It’s often said we are living through a revolution called the Digital Age, and I’ve talked a little so far about how technology might be changing how we read or consume narrative. But I wonder if this sense of time calls for a different way of writing on a more fundamental level, a level that can address the spirit of the age as well as its attention span.
The Spirit of the Age was the title of a book by the great English essayist WIlliam Hazlitt published in 1825, and it seems that this desire to speak to and for your times became commonplace in the 19th century. It’s true that people appear always to have been conscious of their lifetimes as part of an era, but the sense that a distinctive era might require a distinctive formal response from its artists is certainly more prevalent from the late 18th century onwards. Shelley gloried in the possibility. Tennyson worried about it, and as the century turned it found its most articulate expression in the eruption of Modernism.
Modernism as a self-conscious movement was partly a response to the advent of some radical new technology, but also a sense of discontinuity, a fracturing of links with the past, with received views on belief and authority thrown out of the window. It’s no co-incidence I think that its two most important early representatives in English literature were Americans living in Europe, outsiders trying to feel their connectedness, to trace whatever continuities were still left to them while rejecting the shackles of tradition. Ezra Pound noted that while he threw the bricks through the windows, TS Eliot sneaked in around the back.
Time and familiarity tames what once seemed radical. Returning to Eliot’s verse after a gap of many years I was struck by how comprehensible it was, where once it seemed almost impenetrable. I could blame school: in the sixth form we worked through The Waste Land line by line, deciphering its allusivness, and killing practically all sense of it as poetry. But Eliot’s “back door” to modernism was a persistent lyricism. It was not like Tennyson, (actually in his different way Tennyson had written about many of the things that preoccupied the Modernists, but he did so within the traditional forms of rhymed or blank verse); but it was like he was trying to find a way to carry a sense of dissonance and fracture within a form that still mostly looked and read like lyrical poetry.
I think what also got in my way was a sense that Eliot was writing as a philosopher, and needed to be understood that way. This was not perceptive or helpful. Eliot famously declared that writing poetry was an escape from personality, but that does not mean that the work can somehow be read as free from personality, as somehow purely theoretical. He himself rejected the idea that The Waste Land was an epoch-defining statement saying rather it was the grumbling of a disgruntled young man. But its success is in being both these things. He found a way of reaching into himself to create a distinctive common language for his time.
That’s to use “common” in a special sense: Eliot’s range of cultural references is not something most of us can share directly, but that’s part of the point. He is teasing out connections that have influenced Western culture, which indirectly sit behind the possibility of a common cultural inheritance, but which also set him apart as an individual. Poetry rests on the paradox of finding your own voice which is all the same a reaching out to others, a seeking of common ground which may contain the shared awareness that the common ground will be limited.
So what is the spirit of this Digital Age that we might need a new kind of formal expression? I’m not sure that our serious preoccupations are that different from those in the early part of the 20th century. The things that seem new like the cult of celebrity, or the resurgence of an anti-scientific religious sensibility, may yet prove ephemeral. The sense of a new transparency in public, business and to a lesser extent our personal affairs (where it is more like visibility than transparency) may be important and enduring, but it’s probably too early to say. All we can do for the moment is explore the possibilities.