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.