Curricular Trauma

A number of years ago — sometime in the decade between the financial crash and the advent of Covid — I found myself at the hotel bar of the Modern Language Association’s annual conference (in Vancouver? Boston? Chicago?) arguing with a professor about modernism. Or rather, about modernism as a field of current scholarship in literary studies. I wondered why the distinguished English department in which this professor taught, having failed for several years to replace a retired modernist, did not have a single senior scholar of modernism on its faculty. “Well,” he said, “it’s hard. It doesn’t help that modernism has a problem with anti-Semitism, racism, and fascism.”    What could he mean, I wish I’d asked him, by characterizing the first literary period in the West in which Jews were absolutely central to the literary establishment as having a “problem with anti-Semitism”? Or the movement that included the Harlem Renaissance and, elsewhere, négritude and affiliated developments as “racist”? The period in which modernism flourished was, of course, one of world-historical ideological mobilization; fascism, racism, eugenics, and so on carved out their vicious territories across the face of the world and the world of the mind. But it was also the period of suffragettism, of varieties of national determination both liberatory and murderous, of Bolshevism. Did the professor just mean that some of the most important modernists were themselves fascists and anti-Semites? That is true, of course. Did he mean that in some cases modernist aesthetics and fascism drew on common idioms, made use of common sources? That is true, too, but so did modernism and anarchism; and so did modernism and socialism; so did modernism and a certain species of secular liberalism.   I didn’t raise those obvious objections because I was so surprised. My interlocutor was an

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