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 33.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! I don't really feel competent to "review" this course; it is the most challenging of the 60+ I've bought. Whole sections are going to require more listening. I've listened to half of the lectures so far, and been fascinated all the way through. This is dense material - full of insights and unfamiliar connections. Perl has not connected the dots (or made it easy for us to connect them ourselves). He has filled an aural space with ideas....ideas....ideas, flooding out, filling the space. It's up to us to find order in what appears to be the chaos of unfamiliar ideas. I have been listening to Perl's voice while running -- not sure it's a good idea to listen to material this demanding while traversing rural dirt roads -- but it's exhilarating. Exciting. ------- BTW - I picked this up on a combination of discounts; the low price encouraged me to explore unknown territory. Thank you TGC!
Date published: 2015-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating even on third visit Professor Perl is an expert in his field, and I thoroughly enjoy the way he brings philosophical ideas and historical context into these lectures on literature. i readily admit that many of the lectures are dense and even difficult, but I love a challenge and find that the lectures lead me to investigate works for the first time or with a new perspective (especially Neitzsche). I teach Modernist literature in sophomore-level college courses, though it is outside my expertise. I use Dr. Perl's lectures to add depth and insight to my own lectures and assignments. I am happy to say that my students love the material, even to the point of wrestling with "Four Quartets" on their own. For my money, I prefer professors whose intellectual sharpness and expertise are matched by clear, lively presentation--this is why I buy TC courses--and this one truly delivers. it's the real deal: rigorous, passionate, profound. Even on the third time through.
Date published: 2015-04-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Gems in the Rough Professor Perl says early in the course that the effects of the Depression and the Second World War were seen by modernists as signs of a nervous breakdown and that the literary modernists were there to serve, in part, as therapists to help the world deal with it. In my own study and thought, I have come to the view that many of these literary and philosophical modernists actually did far more to contribute to the breakdown and the damage it caused than provide any sort of cure or therapy. There's nothing in Perl's course that changes my mind. in fact, I leave this course more convinced than ever of the truth of my hypothesis. The bizarre and schizophrenic politics of many of these writers, especially Ezra Pound, is nothing but baffling. How can one take the thought or writing of such a character seriously when he goes off in such ridiculous and destructive directions in his own public and political life? I realize that writers get to change course in their careers, but Perl's vivid accounts of the many twists and turns in the life of T.S. Eliot, for example, are eye-opening. One is led to wonder if there was any solid sort of foundation there in Eliot and how seriously one should take any one of his many and diverse moments of absolute certainty. There is a whole lot more of value in the course to me that its informing my hypothesis. Perl does a fine job of using the differences in neomodernism and paleomodernism to teach important distinctions within modernism. His teaching on Ulysses was fascinating and added real value to my understanding. I was intrigued to learn more about the failure of modernism in drama and on the stage. I, also, appreciated getting to Perl's account of Beckett's response to the atrocity of the century (and, as I believe it, the confusion and inadequacy of modernism to the moment). I would give the course five stars, but I believe the professor frequently falls terribly short in creating a solid and necessary context for learning. His frequent allusions to literature he doesn't really teach and the student likely doesn't know leaves the student in the lurch. Further, especially in the early lectures, the professor gets to views and conclusions that are not constructed on a foundation where the student can either understand the basis for them or make a judgment about their strength. It could be that many in the audience know enough to handle the professor's intellectual shortcuts. But, I suspect that many who buy and take this course and who are pretty well read and pretty smart will have difficulty with this. Having made that criticism, I want to conclude though that there are real gems here. The professor should be commended for them, and the learner will benefit from them.
Date published: 2014-12-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I've listened to many lectures from the Great Courses. This is one of the very best. Well worth the investment.
Date published: 2014-12-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Literary Modernism I liked this course. There were technical problems--serious technical problems--in the digital version that made me finally say I can't do it. I was disappointed because I surely did want to do every bit of it. That said, there are courses where you have the feeling that the professor is the 'vessel' for the tradition, that is, in numerous philosophy courses you know the professor may himself actually feel drawn to this point of view or that, but s/he still represents the canon with great great integrity. I think particularly of Daniel N. Robinson. As much as I was enjoying this course, the professor's point of view colored the whole thing... he took a side. Still, I understood that and was enjoying this course. Fix the problem with the digital download and I'll be able to finish it!
Date published: 2014-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant The best explanation of how and why centuries of philosophical inquiry collapsed into Literary Criticism with the rise of modernism. If your understanding of the last 100 years of Philosophy is limited to Sartre you might be overwhelmed. You should probably listen to Course 295: From Plato to Post-modernism as a prerequisite. My only criticism is that the course is too short it needs another 8 lectures at least. One of my top 5 courses and I have over 100.
Date published: 2013-12-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not for the Uninitiated [Audio] This is definitely one of the tougher TC courses I've listened to. Warning: You'll need to be pretty familiar with the texts discussed - this is not an intro-level, idiots guide to literary modernity. I found that I was not familiar enough with the material, and was pretty much lost after 3 or 4 lectures. That said, the first lecture I did find less esoteric and did get a lot out of. I don't consider myself a philistine, but I had to laugh at the way the professor presented the material at times. He delivered it so seriously and emphatically, as if the 100 year old debate between neo- and paleo- modernist poetry was a matter of life and death. I'm sure these things are serious matters for members of English literature departments - I guess that's their bread and butter - but for the interested layman it comes across as a bit silly.
Date published: 2013-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Perl Has Pearls of Wisdom for You! Breathtaking course. Rich, complex, intellectual, inspiring. Dr. Perl is a superb lecturer. Precise organization, excellent outlines, all leading to new insights and clarity. The lecture on Joyce was astonishing, the best I've heard on Ulysses. Ever. A classic TTC course that you should not miss if you love literature, drama, art and intellectual movements. Highest recommendation!
Date published: 2012-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Favorite I've completed more than 80 Teaching Company courses and this one is still my favorite. I had written a testimonial for this course in 2005 which appeared on this page until The Teaching Company changed the design of its website. I'm not sure if I can quote from it. This 'course' is a recording of Professor Perl's Smithsonian Associates lectures in 1990. It wasn't a planned series produced in conjunction with The Teaching Company.
Date published: 2012-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Best I have bought over a hundred Teaching Company courses and this is absolutely my favorite. Must be listened too several times.
Date published: 2012-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Challenging My goal in listening to “Literary Modernism” was to become more familiar with an area of 20th century intellectual history to which I had little prior exposure. While a true appreciation of the course presupposes (at least some) knowledge of the works discussed Professor Perl kept my attention by putting the authors and their works in the political, cultural and philosophical context of their time, in other words, there was always enough “surrounding”, contextual material not to become frustrated from my ignorance of the literary works. As an example: I particularly liked the discussion of T. S. Eliot’s dissertation and early philosophy. The course will be, I suppose, challenging even for those who, short of being truly conversant in modernist literature, are generally familiar with the works and authors discussed here. If, like me, you are not, the course will likely be daunting but should never be frustrating. The fact that I have not read “Ulysses” may make the lecture on Joyce’s work somewhat incomprehensible to me (and it is) but that is not Professor Perl’s fault and, this is the key for giving the course five stars, his presentation, here as for the other authors, was such that I felt, were I to read “Ulysses”, I would want to come back to these lectures and engage in a meaningful discussion with his interpretation. The only criticism concerns the guide book: it is extremely slim and does not enable one to recapitulate the complexity of the lectures. As a final remark: I agree with other reviewers that, if you are looking for a general overview of modern literature, this is probably not the course to start with.
Date published: 2011-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More from Dr. Perl Please I don't understand the reviews that criticize this course for its complexity and depth - aren't those the qualities that makes its subject matter so great? Listen to it a second and third time - I promise that you will be rewarded with new insights and connections that you missed the first time - especially if you are new to the subject matter.
Date published: 2011-07-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Dense, Technical. Limited The course description says of the professor that "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." Umm . . . no. I majored in English, and I wanted to refresh my knowledge of "modernism." I thought that's what this course would do. Instead it was an extremely specialized look at the philosophical influences on T.S. Eliot's poetry. If the course had been billed that way, then it would have been fine. But I should warn potential buyers that this is a dense and specialized course. It's not even a good introduction to T.S. Eliot and is instead more appropriate to someone who already knows a good deal about Eliiot's poetry and who is comfortable with a discussion of twentieth century philosophy. It's quite a departure from the usual offerings from The Teaching Company--at least in the humanities--which presume from its listeners a sort of general liberal arts background but not a specialized knowledge. Again, there's nothing wrong with this, but the course is extremely mis-advertised. I wish that the Teaching Company would offer a more general and accessible course on literary modernism--or maybe one that combined modernism and post-modernism--or maybe even a course in literary movements in general.
Date published: 2010-08-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting, but Limited Scope This course provides some interesting information on noteworthy authors, however I did not receive the "big picture" view of this subject as I normally expect in the courses that I have purchased from the Teaching Company. I felt that at times, the professor was reading notes from a script instead of teaching me about the subject. I suppose that the content would be very meaningful to literature majors, but coming from a technical background, I was lost in the detail.
Date published: 2010-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deep and Riveting This is easily my favorite of the six Teaching Company courses I've purchased, though it may not be for everyone. Dr. Perl delves deep into a wide range of texts -- far deeper than the instructors of the other courses I've taken -- to extract key moments and ideas that he builds point by point into a vivid and fascinating picture of competing modernisms. Dr. Perl is both a true expert and a original thinker in his field. Over several years I've gone back to these lectures time and again, always to discover some new element that reignites my interest and revivifies my curiosity. I strongly suggest making an effort to read the texts that correspond with the lectures.
Date published: 2010-01-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Erudite but dense I have purchased numerous courses from The Teaching Company in the past, and they are generally well worth the money. The professors are insightful and interesting, and they make the material accessible. I found the material in this course to be quite dense, and the professor did not make it easy to understand, even for someone who has a fair understanding of literature and literary movements. The professor clearly knows the material, but his method of presentation was opaque due to his extensive use of jargon and the complexity of his sentences. His examples were difficult to follow and did not always illuminate the concepts. I also listened to "From Plato to Post-modernism" by Prof. Markos, which was quite accessible by comparison. It must be noted that I purchased the CD version; perhaps the DVD version is better.
Date published: 2009-12-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting but narrow Anyone considering this course should know that it is a very limited examination of modernism. The first several lectures, for instance, deal extensively with T.S. Eliot, but they only discuss one small poem. The entire rest of the discussion is given over to Eliot's dissertation, which gets more lecture time than The Waste Land. And much that falls at the edges of this argument is quite distorted. For instance, at one point he lumps Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams together as an opposing camp of poets. A quick glance at any of their work will show you that such a comparison deserves more than a dismissive comment. On the whole, the argument he is making is narrow, somewhat specialized, and certainly debatable. If you know that going in and are still curious, it is certainly an interesting series of lectures, and they are well-delivered.
Date published: 2009-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great for a trip! I listened to these lectures while sewing and can't wait for my husband to travel again and listen to them in the car. EXCELLENT! I knew Ezra Pound by name and to answer a crossword puzzle but otherwise had no idea. I knew a bit more about T. S. Elliot because I read about him in another book but not the historical part of his life, only the literature. My next step is to listen to James Joyce Teaching Company course to learn more about him and the influence on other writers. Dr. Perl is succinct, VERY easy to understand at all times, enthusiastic, poses questions then proceeds to answer them and spellbinding! I sewed 3 hours straight without knowing it I was so wrapped up in the lectures. Highly recommend this course even if you know nothing about any of these authors as there is a historical perspective as well. Top notch!
Date published: 2009-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best! I preferred to listen to Dr. Perl over others. His pace, informativeness, enthusiasm, and professionalism set a model for courses offered by the Teaching Company. The three-quarters of an hour seemed like half an hour.
Date published: 2009-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The philosophy of Eliot, Pound and Williams I listened to this course on audio. If you have a passion for the origins of modernism - particularly T.S. Eliot and Williams this is a unique course that you will enjoy. If you are looking for a broad literary overview of modernism, another course might be more appropriate. Perl's presentation is an intense, detailed, philosophical treatment of the ideas of modernism in literature. For example, he discusses Eliot's days a philosophy graduate student and how that experience influenced his views on literature and culture. He discusses the differences between those poets that use arcane references and inscrutable ideas and those that use more homely techniques. I found it to be one of the most focused courses the teaching company offers. If you are interested in those authors you'll likely love the course.
Date published: 2009-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bring Jeffrey Perl back for more lectures I love his ideas and approach to literature. We need more!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All tems. Dr. Perl was exceptional. Enlightening, very stimulating. Much more than I'd expected--or hoped for.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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