How modernism transformed the conditions of history is the subject of Robert S. Lehman's excellent Impossible Modernism, a book that should change the way we do history in modernist studies. Lehman surveys recent and current historicist work in the field and rightly argues that "[i]n their eagerness to read modernism historically, critics have rarely paused to consider how history is read by modernism" (xv). We locate modernist texts within their historical contexts, interested in how they "respond (critically, ideologically) to the givenness of historical facts," but without recognizing how modernist texts existed to question this very givenness (xiv). The problem is ironic, because modernism ask us to "rethink the very historicism [we] bring to bear on it," and we ignore its most vital engagements with history by presuming them to be unmediated ones (xv).
Theodor Adorno took Walter Benjamin to task for this kind of mistake. In his response to Benjamin's "The Paris of the Second Empire," Adorno complained of Benjamin's omission of the "mediation by the total societal process"; in his "persistent tendency to relate the pragmatic content of Baudelaire's work directly to adjacent features of the social history of his time," Benjamin had failed to recognize that Baudelaire's poetry (like many modernist texts) was no "unmediated reflection" of its history. It was no "wide-eyed presentation of mere facts" but rather a form of historical engagement (quoted on 157). Of course, Benjamin did know it, and Adorno was wrong about the mode of interpretation at work in the Baudelaire essay and in The Arcades Project. At work here was an anecdotal method designed precisely to revise dangerously naïve historical interpretation. Affirming it, Lehman mounts a defense of Benjamin as one part of his superb account of the critique of historical reason Benjamin develops across his writing. This account proves that we must cease trying simply to relate the pragmatic content of modernist texts to adjacent features of the social history of their time and instead read these texts for their historical critique.
Modernist writers inherited a form of history, developed across centuries of thought, about the relationship between historical and literary forms. Poetry and history had been coupled and contrasted in Aristotle, Marx, and Nietzsche (and their interlocutors) in such a way as to establish the standard nineteenth-century (or pre-modernist) view of what forms history might take. Throughout this tradition of thought was the persistent suspicion that "both poetry and history are centrally concerned with the relationship between universal and particular," and with the urge to find universal structures for singular events (3). Could history be what poetry constructed? Modernist writers "enter the fray at a critical moment" in which this relationship had the potential to give poetry new life—"to produce, poetically, a history in which poetic production … is possible" (24, 23). A crisis in the very construction of history was a chance for the modernist writer to "bring history in line with radically innovative artistic or political goals" (as Nietzsche might have wished) and thereby to make history "the detour through which poetry begets poetry" (18, 23). How poetry could be reborn by shaping history was the question for modernist writers committed to this self-sustaining historical critique.
T. S. Eliot developed just such a "thoroughgoing critique" of historicism by asking what historical models could make poetry possible for him (29). He pursued this question across a series of poetic modes: lyric, satire, and myth. What developed from first to last in these modes was a way for the modernist poet to give shape and significance to histories that might otherwise only have put poetry in crisis. In the lyric form of "Prufrock," Eliot began to discover how to keep the vast quantity of history from overwhelming his mind, to solve the problem of "amputation," whereby the individual, cut off from his own ability to write and think, "loses himself to history" (43). Lyric turns amputation to its advantage. It provides the means for "therapeutic self...