christopher prendergast

MODERNISM’S NIGHTMARE?
Art, Matter, Mechanism

. H. Auden said he had two questions when reading a poem: ‘The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?”. The second is: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?”.’1 Disarmingly—and deceptively—simple, Auden’s questions, jointly, take us to all manner of places, many of which have long since been vacated, most notably by those on indefinite postmodernist leave in the playground of ‘forms’. In particular, the second question—addressed to the quality of the human presence in the verbal machine and thus to the poem’s ethical significance—might well be viewed by some representatives of contemporary critical persuasions (for example, followers of Paul de Man) as the residue of a naive and sentimental humanism. Yet what happens when this second question is liquidated by the first, when the human leaves the contraption to its own devices—in various senses of the term, including the Russian Formalist one—is an issue of considerable importance. The following—a collection of strictly provisional thoughts inspired, in part, by T. J. Clark’s recent book on Modernist painting, Farewell to an Idea—engages with what is most uncomfortable in that issue, by way of a reflection on a modern view of art as, fundamentally, the application of technique to matter.2 Put in this way, of course, my topic could be said to implicate the whole of art, since this, by at least one definition, is what art is, in the history of aesthetic thought that flows from, and variously modifies, the Greek notion of techne. However, consciousness of what such a definition ¯ might ultimately entail when we press it to the point of saying, not just that art is the application of technique to matter, but that art is only the new left review 10 jul aug 2001 141

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New Haven and London 1993. close to the paradoxical outcomes of the scientific revolution.3 References to matter. I shall call them the The Dyer’s Hand. Mallarmé. Positing representations as self-consciously made artefacts meant that the meanings these encoded could also be unmade. the self-conscious display by the art work of its own procedures. Taking Notes for the Automaton. T. amongst others. But. J. From the Frankfurt School to the moment of Tel Quel. pp. At the moment of its birth and early development. even revolutionary. and remade. is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. I want to start by discriminating some of the relevant meanings and contexts involved here. London 1962. a far more dispiriting conclusion that can be drawn. whose implications and consequences we have still not yet fully thought through. According to Clark in Farewell to an Idea. but. Episodes from a History of Modernism.application of technique to matter. Copying Machines. as we tumble into the abyss of the reflexive turn. in the period we call modernity and the movements we call Modernism. Nietzsche. 2 1 142 nlr 10 . its ultimate lesson may be to deny the very foundations of freedom. in so doing. in the nineteenth century. Minneapolis 2000. these meanings and contexts are essentially threefold: for shorthand purposes. Conrad and Walter Pater. in so far as it was held to extricate us from the grip of ideology and its naturalizing habits. there is a particular emphasis on both technique and matter. complacent celebrations that have so often accompanied what we like to call the materiality of art and the associated moves of the so-called reflexive turn in contemporary literary theory. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the all-too-easy. in the perspective of a permanent revolution. These implications and consequences are grim. and I should make immediately clear that what follows is very far from being good news. This is the thought that would come to haunt. science was supposed to free us from the dead weight of authority and superstition. In the study of art and literature. Farewell to an Idea. 50–1. by teaching us that we are caught in the blind determinisms and mechanisms of a purely material world. mise en abyme. there is. alas. was hailed as liberating. material world and materiality take us to the threshold of the various doctrines known as materialism. Clark. 3 The anxiety over the machine and the mechanical can be traced back to the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: see the fascinating study by Catherine Liu. as well as gesturing towards a history which might encompass them.

4 The two other moments that I have listed as the historical successors to the Romantic—the positivist and the semiotic—are quite different in their respective ways with the category of materiality. 4 prendergast: Modernism 143 . with Clark makes the interesting point that. broadly as the analysis of the material and social conditions of literary production. sundered by modernity. an analytics of matter that drained it of meaning and destroyed the intuitive sense of connexion with the living presences and processes of Nature—in whose name Goethe and Wordsworth attacked the modern scientific spirit. He describes this belief as ‘late Romantic’ and characterizes it as the attempt to ‘move signification from the realm of the discursive into that of the symbol—where symbols would simply make or be meaning. as for example.Romantic. art and literature—or. Counterposed to mechanical materialism is the organicist materialism which underpins a redemptive view of the nature of art: of aesthetic experience as the royal road to the reunion of matter and spirit. with meaning inhering in them. The first discrimination concerns materialism in the senses evoked by modern science and modern economy: the place and role of art in the age of industrialization. in the quasi-Spinozist aesthetic pantheism of the Romantics and the accompanying artistic doctrine of correspondances. these ideas survive in a certain way of thinking about Modernist abstract painting: the belief that pure ‘forms’ of paint are embodiments of meaning. with a corresponding demystification of the Romantic–organicist view. which marked the emergence of the disenchanted world of modernity. economic materialism—the new forces of production and the culture of secular techno-rationality that accompanied them—was held to have installed the rule of instrumental reason. the category of the aesthetic—are commonly seen as a rearguard action against this hegemony. in Romantic aesthetic thought. against all the odds. as substance or essence’: Farewell to an Idea. the positivist and the semiotic. scientific method was perceived as resting on a deadly atomism. In this moment. matter is redeemed through its infusion by spirit. one term for which. the sphere of the transcendental—a theory of poetry as onomatopœia married to metaphysics. more generally.and early nineteenth-century Romanticism. one of opposition. Relatedly. p. incorporate. literally. In late eighteenth. In this conception. was the ‘symbol’. Positivism applies rather than resists the application of science to the understanding of art and literature. whereby the materiality of the poetic word was held to embody or. This first context yields what is of course a familiar story—basically. 253. Marxism expands this approach.

5 6 Farewell to an Idea. saturated with historically realized human meanings and values.5 The notion of materiality as ‘phenomenal stuff’. cela œuvre. Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory. ed. Tom Cohen et al.its stress on the materiality of signifying practices. but rather a set of practices. articulated through the body and work on the world. is rather the theme of the third moment. who deploys the idea of the linguistic and literary sign as brute matter with the express intention of wrecking all possible groundings of art as humanly meaningful. famously. or what we have come to call the materiality of the signifier. it is not even the matter of a body. it forces. This. structuralism. Unlike the organic integrations of Romantic ideology.6 Another way of putting this is to equate materiality with mechanism. p. whereby textual materiality is seen as ‘material event’ intervening in history ‘to make something happen’. There has recently been an attempt to take de Man’s notion of ‘materiality’ further. by way of the stress in his posthumously published collection Aesthetic Ideology on the themes of ‘inscription’ and ‘performativity’. deconstruction. under the general heading of the illusions of Romantic anthropomorphism—described. material place and determination of the whole languagegame’. the work of literary art as ‘verbal contraption’. As it is not something. Clark however also takes this to mean ‘not just the phenomenal “stuff” of any one token within it’. Jacques Derrida. is the approach of Paul de Man. It 144 nlr 10 . the sign is characterized by thickness and opacity rather than transparency. as it is nothing and it works. this nothing therefore operates. Minneapolis 2001. it is not something (sensible or intelligible). J. glosses the relevant notion as follows: The materiality in question—and one must gauge the importance of this irony or paradox—is not a thing. or the dense weave of social meanings foregrounded by Marxist materialism. the sign is material in the literal sense of physical matter (phonic or graphic) and is decisively recast in the association with the Saussurian notion of arbitrariness. a whole phenomenology of the making of lived meanings. T. but as a force of resistance. what is here emphasized is rather the sign as the site of a resistance to meaning: the pull of the material is a pull away from (the fiction of) embodied meaning. as ‘the loss of the illusion of meaning’. in the essay on Rousseau in Allegories of Reading. In this third moment. and the related cluster of labels that go with it: formalism. See Material Events. Clark is a contributor to this discussion. One of the other contributors. As arbitrary physical mark or sound. or what Clark calls ‘the historical. the semiotic. 259.

far from clear. or accompanying this shift. mapped out in Spectres of Marx. which restores the materiality of art and language to the realm of the mechanism. passing by way of the organic. I would say that it is a materiality without matter . in the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind. This would seem to be in many ways consistent with the emphasis in earlier de Man on textual materiality as an arbitrariness or a contingency that disrupts and disfigures the drive towards an achieved plenitude of meaning. as yet. to a radically anti-Romantic conception. has nothing in common with our more traditional understandings of ‘materialism’. resists both beautiful form and matter as substantial and organic totality. matter but materiality. Behind.Over the course of 150 years or so. The Aesthetic State is at once the ground and guarantee of what Schiller understands by freedom. we thus encounter a remarkable shift: from the Romantic way with matter as an attempt to rescue it from the purely mechanical. Assuming the risk of this formula. where freedom is to be grasped partly in the Kantian sense of freedom from the blind determinations of material nature. Quite how one might handle the ‘paradox’ of a ‘materiality without matter’ is. . This is certainly a novel re-location of the relations between language. . saving us from submission to the meaninglessness of material determinations. 350). as Derrida notes. The gloss is difficult and opaque. science and material nature. This is one of the reasons why de Man never says. for example. lies a massive cultural and political history. Here. This—a force or effect. the aesthetic was at once a term of resistance and redemption. prendergast: Modernism 145 . offers the escape route from that potential or actual submission. the ‘spectral’ reality inside all material incarnations. (p. It presumably has some connexion with the anti-foundationalist distinction between ontology and ‘hauntology’. the Aesthetic State (where ‘state’ signifies both subjective condition and political form) is one in which wholeness of being is recovered from the atomistic fragmentations inflicted by modern science and political economy. In Schiller’s theoretical writings. whereas aesthetic ideology seeks to freeze and transcend the historical. For the Romantics. rather than a substance—is what materiality ‘makes happen’ as ‘event’ in history. although de Man does not do so himself. Art. art and matter and. it seems to me. materiality without matter belongs with the machine or the machine-like. as a point of resistance to the illusion of meaningful aesthetic wholeness. but interestingly related by Derrida to a distinction between the organic and the mechanical. Webs of necessity But consider what happens later in the century to the idea of freedom in its relations with the categories of art.

you can’t even smash it. space. which will enable it to deal with the conditions of modern life. And what does the spirit need in the face of modern life? The sense of freedom. without heart. Only in this varied literary form can art command that width. 8 Beginnings: Intention and Method. The chief factor in the thoughts of the modern mind concerning itself is the intricacy. pain.first of all. without eyes. death. In virtue of that truth one and immortal which lurks in the force that made it spring into existence it is what it is—and it is indestructible! It knits us in and it knits us out. without conscience. that it may satisfy the spirit. I feel it ought to embroider—but it goes on knitting. That naive. You cannot by any special lubrication make embroidery with a knitting machine. Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters. London 1927. You come and say ‘This is all right: it’s only a question of the right kind of oil. 216. in Gerard JeanAubry. rough sense of freedom. 20 December 1897. 133. which supposes man’s will to be limited if at all only by a will stronger than his. corruption. no. . New York 1975. is a passage from one of Joseph Conrad’s letters on the theme of the world as a freedom-denying machine: There is a—let us say—a machine. world and freedom: Let us understand by poetry all literary production which attains the power of giving joy by its form as distinct from its matter. It evolved itself (I am severely scientific) out of a chaos of scraps of iron and behold!—it knits. You can’t interfere with it . the universality of natural law even in the moral order. 146 nlr 10 . as the place of an almost unmanageable conflict between the desire for freedom in the form of an authoring hero or human agent and the recalcitrance of a world perceived and posed as inhuman machine. . as Edward Said notes in Beginnings. And the most withering thought is that the infamous thing has made itself: made itself without thought. It is a tragic accident—and it has happened. delicacy of resources.8 Consider now a passage from Walter Pater’s study of Winckelmann on the relations between art. It has knitted time. The attempt to represent it in art would have so little verisimilitude that it would be flat and uninteresting.7 This. he can never have again. despair and all the illusions—and nothing matters. Will it? Alas. For 7 Letter to Robert Cunninghame Graham. so to reflect it. it also has profound implications for Conrad’s conception of narrative art. without foresight. Let us use this—for instance—celestial oil and the machine will embroider a most beautiful design in purple and gold’. I am horrified at the horrible work and stand appalled. What modern art has to do in the service of culture is so to rearrange the details of modern life. variety. I’ll admit however that to look at the remorseless process is sometime amusing. not only expresses an attitude to life. p. p.

supplies us with freedom (this rather is Schiller’s far more optimistic argument). It asks a question about modern art in relation to modern life. in attempting to satisfy the needs of the spirit. It is here that Pater’s precise phrasing demands close scrutiny. or a mechanism. an ‘equivalent’ of the sense of freedom. to reveal the mechanism that underlies the effects it produces. It is a mere equivalent. can be seen as such. but which cannot be confused with the real thing. So. yet bearing in it the central forces of the world. but rather necessity as understood by modern science. the play of physical determinations penetrating our subjectivities and nervous systems with ‘the central forces of the world’. On the contrary. as the requirement of spirit. a fiction. 244–5. so as to demonstrate its fabricated character. and it is further accentuated in the account of art as a representation delivering not freedom nor even the ‘sense’ of freedom but. based on the assumption that the task of the former is to ‘re-arrange’ the latter in order to ‘satisfy the spirit’. like that magnetic system of which modern science speaks. the good conscience of the 9 The Renaissance. a simulacrum. The needs of the spirit are defined in terms of what Pater (echoing Schiller) calls ‘the sense of freedom’. it is a magic web woven through and through us. penetrating us with a network subtler than our subtlest nerves. with whom we can do warfare. Whence Pater’s repeated insistence throughout his critical writings on the ethical demand that literature be made and read reflexively. The function of art is to liberate us from these bewildering toils by giving to the spirit ‘at least an equivalent of the sense of freedom’. once subjected to conscious examination. of course. London and New York 1893. a substitution. a first version of what we ourselves have come more routinely to know as the honesty. Pater does not say that ‘culture’. pp. is not what is spontaneously on offer from modern life. prendergast: Modernism 147 . which may console us for what we lack in the disenchanted world of science. an illusion of freedom. what it supplies or can supply is the ‘sense’ of freedom.us necessity is not as of old an image without us. This is. Can art represent men and women in these bewildering toils so as to give the spirit at least an equivalent for the sense of freedom?9 This intriguing passage calls for careful reading. Freedom. modern life teaches us that we are caught in the trammels (the ‘bewildering toils’) of necessity—not the realm of necessity of premodern life. in the last sentence. which. This is already a weakening of Schiller’s strong claim.

denying the pleasure we want to take: for that beyond is its agent. opposing the bad faith of the organicist and the anthropomorphic. and the intellectual game of concealment and disclosure played with the public as to the basis of the literary game—that is. whether to mystify or demystify. the Jeu with a capital ‘J’ in ‘Une dentelle s’abolit’ as signifier of its supreme value. Mallarmé addresses the question as to how much of this uncertainty should be revealed. in a kind of private soliloquy. and the engine I might say were I not loath to perform. the ‘literary mechanism’ and the ‘trick’). And. The ‘game’ here is the game of art and poetry. p. Take for example Mallarmé’s spectacularly convoluted address to this problem in La Musique et les lettres: We know. the jeu littéraire of the famous letter to Verlaine. by the thought that the game is also an empty and futile one—the jeu insensé of his homage to Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. Relatedly. that indeed there is only that which is. the impious dismantling of the fiction and consequently of the literary mechanism. Paris 1945. He thus shuttles between a view of the greatness of art and a view of its vanity. being Mallarmé. its prestige. the word ‘jeu’.10 The motif of the game. we project to a height forfended—and with thunder!—the conscious lack in us of what shines up there. 657. the word ‘game’ thus comes to designate a double game: there is the literary game (here variously defined as the ‘fiction’. or to refrain from making public a private knowledge (his being loath to ‘perform in public the impious dismantling of the fiction’). in public. What is it for? A game. too. In the passage from La Musique et les lettres. Forthwith to dismiss the cheat. Mallarmé thus turns inside a dilemma: whether to open up the basis of the literary game to the public gaze. But I venerate how. the jeu de la parole in the preface to René Ghil’s Traité du verbe. But it can be seen.reflexive turn. however. by a trick. this reluctance to expose 10 Œuvres complètes. display the principal part or nothing. or hidden. is a constant companion in Mallarmé’s poetry and writings about poetry: the Jeu suprême of the sonnet ‘Une dentelle s’abolit’. captives of an absolute formula. there is the question as to whom he addresses: is it himself. or a notional reading public? In the passage. But Mallarmé is haunted. on a pretext. that a grave problem immediately arises: what are the consequences if what is revealed in the reflexive moment is precisely the pure mechanism behind the fictions of freedom? This is modernism’s nightmare. 148 nlr 10 . in Pater’s terms. would indict our inconsequence.

is reflected in his own opaquely hermetic syntax and the corresponding struggle the reader has to make sense of it. two others: Cézanne and Paul de Man. that Flaubert take more walks. affirms that he recognizes its censorships.11 Flaubert’s puppets Bourdieu here takes a robustly critical view of the elitist. In The Field of Cultural Production. and even more so when I add. for reasons of health. he did not go so far as to interpret this unhappy 11 The Field of Cultural Production. however strongly motivated. in its very form. This may appear prima facie to be a most improbable alignment. p. anxiety—by way of three further reference points: Flaubert. is sacrilege par excellence. These are serious ethical. and political. the unforgivable sin which all the censorships constituting the field seek to repress. anti-democratic implications of Mallarmé’s devious circling around a form of knowledge (the disenchanted knowledge of art as mechanical trickery) that cannot be made public. If Mallarmé can. to be sure. but hopefully the more general line of argument I will be trying to run through these diverse sources will be clear. Flaubert. its status as mere ‘trick’. considerations. shall we say. and of its mechanisms. Cambridge 1993. perfectly fulfils its function: to utter ‘in public’ the true nature of the field. in this case. that of euphemism and Verneinung. On January 30th. Pierre Bourdieu glosses this passage as follows: Hermeticism. but a somewhat curious anecdote from Flaubert’s correspondence may perhaps enliven this otherwise predictable move. even if only as footnotes. These are things that can only be said in such a way that they are not said. this is because he says it in a language which is designed to be recognized within the field because everything. 73. Being Flaubert. But a straightforward denunciation of Mallarmé’s ambiguous stance. Kleist and Thomas Mann. without excluding himself from the field. the very same day on which Flaubert received a letter from Turgenev recommending. prendergast: Modernism 149 . I start with my principal example. he fell and broke his leg. Positioning Flaubert as a pivotal figure in this story may come as no surprise.the possible truth of the game. Let us now venture a little further into this nightmare—or. 1879. I have termed Modernism’s nightmare. utter the truth about a field which excludes the publishing of its own truth. perhaps somewhat theatrically. A devilishly exotic brew. does nevertheless ignore the delicacy of the relevant problematic—that which.

you can do anything. all personality. Republic or monarchy. There. France has been in the grip of an idiot realism. For liberty is detested in this dear country of ours. where the figure of the puppet is not a passing metaphor for the vicissitudes of human life but a constitutive element of a conception of art and the artist. Poor little puppets that we are!12 Puppets. doing everything . I remember my arm and my leg. it’s slavery. And consequently. . in which Flaubert refers to the great literary predecessors as writers who ‘have no techniques’. But he might have found himself musing on another letter that he himself had written to his admirer. at least. of Nature itself? Equality. all thought. are also a key analogy for human beings in another letter. is it not a kind of huge monster absorbing into itself all individual action. . all is liberty in this world of fictions. The passage in which the analogy is embedded is. all forms of superiority. Every wish is granted. It’s the outcome of protracted endeavours in which all have played their part from de Maistre down to père Enfantin. This urge to cheapen everything is profoundly French. I think I am a wreck.13 12 13 Selected Letters. No limits there. What is equality then if it is not the negation of all liberty. by any measure. for you and your kind humanity is a puppet with little bells on its costume to be set jingling with a prod of the pen. Brute force. victim and priest. active and passive.coincidence as a ‘sign’ that the world does not accommodate itself to human designs. p. respect for the masses has taken the place of the authority of the name. according to the socialists. ever since 1830. 1878. or marionettes. managing everything. on August 1st. of divine right. Selected Letters. we do not choose our lives. That this is seen as related to a distinctively modern obsession with ‘technique’ is made clear in another letter. However. weight of numbers. just like the street-corner puppeteer who works the strings with his foot. scary. 415. And the republicans have done more than most. we won’t get beyond all that stuff for some time. 176–7. Mme Brainne. in which he also spoke of his leg—his youthful one: When I compare myself to what I was then. but I abandon the quotation because thirty years ago the extremity of your youth would have placed you out of my reach. pp. The infallibility of universal suffrage is about to become a dogma which will take the place of papal infallibility. London 1997. That is why I love art. simultaneously be king and subject. six months previously. Elsewhere in the correspondence Flaubert describes the (modern) work of art as a ‘game of skittles’ and a ‘hoax’. 150 nlr 10 . the supremacy of the Spirit . . . written some twenty-five years earlier. The ideal form of the state. so plump and shapely they were. they are thrust upon us. the land of equality and anti-liberty.

The phrase is an arresting one. as. The man-pen is the one who writes simply for the sake of writing. This is one version of what is entailed by Flaubert’s famous self-description as an homme-plume. For the moment. above all the way the detached. in connexion with that other modern Faustian pact. It might therefore be appropriate to recall here Bergson’s remarks about the clown figure in his essay on laughter. turning inside what he called ‘the pangs of style. I shall return briefly to the politics of this at the end. that is to say. cranking out sentences as pure verbal forms. is a dream of inhuman or anti-human omnipotence. detached from considerations of human reference. basically. but the French of course reverses the terms of the English: not a penman but a man-pen. ‘heavy machinery’. in a sequence of gestures that reminds us of nothing so much as the signals of a clown routine. greet each other and finally sit down to talk. They walk to and fro. and from there it is but a step to the picture of Flaubert pacing his room at Croisset. offset by the further. it also resonates into other moments of the correspondence. and related. Writing. in Thomas Mann.There is much that is disturbing in this passage. and a ‘piece of machinery’ (quelle mécanique). linked to the project of the ‘book about nothing’. notably the letters in which Flaubert represents literature as lourde machinerie. alienated image of the artist as puppeteer. I do not. mechanics: rather like the mechanical rhythms of Binet’s lathe churning out napkin rings in Madame Bovary. It may call to mind the more-or-less standard English ‘penman’. In the novels themselves we have a glimpse of what this looks like. what should interest us here is the identification of art with mechanism. is embedded in an openly reactionary reflection (if not a semi-hysterical denunciation) of the modern politics of equality. As a conception of art and the artist. wish to imply that Flaubert’s actual novels are reducible to this chilling programme. the tribulations of syntax’. This. of course. of which Joyce makes great use in Finnegans Wake. manipulating a puppet-like humanity with ‘a prod of the pen’. untrammelled liberty. image of the artist as the one who enjoys absolute. the being for whom there are ‘no limits’. the agonies of assonance. with a strong echo of the Faustian pact in which ‘every wish is granted’. only that it represents one side of the Flaubertian imagination that is exemplary for understanding one of the problematic faces of Modernism. who is free to ‘do anything’. precisely. in the account of the first meeting of Bouvard and Pécuchet on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin. where he argues that the point of the clown’s routines is to generate and prendergast: Modernism 151 .

staking all on the mechanical rather than the organic. is to Mann’s Dr Faustus. account in The Rhetoric of Romanticism. in extenso. Having 14 Henri Bergson. Or inventing a Bathers with no inorganic chill in the air—having its surface be vibrant. Not just that the Bathers are haunted by figures of inconsistency and displacement. tense. or sensitive. I quote. more like the grating and locking of the parts of a great psychic machine than the patient disclosure of a world . [T]he kind of consistency it has is hard for us to deal with—that is why we retreat into the world of the imaginary—just because it is ultimately inhuman. here.14 Thus. as a first encounter. whose cumulative effect is one of dehumanization. a narrative incipit. with which I shall conclude. from the concluding paragraphs of the relevant chapter: This is what I have been trying to say all along. or has humanity as one of its effects. Instead. two last references: the first is a return to the book I mentioned at the beginning. I think. or by kinds of coexistence (of marks and objects) that are more painful than natural. Le Rire. . 152 nlr 10 . Paris 1900. but it may direct our thoughts to its far more systematic deployment in Kleist’s essay on the Marionettentheater. We do not like the proposition. I refer to Kleist as a cue for a double move. Kleist’s essay is the great anomaly in the Romantic corpus. into a brief meditation on Kleist’s essay and its interpretation by de Man. the beginning of Bouvard et Pécuchet mocks the whole convention of narrative beginnings as introducing the reader to a human world. we are rather thrust into a place that resembles the world of the marionette. via Freud’s positivist–materialist ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’. That is what the relation of bodies to the picture rectangle in the Philadelphia Bathers has most powerfully to say. so we call it forced or artificial. for instance—can be found recoiling from the Bathers on these grounds. but it is not my intention here to add yet another drop to the great swell of readings that have followed in the wake of Paul de Man’s seminal. or nonhuman. Clark’s book is about modern painting but also many other things besides. Kleist. . Clark’s Farewell to an Idea.intensify a process of mechanization. if controversial. In his long chapter on Cézanne’s Bather pictures he takes us from what he sees as the terrifying machine of Cézanne’s pictorial representation of the human body. more like interruption than juxtaposition. Even the best commentators on Cézanne— Roger Fry and Meyer Shapiro. the second. Cézanne and Mann Flaubert’s use of the marionette figure is ad hoc and casual.

But I do think the two territories—the Freudian and the mechanistic– materialist—overlap. I realize these last few sentences have essentially crossed from Freud’s territory to that of another. and with the writer who seems to me their best spokesman in our own day. I only say ‘threatens to overtake them’. he answered. more savage kind of materialism. It is the reason we all hate the beautiful so much.’ —And yet he believed that even the last trace of human volition to which he had referred could be removed from the marionettes. by turning a handle . I am convinced. that their dance could be transferred completely to the realm of mechanical forces and that it could be produced. . . would not anger its opponents in the way it seems to if it did not so flagrantly assert the beautiful as its ultimate commitment. He prefers it by far to the human ballet. We might say prendergast: Modernism 153 . which I associate with the mechanists of the high Enlightenment. and of course what is ultimately most touching in the Bathers is their will to resist the vision of bodies that the pictures’ own ruthlessness makes possible. The ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’ is linked in my mind with the great essay by de Man on ‘Aesthetic Formalization in Kleist’ . . . in de Man’s reading. or absurdity and perfection. . and from which we regularly draw back. nothing but matter dictating (dead) form . it would be impossible for a man to come anywhere near the puppet. . But no surface has ever been less animate than this one.it ‘breathe’. ‘In fact. This is not offered as a description of Cézanne’s last Bathers—not even of the London version—but rather of a logic that threatens to overtake them. Only a god could equal inanimate matter in this respect .] he said. —‘Not at all’. No handling has ever been less a means of laying hold of (getting one’s hands on) a human world. and which strikes me as the key to their mixture of Grand Guignol and utopia. . . And if it did not repeatedly discover the beautiful as nothing but mechanism. and an enthusiast for the puppet theatre in the park. is the necessary other dream of materialism—the one to which the various (but limited) mechanisms we call aesthetic gives access. there is a rather ingenious relationship between the movement of the attached puppets. something like turning the handle of a barrel-organ [das Drehen einer Kurbel sei die eine Leier spiett]. —[If that were done. What Kleist gives voice to. Paul de Man. Modernism. The narrator expresses his astonishment ‘at the attention C is paying this species of art form intended for the masses’: —I said that the job of the puppeteer had been presented to me as something done without sensitivity. somewhat like that of numbers to their logarithms or the asymptotes to the hyperbola. as I had thought. Mr C in Kleist’s text is the principal dancer in the opera at M.

In a nutshell. There is indeed a note of terror here. at least. its ridiculous conclusion—its familiar. or the terrible. I have taken my cue from Clark’s account of Modernism. also its surrender to—the instrumentally rationalized world of disenchanted modernity. is materialism’s uncanny. pp. It is concerned more with the moral and political implications of demystification and the corresponding entry into the cold universe of the ‘representational machine’. for the purpose of these reflections. provocative image of Cézanne’s pictorial effects. simultaneously to display and repress them. elliptical. Although. or the double figure in Philadelphia. without realizing that ultimately the horror in these pictures reaches beyond any recoverable or irrecoverable human content to the sheer turning of the handle of the representational machine? I stand in front of the Barnes Bathers and hear a hurdy-gurdy playing. along with the whole tradition of the presuppositions of Western art. this should not be taken to imply full endorsement of his theses. The mechanics of the hurdy-gurdy is a very unusual and. as Kleist depicts it.15 The account here is dense.16 In that battle. as ‘the frightful clockwork of the world-structure’. 166–7. the universe that in Dr Faustus Zeitblom will describe. to which I hope to return on another occasion. Its drift is very different from Bourdieu’s ethical censoring of Mallarmé’s reluctance to disclose the working of the mechanism in art. but I take it that any reader would be struck by its terminus: the curious synæsthesic trope of hearing a barrel-organ while looking at Cézanne’s painting. has been wrecked. This is what Clark means when he speaks of modern painting as painting ‘at the end of its tether’. indeed. in a desperate struggle to hold on to a relation of art to human world while at the same time acknowledging that this relation. its repressed truth. as the consequence of its confrontation with—but. Clark’s argument (or. at times compacted to the point of impenetrable opacity. but the intended provocation finds its place in a more general argument about Modernist painting. at critical moments. a sense of nightmare. 154 nlr 10 . the Weberian dimension of that argument) has it that Modernism battles with the grim facts of mechanism and brute materiality. 15 16 Farewell to an Idea. And who could look at the striding woman in the Barnes Bathers. Which is to say.that aesthetic. it is torn by a contradictory set of imperatives: at once obliged to accept those facts and seeking to escape them. cramped repetitions of bodies in London. in connexion with Leverkühn’s mathematical musical plotting.

from archaic fantasies of regeneration and ‘order’ to the Futurist worship of the dynamic. and this is its name. ‘here too it treats of the breakthrough. And it will come as no surprise that Kleist’s marionette essay is one of the sources of Leverkühn’s inspiration. that is. as noticed by Zeitblom. remains very much open interpretative business. Automatons and Robots in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama. In Leverkühn’s library. . But it is only talking about aesthetic. whereas every reflection lying between nothing and infinity kills grace’. London 1951. pp. Dr Faustus. and catastrophically. a matter for politics. Segel construes the general significance of the interest in the puppet as 18 17 prendergast: Modernism 155 . free grace. ‘a few books lay on the table: a little volume of Kleist. Marionettes. pp. with the bookmark at the essay on marionettes’. It is no accident that the Italian Futurists were also obsessed with puppets and marionettes: see Harold Segel. Here too’. that the concept of the ‘breakthrough’ is not just a matter for aesthetics. of Germany breaking through on the tide of Nazism—although whether this authorizes a convincing parallelism between Leverkühn’s experimental music and fascism. Puppets. was a modern version of reenchantment. as distinct from a forced analogy. he said. transforming ‘charisma’ of the machine—which. Nazi ideology.The frightful clockwork of the world-structure is what underlies Leverkühn’s piece. which actually is reserved to the automaton and the god. in its reliance on magical and mythic forms of thought.18 But what matters for the purposes of the present Thomas Mann. This is what Leverkühn says: ‘There is at bottom only one problem in the world.17 ‘But it is only talking about aesthetic’. the Gesta Romanarum. It is also. At one level. Baltimore and London 1995. . and it is largely on this ground that the story of Modernism’s more direct involvements with fascism is usually told: as varieties of the dream of reenchantment. a piece of theatrical music in which ‘the characters were not to be men but puppets’. 307–8. and it is called straight out “the last chapter of the history of the world”. 260–96. did not prevent the Nazis from proscribing Modernist art as entartete Kunst. in the capital essay on the marionettes. and twitched the little red marker in the volume of Kleist on the table. from Zeitblom’s discourse and the narrative ending. We of course know. to the unconscious or an endless consciousness. How does one break through? . Pinocchio’s Progeny. The essay subsequently provides the basis for a more extended exchange betwen Leverkühn and Zeitblom on the subject of aesthetics. of course. charm.

Zeitblom appears to veer between the two poles: in the early pages of the novel he envisages the ‘breakthrough’ with high idealist enthusiasm. but rather the ways in which certain Modernist or proto-Modernist anxieties progressively drew the mind towards revealing and confronting what these ideologies concealed. One notes the uncanny echo of Flaubert. omnipotent destructiveness of Nazism. in its traffic with the regressive and the archaic. By constructing replicas of human beings whose movements they can then exert complete power over. but later comes to see it as bleakly and irretrievably identified with the mechanized. the new god playing wantonly with the machine. is seen as implicated in what will become the mythic thinking of Nazism). most notably the Apocalypsis cum figuris which. 156 nlr 10 . as the ruthless deployment of disenchanted techno-rationality. artists play at being gods instead of being merely playthings of the gods’ (p. it reveals a yearning to play god. the exact opposite of the reenchanted.argument are not the explicit forms in which particular versions of Modernist ideology aligned themselves with fascist ones. to master life. Modernism’s nightmare. The reality of Nazism was. 4). For this reason it might make sense to bring Leverkühn’s Gesta Romanarum and its coldly rational composition more into the foreground of discussion (it is normally viewed as secondary to the later twelve-tone pieces. working the strings of humanity like a master-puppeteer. of course. follows: ‘More profoundly.

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