The dual definition of “modern”—something that is current and something that is done in a certain manner—touches on a problem that is at the heart of the literary and artistic movement of the early twentieth century known as “Modernism”: Is Modernism something that was meant to represent the “just now” or is it something that re-expressed certain ideas and themes “in a certain manner”?

The word “modern” has been part of the English vernacular since at least the early sixteenth century, and its Latin version, modernus, has been with us since the sixth. Interestingly, its Latin root is modo, which can be translated to “just now,” such as when St. Augustine famously wrote, Da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo—“Give me chastity and continence, but not yet!” Modo can also mean “in a certain manner”; this definition is largely the way that most Romance languages continue to use “modo” today.

This dual definition of “modern”—something that is current and something that is done in a certain manner—touches on a problem that is at the heart of the literary and artistic movement of the early twentieth century known as “Modernism”: Is Modernism something that was meant to represent the “just now” or is it something that re-expressed certain ideas and themes “in a certain manner”? Consider the following excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” (1920), a poem which exemplifies many of the formal and stylistic features typical of Modernist poetry and which was supposed to serve as the prelude to Eliot’s landmark Modernist work The Waste Land:

In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero
With caressing hands, at Limoges
Who walked all night in the next room;

By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door.
Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,
An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. (21-39)

When I first read “Gerontion,” I wondered, what is particularly “modern” about Modernist poetry? Many Modernist poets like Pound, Woolf, Joyce, and Auden write about the same themes—world wars, cities, the mundanities of everyday life—and their poems share similar narrative features: internal monologues, streams of consciousness, and polyvocality. Literary historians often ascribe these writers’ novelty in form to a desire to break from the artistic conventions of the past. But the Modernists were hardly the first to write poetry about war, nature, and existential struggle. Instead, their novelty came from the second definition of “modo”: the manner in which these thoughts are arranged and structured on paper.

Modernist literature was novel in form, not concept. There was a philosophical disagreement between early Modernist writers and their successors, who also called themselves Modernists, after what first began as an attempt to reimagine the form of writing turned into a self-conscious desire to break from the past completely and do something radically new. The two meanings of modo seemed to be at odds.

In his 1917 essay “Reflections on Vers Libre,” T.S. Eliot wrote about how those who hastily considered themselves Modernists confused “novelty of . . . choice and manipulation of material” with the “novelty of the form.” The latter was a mark of literary Modernism that demanded artistic precision, the former only an illusion that contributed to a gradual simplification and obscurantism in art. Eliot’s essay specifically targets one of the prominent new Modernist poetic forms: free verse. According to Eliot, “free” verse is a misnomer since, as he says, “there is no freedom in art.” Eliot described his friend Ezra Pound’s vers libre as an achievement “only possible for a poet who has worked tirelessly with rigid forms and different systems of metric,” just like how jazz musicians must learn the rudiments of music theory before breaking the rules.

The problem with novelty came through a confusion of what The Cambridge History of Modernism calls the “several associations” of the word modern, which moved “to the acutest register in the twentieth century through the addition of the suffix ‘ism’.” It became a movement with “a self-conscious awareness to this special experience of the ‘modern’ moment, turning the uncertainty of instantaneous time into . . . even a faith or belief in this condition of constantly disruptive change.” Modernist works of art, similarly, “constitute themselves in awareness of time and the changing conditions of time in their work.”

Further, Eliot criticized vers libre as a school with a “group of theorists” who would either “revolutionize or demoralize” art. Eliot’s emphasis on the word theory reveals his concern for the future of literature: the obsession with novelty of choice provokes the artist to radically break from his own past rather than to use it as a tool for his own inspiration to create a novel form. Modernist artists had to distinguish between being modern in the manner of expression or being modern in their place in time, therefore always disassociating themselves from the past. One is formed, the other fleeting:

The novelty meets with neglect; neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine the good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition.

As Eliot notes, it is not necessarily the case that being “current” (novelty of choice) and doing something in a certain manner (novelty of form) are incompatible. Novelty is a necessary element in art, but the type of novelty dictates the course of future development. Artists are always toeing a line between creation and revolution. The early Modernist poets understood that creating the good New comes naturally from understanding and studying the good Old. But what is the good Old, and where can we find it?

We can find it in the beginning. Figuratively, we can look to our origins, to our past. But in a literal sense, all we have to do is return to the beginning of this piece. Let’s look again at the verses from “Gerontion.”

The speaker of the poem is a disgruntled old man who is giving a monologue of the Great War and his place in history. The speaker vacillates between past and present as he also struggles to understand whether the past was good or bad, and whether the disillusion of the present day is a consequence of the past or a consequence of his decision not to participate in the war. He has no past, “no ghosts” to haunt him, yet he is haunted by the ghosts of others. In a depraved spring month, flowering trees are blighted by personified figures of the nations that fought in the war: The Italian Mr. Silvero, Japanese Hakagawa, French Madame de Tornquist, and German Fräulein von Kulp. The figures are moving around a room, sharing a collective Western history which Eliot characterizes geographically (Limoges), culturally (Titian’s paintings), and religiously (the contrast between depravity in these verses and the wider Christian themes of the poem).

The poem turns into a critique of history—of the Old—for her cunning passages that guide us by vanities. This vanity is a paradox: Our desire to be significant or “current” along history’s trajectory requires us also to acknowledge our place in history. The speaker is aware of his place in time, and he notes, for example, how History “gives when our attention is distracted,” which is another way of saying that history manifests itself when we least expect it. Then comes an important line: “the giving famishes the craving”—our knowledge of history famishes our craving for it. Then the soliloquy on history continues:

That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree. (39-47)

The speaker ruminates, explaining how we are always fighting with history. If history “gives too late”—if we only learn about it retrospectively—its lessons become only a feature of that past where “what’s not believed in, or is still believed, in memory only” is “reconsidered passion.” Alternately, if we try to get ahead of history, she will give her lessons “into weak hands” and man, not yet wise or mature, will dispense her lessons and will continue to do so until he develops a refusal of history—and her lessons—that in reality is a propagation of our fear of history, of our past. He then concludes, “neither fear nor courage saves us”; refusing history in fear or astutely attempting to conquer it will only lead toward “unnatural vices,” “fathered by our heroism.”

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? This line is the motif of the speaker who seeks an answer to history’s paradox. It seems that we will never understand or decipher history’s cunning passages, and that our attempt to do so will only continue to lead us astray, and so the speaker turns from thinking about our unnatural vices to thinking about the possibility for salvation: He says that virtues are the result of our “impudent crimes,” and he brings to close his soliloquy with a final hope in whom he called “Christ the tiger” (20) earlier in the poem. He speaks,

The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last
We have not reached conclusion, when I
Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last
I have not made this show purposelessly
And it is not by any concitation
Of the backward devils.
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use it for your closer contact? (48-61)

Even at what seemed the end of history—the aftermath of the Great War—the speaker understands that “we have not reached conclusion.” And he, old and alone, now directs himself towards a “you” who we can only assume is Christ. His cynical thoughts are not a deliberate rage against his life (“I have not made this show purposely”), nor is he possessed (“it is not by any concitation/ Of the backward devils”). The speaker is admitting that his thoughts are sincere, for his meaningless life made him abandon his faith (“I that was near your heart was removed therefrom”). Beauty was lost in terror. Now, he has lost his passion, and he asks, “why should I need to keep it / Since what is kept must be adulterated?” He is referring again to history: It appears that nothing is permanent, even the elements that sustain faith. If everything changes, then what’s the point of holding on to anything? The speaker’s old age is yet another physical and painful reminder of time’s cruelty. He has lost his senses, which were once necessary to guide his passion, his faith. Now, he asks, “How should I use it for your closer contact?”

These thoughts, he resolves, are the product of a “dry brain in a dry season.” (75) “Gerontion” is a Modernist poem because it reminds us that our awareness of our place in time should not compel us to view history condescendingly, for it will only leave us feeling alone and empty at the end of our lives. There is nothing to conquer, but everything to understand. Eliot’s awareness of this message is personified by his gerontion (Greek for “little old man”) and his soliloquy on history, since in his old age he had nothing left to do but to try and understand his life within a larger picture and longer timeframe.

The lesson we can learn from Eliot’s writings on Modernism and from his own poems is that novelty in choice is a dangerous illusion. The human experience is always the same, after all, and novelty of form arises from our explorations of our past: Within history’s vices and depravation we can also seek out the good, this is no different from our task today. Being modern is not living in the “just now.” We need the good and bad Old to achieve novelty “in a certain manner.” By engaging with the past, we partake in an act of re-creation, fulfilling both forms of modo. This would be a modern society with a living tradition.

An earlier, abbreviated version of this essay originally appeared in the blog, Genealogies of Modernity.

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The featured image is “On White II” (1923) by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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