(5-stars was too much; corrected)
Wilson’s essay on the nature and origins of Modernism in literature is lucid, clear, and direct, and is worth familiarizing oneself with. After an initial, very brief discussion of Romanticism – seen as a revolt against the mechanistic rationalism of the 17th and 18th cen., in which the universe (man included) were viewed as a clock-like mechanism (there is a good discussion of all this in J.B. Bury’s, The Idea of Progress), and god as the clock-maker who, once having set it in motion withdraws to watch his handiworks… Wilson describes the initial reaction against Romanticism as the Naturalism of Flaubert and Ibsen (and, in art, Courbet). The reaction against this, was the Symbolism best exemplified by the lunatic Gérard de Nerval, Poe, and ultimately by Mallarmé.
The chief doctrine of Symbolism can be expressed as follows (p. 21f.): “Every feeling or sensation we have, every moment of consciousness, is different from every other; and it is, in consequence, impossible to render our sensations as we actually experience them through the conventional and universal language of ordinary literature…. Each poet… [must] find… the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his [unique] personality and feelings. Such a language must make use of symbols [not conventional symbols, as in the Middle Ages; but unique and eccentric ones]: what is so special, so fleeting and so vague cannot be conveyed by direct statement or by description, but only by a succession of words, of images, which will serve to suggest it to [or invoke it in] the reader…. Symbolism may [therefore] be defined as an attempt by carefully studied means – a complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors – to communicate unique personal feelings.”
Already in Poe, who strongly influenced French Modernism through the translations of Baudelaire in 1852, we find the aesthetic stated thus “’I know… that indefiniteness is an element of the true music [of poetry]… a suggestive indefiniteness of vague and spiritual effect’. And to approximate [Wilson continues] the indefiniteness of music was to become one of the principal aims of Symbolism. This effect of indefiniteness was produced not merely by the confusion… between the imaginary… and the real [as in Nerval]; but also by means of a further confusion between the perceptions of the different senses.”
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent…
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se respondent (Baudelaire)
One of the best expressions of Symbolism turns out to be Paul Valéry, who did not write much, but who dedicated himself (ultimately through his notebooks) to the “study of oneself for its own sake, the comprehension of that attention itself and the desire to trace clearly for oneself the nature of one’s own existence”.
Wilson sees Modernism as the working out of Symbolism either in tandem with, or in reaction to Naturalism. To show how this is so, he dedicates separate chapters to Yeats, Valéry, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, with a final chapter on ‘Axel’ (a poem by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, publ. 1890) and Rimbaud.
In this final chapter, Wilson begins by tracing the ethic that resulted from this fin de siècle aesthetic. “One’s great objection to the Symbolist school,” says Gide, “is its lack of curiosity about life… all were pessimists, renunciants, resignationists, ‘tired of the sad hospital’ which the earth seemed to them… Poetry had become for them a refuge… Divesting life as they did of everything which they considered mere vain delusion… it was not astonishing that they should have supplied no new ethic – contenting themselves with that of Vigny, which… they dressed up in irony – but only an aesthetic.”
It led, Wilson argues, to the withdrawal of the individual from everything social, into a kind of exquisitely polished internality… of M. Teste, of ‘Marcel’ in A la Recherche… all of which ultimately brings him to to the poetic will-to-power of Rimbaud’s Enfer, a very different course and path…, closing with a lengthy account of Rimbaud’s final years in Africa.
Clearly, Wilson is impressed with Rimbaud and with the arc of his life and his career, concluding: “Rimbaud was far from finding in the East that ideal barbarous state he was seeking; even at Harrar during the days of his prosperity he was always steaming with anxieties and angers – but his career, with tis violence, its moral interest and its tragic completeness, leaves us feeling that we have watched the human spirit, strained to its most resolute sincerity and in possession of its highest faculties, breaking itself in the effort to escape, first from humiliating compromise, and then from chaos equally humiliating. And when we turn back to consider even the masterpieces of that literature which Rimbaud had helped to found [subsequent poetry] and which he had repudiated, we are oppressed by a sullenness, a lethargy, a sense of energies ingrown and sometimes festering. Even the poetry of the noble Yeats, still repining through middle age over the emotional miscarriages of youth, is dully weighted, for all its purity and candor, by a leaden acquiescence in defeat”. (283)