still songs to be sung on the other side
This is from the next to last chapter of Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor (1989). This chapter is ‘Epiphanies of Modernism’:
… Changes in society, scientific theory, and the images articulating sensibility came together to make the old Romantic outlook virtually untenable.
… What is the place of the Good, or the True, or the Beautiful, in a world entirely determined mechanistically?
… The obvious recourse against this all-pervasive levelling was interiority: that the lived world, the world as experienced, known and transmuted in sensibility and consciousness, couldn’t be assimilated to the supposedly all-encompassing machine.
… where the original Romantics turned to nature and unadorned feeling, we find many moderns turning to a retrieval of experience or interiority. This is the inward turn I have described. But what about the anti-subjectivism we find so frequently in Pound and Eliot, in Rilke, and in Heidegger as well? This is the feature which is often articulated as an opposition to Romanticism (as with Hulme), or as ‘classicism’ (Eliot), or even as an anti-humanism (Wyndham Lewis, and again later Heidegger).
… What remained was the post-Nietzschean notion of nature as an immense amoral force, with which we ought to recover contact, which was evident in different forms in Fauvism, for instance, or in early Stravinsky, or in D.H. Lawrence.
… a turn inward, to experience or subjectivity, didn’t mean a turn to a self to be articulated, where this is understood as an alignment of nature and reason, or instinct and creative power. On the contrary, the turn inward may take us beyond the self as usually understood, to a fragmentation of experience which calls our ordinary notions of identity into question, as with Musil, for example; or beyond that to a new kind of unity, a new way of inhabiting time, as we see, for instance, with Proust.
Indeed, we can see how the notion could arise that an escape from the traditional idea of the unitary self was a condition of a true retrieval of lived experience. The ideals of disengaged reason and of Romantic fulfilment both rely in different ways on a notion of the unitary self. The first requires a tight centre of control which dominates experience and is capable of constructing the orders of reason by which we can direct thought and life. The second sees the originally divided self come to unity in the alignment of sensibility and reason. Now to the extent that both of these come to be seen as facets of a world and an outlook whose claims to embrace everything we want to escape, to the degree that we adopt a post-Schopenhauerian vision of inner nature, the liberation of experience can seem to require that we step outside the circle of the single, unitary identity, and that we open ourselves to the flux which moves beyond the scope of control and integration.
Nietzsche had already explored this dizzying thought, that the self might not enjoy a guaranteed, a priori unity. That is one of the things which makes him one of the main forerunners and inspirers of twentieth-century modernism. D.H. Lawrence was giving voice to a “Dionysiac” conception of life when he said: “Our ready-made individuality, our identity, is no more than an accidental cohesion in the flux of time.”
… The modernist retrieval of experience thus involves a profound breach in the received sense of identity and time, and a series of reorderings of a strange and unfamiliar kind. These images of life have reshaped our ideas in this century of what it is to be a human being.
… Where Pope could call on the established gamut of references which the great chain of being afforded, [the Romantic poets] Wordsworth or Hölderlin are finding new words by which something can become manifest to us through nature. And something similar could be said about [the Romantic painter] Friedrich relative to traditional iconography in painting. But it is still through a description, or a representation of a landscape, that the epiphany occurs.
Much modern poetry is no longer descriptive in this sense. There is no unambiguously defined matter referred to or portrayed. Images are not simply introduced as simile or metaphor to characterize a central referent, story, or object. From the Symbolists on, there has been a poetry which makes something appear by juxtaposing images or, even harder to explain, by juxtaposing words. The epiphany comes from between the words or images, as it were, from the force field they set up between them, and not through a central referent which they describe while transmuting.
We can sometimes still work out a central reality a poem is “about.” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is presumably “about” the etiolated, pusillanimous life of contemporary man, or one such. But much of the poem neither describes nor clearly expresses such a man.
… We triangulate to the meaning through the images.
… With the expressionists, for instance, there is no pretence that the figures in the painting could ever look like that in life, however much perception has been shaped by art. There is a self-conscious awareness that what is appearing here isn’t to be found reflected through the surface of ordinary things. The epiphany is of something only indirectly available, something the visible object can’t say itself but only nudges us towards. With the move to non-representational art, this feature of twentieth-century painting becomes central and obtrusive.
The epiphany is indirect. This phrase might capture in a nutshell a great deal of modernist art. Returning to literature, we can see that the counter-epiphanic thrust of the writers I cited wasn’t meant to put an end to epiphany. On the contrary, it founds a possibility of a quite new kind. This comes about through the projection of a frame onto reality.
… Human life is irreducibly multilevelled. The epiphanic and the ordinary but indispensable real can never be fully aligned, and we are condemned to live on more than one level — or else suffer the impoverishment of repression.
This brings us back to the inward turn which I mentioned at the outset. The recognition that we live on many levels has to be won against the presumptions of the unified self, controlling or expressive. And this means a reflexive turn, something which intensifies our sense of inwardness and depth, which we have seen building up through the whole modern period.
… Discoveries like Pound’s come to us indexed to a personal vision. Indeed, many of the references in the images of Pound, Eliot, and other poets come from their own personal experience. The fragments that Eliot “shores against his ruin” in The Waste Land are an idiosyncratic collection. To be moved by the poem is also to be drawn into the personal sensibility which holds all these together. The deeper, more general truth emerges only through this.
For this reason, inwardness is as much a part of the modernist sensibility as of the Romantic. And what is within is deep: the timeless, the mythic, and the archetypical that are brought forth by Mann or Joyce — or Jung, whose work is fully a product of the modernist sensibility — may be transpersonal. But our access to it can only be within the personal. In this sense, the depths remain inner for us as much as for our Romantic forebears. They may take us beyond the subjective, but the road to them passes inescapably through a heightened awareness of personal experience.
… it is not so much the inner dimension of meaning which is restored to vividness as common realities and hopes, pains and fulfilments.
In the same vein in 1935 Pablo Neruda called for an “impure poetry,” one which was to be “ravaged by the labour of our hands as by an acid, saturated with sweat and smoke, a poetry that smells of urine and white lilies, a poetry on which every human activity, permitted or forbidden, has imprinted its mark.” Later, when he joined the Communist party, he supplemented this with a ringing attack on “Gidean intellectuals, Rilkean obfuscators of life, specious existentialist jugglers, surrealist poppy flowers, bright only in your graves, europeanizing modish carcasses, pale maggots in the cheese of capitalism.”
But the anti-Romantic, anti-aesthetic thrust of modernism can also be taken up for quite different reasons which have nothing to do with the Marxist Left or the proletariat. The search for a stark and austere poetry of reality deserted by the spirit can come from the need to find words for a devastated world, as one sees with certain German and Polish poets in the wake of the war and under the press of Stalinism. Tadeusz Rozewicz rejects the myths and archetypes which were so central to the language of modernist epiphany in Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Mann. Of his own poems, he says: “I have fashioned them out of a remnant of words, salvaged words, out of uninteresting words, words from a great rubbish dump, the great cemetery.” Rozewicz seemed to be trying to free himself, after the war, from the forms and turns of the cultural tradition, to achieve a kind of nakedness, in which the meanings of simple words could be recovered:
After the end of the world
after my death
I found myself in the middle of life
I created myself
people animals landscapes
this is the table I was saying
this is the table
on the table are lying the bread the knife
the knife serves to cut the bread
people nourish themselves with bread
… But this uncompromising austerity seems to be aimed at reaching the edge of a farther epiphany, beyond all the negations, hinted at in certain poems, like … this one from [Paul Celan’s] Atemwende:
above the grey-black wilderness.
tunes in to light’s pitch: there are
still songs to be sung on the other side