Twilley, Fragments in the Form of a Calendar, and A Structure Opera, are all works of a sort I call neo-Modernist and hence constituting a movement which means “ new Modernism.”
Modernism, the movement of which they are an offshoot, was the great discovery of the early years of the twentieth century. Some of its most well known adherents in literature, at least to Anglophone readers, are James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf; some of the most well known Modernist composers are Stravinsky and Schoenberg; some famous Modernist artists are Picasso and Braque. And I have suggested, in a scholarly book called Structure and Chaos in Modernist Works, that the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was a Modernist philosopher and that the choreographers George Balanchine and Martha Graham were also Modernists.
The great discovery of Modernism was that the arts of the nineteenth century did not accurately capture the feel of life as lived. Instead they offered life as perceived from the outside, which is quite a different thing. All the nineteenth-century representational arts—novels based on plot and character, historical and allegorical painting, music that seemed to develop great washes of striving (as Romantic music became)—showed what people saw when they looked at others. Even Romantic lyric poetry, say the apparently personal worlds of Keats and Shelley, silhouetted the individual poet against the outside world, and came inevitably to the conclusion that the two were doomed to eternal separation.
But our lives don’t seem to ourselves like a novel, nor we the actors in an historical painting. We don’t perceive ourselves as actors in a tragedy, for the simple reason that we don’t experience our own death silhouetted against the rising arc of our life (our lives take a lifetime to live, among other things, and a dramatic tragedy is over in a couple of hours). Besides, if we’re living what looks to others when presented on stage like a tragedy, we don’t see ourselves from the distanced perspective of a spectator: we are at every point trying desperately to prevent the worst. Watching a tragic character implode is not the same as being that person, nor can we have the same reaction to him or her as to ourselves. Novels based on perceiving others rising and falling are fundamental misrepresentations of what it means to taste life.
The result of this realization, at least in Modernist literature, was that the novel moved away from plot and towards sensation. Yet how to prevent the work from being merely a listing of discrete sensations? The Modernists never adequately answered this question. They tried, of course. But the best they could do was as bombastic and theatrical as the worst excesses of nineteenth-century theatricality. Joyce’s Ulysses is a good example of a work whose largest structure, such as it is, is wildly contrived and artificial, based on labored parallels (that have delighted generations of professors) to Homer’s Odyssey. These parallels, which provide what structure there is to the meticulous listing of sensations in an ordinary day in Dublin, point in quite a different direction than the fragmentation of Bloom’s day into the welter of thoughts and sensations that the reader remembers. The structur, coming from without, is incompatible with the fragmentary world of sensations.
I’ve argued that Modernist works necessarily divide into these two extremes of individual unordered sensations on one hand, and the overstructures of imposed order the Modernists weighted them down with on the other. As another example, the most successful works of Virginia Woolf, say Between the Acts, are schematic in their overstructure (a boring amateur theater presentation that shows scenes in advancing centuries alternates with the boring fragments of interaction between audience and cast members); her most loved work, To the Lighthouse, offers scenes from her family featuring her mother, whom she loved, and her father, whom she hated, linked by a big jump in time in the middle: people do what they do, and time passes. And apparently we never get what we want, which seems to be to get to a nearby lighthouse—also as painfully Symbolic as anything in Joyce.
So the Modernists had trouble both portraying life the way it’s lived and simultaneously finding tolerable structures to contain all the fragments: their works are about fragments that never unite because the structures imposed upon them in desperation too absolute or too labored. It’s also a problem of Modernism that most readers (to stay with literature) want people seen from the outside, which is to say plot, because they don’t want to read something that offers only the taste of life as lived. Why would they? They get that anyway. What they want is, as always, the fantasy of living another’s life, which is shown as more exciting. Yet of course they can never live this life, and not because of the reasons they think: that the hero is better than they are (as Aristotle put it)—stronger, better looking, richer. It’s because life as lived by that person is still life as lived, not the novel (or movie) as perceived. In brief, everybody wants to be a movie star, only not movie stars. They know better. What we want is not to be Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, but to be us wanting to be Brad or Angelina. Being them would only be another reality, not an escape from it. (Everybody ages and gets bored, even Brangelina.)
This is the problem that’s central to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, usually seen as one of the first modern novels: the life of the discontented heroine Emma is tawdry, boring, and slow, and she seeks refuge in high-action escapist literature, similar to today’s Harlequin romances (for women) or boom-boom spies and explosive fantasies (for men). She thinks she can be these people, not just read about them. Flaubert seems to say that it’s an either/or: you accept the banality of life or you kill yourself (as Emma does) because you can’t be the hero(ine) of an action (romance) movie. Of course the real problem is that the people in the movies aren’t actually having a more exciting life: it just seems so to us who look on. They’re trying to control the car they’re driving, sometimes off the cliff, not watching it from the stands like us.
So the victory of Modernism is real, yet its problems are unsolveable: it saw correctly that life is fragments striving after structure, which is to say meaning. Yet where does this leave the work? If life is fragments, no structure is more than imposed. And if you just offer fragments, one work is the same as any other. It’s an even bigger problem that most people, it seems, don’t actually want the taste of life as lived. Modernism (say in abstract painting) has never been more than the taste of the elite, with some trickle-down to the upper-middle classes who stumbled through Ulysses in college and have a loud large canvas of daubs hanging in their living room. What sells are the same escape fantasies that drove Emma to suicide. Most people don’t take them as seriously as Emma; instead we pay our movie entrance and get to imagine ourselves, for two hours, a handsome jacked stud who can blow up bad guys, or women who have the tuxedo-clad Romeos at their feet. And then we lumber out of our seats, heavy with our popcorn, over a flooring sticky with Coca-Cola, and drive home.