Modernism and Concealed Surfaces

  • “Profundity must be concealed. Where? On the surface.” Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), an Austrian modernist writer, is here remarking on a central modernist principle. The idea is that profound truths are no longer to be thought of as hidden or revealed (or hidden-in-order-to-be-revealed), as many religions or philosophies will have it.

For modernist writers and artists, profundity and meaning sit on the surface of a work, showing the operations of artistic style and technique, since it’s these aesthetic operations that truly express what the world and modern human life is all about.  The line quoted is from Hofmannsthal’s The Book of Friends (1922) and comes by way of an energetic review of Ben Hutchinson’s Modernism and Style, written by Robert Vilain for the TLS (Feb 22. 2013 issue, subscription required). (Originally posted March 20, 2013)


  • “You after all then now don’t?” Henry James (The Sacred Fount).

Henry James (1843-1916) is notorious for writing things like “What could he have done, after all, in her lifetime, without giving them both, as it were, away?” which comes from his short story, “The Beast in the Jungle.”Reading James can be extremely frustrating at first, but once you get through a particularly dense paragraph you find yourself feeling more confident and a bit snooty, like you’ve just followed some very tough directions for putting together a lamp or fixing a faucet, and succeeded.

The line above is from his novel, The Sacred Fount, considered by some critics to be unreadable. Actually, as a novel it is unreadable, but if you check in with it every now and again you can actually enjoy the book in short bursts, treat it like the merciless exercise in observation that it is, and, as R. P. Blackmur (1904-1965) has said, find the novel a “lucid nightmare of James’s hallucinated struggle with his conscience as a novelist.”

And don’t forget–that line above (preceded by dialogue asking a character if he still feels a certain way) really does make sense, if you read it enough times. (Originally posted January 2, 2013)