Bruce Fleming's Blog

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.


My life as a husband and father, an athlete, a professor, and a writer, is the working out of the relationship between thought and action. Indeed, one of the Big Questions that each person must pose for him- or herself, and provide a workable answer to, is that of the relation between these two enterprises, thought and action. The extremes of the possible proportions are well known to us from literature, or experience: Hamlet (at least arguably) thought too much and could not act; the opposite extreme of all action and no thought is a caricature of street thugs, some athletes, and soldiers who go on senseless rampages.

The quiet contemplation of figuring things out, knowing how the world is put together, and considering “what if?” scenarios that run counter to what actually is, is necessary to guarding us against being prisoners of the way things happen to be, because we don’t have the ability to question what is. Yet being too cerebral can make us prisoners of our own internal world, and rob us of the ability to act with our fellow creatures in the world. It’s Descartes’ problem: what’s the relation between body and mind? Though philosophers have offered “mind” solutions to this question—explaining, for example, that the mind is intrinsically embodied and so cannot even be thought apart from body—the only way to arrive at a relationship between reflecting and thinking on one hand and acting on the other that actually touches both, is by living.

My situation as a professor of literature at a military institution is situated at the intersection of these two worlds. My job is to get gung-ho 21-year-olds to stop and reflect before acting: acting is almost too easy for them—that’s why they came to a military institution, many of them, rather than going to a civilian college. The physical side of things is a given for my students; my job is to help them understand the value of getting off the wheel and sitting in the corner of their cage to just think. My challenge as a 56-year old father of young children and daily gym rat is to not retreat into the jaded “burned-out professor” mode typical of someone who has seen decades of young men and women lose the luster of youth from their eyes and enter the far murkier reality of dicey marriages, trying children, and the sacrifices we all make to get along. If I wanted to, I could do nothing but sit in the corner of the cage—in fact, it’s a pleasure to get back on the wheel. Being covered with sweat at least once a day keep my mind in its place. Not to mention that it keeps my fur glossy and eyes, I hope, bright.

Plus it teaches humility: the besetting sin of the pure intellectual is the illusion that the world of one each thinker creates matters a fig to others, or that it’s anything but a thought world. Can it be made real? Should it be? These questions, acknowledging the physical world, remind us that others exist. Intellectuals incline to solipsism, and the fact that the world rarely replicates what they’ve built in their heads causes many of them to despair, or curse the world, or simply implode into sputtering impotence. This is the way intellectuals go bad. There’s a comparable way that people of action go bad. The besetting sin of men and women of action is that they destroy for the sheer pleasure of hearing the “boom,” like children throwing priceless china to hear it go tinkle. It satisfies them—but this is just as great a solipsism as that of the too-intense intellectual: the problem is that it’s bad for the rest of us. Wars are fought and countries ravages just because it’s what some man (most typically) of action felt was right for him. The rest of us pay the price.

At its worst, my home institution, the US Naval Academy, divides schematically into gyms and parade fields on one hand, academic classrooms on the other; the two sides never mesh, and the number of midshipmen who are physical “studs” as well as refined intellects (the true meaning of the much-misused phrase “scholar/athlete”—not here used as it’s usually used, to mean low performing athletic recruits who take classes they have to be dragged through) are, lamentably, few. What’s the purpose of what we do in the classroom? I insist on asking. I don’t ask this in a narrow sense of “how will I use this to earn money” or “how does this help me out-gun my enemy?” that is far too often used nowadays, at institutions where the humanities are falling under the budget axe. For the purpose of the ability to reflect does have real-world payoffs: it makes us able to get out of the prison of the actual. We can conceptualize a different set of circumstances than we have. And so, we can move towards achieving it. It’s eating our seed corn to cut humanities and social sciences (or for that matter science) so everybody can major in business administration.

This living hand-in-glove relationship between thought and action is my life, which means it informs the (I believe abnormally) wide range of my writing. At one end, the side of the world as it is, is situated the political thought of “Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash” or my current consideration of the place of the military in the America of 2010, “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide.” The most fundamental message in these books is consistent: we have to strive to understand the big picture intellectually so we can see the specific things we do, our course of action, as related to other courses of action. Liberals and conservatives are related to each other, the yin and yang of the political world. The military is the hammer of the civilian hand. Thus bad blood and animosity between alternatives in either case are pointless; all of us play our role in the whole by acting out our own parts. In more general terms yet, we have to be committed to the specific, and committed to the general of which we’re only one instantiation. (The point is fundamental to Hinduism.)

Yet at the other end of the spectrum of my written works—passing through works on dance (which takes place as an athletic activity but is intellectually patterned and formed motion) and pure aesthetics (what makes one object art and another not? what does art do for us and how can we react to it that’s different from reacting to things that are not artworks?)—is the close to plotless fictions of “Twilley” or, slightly more bound to action, the one-man soliloquies of “Kigali, Rwanda,” or “Women, and Berlin.”

“Twilley” consists of the world of details as it appears to a man who, having been abandoned by his wife, walks through a department store, takes a bus ride to the small town where he has grown up, sits in his parents’ empty house, and masturbates in an empty field. Its epigraph is the observation of Ludwig Wittgenstein, from his “Tractatus”: the world of the happy man is different from the world of the happy one. The narrator of “Kigali, Rwanda,” is a young sex- and women-obsessed American diplomat in the mid-1980s who finds himself HIV positive in the center of the AIDS epidemic, central Africa, in the early 1980s: he’s gotten it from prostitutes and in an odd way, this seems to him to be his fate. Works like these pose the question: what do we do with the over-abundance of reality that surrounds us? We swim in details: some are beautiful, or interesting. What are they for? If we don’t notice them, do they go to waste? How do we redeem them by being aware of them? Are we responsible for noting the world?

And in the middle between these two extremes of my writer’s are the works that openly pose the question of the relation between silent contemplation and action, like “Running is Life,” that suggests that we can solve Descartes’ split between body and mind by running through largely deserted land- or cityscapes before the break of day, being aware of the stage sets that later will come to life when the curtain of each day rises once again.

I write to understand life, which is my personal journey as it is that of each of us—a sort of secular “Pilgrim’s Progress” of the new millennium—with the hope that it will help others on their personal journeys as well. My answers will not necessarily be those of others. But the process is common to us all: we learn by the equivalent of people watching, seeing how others deal with the same questions that we too must solve, and sometimes helping us to pose them at all.


I am standing next to another man at the deadlift station. Between any two given stations is a rack of weights for the deadlift bar. I usually take two weights out of one side and two out of the other; usually I am alone here at this hour in the weight room, or any other users are on the other side. Now I am ready to put back my weights. But when I look over at the rack between us I see there aren’t enough empty spaces both for the weights I’ve taken and those he’s taken to go back. Or has he taken not from the one on his left (my right) but on his right? I look over to see if all his weights will fit there. I don’t want to fill up all the spaces that—who knows?—perhaps I’ve been using against some protocol. If those are his spaces to fill, I don’t want to horn in on his territory.

What do I say? Do I say, “Hey, are you going to put your weights back there?”? He probably wouldn’t know why I’m asking. Unless he’s using the other rack, in which case he might just be puzzled, and say: “Nah, I’m using the rack on the other side.” What if he says, “Yeah,” but says so in such a puzzled tone it’s clear he has no idea why I’m asking? Then I’ll have to say: “Is that my rack?” He might not understand why I’m asking, and we’d both stand there while I lay out the issues and my thinking on them—too much talk while we’re supposed to be working out. The talk itself would fail to work in the situation.

Better would be to articulate the problem rather than asking a question to solve it: “I’m trying to figure out where I should put these weights back.” That’s friendly, brings him on to my side with the problem he can help solve rather than being confrontational. But it does require some time away from lifting, and it breaks the cool-air zen of the place.

And what about my tone of voice? My body language? I need to have an even, non-confrontational tone of voice. Not a sharp “Is that rack the one for your weights?” with an edge. That’s almost certain to get his back up, or have him reply in a weary “Hey buddy why are you being such a jerk?” tone of voice. I need a tone of voice that says, “Hey, no problem here, trying to do the right thing, don’t want to take your space.” And the body language can’t be that of the puffed-up gorilla chest, rather the “at ease” of arms pushed out by lats.

But this is all far too complex for the problem. Another option is simply, have no communication at all. And in the end, that’s what happens. I notice that he’s doubled up the thinner weights in one of the divisions of the rack, like a toast rack, and I do the same on my side. I end up not having to interact verbally with him at all: talk takes time, isn’t what guys working out do with each other, and just makes things complicated.  So the path I chose was ultimately that of no interaction of any sort.  Words were considered, and rejected.

All of these options are the cards I hold in my hand, or perhaps each card the placeholder for another fan of cards on its own, and each of these for yet another fan, and so on. Or at least those are some of the cards I can enumerate after the fact: how many did I actually have at that moment? I’ll never be able to say. I can only be conscious of a few cards at once, but that doesn’t mean the others couldn’t have been played—usually we don’t know we have a card until we play it.



Get Sweaty

Dec 07 2010 | 3 comments

Literary studies in particular and humanities in general nowadays have become sedate. They don’t sweat any more. It’s time they did so again. This means giving up the pseudo-scientific notion that there is such a thing as literary studies of an objective manifold of literature, or texts. It’s not a viable notion, as it takes the trappings of science without the givens of the world that make this possible. Literary works can’t, except in an extremely isolated world that plays by its own rules, be used to construct a manifold of study: constructing such a literary world that, like the physical world, can be studied, fails to take account of the mutability of what we call works to begin with, the fact that focusing on works leaves out the rest of the iceberg of things that are related to the work but not even as permanent as works, and the complex relationship between each individual work and the world from which it is wrung, a relationship like that which defines most of life.

The point of view of literary studies, which starts with a listing of works—nowadays we call them “texts” is like the point of view of someone who insists that food grew in the supermarket under cellophane, or at least that the world outside from which these came and from which they were removed were completely irrelevant to what interests us. Works only end up in the library, as food only ends up—on the way to being eaten—in the grocery store. It’s a fundamental misdirection of attention to think our starting, and ending, place should be the store. Yet this, with literary works, is exactly the misdirection of attention that literary studies has encouraged us to do. The result is, literary studies nowadays locks us all in the library on a spring day when we’d rather—and probably should—be outside.

This literary study is largely the construction of the last half-century, as professors of literature sought to justify themselves and what they did by constructing an undertaking with the trappings of science, that respected and methodologically-heavy undertaking whose purpose in the world was clear. The paradox is that in constructing such a methodologically-heavy manifold, literary studies has shut out the world, rather than reconnected to it. Literary studies has become dry and airless, spinning away from the rest of the world on an orbit of their own. This leaves most students, young and full of life and eager to find ways to connect with the world, puzzled or alienated—and even many professors, who themselves were once young and idealistic, questioning the point of their undertaking.

Giving up literary studies means giving up the notion that we can “learn more” in any absolute sense about literature. We only learn more with respect to the last increment: we study two books by Joyce, not one. But while we are studying Joyce, what have we forgotten about Chaucer? What have we failed to learn about someone else who, by definition, remains forgotten? Oh, we say: I need not know more about Chaucer. “Literary studies” knows more about Chaucer. But what does this mean? More articles published? What of these is  actually read? Of what’s read, what’s understood? What transmitted to others?  What if we write so much about X, or read it, that we become heartily sick of X, or writing about X, and want only to read Y? Is this knowing more or knowing less? It’s all like making sand castles, that are swept away by the next wave. If we concentrate only on making the castle, or the next, or life seems to have a point. The illusion that we make progress in literary studies is the result of selective vision, which in turn means adopting the airless givens of the enclosed and increasingly pointless world of literary studies.


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