Ascent of the Modernists


There’s a popular scientific saying, a take on a line by Socrates, that the more we know, the more we realise how little we know. We are constantly expanding the space of our own ignorance. This is not only no excuse to give in and believe in the easy answers and fundamentalisms of faith, it’s a distinct warning about the temptation of absolutism and ignorance. It’s the very nature of epistemology that an end cannot be reached or ever should (beware those, of whatever belief, who claim to have reached it). The search is everything.

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune, and time whilst travelling, to read Constellation of Genius – 1922: Modernism Year One by Kevin Jackson. I’ve been reading about and been obsessed with modernism since reading The Waste Land at school and had begun to think, in moments of pompous arsery, that I had it sussed and would just be retracing the same old territory. Reading this book, I’ve realised, to paraphrase wise old Socrates, that all I really know is that I know fuck all.

Tackling a subject as broad and multi-faceted as a half-imaginary literary and art movement like Modernism, you need a method. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane’s brilliant Modernism – A Guide to European Literature 1890 – 1930 for Penguin invites authors and critics to write essays on the disparate themes and places constituting Modernism; a sort of piranha approach. Peter Conrad’s Modern Times, Modern Places , though thematic, takes the approach of a vast spider diagram or nervous system with networks branching off endlessly with each reference. I know quite a few people put off by his style of writing but to me it is a masterpiece and I’ve carried that unwieldy slab of paper, stained with red wine and battered around in luggage, with me from dosshouses to rainforests. It’s now as jaded and weather-beaten as its owner.

By contrast, Jackson takes the approach of charting what happened in the calendar year 1922 in terms of Modernist writing, art and cinema, the year Ulysses and The Waste Land came out, the year Proust died and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was first translated into English. It has the fascinating effect of making you realise how much was happening simultaneously and internationally. The Irish Republic and Ulysses were born as distant twins. Landru was guillotined as Tesla wrote of building a death ray. In a hall in Berlin, a Russian émigré was shot dead whilst saving the life of a friend and political opponent, a man by the name of Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov. Lenin was slowly dying, Stalin was slowly rising. This, and much more, was happening day by day, days as numbered as ours are, characters as flesh, blood and nerves as we.

There are often-repeated viewpoints in Jackson’s book (Hemingway was a talented oaf, Satie a drunken gent) but they are somehow made more human. The heroism of dynamos like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Jean Cocteau are underlined not just for the visionary faith they had in their friends but the exemplary personal kindness they showed to them. A man more sinned against than sinning, Ezra Pound comes across as an especially generous figure, rescuing T.S. Eliot from a breakdown and a wasted life in Lloyd’s bank, and James Joyce from drink-sodden obscurity.


The real strength of Constellation of Genius though are the less-known revelations Jackson includes. Resetting the calendar, Pound declared Year Zero and an entirely new era to replace A.D. – ‘p s U post scriptum Ulixi’ began from the midnight of the 29th/30th of October 1921 when Joyce finished writing Ulysses. The repeated ‘Yes’ in the ecstatic ending of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy was based on a conversation Joyce had surreptitiously overheard Lilian Wallace have with a young painter. Certain verse of Anna Akhmatova’s was written in a Russian coded language tanopis in order to say the unsayable.

Sometimes little glimpses can say far more than essays. Rilke hallucinating a voice telling him, “O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!” setting him off on an inspired burst of writing. The ‘chess fiend’ aspiring-antichrist Aleister Crowley seeing the ghosts of dead friends in a heroin stupor. Le Corbusier talking of himself in the third person. Edmund Wilson seeing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s drunken face and thinking it resembled an actor playing a deathbed scene. There’s enough socialising (“dined with the Einsteins” goes one entry) to confirm the suspicion that most of the protagonists were hopeless drunks. There’s surprisingly juvenile letters of varying degrees of wisdom (“write about what you damn well please” being the most sage advice). There’s predictably feuds (most notably between a spiteful Breton and a bewildered Tzara) and torrid affairs.

There’s also a glorious sense that the Modernists were antagonising precisely the right people. In a sense, the same critics who now hold them in unquestionable reverence and piggyback on them to well-paid cosseted careers in academia were the same insufferable shrivs back then publicly eviscerating them (or trying to). Being a lowly bog-trotting paddy with ideas above his station, Joyce, in particular, aroused froth and bile. Molly’s sublime stream of thoughts, whilst she masturbates in bed, was called “the vilest in all literature”. Ulysses was “supremely nauseous” or “like making an excursion into Bolshevist Russia.” The book “appear[ed] to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a specialty of the literature of the latrine.” “European!” one balked “[Joyce] is the man with the bomb who would blow what remains of Europe into the sky.” Instead “he’s nobody – from the Dublin docks; no family, no breeding.” Were the philistine intellects who penned these words any worse than the opportunists who now shill his image on coins, tourist brochures and his words around lecture halls? At least, they were honest. It’s left to Yeats to voice one of the more intriguing judgments on Ulysses, claiming it reminded him of a saying by a “rebel sergeant in ’98: ‘O he was a fine fellow, a fine fellow. it was a pleasure to shoot him.'”

It’s a sad book in many ways with knowledge of what is unfolding in slow motion for Vivien Eliot and the Fitzgeralds but even with those we know are doomed to an early death there is levity, stupidity and humour. There’s an account of Brancusi and Radiguet, reeling with drink, going to Gare de Lyon to get a “midnight bouillabaisse” but unsatisfied jumping on a train to Marseilles to try it there. They ended up in Corsica, blind-drunk on brandy and shivering with the cold.


The stories I’ve referred to merely take us up to our current date, the 20th of April, in 1922. Appearing so eventful, we might be tempted to assume our times are paltry in comparison. We might romanticise theirs as a golden age even though life was hard then (especially if you were poor and doubly so if you were poor and female). Me and my kind would no doubt be serving these people their bouillabaisse and sweeping up the glass at the end of the night. Yet there remains an undoubted attraction to those times. The present is always modern, it always has been. It is the only place in which we live. And yet why does it seem, looking back, that things appeared more dazzlingly new then? How could they declare themselves, or be declared, Modernists without any sense of embarrassment or credulity? When did we grow jaded, given some of us are younger than they were then?

This is an illusory view and a diminishing one. There are countless amazing creative developments happening right now, instigated by similarly amazing people. Some of them are drunks too, some of them doomed. We’ll not recognise many of them until looking back in years to come, possibly when it is too late, a consequence of Kierkegaard’s “Life is lived forwards but understood backwards.” We are like the fortune-tellers in Dante’s Inferno whose heads are turned backwards so they stumble about unable to see where they are going. We are fumbling blindly into the future, using what has already passed as our guide. We are all Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus. Yet these creative people, our own Modernists, do exist if we are perceptive enough to find them and assist them the way Pound, Stein and Cocteau did (not to undervalue their own brilliant contributions). We have the option of optimism. We have the added bonus of more history to ransack than the Modernists had and technology that would have been barely imaginable to them. We can speak to each other, as we are now, immediately and internationally without a single ship, telegram or astral projection having to be utilised.

The reason I love Modernism is that it reminds me of possibilities. If we can find nothing to astonish us, we must make things to astonish. The world is plural and the art that reflects it will never be finished, so long as there’s breath in our lungs. Let the naysayers understand, in terms of possibilities, we have barely begun.

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10 Responses to Ascent of the Modernists

  1. Sounds like a fascinating read. Great post!

  2. thank you, that’s greatly appreciated. it’s an interesting book, well worth checking out. Peter Conrad’s ‘Modern Times, Modern Places’ is just phenomenal; a biography of the 20th century.

  3. I liked this piece of yours, very much: ” If we can find nothing to astonish us, we must make things to astonish.” – that is great!

  4. thank you, that’s very kind. I’m hoping someday I can take my own advice.

  5. Jill London says:

    A fascinating read, Darran, as I too love that period with all its wild parties and back-stabbing. I’ve no doubt I’d have been serving the bouillabaisse and sweeping up the glass alongside you but even so it really strikes me as the best era.
    I must say though, after all your wonderful work here, that I was a bit disappointed there was nothing about Satie in your article!
    People like me are never happy, eh? 😉

  6. haha well happiness is overrated Jill, melancholy is the one to aim for. thank you by the way, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. I probably should have included something about Satie beyond that wonderful photograph of him, I’m a big fan of his music and he seems to have been a very amiable and talented drunken old gentleman. I like the fact Satie denied that he was a musician or composer preferring the title ‘acoustic worker.’ and it’s funny, given how gentle his music seems now, that it caused outrage at the time (mainly when he did things like add typewriters to orchestras). he was called an opium smoker after scoring Picasso & Cocteau’s ballet Parade. I sort of miss the days when ‘improper use of a bassoon’ could spark a riot 🙂

  7. Shane says:

    Can’t wait to Read Modern Times, Modern Places now. I have always been just as fascinated with The Modernists as I have been with some of the problematic definitions people have used to distinguish it. This was well written and I loved it.

    I was wondering if you had an opinion on current writers who have attempted something ‘Modernist.’ I guess I’m thinking in particular of Will Self’s Umbrella, but perhaps there are others you’d be familiar with? (I haven’t actually read Umbrella but Self said himself that it was an attempt at Modernism).

  8. it’s an incredible read Shane, definitely my desert island book, if I could choose a non-fiction one (Dubliners and Tropic of Cancer would be fictional contenders). I like Will Self a lot, particularly his non-fiction and interviews, but I find his fiction a bit of a slog at times. I seem to love the first chapter of all his books and then rapidly lose interest. this will sound philistine but, to be honest, I love the fact he’s writing what he’s writing but I also like the fact I’m don’t have to read all of it. Umbrella has it’s moments though, as does How the Dead Live off the top of my head, but it takes a sustained effort. I found ‘Ulysses’ less of an effort, in fact a joy to read in comparison.
    regarding contemporary writers, there are quite a few who are keeping the modernist ideas alive and whose work I love. Tom McCarthy is fantastic. Lee Rourke’s writing is excellent. Deborah Levy is a very intriguing writer, some of her work is almost like a trojan horse of modernism. Lars Iyer’s trilogy is up there with Beckett’s for me, he’s a brilliant writer. Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts. Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. in terms of poetry, for me, Will Stone is up there with the Trakls and Heyms. if you like D.H. Lawrence or Cesar Vallejo, the poetry of Adelle Stripe. Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a great book. for contemporary modernism is a great haunt, as is if my mind were less whiskey-addled, I could think of others.

    • Shane says:

      It’s funny, that’s precisely how I felt about Will Self’s fiction and nonfiction too. Thanks for all of that information! I’ll definitely have to look into that. As much as I love dead people, I feel alienated from a lot of what’s happening now in literature. I’m familiar with and I’ve always found it to be a lot of fun and full of wonderful interviews. I’ll have to check the other one out too. Thanks again!

  9. by incredible read, I was referring to Modern Times, Modern Places by the way.

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