Joseph Anderson

Modernism and the Spiritual Path

For me the writers of the High Modern literary movement (Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf) are a guilty and maybe not entirely justified pleasure. These works are very difficult to understand. I am not a scholar of modernist literature, nor do I necessarily have the obsessively detail-oriented mind one should probably have in order to adequately navigate the canon. So I am quite possibly over my head with Finnegan’s Wake and the Cantos. And yet I love them. I love the willingness of these creative artists to construct worlds out of their own materials. Their deep trust of imagination and insistence on its primacy resonates with my experience as a creative person and as a shamanic practitioner. Their work is not very accessible and can seem overly academic and precious. But to me they are heroes of spiritual consciousness and wonderful role models for us in our own work of constructing sacred worlds. They are worth spending time with, even though it’s maybe a bit more like liver and spinach than lasagna and cheesecake.

I just finished listening to the lecture on Ezra Pound by Langdon Hammer of Yale, and got my first taste of Pound’s particular genius. In his first Canto, he relates the story of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus using Old English verse forms. He reimagines one antiquity through the lens of another. It begins like this (I love the peculiar, evocative, exciting use of “and” at the very beginning of a massive poetic work):

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly seas, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.

He continues from there to weave a dense fabric of meaning, a world of his own constructed, so it seems, from everything he had ever read and ever experienced. In Ulysses, Joyce gives us a somewhat more recognizable world, still one of his own creation, by bringing the spirits of ancient Ireland and fragments of thought and memory into the kitchens and drawing rooms of Dublin, making them strange, wonderful, and wholly new. Virginia Woolf, in To the Lighthouse and her other works, dismantles the sensory and linguistic content of ordinary life and reassembles it into a glittering vision of poetic consciousness.

I think the Modernist legacy has been tarnished because deconstruction must precede construction – and the deconstruction has gotten all of the attention, illustrated by the sorts of words that are casually associated with Modernism, like “nihilism” and “despair”. In the roughly one hundred years since the ascendance of the Modernist movement, artists and members of the public with less genius and vision have (I would gently suggest) gotten trapped in the deconstruction phase, and there is evidence everywhere today that we are stuck there. I find myself having difficulty spending time with much of the contemporary art scene for this reason. There are exceptions, I know – I just don’t run across them very often.

Deconstruction is an essential prerequisite, but construction is what matters. If as is all too tempting you stop with deconstruction, you are left with – not chaos, which is still pregnant with meaning and possibility – but meaninglessness. And that is true and effective poison. Deconstruction without reconstruction is poison.

It may seem odd to say it, but the core of the true spiritual path is so resonant with the Modernist project: “lose your life to find it,” as Jesus said, or “if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him” as the Zen saying has it. The conventional ego, the given assumptions, the unchallenged conceptual framework: the conventions the Modernists took on are also the enemies of spirit and spiritual growth. For new wine, we need new wineskins.

So my friends, like the great Moderns before us let us tear down in order to build. Let us dismantle outworn meanings in our lives, those that no longer serve, and build new meanings, a new beauty that is truly useful.