Inflation in Art
The Struggle of the Modern. By Stephen Spender. (Hamish Hamilton, 25s.)
'THE modern movement, in literature at any rate, looks today like past history.'
Or a dead duck.
Except that Stephen Spender won't have it as a dead duck. His book is a definition of the 'modern' and although he comes close to placing It within a historical period (say 1910 to 1940) he never quite admits that it is all over. His selec- tion of the word 'modern' reveals a nostalgia and a hope. It continues to tremble with its diction- ary definition.
Yet the main impact of this study is to define the 'modern' movement in literature in such a Specific way that the reader forgets his dictionary and applies the label to a definite period.
Spender's criteria are, in spite of the com- plexity of his theme, comparatively straightfor- ward: the 'modern' sees himself as part of the sensibility of his time. He does not stand outside and judge but is himself enclosed in the circle Which he attempts to delineate. He has 'an all- including emotional attitude' toward his time and therefore creates 'vast all-inclusive works' of Which The Waste Land and Ulysses are supreme examples. He is the opposite of the 'contem- Porary' who comments on the flux without in- volving himself in it (Spender cites H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett and Shaw as 'contempor- aries-') The modern is finally attached to either the transformation of the whole of civilisation within a revolutionary vision inspired by art, or the end of civilisation. 'The aim of the modern Was to create a literature which imagined modern life as a whole.' Beyond their extreme position it is impossible to go. 'One could not go further in the directions of fragmentation, obscurity and inclusiveness than Joyce.' And similarly one can- not go beyond the Eliot of The Waste Land, D. H. Lawrence or Yeats in his later work. All were in the position of gods creating their separate uni- verses. All attempted to re-invent the world and its values in their art. From this point—the individual sensibility Paramount Spend traces the withdrawal into do --- gwa and philosophy. His generalisations are eonvicing. He shows how the baseless fabric of the moderns was deified by the academic critics and how critics made the very vacuum of poetry a creed in itself. 'Matthew Arnold suggested that Poetry might replace religion, but often criticism seems to have replaced poetry and religion.' He attacks the immovable Great Tradition, the new Georgian poets, and the thinness of literary Criticism He shows that contemporary play- w, rtghts are closer in sensibility to H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and Shaw than to the true Imoderns. And he ends with a gesture toward the „unlh as the great unifying reality of our cul- ture, although why the Bomb should be different
!quality from man's timeless fate is not clear.
r Much of what Spender says is true. The gnaddual dwindling in scope since the Twenties Thirties is apparent to all who read. Yet his look is too long, the central thesis is too often _s in not-very-fresh rambles among Lawrence gt,".._Q Personal encounters with Wyndham Lewis. ,7Tletimes he is ridiculously superficial, as when rrsPeculates on Keats's fate in the twentieth cen- tury. Cope y. But the most obvious defect is his failure With the one coherent philosophy which has emerged since the 'modern' period. He anores the impact of existentialism which attempts to work within a unity of experience
that is comparable to the Spenderian 'modern.' One reason why French and American literature has remained closer to the spirit of Joyce, Law- rence and Yeats is because existentialism has had a more profound effect in those countries. Spender is really as parochial as Dr. Leavis- more so, I suspect. He has his own shelf of Great Books and neither Sartre nor Mailer seems to be on it. There is, as Plato mentioned, an old feud between poetry and philosophy, but I think one should know one's enemy if one is going to do battle. Telling us we have taken the wrong road is an interesting beginning, but it is not com- pletely sufficient nor completely true, especially outside England. Spender does not search for his duck in earnest among the poets and writers of today. I think he really prefers it stuffed after all.
To Hell with Culture is a strong title for Herbert Read, but not altogether an accurate one, In this collection of essays he discusses not only culture but politics, education, the Snow debate, pornography and decadence. He tackles the most formidable problems with courageous directness. But somehow it never quite grips. To take the first essay : he advocates a true Whitmanesque democracy in which work is inseparable from culture as it was apparently inseparable in those primitive societies which produced pots and vases that were both useful and beautiful : If an object is made of appropriate materials to an appropriate design and perfectly fulfills its function, then we need not worry any more about its msthetic value.
I agree. An object is an object is an object. Read promptly starts to worry:
It is automatically a work of art. Fitness for function is the modern definition of the eternal quality we call beauty, and this fitness for func- tion is the inevitable result of an economy directed to use and not to profit.
The idea of culture as a separate entity per- sists; functionalism as an xsthetic creed is a dis- guised Platonism. Read avoids stating the abso- lute by invoking science to the aid of beauty: When we say, for example, that two colours 'clash,' we are not expressing a personal opinion : there is a definite scientific reason for the dis- agreeable impression they create, and it could no doubt be expressed in a mathematical for- mula.
Why isn't it, then? Because a child can be brought up to believe that a combination of mauve and yellow is 'beautiful"? But not for the idealist. Make-believe science is the last resort of the absolute, and I should like Read to write a book called To Hell with Absolutes. For in this one Read is simply swapping one set of ideals for another, stating what art should be, and how it might ideally arise.