Douwe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch. Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature, 1910 - 1940. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 330 pp. $29.95.
David Hayman. Re-forming the Narrative: Toward a Mechanics of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987. 219 pp. $24.95
The notion of "modernism" has such residual appeal as both a normative and a historical category in literary studies that even the critical revolution represented by semiotics, deconstruction, and reception theory has left it largely intact. Despite the suspicion with which "modernism" as a special aesthetic practice and as a period designation has been treated by theoreticians such as Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, Douwe Fokkema and Elrud Ibsch manage to sustain an inordinately quaint approach to their subject together with a patina of theoretical learning that abets rather than challenges the received wisdom to which they remain curiously faithful in Modernist Conjectures: A Mainstream in European Literature, 1910-1940. David Hayman's study of "modernism" as a particular tactical disposition of writing in Re-forming the Narrative: Toward a Mechanics of Modernist Fiction provides a genuinely insightful inventory of twentieth-century literary practice without such pretence, and with the appetite of a veteran critic who relishes his materials with a welcome straightforwardness.
Fokkema and Ibsch define "modernism" by isolating those features of writing that make up what they call "the Modernist code" from 1910 to 1940 - authorial "detachment," a "provisional" relation to values of any kind based upon an uncommon "awareness" on the part of characters in fiction and personae in poems, and a "fragmentary" style in both prose and verse that is the reflexive counterpart to such thematic postures. In chapters on securely canonized figures such as Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Proust, Gide, and Mann, we revisit the usual verities of the past half century of literary criticism, often in the guise of a fashionable theoretical vocabulary, with almost no fresh insights - "the chronology of external events is subordinated to the chronology of the stream-of-consciousness"; Joyce's Dubliners deracinates the fixity of conventional symbols; the vaunted reflexivity of "modernist" texts constitutes a "metalingual scepsis" about the very possibility of "communication" in a world torn apart by the events of the present century. Distinguishing "modernist" texts from "Expressionist," "Symbolist," and "Surrealist" texts as well as from "Realist" and "Naturalist" ones (the authors are rather pedantically bound to the validity of such categories), Fokkema and Ibsch are so vague despite their self-announced "scientific" precision that the presumable exactitude of their project is washed away by the blandness with which they pursue it. The "syntactic" and "semantic" "decodings" upon which they claim to embark are no more than catalogues of recurrent sentence structure and shared vocabularies, and their analyses of most of the novels they study little more than plot summaries.
As recompense, Fokkema and Ibsch give equal time to less familiar "modernist" writers such as Menno ter Braak and Charles Edgar du Perron, as well as the still-neglected Robert Musil. They thereby help to expand our customary sense of the bibliography of the period, at least from a European perspective, a scholarly habit that also lends their chapter on Mann, the best in the book, an especially rich account of the various intellectual and national contexts through which Mann's biographical journey took him.
Nonetheless, the series of paradoxes into which the authors' uneasy combination of fashionable terminology and conventional assumption leads them is almost endless, whether at the level of conception or in the close reading of particular works. Thus the excessive literalism of their "scientific" approach is at odds with the very "modernism" to which they address themselves, a literature of ambiguity and undecidability that, by definition, resists the kind of "decoding" by which they claim to organize texts that are bent on dismantling their own coherence. Similarly, Stephen Dedalus's development as an artist is "completed" in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, even though Joyce's own development as an artist depends upon the denial of the very notion of the "complete" in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Only once do the authors actually deconstruct this recurrent structure of paradox: "the intention of performing a gratuitous action," they say à propos of Gide, "provides that action with a motive. Therefore, the very consideration of the acte gratuit would make its delivery impossible."
David Hayman's new study of "modernism," Re-forming the Narrative, is, by contrast, a lively inquiry into the "mechanics," as Hayman calls it, of the "operative functions" of "modernist" fiction from Flaubert to Joyce to the present (Robbe-Grillet, Sollers, Gass, Barth), focusing on the paradoxical procedures common to "modernist" texts at large. Although Hayman, too, is interested in isolating those features of writing that make literature "modernist," the result is considerably more instructive and elegant. "Modernism" for Hayman is "historical" only insofar as it displays "shared tactics" - the premium on disjunction and defamiliarization in the writing of the present century has numerous antecedents in the past, whether in Homer, argues Hayman, in Sterne, Sade, or Lewis Carroll.
A durable and distinguished Joycean, Hayman elaborates five principal kinds of literary strategy that are "modernist," among which "double-distancing," "impossible objectivity," "nodality," and "parataxis" are the most descriptively cogent. Less convincing is the device Hayman dubs "self-generation": here the notion that language begets itself (as, for example, in Finnegans Wake) runs counter to the book's otherwise organizing notion that "modernist" language is in perpetual and enabling dialogue with any variety of semiotic systems. Of the five "mechanics," "parataxis" is really the master trope. The other four are in one way or another instances of parataxis or, as Hayman puns, "paratactics." As a trope, parataxis enacts the modality basic to "modernist" fiction as Hayman describes it, the modality of a "rhetoric of disjunction." "Parataxis" is, says Hayman, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, " 'the placing of propositions or clauses one after another without indicating by connecting words the relations . . . between them.' " This is an enormously persuasive and and systematic way to describe the fragmentary, montage effect of so much twentieth-century writing. Paratactical "modernist" texts stage collisions, usually between absorption in story or narrative and its derailment at the level of narration. "The forced marriage of two antagonistic anaesthetic processes results in a measured and coherent flux of distance that coopts conventional middle distance." Parataxis thereby satisfies "both our urge to read a good yarn and our desire, as sophisticated readers, not to be taken in."
The paradoxical "(an)aesthesis" that Hayman describes as the principal structure and effect of "modernist" texts manifests itself most dramatically in the "empathy-antipathy on the aesthetic scale" by means of which "paradox" becomes the very "ground" of "modernist" practice as the reader is simultaneously seduced and repelled by one species of parataxis or another, whether in nascent form in Flaubert, in encyclopedic form in Joyce, or in minimalist form in Kafka, Stein, or Gass. As a result, Hayman revives one's interest in this often tedious kind of prose by specifying its organization precisely and with enthusiasm, testifying to what he calls its "enduring vitality" as a literary mode. The paratactical paradoxes that gird such writing are to be enjoyed, argues Hayman, not wished away or left unattended. Such texts "elaborate an order that is palpably unstable," implicating his own project in the exact kind of irony it describes. Hayman's "(an)aesthesis" is a perfect antidote to the scientism of Fokkema and Ibsch, leaving literary criticism continuous with the playful field that it studies.
New York University
Originally published in Modern Fiction Studies, Winter 1989