Curious Questions

The Guardian has a link to the exam papers for All Souls’ Fellowships, and they’re interesting to look through. (I even feel I should apply for the Classics one – though I’d have to be lucky and get a nice paper). Anyway, I can’t help noticing the English papers keep asking the very same questions which tend to trouble Obooki on his obloquy:

22. ‘Critical speculation about when, precisely, Modernism burst forth and when it petered out is futile’. Do you agree?

27. Was modernism old-fashioned?

24. If Woolf, Joyce and Lawrence were all modernists, what does modernism mean?

24. Did much less change in the literature of the first half of the twentieth century than is generally claimed?

25. When and why did labelled literary movements become important? Were any of them as significant as they claimed to be?

24. Does it show that most contemporary British novelists have been through British English literature departments?

and lastly

26. What do you think the long-term effects of the blogosphere will be on literary activity?


6 thoughts on “Curious Questions

  1. There’s no particular reason for thinking that the high modernists thought that they were doing anything particularly new:

    “Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language, so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement; e.g. Saxon charms, Hebridean Folk Songs, the verse of Dante, and the lyrics of Shakespeare – if he can dissociate the vocabulary from the cadence. Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.”

  2. No, I don’t suppose they did: – I imagine they were generally quite well versed in their forbears, more so than I am. It seems to me though that claims are made on their behalf.

    I wonder how much they even believed they were part of a movement. I keep being reminded of Cyril Connolly’s The Enemies of Promise, which describes this era from the vantage of 1938, yet never makes the slightest mention of modernism – deliberately so, perhaps; but on the other hand, not mentioning it, he does go some way towards answering the question about, if Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence were all modernists, what does it mean?

    Is that quote about modernism, or just a part of the All Souls’ application procedure?

    On a similar subject, I quite enjoyed parts of this review in the LRB. The writer takes a while to get going, but after a while really starts laying in to the claims made for modernism.

  3. The quote is from Pound’s 1918 essay A Retrospect. Already looking back at what had been done. I’m convinced that Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Woolf , Richardson, Jones and many of the others were concerned to bring about what they saw as a “rebirth” of the true essence of literature after the late 19th C mush. Many other Anericans actually saw the modern movement as a way out of the European past, a of creating an American idiom. But even Dr Williams wrote Kore in Hell.

    It isn’t a simple story, but I do think something happened in the period 1890 – 1930 that was unique. To simplify hugely, that tendency in literature that can be symbolised by Sterne/Mallarme became, for the first and only time, the dominant mode in English letters. The reaction was swift and brutal and there has been an ongoing attempt since to make out that it never happened, that Wollf is G. Eliot’s daughter and Joyce Anthony Powell’s dad, but the dam having been breached, two streams have co-existed since, one mostly underground but regualarly drawn upon by the other for fresh currents and/or artistic “kudos”.

  4. 22. Speculation as to the final, incontrovertible, and “precise” start- and end-date of “Modernism” would, indeed, be “futile”. Speculation as to the evolution into and out of existence of that “Modernism” would not be “futile”, but would be, rather, a discussion of the fruits and deserts of that period – let me speak only of literary Modernism – (my “precise” dates) from Victoria’s death until the (’39) beginning of WWII. The arguments that would constitute that discussion would be every bit as illuminating and pleasurable or occluded and “futile” – or not – as any other literary quarreling.

    27. Modernism was “fashioned” by and out of what was “old”, but was a response that had its own new-fangledness(es).

    24. If those three authors are “Modernists”, then any definition of ‘Modernism’ would have to entail their inclusion within its lineaments. In their cases, Modernism means, in comparison to the novels of Eliot, Dickens, and Hardy: a) characters’ feelings and thoughts rendered as though ’emotion’ and ‘thought’ themselves happened in intelligible words; b) that inner experience itself constituting ‘plot’ and ‘characterization’; and c) an interest in the reader working to make sense of the story, rather than that reader complacently waiting to be told what it should mean to her or him.

    second 24. No. While Rabelais and Sterne, Mallarme and Laforgue, and many others, broke the ‘rules’ that, in retrospect, are mistakenly thought to have held rigid sway before Modernism, the bringing-to-attention both of those ‘rules’ and the desirability and utility of breaking them that The Waste Land and Ulysses do most to represent indicate a genuine break – and resultant mutation of continuity – in the (ok: Eurocentric) history of literature.

    25. Aristophanes labels and contrasts “Aeschylean” and “Euripidean” dramatic poetries. I doubt whether, in the history of literature – a history of using language to indicate whatever is intelligible – there’s ever been a time when literature itself was not explicitly so “labeled” by literary people. That the movements have been embraced by those thought to have composed them? – surely, frequently not. But that writers have always been “labeled” as this or that kind of writer? – yes, just like every other kind of profession or behavior (since language acquisition) has been sub-categorized.

    The significance of these categories, these “labels”, has always depended on their adroitness and utility, for example, in resistance or alliance. This labeling has always been a matter of the appropriateness of the labels themselves, and, of course, many times in literary history, the labels affixed to this or that kind of writing has ‘signified’ accurately.

    third 24. I must confess my ignorance of “British English literature departments”. Penelope Fitzgerald seems to me to be not ‘academic’ – or at least to write not a whit ‘academically’. James Kelman doesn’t write ‘academically’ – his studiability notwithstanding. Jennifer Johnston writes (ok: Irish) novels that aren’t redolent of theory or ‘academism’. In my small experience, there’s enough variety in The British Novel not to fret about British novelists herding themselves into the Academic Corral.

    26. The internet gives writers reasons not to write, but, hell, when were such reasons in short supply?? That new forms will evolve on and because of the internet is inevitable; that those forms will be denounced (and championed) with scant first-hand experience or careful reasoning, likewise inevitable. Blogs, twitter-streams, the ‘illuminated manuscripts’ of facebook ‘pages’ – why not “literary”? The proof of the quality and durability of such “activit[ies]” will, obviously, have to wait for the test of generations of taking-up and discarding of them.

    [obooki, I don’t understand the All Souls’ numbering system. Are the duplicate numbers alternates, for example, that appear on different tests (so the test-takers are less likely to copy from neighbors)? Probably I’d not do well examining for a math Fellowship.]

  5. Fair summary, deadgod. Something happened in “that period … from Victoria’s death until the (’39) beginning of WWII” (my earlier start is to accomodate the roots of Imagism) and, being language users, we need to give it a name. Modernism is as good a name as any.

  6. Many points!

    For 24a, could we not have, rather than Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence vs Eliot, Dickens, Hardy: – Wells, Galsworthy, Bennett vs Walter Pater, Henry James and Charles M Doughty: – a falling from painstaking highbrow experimentalism to some sort of tedious, uninteresting realism.

    I don’t see why not: in a way Pater, James and Doughty represent Victorian England for me more than Eliot, Dickens and Hardy. – Indeed, Connolly (in Enemies of Promise) claims – no doubt somewhat tendentially – that Walter Pater is precisely the archetypal late-Victorian novelist.

    [the odd numbering is just because these questions are taken from papers in different years]

    I do suspect that, if you did this exam, the dons would be more impressed, and give you an easier time in the accompanying viva voce interview, if you went with the modernism was nothing new line. They seem the type: particularly with the concentration of questions in general in the pre-c19th period. Such as, for instance, the intriguing question:

    2. Why did many Middle English writers feign their authorities?

    Also, if you were applying for a research fellowship, I think it would be good policy to contradict any commonly-held view.

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