.
Having always associated the Victorian with the moral, the urgent call for an art that derives its structure from religion (present in both the Hulme and the Eliot essays) at first shocked me; after all, did the Moderns not immediately follow the Victorians? I have begun to see, however, that for the Moderns religious feeling had simply become divorced from its forms so that the forms themselves are no longer useful as a structure on which to build art. For Eliot, this disjunction is a “dissociation from sensibility” (64); for Hulme, it is the false idea that man is a “well” capable of infinite progress rather than (as he is properly) “a bucket” incapable of anything much without religion and tradition (94). The limiting factor called for, then, is the finitude of man in a God-centered system of thought. Like Hulmle, Eliot (in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) emphasizes tradition as yet another structure necessary for the production of sound art; for Eliot, the forming canon must engage in a dialectic with the existing canon and form a synthesis in which “the relations, proportion, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted” (par 4).
In terms of how the actual works are created, Pound, Hulme, and Eliot all seem to agree on that precision is of the utmost importance. Hulme’s description of how to think precisely is a process struck me as being nearly identical to that which I have learned to apply to drawing an image. Hulme writes, “There are then two things to distinguish, first the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are, and apart from the conventional ways in which you have been trained to see them”(101). Distinguishing between the idea of an object gained through common knowledge and its actual appearance is one of the foremost obstacles to the creation of realistic visual art; the idea (or “ideal form,” if you will) gets in the way of accurate portrayal. When drawing the human form, for instance, the general knowledge of proportions (the ratio of the size of the hand to the size of the head, for instance) often obstructs the ability to draw what actually appears when the figure is seen from an oblique angle. Thinking like a visual artist seemed to enable the Moderns to use language with precision. As Pound wrote, the “’Image’” allowed expression of “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (59). Eliot, in his “Phillip Massinger,” calls for a similar immediacy of thought when he praises Donne’s era, when the “intellect was immediately at the tips of the senses” (156). Additionally, Pound’s insistence upon using “no superfluous words,” another limitation, functions to uphold the vibrancy of the image—such words can only “dull” it (60). Even in something as supposedly dry as criticism, the image seems to gain supremacy. In fact, I cannot get Hulme’s image of the “well” vs. the “bucket” out of my head.