What was modernism? Inter alia, it was anarchism, nihilism, apocalyptism, imperialism, masculinism, psychologism, skepticism, and primitivism: The list goes on, swelling in that sharply worded phantasmagoria we call literary history, collapsing any simplifying hierarchy but nonetheless swallowing up the slim contingent of Victorian hopefulnesses we know by the names liberalism, humanism, and progressivism. Liberal humanist progressives now trying to make peace with illiberal forms of postmodernism - the people Richard Rorty playfully calls "postmodern bourgeois liberals" - may be surprised to learn that modernism was an even more indomitable foe of liberalism than post-modernism now is. How did liberalism survive into the present? they might ask. As if the list offered above were not overwhelming enough, one can cite other lists.(1) One can make a list of such lists, and the effect is to sharpen our sense that, however we factor modernism, it was inexorable, even irresistible; it did not negotiate, it propagated. Lest one wonder whether such an image of modernism is but the self-serving fantasy of an antimodernist present, one needs to ask, what about the liberal humanist progressives who are not looking back on modernism but who faced it? How did modernism appear to them, and how did it appear to their opponents, the modernists themselves, and to these modernists' most devoted critics? All seem to agree: Modernist ironies were so apocalyptic that they had to be fought or fled, but whether fought or fled they were bound to eradicate even the staunchest humanist pieties.(2)
Such an image of modernist apocalyptism is itself apocalyptic, and this essay, like several other recent studies of modernism, is devoted to challenging it. Few literary historians seem to think that Edwardian and early modernist writers could eradicate modernist intimations, but several have recently claimed that modernist apocalyptism was not so implacable that it could not be answered or annulled - or at least contained or circumvented (see Wollaeger, Levenson, and Longenbach). In attempting to add weight to this argument, I shall examine an early novel by E. M. Forster, one whose circumvention of the modern is the more illuminating for its being unusually complicated, obscure, and only partially successful: The Longest Journey (1907). A new look at this odd and unpretentious novel may surprise literary historians with the thought that modernism, even at its advent, was not ineluctable.
Of course, Forster in 1907 was anticipating an arrival as much as he was addressing a familiar and nameable presence. One cannot be sure even that he would have called it "modernism," though in Journey he does speak of "the modern spirit" (290). But as Alan Wilde (1981) argues ("That Forster is a modernist . . . needs perhaps to be stressed" ), to ignore Forster's modernism is as ahistorical as discounting his humanism. The most historically sensitive study will respect the integrity of both and put them in tense relation, thereby bringing together readings that have tended to negate each other. On the one hand, liberal humanist critics have sometimes regarded the novel as a coherently Edwardian entity, one that celebrates the English countryside as Brookean salve for what Thomas Hardy in Tess called "the ache of modernism" (144). Though Forster tends to discourage this virtually mythological reading when he describes the composition of the novel as a case of disorderly conduct - "Thoughts and emotions collided if they did not always co-operate" ("Aspect of a Novel" ) - John Colmer is not the only critic who believes that Forster managed to unify his rational satire ("thoughts") with that antithetical entity, prophecy ("emotions") and managed to make skepticism consort with romanticism.(3) On the other hand, and at the other end of the critical spectrum, is a virtually existentialist Forsterian like Barbara Rosecrance, for whom no such magisterial Forster emerges. Rather, out of the satire enforcing the myth is born an "ironist" element, one whose intimations of psychic and natural chaos ultimately attack the myth, rendering the Edwardian au naturel a fool - l'homme de paille. As I shall argue, this is the kind of ironism persuasively distinguished by Alan Wilde (1981) from post-modern and traditional forms of ironism and identified as specifically "modernist." When Rosecrance's argument tends to subsume Colmer's, we are witnessing then a local Forsterian recapitulation of the grand recit by which the rough beast of modernism slouches into the picture and swallows humanism whole.
But between the humanist and the modernist is another position, one that suddenly emerges when we take seriously Forster's own sense that neither thoughts nor emotions, both of which got out of hand, ever got the upper hand. In The Longest Journey, Forster remarked, he "managed to get nearer than elsewhere towards . . . that junction of mind and heart where the creative impulse sparks" ("Aspect" 1230). The suggestion is that we regard the novel as an instance of fiction in the "junction," fiction that is unusually radical, unstable, electric, and creative, and that presents a complex textual process. Certainly Journey is such a novel; it "presents an extremely dense clash of visions" (Crews 51). As we will see, Forster's Edwardian mythist chafes against his newborn, incipient ironist/modernist, their friction sparking yet another mode, one that is comedic (and antimodernist) but one whose agent is too weak to resurrect the satirist from the modernist and stop the latter from discrediting the mythist. In the end, as we shall also see, the comedic mode thereby creates its own occasion to turn into the pragmatic, a mode that saves the mythic not by reconstituting the myth's psychic and natural foundations but by hearkening to its practical usefulness. It is a complicated drama, admittedly, and it may be aesthetically confusing, even debilitating. But to recognize this instability of modes and movements is not to denigrate the novel but to distinguish it as one of the most purely transitional documents of its time. Which is to say, to study Journey is to approach an important margin in literary history.
Given its surprising complications, we must approach the novel cautiously. To simplify our account of the drama for the sake of any particular "topography," as Carolyn Porter calls each final and perforce exclusionary reading of a work, will obscure the play of meaning that makes this novel so illuminating.(4) To read Journey as a transitional text, then, as a "flat discursive field" (Porter 265 ff.) on which certain maneuvers of literary history might be witnessed, is to "neutralize" "the essentialist logic of [any one of] modernity's emancipatory projects" (267) - or, we might add, any of its ironist projects. Accordingly, my method in what follows will be to resist the impulse to an ultimate and exclusive meaning, whether it be the emancipatory myth of Edwardian psychic and natural unity or the ironist intuition of fragmentation.
The length of the journey behind him, Rickie Elliot has left his wife, Agnes, and his school, Sawston. Having departed with his illegitimate brother, the clowning, drinking Stephen Wonham, he has left behind what is common to both Agnes and Sawston, a "type of existence" (169) profoundly "conventional" (266). Where does he now stand? For Rickie, Stephen embodies the "real" beauty of natural "facts" (252). To take his stand with Stephen is to join the "real" in its defiance of the conventional. That is why Rickie at length believes that he "stood behind things at last, and knew that conventions . . . will not claim us in the end" (298). At his most Hegelian, Rickie even imagines that this Wiltshire earth brother and his Edwardian "type" may one day not merely evade Sawston conventionalism but even triumph over it - with, we should note, the help of the Cambridge intellect that Rickie judges to be equally beyond him.
In the end, though, this image of the real must submit itself to brute contingencies, and Rickie, too, must stand the test. Accordingly, at Wiltshire on his last visit, Forster takes pains to have Stephen do something distinctly unheroic: Having promised Rickie that he will not drink at all, Stephen drinks so much that "He can't stand" (301), and Rickie, too, falls. Stalking off angrily, not just his faith in Stephen but also his faith in "the earth" having collapsed, Rickie judges that he has not been standing "behind things" but beyond them: "The whole affair," he judges, "was a ridiculous dream" (303).
The Edwardian suggestion is that Rickie misapprehends "the earth" just as surely as he mishandles that lump of clay he accidentally drops on Emily Failing's china cup. Stephen's broken word is but a venial betrayal of any heroic ideal, but the most precious, the sort that cannot stand up to earthy passions. Other events also suggest that Rickie's compulsion to repudiate Stephen tells us more about Rickie than about Stephen; indeed, the compulsion is characterized even very early in the novel as the symptom of a deeply rooted addiction. Forster in his role as Edwardian satirist suggests that symbolism, even when it takes the form of a relatively painless habit, ends in revulsion: revulsion from the disenchanted object, from the urge to symbolize, from the symbolizing self. If such revulsion surfaces in the last event of Rickie's life, even the first act of characterization ill Journey demonstrates the pattern. Here Rickie undertakes the first of many joyous imaginative …