PUTTING MODERNISM TOGETHER: LITERATURE, MUSIC, AND PAINTING, 1872-1927 by Daniel Albright, Reviewed by Adam Parkes

By Daniel Albright
(Hopkins, May 2015)
Reviewed by Adam Parkes on 2015-07-22.

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"Is there a definition of Modernism that might be adequate to all the contradictions and fault lines in this vast artistic movement, or heap of artistic movements?" (5). So Daniel Albright asks in this thrilling new book. One answer, he ventures, is that "Modernism is a testing of the limits of aesthetic construction" (5; original emphasis). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Albright explains, "the Modernists tried to find the ultimate bounds of certain artistic possibilities: volatility of emotion (Expressionism), stability and inexpressiveness (the New Objectivity), accuracy of representation (Hyperrealism), absence of representation (Abstractionism), purity of form (Neoclassicism), formless energy (Neobarbarism), cultivation of the technological present (Futurism), cultivation of the prehistoric past (the Mythic Method)." Albright pairs these extremes "because aesthetic heresies, like theological ones," he writes, come in binary sets: each limit point presupposes an opposite limit point, a counter-extreme toward which the artist can push." According to Albright, "[m]uch of the strangeness, the stridency, the exhilaration of Modernist art can be explained by this strong thrust toward the verges of the aesthetic experience." As the extremities of that experience "tend to converge," he argues, we may see how, "in the Modernist movement, the most barbaric art tends to be the most up-to-date and sophisticated" (5).

This "ahistorical definition," Albright observes, allows us to "find Modernists in all sorts of distant times" (5) -- a point to which he returns in the Epilogue by noting how the major tendencies often attributed to Postmodernism were "vividly alive" not only in early Modernism but even in Mozart's The Magic Flute (312). Implicitly, then, the story of Modernism from 1872 (when Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy was published) to 1927 (the year of Woolf's To the Lighthouse) is understood to be part of a longer narrative. To isolate the artistic production of these five and a half decades is to create a provisional, short-term laboratory for an inquiry into the very nature of the aesthetic, which might expand infinitely into other media and periods. But Albright is particularly drawn to the Modernists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because a remarkable number of these artists were united by an intense, self-critical awareness of the histories of their media.

Albright's new book shares this general argument with one of his earlier books, Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts (2000), an astoundingly original rewriting of Lessing's Laocoön (1766) in Modernist terms. Lessing famously divided spatial from temporal arts. Albright, however, conjectured that the division of the arts might be restated "not as a tension between the temporal arts and the spatial, but as a tension between arts that try to retain the propriety, the apartness, of their private media, and arts that try to lose themselves in some panaesthetic whole" (US 33). To illustrate the latter, Albright examined the "aesthetic hybrids and chimeras" that resulted from artistic collaborations involving significant musical experiments in different media (32). While he recognized the value of attempts by various artists and critics to separate the arts, Albright's preference for the panaesthetic was clear -- perhaps too clear for readers sympathetic to separatists such as the art critic Clement Greenberg and the music theorist Theodor Adorno, whom Albright labelled puritans (US 20). Albright showed, however, that the panaesthetic imperative was shared by numerous Modernists who not only saw the arts as a unified whole but also believed that their separation was harmful. In Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts (2014), Albright develops a more expansive and philosophical version of this argument by ranging across the entire history of the arts. In Putting Modernism Together, he renews his pursuit of specifically Modernist forms of aesthetic hybridity. But whereas Untwisting the Serpent deliberately cuts across the "various isms that both organize and perplex the history of twentieth-century art" (32), the new book confronts those isms head-on, and recalibrates the earlier account accordingly.

Impressive in scope, lucid and often ingenious in its arguments, Putting Modernism Together proceeds chronologically, an organizational structure it shares with the Harvard course from which it emerged. After setting the scene with Baudelaire and Nietzsche, Albright leads us through Impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, and other isms to what he calls the "Totalizing Art" of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Alban Berg: that is, "art that seeks to encompass the entire curriculum of human thought and feeling" (233). The early foray into the poetry of Charles Baudelaire yields a metaphor for the Symbolist poet that might be applied to Albright himself as a critic: "A Symbolist artist is a detective hunting for treasure, living treasure" (11). Like the detective-artist, this critic searches for clues that will enable him to connect seemingly unrelated names or terms. What links Auden and Hemingway, for instance, or Gerard Manley Hopkins and Impressionist painting? Where lies common ground between Woolf and Kandinsky, or Woolf and Lucretius? What ties the fiction and philosophy of D.H. Lawrence to the experimental musical theory and practice of Harry Partch -- or Finnegans Wake to Lady Gaga? By pursuing such unlikely-looking correspondences, Albright illuminates a vast array of experimental modernisms. Every page of this book yields living treasure. Saturated with inventive and sometimes inspired readings of individual works, it discovers aesthetic equivalents to what Baudelaire "hoped to find ... hovering at the verge of things": intimations of "the sensational Eden of which the poet dreams, achieved by means of eerie combinations of sense data" (11). There's a lot of humor, too. If Impressionism, with its riot of "too-bright colors," was a "binge," Albright remarks, then Cubism -- "mostly muted tans and hard lines" -- was a "hangover" (117). Meanwhile, The Waste Land was a "dehydrated epic" (302), a "freeze-dried encyclopedia of cultural futility and anarchy" (238) that dramatized Eliot's sense of the difficulty of imagining a resurrection of body or spirit in an age happy to settle for "a comfortable lifelessness" (245).

The key figure in this book is Nietzsche, "the philosopher who did most to set the curriculum for Modernism," and its key text is The Birth of Tragedy (first titled The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music [1872]), which is said to have been prompted by Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1857, 1865), "in some sense the first Modernist work" (9). Nietzsche matters to Albright for several related reasons. First, he sponsors an understanding of Modernism as "a set of ... transvalues -- that, is counterintuitive values," a project that, as it evolves, gains impetus from the felt need to invent "new notions of the function of art in the economy of human life" (1). Second, Nietzsche developed a powerful and widely influential vision of the Dionysiac, an expression of the "ecstatic existential despair" he found in ancient Greece (23), and with the Dionysiac he anticipated not only Freud's theory of the unconscious but also the Surrealism of André Breton and Salvador Dalí. Third, Nietzsche displayed an unprecedented willingness "to embrace art as the center of human life," to insist that the "world justifies itself as an aesthetic phenomenon" (22). Albright himself seems very close to sharing this view. And if we agree that art is central to human life, we will be ready to see how stirrings of the aesthetic impulse radiate outward, expanding deep into the periphery of recognized artistic terrain -- and beyond. Nietzsche's transvaluation of values, Albright argues, led many Modernists to the borders separating what had counted as art from not-art -- or, rather, to the borders connecting them. Revisiting those borderlands, Albright guides us through some bracing encounters with unsuspected provocations to curiosity, unexpected sources of surprise and pleasure.

Among the enormous cast assembled here, the major heroes tend to be those artists in whom Albright finds a rebellious, Dionysiac vision that pushes most strenuously toward some extremity or limit-point of aesthetic possibility -- artists such as Joyce, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, and Virginia Woolf. While typically seeking out what such artists have in common, however, Albright remains attentive to their differences: Dionysus wears many masks. Although Stein is said to have taken literary Cubism toward extreme abstractionism, Woolf and the American poet Wallace Stevens are said to illustrate advanced, self-critical forms of Aestheticism by exploring "the role of art and artistic sensation in human life" (184). Sometimes, the same artist embodies different tendencies at different times. Stravinsky, for instance, exemplifies Primitivism in The Rite of Spring (1913), but later becomes an arch-exponent of Neoclassicism. Alternatively, as in the case of Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of twelve-tone music, the artist may serve as a synthesizer, pushing so far toward one extreme as to bring a counter-extreme within hearing. Schoenberg is the Expressionist heir of Wagner and Nietzsche, his dissonant, non-linear, atonal music offering a Dionysiac "expression of the divine" (83). But while this Expressionism fuses Modernism's Nietzschean heritage with its Freudian present, Albright argues, it also revives the tradition of Baudelaire, as Schoenberg seeks out "musical equivalents for Symbolist transcendence or for registers of feeling never before reached: the sound keys that induced the listener to convulsions of the brain" (84).

Albright's claims for Schoenberg are bold. Having already discussed him at length in , Untwisting and Representation and the Imagination (1981), he salutes Schoenberg here as "the one artist" whose impact on the arts was comparable to Einstein's on science (81). By his "reconstitution of musical space," Albright contends, Schoenberg effected a change in musical composition "every bit as radical as what Einstein did in physics" (82). But they were radical in different ways. While Einstein "showed that everything in the universe was relative to the speed of light," and thus supplied a "principle of orientation," Schoenberg "removed one," for in writing music without a tonic he created an art of chaos in which musical space seemed "oddly indifferent to the notes that occupy it" (82). Not all listeners share Albright's enthusiasm for Schoenberg's music -- I do not, I confess -- but it's hard to deny that he makes a compelling intellectual case for Schoenberg's significance as a Modernist artist.

But perhaps the artists who do most to quicken the author's pulse in this book are two of the preeminent enfants terribles of anglophone modernism, Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence. Like Schoenberg, each of these controversial authors has already featured significantly in Albright's work: Lawrence in Personality and Impersonality (1978), which anticipated later accounts of aesthetic modernism as a "discourse of personality plus impersonality" (Max Saunders, Self Impression [2010] 23); and Pound in Quantum Poetics (1997), which widened the range of panaesthetic studies even further by mining Modernist poetry for scientific metaphors. Despite and partly because of their idiosyncracies, wrong-headedness, and, sometimes, plain offensiveness, Pound and Lawrence exemplify Modernism for Albright because they express most vividly a wild, Dionysiac vision of artistic possibility. Nietzsche's influence on Lawrence is well known, but Albright also finds it in Pound's poetry, even though he admits that Pound, unlike Lawrence or Yeats, "was never particularly concerned with Nietzsche." In a searching, appreciative commentary on the Cantos, Albright suggests that "one of the hidden heroes of Pound's whole creative project" is the "ferocious Dionysus of The Birth of Tragedy -- the world shatterer, the enemy of all individuation, the convulsive shape changer" (264).

Albright's Pound is an erratic genius whose greatness is inseparable from his very serious flaws. Though anti-Semitic and treasonous, Pound reinvented poetry. The poetry of the Cantos, Albright concedes, is "in many ways exasperating and unsatisfactory." But "Pound's strength as a poet," he adds, "lay in his extraordinary capacity for creating problems, without necessarily solving them" (267). While his methods of composition sometimes result in "futile mishmash" (267), Albright contends "there is no sequence in the Cantos that does not afford some delight" (268), as in Canto 25, where "[t]he music seems to freeze before the poet's eyes into visible sine waves, vitreous, glistening, a string of swells and tapers like a necklace of translucent cowrie shells" (268). Pound, we are reminded, wrote the Pisan Cantos (cantos 74-84) while he was in a detention camp waiting to be tried for treason; the entire sequence "is one of the major treasures of Western literature" (268).

Like Albright's Pound, Albright's Lawrence is an extravagant risk-taker, one whose peculiar distinction springs from his willingness to skirt artistic failure and even, at times, to court it. In a detailed reading of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), Albright notes the stylistic lapses that make some of Lawrence's writing "vulnerable to parody" and "soft-porn" imitation (220). He writes as candidly on the antagonistic attitudes -- the "pronounced dislikes" (212) -- that often repel Lawrence's readers as he does on the rebarbative aspects of the Cantos or on Nietzsche's embarrassing (and later disavowed) musings about the virtues of German character. But Albright likes these writers with all their faults. Though I wouldn't say that he likes them for their faults, he sometimes asks us to reconsider what has been counted as a fault--such as the gamekeeper Mellors's startling remark to Connie Chatterley: "An' if tha shits an' if tha pisses, I'm glad. I don't want a woman as couldna shit nor piss." According to Albright, "[t]hese are perhaps the oddest terms of endearment in the entire history of the European novel, and yet Lawrence, I think, manages to make them work" (222). I'm not sure I agree with Albright here, but I find his words curiously moving.

In Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater writes that an aesthetic critic must answer these questions: "What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence and under its influence?" (3; original emphasis). It isn't easy to think of another contemporary critic as supremely equipped as Daniel Albright to apply these questions to the entire range of Modernist art and to bring to his answers the remarkable combination of imaginative insight, generosity, and multilingual, panaesthetic expertise that have gone into the making of Putting Modernism Together. The fruits of a lifetime of immersion in aesthetic experience, these pages exude the youthful joy and curiosity that works of art, great and small, have excited in this incomparable critic. It's difficult to accept that this was Daniel Albright's last book: his unexpected death at the beginning of this year, while Putting Modernism Together was in press, has robbed us of the new books he would have written. But what astonishing books we have had from him -- treasures that will live as long as there are readers who read and artists who create!

Adam Parkes is Professor of English at the University of Georgia.

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