March 13: Superior Beings: Anderson, Joyce, and the Lovable Sherlock Holmes

Thursday’s discussion concerning elitism got me thinking. In class, I contrasted the order and purpose of the detective novel with the seeming purposelessness of Ulysses. Detective novels are accessible and predictable, even though they often succeed in surprising us. Ulysses, alongside many of the other modernist texts published in The Little Review, is difficult and incredibly intimidating for readers of all sorts. Given Margaret Anderson’s attitude in “Ulysses in Court,” it’s not surprising that many people are angered by the inherent elitism of her magazine and its literary offerings. But Margaret Anderson reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous fictional detective of all time. They both have superior intellectual capacities that set them apart from the general public, they are both driven and obsessive in pursuit of their goals, and they both make others feel ignorant and inferior. So why is it that we hate Margaret Anderson (and the modernist texts she supports) but we love Sherlock Holmes? In my opinion, the distinction comes down to motive (not, as a friend suggested, substance abuse).

Holmes’ actions may be motivated by his own arrogance­–each case is yet another chance to prove his intelligence–but he is also driven by his desire to solve the puzzle at hand. We, the readers, as well as his fellow characters, share in this desire: we also want to know what it all means.

In contrast, the motives of Anderson and her fellow modernists are far less clear. Any attempt to consider them inevitably leads me to grand, far too challenging questions on the nature of art. What is it? What is it for? What should it look/sound/taste like? Such questions are just as baffling as any mystery Arthur Conan Doyle can cook up. In fact, they are far more intimidating because they remain unresolved.

Which leads to the next facet of Holmes’ motives: restoring order. This is just another way of saying solving the puzzle, but it has wider consequences for the readership/public. Each detective novel begins when our calm, familiar world is disrupted by a baffling, often grisly crime. The only way we can restore our sense of order, peace, justice, and safety is to keep reading and look for answers. Conan Doyle’s novels, part of the Great Detective sub-genre, don’t assume fair play, so there is very little chance that we the readers can independently solve these mysteries. We have to put our trust in the intelligence and competency of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, no matter how much he may challenge our own confidence by proving us to be ignorant and unobservant, always succeeds in solving the mystery and restoring order to our world, reassuring us once again.

The Little Review has no such goal. Joyce’s writing disrupts our ordered, familiar world through its innovative and unpredictable techniques. We discussed in class how even savvy scholars like ourselves need guides–annotations, secondary sources, professors–to tackle the overwhelming task of reading Ulysses and emerging with our sanity and confidence in tact. Further, when we reach the end, there will be no clean, elegant resolution like the ones Holmes provides. That is not the kind of ending Anderson and Joyce would create and its not the kind of ending their desired readership should expect. These people–they publish writing that unsettles our familiar worldview, flesh it out with obscene behaviour, and refuse to explain themselves.

What Holmes has going for him is that, intentionally or not, he uses his intellectual superiority for good instead of art. He repeatedly proves that reason triumphs over chaos. Modernist art, particularly Ulysses, actively disrupts or disproves a logical, rational worldview. The carefully ordered thought process that Holmes relates to Watson again and again radically differs from the stream of consciousness style that Joyce employs. What is most intimidating of all is the acknowledgement that the modernist view, with its disarrayed thoughts, obscure philosophical problems, and unsolved crimes, is more in line with our lived reality. Perhaps this is why the most contemporary Sherlock Holmes series, BBC’s Sherlock, presents an unresolved ending that has left audiences in confusion and suspense, and ending more appropriate for a society that has undergone the modernism and post-modernism. But then again, we all know Holmes will come back and explain it all.


Art at Risk: Women and Cultural Capital

While browsing through Blast’s first issue, the note “TO SUFFRAGETTES” caught my attention. It reads:

stick to what you understand.
are destroying a greater soul than if you
annihilated a whole district of London.

Though it might be argued that there is a certain amount of respect in these words–after all, they call the suffragettes their “brave comrades”–the obtrusive capital letters make the words seem more aggressive, even condescending, and the note reads more like a scolding than a vote of support. “Stick to what you understand,”  Lewis and Pound remind these women, suggesting that women do not understand art and that their involvement in it will be more destructive than beneficial.

This characterization of women as a destructive force when involved with culture is by no means unusual. That is to say, this is not the only group of hyper-masculine male artists to write against women. In the 1918 French-Canadian periodical Le Nigog, the avant-garde male artists and contributors write with derision of the “dames d’art,” the ladies of art, women who attend shows of all kinds, discuss art at length, but know nothing about it (Morin). These women are characterized by their terrible taste and ridiculous conversations, conversations that are parodied at the end of every Nigog issue in “Dialogue des Bêtes,” dialogue of the stupid (Brunot).

This attitude was taken up again by an English-Canadian poet, F.R. Scott. His poem “The Canadian Authors Meet” was first published in The McGill Fortnightly Review, a literary magazine published by young students who would eventually be leading figures in Canadian modernism (Norris). This satirical poem was aimed at the Canadian Authors Association (CAA). Here is the more recent version of the poem as published in Scott’s 1945 collection, Overture. Lines like “Miss Crotchet’s muse has somehow failed to function, / Yet she’s a poetess,” and, “The cakes are sweet, but sweeter is the feeling / That one is mixing with the literati” mock the CAA and the women who dominate it, women who are out of touch with modern art. Scott writes,

O Canada, O Canada, O can
A day go by without new authors springing
To paint the native maple, and to plan
More ways to set the selfsame welkin ringing?

These women, if not destructive, intend to halt the progress of Canadian literature by returning once again to nationalistic poetry, which praises Canada and does not experiment.

In all these cases, it is argued that women do not understand art and that their ignorant involvement is more destructive than progressive. The words of Blast are particularly unnerving for the way they oversimplify the women’s movement. But what is most interesting is what inspires these male artists to write against women: they are feeling threatened. In all of these cases, women undeniably possess cultural capital. More significantly, this cultural capital outweighs that of the avant-garde or modernist male writer. These men fear the influence these women can have on culture, and they assert their own power and good taste by demeaning that of the powerful female figure. It would be interesting to see what consequences such masculine declarations had. Perhaps, as Mark Morrisson suggested in his article “Marketing British Modernism: The Freewoman, the Egoist, and Counterpublic Spheres,” they resulted in a marginalization and eventually a loss of a female audience who may, through newfound cultural capital, have represented significant financial support. Or perhaps, male power was once again asserted, and only those women who through “good taste” could prove themselves as not destructive were welcomed into modernist circles.

Works Cited:
Brunot, Paul. “Dialogue des Bêtes.” Le Nigog. 1.1 (January 1918)
Morin, Leo-Pol. “La legende de l’art musical canadien et les musiciens de Montréal.” Le Nigog. 1.1 (January 1918).
Norris, Ken. “The Beginnings of Canadian Modernism.” Canadian Poetry. 11 (Fall/Winter 1982)
“To Suffragettes.” Blast. 1.1 (June 1914): 151-152.

February 7: Modernist Art

We discussed in class how the post-Impressionists created art that no longer sought to imitate life. As realism was no longer a priority, art ceased to accurately mirror life. This is most apparent in the portrait-style paintings produced by Matisse–“The Green Line (Portrait of Madame Matisse)” (1905)–and Picasso–“Woman’s Head” (1908). Portraits, through their basic form and framing, are the most mirror-like of forms. The audience can look at the portrait and see mirrored back to them human features, if not their own than those that are reassuringly familiar. Matisse and Picasso’s paintings challenge this familiarity. Through their titles, they both ground the paintings in the living world, Matisse by identifying his real-life subject, Picasso by anatomically identifying the content of his painting. However, these titles also serve to remind us that reality and realism had been displaced. Matisse draws our attention to the green line which invades the familiar territory of the face, and Picasso identifies his content as though we may not recognize it on our own–this is a woman’s head, however animalistic and primitive and unfamiliar it may appear.

"Woman's Head"

"Woman's Head" Picasso

"The Green Line (Portrait of Madame Matisse)" Matisse

When we look back on Roger Fry’s post-Impressionist exhibit, it is difficult to share in the perspective of the shocked British audience. This may be because we no longer have the same expectations of realism and familiarity. Of course, the modernist movement has radically altered our perspectives on art, but we also have more access to images than that British audience did. Tumblr, Facebook, Google Images, Flickr–all of these sites cater to our desire to incessantly share images. As images become more accessible, their content becomes less surprising. As we see more and more bizarre images, we let go of whatever expectations we might have held.

Furthermore, we are increasingly aware of the corruptibility of images. Even photographs, those most mimetic and realistic of images, are susceptible to manipulation alteration. Rather than expecting images to reflect real life, we anticipate their dishonesty. In fact, we go so far as to alter photos in order to mock reality. For example, Rick Mercer’s Photo Challenge asks audience members to mess with photos of politicians. The photos are often crude and maybe even shocking, but there is something cathartic about so crudely misrepresenting a powerful figure, holding up a mirror that is ludicrous in its mis-portrayal, but might have at its core a true characteristic of the subject (for instance, Stephen Harper’s economic frugality or authoritarian style).

This is not to devalue the innovative techniques of the post-Impressionists. Despite our evolved artistic expectations, many of these works still have a powerful affect on us, as they did on their original audience. For example, when I view Matisse’s 1909 painting “Still Life with a Blue Tableclothe,” I am still thrown by its unusual use of space. Lacking the structure of a table, the tablecloth seems to hang in the air, both below and behind the items. Without the stability and spacing of a typical still life scene, I feel a sensation almost like vertigo when I view the painting. I am briefly overcome, as though without a realistic structure, I lose my bearings as a viewer of this scene. These artists achieved a style so inventive it can catch a jaded contemporary viewer like me off guard.

“Still Life with a Blue Tableclothe” Matisse

January 24: Snowy’s White Supremacist Past: Racism in Widely Studied Texts

The most compelling point Chinua Achebe presents in his argument against Conrad “is the desire–one might indeed say the need–in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil in Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest”(783). This idea of Africa as a foil for Western civilization is sustained today, even for organizations that may have the best intentions. Our attitude towards Africa (which is often referred altogether rather than in terms of specific countries with specific situations) is one of mercy and charity rather than cooperation, a decidedly unequal relationship in which Africans, through their very nature, always draw the short straw. Though focus is inevitably drawn to Achebe’s argument that The Heart of Darkness should not be studied, at the heart of his argument is this blatantly unbalanced relationship between the West and Africa, a relationship that suggests Westerners have evolved from cruel to merciful and that Africans may not have evolved at all.

Of course, Conrad’s is not the only text that presents troubling colonial attitudes. Achebe writes, “there are whole libraries of books devoted to the same purpose, but most of them are so obvious and so crude that few people worry about them today” (783). However, one of these texts remains in the public’s eye: Hergé’s comic book series The Adventures of Tintin, the most debated of which just happens to be Tintin in the Congo, yet another depiction of the European man’s journey into the heart of darkness. This story, in its dialogue and imagery, is crudely colonialist and racist. For example, this image features Tintin contentedly being carried along by the servile and exaggeratedly bestial Africans.

Recently, a Congolese student sued the comic’s publishers on account of the racist attitudes depicted in their texts. Rather than succeeding in getting the book off shelves, the case inspired an incredible rise in sales of Tintin in the Congo and did little to publicly ruin Tintin’s reputation.

The Tintin website acknowledges the troubling nature of the comic, but only in passing, explaining, “Since Hergé didn’t have any authentic pictures of the Congo, this comic book depicts the Africa of the European imagination” and suggesting some readers may be offended. It reports Hergé’s pride of the Belgian colonial project without explaining to the contemporary reader the cruel nature of this project. In short, it does not encourage the reader to recognize the racism of the text or suggest any ways that the text might be taught to a contemporary reading public.

This is problematic because Tintin, like The Heart of Darkness, is a widely read text. As a French immersion student I encountered Tintin in the classroom all the time; it was a fun, easy way to familiarize students with the French language. But there was never any discussion concerning the colonial attitudes being exhibited, even when it might have fit well into our discussions on history or literature.

I do not agree with the banning of either of these texts, but perhaps it is time for teachers and publishers to follow the model that has arisen since the publication of Achebe’s article. An open discussion of the perceived presence of racist ideas could benefit readers of Tintin and similar texts, especially at a young age when they are still forming their perspectives of the world. Perhaps such discussions would allow us to evolve beyond the self-other dichotomy, the ‘Africa as foil’ attitude that Achebe rightly argues is so problematic.