One of the things that intrigues me about the modernists is the agedness that breathes out of their work. There is a great weariness about The Wasteland, an ancient ebbing of vitality. Modernism always seems to me a movement for old men. Was TS Eliot ever young? Think of the weariness of James Joyce’s Dubliners. You might subtitle it Stories by an Old Man. Think of Brideshead, that long drawn-out farewell to youth, that sad remembrance. The works of Faulkner seem to me the works of an old man. The evidence might be selected selectively. No doubt it is at least limited. I realize it is an impression and for the observation that rests on it rather on the fleeting side. Still it seems to me that modernism was always an aged movement.
The older we grow, the more we resemble death. There is upon old people the look of an unending Hallowe’en: we see the living masks; the skeletons emerge; the flesh sags away; faces are made strange. Nowadays old people take on the attributes of androids gradually as the doctors put gadgets inside them or replace living parts. This also seems to me another way to resemble death; we prop up vitality with machines and spare parts.
And we ought to admit that upon every human being is the look of death, especially in the light of November. Our flesh is falling away from our skeleton, I thought as I sat in a conference room watching the people to keep from getting bored by what they were saying. When we are not smiling our skin back onto our bones it is falling away, and you can see it. In the dreary activities of labor we are seldom animated. Perhaps never. But in the lofty activities of leisure we are animated, and our flesh returns to our skeletons a while; we get a glimpse of spirit. When I distracted the conversation from business there was some animation for a while—till we returned to business with a look of death.
I do not say there is not an animation without vitality. But the animation I speak of is not the bizarre animation of someone talking volubly and fast about an irrelevancy we will all abandon at the stroke of the weekend. It is the animation you see in people performing upon musical instruments.
Reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory one seeks for the power and the glory in the story. There is the power of the writer and the glory of his skill. How many luminous moments can a novel have? How many quotidian situations in the dust and squalor of Mexico can be rendered so they are fraught with significance? How quickly he can turn a conversation into a searchlight of the soul! Graham Greene has the power to show a sight of the significance of man without using very remarkable characters at all. There’s glory for you.
The novel is set in the days when the redshirts were killing Catholic priests in an effort to eradicate religion. The story is the story of a Catholic priest. It is full of a humanist theologizing; it is full of everything that makes a thoughtful and un-academical exploration of religion interesting. “Who was he,” the priest asks himself at one point, “To disbelieve in miracles?” If anything you see the power and the glory of the meanings of Christianity, especially when these are denied; the denial is what makes the Christian meanings of the habits of the priest’s life more significant.
The power and the glory echo in the heat and silence of the story. With all the Christian elements in the story you cannot help thinking, For thine is the kingdom and . . .
The tale is of a long and utter defeat. It is the kind of defeat that is not only suffered but is also accepted to the point of complete humiliation. At this point in the story (which I have not yet finished) the priest picks up a Gideon Bible and reads through the suggestion it contains: if tired of sin read Psalm 51, etc. (Tolle Lege the children sang. And St. Augustine read. It is not the same with what the priest reads inside that Gideon Bible. There is something about the laundry list which cannot ever sing). The comical inadequacy of these glib exhortations, so uncomprehending, so unaffected with the tragedy of the human condition, is well rendered.
The thing about the Modernists is that with almost superhuman effort they found metaphors—they strained for the objective correlative and succeeded. They understood the end they sought; they worked mightily for means, and by the time they laid hold of the means to achieve the ends they were exhausted.
They were great for attempting and great for succeeding; the first is power and the last is glory. The Modernists were the last old men before the rest were compromised with evanescent youth, for a popular culture is a culture of youth, and Modernism was the attempt to preserve high culture by dissevering it by means or erudition from the common culture. And yet high culture without folk culture’s nourishment lacks necessary vitality. For this reason it has its aged feel; it is the culture of old men.