Holly Phillips (University of Otago) reflects on how the Efface the Traces! – Modernism and Influence conference demonstrated that we need to think about the influences of modernism beyond a narrow canon of elite authors.
‘Efface the Traces!’ – Modernism and Influence, a three-day, international interdisciplinary conference held at St. Chad’s College, Durham University, set forth on April 9th 2013 with an ambitious intention: “to interrogate the narratives of influence which conventionally attach to modernist authors.” This process of interrogation aimed not only “to challenge the orthodoxies which inform discussion of the cultural location of canonical modernist figures,” but “to expose the work of non-canonical figures whose contributions to modernist poetics have been occluded by these same orthodoxies.”
“the problem of modernism and influence was interrogated from four major perspectives: historical, geographical, disciplinary and conceptual”
The papers and plenary lectures over the three days were diverse and provocative: they developed the conference’s original intention towards new critical horizons, and, considered as a whole, facilitated a reassessment of the very fabric of cultural modernism. Over three days of fantastically varied papers, I observed that the problem of modernism and influence was interrogated from four major perspectives: historical, geographical, disciplinary and conceptual.
The papers which interrogated modernism as a historical fact, a literary movement of the early twentieth century, were themselves extremely diverse. Some identified sources of modernist influence from centuries before the epoch, and others traced the ghosts of modernist influence right up to the present day.
Exemplary of this first approach to modernist historiography, Thirthankar Chakraborty’s paper explored the influence of the Hindu Upanishads on Samuel Beckett. Chakraborty argued that, while Beckett takes references to the Upanishads directly from Schopenhauer in his early writing, the ancient text is effaced throughout his career, leaving, by Godot, only two ragged metempsychotic birds encircling a single tree. Dominic Walker also complicated Beckett’s position in the route of modernist influence by considering how the eighteenth-century form of the ‘picaresque’ may have been effaced from his novel series, though its traces remain in Beckett’s characters with degenerating bodies, and prospects.
At the other end of history, a number of papers evaluated modernism’s afterlife: its influence, burdensome or inspirational, in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries. Tamara Radak encapsulated modernism’s problematic legacy in her take on Flann O’Brien’s less-than-flattering portrayal of a bumbling, ignorant Joyce in The Dalkey Archive. Radak illustrated how the violence of O’Brien’s mockery places Joyce, modernism’s great taskmaster, in a complicated relationship with post-modern literary production. He is a ghost who can be summoned, embraced, or rejected, but never, it seems, denied. Agata Wozniak’s paper considered the intertextual relationship between Woolf and Pat Barker as played out in the latter’s recent novel, Toby’s Room. Wozniak convincingly cast the relationship between Baker’s characters, Elinor and Toby, with Woolf at the creative and fictional periphery, as an allegory for creative influence, and the search for imaginative space in the shadow of high-modernism. Likewise, Izabela Klag traced the influence of Wyndham Lewis’ Blast! through various twentieth century incarnations, exposing how a certain version of modernism was reanimated to authenticate subsequent artistic moments in Canada. A compelling paper which testified to the self-enforcing cultural capital which facilitates modernism’s influence to this day.
In addition to historical interrogation, many papers challenged the confinement of modernism to an exclusively Anglo-American geography. These speakers worked to reveal the global reach of modernism, to illustrate how different cultures influenced, and were influenced by, what is routinely considered an Anglo-American aesthetic. These papers worked collectively to impress an appreciation of cultural pluralism on the conference, and to establish a sense of global modernisms. Of these papers, Alice Cheylan and Roxana Preda exposed the substantial Francophone influence on the poetry of Stein and Pound. Another strand looked further afield, to the Indian subcontinent, South America and the Caribbean to establish a sense of the global reach of modernism. To this end, Ankhi Mukherjee’s closing plenary lecture analysed the work of Caribbean author Jean Rhys and poet Derek Walcott as participants in a subversive, and often irreverent, Creole modernism which existed in temporal parallel to the Anglo-American movement, but has been subsequently effaced by the narrative of modernism as a predominantly white, Anglo-American phenomenon.
The disciplinary boundaries of literary modernism were also subject to interrogation. Several papers cast compelling routes of influence from the other humanities, arts, and sciences into literary modernism. Scarlett Bacon, for example, looked to Nietzsche’s intertextuality as a proto-modernist source of inspiration, while Helen Green brilliantly delineated the embracement and subsequent effacement of Henri Bergson’s vitalistic philosophy. The influence of the fine arts also figured substantially throughout “Efface the Traces,” with papers by Kevin Brazil and Martin Hammer considering the consonance of artistic and literary modernism. From the perspective of the sciences, Sabine Mercer revealed the hidden legacy of modernist subjectivity, memory and temporality in cognitive neuroscience.
“Efface the Traces! revealed how the movement’s influences are historically, geographically and disciplinarily diverse”
Finally, there were various papers which sought to expose modernism itself as a cultural construct. These reminded the audience that what we now identify as an elite cultural modernism was created retroactively in the mid-twentieth century in response to various cultural and political pressures. This material deconstruction of modernism was expanded by Marina MacKay’s plenary lecture. Here, MacKay identified “Proustian Modernism” as the source of a post-war cultural cringe. Modernism had past, and its afterlife constituted only a grab-bag of fragments: a nebulous sense of Bergsonian consciousness, avant-garde excesses, and elite sensibilities. This interior, apolitical version of modernism was desired by conservative elements of post-war society, yet this is the version which has, until recent years, been considered modernism’s greatest influence.
“Efface the Traces!” revealed just how limited, and ultimately unsatisfying, this narrow version of modernism is, when the movement’s influences are so historically, geographically and disciplinarily diverse, and, as we have seen, its legacy so very complex and contested.