Sunday, February 3, 2019

20th-Century Modernism as Secular Religion

Modernism--early-to-mid 20th century modernism--seems to want to place poems (or any variety of creative articles) in the position of some kind of sacred object that we should "mindlessly venerate" in the same way that St. Augustine would have us privilege faith over reason. In the case of Augustine, however, he has pretty good reasons for having us do so. In Modernism, the privileged article of veneration is rather something that occupies a place in our psychologies, a sort of daemonic "fixation" that compares to consumer products, screeching rock musicians, waving flags, dubious political shibboleths, and the opinions of "authoritative" critics and scholars.

I remember discussing such ideas with my father as we strolled together through the Toledo Museum of Art, when who should we run into but Cleanth Brooks, who was walking with one of my professors, Wallace Martin. In later years, Prof. Martin was to become my mentor and one of my closest friends.

As we approached Wally and Prof. Brooks, my father encouraged me to share my concerns. I told Prof. Brooks that I sometimes felt that "great critics" were a validation for obscure professors to share in some of that "greatness" as they repeated "great" things in the classrooms of provincial universities. Prof. Brooks agreed to my point. The brief conversation that ensued was marked by a "matter of course affect" that normalized my observation, and we turned to the more appropriate subject of the museum, which is a remarkably good one for so small a city.

Though not being rude, I was of course being awkward--and moreover encouraged by my father, who was an ambivalence artist, of sorts. These days, I should have a better question for Prof. Brooks, or maybe a follow up... If my father could be there, too, and standing in the aura of his mystique, I might follow my point, suggesting that, "But after all, critics, particularly in the field of critical theory, often have interesting things to say.  What is the most interesting thing you've had to say, Professor Brooks?"

And if he went for that, another question I might ask is, "What do you think of Nabakov characterizing Faulkner as "corn-cobby?"

See here, at 3:25:

Nabokov says:
I've been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called Great Books. For instance, Mann's asinine Death in Venice; and Pasternak's melodramatic and vilely written Doctor Zhivago; or Faulkner's corn-cobby chronicles.
And I'll leave it at that.

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