Many critics count it lucky for literature that T. S. Eliot abandoned a career in philosophy. But it was at least as fortunate that he studied the subject in the first place, because his masterpieces — and modernism itself — might have been inspired by a solitary line from one of his Harvard philosophy professors: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana wrote that aphorism in the first volume of The Life of Reason, published in 1906 — just a year before Eliot became a Harvard undergraduate — and it was destined to become one of the most quoted (and misquoted) lines of the 20th century. It also encapsulates, as well as any other single sentence, the project of literary modernism, of which Eliot would become the most famous practitioner.
I realize that this sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me. Yes, any first-year English major can tell you that the first modernists — the bohemian, Oscar Wilde generation — were rebels against the past, seeking to free themselves from the constricting shackles of Victorianism. But as modernism took shape, it was actually steeped in the past. Though author Jeffrey Hart — a former NR senior editor — never mentions it, Santayana’s maxim permeates his interesting new book about modernism. (Hart points out that Eliot studied with Santayana — but only in the context of a shared enthusiasm for a poet of the distant past: “Dante was enjoying a vogue at Harvard.”)
The modernists were intent, as Ezra Pound put it, always to “make it new.” Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land was so new, so original, that it was shocking; as Hart writes, it “made an immediate impact, receiving 46 reviews in the United States and England, about equally divided between approval and condemnation” (a great deal of attention and controversy for any age, and especially for the pre-Internet age). It was brashly new, yes. And yet: It contained allusions to Greek and Latin literature, the Bible, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and, of course, Dante, to name just a handful, and it manifested Eliot’s obsession with mythology. It was an attempt to “make it new” that reached very far back into the past.
And it did so for a reason. The solid world of the Victorians had emphatically come to an end on the battlefields of the war to end all wars. The modernists didn’t need to dismantle the social order; it had already been dismantled. They were more concerned with how one could live in such disorder, and create a new order based on some of the lessons and legacies of the past. Critics who see modernism simply — or even primarily — as a rejection of Victorian orthodoxy are not seeing even half the picture.
Jeffrey Hart is not one of those critics. Now, certain of his interpretations are, in my view, suspect. His first chapter, “Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot: Modernisms,” delineates a battle between the two giants of verse — but it’s a war waged only on one side, and Hart never establishes just how, or why, Frost fought it. He’s given us a small but sweeping book on modernism with strangely little discussion of central figures James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. (He devotes precious space to a foolhardy attempt to place Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead — a book I deeply admire but that is in no meaningful sense modernist — in the modernist canon.) Most important, he gives scant attention to the stunning contradictions within modernism, such as its simultaneous emphasis on (in Hart’s words) “clear, sharp” language and on the deployment of frequent, often obscure, allusions.
#page#Fortunately, in the big picture — which Hart, unlike so many literary critics, aims to illuminate — those judgments aren’t essential. It would in fact be difficult to find a better guide to this rocky, often submerged, terrain. Sounding a little like Eliot himself, Hart will, in a single page, jump through history, from the pre-Socratics, to the New Testament, to Martin Heidegger, and back to the Greeks again. The professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth brings a lifetime of learning to this dense book. He wisely follows the close reading of the New Critics, but doesn’t hold with them that the text is all that matters. The Living Moment is opinionated, personal, even gossipy. Only at the end of this idiosyncratic but exacting ride through the early 20th century (and beyond) do we learn why he has bothered: He believes that modernism still matters. In under 200 pages, he proves it, as well as something even more fundamental: Art, itself, matters.
Some might object that this doctrine needs no defenders. But the last hundred years have presented many moments in which art has felt like, at best, a luxury. The 20th century took its terrible shape from the constant clashes between the individual and society; perhaps even the early modernists did not imagine how deadly these struggles would become. They understood earlier than most, however, what would become the central conflict of the time.
Hart, taking a page from the poet-philosopher Eliot, looks to epistemology and “the sociology of knowledge” to understand Eliot’s “primal insight” about the relationship between the individual and society — which Eliot understood, even if individuals themselves did not, as the relationship between the human being and his (that is, his species’s) history. Hart writes: “We obtain our notions about the world largely from other people, and these notions continue to be plausible to us because others continue to affirm them.” He contrasts Eliot’s “cognitive community,” which includes the whole of the Western tradition, with Frost’s “Protestant individualism,” which “discovers truths on its own and tests them on its own.” It’s a clever comparison (though it upends Hart’s argument that “Frost was a concealed modernist”). Modernists didn’t privilege, to use a bit of academic jargon, society over the individual, or vice versa. They wanted to make the two whole again.
Some members of the movement focused on the communal disorder, as Yeats did in “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Others concentrated on how individuals responded to this breakdown, as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf did with their revelatory stream-of-consciousness styles. Eliot — whose Waste Land is, for Hart, the crucial modernist document, the work to which every other artist had to respond — dealt with both, and at once. In the first of the Four Quartets, the poet eloquently expresses the burden of modern man — and suggests how one might escape it:
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
World War I brought more reality than many poets thought they could bear; little did they know that the worst was yet to come. But Eliot understood that the solution to social disorder wasn’t to oppose or eliminate society. It was to learn from the past and rebuild a social order: to “make it new.” The Waste Land, of course, is saturated with metaphors of rebirth. One of Hart’s most valuable insights is that many other modernist works are, as well — though sometimes with even less explicit hopefulness than is found at the end of Eliot’s masterwork.
#page#One might feel that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night is that novelist’s real work of genius; but Hart makes us take a fresh look at the seemingly tired Great Gatsby, making it new again: “Gatsby is full of false fertility, that of Myrtle and Daisy, and Eden at the end, that ‘fresh, green breast’ of the New World, lives in memory and aspiration, not in fact.”
Throughout the book, Hart dances around the question of just how accessible the movement of modernism was. The woman who published Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” did so at Pound’s insistence — she herself didn’t understand the poem. After reading Hart’s concluding chapter, on Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, one wants to read that book again, to hear firsthand the symphonic novel that the critic has explicated. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Hart says, finally made modernism “mainstream.” Their work wasn’t nearly as abstruse as that of Eliot and Joyce. That doesn’t mean readers discerned their meaning on a first reading, though. Hart has to admit, near the end of the book, that a sense of nearly impenetrable mystery is one of the defining characteristics of the movement: “Not all modernism, of course, is theological, but it is always difficult, always excludes and shuns the ordinary and the mediocre, and always refines its special audience of the ‘saved,’ even if saved only in a secular and cultural sense.” It’s an inevitable, if uncomfortable, conclusion: Hart has emphasized, throughout, the effort modernist writers demanded of their readers. Their project was too big to be writ small.
But one artist Hart champions, Robert Frost, based his art, to a great extent, on the ordinary. Against the Anglophile Eliot, Frost exalted an American vernacular. His subject matter was usually just as down to earth. Witness one of his best-known poems — and the one of which he was proudest — “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Hart does his best to make this poem difficult: “Its subject, far from simple, is the Renaissance argument about which is superior, the contemplative or the active life.” That’s a lot of weight to bear for a 16-line poem that ends (a little awkwardly, to this ear):
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
But modernism doesn’t need to apologize for its demands — and neither should its admirably enthusiastic critic. Hart provides a reason to accept the challenge, and at the same time he suggests why we must hold art to be as important to modern life as politics, history, or anything else. Paraphrasing his mentor, Lionel Trilling, Hart explains that when we read a novel, “with its contradictions, its honesty, we encounter the variousness, complexity, and difficulty of actual life.” Art can tear us apart; the modernists, in their varying, difficult ways, proved it can also make us whole again.
– Kelly Jane Torrance is assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard and film critic of The Washington Examiner.