Modernism and Mimesis

MODERNISM IS STILL deeply allied to the West, both geographically and culturally. In the first place, it happened there. More importantly, it has drawn sustenance from the history of crisis that dominated Western politics and culture during the 20th century. Although crisis gave modernism its distinctive features, the movement doesn’t relate itself to this crisis through description, analysis, or representation — as, say, historiography or reportage might do. Modernism’s relation to crisis has to be measured — and embodied — by the impact on language and form; disjunction in syntax, montage, unpredictability of enjambment, rather than realist description, express the trauma of the first half of the 20th century. Modernism is a turn against representation.

An increasingly traumatized and fragmented modernity encompasses what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “secular age,” in which Western society made a transition from being one “in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” It also encompasses the fact of the Holocaust, after which, as Adorno said, it would be “barbaric” to write poetry. The secularization of the West and the experience of trauma give to modernism a tone of deep seriousness.

By the 1980s, however, this seriousness began to be viewed with suspicion, disavowed for being difficult, obscure, even elitist or right-wing (e.g., Pound’s political proclivities). Alternative worldviews emerged: Bakhtin’s idea of the politically liberating role of laughter in popular culture; postmodernism’s embrace of the ludic; globalization and its celebration of the free market. Add to these intellectual developments the rise of cultural studies, of history from below, and of postcolonialism and its critique of empire, and you have the often-rehearsed reasons for the disrepute into which modernism fell toward the end of the last millennium.

Yet there has been a recent turn among some novelists in Britain (and the United States) toward this demanding practice and tradition, an attempt to recuperate its techniques and approaches to representation. Tom McCarthy comes to mind, or Will Self, or Eimear McBride. In a review of McBride’s 2016 novel, The Lesser Bohemians, Jacqueline Rose says:

What might be the relationship between a truncated sentence and a truncated life? What drives syntax askew, makes language stall completely or spill over its proper borders, mess with itself? We have become used to thinking of modernism as an early 20th-century European crisis of representation provoked by the collapse of empires and impending war, when the seemingly fixed barriers of class, gender and racial privilege started to implode. In fact, for one influential version of this account, the crisis begins earlier, in 1848, when revolutions across Europe shredded the belief of the bourgeoisie that they were the class of progress. Up to that point, it was possible to see language as immune to social and political contradictions, lord of all it surveyed, blind to the role it plays in shaping a world it claimed merely, and innocently, to reflect. Modernist writing, famously difficult, is the appropriate form for that crisis. Most simply, it brings to an end the illusion that either language or the world can be made safe.

Rose’s review is a reminder of how difficult it is to abandon the old mythology of trauma and the model of mimesis. Rose assumes that elision or disjunction in McBride’s language must be marks of trauma: a personal crisis, perhaps, as in McBride’s narrator’s case, but also, ultimately, a historical one, from the very condition of being European. Historically, of course, modernism did turn away from realist representation — from mimesis, in other words — toward Symbolism, the image, and formal experimentation. But the passage above reminds us how difficult it is to escape a mimetic or representational model of some kind. The model of interpretation we’re encountering here is as obstinate, occasionally even as pernicious, as a model of narrative mimesis, such as the 19th-century novel contains: it involves a mimesis of form. Formal mimesis confirms a history we already know.

This history comprises a Western calendar, with key years and moments marking a purported break. Joyce Wexler, in Violence Without God: The Rhetorical Despair of Twentieth-Century Writers (2016), quotes the German poet Gottfried Benn: “1910, that is indeed the year when all scaffolds began to crack.” One is at once reminded of Virginia Woolf’s vague but pointed declaration, in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (delivered first as a talk in 1924): “And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that in or about December, 1910, human character changed.” Woolf is careful to avoid mimesis; she’s not speaking about an event that can be portrayed or described — that is not what she means by “change”:

I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

Woolf’s devastating airiness, her refusal to commit, helps her to escape the creation of a mythology (such as the cracks in Benn’s scaffolds lend themselves to); she avoids tying history to a singular account. Her rebuttal of the idea of a central historical event or a religious miracle frees up, rather than canonizing and finalizing, the idea of a break.

However, another astute critic, T. S. Eliot, is key to proposing the concept of modernism as a kind of formal mimesis — a mimetic response to trauma. After the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), he praised the novel for dealing with “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Surely he meant this on the level of the novel’s disjunctive form rather than its overt theme, which covers a single day in the lives of outwardly unremarkable Dubliners. Again, in his superb reassessment of Donne and other Metaphysical Poets, Eliot restates, in an aside, the case for formal mimesis:

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results.

Here Eliot links formal innovation and “difficulty” directly with “our civilization.” Pound had already asserted this link in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” (1920) — “the age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace” — and immediately examined this connection with self-reflexive scepticism: “The ‘age demanded’ chiefly a mould in plaster” (note the scare quotes).

The notion that a fracturing of form constitutes a kind of mimetic narrative also often directs the way that the shift in modern music toward atonality and dissonance is understood. Schoenberg’s music or atonality in jazz are sometimes associated with trauma; John Coltrane’s more extreme experiments in free improvisation are not unconnected, in the listener’s imagination, with drug abuse and early death. Formal mimesis has to be distinguished from the artistic expression of personal or even collective pain: the way the blues, say, are deemed to voice at once the acute sense of bereavement caused by romantic love and the downtrodden condition of the American Negro. In being seemingly non-referential and themeless, jazz differs from the blues: its disjunctive form, not its expressiveness, is what links it to trauma.

In our time, in a geographic and historical reversal, formal mimesis comes to us predominantly from the non-Western and postcolonial novel. Yet, rather than the “rhetorical despair” that Wexler perceives in modernism’s aesthetics of compression and disjunction, these new traditions display a transformative exuberance. Latin American magic realism (a term whose antecedents Wexler locates, intriguingly, in modernism) is characterized by loquaciousness and polyphony, aesthetic principles that also govern Salman Rushdie’s linguistic “chutnification” in Midnights Children (1981).

A contrast needs to be drawn here between the way we understand formal mimesis in modernism and in the postcolonial novel — between, for instance, Ulysses and Midnight’s Children. The latter was interpreted by scholars of Postcolonial Studies in such a way that its mimesis of form and language made critical reading (not just professionalized academic reading but nuanced responses of any kind) basically redundant. Wordplay, performing a culturally mimetic function, became, paradoxically, a factor independent of language. Almost any passage from Midnight’s Children held up for examination was interchangeable with any other, since each such passage narrated, on the level of form, an allegory about nation, culture, and (since these two were located outside Europe) orality. So, to select a passage at random, the exuberance of “[t]he moment I was old enough to play board games, I fell in love with Snakes and Ladders. O perfect balance of rewards and penalties! O seemingly random choices made by tumbling dice!” can be viewed as an example of the formal mimesis by which one recognizes the Indianness — or the orality, the uncontainable multivocal character — of the Indian novel. So can “[a]lready, at the age of nearlynine, I knew this much: everybody was waiting for me. Midnight and baby-snaps, prophets and prime ministers had created around me a glowing and inescapable mist of expectancy…”

Postcolonial Studies seldom asks us to pause over the aesthetic choices that underlie this language. The conjunction of the Americanized banality of “baby-snaps” with the middle-class Indian self-importance of “prime ministers,” of the advertiser’s cultivated naïveté (“glowing”) with resentment and literary irony (“inescapable”) are rendered secondary, perhaps inaudible, in the mimetic account. In the postcolonial reading, each passage in Midnights Children, inasmuch as it embodies a particular and identifiable mimesis of form, tells us a story we already know.

By contrast, the elision and compression in the linguistic sprawl of Ulysses draw repeated attention to the particularity of every sentence. Each word is different — in weight and association — from the next. “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant” is different from “[f]olded away in the memory of nature with her toys. Memories beset his brooding brain,” which, in turn, is unlike “Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.” We might view Joyce’s eccentricity of construction and disjunction of form mimetically, as Eliot did, as signs of the novel’s formal incarnation of “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Or, for that matter, we might take the disjunction to be emblematic of something like Irish identity, or even the human consciousness. Yet Ulysses creates a grammar that resists homogeneity; the paragraphs cannot narrate, alike, a tale of “rhetorical despair.”

The question is not what created linguistic disjunction and fragmentation, but what created the sense, as with Eliot, that these formal features marked a new reality, an epochal breakdown in some mythic Western consensus. Again, the question is not when (1910? 1914?) the West moved from being, in Charles Taylor’s words, a society “in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, [was] one human possibility among others,” but when exactly it was that Western society believed itself to be united in a “consensus of belief.” What is the precise period when this consensus prevailed? Did this consensus have to do with God, or the State? Was its lineage ever unbroken and continuous — until, that is, it met with the disruption of modernity? Or was that unity and harmony — putatively destroyed by the end of the 19th century — a Renaissance production, like perspective in art, and realism in the novel? In that case, was that unity, then, actually a hegemony? And does modernism then express a tragic sense of loss at the splintering of that unity, or does it actually constitute a joyous departure from neoclassical control, from a static idea of Europe? Is there a case to be made for modernism’s fragmentariness as an unshacklement from the vision of “Europe” affirmed by, say, Kenneth Clark in Civilisation, rather than as a breakdown?

It is worth recalling that, when Kafka — who has been, in the past, at the center of a kind of theology of modernism — read his stories to his friends, their response was to double up in delighted laughter. Kafka’s writing is not so much a locus of despair at some overarching abstraction of the human condition as it is an affirmation of the poetic specificity and comedy of life. The laughter Kafka provokes is not Bakhtinian (parodic, and therefore political): it is a response to the strangeness and absurdity of existence. Absurdity, the release from meaning, need not produce despair, which is an inherently meaningful — that is to say, serious — reaction to the meaningless; it can instead produce laughter, which admittedly — and crucially — lacks seriousness. Kafka is an exemplar of this non-serious seriousness, of the modern artist’s peculiar embrace and affirmation of life as absurd.

These antinomies point to the resistance, in Kafka’s work, to the mimetic model by which it would be interpreted and valued. Laughter and delight in Kafka are a reminder, too, that it is premature to identify modernism with loss and breakdown, and to assign only to the postmodern “turn” a ludic, celebratory quality. In fact, modernism is imbued with a fundamental joy, a spiritual excitement at the possibility of being unfettered from the conventions of the “real” and the canonically European, a release into a domain that is absurd but also sensuous and plural. The work of Joyce offers another example of this incongruous, transformative practice: he is not creating a form adequate to showcasing the age, as Eliot claimed, using copious, broken sentences to hold up a mirror to history. Instead, his language is rife with comic possibility. Eliot, too, despite his various dicta about civilizational crisis and his agony over the end of European culture, is, in The Waste Land, transfixed, animated, by the possibilities of the contingent (the open-ended present) over the absolute (European culture). This embrace of the “now” is, on one level, prescient of postmodernism (a period that shuns nostalgia) and globalization, but its tone is quite different in that modernism is a radically celebratory — that is, liberated and animated — engagement with what is otherwise a tragic or at least deeply disruptive time in Western history, while the celebratory aspect of postmodernism coincides with, and is authored by, the boom-time of the free market.

Part of the unshackling that modernism represents is a consequence of the West’s momentous encounter, from Romanticism onward, with other cultures and worldviews, not least Buddhism. One way of beginning to find a language for this encounter is not simply to look for something akin to modernism in other cultures, or for other cultures in European modernism, but rather to free the latter from the model of formal mimesis. It is this model that tailors our understanding of modernism’s range and impact, linking it, even more than a sense of cultural ownership could, to European history. When I refer to the freeing consequence of the encounter with non-Western cultures, I don’t mean to assert their influence on the West. Just as contact with the West led Indian moderns to look again at their own antecedents and central texts, so contact with other cultures led Europeans to radically rephrase their representation of reality. The often surreptitious encounter with Indian art, Buddhism, Japan, China, and Africa would lead artists as disparate as Van Gogh, Eliot, Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, John Cage, and Coltrane to turn away from the representational legacy of the Renaissance toward the non-representational.

Buddhism’s role here is key, since it points to a way of responding to the fragmentariness of the world that refuses to put humans at the center — that is, it eschews a mimetic reading of fragmentariness. Of course, Buddhism’s position in 19th-century Europe — like Kafka’s in the history of modernism — was double-edged: despite his absurdist humor, Kafka became synonymous with seriousness, just as Buddhism came to be equated with nirvana and nothingness. Nietzsche imbibed Buddhism through Schopenhauer, whose emphasis lay on the Buddha’s teachings about “suffering” (dukkha) and the escape from it into nirvana. As a result, Nietzsche accused Buddhism of the same nihilism Schopenhauer inadvertently imparted to it, and which Hegel ascribed to it consciously and influentially. Hegel’s mimetic misprision of nullity as nihilism is contradicted by modernism’s radical redefinition of nothingness as a source of energy (cf. Beckett, as well as Kafka). But the Hegelian legacy is still powerful in our understanding of not only what Buddhism represents but also, by transposition, what modernism does.

Modernism, after all, is an imaginative project that embraces disjunction over completeness, nothingness over event, though this disjunction and nothingness are still viewed largely through a mimetic lens. Yet Nietzsche must have absorbed from Buddhism the liberating and life-affirming rebuttal of categorical absolutes, which included both individual entities and God. The madman’s famous cry, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science, that “God is dead!” is usually seen as a traumatized response to the tumultuous and fraught beginnings of the “secular age.” But it is also an annunciation, a cry of freedom from an author who has recently learned from Buddhism that there are no absolutes governing our concepts of culture and self.

Similarly, Picasso’s response to the African mask is not “primitivist” at all, since the object that catalyzes him is neither primitive nor naïve, but sophisticated, synecdochal, and minimalistic. It is, in other words, a modernist artefact. Among the contiguities that any remapping of modernism would need to address is the fact that the “modernist” exists not only outside Europe, as with the mask Picasso is struck by, but throughout time, at different points in history. The “primitive,” on the other hand, is a form of aesthetic over-production involved with the origins of capitalism, as is the “Orient”: the African mask is modernist; Raiders of the Lost Ark is primitivist. A certain kind of Renaissance art — Titian, Canaletto — is also, in its aesthetic over-production, “primitive” and “primitivist” in comparison to the modernism of the African mask. This is the kind of aesthetic reordering that Picasso’s experiment invites us to consider.

The Bengali poetry and songs of Rabindranath Tagore, too, are remarkable in their contribution to the fashioning of a modernism that has no mimetic link to history — “history” being here a euphemism for Europe. In a recent book on modernist internationalism, Chimeras of Form (2016), Aarthi Vadde — arguing for Tagore’s version of universalism, very different from the kind that Englishmen such as H. G. Wells propagated — said of his English writings what is far more apposite to his Bengali oeuvre:

For Tagore, achieving a common language entailed not transcending translation but negotiating it. His approach to universality did not favor the consolidation of a world language spoken by everyone, but rather the widespread development of common tools for mediating uncommonness.

The ellipses in Tagore’s creative language don’t mimic personal or historical traumas, though both these defined the span of his existence. His songs, still sung everywhere in Bengal and Bangladesh, are part of a late 19th-century change in the artistic imagination regarding what a “common language” might look like — not a “world language spoken by everyone,” but a language with which to affirm strangeness. Modernism is a form that can’t be reduced to an allegory of a specific historical trauma, but it’s never overtly universal either, since its value lies in its unfinished and broken nature. Tagore’s instinct to affirm this truth derives from a variety of sources, including Buddhism and the nonrepresentational tendencies of Eastern culture. He makes use of these sources with no more sense of ownership than Cage or Coltrane. Lack of ownership is one of the many creative freedoms that modernism provides.


Amit Chaudhuri is the author of seven novels, the latest of which is Friend of My Youth, to be published in the United States in February by New York Review Books. He is also a poet, a critic, and a musician and composer. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. His new book of essays is called The Origins of Dislike.