Monday, July 21, 2008

Bernstein's review of Filreis Here Charles Bernstein reviews Alan Filreis's book *Counter Revolution of the Word.* I haven't read the book yet but it sounds like I have to do so asap.

This book is about the conflation of Modernist experimentalism and communism by the political and cultural right in the 1950s America. As such it appears to be companion piece to Jed Rasula's "American Poetry Wax Museum," in which Jed shows the reactionary politics of New Criticism. And also Cary Nelsons' "Repression and Recovery", which shows the extent to which New Criticism worked to expunge radical (both politically and formally) poetry from American Poetry.

From the review: "Such a conflation might seem counterintuitive, since the left is often associated with populist styles that reject modernist difficulty, while radical modernism is often associated with an aesthetic at odds with explicit left political content."

But an important point here is that the historical avant-garde - dada, Surrealism etc - was deeply political and their reception was mostly seen in political terms. This is even true in my favorite area of study, the Finland Swedish Modernists, who were accused of being foreign/German instigators and Bolsheviks (even though Björling fought on the side of the anti-communist Whites during the Finnish Civil War).

Here's another key point:

"Filreis’s book is filled with telling examples of how the aesthetic and political right denounced non-conventional poetry as if it were a part of the Communist menace. Such poetry was smeared as unnatural and corrupting, as an affront to moral values as expressed in proper grammar, and, moreover, as foreign and therefore un-American."

The unnatural part is important. The foreign = the unnatural (see my "Disabled Text"
essay from back in June). Proper grammar = realism, the natural, American, morality.

Here too it's important to distinguish between Modernism and the historical avant-garde. For Yeats, Jarry's Ubu Roi represented "the savage god" that would come. For Eliot, Stein was "of the barbarians" because of her ungrammatical use of language.

Here is a quote from the book followed by Bernstein's analysis:

""Another curious, disconcerting and, in fact, frightening part of the new attack has been the tendency of the attackers to refer to modern art in practically the same terms used by Hitler and the Communist hierarchy. It is called ‘degenerate art,’ and there are thinly veiled accompanying demands for its suppression and for censorship.""

"Filreis is not alone in relating these images of the alien and nonhuman to the imagery of Don Siegel’s 1956 movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the charged postwar environment, the lyric became a symbol for anti-modernist resistance, clearly “identified with the postideological moment,” a bulwark against what Colonel Cullen Jones, in a 1951 article, “Abnormal Poets and Abnormal Poetry,” derided as modernist effeminacy and its “sexual abnormalities.”"

I like this point because it shows the connection between the grotesque and the historical avant-garde. I also like the quote because it shows some of the irrationally fearful attitudes of opponents of the historical avant-garde.

Feelings which persist (see fore example Reginald Shepherd's recent entries on the Harriet blog)!

Bernstein makes a similar point toward the end of the review:

"The demonization of the aesthetic left in poetry is still with us... Critiques are dismissed as unjustifiable agonism (ideology of the avant-garde), part of a struggle that is now said to be outmoded. The post-partisan creed is that the avant-garde has won its battles and now it is time to return to kinder, gentler forms—poetry with a human face. It is the end of ideology all over again. The only way not to be divisive is to accept the dominant poetic values as inevitable and natural, as craft rather than ideology, sincerity rather than artifice."


Blogger mongibeddu said...

" appears to be companion piece to Jed Rasula's 'American Poetry Wax Museum,' in which Jed shows the reactionary politics of New Criticism."

It's a truism that the New Critics were reactionary, but what I remember as most appealing about the Wax Museum was Jed's sympathetic presentation of individual figures who perceived that they were participating in a moment of historical change and responded with all the intelligence and insight they could muster. Allen Tate I thought came off especially well (and Louise Bogan, not a New Critic, also came off as well worth rereading). Another thing about the Wax Museum is that, by focusing on Pound as the faultline, it caused the radical/reactionary distinction to lose some of its force. In Jed's account, the combination of radical poetics and reactionary politics particular to the Pisan Cantos is not exceptional but central to the era—the knot all poets and critics needed to untie in order to enter the post-war period. I haven't read Filreis's book yet, but I am guessing that his account of poetic McCarthyism produces a very different picture, if only because McCarthyism is black and white and Jed's particular skill as an historiographer is in discerning shades of gray. It would be interesting to hear a conversation between the two. Someone should arrange it!

(This is not a response to your post as a whole, just a tangential note on the Wax Museum.)

Ben F.

5:06 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Ben, that's a good point. I haven't read Filreis's book either... The reason I (and I think Charles too) bring in Jed's book is that it offers an ideological context for New Criticism, a movement that generally is seen as a neutral formalism.

It is interesting that in Scandinavia the New Criticism seems to merge with Russian Formalism and create something far less reactionary. So that Bengt Holmqvist (I think that's his name), the foremost New Critics of Sweden was the first big advocate of Gunnar Björling, the most radical avant-gardist of Scandinavian Modernism.

8:25 AM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

I seem to remember Rene Wellek referring to New Criticism as American Formalism in one of his books, and it's certainly true, once you get past the agrarianism of the founders, that NC becomes less predictable in its effects. I can testify from my own experience—having been introduced to poetry in high school by a teacher trained in the NC—that "close reading" can become as fanatical as psychoanalysis in its search for hidden meanings. Someone somewhere—I have a terrible memory for such details—defined NC as modernist pedagogy, and in that sense it may be that the biggest difference between NC and Russian Formalism is that the latter's pedagogy is instead avant-garde. NC and RF would thus blend together precisely insofar as modernism and avant-garde blend together.

Well, it's a thought, anyway.

Ben F.

4:45 AM  

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