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Further Footnotes

A.N. Kaul

By Betty S. Flowers
Macmillan, London, 1976, 208, 7.95

By Richard Ellmann
Faber and Faber, 1977, 150, 5.50

VOLUME II NUMBER 5 September-October 1977

It is sad but true that three-quarters into the twentieth century and over fifty years after the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, we still have no term but ‘modern’ to describe the kind of literature associated, above all, with these two writers. It is sadder still that to this day criticism of such literature continues to lean in the direction of interpretation rather than evaluation. One would expect the word modern to be value-free, a mere term of description. But after the first angry, uncomprehending, and sometimes abusive dismissals which greeted the young writers in the twenties and the thir­ties, critics and admirers quickly took new bearings and with genuine excitement started elucidating the aims and methods of modern literature. So far so good, for every age must come to terms with its own literature. But somewhere along the way—and it has by now stretched to over fifty years—twentieth-century criticism forgot to ask of modern litera­ture the sort of question with which it only too often taxed the classics of the past, Paradise Lost, most notoriously. What are the possibilities it promotes ­for language, for literature, for life? Not simply what a literary work or tradition is in terms of its own aim and method, but also how it measures up against other works and traditions. Indeed, coming to terms involves ultimately the larger as well as the more immediate view, involves critical judg­ment as well as exegesis. Why, for instance, does the tradition of Joyce and Eliot seem to many living writers not the broad and promising highway of thirty or forty years ago but something like a dead end? Why does even that nine­teenth century literature which under the ascendancy of modernism was dismissed as an existing mixture of the sentimental and the banal seem, by comparison, to offer far richer and more serious pers­pectives? It is obvious that admirers of modern literature can no longer ignore these and other such questions. It is still more obvious that continued criticism in the earlier vein can by now hardly yield anything more valuable than either marginal commentary or restatement and expansion of long-familiar ideas. This is even true of those studies which aim to place modern literature historically but without at the same time placing it critically—studies which search the immediate past for ...

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