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Contemporary Literature 45.2 (2004) 368-377

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"If You Experience Difficulty in Reading . . ."

University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Leonard Diepeveen, The Difficulties of Modernism. New York: Routledge, 2003. xviii + 318 pp. $24.95 paper.

Reviewing Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Joyce's Ulysses in the inaugural issue of Time magazine, an anonymous reviewer proposed that "There is a new kind of literature abroad in the land, whose only obvious fault is that no one can understand it" (qtd. in Diepeveen 14). Such observations, mobilizing the perspective of the regular fellow with a certain heavy-handed wit, have come to stand for the resistance to what we now call "high modernism." Yet compare Eliot's own remarks. In 1921, reviewing Herbert Grierson's anthology of metaphysical lyrics in the Times Literary Supplement, he had observed in an aside, "We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult" (Selected Essays 248). And the reader will hardly need to be reminded of Joyce's famously accurate prediction regarding the affinity between a certain work of his and the professorial attention span.1 It is the originality of Leonard Diepeveen's The Difficulties of Modernism to [End Page 368] propose an account in which the words of the aforementioned anonymous reviewer receive as careful attention as do those of Eliot and Joyce.

The "notorious difficulty" of modernism has long since become a commonplace. But it is precisely Diepeveen's point that the association is always, as it were, in quotation marks; difficulty is for other people, the experience of certain readers at a certain time. By contrast, for Diepeveen the coeval status of modernism and difficulty is not contingent but necessary. This disturbance is defining of modernism, which continually reenacts its own phylogeny through the ontogeny of the individual reader. Modernism, then, gestures at the way "we" have learned to read certain texts; if you are reading this review, you are one of us. Difficulty stands for the way we used to read them—and the way "they" read them still . . .

The concept of "difficulty" is a nonrigorous one, deployed to locate and analyze commonalities of response: "Difficulty gained its massive place in shaping twentieth-century high culture precisely because it was so sloppy" (48). Thus it allows Diepeveen to gather a vast and heterogeneous body of commentaries on modern literature and to locate fundamental patterns of response across these various genres (anthology introductions, prefaces, advertisements, letters to the editor, reviews). Diepeveen describes his project as "a social rhetoric of difficulty" (xiii). His methods are both theoretical and empirical; the latter aspect of the book is the more unusual. A footnote to the first chapter summarizes the data upon which the research is founded: "over eight hundred sources (approximately one hundred of which are poetry anthologies) that during the years 1910 to 1950 comment on difficulty in a given text or group of texts (and, more than five hundred from after 1950 comment on difficultyin either modernism or contemporary high culture)" (246). Additional notes periodically indicate the prevalence of a particular response within the set or a subset. To a great extent, then, the book seeks to be descriptive; at the same time, description of this naturenecessarily implies evaluation, and Diepeveen does not avoid this implication—indeed, he notes that the question of value was inescapable in debates about difficulty.

Using the work of George Lakoff and Mark Turner, Diepeveen organizes his messy material by treating "difficulty" as a radial [End Page 369] category. The word itself is the most central lexical term within the category, which also includes "obscurity," "hermeticism," "erudition," and "complexity": "difficulty" is "the most contextually neutral term" and "has the greatest cultural significance" (54). The power of category theory for the book is that it allows for the generation of a set of conceptual metaphors which are then used to taxonomize various descriptions of the experience of readerly difficulty, with the consequence that these descriptions become not texts, utterances of their own that need to be...


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