The institution of modernism and the discourse of culture: hellenism, decadence, and authority from Walter Pater to T. S Eliot
This project examines how Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot respond to a nineteenth-century crisis of literary authority brought about by a new idea of culture. While these writers are often studied through the link between literary doctrine and politics, this approach fails to capture how aesthetic and political ideas of the moderns are linked to the emergence of the anthropological culture idea and its complication of “high culture.” English modernists exploit the culture idea to reassert art’s social power. Previously, the authority of European literature was posited on Greek ideals and religious values. The emergence of anthropology complicates Victorian Christianity and Hellenism, leaving aesthetics in need of new forms of legitimation. The moderns look upon the culture thesis as an opportunity and a source of anxiety, first registered by late romantic writers. The aestheticism of Walter Pater withdraws from philistine modernity in the name of the cultivation of heightened sensibility only to embrace the culture idea as a means of saving art from solipsism. Wilde responds to the idea of civilization as overwrought consciousness. Yet, he will come to see that the savagery which is the companion of decadent civilization can only be redressed by seeing culture in terms of the survival of Hellenistic impulses that might renew culture. Both writers anticipate the dilemmas and trajectories of the modernists. T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot seek to make art a means of shaping the collective mind. Their desire to make art a force in society at large, ironically, was to have the opposite effect. Modernist attempts to create an audience for high art ends up being mediated through the professionalization of university criticism. Cultural centralization in the university progressively undermines the legitimacy of criticism and literature outside its purview. The momentum of emerging mass culture at the turn of the century led the modernists increasingly to forge their audience through the university. Modernism wins its place, not by speaking from the mass mind as they hoped, but by merging with the interests of the academy.
School:The Ohio State University
School Location:USA - Ohio
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:modernism hellenism decadence 20th century literature
Date of Publication:01/01/2004