The Meaning of Modernism


Modernist poetry embodies the philosophical perspective of late liberal Western society, giving form to the conception of freedom divorced from essence, the theoretical primacy of the individual, and the broad skepticism towards any notion of a rational human nature. The first in a two-part series.

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One need not look too closely at a typical work of Byzantine art—the icon of the Virgin of Vladimir, for example, or the mosaic of Justinian in Ravenna’s San Vitale—to recognize the dramatically stylized mode of representation common to such works. Matthew Gervase, in his book Byzantine Aesthetics, refers to this stylistic tendency as the “dematerialization of reality,” and Andre Garber, in his Art of the Byzantine Empire, calls it an attack on “everything which shows up to best advantage the substance, volume, weight, tactile values, and in a more general way the space, broken and unbroken, in which substance unfolds.” We are hardly surprised that such an art should be wrought by a people whose religion was struck through with a certain neo-Platonic element, a habit of mind that sought reality in the “dematerialized” form, that regarded the material world—the realm of substance, volume, and tactile values—usually with ambivalence, often with outright distaste. There is nothing coincidental about the style of the pictures of the Byzantine people; it is clearly a manifestation of some of their most cherished beliefs.

Similarly, when one watches a performance of the Japanese Noh drama, one cannot help noticing the carefully restrained, almost ritualized movements of the actors, the way motion and language suggest, rather than directly imitate, human behavior. Here is a dramaturgy of reserve, rooted in the ancient Japanese aesthetic of wabi, “according to which anything gorgeous becomes truly beautiful with something subdued, so as to become half concealed by it” (Yamazuki Masakazu in an essay entitled “Artistic Theories of Zeami”). The aesthetic of wabi itself stems from certain Zen Buddhist teachings; Zeami, the great theorist of Noh, refers continually to the term yugen, a term from Zen Buddhist literature that refers to “what lies beneath the surface, the subtle as opposed to the obvious, the hint as opposed to the statement” (Arthur Waley in Noh Plays of Japan). Again, the artistic form embodies the philosophical convictions.

I call attention to these examples in order to illustrate what ought to be a basic principle of artistic theory, namely, that artistic form is never philosophically neutral, that it always embodies some identifiable ethical or cosmological perspective in itself, without any reference to the content of the artwork (insofar as form and content can be conceptually distinguished). This does not mean that the form of the artwork is propositional in any manner; Byzantine art does not assert the truth of neo-Platonic doctrine, nor does the Noh drama assert the truth of the wabi aesthetic. It is doubtful whether even the content of an artwork is propositional in just this way. There is no more difficult, no more crucial, question for artistic theory than the question of how the work of art means, and only the most hideous propaganda—that is to say, the very worst art—signifies in any unambiguously discursive manner. The sentences of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura do not mean the same thing, nor in the same way, as the sentences of Epicurus’ teachings, though the former, in a certain way, is just a synopsis of the latter. The interpretation of the content of Lucretius’ poem is therefore already a more complex endeavor than the interpretation of Epicurus’ treatise, but this task becomes all the more daunting when we ask of Lucretius’ hexameters what, and how, do they mean.

I have chosen the word “embody” to describe the relationship between artistic form and philosophical perspective, and I think it suffices to capture something essential about that relationship. The Virgin of Vladimir does not propose the veracity of Orthodox Christianity; it embodies it. The audience member attending a performance of Noh is not being persuaded of Zen truth; he is being invited to share in a vision of things shaped fundamentally by Zen Buddhism. The drama is not submitted for his agreement or disagreement, but presented for his delectation, and insofar as that delectation is accomplished, he will regard the perspective not necessarily as true or false, but as desirable. And as his visits to the theater become more frequent and more attentive, as he becomes more accustomed to the Zen vision of things represented by the Noh drama, his mind becomes more and more habituated to that perspective.

Even as the artist’s encounter with the world is mediated by his artistic form—a dutiful sonneteer will eventually think in sonnets—to some extent, the same holds true for his audience as well; a people’s appropriation of reality is significantly determined by the artistic forms prevalent among them. Johann Huizinga, for instance, makes very clear how profoundly the late medieval society that he explored in The Waning of the Middle Ages was affected in its customary attitudes and behavior by the courtly lyrics and chivalrous romances so popular at the time. Similarly, the revival of the ideal of the classical orator during the early Italian Renaissance brought men such as Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni into the political arena for the first time; the rigid neo-classicism imposed by Richelieu’s Academy on the theater of the times prepared a generation of ambitious Frenchmen to acquiesce to the ritualistic formality of Versailles. As an artistic form becomes more common among a people, the philosophical perspective embodied by that form permeates the deepest structures of their minds, shaping their conceptions of reality in a way that is finally more consequential and consistent than would be the case with their conscious assent to any set of propositions.

With these principles in place, I ask of modernist poetry in particular: what is the philosophical perspective embodied in its forms? What is the conception of reality insinuated among its audience? What are the habits of thought produced by a regular exposure to its productions? Of course, I am well aware that modernist poetry is no monolithic phenomenon, that it encompasses a broad variety of styles in its own right. Yet as with any artistic movement (and there can be little doubt that, whatever literary modernism has been, it has been a deliberate movement), certain general features can be identified and questioned. I wish to examine a couple of incontestable features of modernist poetry, and simply ask what these common features of modernism mean, in the sense I have ascribed to the meaning of artistic form.

To begin with free verse, the obvious question is: in what sense is non-metrical poetry “free”? What is the concept of “freedom” entailed by the practice of non-metrical composition? One useful way to answer this question is to ask a different question: why didn’t the thousands of poets who composed in meter throughout the millennia regard themselves as any less free than the modernists? No serious student of literature could really believe that a Virgil or a Swinburne chafed resentfully under the alien strictures of metrical convention, and there is not the least indication that any worthwhile poet ever felt that way prior to the end of the nineteenth century. Why not? Clearly, because they regarded the use of meter (or alliteration, or rhyme, or stanzaic form) as an appropriate technique to achieve one of the universal purposes of the art they were practicing, the purpose of causing the reader delight. Patterned language brings the reader pleasure, and thus was an appropriate technique for the poet. The poet was confined by this technique in the exact same way a painter is confined by his paints; these things constitute the limits of the art just because they constitute its essence. A poet could only wish to be “free” from meter insofar as he wished to be “free” of his art and its essential ends. This is precisely the kind of freedom claimed by the modernist poet.

The freedom in “free verse,” then, is the freedom of modernity, the conception of freedom absolutely divorced from all conception of form. It is what Servais Pinckaers called the “freedom of indifference,” which he said was “practically identified with the will . . . In this way it came to constitute, in some way, by itself alone, the very being of the person, at the source of all action.” It is that conception of freedom that, as applied to persons, has slowly eroded belief in the moral essence of human nature, redefining human liberty as nothing more than the unfettered will. The “free” in “free verse” is the same “free” in “free market” and “free love”—the freedom to “do what we like.” It is a corresponding caprice that moves the writer of “free verse.” Thus, Wallace Stevens could airily remark, “There is such a complete freedom nowadays in respect to technique that I am rather inclined to disregard form so long as I am free and can express myself freely.” The poet claiming his freedom from meter is merely asserting his desire to write with a perfect indifference toward the telos of his art. There is nothing philosophically neutral about the form (or formlessness) of free verse; it embodies our own debased conception of freedom, the moral fulcrum on which the West has tilted toward ever-greater societal depravity. The vision that modernist poetry thus invites us to share in is primarily a vision of the liberated ego, the individual severed from all obligation to tradition, nature, or rationality. It is the manifested artistic expression of modern license.

What about the most distinctive feature of modernist poetry, which is its fragmentation and obscurity, what Jacques Barzun, in The Use and Abuse of Art, called “obscure, non-objective, non-communicative art,” and what Jacques Maritain, in his Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, referred to when he claimed that the art of his times “endeavors to get free from the intelligible or logical sense itself,” that it represented “a process of liberation from conceptual, logical, discursive reason”? Tolstoy believed obscurity to be the dominant characteristic of modernism, claiming in What Is Art? that it had been “elevated into a dogma among the new poets,” and that “it has come finally to this: that not only is haziness, mysteriousness, obscurity, and exclusiveness . . . elevated to the rank of a merit and a condition of poetic art, but even incorrectness, indefiniteness, and a lack of eloquence are held in esteem.” In that “haziness” and “indefiniteness,” in the sometimes total lack of all trace of consecutive thought or syntactic propriety which modernist poetry betrays, we should discern the verbal embodiment of that total skepticism that so thoroughly determined the intellectual climate of the twentieth century: the doubts about the integrity of human identity, as put forward by Freud and the materialists; the doubts about the efficacy of language, as put forward by the deconstructionists; the doubts about the validity of reason itself, as put forward by almost everyone. In truth, it is this stylistic feature of modernist poetry—its impenetrability, its defiance of coherent ordering—that is most pregnant with the philosophical radicalism of our era.

I think the point is clear by now; in the same way that the mosaics in the Hagia Sophia embody the philosophical perspective of neo-Platonism, in the same way that the Noh drama embodies the philosophical perspective of the wabi aesthetic, modernist poetry embodies the philosophical perspective of late liberal Western society. The conception of freedom divorced from essence, the theoretical primacy of the individual, the broad skepticism toward any notion of a rational human nature—each one of these integral facets of that perspective receives its adequate formal expression in the creations of the modernists. To peruse the pages of Pound or Stevens or Ashbery is to be presented with a vision of things wholly informed by the most fundamental beliefs of the decadent West.

For this reason, I am always amazed, and not a little disheartened, to discover how little antagonism toward modernist literature commonly exists among persons who regard themselves as, in one way or another, antipathetic to modern currents of thought. Much philosophical work has been produced in our times, exposing the dubious grounds of that mass of prejudice, half-truth, and rhetorical affectation referred to as “modern thought.” But where is the corresponding literary movement? Where is the attempt of criticism to return to ancient principles, as ethics and metaphysics have been attempting to do? There is no sign of such things on our intellectual horizon. (The New Formalism, which some may propose as a candidate for this role, has proven far too timid to counteract the trends of modernism, and far too concessionary to its basic premises.)

To the contrary, it seems to me that numerous people who pride themselves on their hostility to the modern world are quite content to enjoy its poetry. There is nothing demonstrably illogical about entertaining an appreciation for modernist poetry alongside anti-modern philosophical convictions, but we must assume that those who espouse a certain philosophical position wish to see that position prevail in the world, and art is the most effective means by which a particular vision of things can be disseminated. That is why it is so incongruous to find Christian “poets” filling the journals with free-verse, modernist-style creations; they are working against the advance of their own convictions by the style of art they practice, a form of self-contradiction unfortunately sanctioned by the example of that detestable little fraud, T.S. Eliot, who first deluded himself, and who has gone on deluding generations of Christians ever since.

Most people are content to admire whatever it is that they admire in the arts, without giving the matter much thought. And this is probably healthy for most people. But if we wish to harmonize our aesthetic inclinations with our rational natures, if we wish our artistic production to spring from a spiritual integrity, then we must realize that our philosophical antagonism to liberalism, relativism, and existentialism enjoins an aesthetic revulsion from the literature of liberalism, relativism, and existentialism. Nor should we fool ourselves into believing that there is any set of critical criteria by which we can, with rational coherence, approve the works of the classical, or pre-modern, poetic tradition, and those of the modernist tradition, for the latter came into the world explicitly to be the rejection and destruction of the former. But to understand why this is the case, I must say more about the philosophical assumptions embodied in that pre-modern tradition of poetic composition. That is the subject of my next essay.

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in the New English Review, the Front Porch Republic, the University Bookman, Arion, and the Evansville Review.  His personal website is This is the first in a two-part series. Read the second installment here.

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