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The Old Moderns: Essays on Literature and Theory.

To many contemporary literary critics, the modernist tradition, with its emphasis on subjectivity and the internalization of images and events, is not only elitist and reactionary but dead, replaced by the more open, accessible, and democratic playfulness of postmodernism. Donoghue, who teaches English and American literature at New York University, begs to differ. The "interiority" of modernist writers, he argues, is an authentic and enduring realm of imaginative freedom: "Thinking, feeling, reverie: the pleasures of these are self-evident, they don't have to be judged upon their results or upon their consequence as action in the world."

In The Old Moderns, which contains 17 elegant essays, some previously published, Donoghue defends literary subjectivity on another front as well. Today's critics impose upon literature their own political or philosophical beliefs, often purposefully stifling the voice of the author. In fact, literary theory has hardened into such dogma that there's not much one can do with it except force "it upon your poems as if they could have no other desire than to receive such overbearing attention." Donoghue argues that literature should be read as literature--that is, with disinterested aesthetic appreciation, "as practices of experience to be imagined." These practices are related to such areas as religion, politics, and economics, but they should not be confused with them.

Donoghue's own critical restraint begins with his definition of modernism. For the sake of argument he settles upon one particular meaning, but acknowledges that "a different account of it would be just as feasible." Donoghue links the rise of literary modernism to the growth of cities in the 19th century, specifically to the situation of individuals who found their individuality threatened by mass society and the crowd. In response, the modernist mind turned inward, to ponder the validity of its feelings. Modernism was thus the result of writers perceiving "their development as an inner drama, rather than as a willing engagement with the contents of the objective culture."

Donoghue continues to demonstrate his notion of restraint in his dose but never overbearing reading of works by such modernist heroes as Henry James, Wallace Stevens, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. In essays refreshingly free of literary jargon, Donoghue succeeds at making the literature more important than the criticism.

Ironically, Donoghue notes, theorists who judge literature by its political relevance undermine the power of art to affect the world: "The supreme merit of art is that it contradicts the version of reality that obtains in social and economic life." Moreover, "introspection is not the puny, self-regarding act it is commonly said to be but an act of ethical and moral bearing by which the mind, in privacy, imagines lives other than its own. The chief justification for reading literature is that it trains the reader in the exercise of that imagination."

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Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1994
Words:468
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