Lately I have been reading about the lives of many modernist artists, mainly Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Nietzsche. I am sure you read some of their writings in college, maybe even some excerpts from The Genealogy of Morals, The Wasteland, Finnegan’s Wake and The Cantos. I’ve really enjoyed reading parts of them. In parts, they are beautiful, tragic, and powerful. But together, as whole pieces they can be jarring, frustrating, and just fucking senseless. Have you ever tried to read Finnegan’s Wake??? There is copy on the bottom of my bookshelf with maybe ten pages read.
These artists were writing in the aftermath of world wars, civil wars, and as communist, fascist and anarchist movements were spreading across parts of Europe and Russia like a burning rash. Think about it, civilization was at its zenith (if one is to believe we are forever moving forward), it was an age of enlightenment, industrialization, and innovation. Yet entire ways of life were being destroyed or fundamentally altered. Modern life was a life of unrelenting dissonance, psychoses, disillusionment.
Modernist writings reflected these changes. Passages are non-linear and fragmented. Their writings contain numerous allusions to other works and even use different languages; they are disjoined and cacophonous like life in 20th century.
Though, I have to wonder if they became too wrapped up in themselves and their work, losing perspective on who they were and what they were writing. I have to wonder if their works reflect more of their personal pain and narcissistic obsessions that greater cultural upheaval. These authors were all connected through study, or friendships, or correspondences; some even shared lovers. Nietzsche was suicidal, unsuccessfully searched for a wife, felt dejected by his lack of peer acclimation and died clinically insane. Eliot lamented about being a virgin into his late twenties and later married a woman who never made him happy. Pound married the lover of his mentor W. B. Yeats, later brought in another woman into his marriage and had an “uneasy ménage a trois” and too died clinically insane (some dispute the diagnosis). Plus, if we look at Andre Gide, he never consummated his marriage, fathered a bastard child with another woman, and exulted the life of being a pederast. Maybe their lives were perfect little chaotic microcosms of the world at large. Maybe they became too entangled in their studies, in their lives, in their own problems, obsessions and perversions to write anything wholly coherent.
My dad had this to say when I asked him how he felt about The Cantos: I have been reading an excellent biography of Samuel Beckett, in which he comments of both Finnegan's Wake and the Cantos, that at some point the reader of some celebrated "modernists" can only retreat in respectful puzzlement. To be blunt about it I think that Pound's life became a long deterioration into narcissistic isolation and that the Cantos, while beginning strongly and containing some beautiful passages, became a grab-bag or garbage receptacle for whatever obsessions Pound wanted to throw into it. I believe that toward the end of his somewhat disgraceful (in the later stages) life Pound took the same view.