Literary Modernism: The Struggle for Modern History

Course No. 292
Professor Jeffrey Perl, Ph.D.
Bar-Ilan University
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Course No. 292
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Course Overview

"It is no trick to like what you like. It is no trick to understand what you understand." With that pronouncement, Professor Jeffrey Perl invites us to abandon our preconceptions and consider some of the most controversial authors of the 20th century: the Literary Modernists.

  • Who were the Literary Modernists?
  • How did the "Classical Modernism" of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce differ from the "Neomodernism" represented by Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams?
  • What made them believe as they did? What did they have to say to us? What might they still have to say to us?
  • How were the political extremism and self-destructive choices so many of them made during the war years related to their writing and the personal demons that haunted them?

These lectures do not shrink from the challenges imposed by these questions, or by challenging the answers scholars have routinely accepted. Indeed, Professor Perl accepts them with relish.

Nor do the lectures shrink from the difficulties of Literary Modernism itself, which can only be appreciated within the wide-ranging context of the philosophy, literature, politics, and morality of its own time.

Two Opposing Schools and the Myths That Have Endured

Professor Perl neatly delineates the differences between the two opposing schools of Modernist thinking:

  • The "Classical Modernists" including Pound, Eliot, and Joyce
  • Their "Neomodernist" attackers, such as Stein and Williams.

Professor Perl debunks many myths about these two opposing schools, especially those that have grown around the politics of these authors.

In doing so, he helps us see our own cultural bias toward literature. And he allows us to look more clearly at the literary artists who have contributed to the definition of culture.

You'll see Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Yeats, James, Lawrence, and others spring to life, with all their radical ideas, personal demons, and beliefs about art and morality.

Professor Perl explores the political extremism of so many of them, revealing their often destructive choices during World War II.

And though his arguments are often complex, the lectures are brilliantly organized and crystal clear.

A Gift for Cutting through Complexity

Time after time, Professor Perl sets foot into what might appear to be an impenetrable thicket of literary and philosophical complexity, bristling with conflicting ideas and leading us we know not where.

Yet he always emerges on the other side with each "i" dotted, every "t" crossed, and all implications dealt with, so that you are left with the certainty that you have understood every word of his argument, no matter how complex it might have appeared.

For example, Joyce's monumental work Ulysses is one of the most notoriously intimidating novels ever written. But Professor Perl's discussion leaves you with a new appreciation and understanding of what Joyce set out to do and how he accomplished it.

His discussion of Ezra Pound's final interview, which came years after one of literature's most famous voices had fallen silent, is equally insightful.

In fact, he believes it may well be the most telling moment in literary history.

"Words no good."

Pound—epic poet and once-accused Fascist collaborator—had been acquitted of capital treason on the grounds of insanity and institutionalized for a dozen years before returning to Italy.

He had agreed to the only interview he would ever give during this final period of his life. But he had remained mute, reacting to every question with persistent silence.

"Why aren't you answering my questions?" asked the reporter from The New York Times.

"Words no good," answered Pound.

They were the only words the author of The Cantos and the last surviving Literary Modernist would utter during the entire interview.

But after listening to this course, you'll understand why this single primitive sentence, lacking even a verb, perhaps carried as much import as any piece of writing ever produced by any member of this celebrated, debated, and oft-misunderstood literary movement.

A Course with Rewards Worthy of Its Demands

Professor Perl has crafted a course that is deep, complex, and demanding of your constant attention.

But if you care about literature and its relationship with the ideas and culture around it—and are willing to give this course the attention it deserves—it is also an uncommonly rewarding learning experience.

Because Professor Perl is able to draw on whatever intellectual discipline is necessary to make his point, his lectures remain completely accessible to those new to Modernism.

Yet they also probe deeply enough to satisfy the most dedicated readers of these giant figures who so shook the pillars of literature during the first half of the 20th century.

You'll have a chance to see how Eliot's dissatisfaction with philosophy's ability to explain and shape the world he saw around him caused him to turn his back on his impending doctorate in philosophy.

Instead, he became a man of letters, abandoning what was perhaps one of the most promising philosophical careers of the century.

Hear Pound's War Propaganda

And you'll come to a new understanding of Pound's remarkable tragedy as you get a chance to listen to Professor Perl read some of the worst of the propaganda broadcasts Pound made from Italy into England—explaining, as well, why he did what he did.

This is a course rich in arch humor and populated by intensely dramatic figures. They were men and women whose deep-seated beliefs about culture, class, and the pain of real people could barely be contained on the printed page and often burst out into real life.

For those of you who have tried some of these writers and retreated—perhaps remembering traumatizing collegiate encounters with The Waste Land or Ulysses—Professor Perl's opening invitation to set aside our preconceptions may be particularly pertinent and is well worth repeating:

"It is no trick to like what you like. It is no trick to understand what you understand."

It is quite a trick, though, to have you like and understand what you otherwise might not have. And it is something this course for thinkers accomplishes with seriousness and zest.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 46 minutes each
  • 1
    Introduction—Modernity and Modernism
    This lecture discusses the two kinds of modernism: paleomodernism and neomodernism. A poem by William Carlos Williams, "The Red Wheelbarrow," is presented as the neomodernist response to the paleomodernism of T. S. Eliot and others. The lecture then begins the examination of the characteristics that differentiate the two schools. x
  • 2
    The neomodernist view is examined, and we learn that T. S. Eliot's work was influenced by his early study of philosophy and that he disagreed with the direction taken by philosophers. Therefore, Eliot chose the discourse of poetry over that of philosophy. x
  • 3
    Against Theory
    We review the career of W. B. Yeats and trace his shift from symbolist to realist. Conversely, Henry James's career is examined because it moves from realist to symbolist. At the end of the lecture we hear T. S. Eliot's assertion that romanticism and neoclassicism are personalities that were once joined. x
  • 4
    Waste Lands
    The effects of the Depression and World War II were profound, and the modernists reflected their concern in art. T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and others considered themselves to be therapists to the world. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and works by Lawrence called for a new religion to lead to the rebirth of society. x
  • 5
    The Complete Consort
    James Joyce's Ulysses is presented as the ultimate paleomodernist novel. Joyce's goal was to capture the full circle of history and the novel's structure uses chaos and opposing themes to create one phenomenon. Even postmodernists admire the work because of the use of chaos. x
  • 6
    Modernist Theater
    While modernist literature thrived, we learn from this lecture that modernist drama failed to win popular support. Some poets such as Yeats decided to battle the middle class through drama. By the 1940s, T. S. Eliot had decided that art should respond to the public, and he was able to find commercial success. x
  • 7
    The Depression and World War II altered the focus of the modernists. Most were involved in politics, but the movement was represented on both the right and left. The Spanish Civil War had a tremendous impact on the writers. The politics of Ezra Pound are examined at the end of the lecture. x
  • 8
    Postwar, Postmodern, Postculture
    This final lecture takes us from Evelyn Waugh, who presented us with a "Hollywood metaphysics" in which the fake world is ideal, to Samuel Beckett, who unites the themes of modernism and thus helps define modernism's end. The modernists are no longer against the bourgeoisie and are seeking to understand and influence the middle class. x

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Your professor

Jeffrey Perl

About Your Professor

Jeffrey Perl, Ph.D.
Bar-Ilan University
Dr. Jeffrey Perl is Professor of English Literature at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He earned his A.B., summa cum laude, from Stanford University, did postgraduate work at Oxford University, and earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. Prior to taking his position in Israel, Professor Perl held teaching positions at Columbia University and the University of Texas at Dallas. He has been a...
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Literary Modernism: The Struggle for Modern History is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 35.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A very advanced, graduate-level set of lectures This course is much more advanced than is typical for The Great Courses. It presumes you are already familiar with most of the authors discussed, and it interprets (or reinterprets) the relationship of TS Eliot, James Joyce, Yeats and others with the literary tradition, 20th century history and each other. I found the course stimulating, even if at times I felt confused about who the professor was linking with whom. The best part for me was Lecture 2, where he explained how TS Eliot's philosophical work at Harvard anticipated and paralleled Ludwig Wittgenstein's later work. This was a revelation to me, as I studied Wittgenstein in graduate school. I knew that Eliot had quit philosophy for literature, but I did not realize that he was the star of the philosophy department and yet rejected the field after coming to understand the intellectual hollowness of the philosophical tradition. The professor mentioned that he'd had access to Eliot's unpublished Harvard-era writings, and this added to the sense of revelation I felt on this topic. I also appreciated his keen dissection of the political leanings of the men under discussion. The other lecture that made a big impression on me was the one on why modernist drama usually fell flat, as it struggled with the preconceptions and tastes of bourgeois audiences. I can recommend this course only to those who have a decent background in 20th century literature. You needn't have read all the works under discussion but you should already know the major players.
Date published: 2020-09-20
Date published: 2020-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Is Why I Listen to The Great Courses! I am so glad I purchased this series of lectures. I did so on a whim - but the resulting experience has left me delving deeper into modern literature and THINKING about the works in context of the many authors and their times. Be aware - the professor is speaking deliberately, and quickly, and this is a classroom lecture. I find ALL of these things to be GOOD qualities, so I found the course quiet accessible and appealing. Like a true college course, the professor was assuming I came to think, and thus expects the listener to make the effort to come up to his level. This is truly a college-level course, and some lifting is necessary on the listener's part. But if the subject is one that intrigues you, the presenter makes it worth your while to make the effort. The professor displays excellent teaching skills. Though he is moving quickly through his subject, he creates the necessary scaffolding to help participants learn. He delineates his intended path, and he repeats his important points to ensure you get the importance of his point. He also circles back to sum his thoughts on his conclusions. Thus, though the pace of the talk is brisk, I do not see that as a problem. (I did take advantage of the technology to replay a point or two – which is another reason I enjoy taking classes this way.) In short, I found these classes stimulating, insightful, and rewarding. Prior to this course, I think my level of engagement with many modern literature works was that of a passenger on a tour bus, simply viewing the events the authors were describing, rather than feeling them. Thanks to this course, I am far more involved in the emotions of these works. At the very least, I feel I have been introduced to the works in a more intimate way than ever before. Thank you, Professor Perl, and to The Great Courses for making it possible for me to experience these classes, and read these works with a new appreciation.
Date published: 2018-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How Literature Should Be Taught This all-too-brief series takes literature seriously! Jeffrey Perl trusts his audience to understand complex concepts: it's not just about poems and novels but about the ideas and struggles behind them, the politics and ethics they confront or evade, their relationship to the 'real world'. At the end of the splendid eighth lecture (and, by the way, the old 45-minute format works perfectly here) I am eager to go back and refamiliarize myself with the original works of Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Pound and Beckett, as well as non-Anglophone writers whom Dr Perl did not have time to cover. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2018-05-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Short and Dense As many other reviewers Professor Perl makes the assumption that his audience has considerable familiarity with his subject: Literary Modernism. For example he begins at the start of Lecture 1, assuming that his students have read (and understood) William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wagon”, as well as being reasonably familiar with the writings of T. S. Elliot. Now there is nothing wrong with this, but be advised this is the opposite of a survey course. Dr. Perl continues his course in the same vein, beginning by contrasting and defining (thankfully) “paleomoderism” and “neomodernism”. If esoteric discussions of this kind, leave you cold, this is not the course for you. However should you be intrigued, purchase the course right away. In six lectures, Professor Perl covers the writings (and philosophy) of Elliot, Yeats, James, Pound, Lawrence, Joyce, finally winding up with (post-modernists) Beckett and Waugh. Even though I have read most of the authors mentioned, some more extensively than others, I often felt almost lost, listening to Professor Perl’s analysis and discourse. At least, my decision to not delve into Pound seems vindicated. And my inability to get very far into “Finnegan’s Wake” appears to be less of my own failing than I had previously thought. I’ll listen to this course again, but to be honest, I’m not at all sure that I’m prepared to study works I don’t much like (such as “The Wasteland”), something that really seems necessary to get the full benefit from this course. Caveat Emptor
Date published: 2017-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Astounding To deliver a course of lectures that has the same narrative grip as the texts it discusses is some achievement. The intellectual sweep is vast and immensely satisfying, with an almost edge-of-the-seat quality. The Teaching Company have given us many superb courses over the years, but for my money, this surpasses all others. The tragedy is that one searches in vain for other audio courses by Professor Perl, either here or anywhere else, which is all the more reason for treasuring this absolute gem.
Date published: 2017-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not for beginners, but awesome! To repeat what many of the other reviewers here have said, this is not a course for beginners; it absolutely assumes you have some background knowledge of 20th C literature and history. Here's how I approached it, and I think these are the issues to keep in mind to get the most value from the course: There is a strain of thought (especially prominent in the English-speaking world) that considers history to be, at least since the Industrial Revolution, an almost monotonic improvement in the condition of the lives of most people. This strain of thought likes to brand much of the world as "mad" and/or "evil" (Hippies - mad, Germans - evil, Cambodians - mad, Islamic Terrorists - evil, and so on) because, strangely, they do not agree with this assessment of history. You as a student have two choices. You can unthinkingly accept the pronouncements of wider Anglo society. Or you can try to dig deeper to understand these alternative currents - why would someone write a book called "Civilization and its Discontents"? Or a book called "The Decline of the West"? Why would the Italian Futurists talk about airplanes but actually glory in aristocracy and death? Given these background ideas, I think the course will make a lot more sense. It circles around these concepts, trying to show how Literary Modernism encompassed many different strands, some of which were, in fact, deeply resentful of how modernity had up-ended the choicelessness of the past, while others gloried in the choices that were now opened up; and that the traditional ways in which "Modernists" are lumped together (apparently based on nothing but "doesn't write like 19th Century authors") is not very helpful for understanding their literary output, or their social goals.
Date published: 2016-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep Waters Audio Download. This was a fantastic course, but it's not for everyone, and it is an anomaly among the Great Courses literature lectures I have taken. The topic is literary modernism, but it's modernism not through a survey of great works but by having select modernist writers and their works emerge from within a rich historical, philosophical, aesthetic and finally ethical context. There are stunning literary readings along the way (e.g. The Wasteland, Ulysses, The Beast in the Jungle, St. Mawr, The Loved One, Not I) just wonderfully chosen and explicated to unfold the themes of classical modernism and reactions against it. The course reaches a highpoint for me in the final two lectures on the modernists' responses to the Spanish War, fascism, and the Second World War. Having said all that, the course is dense with ideas, akin to an advanced university course. I can see where it is not for those who don't want to really swim or sink in such a specialized topic. But I think Professor Perl is a wonderful lecturer, and I loved this course.
Date published: 2016-03-25
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