In the introduction to Blasting and Bombardiering (1937), Lewis divides the twentieth century into three historical "segments"—the War, the Post-War, and the post-Post-War: "The War is such a tremendous landmark that locally it imposes itself upon our computations of time like the birth of Christ. We say 'pre-war' and 'post-war,' rather as we say B.C. or A.D . . . . I find a good way of dating after the War is to take the General Strike, 1926, as the next milestone. Then began a period of a new complexion. It was no longer 'post-war.' We needn't call it anything. It's just the period we're living in today." As we later discover, this periodization reflects Lewis's own career, which he takes to be exemplary. As a painter and as the explosive charge behind the journal Blast , Lewis was central to the pre-World War I avant-garde. Yet the war and its aftermath, he suggests, opened a hiatus in his career. Lewis had gained public notoriety for his vorticist paintings, for Blast , and for his debut novel Tarr (first version, 1918). But after Tarr , he writes, "I buried myself. I disinterred myself in 1926, the year of the General Strike—but as a philosopher and critic. This was considered very confusing." Similarly, despite early successes, Lewis's work as a novelist would really only take off after this period of "hibernation," which was of decisive importance for his later career.
Although in many ways idiosyncratic, Lewis could in one crucial respect claim to represent a broader current. Older in years and artistic tenure than many writers starting out in the 1920s, Lewis, like them, nonetheless had to begin his career (over) in the changed circumstances of the "postwar?' Lewis's colleagues like Joyce and Eliot (both noncombatants in World War I), whom he had initially outstripped in artistic initiative, had in the early twenties rapidly achieved worldwide fame as the avatars of a new age in literature. Their works became a standard against which others, whether for or against modernist writing, defined themselves. Lewis, who never gained anything like their notoriety, considered himself artistically at least their equal and in many respects their superior. Yet he too found himself, much to his displeasure, in the ranks of those writing in the shadow of Ulysses and The Waste Land .
The war and its immediate literary aftermath gave contemporaries the strong impression of a historical turning point, which they interpreted in a number of contradictory ways. In England, for example, widely accepted historicocultural myths emerged: "the old men" who had wantonly sacrificed the younger generation to hold on to power in the boardroom and bedroom; the tragic "death of old England" (a pastoral fox-hunting preserve, laid waste by modernity); and a fatal decline attributed to "the missing generation" of frontline soldiers, England's best-and-brightest having been (allegedly) killed off in the trenches. The young Americans who came to Europe tended to see the postwar condition more positively than their English counterparts: a liberation from the strictures of puritanical America and the discovery of community, fun, sexual freedom, abundant drink, and literary fame on the Continent. In either case, however, the five years after the end of the war formed a historical parenthesis of sorts, beyond which, as Lewis put it, a "period of a new complexion began." Those writers who wished to extend the modernist legacy beyond this point indeed re-created it in the image of illustrious forbears, following their example and competing with their achievements. Yet by the late twenties, they had also come to realize that the modernist's goal of a "legendary translation of external life" (Baudelaire) faced peculiar challenges that their forerunners had not experienced.
As the twenties passed, postwar modernists became increasingly aware of the difference between themselves and their now-famous predecessors. The early period of modernism, from about 1910 to 1918, had been especially characterized by two polar extremes. On the one hand, some modernist writers strongly asserted the autonomy of art
from social norms. The value of works lay in formal originality, which in turn was an index of the individual author's craft, vision, awareness, and labor. On the other hand, the first, heady phase of avant-garde activity had burst onto the scene with cubism, futurism, expressionism, vorticism, and early dadaism. For all their differences, which they heightened in combat with one another, these groups shared their collective orientation, which in some cases even evolved into a kind of anonymity for individual artists and writers. It is only to the specialist's eye that the differences between the analytic cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque appear; likewise, the dadaists relished the polemical negation of individual style in their use of ready-made materials and chance.
The tremendous energy of modernism's first phase lay not only in the turbulent force of individual movements and voices but also in the tense interplay between different components of its field, the thrilling sense of a powerful, all-sided development of the arts. The more the combat within the modernist field escalated, so it seemed, the more productive the arts would become. This fortuitous convergence of forces, however, had serious limits. The enormous heave forward in the arts had been contingent on the rapid transnational communication of ideas and personnel in the years before World War I and on the vigorous assimilation of new technologies and scientific theories in popularized, triumphalist ways. The ritualized belligerence of prewar modernism was rendered more earnest, however, by the bloody national conflict that engulfed Europe. By the immediate postwar years, the movement had already begun to show signs of drift, neoclassical reaction, and nationalist or provincialist obstacles to new ideas. A cunning dialectic had seized the process of stylistic innovation, confronting the writer with historical limits and threatening to exhaust modernism's dynamic from within. At the same time, external events impinged on the arts and their practitioners.
Following World War I, modernism's resistance to integration by extra-artistic institutions eroded from two sides. Modernist artists were actively challenged by the politicized avant-gardes (i.e., dada, surrealism, Russian constructivism) and also by new forms of culture with direct social utility (modern typography and design, photojournalism, cinema, jazz and revue culture, etc.). An emblematic encounter is the Berlin dadaists' blisteringly sarcastic attack on the painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had complained that machine-gun fire during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin had damaged a painting gallery. With their
radical politics and skepticism about anything but a throwaway culture, the Berlin dadaists could almost welcome the machine gunning of painting and certainly rated a few lost paintings very low against a lost revolution. Both trends—the politicization of the avant-gardes and the devaluation of the traditional arts—impelled artists to rethink their practice and reinvent the functions, forms, and contexts of artworks. The political avant-gardes noisily asserted the duty of artists to intervene—as artistic producers, not private citizens—in social life, while the new media took on a centrality that even the most popular artist had never imagined. Modernism's radical autonomy appeared increasingly fragile, increasingly difficult to sustain, in the face of these new historical pressures.
Even if modernists could disdain or ignore these trends, however, they were faced with another difficulty: a slackening of the critical tension between modernist art forms and modern society. Modernism itself had found a certain scurrilous success, or at least some of its representatives, more or less worthy of the rifle, had achieved popular notoriety. The high calling of art that the modernists professed to follow had fallen prey to fashion and proven susceptible to banalization and vulgarizing imitation. Wyndham Lewis bitterly satirized the "apes of god" playing at bohemian existence, buying up fashionably humble studios in the artists' quarters at prices far beyond the means of struggling artists. Others, like Djuna Barnes, resorted to stealth and travel to maintain their distinction:
Djuna Barnes, author of Ryder , returned to Montparnasse for a glimpse and fled to Vienna. . . .
"Montparnasse," she said, "has ceased to exist. There is nothing left but a big crowd."
As the fashion took hold, the cafés of Paris became more crowded with tourists seeking a look at the "lost generation" than with the writers and artists who ostensibly made up the spectacle. The myth of modernism regarded itself in public, while the authentic item conducted its business elsewhere, often in obscurity and poverty.
As these writers discovered, however, such efforts to preserve a creative island from the vulgar could succeed all too well. Fashion was fickle, but isolation had drawbacks as well—and might last indefinitely. Late modernist writers were forced to come to terms with this predicament, not merely as the given context in which they worked, but indeed as the conscious point of departure for their art. The detached stance and styl-
istic rigor of later modernist writing continued to put the crowd at a distance. Yet the heroism of this gesture, common to modernist writers from Baudelaire to Joyce, had become grimly farcical, as it revealed a social automatism controlling the artist presumably its master.
Through the new array of modernist literary techniques, Fredric Jameson has argued, the fractured experience of individual subjects in the age of imperialism could be transformed into the building blocks of formally dazzling works of art. Yet by transfiguring the private world in this way, such works serve to evade the historical or political situation that lies beyond the rarefied zones of inner feeling and thought: "The perfected poetic apparatus of high modernism represses History just as successfully as the perfected narrative apparatus of high realism did the random heterogeneity of the as yet uncentered subject. At that point, however, the political, no longer visible in the high modernist texts, any more than in the everyday world of bourgeois life, and relentlessly driven underground by accumulated reification, has at last become a genuine Unconscious." Jameson contrasts this radical repression of history with the still-"leaky" forms of the protomodernist romancier Joseph Conrad. In Conrad's works, he argues, history juts through the very literary forms meant to hold the world of aggravated political struggle at bay. Late modernism, two decades later, once again loosens the modernist dominance of form and allows a more fluid, dialogic relation with the immediate historical context. It accomplished this unbind-ing of the work at the cost of abandoning the modernist gold standard: form as the universal currency in which aesthetic value could be measured and circulated.
Writing politically committed literature represented one obvious and, to many, attractive way for writers to break out of their evident predicament. For a brief but fascinating period, writers as diverse as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, George Orwell, and Rex Warner (only to mention major British writers) found ways of holding in tension political and literary demands. They allowed these often-contradictory strains to play themselves out in challenging, enduring works of poetry and fiction. Yet despite the general sense of the thirties as a highly politicized decade, many other important writers of the period could not and did not link their writing to the vicissitudes of political engagement. Retrospectively, and especially from the perspective of the postcommunist present, it is necessary to reexamine without prejudice our ideas about this "noncommittal" stance, and above all, as itself being a kind of political choice. It is possible to see in the
late modernists' "choice not to choose" something other than the simple dichotomy of engagement versus escapism. In a preface to his belated war chronicle/epic poem In Parenthesis , which appeared alongside Wyndham Lewis's war memoir Blasting and Bombardiering in 1937, the Welsh poet David Jones explicates his title as a rebus of his deep perplexity about where to stand as a writer in the postwar world. Jones explains that he called his book In Parenthesis because it was written "in a kind of space between—I don't know between quite what—but as you turn aside to do something." Jones's title is also significant, "because for us amateur soldiers (and especially for the writer, who was not only amateur, but grotesquely incompetent, a knocker-over of piles, a parade's despair) the war was a parenthesis . . . and also because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis." Jones's sense of being betwixt and between two catastrophically opposed camps, massed for battle, captures something of a mood shared to a greater or lesser extent by many writers of these years.
Late modernist writers in no way ignored their social context; in fact, they were deeply troubled by their inability to keep it at a manageable distance. Their literary structures tottered uneasily between vexed acknowledgment and anxious disavowal of social facts, suggesting that their relation to history was far more complex than that of simple "repression." Indeed, if we wanted to carry out the psychic metaphor of Jameson's "political unconscious," which presupposes that narrative forms efficaciously limit the impact of history on literature, for late modernism we would have to speak of a failure to repress, a failure of the forms to contain the turbulent historical energies that sweep through late modernist works. These works are perforated and torn by their relation to history, which is here occulted beneath a dense textual tangle and there exposed in transparent allusion and bald polemic. These writers recognized the demands that the "external" world made on the "homemade" world of their art, yet they lent little credence to the current politico-aesthetic responses. This lack of credible options, however, left them all the more aware of their nakedness before the social facts. Reflecting on their own practice, they discerned in the evolution of modern writing disturbing changes in the ways in which literature was produced and read. Yet unable to formulate any radical alternative to the modernist legacy within which they continued to work, they labored to tunnel through it, undermining and leaving it behind in a painstaking pursuit of literary "failure"—isolated, furtive, and uncertain of allies.