Sunday, January 8, 2012

"What Was the Modernist Novel": Aesthetic Redemption and Unknowing: Stephen Kern, Jesse E. Matz, & Philip M. Weinstein

Egon Schiele, a Modernist human, existing beautifully in unknowing
 Reappraisal. Some fresh, some slightly less so.  Stephen Kern, the first speaker on this panel has just written a book called The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction which argues that the Modernist novel was a subversion and reworking of the master narrative largely through the medium of formal innovations. His table of contents features Musil numerous times and he even got a brief mention in the talk, as an example of the modernist shift from concrete character to an existential insubstantiality which, in the case of our man without qualities mirrors the insubstantiality of the Austro-Hungarian empire surrounding him. Kern noted that while Post-Modernism, as defined by Lyotard, is characterized by an incredulity toward the meta-narrative, Modernism was a subversion and reworking of the master narratives of imperial, nationalistic, and militaristic master narratives, replacing them with a celebration of Art and creativity.

Jesse E. Matz,, who also generally seems to believe that Modernism was characterized by this belief in Art, is  rethinking a book he wrote a while back to introduce Modernism to students and is now asking himself whether or not the aesthetic optimism he vaunted in that book might not be being exported, despite post-modern skepticism about such aesthetic redemption,  into our current ideas about new Modernisms. I am not entirely sure what his point here is, other than a slight ambivalence about his former championing of the Modernist idea that Art could provide meaning, and a sort of exposure of the way others who have been associated with critiquing this aesthetic redemption are in fact celebrating it in their valuations of less canonical works. Can it be that the idea of aesthetic redemption, that "art yields more truth than other forms of inquiry," is taboo today and he feels uncomfortable affirming it? Still, I was glad to hear him speak of the problem. He began with Lionel Trilling warning that the teaching of Modernism would be a classic process of subversion and containment (co-option), but later in the talk he said that nowadays subversion does happen in the classroom. This made me think of how, sometimes, when a student announces she is leaving school as a result of having taken my class, or, as happened this semester in my class on "work," one student declared that while at the start of class she didn't mind going to her meaningless demeaning job, now she does, I have succeeded in a way. Perhaps his strongest point was to suggest that the form of textual intervention (formal innovations of Modernism) has become more important to us today than the hostility toward civilization inherent in the content of the Modernist novel, because the content is no longer shocking to us.

Philip M. Weinstein, the most interesting speaker on the panel, has written a book about Unknowing in the Modernist novel (Unknowing: the Work of Modernist Fiction, 2005), arguing that the central motivation of Modernism was its shift from the Enlightenment conception that the human subject could capably and successfully negotiate time, space, and others. This enlightenment optimism,figured in the realist novel protagonist, is, he explained, the story of a  self guided by Descarte to believe he may know himself, by Newton, who provides a secular, humanist map that the questing subject requires, by Locke, who provides the story of empirical trial by error whereby the individual sovereign subject comes to know self and world and attains mastery. These guardian angels of the Realist protagonist are tempered in their tendency toward selfish acquisitiveness by the contributions of Kant, who teaches the categorical imperative, which makes others ends rather than means, and encourages self-discipline. The Modernist novel, by contrast, consists in a radical unknowing and unsettling of the human subject/protagonist. The subject becomes smaller and shares a canvas with others whom he cannot control. Kierkegaard is the guiding spirit here, commenting upon the fate of Abraham who, like all humans, does not know ahead of time that his son will be spared, and thus, dwells in fear and trembling. Not knowing what will happen, lacking a belief in a friendly universe, the Modernist novel provides a "dislocation of outcome" in its telling.  Weinstein discussed the difference between reading and re-reading, commenting on the experience of unknowing in the first reading as a fruitful form of existing in unknowing. In the question period I tried to suggest Musil as an extreme example of this unknowing, since he himself didn't even know how the book would "end". Someone asked how the aesthetic optimism presented in Matz's talk could be related to the critique of knowing presented in Weinstein's talk, but no one really had an answer. Stephen Kern's talk could also be addressed by this question, insofar as the Modernist novel is seen as a realm where social security is dissolved through formal dissolution while creativity and Art are celebrated as somehow redemptive. Later, while sitting at the hotel bar wishing someone would talk to me, I came up with some possible answers. I even saw the guy who posed the question, but he wouldn't make eye contact, so I wrote it down in my journal. Here is my idea: the so-called aesthetic optimism of Modernism was not about painting the picture of a happy world of mastery and knowing, not about returning to an enlightenment vision of an ordered and rational world that could be easily negotiated by the heroic subject. The aesthetic redemption of Modernism does not make it "all good," but, rather, provides us with aesthetic experiences and formal interventions to help us grapple with the fear and trembling of being human. These interventions aim at awakening the reader to an awareness of the awesome abyss and activating us to live in uncertainty and unknowing (fear and trembling) without trying to absurdly build artificial constructs of order and a friendly universe. Nietzsche's amor fati (love of fate, in all its cruelty, absurdity, and horror) is an important moment. Of course Spinoza (whom I have been reading with pleasure and astonishment) suggested centuries ago that the universe didn't care a fig about us, and Shakespeare certainly disorders mono-logics while yet maintaining the comforting Renaissance vision of a beautifully ordered cosmos (chain of being).  Generally, it is true, Modernism reflects a great rift from security to unknowing and somehow its ideology of aesthetic redemption is related to this unknowing. I am grateful to this panel for providing a juxtaposition of these two themes. But it should not surprise us that unknowing powered by a breakdown of enlightenment values should be related to a championing of Art; for Art is the language which revels in unknowing. Art is a realm where one can comfortably not know and where grasping after certainties (Shakespeare's resistance to this grasping...Keats' negative capability again) is a very foolish (in the bad sense) means to understanding.

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