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This item is taken from PN Review 185, Volume 35 Number 3, January - February 2009.

Letters from David Kuhrt, Stephen Burt
Unstable Furniture

In her News and Notes for PNR 182, Eleanor Crawforth's report on Nicholas Lezard's review of Granta's 10 1st edition (Guardian, 10 May), reminds us that, while a relevant narrative endures by adapting to changing perspectives, others manage to keep going in spite of a depassé agenda.

Her reminder is timely: seen in retrospect, the popular idea of what 'modernism' is about (called in question below) seems to have spread during the period of Cold War, a period that ended with the turn of the millennium and the collapse of the Twin Towers. If it is too soon to say where we are now headed, that may be because 'we' now signifies a new and rapidly developing consensus whose global outlook is somewhat at odds with the cultural narratives of nation states. (Anyone who has seen the remarkable programme of events for the 2008 Sheffield Doc/Fest, an international gathering of documentary makers, would be inclined to agree). For PN Review readers, it is gratifying to learn that the source of Ms Crawforth's reminder is the remark by Nicholas Lezard to the effect that Granta 'receives attention "once I've finished reading...TLS, London Review of Books, PN Review"'.

Most interesting to this reader, Ms Crawforth further reports that Nicholas Lezard 'admired the "stability and durability" of [Granta's] 101st issue... calling it "a perfectly acceptable forward defensive of a debut which will one day go to prop up the unstable furniture in literary-minded homes"'. Ms Crawforth might have chosen many another anecdote in the literary hubbub to report, but citing Lezard's 'unstable furniture', did she see, in advance of the event of Damien Hirst's £111m sale at Sotheby's and its coincidence with a crash of values in the stock-market, clear signs that the continuing narrative of 'modernism' already serves 'to prop up the unstable furniture'?

There is no doubt in my own case: when I was a student in the 1960s, the attacks on metaphysics (on which value-concepts depend) of Freddie Ayer and of Karl Popper defined where that 'modernism' stood: iconoclasm was not only the order of the day and sold well (if only among the avant-garde to begin with), but I was reading philosophy intensively while at art school and concluded that the epistemological foundations of the anti-metaphysical, anti-values camp had never held water; for Heisenberg, and others, at the beginning of quantum physics (before Ayer, before Popper), knew what Patrick Barry, Steven Hawking, Martin Bojowald and others are telling us now: that time even depends on, and issues from, human subjectivity (New Scientist respectively, 30 September 2006, 26 April 2006, October 2008). A human being exists in a material foundation, yes, but being in time, he experiences everything relatively. Reconciling personal, subjective experience with universal principles has an ethical and moral foundation in humdrum everyday encounters. Over-simplifications in the popular conception of modernism (for example, that 'values' are the prerogative of dictators: they are purely subjective, etc.) have issued from a misreading of the narrative in science: the dilemma in physics between random and predictable events is inseparable from the moral dilemma of 'values'. In both cases, a judgement has to be made about what the facts are saying. Facts neither speak for, nor select themselves. The 'selfish gene' says nothing: it's Richard Dawkins' construal of facts he chooses to select.

It is a fact that the human thinking agent is a mobile entity in the material firmament: it forms concepts about it, about the order it finds there; about the status and location an occurring event in that firmament has in time, and about the nature of the relations that perceived event has with viewpoints at other locations; that is, the relation of 'my' viewpoint with those of others who also think but stand elsewhere. The changing consensual perspectives of human cultural history are constructed in that exchange of view-points. 'Positive' knowledge? You're joking!

At a colloquium on 'What Should We Preserve?' at the Tate a decade or so ago (at which I was present), little was said about the necessary relation of values with the evolutionary facts of the human condition: that mutual contingence makes survival depend on cooperation; a condition therefore that generates values beyond personal interest. Instead, the discussion tended to concentrate on the purely intellectual issue of ethical judgements and on the assumption that you can't get anywhere because these are definitively subjective.

This problem has largely defined popular notions of what modernism has been about, underscoring the storyline that religious narratives are irrelevant in an age of technology because they are 'unscientific'. But whether or not we are in need of anything resembling 'values' in that sense, those representations of an order within which the human exists - representations we inherit from preceding epochs and call 'religious' - were just that: representations. They were representations by human beings of evolutionary forces; forces that saw us humans stand upright to become spokespersons for something (as Wittgenstein puts it in his Tractatus) of which we are part. In the current debate about so-called 'creationism', the Royal Society's Big Red Herring (that the 'fictions' of religious narrative and the 'facts' of science are incompatible) is a ballyhoo we can't afford to buy. It's a view associated with 'modernism'. But what do we mean by 'modernism'?

I would like to quote from a letter of Leon Edel's in the Times Literary Supplement (11 April 1997) about James Joyce's Ulysses and the origins of modernism:

Rainey indulges in an extraordinary anachronism in presuming that a hungry 'modernist' audience was waiting for Ulysses. 'Modernism' had not yet arrived in its later definings. The usual term was 'avant-garde'. Edmund Wilson in 1931, writing Axel's Castle, discusses the relations of Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Proust and Valéry, to the nineteenth century symbolists, with no mention of the word 'modernism'. The 'general public' Rainey invokes was very small indeed. The avant-garde was often received with derision. Only the highly educated could understand Pound, and Gertrude Stein was a ridiculed enigma. It took much time to decipher Ulysses. Several guides to the work had to be written. To speak of the 'fragile economy of modernism' is to confuse the evolution of 'the modern'.

Of course, because 'the modern' is always with us: the human perspective evolves. It is going somewhere; just as, before humans emerged (as we see it in retrospect), the preceding evolution moved by natural selection towards that goal; for the fact is, we human beings are here in consequence, and our presence (without values) is impacting heavily on our environment. As things are (in the midst of crises: greenhouse effect, scarce resources, a market collapse caused by greed), the immediate goal of humanity is hardly a matter of subjective judgement: we need to work out what is required of us by the given natural constraints. We need to understand that freedom comes not by throwing them over (a flayed sheep's carcass for a Christ; a spray-can graffiti for a sum that van Gogh, Rembrandt or Michelangelo probably never had) but by knowing where one stands in the given order of things. Before the 'unstable furniture' collapses.

by email

Ramanujan in English


I write to point out an error of omission in PNR's coverage of a recent book by the Indian (and Chicagoan) poet A.K. Ramanujan (Poems and a Novella, Oxford UP, 2006). PNR's reviewer makes clear that the poems in this collection appear in translation and faults the translations as not-so-hot English poems; no one who learned of Ramanujan from that review would know that he wrote other poems in English. OUP's 2006 collection indeed compiles Ramanujan's original verse and prose in Kannada, one of the languages he spoke in his youth and throughout his life. His reputation in India (enormous) and elsewhere (not what it ought to be) rests primarily, however, on his work in English: on his many translations of poetry from Kannada and other South Asian languages into English, on his essays on anthropology and myth, and on his poetry composed in English, some of which - especially the poems of The Black Hen, his posthumous volume - deserves to be known worldwide.


This item is taken from PN Review 185, Volume 35 Number 3, January - February 2009.

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