9 December 2005
τό καλόν Decreed in the Marketplace: Commodification and the Destruction of the Infinite
The 1920s were a unique time in American and Western European history. World War I, supposedly “the war to end all wars” and the the flu pandemic, the worst disease epidemic in history, had just ended. They were replaced by a booming economy and a growing, socially mobile population. Middle-class magazines like The American Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and The Connoisseur are replete with the images of consumerism and the burgeoning bourgeois.
The articles and advertisements in these magazines portray the 1920s middle class as optimistic and hopeful. Yet the social and economic benefits of consumerism were paralleled for some by feelings of disconnect, and an inability to deal with the problems of death and inhumanity raised by World War I. In the poems “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” by Ezra Pound and “Spring,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay the poets reveal that one of the reasons for these feelings is that the commodification of culture and art inhibit the ability for people to appreciate the truly beautiful. From this perspective, the seemingly optimistic articles and advertisements can be seen as attempts to use consumerism to mask the problems of modern life because commodified art and culture do not have the power to deal with eternal questions.
The Modernist disdain for consumerism is evident throughout “Hugh Selwyn,” and is particularly scathing in Mauberley's discussion with Mr. Nixon. Nixon tells Mauberley, “"I never mentioned a man but with the view / "Of selling my own works. / "The tip's a good one, as for literature / "It gives no man a sinecure. / "And no one knows, at sight, a masterpiece. / "And give up verse, my boy, / "There's nothing in it" (lines 161-67). Pound is disgusted by and disappointed in, a people who prefer the cheap and the mass-produced to an understanding of true art. Thus Pound contrasts his hero in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” who, “Observed the elegance of Circe's hair” contrasted with the middle class who prefer “the mottoes on sun-dials” and the “beauty decreed in the marketplace” (15-16; 47-48). When Pound saw an article like “New Stone Age in Which We Are Living,” published 23 January 1921, he must have cringed. The author of the article lauds the modern use of concrete as the dawning of a new age of mankind. He compares modern concrete structures like the Panama Canal to ancient wonders, claiming that, “In this new stone age we are surrounded on all sides by construction achievements as great as the Pyramids that owe their existence to concrete” (“New Stone Age”). This captures the problems of commodification that Pound was so worried about. Concrete is mass-produced, homogeneous, quickly assembled, and far from artistic. In addition, it hinders the ability to appreciate the truly magnificent, as evidenced by the author's claim that we are surrounded by concrete structures as great as the Pyramids. It is easy to see why Pound might believe that, “The 'age demanded' chiefly a mould in plaster, / Made with no loss of time, / A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster / Or the 'sculpture' of rhyme” (31-32).
Much like in Hemingway's “The Sun Also Rises,” the war is the silent but salient background necessary to comprehend the 1920s. The articles and advertisements of the magazines, as well as the literature of Pound and Millay can only really be understood when we realize that they are attempting, at least at some level, to deal with the questions and problems raised by what was then the worst war in world history. When war and difficulty strike, people naturally look to the eternal things like love and beauty in order to buoy and comfort them. This tendency occurs throughout literature, from Homer's Odyssey to Willa Cather's My Antonia to Millay's “Spring”. As Millay says, “The sun is hot on my neck as I observe / The spikes of the crocus. / The smell of the earth is good. / It is apparent that there is no death” (6-9). Modernism is unique because its authors seem to find this search much more difficult than their predecessors. As Millay says in the next lines of “Spring,” “But what does [the fact that there is no death] signify? . . . Life in itself / Is nothing, / An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs” (10-15). The agony of an age's unanswered questions is apparent throughout Millay's work. Although the mass media and the poets are both attempting to address the problems of the war, they do so in very different ways. The mass media attempts to use commodification as a way to fight commodification, while the artists attempt to attack the foundations of modern consumer culture.
In one sense, we should not be surprised that the mass media of the early 20s would turn to commodification and mass production as a means of dealing with problems. People had learned of the potency of commodification from World War I. The war was so devastatingly powerful because it was mass-produced death. Bombs and machine guns made death a product. It was not death itself that was so detrimental to the collective psyche, but the commodification of death. Commodification made war and death not only inhumane but inhuman. Pound explained this new type of war, saying that it included “Daring as never before, wastage as never before . . . / fortitude as never before / frankness as never before, / disillusions as never told in the old days / hysterias, trench confessions / laughter out of dead bellies” (IV.19-26). The feeling that the war was not only horrific, but pointless, is evidenced in the next stanza, where Pound says, “There died a myriad, / And of the best, among them, / For an old bitch gone in the teeth, /For a botched civilization” (V.1-4) This was a war different from those fought before, and commodification had made it the horror that it was. The mass media, if subconsciously, attempted to use consumerism and commodification in order to try to deal with the problems of the age.
Instead of dealing directly with the war, however, commodification attempts to minimize it and divert attention away from the problems. One of the most direct ways in which this is done is in the article “Memorabilia of the War With Germany” from The New York Times Book Review. The article explains that a compilation of “pictures, autograph statements and messages, poems, original manuscripts, orders for movements of troops written out by distinguished Generals, [and] musical scores” will be auctioned off and “the receipts are to be equally divided between the New York and Boston committees of the Fatherless Children” (“Memorabilia”). This article attempts to change what was a horrific, very recent war into a commodity. After all, anything that has “memorabilia” can't have been that bad, after all. The lasting effects of the war are implied and subsequently swept under the rug by the mention of the “New York and Boston committees of the Fatherless Children.” The war has left these communities with myriad orphans and fatherless children. The solution to the problem is put forward – it is money. The consumer culture of the early 20th century introduces not only the commodification of products, but of virtues. You can measure your charity or goodness very simply – by how much money you give to the Fatherless Children committees.
The second way in which the mass media attempted to deal with the problem of meaninglessness was through social mobility. Wealth, and an understanding of how to use wealth “properly” provided a feeling of meaning and individuality. Much of The American Magazine is dominated by advertisements, often taking up more than half of the space on a page (see “The Clubfellow Knows”). In general, the advertisements are for either means of obtaining a higher social status, such as correspondence schools and home study courses or symbols of a stats already attained, such as cigars, cars, and jewelry. One ad, accompanied by a drawing of a man in a well-tailored suit, captured this attitude: “The clubfellow knows men who invariably keep up with the modes and who realize the importance of detail in dress, instinctively turn to Krementz correct evening jewelry” (“The Clubfellow Knows”) The feeling of exclusivity and meaning granted by wealth that “the clubfellow” receives are, from a Poundian perspective, just a way of ignoring deeper problems.
For Pound, there is still the potential for meaning, not in commodification, but in looking to the mythic past. His (perhaps autobiographical) hero, Hugh Mauberley, is able to appreciate “the dead art / Of poetry” and “the obscure reveries / Of the inward gaze” (2-3; 25-26). By looking back to a time before the Industrial Age, and before mass production, one can still find the beauty and meaning needed to answer the eternal questions.
This idea is questioned by the existence of magazines like The Connoisseur. This magazine purports to teach good taste, and sells things necessary for those with good taste. The first edition of the magazine claims, “we will do our best to reach and adhere to the high standard at which the founders of such a magazine as this must necessarily aim, since it caters for connoisseurs—for those who know” (“A Word of Introduction”). In a sense, the magazine commodifies Pound's ideas about beauty: namely, that beauty is only found by looking to the past. One particularly telling advertisement says, “Each [family Bible box], however humble, seemed to be an individual effort, for the word 'manufacture' as understood to-day was not synonymous with the old coffer's and cabinet-maker's craft” (“Essex Bygones”). Nearly everything in the magazine is antique, implying that it is in the past that beauty is to be found. If the newly mass-produced is not beautiful, then why would the past, repackaged and mass-produced, still be beautiful?
This revelation leads us to question the nature of poetry in the modern world. If even the anciently beautiful, when reproduced and commodified lose their power, then is it possible for even a poet to escape consumerism? The fact that Pound himself published in mass-printed literary journals and magazines greatly undermines his poetry. He was dependent on a public audience to support him (Cutler 89). We are led to question whether Pound is a product of the consumer society as much as he is a critic of it. Perhaps his poetry is, at least in part, produced in order to fill a niche market. This suspicion leads Ed Cutler to claim, “twentieth-century modernism's most cherished self-image, ironic autonomy, must be viewed with deep historical suspicion” (171).
One reading of Millay seems to agree with this cynicism about the power of the poet. In her poem “Spring,” Millay speaks to April, asking, “To what purpose, April, do you return again? / Beauty is not enough” (1-2). The symbols of Millay's discovery of beauty's impotence are found throughout the poem. April, long symbolic of love, resurrection, and life, becomes only a babbling idiot when she is made a product (18). Perhaps one reason that April no longer has the power that she once did is because poetry has become a commodity as much as anything else. We are led to wonder, if poets are producing art for the sake of a mass audience, can they still have the power to describe the beautiful, like April, in a way that will touch and move us? Millay seems to suggest that they cannot.
The modern world of consumerism and mass production seems to leave nothing uncommodified. While mass media and poetry attempt to deal with the devastation caused by the negative effects of the modern world, they must work from within the constraints of a commodified world. This is a world in which, in some respects we have put a price tag on morals and values and eternal ideals such as beauty. We are led to wonder if this quantification makes these values finite, and being finite makes them unable to deal with infinite questions about death and meaning. Perhaps April can no longer serve her purpose if her beauty cannot be appreciated because it has been sold, no matter the price.
“A Word of Introduction.” The Connoisseur Sept. 1901: 1.
Cutler, Edward S. Recovering the New. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2003.
“Essex Bygones: Part II.” The Connoisseur Jan. 1920: 26.
“Memorabilia of the War With Germany.” The New York Times Book Review and Magazine 20 February 1921: 11.
“New Stone Age in Which We Are Living.” The New York Times Book Review and Magazine 23 January 1921: 26.
Pound, Ezra. “from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Life and Contacts).” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter et al. 5th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 1114-23.
St. Vincent Millay, Edna. “Spring.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter et al. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 1100.
“The Clubfellow Knows.” The American Magazine March 1921: 119.