The Roots of Modernism
This graduate seminar has been designed in parallel with a large undergraduate lecture course, C LIT 362 / English 314. The point bears mention principally because the subject of the seminar came first: the intellectual, professional, and institutional problem of “modernism.” At the beginning of the seminar, we will spend some time addressing the problem of the literary curriculum—particularly, the undergraduate curriculum—as if affects directly and materially the possibility of actually making viable professional careers in the teaching of the liberal arts. Accordingly, one of the issues to which we will give attention is precisely the design of new undergraduate courses.
In singling out the problem of modernism, the underlying problem is how we can conceptualize—and organize—the teaching of literature and culture. In this respect, the questions of what we teach and why, and how we organize our studies (and to what effect) cannot be separated from the current circumstances of professional study in language and literature departments, ranging from devastated budgets, the loss of an audience for professional publications, to the (so far) relentless process of corporatizing of higher education.
With respect to the latter issues, this seminar will be a serious effort not to remain in denial, as if all of our problems can be traced to the wickedness of Capital and the stinginess of the State. What have we done right? What have we neglected to do? What opportunities exist to reinvent the enterprise of literary education?
While these practical matters are notoriously anxiety producing, they also overlap precisely with the intellectual challenges of re-conceptualizing Modernism.
The major premise for this course is that we recognize “modernism” by its function—and that function is precisely to call into question the prevailing commonplaces of any particular time. Thus, Chaucer is essentially modern when he calls into question antecedent authors and texts—such as Boccaccio, Ovid, or The Romance of the Rose—in exactly the same way as Milton is modern when he challenges conventional understandings of the Bible.
It follows that we should be able to find “modernism” in any time, but more to the point, its initial characteristic will be a focused return to a primary question: what is the function of writing? Why does it matter? What should it accomplish?
Further it follows that any “modern” literary work will tend to alienate, confuse, and piss off most of its potential audience. It is not what they have been prepared to expect.
But finally, it provides not a form of historicism—as when we think of literary history as cutting off slices of a salami, measured by the calendar—but a primary, and almost always problematic encounter with the profoundly functional historicity of imaginative work.
For the seminar, each of you will be asked to select a single author or work, to examine what makes it “modern” in this sense. The assigned texts will include theoretical and critical essays, philosophical works, and literary instances across about 500 years—from the late middle ages to the present. In this respect, we will be aiming to sample a history of modernism that explicitly exchanges conventional historicism for the historicity of radical literary engagement.
At the end of the quarter, we will have an in-class conference with each of you presenting a short paper on the text or author you have chosen, to be followed by the end of finals week, by a longer paper. My common practice is to print all of the final papers for distribution to the entire class, which puts a very high premium on getting the essays completed on time.
Texts will include books listed below (available at University Bookstore), as well as a course reader that will be available at Professional Copy and Print at the beginning of the quarter.
Shakespeare: The Tempest (Pelican) ISBN 0140714855
Immanuel Kant: Critique of the Power of Judgment (Cambridge) ISBN 0521348927
T. S. Eliot: Complete Poems 1909-1962) (Harcourt) ISBN 0151189781
Ezra Pound: ABC of Reading (New Directions) ISBN 0811218937
William Carlos Williams: Collected Poems, I & II ISBN 0811211878, 0811211886
Virginia Woolf: The Waves (Mariner Press) ISBN 0156949601
Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities (Vintage) (v I: 0679767878; v 2: 0679768025)
Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths (New Directions) ISBN 0811216993
John Rawls: on Kant’s Deductions
Jean Jacques Rousseau: Testament of the Savoyard Priest, from Emile
Dieter Henrich: selection from Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Picture of the World
Sanford Budick: Selection from Kant and Milton
John Milton: Areopagitica
Walt Whitman: Democratic Vistas
Franz Kafka: “Metamorphoses” and “In the Penal Colony”
Poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valery, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Czeslaw Milosz