In Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time recently someone remarked that the constant unannounced shifts of apparent speaker in The Waste Land make it read like the script for a radio play (a genre not yet invented in 1922).
The general idea that’s regularly put forward about the changing and indeterminate voice in modernist literary works is that it reflects the nature of experience in the new world of modernity, particularly after the First World War. We’d lost the Victorian sense of the security and stability of self and world and now experienced ourselves as constituted by the confusing diversity of discourses that passed through us.
I've never quite recognised that account of our experience. I don’t think I've ever experienced myself as an unstable assemblage of discourses; at the most I sometimes find my ‘inner speech’ incorporating quotes or enacting some style I've picked up from a speaker or writer. Certainly, it took me well into adulthood to arrive at a stable way of speaking – which accent was me, what register – but it was never as if there was no originating centre. It may actually be the case that in some sense we’re made out of the discourses we live amongst, but I never experienced myself like that.
Is the difference between Eliot and me simply that nearly a century has passed since 1922 and that by now we’re used to modernity with its cacophony of voices and its loss of a dominant authoritative voice – the confident enunciator we meet in the sentences of Victorian prose? Very obviously, with the 20th century intellectuals did experience a profound change of ambience: ‘On or about December 1910 human character changed,’ wrote Virginia Woolf. Authoritative discourse no longer had its source in one ruling class but was dispersed – Bakhtin’s heteroglossia; one discourse was always ironised by juxtaposition with another. So writers’ sentences were less inclined to comport themselves as pronouncements of the last word and more inclined to be expressions of ‘what I'm thinking at the moment’ or presentations of possibly thinkable thoughts to which the author is making no definite commitment and in which only tentative illocutionary force is invested: i.e. the guy isn’t actually going to so far as himself saying what his sentences are saying.
Here’s the contrast as described by Bonamee Dobree in 1934 (Modern Prose Style). He quotes a ‘typical piece of nineteenth-century prose’ and says that
‘in its way it is excellent. But the rhythms and inflections are quite different from those of today: it consists, not of thoughts closely followed, not of ideas suggested, but of utterances, of pronouncements….we have the end-stopped phrase: there is a door banged at the end of each, and we feel as though we were on parade receiving orders.’ (225)
l like what Dobree says about what’s going on here (220-21):
‘To say, then, that the hall-mark of good modern prose style is an essential fidelity does not imply that writers of previous generations were charlatans and liars, only that they owed fidelity to other things. And it is here that the spirit of our age imposes itself upon our style. All the previous ages whose writers have been quoted or referred to here had something they could take for granted, and it never occurred to the older writers that they could not take themselves for granted. We can be sure of nothing; our civilization is threatened, even the simplest things we live by: we are on the verge of amazing changes. In our present confusion our only hope is to be scrupulously honest with ourselves, so honest as to doubt our own minds and the conclusions they arrive at. Most of us have ceased to believe, except provisionally, in truths, and we feel that what is important is not so much truth as the way our minds move towards truths. Therefore, to quote M. Cocteau again, 'Form must be the form of the mind. Not a way of saying things, but of thinking them. Perhaps that Is why we nowadays instinctively mistrust any one who pontificates: and, as a matter of experience, if we examine the writings of the pontificators, people skilled in 'a way of saying things', we invariably find that their style is bad, that falsity has crept in somewhere. The writer is not being faithful to the movement of his mind; he is taking things for granted, and he fills us of to-day with uneasiness.
‘We have, then, to judge of the integrity of a modern writer by this sense of himself that we feel he has. If we are to respond, he must (we suppose) be aware of himself as something a little uncertain in this shifting universe: he also is part of the material which he has to treat with respect: he must listen to himself, so to speak, to hear what he has to say. He must not pre- judge, or force an issue: we must be able to imagine that he is talking to himself. In no other way can he achieve a style, which is the sound of his voice, which is the man himself.’
Well, by the time we get to my generation we’ve got used to being sure of nothing – we’ve never known any other condition. So it’s understandable that we don’t identify with the sense of shock, disorientation and confusion that early modernist works are held to express.
On the other hand, it may be that those works aren’t expressing states of mind so much representing the state of the world, that they’re not saying the mind is made up of fragments but asserting that art must now, like our world, be made out of fragments, including, for Eliot, the usable remains of older cultures.
One result is works of wonderful beauty. The quotes from former ages in Eliot, and in Pound’s Cantos, glow like jewels set in drab material. The lines are enhanced by being lifted from their original contexts and stripped of their enunciatory function: we’re enabled to contemplate them as objects in their own right.