Constellation of Genius: 1922, Modernism Year One Kevin Jackson

Hutchinson, pp.544, £20, ISBN: 9780091930974

In 1974, as editor of the Connoisseur magazine, I ran an ‘1874’ issue to mark the centenary of Winston Churchill’s birth, to which John Betjeman, Asa Briggs and Lady Spencer-Churchill all contributed. So I know the virtues of selecting a single year and ‘sinking a shaft into history’.

Effective use has often been made of this genre. Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger wrote the bestseller The Year 1000. James Shapiro chronicled a year in Shakespeare’s life, 1599. Thomas Pakenham wrote on 1798: The Year of Liberty (the story of the Irish rebellion). In her nineties, Rebecca West produced a volume on the year 1900, which she had the advantage of remembering as a young Victorian. Philip Metcalfe covered 1933, concentrating on Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, a member of Hitler’s circle. The jolly jingoist Arthur Bryant devoted separate tomes to 1940, 1942, 1943 and 1944. And one day I feel sure there will be a book entitled 2000: The Great Millennium Cock-Up. (I might write it myself.)

Kevin Jackson’s book is of this kind. Taking the year 1922, he shows us what various well-known people were up to on almost any given day. He has clearly read widely and not scamped his research; and the portrait of 1922 which emerges is pretty much what we might expect of the post-Great War period. There’s a lot of frenetic vivacity: fizz, bubble and letting off steam.

But Jackson is not content just to let the year speak for itself. The engine under all the fancy coachwork is modernism — for which he makes grotesquely extravagant claims. On the jacket of his book, the word ‘GENIUS’ stands out in capital letters of Stonehenge proportions. It was the year in which James Joyce’s Ulysses was published (on his 40th birthday),and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land also appeared.

In his introduction, Jackson suggests that 1922 ‘was blazing with a “constellation of genius” of a kind that had never been known before, and has never since been rivalled’. Has he never heard of the apostolic succession of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great? And what about Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson? Or Byron, Shelley and Keats? Or Thackeray, Dickens and that other, far superior Eliot, George?

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For me, Joyce and T.S. Eliot (and Ezra Pound, the evil genius of both) were the men who ruined literature, as Picasso and Braque ruined art. (After Picasso painted a woman with two ears on one side of her head, anything went, including Carl André’s idiotic bricks and Tracey Emin’s dirty bed. I am a hereditary anti-Cubist: my late father, Jack Hillier, himself an accomplished artist, once wrote: ‘I’d like to chuck a brick à Braque.’)

Joyce was a fine writer in Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; but Ulysses is a heroic failed experiment and Finnegans Wake still more of a failure (‘gibberish’ to Evelyn Waugh). Eliot was a formidably good critic but mistook his vocation as a poet and pointed the way for all the drivelling, formless verse by others that the talented poet Peter Henham has called ‘a kind of buggered prose’; just as Picasso’s works heralded all the lauded daubs and doodles that followed. (Revealingly, Jackson observes that Churchill’s notes for his 1922 election speech at Dundee ‘were reminiscent of The Waste Land’.) Jackson refers, almost as if it were something to be proud of, to Eliot’s plagiarism; but not once does he mention the Kentucky poet Madison Cawein, who died early enough for Eliot to be able to cannibalise masses from him, including the title of The Waste Land. (The Poet Eliot Cribbed From is another book crying out to be written.)

We have had modernism oppressing us for so long that some of it can now seem old hat. Praising the Booker judges for choosing Hilary Mantel novels twice, David Sexton wrote that those judges ‘might have chosen Will Self’s ambitious attempt to resurrect antique high modernism’. It is time that modernism’s grip on the arts should be wrenched loose. What some great men said about the stuff not long after it was inflicted on them could be borne in mind. Of Eliot’s verse, G.M. Young wrote that it was ‘a gash at the root of our poetry’. G.K. Chesterton wrote of free verse: ‘You might as well call living in a ditch “free architecture”.’ And W.B. Yeats, a poet far above Eliot, said that ‘poetry should be a dance in chains’ — meaning that some rules and conventions should be adhered to.

Jackson points out that the works of Joyce and Eliot lend themselves to university courses. English faculties don’t spend much time on, say, John Betjeman, because he’s so comprehensible; but with Eliot and Joyce there is infinite mileage to be had in puzzling out their allusions and symbolism and (let’s put it politely) their sources.

Jackson himself is not an academic: instead of stupefying pedantry, he gives us a breezy journalese (Alfred Hitchcock is introduced as ‘a plump young English virgin’). Nor does he always get his facts right. If Thomas Hardy had died in 1946, as Jackson claims, he would have been 105; in fact, born in 1840, he died in 1928.

But he does share academe’s adulation for modernism. He dotes on Ezra Pound, noting on page 7 how both Eliot and Joyce ‘owed the launch of their careers’ to this ‘generous, indefatigable and brilliantly discerning’ man. Would that be the same brilliantly discerning Ezra Pound who on page 1 is seen as a ‘keen admirer of Mussolini’?

The subtitle, 1922, Modernism Year One, is curiously at odds with some of the contents of this book. One need look no further than an entry for 1 January of that year to find something that would send any modernist screeching into his Bauhaus bedroom:

Douglas Fairbanks gathered all his colleagues together and declared: ‘I’ve just decided that I’m going to make the story of Robin Hood. I’m going to call it The Spirit of Chivalry… [His] new studio was surrounded by huge empty fields where the film-makers could re-create Nottingham, the castle of Richard the Lionheart, Sherwood Forest, Palestine, the Crusaders’ camp in France. They would make thousands of costumes, all based on authentic period designs, and shields and lances.

When I made my first onslaught on The Waste Land in this magazine 20 years ago, a friend wrote to me, ‘You won’t dethrone Eliot. You won’t dethrone Picasso.’ Sadly, I think he is right — for my lifetime. But the bad never survives for ever, in politics or art. I believe the day will come — maybe not for a century or two — when G.M. Young, G.K. Chesterton, Laurence Whistler, Roger Scruton, Giles Auty and I will no longer be regarded as obtuse reactionaries, but as justified heresiarchs against the gargantuan imposture of modernism — rather as T.H. Huxley is now seen as having been justified in attacking ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester, for his wrong-headed views on evolution. Remember, most Victorians thought Soapy Sam was right, and Huxley a heretic.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated