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  • Editor’s Introduction

Naming his new journal the Journal of Modern Literature rather than the Journal of Modernist Literature was a brilliant maneuver on Maurice Beebe’s part. For even though he, as a literary historian, was interested especially in the Modernist movement per se—a movement which he believed had essentially died out by 1970—he thus freed this journal, perhaps his principal professional legacy, from the need to draw narrow lines between artistic eras, as well as from the contentiousness which such activities seem inevitably to entail. Expanding JML’s purview beyond Modernism to all literature since 1900 has increased both that freedom and that danger for us: we are now open to more than just Modernist literature, and we thus are inevitably open to arguments about what does or does not constitute Modernism, or pre-Modernism, or post-Modernism.

For his successor, more literary critic than historian, there has for many years now been the temptation to raise the issues of dividing lines and definitions, precisely the issues that as editor I might want to be wary of—assuming, of course, that an editor’s job is not to create controversy but merely to attempt to resolve it. I have spoken often enough in this space of the blurring of such lines by some younger scholars who don’t really know their literary history and thus casually draw lines and make up definitions where it suits their preconceptions. I would hope at this point, as we close out this century (it makes little sense in literary terms to speak of millennia), to begin the very tentative task of establishing some guidelines: I do so more by analogy than by example.

My analogy this time is to modern dance. Everyone should know by now that the Modernist arts are not identical. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that Modernist architecture in its principles and practices is analogous more to Postmodernist than to Modernist literature and that Postmodernist architecture (with all its decorative details and references to history) is linked principally to the literature that we call Modernist, especially to the novel. Dance is a more complicated issue still, since we can’t easily even determine what constitutes Modernist dance: is it Martha Graham’s modern dance or George Balanchine’s neoclassical ballet? But Postmodernist dance may be easier to locate, and that location may throw significant light on the break with the Modernist.

The contemporary dance company known as Momix is indisputably, I think, a Postmodernist company, interested in new forms of movement, if not necessarily in movement that traditionalists would likely call dance. I think, for example, of Moses Pendleton’s choreography for “Skiva” (1984), which explores the question of what a skier’s dance might be, that is, how someone might dance who was wearing skis: the answer is that the body and the skis move, athletically, but that the feet, basically, do not. Not a dance for the ages, certainly—and, like much Postmodernist art, with no pretense of outlasting its moment in time (although the company continues to perform it in repertory). That is why Pendleton’s “White Widow” (1990) is such a delightful surprise: its dancer is suspended from two cables (loosely suggesting the web of the spider), her dance essentially the movements of her body in the air, as much elegant ballerina as athletic gymnast. But when her feet do touch the ground, it is en pointe, and we notice suddenly that she is wearing toe shoes. The reference to classical ballet—like comparable references in Postmodernist architecture—is a bow to dance history, an acknowledgement both that the past matters and that it can beautiful and even moving in a context which otherwise seems dedicated to the transient.

Contrast this to the art of the acknowledged priestess of Postmodern dance, Trisha Brown: in an entire evening’s performance— Set and Reset (1983), Astral Convertible (1989), and For [End Page 5] M.G., the Movie (1991)—her dancers’ feet never touched the ground, neither toes nor heels. Instead, they stretched out on the stage and moved their bodies across it in a variety of movements. The variety was surprising, and audiences seem to...

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