A complete pdf of my dissertation can be downloaded from this link.
Ridiculous Modernism: Nonsense and the New in Literature Since 1900
Departing from a critical tradition that treats Arnoldian high seriousness, Eliotic difficulty, and war-induced trauma as the key characteristics of modernist poetics, Ridiculous Modernism argues that countervailing strains of anti-seriousness, ridiculousness, and nonsense shaped the period equally. Even as putative philistines invoked the ridiculing cry of “nonsense!” to describe the new art and literature of the twentieth century, modernist artists and writers found in nonsense an experimental engine for poetic innovation and a conceptual basis for disrupting the common sense of an increasingly incomprehensible modernity. In contrast to the careful ideal reader mythologized in post-New-Critical dogma, these modernists also wrote with un-ideal readers in mind—skeptical, laughing, even mocking. By positioning nonsense as a poetics of modernist innovation, my project explores strategies for reading poetry whose language approaches nonsense, proposes a narrative of the avant-garde more attentive to ways the public actually experienced the rise of modernism, and questions the extent of oft-invoked ruptures between mainstream modernism and the experimental avant-garde, between elite culture and popular culture, and between the literary trends of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
My introduction considers the disjunction between G.K. Chesterton’s celebratory 1902 prediction that nonsense in the style of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll would be “the literature of the future” and his subsequent disdain for modernists including James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, whose work he derided as childish nonsense unsuited to the modern age. Like Chesterton the anti-modernist, many modernists, including Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, viewed nonsense as a poetics that simultaneously offered a terrifying vision of meaninglessness and a wellspring of creative possibility. Keeping these poets’ admiration of nonsense in mind, I argue, can alter our reading practices. A poem like Stevens’s “Bantams in Pine-Woods,” for example, yields to deep close reading and enlightening historical contextualization. We should also, however, strive to recover the visceral, non-semantic impact of its nonsense-like language, a reverberating sense of discombobulation that close reading should not entirely foreclose.
Pointing to unlikely connections between ridiculing responses to the 1913 Armory Show in New York and the 1916 emergence of Zurich Dada at the Cabaret Voltaire, chapter one argues that the shared use of nonsense by modernists and anti-modernists alike staged a public dialogue through which experimental modernism was defined and reshaped. In contrast to a myth of the rise of modernism in which brave modernists attempted to reinvent art in the face of cruel, unthinking philistines setting obstacles in their path, I argue that the energetic dialogic contest to define modernism, recently made prominent in the work of Ann L. Ardis, Leonard Diepeveen, and Michael Levenson, was deeply influenced by the willfully silly responses of dissenters. Those responses, which include a parodic art show called “the Academy of Misapplied Art” and a satiric alphabet book called The Cubies’ ABC, demonstrate an interest in and engagement with modernism that exceeds the simple dismissal that many critics have seen in them. Some modernists viewed such ridicule as an affront and consolidated their artistic seriousness in response, but as many upped the ante on what could be called ridiculous about their work in a shared spirit of reciprocal playfulness. A 1916 performance of sound poetry by Hugo Ball dramatizes the exchange. In a politically charged embrace of nonsense language, Ball promised to use no word that had ever been used before, a rejection of complicit journalistic language. But Ball chose to perform the poems in a preposterous cardboard costume designed at once to evoke a cubist figure, a “magical bishop,” and a giant bird, a costume that bears a close resemblance to satiric representations of cubism in the wake of the Armory Show. Ball was confederate in, not victim of, the laughter his poetry elicited from the audience, and his poems, which critics have tended to treat as pure sound, pure language, or pure politics, were freighted with destabilizing comic excesses. Like those of modernism and its avant-gardes more generally, his political concerns were balanced with aesthetic concerns, his weightiness tempered by frivolity.
In chapter two, I consider Gertrude Stein as the literary exemplar of ridiculous modernism. Stein was often ridiculed in the press as a writer of nonsense, and for the most part, critics have seen the charge as a threat to her importance. On the contrary, I argue, Stein can be read faithfully and productively as a successor to Lear and Carroll. In readings of Stein’s famous sentence “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” of her experimental work Tender Buttons (1914), and of her late children’s book To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (1940), I argue that Stein’s authorial strategy of bringing the materiality of language to the fore by disrupting normative syntax and refusing traditional sense-making echoes the methods of literary nonsense. These stylistic and poetic similarities are not merely incidental: even as skeptics repeatedly questioned Stein about her seeming nonsense during her 1934 American lecture tour, she subtly invoked Carroll in many of her evasive explanations. Stein’s association with nonsense was as much a strategic choice as an antagonistic imposition, a choice that follows on Stein’s insistence that her work presented a stark forward-looking alternative to the poetics of difficulty-oriented modernists, who Stein believed to “generally smell of the museums” and “have one hand in the past.” Stein, so often thought to be “difficult,” hoped nonsense would offer an accessible poetics that would be not just innovative, but also lastingly generative.
Chapter three considers the intersection of technology, modernism, and nonsense in the work of Robert Carleton “Bob” Brown, who proposed a cumbersome but supposedly efficient reading machine in The Readies (1930). Brown fuses many of the conflicts and tensions of dialogic modernism into one personality: at turns he seems the greatest champion of avant-garde modernism and its most skeptical satirist, on the one hand a futurist naively embracing the liberatory promises of technology and on the other an absurdist showcasing the uselessness of modern technology with a fundamentally unbuildable device. In their zeal to find in Brown’s writing a precursor to the e-readers and web browsers of today, however, critics have overlooked much of the irony in which Brown couched his proposal for the machine, which promised to speed words by a reader’s eyes at the pace of a novel an hour, a speed that would turn literary language into incomprehensible nonsense. In writing that at once parodies and embraces the radical experimental poetics of modernism, Brown offers a proposal inspired by Rube Goldberg as much as Thomas Edison. The 1931 anthology Readies for Bob Brown’s Machine, which included writing for the machine by authors such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Eugene Jolas, Marinetti, and Stein, served as a comic provocation that brought into one volume an involved dialogue over the identity and direction of modernism. His contributors, it appears, were unsure whether Brown and other contributors were serious, so the remarkable anthology launches an intra-modernist dialogue on innovation and technology that echoes the vexed circuits of intention and reception that characterized the public’s experience of modernism.
A coda argues that many of the issues of ridiculous modernism reemerge today in the post-digital experiments of Conceptual Poetry and Flarf. The two camps, which make poetic use of the vibrant aesthetic ridiculousness of contemporary digital culture, extend a trajectory of nonsense as a generative and disruptive poetics from the Victorian era to the present. The challenge to critics presented by this nonsense line of literary experiment continues to resonate: how can critics take the ridiculous seriously without deflating its ridiculousness?