Well, I’ve come down from the weekend a little more but in the aftershock I have put my back out! So now I am hobbling round my flat like a little old lady – but as well as a lovely evening with H watching Venture Brothers et al, memories of the weekend are buoying me up…
Where to start? There’s the deep generosity of Pete Crowther, the wildly comic ongoing Smith & Jones double act, the great joy of seeing the Elastic Press anthology that first brought H and I together win the year’s best award, the Stephen King upstaging Boris the crocheted Dalek, anticipating Black Static, seeing Arvon friends again – but, above all, what made it such a great weekend was epic, wonderful conversations.
One was particularly productive, in a boozy kind of way – chatting with Hal Duncan about the relationship between various aesthetic genres. Specifically, he sees Modernism as the two opposites that Romanticism and Classicism represent, crashing together into the 20th Century.
It’s a fascinating point of view, and goes a long way towards explaining much that seems to be contradictory in Modernism. Take Mondrian, for example; austere classical perfection underpinned by whacky Theosophical thinking. Or James Joyce; a deeply rationalised dissection of multiple literary forms, filtered through journalistically precise observation of Dublin, but underpinned by deep mythical structures.
My deepest engagement with Modernism always came through Ezra Pound. Here, too, you’ve got that kind of binary opposition. One (deeply reductive) way of summing up Pound’s flawed masterpiece ‘The Cantos’ is as an equation: (History + Economics) x (Mythology + Art)/Biography = Cantos.
Hal’s opposed rational and intuited structures co-exist there too, deepening and commenting on each other. But of course, they create a tension – one that in many ways is unresolvable. Pound felt this very strongly, exemplifying it in his famous, repeated lament, ‘I cannot make it cohere’. In the end, he disclaimed ‘The Cantos’, unable to find achievement in them, and writing:
what do I love and
where are you?
That I lost my center
fighting the world
The dreams clash
and are shattered –
That I tried to make a paradiso
Pound couldn’t merge the Classical and the Romantic, falling instead into Facism and then bleak repentance. Beginning ‘The Cantos’, he’d seen meaning as something to be forced onto the world, using the combined, opposite tools of intuition and analysis. At its end, he could only see it as an emergent property of systems too subtle and complex to be anything other than observed:
I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise
Let the Gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made
The project of High Modernism failed, replaced by a Post-Modernism that (generalising wildly) found equal value in all things, on the positive basis that rich meaning could emerge from any one of them, and the negative one that imposition of specific meaning on a non-specific world could lead to very real social and political horrors. Decrying the death of his life’s work, Pound predicted the movement that would succeed him.
Post-Modernist relativity has its own problems; they’ve been rehearsed elsewhere, so I won’t ramble about them here. The real question is – what does all this have to do with Hal Duncan?
Well, I can’t help seeing his work – recent novels ‘Vellum’ and ‘Ink’ – as (in part) an attempt to revive the tools that the Modernist project built, and show how they remain a profoundly useful way of engaging with modernity. But it’s late in the evening now, and I’ve got much to do, so more on this tomorrow…