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Paradoxy of Modernism (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 607-610 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Calls for rethinking modernist studies come in two forms these days. On the one hand, efforts are being made to recognize a plurality of modernisms and to make finer discriminations among multiple entities where singular "branding" once sufficed. On the other hand lie arguments encouraging a wholesale re-imagining of early twentieth-century studies so as to address aspects of the historical record either obscured or effaced by both traditional and revisionary narratives of modernism. In one sense, Robert Scholes's study is an example of this second vein of research in modernist studies, as he very deliberately "cast[s] a wider net for useful texts" (xi) in this project and reads the work of popular British and French novelists and memoirs of modernist bohemian Paris as closely and carefully as he reads Ulysses and classic works of scholarship on modernism ranging from Georg Lukács and Clement Greenberg to Theodor Adorno and Andreas Huyssen. In another and perhaps even more important sense, however, Scholes's primary purpose here is something other than making an intervention in the contemporary critical scene. Rather, he is reflecting on a lifetime's study of modernism, a study that began with training in New Criticism at Yale and with "semiconsciou[s]" absorption of the Museum of Modern Art's "doctrine that 'modernism is the art that is essentially abstract'" (x). Over the course of a long and distinguished career, Scholes's work in this field has come to encompass an interest in "extricat[ing himself] from these views while continuing to learn about Modernism" (x).

As Scholes deploys the term "Modernism," it is deliberately singular and capitalized in order to emphasize its status as an "object of investigation" rather than a set of "solid critical assumptions on which to build" (xii). "Paradoxy" is a neologism he coins both to evoke New Criticism's endorsement of paradox as a literary value and to register the sense of critical distance he himself has traveled since his early acceptance of New Critical dictates about "the connection between greatness and difficulty" that played such a key role in the original establishment of modernism as an acceptable, even exemplary, object of academic literary study (xiii). His definition of paradoxy is worth quoting at length:

I am using the word to indicate a kind of confusion generated by a terminology that seems to make clear distinctions where clear distinctions cannot—and should not—be made. In particular, I shall be examining the terminology that has been deployed in definitions and discussions of Modernism in literature and the other arts—a terminology generated at the time when what we know as Modernism was establishing its place in the culture of the English-speaking world, and sustained by the critics and scholars who sought to interpret Modernism and teach others about it. This terminology was based on apparently clear and simple binary oppositions—high/low, for instance, or old/new—which turn out, upon examination, to be far from simple and anything but clear. Taken together, these oppositions often function to suppress or exclude a middle term, forcing many admirable works into the lower half of an invidious distinction. . . . My project, then, has been to look into this critical terminology and explore the confusions and contradictions lurking there, hoping, among other things, to recover the middle that they exclude.


The first four chapters of this study concern four major paradoxies that have shaped modernist critical discourse: the distinctions between "High" and "Low" culture, "New" and "Old" visual art, "Poetry" and "Rhetoric," and "Hardness" and "Softness" or sentimentalism. The middle three chapters offer close readings of texts, writers, and genres that academics interested in modernism once would have been deemed ephemeral to the study of "modern" as well as modernist literature: Oscar Wilde's "trivial" but nonetheless "durable" dramatic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest; Dornford Yates's novels, which Scholes characterizes here as "Light Modernism," middlebrow writing that shares with high modernism both an interest in critiquing modernity and narrative strategies of "montage and suggestive intertextuality" while refusing to embrace difficulty (173); and George Simenon's creatively formulaic Maigret novels, admired by Ernest Hemingway and Scholes alike, albeit for very...

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