Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism

By Jewel Spears Brooker | Go to book overview

Modernism and Belligerence

With Skepticism and Modern Enmity, Jeffrey M. Perl has emerged as a major analyst and chronicler of Western culture. His first book, The Tradition of Return: The Implicit History of Modern Literature ( 1984), was a painstaking examination of post-Renaissance culture with attention to the ideology that was institutionalized by Burckhardt in the nineteenth century--the ideology of rebirth or return. Perl's account of the dynamic between cultural change and the simultaneous commitment to ancient texts / values, with Ulysses as his major case study, culminated in penetrating insights about the mindscape of the early part of this century. The Tradition of Return concludes with an open invitation for someone to join the author and others in a sustained conversation on the meaning of the structure within modern cultural politics.

Perl's new book, Skepticism and Modern Enmity, opens with a poignant allusion to that invitation: "G0iven the silence that is the condition of our working lives, we respond, each, to our own invitations."1 For the listener fortunate enough to be within earshot, the Perl-to- Perl conversation brings a brilliant analysis of twentieth-century ideological struggles. Perl calls his project a description of modern ambivalence and a history of the enmities through which this ambivalence has been expressed. Enmity in modern culture is not so much a result of the inability to reach consensus, he claims, but of the deep need to evade it, to evade that perfect consensus that would be, in the language of T. S. Eliot, annihilation and utter night. Perl expects to continue exploring modern conflict and consensus in future vol-

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1
Jeffrey Perl, Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and After Eliot ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), xiv.

-207-

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