In coolly proclaiming itself to be essentially the application of technique to matter, to what further consequences did modern art discover it was committing itself? Christopher Prendergast traces the ‘frightful clockwork of the world-structure’ in the games of Mallarmé, puppets of Flaubert and Kleist, musings of Mann, and the hurdy-gurdy of Cézanne overheard by T. J. Clark.
Art, Matter, Mechanism
W. H. Auden said he had two questions when reading a poem: ‘The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?”. The second is: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?”.’ Disarmingly—and deceptively—simple, Auden’s questions, jointly, take us to all manner of places, many of which have long since been vacated, most notably by those on indefinite postmodernist leave in the playground of ‘forms’. In particular, the second question—addressed to the quality of the human presence in the verbal machine and thus to the poem’s ethical significance—might well be viewed by some representatives of contemporary critical persuasions (for example, followers of Paul de Man) as the residue of a naive and sentimental humanism. Yet what happens when this second question is liquidated by the first, when the human leaves the contraption to its own devices—in various senses of the term, including the Russian Formalist one—is an issue of considerable importance. The following—a collection of strictly provisional thoughts inspired, in part, by T. J. Clark’s recent book on Modernist painting, Farewell to an Idea—engages with what is most uncomfortable in that issue, by way of a reflection on a modern view of art as, fundamentally, the application of technique to matter.
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From Arras to Thermidor
Christopher Prendergast on Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity. The life, career and death of Robespierre, permeated by tensions between ends and means, terror and virtue; and the polemical furies that have clouded his legacy.
Evolution and Literary History
A landmark engagement with Franco Moretti’s triptych of essays, Graphs, Maps, Trees. What forms of logic underpin the use of evolutionary models to lay bare the survival strategies of the detective story, or trace the mutations of a border-hopping stylistic technique? And what political implications follow from basing an account of literary history on the outcome of the market?
Reflections on Fredric Jameson’s narratology of modernity, and current attempts to reinstate it as a master category of the time, requiring no suspect prefixes. The political dialectic behind such impulses of restoration, and the artistic practices which prepared them.
Negotiating World Literature
Should relations between national literatures be conceived on the model of international competition between states? Christopher Prendergast assesses a bold French attempt to analyse the historical dynamics of the ‘world republic of letters’, from the Renaissance to the present day—with Paris emerging as an unexpectedly durable capital. Were national determinations of literary projects always so predominant, and what of cross-cultural variations in the meaning of literature itself?