Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form

My new book Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction is now available from Bloomsbury Academic.

I don't mind if you don't buy it. The retail price is absurd. This hardcover is aimed at the academic library market, even though academic libraries (at least the ones I know) have shrinking book budgets. I've been told that in 12-18 months, a less expensive paperback will be released (though by "less expensive", something in the range of $40 is probably what we can expect — a price higher than the average trade hardcover). There is an ebook edition, but it's currently going for $99 at Amazon; Bloomsbury will sell you an ePub or PDF for $79.20. Those prices for an ebook are not ones anybody I've ever met would pay, and indicate a publisher that doesn't want people to buy ebooks.

I don't point out the absurd prices because I am mad at Bloomsbury. I've had an excellent experience with them, and everybody I've met and worked with through the process has been smart and helpful. If I had published with any number of other academic presses, the book might have cost even more. (At my academic blog, I've written about book pricing, and write occasionally about academic publishing, as well, because I find it so bizarre and often annoying.) For now, I'm just pointing the book out because I'd like you to know about it so perhaps you can ask a librarian you know to consider ordering it, or so you can get it via interlibrary loan, or some other method.

And for a taste of the book, here's the beginning of the introduction. (The citations are to volumes of Woolf's diaries [D], letters [L], and essays [E].)

While correcting the proofs for The Waves, her most ethereal novel, Virginia Woolf felt unsettled, unsure of herself and her writing. It was August 1931. The world and its events pressed in on her. She read newspapers regularly, her friend John Maynard Keynes kept her up to date on the international financial crisis, and she and her husband Leonard had long been involved with policy committees of the Labour Party, which for the moment was in power, though both Woolfs were as aware as anyone that internal and external pressures threatened the party’s ability to govern. By the end of the month, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had resigned and formed a coalition government to circumvent Labour’s leftists, who adamantly refused to support a 10% cut in unemployment benefits. Woolf wrote in her diary that “the country is in the throes of a crisis. Great events are brewing.”
What was a writer to do? Woolf wondered: “Are we living through a crisis; & am I fiddling?” (D 4: 39).

The fear that creative work is little more than playing a fiddle while the world burns around you is one that has haunted artists at many times and in many places. One strategy for making art during crisis is for that art to take a stand, to become committed, proselytizing, didactic. (In the 20th century, the novels of Upton Sinclair are one particularly obvious example, but committed art is not always so inelegant.) For writers committed to an idea of artistic autonomy, though, adding a political commitment may challenge the freedom of the writing. Woolf felt the peril deeply and expressed it most clearly in an essay she wrote for the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, “Why Art Today Follows Politics.” It is not one of her best essays, but it clearly illustrates her struggles and frustrations at the time. Woolf first tries (unconvincingly) to equate writers and visual artists and to say that the art of the past tells us nothing about history and material conditions. She then moves to a discussion of the artist’s relationship to the audience in times of crisis, and her position becomes both more personal and more clear.

Artists, she says, need two things from an audience: money and attention. But neither can be provided under dictatorial circumstances — the artists must be free to create in whatever way their sensitivities lead them. Woolf separates artists out from other people because “it is a fact that the practice of art, far from making the artist out of touch with his kind, rather increases his sensibility. …Perhaps, indeed, he suffers more than the active citizen because he has no obvious duty to discharge.” Here and throughout the final third of “Why Art Today Follows Politics,” Woolf seems to be speaking of her own situation as she struggles to figure out her place in the contemporary era, to reconcile her anxiety (and even terror) at the state of the world with her work as a novelist. She says that the artist’s studio, which used to be a place of peace and refuge, is now “besieged by voices, all disturbing, some for one reason, some for another.” The voice of the audience declares it can no longer afford to pay for frivolous things like art; the audience is “so tortured and distracted” that it can no longer find pleasure in art; and meanwhile there is the ceaseless voice pleading for help, time, money, something: “Come down from your ivory tower, leave your studio, it cries, and use your gifts as doctor, as teacher, not as artist.” A voice tries to get the artist to be useful to the state or else to shoot guns and fly airplanes. And one last voice “proclaims that the artist is the servant to the politician,” — Woolf portrays this voice as especially malevolent: “You shall only practise your art, it says, at our bidding. Paint us pictures, carve us statues that glorify our gospels. Celebrate Fascism; celebrate Communism. Preach what we bid you preach. On no other terms shall you exist” (E 6: 77).

The cacophony of all these voices paralyzes the artist, Woolf says. How can anyone remain at peace in such circumstances? The artist is forced into political organizations, forced to advocate and proselytize — how could one not when faced with suffering or even extinction? “Two causes of supreme importance to him are in peril. The first is his own survival: the other is the survival of his art” (E 6: 77).

These two causes, survival of self and survival of art, continued to feel imperiled to Woolf as fascism swept through Europe and then a second world war began. In August 1940, Woolf wrote multiple drafts of a letter to Vita Sackville-West’s son Benedict Nicolson, then serving at an anti-aircraft battery in Kent (L 6: 398n1), who had expressed criticisms of Bloomsbury that were similar to those of other people of his generation: he intended to be an art historian and art critic who would educate the masses and thus bring about social change. In her reply, Woolf tried to articulate her thoughts about art, education, politics, and society, but she struggled. None of Woolf’s other extant letters show as much work and revision. The importance and difficulty of the subjects for her seemed to defeat her, leaving her unsatisfied with her words. “My puzzle is,” she wrote in an unsent draft, “ought artists now to become politicians? My instinct says no; but I’m not sure that I can justify my instinct” (L 6: 420). In the letter she sent, which is overall much more concise than the drafts, she developed this idea more fully:
What puzzles me is that people who had infinitely greater gifts than any of us had — I mean Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge and so on — were unable to influence society. They didn’t have anything like the influence they should have had upon 19th century politics. And so we drifted into imperialism and all the other horrors that led to 1914. Would they have had more influence if they had taken an active part in politics? Or would they only have written worse poetry? (L 6: 421)
She expresses support for him, apparently not wanting to destroy his idealism with her doubts — “I hope you will be able to [change the attitude of the masses]. It would solve many problems. Anyhow I think you’ve made a good beginning if you hate people who sit on the floor and despise humanity” (L 6: 422). But she ends the letter with a description of events that put all of the young man’s ideals into question, as if asking him how an art critic could possibly help anyone overcome the bare, brute facts in their own backyard:
Here a young man from the War Office interrupts; about putting up a pill box in our field. Also there is an air raid on. So excuse this very inadequate letter. Last Sunday we had five raiders almost crashing into the dining room. Then they machine gunned the next village, and apparently went on to Sissinghurst. (L 6: 422)
There is no indication here of how hard Woolf worked on the letter. She gives Nicolson the impression that she was just dashing it off, and in the writing was interrupted by a soldier. War creates inadequacy of communication, inadequacy of art. There are machine guns in the villages.

What is art to do in the face of such reality?

Questions of art and politics are not academic for writers during moments of crisis. For writers who believe to some extent or another in the autonomy of art from socio-political determinism, the immediate question becomes: If they are not to abandon art and become pamphleteers or activists (as did the Modernist poet George Oppen), how — and why — are they to write?

This study will explore how three novelists, each committed to Modernist ideas of art for its own sake (the survival of art), developed one particular strategy when faced with socio-political crisis that created personal crisis: they pushed fictionality toward and beyond its limits, but did so without their work becoming propagandistic and without themselves assuming the role of the preacher. They achieved this by providing readers with an experience congruent with the goals of critical pedagogy, an experience that avoids an authoritarian mode of communication — one that sees the writer’s job as communicating a message to a passive reader — by requiring any successful reader of the novel to be an active interpreter of the texts’ forms, contents, and contexts. Such active interpretation is a familiar feature of Modernist experimentation, but at these moments of crisis, the pedagogies Virginia Woolf, Samuel R. Delany, and J.M. Coetzee infused into their novels were not merely aesthetic or psychological, not limited to the quotidian (vital as it is), but also aimed toward an engagement with the world beyond the text.

I examine Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee in different relationships to moments of crisis: before, during, and after. A sense of impending crisis requires the writer to consider how and why to address the crisis as it gains form and momentum; the onset of crisis makes the writer’s desire for response immediate, and that desire then shapes the writing in new ways; the diminishment or even resolution of crisis may allow the writer a new creative freedom, but it is a freedom inevitably shaped by the experience of crisis. These positions also affect the kind of intervention the writer considers: before crisis, the writer may think of the writing as an attempt at preventing the worst of what may come; amidst crisis, there is a sense of desperation and triage; after crisis, new moments of reflection and reconsideration emerge.

For Virginia Woolf, the crisis of European fascism brought new thinking about how facts and fictions work together, and what a novelist might offer the world. For Samuel Delany, the beginnings of the AIDS crisis brought an immediate threat to his life as a sexually active gay man in New York City, and in the midst of the crisis he grappled with the role of fantasy in fiction to an extent he never had before. J.M. Coetzee lived through the crisis of the apartheid era in South Africa, an era that shaped much of his life and career. His later work reflects on both the life and career (and necessarily the crises he lived through) while opening up new relationships to fictionality, relationships that circumvent conventional, received ethical stances in favor of making ethical thought unavoidably active for the reader.