Friday, July 15, 2011

"A Quality Of Irresponsibility Peculiar To This Century, Known Sometimes As Modernism"

For Philip Larkin, the baleful influence of "modernism" on 20th century culture was embodied in "the three Ps":  Pound, Picasso, and Parker (Charlie).  Of course, we should bear in mind that Larkin was wont to play the role of reactionary Philistine in order to get a rise out of people (particularly interviewers).  But he was entirely serious.  And he was entirely correct.

His best discussion of the subject is found in a somewhat out-of-the-way place:  his introduction to All What Jazz, a collection of the record (yes, record) reviews that he wrote for The Daily Telegraph in the Sixties and early Seventies.  The discussion occurs in the context of Larkin's explanation of his increasing disenchantment with jazz:

"All I am saying is that the term 'modern,' when applied to art, has a more than chronological meaning:  it denotes a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century, known sometimes as modernism, and once I had classified modern jazz under this heading I knew where I was.  I am sure there are books in which the genesis of modernism is set out in full.  My own theory is that it is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs:  these are the tension between the artist and his material, and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished.  In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage."

Philip Larkin, All What Jazz (Faber and Faber 1970; second edition, 1985), page 23.

Larkin then enumerates (entertainingly) some of the typical products of modernism:

"Piqued at being neglected, he has painted portraits with both eyes on the same side of the nose, or smothered a model with paint and rolled her over a blank canvas.  He has designed a dwelling-house to be built underground.  He has written poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machines during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins.  He has made a six-hour film of someone asleep.  He has carved human figures with large holes in them.  And parallel to this activity ('every idiom has its idiot,' as an American novelist has written) there has grown up a kind of critical journalism designed to put it over."

Ibid.  The examples given by Larkin (he was writing in 1968) now seem almost quaint given what has passed for "art" and "literature" in the intervening years.   

Larkin closes as follows:

"I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it.  This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound or Picasso:  it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure.  It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous:  it has no lasting power."

Ibid, page 27.  Larkin adds a footnote to "Parker, Pound or Picasso" in the above passage:  "The reader will have guessed by now that I am using these pleasantly alliterative names to represent not only their rightful owners but every practitioner who might be said to have succeeded them."

Alas, the horses have long been gone from the barn.  But, as I have suggested before, perhaps each generation feels that this is so.  In any case, as "civilization" and "culture" at large go their merry and horrific way, it is always up to someone -- a monk in a dim cell copying manuscripts in the Dark Ages -- to preserve what is of true value.  (Well, that's sorted.  I will now descend from the soapbox.)

                                 Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927) 

4 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

Larkin wasn’t too keen on anything new in jazz after 1945, but he loved the Beatles (“unreachable, frozen, fabulous”) and the Stones (“the pain and strength of being young”) for the same reasons he loved earlier jazz: the pain was accessible, the humanity syncopated, like his verse. That being said, I’m not sure how seriously to take the sentiments from this essay, it’s penned after all by the gentleman who introduced four-letter words to serious verse and whose seemingly traditional poems are drier and more hopeless than even Eliot’s.

They are interesting thoughts, though. Sometimes I feel art took a detour towards novelty and materialism with the so-called modernist movement, other times I feel modernism was a necessary revivifying of beauty that just became repressive and conservative over time. Is the coldness in the art or in humanity? I for one can’t tell. Certainly I appreciate the “third stream” approach you bring us with the “illuminated writing” of your neglected British (and other) poets.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: as you probably know, Larkin also did a brief review of "Highway 61 Revisited" that was somewhat positive. He thought that "Desolation Row" had "an enchanting tune and mysterious, possibly half-baked words." Given his views as noted above, I would have thought that he might have appreciated these lines: "And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower, while calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers."

I understand your point about a bit of inconsistency in Larkin's criticisms of modernism -- he did try to play the bumpkin, but he knew what was what.

And thank you for your kind words about my "third stream approach." I hadn't thought about it that way, and I can't say that I intended to follow such a course. But I now see that that may be where I have ended up -- or at least the poems I like have by chance led me there.

PAL said...

Mr Pentz: your blog continues to be never-failing source of stimulation. Being a jazz- and Larkin-lover myself in fairly equal degrees, I can’t but put in my rather belated two pennorth/ bits’ worth.

I think the jazz-lover suffers from the same disease as the rock fan – arrested development of the musical sensibility. Your taste tends to ossify some time in your late teens to early 20s and thereafter serves principally as a means of revisiting your youth . In a way, that’s exactly what Larkin wanted from it. It is as true of the musicians as the fans. The great musicians make their innovations early and thereafter are usually content to stay in the same groove – Armstrong, Ellington. A few – Miles Davis, John Coltrane - continue to flail about in a constant search for innovation but little good comes of it. Jazz is rather like another young man’s game, lyric poetry – short-winded, intense, winging it.

Modern critics tend to be fearful of making judgements on new stuff that might well look foolish some decades down the line. Larkin suffered no such inhibition and I think that time indeed taken its toll on his judgements on jazz. Charlie Parker was the musician who to Larkin epitomised everything that has gone wrong with jazz – chaotic self-indulgence, contempt for the audience, Yet these days, to my ears at any rate, the qualities most apparent in his solos are the classical, apollonian ones – poise, grace, balance, proportion. And I often get that feeling looking at certain Picassos, too.

Stephen Pentz said...

PAL: as always, thank you very much for your thoughtful comments and for your kind words.

I defer to you when it comes to jazz, about which I am woefully ignorant. But what you say about "arrested development" in some people's taste in music is very true. (Which is why Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are still prancing about on stage, I suppose.) The original New Orleans jazz was (as you know) the pinnacle for Larkin (and Amis), wasn't it?

I defer to you on Charlie Parker. But I agree with you on Picasso. And, as we know, Larkin liked to be provocative. It has been a while since I read Larkin's actual reviews, but I seem to recall that he did now and then say something good about, say, Miles Davis and Paul Desmond (one of the few who I do know and who I do like).

Thank you again.