Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Jean Paulhan and the Nouvelle Revue Francaise: Modernist Editor, Modernist Review?

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Jean Paulhan and the Nouvelle Revue Francaise: Modernist Editor, Modernist Review?

Article excerpt

The Nouvelle Revue francaise: a Modernist Review?

Jason Harding, in the opening pages of his book on T.S. Eliot's The Criterion, the review created by the poet in 1922, writes: "in common with Nouvelle Revue francaise, whom it resembled in appearance, experimental modernism was set inside the case of a great European review." (1) This provides a clear example of the ready assumption that the French monthly review La Nouvelle Revue francaise constituted a clear and unambiguous model for Eliot to emulate in his quest to propagate his own brand of "experimental modernism." The fact that the NRF had been founded in Paris by writers around Andre Gide, in late 1908 and into 1909, a pivotal moment in the history of European modernism, was sufficient for an Anglo-American writer and critic such as Eliot to recognize the NRF as a beacon of European modernism. Moreover, the Columbia University professor Justin O'Brien, in his introduction to a book of translated extracts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the review's foundation, wrote that no other periodical symbolized the modern European twentieth century better than the NRF. (2) Eliot, celebrated since as a paragon of European modernism, paid tribute to the NRF by basing his own periodical on the French review, to which he himself submitted three "Lettres d'Angleterre" in May and December 1922, and again in November 1923. One may--and should--challenge Harding's assertion, because the words "experimental modernism" beg many questions. Modernism is a word charged with different emphases, nuances or meanings. But let us continue for a moment. In the words of the critic Michael Levenson,

   If we look for a mark of modernism's coming of age, the founding of
   the Criterion in 1922 may prove a better instance than The Waste
   Land, better even than Ulysses, because it exemplifies the
   institutionalization of the movement, the accession to cultural
   legitimacy. (3)

Once again, as Harding himself asserts, much of this sentence is problematic.

Apart from the chronological assumptions, the terms "institutionalization" and "cultural legitimacy" invite debate.

It is true that cultural relativism represents an underlying problem here, which may be exemplified by a point raised by Michel Beaujour at the conference in New York and reported in Le Monde. Why should the history of the NRF be conceived according to American critical canons, especially that of "modernism," asked Beaujour. It is precisely because the "Anglo-Saxon world" [sic] looked specifically to Paris and at some of the reviews published there, to keep abreast of "modernist" cultural trends. (4) In spite of the problematic nature of this cultural relativism, differences which have led some French commentators to avoid the word "modernisme" altogether and to prefer the word modernite, let us consider it within the context of European cultural modernism, as does Walter Gobbers in his bilingual introduction to a voluminous collection of work on the question. (5) Here Gobbers draws a distinction between the "avant-garde" and "modernism" which is helpful for our discussion of the NRF:

   Cette opposition entre modernite/modernisme et avant-garde permet
   evidemment d'accentuer davantage les nuances, voire les differences
   entre les deux : l'avant-garde se distinguerait alors par son
   extremisme et son nihilisme radical, par le caractere absolu de son
   experimentalisme et surtout par le progressisme de son engagement
   et de sa contestation socio-politique ; la litterature moderniste,
   par contre, serait plus intellectualiste, plus rationnelle et plus
   psychologisante que celle de l'avant-garde. (6)

So if, by 1922, the NRF is recognized by Eliot as a significant arbiter and mediator of the modern, or of modernism, as we shall see it also retained conservative, traditional, even anti-modernist elements (one example of this is the space given to Julien Benda (7)). …

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