Current Reading 1: Modernism

This is part one of my current reading for my comprehensive exams. I’m reading on self-fashioning and modernism; the title of the three lists together is “The Role of Text in the Formation of Identity.” My reading list follows my introductory essay.


This list, which comprises approximately 75 texts, is still woefully inadequate to the task it intends, which is to show all of the arenas in which modernism confronted the dialectic of authenticity and rhetorical performance, and confronted it as a dialectic rather than as a problem to be solved by choosing sides. The selection of texts under consideration here, and the points of connection to the other two lists, are designed to advance the thesis that modernism was that period in which authors sought to sublate the crisis of the truth of subjectivity by substituting the creative act of writing for traditional models of pedagogy, readership, and situational rhetoric.

From the standpoint of the modernist ideal of authorship, the interminable debate about authenticity was symptomatic of a fundamental passivity, one linked to tradition and conventional understandings of readership. This passivity had been magnified by an alliance between market forces and consumer culture: in Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, the bourgeois character Lambert Strether describes his consciousness as something “poured” into a “tin mould,” and hypothesizes that the “affair of life” could not have gone any differently for him.

So, at the moment when passivity is most forcefully imposed upon individual subjects, the overwhelming consciousness of this imposition ignites a counter-movement, one that becomes definitive for the art of the period. The counter-movement, what we know as modernism, draws heavily upon artistic forerunners, in part out of dissatisfaction with the condition and direction of contemporary society. Modernism identified itself, by turns, with the classical tradition, with Renaissance authors, and with Romanticism. At the same time, there was a general recognition that “high culture” was a potentially imprisoning force, because of the threat posed to authorship by the practice of reading. A writer who fell back on literary traditions risked regressing back to imitation from the more sovereign practice of original authorship.

Authorship entails agency, not authenticity, although the tropes of authenticity do not disappear with the advent of modernism. Instead, there is an effort to overcome the separation between the private “scene” of reading and writing, and the dialogic or oratorical scene of rhetoric and communication. Thus, for example, the Marcel character in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time will have to re-live all of his “superficial” evenings in the drawing-rooms of Paris, in the course of achieving that recollection of his life that both he and his readers understand through the jargon of authenticity.

One of the distinctive things about this linkage of authorship with agency is the rejection of other models of heroism, and other models for the “man of action.” Albert Camus, in his imaginative critical study The Rebel, condemns the French poet Arthur Rimbaud for abandoning poetry in favor of a mercantile career in Africa. Many of Rimbaud’s supporters (then and now) defended his actions on the conventional grounds of preferring action and adventure to the pusillanimity of language, but Camus is all the more of a modernist for insisting that Rimbaud became a bourgeois and a conformist the instant that he became an actor and ceased to be an author. Along similar lines, the more conventional narrative of adaptive self-fashioning and heroism in T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is finally subordinate to the effort of telling the story in words, not least because of the degree to which Lawrence was obliged to compromise his own ideals in order to serve his country’s military interests.

One of the most important means of achieving agency, for these authors, is gaining perspective on social norms and the mass media. Thus modernist authors upheld authenticity, but only because they wanted to distance themselves from convention, and not because they were seeking an authentic text with which to replace renounced fictions. Bertolt Brecht used the theater to de-realize, for his audience, the political structures of everyday life. Other authors used mixed modes of tragedy, bathos, and satire to accomplish the same effects in novels and poems. In E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, we observe Leonard Bast trying to acquire culture, with phrases from John Ruskin’s studies of Venice echoing uselessly in his head. It is a quintessential image of the failure of the passive mnemonics valorized in the old myths of classical pedagogy. The pedagogical version of self-formation, championed (for example) by Rousseau in Émile, compares unfavorably to the autodidactic undertaking of authorship in the modernist period. Many of these works satirize pedagogy, including the three novels by James Joyce that feature Stephen Dedalus, the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

My list begins at the historical moment when authorship becomes a self-conscious ideal for artists, and inaugurates the distinction between textual agency (authorship) as self-fashioning, and self-fashioning as the mere consumption of text. The list ends where the transition from modernism to postmodernism begins: that is, at the historical moment when the ideal of authorship no longer suffices as a response to perceived political responsibilities and the psychical risks of alienation and madness.


Artaud, Antonin
The Theater and Its Double

Beckett, Samuel
Krapp’s Last Tape

Bellow, Saul
Henderson the Rain King

Brecht, Bertolt.
The Threepenny Opera

Camus, Albert
The Rebel

Conrad, Joseph
Heart of Darkness

Eliot, T. S.
Selected Poems
Selected Prose, esp. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “Hamlet and his Problems”
Christianity and Culture

Ellison, Ralph
Invisible Man
Selected Essays

Faulkner, William
Absalom, Absalom!

Fitzgerald, F. Scott
The Great Gatsby
This Side of Paradise

Forster, E. M.
Howard’s End

Genet, Jean
The Thief’s Journal
Our Lady of the Flowers

Gide, André
The Immoralist

Hesse, Hermann
Narcissus and Goldmund
The Glass Bead Game

H. D.
Tribute to Freud

Hemingway, Ernest
Death in the Afternoon
A Moveable Feast

Huxley, Aldous
Point Counter-Point
Brave New World

Ibsen, Henrik
When We Dead Awaken
The Master Builder

James, Henry.
Tales, esp. “The Aspern Papers” and “The Real Thing.”
The Ambassadors
The Portrait of a Lady
Prefaces and Selected Essays

Joyce, James
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Finnegans Wake

Kafka, Franz
Selected Stories, esp. “The Hunger Artist”

Larsen, Nella

Lawrence, D. H.
Women in Love
The Plumed Serpent
Selected Essays, including “A Propos of Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover.”
Studies in Classic American Literature

Lawrence, T. E.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Mailer, Norman
Advertisements for Myself

McCarthy, Mary
The Charmed Life

Mann, Thomas
The Magic Mountain
Felix Krull, Confidence Man
Selected Stories (including “Death in Venice” and “Tonio Kroger”)

Maugham, W. Somerset
The Moon and Sixpence

Miller, Henry
Tropic of Cancer

Nabokov, Vladimir.
Speak, Memory
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Pirandello, Luigi
Six Characters In Search Of An Author

Pound, Ezra
Selected Poems
Selected Prose

Proust, Marcel
In Search of Lost Time

Salinger, J.D.
The Catcher in the Rye

Sartre, Jean-Paul
The Words

Shaw, George Bernard
Saint Joan

Stein, Gertrude
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Everybody’s Autobiography
Lectures in America

Stevens, Wallace
Selected Poetry
Selected Prose

Waugh, Evelyn
Brideshead Revisited

West, Nathanael
The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts

Wharton, Edith
The House of Mirth

Wilde, Oscar
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Portrait of Dorian Gray
“Miscellanies,” Essays, Lectures

Woolf, Virginia
To The Lighthouse
Mrs. Dalloway
A Room of One’s Own

Yeats, William Butler
Selected Poems, including “Poem Among Schoolchildren”

Published on April 24, 2007 at 9:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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