Show Less
Open access

Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

Show Summary Details
Open access

Christophe Den Tandt: Simone Celine Marshall and Carole M. Cusack, eds. The Medieval Presence in the Modernist Aesthetic: Unattended Moments. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. 194. ISBN: 9789004356108.

←188 | 189→

Simone Celine Marshall and Carole M. Cusack, eds. The Medieval Presence in the Modernist Aesthetic: Unattended Moments. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018. Pp. 194. ISBN: 9789004356108.

Edited by Simone Celine Marshall and Carole M. Cusack, The Medieval Presence in the Modernist Aesthetic targets an important yet paradoxical aspect of (pre)modernist literature. Modernist authors were ostensibly eager, as Ezra Pound famously put it, to make it new, yet they were also fascinated by the culture of a presumably dark and barbaric period of the distant past, the Middle Ages. Marshall and Cusack’s volume collects papers presented at a conference held at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. It deals with the various expressions of medievalism as they manifested themselves in the works of authors ranging from the late nineteenth century to the late 1970s. The volume builds upon two intertwined assumptions. First, late-nineteenth and twentieth-century authors used medieval culture as a countertype for the alienating realm of modernity. Secondly, this revival of medieval values, belief systems, themes, and styles yielded no single pattern of modernist medievalism: it produced instead a gamut of diverse, sometimes contradictory appropriations.

Marshall and Cusack’s introduction to the volume highlights the surprisingly broad impact of medievalism on modernist writing, and clarifies the logic according to which the volume is structured: contributions are ordered according to the chronological sequence of their object of study. This choice helps readers perceive how medieval subject matter has been recontextualized at various stages of the development of modernism. Thus, the volume’s first essay, Carole Cusack’s study of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, investigates how this key figure of musical premodernism turned to medieval themes in order to remedy “the ills of modernity” (24). She describes Wagner’s opera, based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval poem, as a lyrical work meant to be approached quasi-religiously. The thematics of the sacred in Wagner, she points out, is even more rigidly ←189 | 190→developed than in the musician’s medieval sources. In particular, Wagner represents a community of Grail Knights acting as a masculine monastic order. Female figures, apart from the loathsome Kundry, are conspicuously absent from the German composer’s opera. Cusack also examines the immediate impact of Wagner’s Parsifal on fellow (pre)modernists like Paul Verlaine and T. S. Eliot. Another great figure of premodernism, William Butler Yeats, is the object of Joseph A. Mendes’s essay. Mendes focuses on Yeats’s treatment of the Irish medieval Ulster cycle in poems such as “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” and “Fergus and the Druid.” His argument examines how Yeats reworks the mythological material in order to reflect on the dilemma posed by the choice between the life of action and the life of contemplation. Mendes thereby brings out Yeats’s ambivalence toward the mystical and magic. On the one hand, the poet expects anti-Enlightenment wonder to redeem the banality of modern everyday life. On the other, he implies that surrendering to the mystical entails giving up the pleasures of the active life. The figure of Fergus mac Róich illustrates the resulting loss: the former king, in Yeats’s poems, comes to regret his embracing of druidic wisdom.

Several essays in the volume describe the Middle Ages less as an historical period than as the foundation of an alternate epistemological model. Thus, Gro Bjørnerud Mo’s study of Proust points out how the narrator of In Search of Lost Time appeals to medieval theories of the dream experience in order to make sense of several occurrences of the oneirôgmos – in plain English, wet dreams. Likewise, the two articles devoted to Ezra Pound – Jonathan Ullyot’s “Ezra Pound’s Medieval Classicism: The Spirit of Romance and the Debt to Philology” and Mark Byron’s “The Aristotelian Crescent: Medieval Arabic Philosophy in the Poetics of Ezra Pound” – argue that the American poet was looking toward the medieval not only as a political and esthetic utopia but also as an anti-contemporary mode of thinking. Ullyot argues that Pound, disregarding the stereotype of medieval gothic, discerned in the Middle Ages a paradigm of cultural classicism precious for turn-of-the-twentieth-century intellectuals seeking to overturn a century of romantic cultural hegemony. Ullyot’s main object of study is Pound’s The Spirit of Romance, a 1910 essay in which the American poet develops his concept of medieval classicism on the basis of the scholarship of French and British philologists – Gaston Paris, Joseph Bédier, and Walter Kerr. Ullyot’s text provides in the process a survey of medieval philology at the turn of the twentieth century. On this basis, Ullyot demonstrates that Pound felt a ←190 | 191→kinship between medieval literature and his own modernist art because the two idioms, however distant in time, endorse stylistic austerity, authorial depersonalization, and the effort to compose texts by means of recontextualized fragments. Pound’s Cantos, Ullyot points out, indeed appeal to the medieval technique of translatio – the adaptation of ancient texts and their transfer to a contemporary context. This is a practice philologists have scrupulouly documented. Marc Byron focuses on an aspect of Pound’s poetry that developed only in the later instalments of The Cantos – the impact of Islamic philosophy on medieval thought. The primary corpus for this discussion is Pound’s transposition of late-medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti’s Donna Mi Prega in Canto XXXVI. Byron first provides a well-informed survey of Islamic philosophy (falsalfa). He goes on to argue that Pound’s poem reflects on the reappropriations of Aristotle and Neoplatonism by Muslim philosophers like Avicennes and Averroes. Pound revisited this intellectual tradition not only because he wished to situate the Islamic legacy in the sequence of postclassical civilizations but also because it provided him with a conceptual model allowing him to map the multiple ways of linking the human and the divine.

Two articles in the collection – Holly Phillips’s “Whoroscope: Samuel Beckett’s medieval machine” and Rina Kim’s “Melancholy Matters”: Robert Burton and Samuel Beckett” – venture into the period we now call late modernism: they focus on lesser-read works by the author of Waiting for Godot. Phillips’s reading of “Whoroscope” – a hermetic early poem often criticized for its display of erudition – pursues the study of the modernist appropriation of medieval epistemologies broached in previous essays of the collection. Phillips shows how Beckett uses references to medieval scholarship in order to distance himself from the high modernist aesthetic of his master James Joyce. For the author of Ulysses, medieval scholasticism offered a mechanism aiming toward transcendence: it was part of the epistemological machinery meant to deliver modernist epiphanies. In “Whoroscope,” on the contrary, the machinery of scholasticism yields no deeper knowledge. The poem’s protagonist – French modern philosopher René Descartes – is shown struggling with philosophical and personal issues. Instead of acting as a modern Prometheus breaking free from the corset of medieval paradigms, he awkwardly struggles with scholastic thought in a dynamic offering no hope of revelation. Rina Kim’s argument, by comparison, is closer to psychology and gender studies. She surveys several of Beckett’s early prose ←191 | 192→works, providing a detailed analysis of the short stories “Echo’s Bones” and “First Love.” Her object of investigation is the emotional complex linking melancholy, masculinism, and misogyny – a psychological nexus informing many major modernist works. This type of misogyny, Kim argues, had been a key concern of the medieval and Renaissance discourse on melancholy, including Robert Burton’s famous early-seventeenth-century essay The Anatomy of Melancholy. Chronic sadness in this tradition is attributed to love rejection and castration anxieties, and it elicits, by way of psychological defense, representations of womanhood under the guise of abjection. Beckett’s early works, “First Love” offers a grotesque reworking of this thematics as its narrator depicts a short-lived love story characterized by cynical distancing and self-loathing.

Three contributions to the volume – Octavian Saiu’s discussion of Ionesco; Anna Czarnowus’s analysis of Evelyn Waugh; and Chris Ackerley reading of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – tackle material outside the high modernist mainstream. Saiu’s “Between the ‘Machinery of Transcendence’ and the ‘Machinery of War’: The Unattended Moments of Eugene Ionesco” focuses on Rhinoceros, a central text of 1950s French neo-modernist absurdist theater. Saiu contends that Ionesco’s antitotalitarian play is informed by the dramatist’s Romanian Orthodox Christianity. On the one hand, as he composed this play, Ionesco meant to dissociate himself from the Romanian far right’s appropriation of Christianity in the 1930s. On the other, Saiu shows that Ionesco’s protagonist resists the contamination of totalitarianism because his humanistic values are informed by the Orthodox Christian concepts of the Eucharist and the experience of illumination. This Christian background keeps him from degenerating into a wild beast. Anna Czarnowus’s “Lancelot and Guinevere in the Inter-War Period: The Medievalisms of Evelyn’s Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Ezra Pound’s Canto VI” contrasts Pound’s erudite take on medieval religion with the more superficial medievalism of Waugh’s non-modernist novel. Czarnowus indicates that Waugh’s references to the Middle Ages – an adultery narrative modeled on the Lancelot-Guinevere story, unfolding in a neo-medieval mansion – resonate with the nostalgia of Victorian medievalism and with Catholic religiosity. In this, Waugh’s novel of manners fails to emulate Pound’s imaginative exploration of medieval Christianity, which refused Victorian sentimentality. Chris Ackerley’s “Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: The Eusa Story and Other Blipful Figgers” addresses a text that might be labeled postmodernistic: Riddley Walker was published in 1980s, beyond ←192 | 193→the chronological end point of modernism, and entertains a close relation to popular culture. The novel depicts post-apocalyptic southern Britain reduced to Iron-Age conditions after a nuclear holocaust. Hoban wrote his text in the broken idiom of Riddley, his first-person narrator, which confers to it a modernistic, experimental texture reminiscent of the first section of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or William Golding’s The Inheritors. Ackerley reads Riddley Walker as a fable lending itself to the four-level allegorical reading of medieval interpretation. This reading brings to light the interplay of barely remembered Christian values, pagan worship, and an underlying pessimism originating in the awareness of an irreducibly destructive force in history. In this perspective, Hoban’s Riddley Walker sketches out the outline of a medievalism of the future.

Overall, Marshall’s and Cusack’s The Medieval Presence in the Modernist Aesthetic achieves the goals implicitly stated in its subtitle. Intervening in a field that has already been the object of abundant scholarship, it shines a light on unattended moments – works and thematics that had not been properly researched so far. In this, the collection sketches out the complex relation of modernism both to novelty and to the past: it reveals the insistent presence of past aesthetics and epistemologies in the very idiom of literary experimentation. Still, the volume might have developed a more consistent reflection on the political dimension of this interplay of past and present. The politics of modernism – notably its predominantly conservative orientation in Anglo-American high modernism – deserves more attention than it receives here. This issue, with its attendant themes of antisemitism, is admittedly not ignored in The Medieval Presence altogether, yet it is not discussed as an offshoot of what stands as the main focus of the volume – medievalism itself. Simultaneously, most essays tend to take for granted the existence of a specifically modernist variant of medievalism, distinct from conservative Victorian nostalgia. A different type of the argument might on the contrary have sketched out the presence of a continuous antimodern tradition from Victorianism into the twentieth century. In this political perspective, authors would have been better able to gauge to what extent medievalism may serve as anything else than a regressive utopia.


Christophe Den Tandt

Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)

←193 | 194→