chapter  12
12 Pages



As I reluctantly turn down the volume of the opening salvos (‘Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu’) of Kurt Schwitters’ experimental ‘Ur Sonata’, I ask my students for their responses (Schwitters 1993: 52). ‘What’s “modernist” about it?’ I ask. More and more frequently comes back a forlorn litany: ‘alienation’, ‘fragmentation’, ‘mechanization’, ‘industrialization’, ‘futility’, ‘horror’. Or, I ask them to sample the pleasures of Blaise Cendrars’ and Sonia Delaunay’s simultanist work, Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway; or I might get one or two of them to read aloud some energetic incantation of Gertrude Stein’s, a random sampling of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, or, following the example of Suzanne Bellamy, I get them to perform in two groups simultaneously the two paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Blue & Green’. As their rhythmical, often joyous, chanting subsides, again I ask: ‘What’s “modernist” about it?’ Again, comes the litany of woe: ‘alienation’, ‘fragmentation’, ‘mechanization’, ‘industrialization’, ‘futility’, ‘horror’. When did modernism become so miserable? Admittedly, there may occasionally be slightly less miserable mutterings about self-reflexive aesthetics, and the sterile, autonomous work of art as ‘refuge’, but never a word about the exhilaration of the new, resistance, transgression or dissidence, never mind the pleasures of the text. But these students are responding not so much to ‘modernism’ as to a received caricature of ‘modernity’; their readings of modernist aesthetics are infected by the irony and cynicism of a postmodernism they can only dimly define. I suspect Adorno is to blame. Access to some fruits of the reactionary aspects of the historical turn’s scholarship may prove fatal, at this point, to any interest in the historical and political interventions of modernism, to its understanding of these works’ cultural work, and to appreciating the potency of their continuing, transformational capacities. Applying the reactionary model of history, favoured by some modernist writers, to all modernist writing confirms the stereotype of miserable modernism: ‘In opposition to progressive notions, the Modernists found much more reality in cyclic views of the past … The Modernists themselves viewed the time in which they lived as one of chaos and confusion’ (Williams 2002: 2, 3). Whereas ‘modernism’ and ‘modernity’ may encourage us to read ‘modernist’ texts as representatively autonomous, in an autonomous sphere of art ‘avant-garde’ allows for a broader and more sophisticated understanding of the capacities of (autonomous) art’s ability to undo the boundaries between art and life, and to trace how art and history interpenetrate.