I’ve always been fascinated with Literary Modernism’s seeming commitment to the idea that meaning and signification is external. This idea was pretty clearly articulated in T.S. Eliot’s “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” in which Eliot claims that Joyce’s grand achievement in Ulysses, equivalent in importance to “a scientific discovery” was his epic and classical structure. The significance of this is clearest when one looks at how Eliot describes the novel as a medium: “instead of being a form, [the novel] was simply the expression of an age which had not sufficiently lost all form to feel the need of something stricter.” With classic anti-modern, modernist flair, Eliot sees Joyce’s time and setting in need of the “form” of past epics in order to signify in a formless age.
I believe this search for an external scaffolding on which to erect modern art is particularly problematic as it relates to artists from colonial backgrounds. Whatever Eliot means when he refers to modernity as “formless” (a rather unspecific criticism) it is very easy to imagine, especially with a writer like Eliot, that this “formlessness” stems, at least in part, from the voices of colonial subjects chipping away at older more homogeneous world views. We must remember, this is a man with ambitions to “purify the dialect of the tribe”(“Little Gidding“). In fairness to Eliot I do think that there is much more at play in his critique than a fear of new perspectives, but, for the sake of this blog post, I’m focusing on this aspect.
This leaves the colonial modernist in a bit of a bind. To signify, by Eliot’s standards, they must adopt a classically informed structure, but the structures of their own culture would hardly constitute as “classical” to a global audience. This leaves these authors at risk of analogizing themselves out of existence as they work to equate the finer points of their creative works, and, as a result, their culture, to outside models.
While I tremble at the very thought of presuming I understand even the first thing about Finnegans Wake (Except you know, that the first and last sentence is, like, the same) It seems to me that it is a prime example of the problem I am writing about. Throughout the text, the myths of the world are all drawn into and equated to a traditional Irish song. The book’s (maybe kinda sorta) protagonist HCE appears, in one of his many coded guises, as “Here Comes Everybody.” I can’t help reading this as the end result of Modernism’s Classical structures. As x must be equated to y in order to signify, the lines between x and y blur. Art risks loosing meaningful connections to culture, as all stories, myths, and traditions simply become redrawn versions of other stories, myths, and traditions. This impulse towards analogy is clearly seen in some of the 20th century’s leading thinkers like Jung or the early Joycean James Campbell, and I wonder if some of the ideas that Jung and company forwarded were inspired by this element of colonial literature (admittedly, this is an element of modern literature as a whole, but I think its repercussions are most notable in this context).
However, I suppose referring to Finnegans Wake as colonial literature could come across as a bit of a stretch. A work like Derek Walcott’s Omeros presents this drive for cultural analogy a little more clearly I think. Walcott uses Homer’s work, along with a plethora of other cultural analogies, to articulate a West Indian experience. Walcott, I would argue, is probably more successful than Joyce at maintaining a sense of regional character, though I am not certain Joyce had any intention to do so. The problem with these analogical literary structures is that they recreate the power structures of colonialism, with a dominant perspective or myth that signifies, and a subaltern one that must be translated through a more “universal” filter. The question I am left with considering these works is how do these analogies change the perception of the subaltern culture and how do they effect the lines of difference between cultures.
This issue, the struggles of signifying through cultural analogy, is something I hope to explore in my MA dissertation (most likely with these two authors featuring to some capacity). As I carry on with my research, I am hoping to come to stronger conclusions as to the effects of these analogies and the dialogues they produce.
Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” Columbia.edu, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html. Accessed 11 November 2016.
–. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” Virginia.edu, http://people.virginia.edu/~jdk3t/eliotulysses.htm. Accessed 11 November 2016.
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. Finwake.com, http://www.finwake.com/1024chapter2/1024finn2.htm. Accessed 11 November 2016.
Walcott, Derek. Omeros. Faber and Faber, 1990.