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Thursday, February 11, 2010

High Modernism as a Scholarly Practice

I have to remind myself constantly that high modernism is the canon and thus my sense of it as embattled is somewhat deceptive.

In other words, Paz, Lezama Lima, Valente, etc... occupy a prestigious place in literary culture. Or Wallace Stevens, say, to give an English-language example. Now the problem is that in the contemporary university, cultural studies has largely displaced that canon, especially in Latin American studies--but also to some degree in the peninsular (Iberian peninsular, that is) realm. The typical argument in Latin American studies would have a very clear political "take away." I heard a colleague of mine at a candidate's job talk the other day suggest that any emphasis on literature as an aesthetic phenomenon would automatically alienate students, have them view literature as something alien to their own lives--as though their own lives had no aesthetic component at all.

So yes, I work on the boring old canonical stuff, leaving me holding the conservative end of the stick. I believe, though, that reading this stuff--really difficult modernist poetry--makes you frightfully intelligent. It really just uses all of your brain at the highest level of literacy imaginable. To really get this kind of poetry, you have to have a highly developed cultural, musical, visual, verbal, problem-solving, connection-making intelligence. But the only way to get that is to read it. In other words, nobody has it before approaching this kind of poetry.

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