Tag Archives: Modernism

You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands;

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot

It’s often thought that modernism is difficult, inaccessible, not the sort of thing most readers will enjoy. When the BBC carried out a survey to discover Britain’s favourite poet though the winner was T.S. Eliot, high priest of Modernism with a capital M.

It’s not a surprise of course that the winner was a poet taught in schools, few people read poetry after school (poetry often seems more written than read). I find it a cheering result, at least partly because Eliot isn’t the easiest poet to read (though he’s not nearly as hard as his reputation might suggest). It’s certainly a much better result than the BBC’s 2003 best novel survey which came up with a top 100 list that was staggering for its obviousness and mediocrity.

I didn’t vote in the poll, but if I had I’d have voted Eliot too. The reason I’d have voted Eliot isn’t The Wasteland, masterpiece as that is, but because he wrote what is probably my favourite poem – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Prufrock_And_Other_Observations

Prufrock and Other Observations was first published by The Egoist in 1917. Nowadays there’s a lovely little Faber and Faber imprint – pocket sized and printed on good quality paper and generally a pleasure to hold (as the Faber poetry volumes tend to be).

Prufrock and Other Observations contains twelve poems of varying lengths and styles. Of these the big beast is clearly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but there are other stand-outs such as Portrait of a Lady; Preludes (“And then the lighting of the lamps”); Rhapsody on a Windy Night; Morning at the Window; Aunt Helen; Hysteria; La Figla che Piange; as well as arguably lesser efforts such as The Boston Evening Transcript; Cousin Nancy; and Mr. Apollinax. I suspect Conversation Gallante is also a lesser effort, but one I liked and I’ll talk a bit more about below.

There isn’t a single poem in this collection that hasn’t been the subject of exhaustive academic analysis, none of which I have read. There isn’t a poem here which hasn’t been comprehensively picked clean of references, inspirations, influences and subtexts. I don’t do this for a living though, nor do I have exams to sit, which means that I have the luxury of just reading the poems for themselves, taking from them those parts that speak to me.

Here, after an introductory quote from Dante in the Italian, are the opening lines of Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

This is profoundly alienated language – “muttering retreats”, “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels”, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument”. There’s a sense of a grubby, tawdry reality. This is an internal monologue weighed down by the futility of its own debate (I’m aware there are other argued interpretations).

What follows is a man arguing with himself as to whether or not to confess his love for a woman. He plays through the whole encounter in his mind – the journey to her, climbing up her stairs, and then the impassable barrier of indifferent decorum.

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The poem is rich with images taken from religion and myth – opening with Dante, referencing Hamlet, John the Baptist, Lazarus, mermaids. Against all that though is the suffocating mundanity of a room with tea and polite conversation and the sheer impossibility of breaking through to something that actually has meaning, something profound (Mr. Apollinax brings out these contrasts much more clearly, but for me to lesser effect).

The poem is suffused with desire:

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

but there is no certainty that the desire is in any way returned. Polite Edwardian England has no place in it for passion. Prufrock, middle-aged and painfully conscious of his own absurdity, has no power to shake the age and transform it.

Eliot then shows the gap between the dream and the suffocating reality, leading to some of the most painful lines I have ever read:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

That gap, that pause for reflection between stanzas, makes the line “I do not think that they will sing to me” hit like a hammerblow. It underlines the full tragedy of Prufrock’s (far from unique) situation. It is a poem which speaks of disenchantment, not just in the obvious sense but in that referred to by Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? Prufrock is modern, as is the world, and our old dreams are dead and all we have in their place is form emptied of substance.

Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night also explore the disillusionment brought by mucky prosaicism and the sheer pain of existence among indifference, as does Morning at the Window (repeated below in full):

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs

Again there’s that impressionistic conjuring of the city and the urban environment, there’s that feeling of terrible isolation and there’s that wonderful and surprising juxtaposition of images – “the damp souls of housemaids”. Above all though, for me, there is disenchantment and alienation. If this were religious poetry I would talk here as I would have with Prufrock of how the sacred remains barely visible but forever out of grasp in a fallen world, but it’s not religious poetry and the world isn’t fallen because the truth is worse than that. If the world were fallen we could climb back up, be restored to grace, but grace was only ever a dream and human voices have woken us.

The last poem I’ll single out to discuss is much lighter in tone, and it’s Conversation Gallante. Here it is, also in full:

I observe: ‘Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.’
She then: ‘How you digress!’

And I then: ‘Someone frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain
The night and moonshine; music which we seize
To body forth our own vacuity.’

She then: ‘Does this refer to me?’
‘Oh no, it is I who am inane.’

‘You, madam, are the eternal humorist
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your air indifferent and imperious
At a stroke our mad poetics to confute — ‘
And- Are we then so serious?’

This is Eliot in much more playful form. It’s not a great poem as say Prufrock is, but it does capture nicely a certain kind of flirtatious conversation, of the woman constantly slightly ahead of the narrator. The majority of the speech is the man’s, apparently driving the conversation, but at each turn the woman outwits him and he finds his flurry of words effortlessly parried with a single line.

There is of course again here an example of the fantastic being defeated by the mundane, but for me at least without the despondency carried by the other poems. I’ve been in that situation, trying hard to impress someone who knows that’s what I’m doing and who doesn’t plan to make it easy for me, and there is an inherent comedy to it which Eliot is well aware of.

The poem illustrates one final point, which is that throughout this collection (and perhaps in Eliot’s poetry more broadly) it’s men who are sensitive and experience deep emotions for which they have no outlet. Women by contrast are sometimes attractive, but rarely reflective. Eliot is brilliant and his poetry is I think as good as art gets, but he writes firmly from a male viewpoint. Even with that though Eliot’s perception is so acute, his observations so universal, that I would have thought as many women as men would recognise themselves in his work.

In a way Eliot’s gender representations reminded me of a conversation I had years ago, where I described to a woman how as a teenager I’d sometimes been awed by girls I thought too cool to approach – utterly diminished by their impenetrably aloof beauty and unable to even speak to them. I’d naively thought it a uniquely male experience, but of course it isn’t. Her comment was that she’d had the same thing with some boys, and why wouldn’t she? Disillusion, desire, the need for something beyond the everyday, if these aren’t fundamental human experiences then what is?

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Filed under Eliot, T.S., Modernist fiction, Poetry

Nostalgia for the future

Militant Modernism, by Owen Hatherley

Who would have thought a book on brutalist architecture could be fun? Who would have thought a book dedicated to Southampton City Council Architects Department could be an invigorating read? Well, me I guess or I wouldn’t have bought it, but even so I was surprised by how enjoyable Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism is.

Clocking in at under 150 pages, Militant Modernism consists of four essays on different aspects of modernism, topped and tailed by a foreword and afterword which seek (with mixed success) to put the individual pieces into a larger overall context. At its heart Militant Modernism is an examination of the promise of modernism as a utopian alternative to traditional approaches to architecture, to culture, and to sex. This is Modernism as Socialism, a destruction of what was in order to clear the ground for a better tomorrow that sadly never arrived. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Erase the traces. Destroy, in order to create. Build a new world on the ruins of the old. This, it is often thought, is the Modernist imperative, but what of it if the new society never emerged? We have been cheated out of the future, yet the future’s ruins lie about us, hidden or ostentatiously rotting. So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants? To uncover clues about those who wanted, as Walter Benjamin put it, to ‘live without traces’? Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?

Hatherley appears to come from a very similar background to my own. He grew up on an English council estate, listened to post-punk music and read comics like 2000AD and authors like Ballard and the Strugatsky Brothers. Like me, his politics was forged in the 1980s, a peculiarly partisan decade, and so by opposition to a particular strand of right-wing philosophy. My impression is that he’s perhaps a few years older, and of course I went on to City law (betraying all my youthful ideals like so many before me) where he went on to write books about Modernism. Still, he writes from the place I come from, and that makes this in some ways a very easy book for me to respond to.

Hatherley opens by looking at how architects and town planners of the 1960s sought to create a new utopia, a working class Eldorado in which the traces of a tired traditionalism would be swept aside in favour of genuinely democratic forms of housing, which would in time lead to genuinely democratic people. The experiment of course failed, and the buildings it produced are even now widely reviled. The promise was of a new kind of living, but it was a promise largely imposed from without and whatever chance it might ever have had of succeeding was throttled by costcutting and use of substandard non-specified materials. As so often happens, architecture in compromised implementation achieved far less than it offered in pristine theory.

Where Hatherley excels is in his passionate eloquence. He sees the flaws of this architecture (it’s hard not to when you’ve grown up with it). He sees too though what it was trying to achieve, and the sheer ambition of it. He’s brilliantly excoriating about the timidity of what we in the UK have today: “Postmodernism’s aesthetic of pastiche, historical reference, cosiness and conservatism.” He rails against how “… in houses, schools and hospitals the choice is between an ultra-timid Ikea Modernism or the semi-Victorian developers’ vernacular of Barrat Homes and their ilk.”

Hatherley knows his material, and he’s often highly persuasive in arguing for a reassessment not just of the remnants of this vast social experiment carved from steel and concrete, but more importantly of its aims. He’s equally persuasive though in his attacks on the blandness of much of what replaced it, and on the intellectual vacuity at the heart of modern British intellectual and political life.

We live in a managerial age, with no great choices of ideology or vision. Our leaders compete on the same narrow platform speaking the same peculiar and euphemistic language full of mock-outrage and sham-empathy. Our intellectuals aren’t, they are instead personalities picked either for the flamboyance with which they present themselves or their ability to speak in brief generalities which sound vaguely profound but which ultimately reassure the viewers by echoing back to them what they already think.

Perhaps the most irksome of Ikea Modernism’s products was Channel 4’s The Perfect Home, presented by Alain de Botton, promoting his The Architecture of Happiness. Perambulating about the place with an expression of casual intellectuality and immense self-satisfaction, he encapsulates all that is malign in British intellectual life.

The introduction and first chapter cover this material with real vigour, and are an absolute pleasure to read. Hatherley covers an extraordinary amount of material in these few pages, at one point providing an impressively concise analysis of the differences between Vortiticism and Futurism – and why Futurism had appeal in newly industrial societies such as Russia and Italy but not in longer developed countries such as Britain (though this analysis of course owes much to Wyndham Lewis’s own arguments, and a case could be made that the real difference between Vorticism and Futurism was born of Lewis’s refusal to be part of a movement he wasn’t the head of). I attended an entire exhibition on Vorticism quite recently, and Hatherley explains it better here in a handful of sentences than that exhibition did with entire roomfuls of exhibits (and it was a good exhibition).

Hatherley goes on to an analysis of Modernist architecture in the Soviet Union, of its now largely unrecognised influence on international architectural movements and of the tragedy of how so much groundbreaking and inspiring work was cut short by Stalinism and a Soviet state that grew far less keen on revolution once its own people were the ones in charge. He looks too at the tremendous (and again largely unrecognised) influence of Soviet science fiction on Soviet architecture, and therefore on Western visions of what architecture could do.

Unfortunately, not every section is equally successful. The essay dealing with sexpol (revolutionary sexual politics and the links between communism, architecture and sexuality) ironically becomes in places rather dry as Hatherley reaches increasingly to obscure sources and dense theoretical terminology. The chapter culminates in a detailed analysis of the still controversial 1971 film WR – Mysteries of the Organism. The film even today is heavily censored, but as Hatherley explores it that comes to seem increasingly not so much an act of repression as one of mercy. The film sounds a self-indulgent mess, and it’s hard not to notice that the revolutionary cinema it emerged from and which addressed ideas of sexual liberation still mostly involved male directors making films about liberated women having lots of sex but dying before the end of the movie. As with that least feminist of films, Thelma and Louise, the actual politics and the ostensible politics may be very far apart.

Similarly, while I enjoyed the final essay (on Brecht and on taking a critical stance in relation to culture) it didn’t feel to me a natural fit with the sections on British and Soviet architecture. In that afterword Hatherley brings the book’s various strands together by explaining that the point is exploring how to create a counter-culture. Hatherley doesn’t mean here some form of vague late-1960s hippy alternative, “but rather Modernism itself as counter-culture, drawing on sexual politics, industrial aesthetics, critical theory, a new urbanism, in order to suggest – ‘as a tradition and as a vision’ – the possible outlines of a world after capitalism.”

That makes sense to me, and perhaps in a larger book Hatherley would have pulled that off. In this one though I’m left with two great chapters which fit well with the afterword and foreword, one rather dull chapter and one chapter which while very interesting I really wasn’t persuaded did fit that well with the rest. Despite that I’m left with a more nuanced view of modernist and brutalist architecture, a deeper understanding of how theory and politics interacted and helped shape (now largely overooked elements of) our culture and in the main part I was thoroughly entertained along the way. This is an ambitious book, and while not every part of it worked for me that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay if the result is that a book stretches and challenges me. It may even appear on my end of year list, and that’s not bad going for a thin book on an architecture I grew up hating.

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Filed under Architecture, Hatherley, Owen