Ridiculous modernism : nonsense and the new in literature since 1900

Rettberg, Eric John, Department of English, University of Virginia
Cushman, Stephen, Department of English, University of Virginia
McGann, Jerome, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ramazani, R, Department of English, University of Virginia
Martens, Lorna, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia

Departing from a critical tradition that treats Arnoldian high seriousness, Eliotic difficulty, and war-induced trauma as the defining characteristics of modernist poetics, Ridiculous Modernism argues that countervailing strains of anti-seriousness, ridicule, ridiculousness, and nonsense also pervade the period. Even as philistines invoked the ridiculing cry of "nonsense!" to describe the new art and literature of the twentieth century, modernist artists and writers found in nonsense an experimental engine for poetic innovation and a conceptual basis for disrupting the common sense of an increasingly incomprehensible modernity. From mockery of modernism by figures including G.K. Chesterton and Mary Mills Lyall to the high modernism of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the avant-garde experimentation of figures including Hugo Ball, Gertrude Stein, and Robert Carleton "Bob" Brown, nonsense connects anti-modernists' ridicule with modernists' self-consciously ridiculous aesthetics. Critical framing of modernist experimentation as monolithically difficult has obscured the alternative ways of reading that many modernists imagined, who often wrote as much for un-ideal readers—skeptical, laughing, even —mocking—as for the ideal reader mythologized by critical practice. By writing the role of mocking anti-modernists back into the story of the rise of modernism, the project tells a story of the avant-garde more attentive to the public's actual experiences of novel modernism. The prevalence of ridiculous aesthetics in literary experiment continues to the present, as discussion of the contemporary poetic movements of Flarf and conceptualism demonstrates. The ridiculous, it becomes clear, plays a significant and infrequently acknowledged role in energizing art and literature in the twentieth century and beyond.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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