“The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.”
This line is emblematic of literary modernism and post-modernism. Literary modernism is T.S Eliot’s dense poem, The Wasteland; post-modernism is William Carlos Williams’s deceptively simplistic The Red Wheelbarrow, or in other words, before and after World War II. Modernism, although abstract, does matter. The quote is from “Spain,” a poem W.H. Auden had written in 1937 in support of Generalissimo Franco after the latter instigated the Spanish Civil War in 1936. “Murder,” Auden says, “is an acceptable form of violence for a just war.”
Does this make Auden a terrorist? Guilty of hate speech?
Auden, like so many other writers in the Thirties – T.S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, Wyndham Lewis, George Orwell, Stephen Spender and others – would later disavow and retract their political statements and views; in fact, Auden banned any publication of his poetry from the Thirties and only recently has his work from this decade appeared in print. All these writers were modernists, fully aware and fully active in a literary movement that advocated rebellion and violence. Many of the early modernists supported a number of political ideologies: Communism, Fascism, and Socialism. Note that James Joyce is not mentioned in that list of writers. Joyce would retreat to Switzerland and, like the country itself, refuse to take a side on the Spanish Civil War or in the Second World War. Joyce died in 1941. W.B. Yeats, his fellow citizen, backed the Fascists in his last play, Purgatory. Yeats died in 1939, the same year as Sigmund Freud. Ezra Pound would seem the steadfast soldier to his youthful ideals: he gave the Fascist salute upon his release from Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1958.
To better understand “modernism” it is crucial to back up to the man who declared himself “the first modern,” Friedrich Nietzsche. A classical philologist at the University of Basel and a colleague of Jacob Burckhardt, Nietzsche saw special cultural relevance in Greek antiquity and, from Burckhardt’s immensely influential 1860 study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, an affirmation of Greek culture and thought. Burckhardt revealed the renaissance as a rebirth and return to classical ideals and models. Nietzsche summarized his view of the Renaissance in one statement: “No one shall wither our faith in the eminent rebirth of Greek antiquity.”
The Academy defines “modern” as literature staring from the seventeenth century and ending in the nineteenth century, with twentieth century onward designated as “contemporary.” Literary theory posits “modern” in the Baroque because there is no need to express a moral truth in art. In other words, art for art’s sake, for pleasure and aesthetics. I disagree because the writers that I have just identified did see a moral and corrective nature to Art. I have also ignored Italian and Russian Futurist writers who overtly glorified violence in their works.
Nietzsche had come to see European culture as a living entity, a very sick patient, very sick because of Christianity. Nietzsche championed a return to Greek culture – his “will to power” — because Greek ideals were nurturing and healthy, whereas Christian culture was unhealthy. A healthy culture creates good art. Nietzsche as a poet gave posterity the metaphor: “the mind of Europe.” Paul Valéry spoke of the European mind in crisis, but it was T.S. Eliot who put the “patient etherized upon a table.” Nietzsche, who placed himself among the “first-born of the twentieth century” in Beyond Good and Evil, died in 1900. Literary modernism called for a rebirth of the Renaissance, with Nietzsche’s emphasis on recovering the reality of ancient Greece, its intrinsic pessimism, and its perpetual rebellion against cyclical Nature. The Renaissance accepted Nature as eternal and cyclical. Nietzsche also accepted the cyclical eternity of Nature. His idea of “eternal return” can be found in The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which he had modeled on Giamattista Vico‘s Corsi e Ricorsi. He believed in rebellion.
“Necessary murder” and acceptable violence are not contradictions. Burckhardt interpreted the Renaissance in Italy as possible only after a revision of the existing political order; and, while modernists’ debates on how to effect political change might have differed, what with their allying themselves to Communist, Fascist, or Socialist groups, where they were all in agreement was in the origin of the disease: the middle class, which had spawned the disease that then metastasized throughout the culture. Take note that the war is with the mercantile consumerist class, the bourgeoisie, the very class that had made the Renaissance possible, unlike other revolutions, which had involved the overthrow of the aristocratic ruling class. Red October and the executions of the Romanovs proved that some aristocrats had to die in order for rebirth and social renewal to occur. All of the political ideologies of the early twentieth-century — Anarchism, Communism, Fascism, and Socialism — viewed violence as a necessary instrument for effecting social change.
The modernists indicted the middle class for making culture become lowbrow, with a penchant for melodrama and sentimentality. If this sounds extreme, then look at the plays of W.B. Yeats: in The Death of Cuchulain, the Old Man character spits three times on the dance figures in the Degas paintings because it is bourgeois art; or in his Words upon the Window-Pane, where middle-class characters speak in prose and not verse. Yeats, like the early modernists, had associated prose with realism, with the middle class, and poetry with the upper class. Yeats respected the aristocracy because they were educated, despised the bourgeois for their commercialization of the arts, and championed the peasants. T.S. Eliot, often attacked today for his elitism, had come from an influential Missouri family. Not all of Eliot’s modernist peers were middle-class. Even Eliot’s stylistic adversary, William Carlos Williams, was upper-class.
T.S. Eliot led the first charge, writing The Wasteland, with “the mind of Europe” undergoing psychoanalysis. In essence, Eliot, through his dense allusions, presented the artist as an analyst. None of these writers, however, could have imagined the carnage of the twentieth century. The modernists had seen Art as a return to a perfect Society and State that Burckhardt had discussed in 1860. Ezra Pound would take this to the extreme. When Mussolini had asked Pound why he had become a Fascist, Pound responded, “For my poem.” The poem he was alluding to was The Cantos, a sprawling text within which Pound provided his vision of Society. Joyce would retell the Homeric tale of Odysseus, but use the Roman name, Ulysses, while Pound would focus on Book XXIV, which Joyce had ignored, in The Cantos. Book XXIV is the reckoning episode in which Odysseus slays all of Penelope’s suitors. In other words, while Joyce had retold the Homeric story with Nietzsche, a Dublin Jew, Ezra Pound meditated on the violence depicted in Book XXIV as a metaphor for culture and rebirth. An American court would read The Cantos and declare Pound insane, unfit to stand trial for the capital charge of treason.
In 1927, when T.S. Eliot had converted to Anglo-Catholicism, every modernist writer from Auden on down to Virginia Woolf rejected him. Eliot, once prophet, poet as therapist, the herald of literary modernism, had become a pariah. In turn Eliot would, in his After Strange Gods lecture at the University of Virginia in 1933, denounce the modernists as “modern heretics.” The final irony is that Eliot’s essays on Christian society would have more in common with D.H. Lawrence, who celebrated Nietzschean paganism.
The contradiction for the modernists was that the Renaissance, the rebirth of classical thought, had to rely on the past. The Judeo-Christian tradition had introduced a vertical division in the human realm: there are things to the Right, which are right and natural, while those to the Left are wrong, perverse, and sinful. In antiquity, the divide was horizontal. The divine, proper to God or gods, existed above, while below the horizontal plain, animals, what is in between, the middle ground, is the human realm. Tension exists in the human realm, between up and down and below. This is called “hybris” (Greek: Ὑβρις). Theologians would render “hybris” as one of the major sins, “hubris,” or Pride. In a line from Four Quartets, Eliot fuses Greek thought (up/down) with Freudian psychoanalysis (forward/back):
And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back
Eliot’s use of the phrase “modern heretics” was deliberate. A “heretic” leads the follower off of Dante’s path to Paradise. Nonetheless, it is easy to see how dichotomies – the very Christian thinking, the twisting of Greek philosophy, a twisting that Nietzsche detested — developed: right-handed versus left-handed, Good versus Evil. Everything outside of the natural is a pagan view. Think of Terence‘s statement: “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” (“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”). In Christian thought that which is wrong is sinful, thought it can be natural. Sex is the foremost example.
I said that Auden’s line is emblematic of modernism. It is very theoretical and abstract, like all -isms. There is, however, one literary creation that I think is symbolic of literary modernism and the Renaissance.