Monday, 18 December 2017

The Shadow Cast by Modernism


It surely is the case that human nature is eternal and unchanging in many ways in spite of what progressivists might say. It is composed of repeated cycles of breathing in and out, of sleep and wakefulness, of the contraction and expansion of the heart, circadian rhythms, biological clocks, sexual attraction and procreation, and death. In these ways biological life always renews and reasserts itself. One can make a similar and good argument for our moral life renewing itself in an equally inexorable way. As a mother in labour soon forgets her pain and is lost in the new life of her new-born child the natural element in which we swim and to which we always revert as if by reflex is that of joy and hope in spite of any horrors that pre-figured it. Such renewal in history is always available to man who ant-like cannot help but set about rebuilding after devastation and setting the rhythms of society in motion again. Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hitler’s and Stalin’s death camps and the depredations of ISIS cannot repress this almost biological process.

The renewing rhythms I speak of quickly become enshrined in ritual and ceremony in human society and in the forms of art which we seem to find it impossible to do without. Thus, music and poetry, with their ability to charm away misery and reflect joy mimic the cyclical patterns of life. The pulse of poetic metre and rhyme imitates our breathing and our heartbeat. The chorus and refrain of usually sexually - (and therefore life–related) related popular song does the same imitating heartbeat and excitement. Life always reasserts itself irrepressibly in a spirit of joy, gratitude, celebration and humour. Most notably the artifice of human artistic form derives from and imitates the natural.

This is why, in spite of the miseries of the twentieth century, for example, time-honoured poetic forms never lose their appeal. Through all of the experimentation and disintegration of Modernism some well-known poets continued, with great success, to peddle their traditional wares. Such were Hardy, Edward Thomas, the Later Auden and Larkin. They picked up where Chaucer, Wyatt, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Keats, Byron and Browning left off.

It is true and should be said that not all of Modernism militated towards disintegration or despair. Picasso, Matisse, Proust and Joyce all produce work from an overflow of exuberance, sexual energy, celebration and laughter.

Some forms of modernism, though, get hung up on the grim miseries of human history and seem to wish to hold back the irrepressible forces of renewal to dwell on such misery. They insist of the forms of disintegration and have little faith in the oft repeated forms of renewal. This equates to a mother constantly replaying a video of her birth anguish and pain rather than attending to her growing child and the joyous life he or she represents – a scenario which is unnatural and difficult to imagine. Of course, we should learn lessons about the dangers of our moral nature from what went before but we have to fare forward with a degree of hopefulness. If and when grim events occur we can be sure they will never imitate perfectly those that happened in the past. They will always take us by surprise.

The natural rhythms I evoked at the beginning of this piece are, of course, all sited in our biology, something that pre-exists those rational faculties by some years and even when the rational faculties are mature continues to underpin them as a substrate on which they depend for their functioning.

There are some forms of Modernism that give an imbalance to the equilibrium and mutual dependency between our rationality and the biology that always contains the seeds of renewal within it. These forms insist over much on the cerebral and the serious at the expense of the natural and the irrepressibly hopeful. When this occurs as in, I would say, the Modernist work of poets such as TS Eliot and Geoffrey Hill, we move away from artistic artifice derived from the natural and biological to the artificial for its own sake. We find ourselves embracing art that is entirely self-conscious to an unhealthy degree, humourless and over-deliberate. It is mannered for the sake of being mannered. The logical conclusion of such art is the preposterousnesses of conceptual art where merely a detached idea with little or no substance attached to it is held up as real art. Eliot himself spoke of the sad dissociation of sensibility that occurred around the English Civil War post the Metaphysical poets. Strangely, his choice of form and content reinforce such a dissociation rather than militating against it and redressing the balance to something healthier. In that sense his highly serious work is a self-fulfilling prophesy in, I'd say, contributing to the alienation of ourselves from our natural selves. The unrelenting seriousness and towering grimness of Hill’s work has the same effect. It is ironic that a man who asserts the power of Christian redemption in his work should have such a strangely depressing effect. The word ‘downer’ occurs to me whenever I contemplate the spines of the books that Eliot and Hill produced. I wonder why that should be. Their God does not seem to dance or console.

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