I'm in what I hope is the middle of a long period of incuriosity. Books don't really interest me these days, because most of the time when I pick one up, I think, what's the point, anyway? My inner devil likes to whisper that books haven't made a material difference in my own life besides maybe a slight air of well-read-ness, and maybe not even that. Depression isn't like having a raincloud over you all the time, it's more like a hangnail, annoying you whenever you try to do something you normally enjoy, and the harder you try, the harder the nail tries to tear itself from your finger.
So normally this wouldn't be the best time to read a disquisition on Modernism. This prose goes down so easily, though, that I ran out of reasons not to finish the book after having started it last September. Edmund Wilson is unique for me among early 20th century critics in that he sounds almost exactly up-to-date, and I don't think opinions of Valery or Eliot or Proust have really changed all that much since he wrote this critical assessment. Wilson's own writing is exacting without being fussy, and contemporary without being modish.
The exciting thing about this book is seeing Proust and Joyce and Yeats before
there was a unified critical opinion as to their value. You get the sense that Wilson knows he's creating the consensus, and by bucking it occasionally he only firms up the broader narrative. As an example, Wilson had the privilege of being able to read "Four Quartets" without the weight of their putative greatness balanced over his head, and instead of praising the book without qualification, he says:
"...I am a little tired of hearing Eliot, only in his early forties, present himself as an 'aged eagle' who asks why he should make the effort to stretch his wings. Yet 'Ash Wednesday,' though less brilliant and intense than Eliot at his very best, is distinguished by most of the qualities which made his other poems remarkable: the exquisite phrasing in which we feel that every word is in its place and that there is not a word too much; the metrical mastery which catches so naturally, yet with so true a modulation, the faltering accents of the supplicant..."
The section on Proust performs more lay psychology than would probably be considered prudent these days, but while Wilson has little respect for Proust, he admires his habits of mind, and wishes only that Marcel had had to "meet the world on equal terms and [...:] felt the necessity of relating his art and ideas to the general problems of human society..." The last lines on Proust are so excellent that I won't reproduce them here - read the book. Anyway, Wilson prefers the fiery revolutionary Yeats, while finding his theories on history and his metaphysics to be rotten caricatures.
It is striking and rare to read someone with such nominal opinions of major early 20th-century writers express them in a voice that's so familiar yet inventive. Wilson seems to have understood with clarity the importance of the Symbolist and Modernist movements even as they coursed, developed and died all around him. Imagine writing at a time when the world had seen only a few serialized chapters of Finnegan's Wake
Chew on this: Axel's Castle
was written when Texas was still a depopulated backwater mostly without electricity. It was written twenty years before Hawaii or Alaska became states. It was written before American highways existed. It was written when cars were still a novelty in some parts of the country. It was written before anyone knew Wallace Stevens had written much poetry. It was written before Hitler came to power. You'd never guess it from the words on the page.