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  • Introduction
  • Jean-Michel Rabaté

On April 28, 2005, a group of writers and scholars left Philadelphia for Utica, New York. The goal of the trip was a conference jointly organized by Steve Yao of Hamilton College and Michael Coyle of Colgate University on the theme of "Ezra Pound and Education." In the car were Rachel Blau Du Plessis, Massimo Bacigalupo, Bob Perelman, and I. The five hours or so it took to drive North were occupied by animated discussions of literature, politics, feminism, modernism, and of course academic gossip. Given some potentially contentious topics and in spite of Pound's own agonistic views, nobody fought, a spirit of poetic camaraderie reigned until the end. I am mentioning this because one of the wonderfully positive outcomes of the trip and the conference was that Rachel agreed to become one of the jml editors, and I want to welcome her warmly here. It was a perfect coincidence that made us bridge the gap between creative writing and cutting edge scholarship, and that was also the focus of the conference. For at Hamilton and Colgate we did not only hear papers, most of which were brilliant and informative, on Pound's many-faceted activities, but poetry was also given pride of place. Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, Stephen Romer, and Rachel all read their poems, Rachel quite dramatically in the Hamilton campus chapel late at night.

The general theme of the Pound conference has some relevance to the contents of this issue that spans a whole modernist spectrum, from early modernism with Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to so-called "postmodern" novels like Kundera's recent books and Houellebecq's notorious Elementary Particles. While the ironical revisionist readings of these contemporaries tend to question the value of modernism as a whole, most modernist writers themselves insist on the pedagogical value of their writings. This has been demonstrated in a beautiful book written by one of the Pound conference participants, Gail McDonald, Learning to be Modern: Pound, Eliot and the American University [End Page iv] (Oxford University Press, 1993). The issue could be phrased first as: "What can one learn from modernism, has it still something to teach us today?" but also as: "How should we teach these canonical modernist texts, especially when they themselves insist on their pedagogical function?" Should this be done via a new literary history; American, British, or international politics; formalist close readings; or by choosing new philosophical, ideological, or theoretical handles? Finally, what does it mean to learn to be modern, if modernism can be seen as a literary struggle with a more radical modernity?

These questions have all been treated in one way or another by the authors of the essays gathered in an issue that takes modernism as a point of departure. For most modernist writers, learning to be modern would begin with the elective discovery of strategic predecessors. One of them, put forward relentlessly by Mikhail Bakhtin in his groundbreaking theory of the modernist novel, was Dostoeysky. Here, Peter Lowe examines how Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment left a lasting impact on one of the best known modernist poems, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Eliot borrowed the crucial paradigm of the moral alienation followed by the liberating confession of a young man who feels he is the victim of his environment, a soulless metropolis. Of course, Prufrock never confesses, but his being a "non-Raskolnikov" adds crucial depth to his being a "non-Hamlet." Even if Eliot had read the novel earlier than was thought and in French translation, its influence accompanied him during the years when he was drafting his "Love Song." Its "insidious" streets owe as much to St. Petersburg as to Paris or Boston; the metaphysical theme embodied by Lazarus is deepened with the quest for salvation and rebirth stemming from a truly guilty conscience.

Eve Sorum compares Eliot and Woolf and sees them united by a common masochist esthetic. From Eliot's notion of the "surrender of the self" to Woolf's embracing of pain as a key to literary creation, a hidden tradition of glorious passivity seems to provide a foundation for the esthetics of modernism. This...


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