milan golob

Making Modernism New


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Making Modernism New

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
2012, oil on canvas, 28×30 cm

Making Modernism New

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Making Modernism New




Igor Stravinsky - Making Modernism New

Igor Stravinsky



Sam See
Making Modernism New: Queer Mythology in The Young and Evil (Part 1)*

Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.
It is, I seriously believe, a step toward
making the modern world possible for art.
—T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth”[1]

Literature is and was and is and was.
—Parker Tyler to Ezra Pound, letter dated 18 September 1933

I. Queer Mythology?

Although it has largely eluded critical attention, Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s 1933 novel The Young and Evil has come to be known among some scholars as one of the first proto-queer texts in American letters. Joseph Allen Boone, most notably, argues in his Libidinal Currents (1998) that the novel “deliberately carves out an alternative niche for itself within the modernist tradition” by using “modernist style [to] encod[e] explicit gay content.”[2] Boone’s reading helpfully highlights that The Young and Evil depicts a group of young men and women in the late 1920s Greenwich Village community who engage in an array of non-normative sexual experiences and that the text relates these experiences through a prototypically high modernist aesthetic of formal experimentation. Featuring poetic lineation, spatializing parataxis, stream-of-consciousness narration, and surrealist imagery and thematics, The Young and Evil reads at various moments like Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (1909), Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), and Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1970). Such likenesses are unsurprising since Ford and Tyler were friends with Stein, Barnes, and Pound, and since they edited and managed the little magazine Blues, which Ford and Tyler described as “a magazine of modernism” that “afforded modernism to everyone.”[3] More surprising is that, given the authors’ professional and personal intersections with so many canonical modernists, Ford and Tyler’s literary achievements have been widely overlooked.

One reason for The Young and Evil’s obscurity may owe, ironically, to the very attributions that Boone uses to champion the novel: despite its experimental style, The Young and Evil has seemed all too “niche,” too focused on an “outcast queer fringe” to be considered as a representative modernist text.[4] Such a reading is counterintuitive, however, because the novel’s queerness undergirds its most consummately modernist ambitions: to renovate myth for modern purposes and to create folklore for a burgeoning ethnic community.[5] Grounding hallmark modernist texts like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)—the novel that incited Eliot to promote a “mythical method” for modernist literature in his 1923 essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth”—myth traditionally aims to convey cultural universals and ideals. Folklore, in contrast, records the beliefs, customs, and idioms of particular, or ethnic, groups, as epitomized in novels like Younghill Kang’s The Grass Roof (1931) and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Together, myth and folklore comprise the aesthetic goals and content of much canonical modernist literature and offer two formal instances of literary modernists’ more widespread anxiety to reconcile cultural unity and pluralism. When Eliot propounds his “mythical method,” for example, he requests that modernist writers “manipulat[e] a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” or particularity and universality, which is, he maintains, “a goal toward which all good literature strives.”[6]

Ezra Pound, What is Money For? and Introductory Text Book, London: Peter Russell, 1951.

Ezra Pound, What is Money For? and Introductory Text Book, London: Peter Russell, 1951.

By the standard of Eliot’s mythical method, The Young and Evil would seem to qualify as a paradigmatic modernist text, perhaps even as “good literature.” Consider the novel’s opening paragraph: “Well said the wolf to Little Red Riding Hood no sooner was Karel seated in the Round Table than the impossible happened. There before him stood a fairy prince and one of those mythological creatures known as Lesbians. Won’t you join our table? they said in sweet chorus.”[7] In less than fifty words, the paragraph invokes at least five mythological references: the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” Arthurian legend via “the Round Table,” “a fairy prince,” “mythological creatures” ethnographically identified as “Lesbians,” and a kind of Greek “chorus.” Such allusions associate the novel with a seemingly unrelated group of transcultural mythologies, a mixture that queers the text’s relation to “impossible” myth, or Eliot’s “antiquity,” from the outset.

Set in a Greenwich Village bar, the paragraph simultaneously evokes the novel’s folkloric properties, what Eliot would call its signs of “contemporaneity.” As George Chauncey’s 1993 study Gay New York documents, most of these mythological allusions function as gay code in the early twentieth century: Riding Hood likely refers to a drag queen; “wolf” denotes a conventionally masculine man who had sex with younger and more effeminate men; the prince’s “fairy” status refers to effeminate gay men (thus queering the fairy tale itself as an ethnic genre) who “established the dominant public images of male sexual abnormality” in early-twentieth-century New York; and the lesbians, evidently, specify homosexual women, including perhaps the famous Greenwich Village club owner Eve Addams, evoked in the novel’s first—and self-consciously mythic—working title, Eve’s Adam.[8] Set at a table at the popular Greenwich Village restaurant the Round Table, the paragraph establishes the text’s ambition to depict a historically queer community much like the actual community of Greenwich Village at the same time that it dehistoricizes this community as mythic: these modern queers are the age-old “mythological creatures” that already inhabit the western mythopoeic tradition. Co-opting that tradition from a sexually ethnic perspective, The Young and Evil positions itself within and without western folklore’s dominant mythologies.[9]

Rather than “encoding explicit gay content,” then, as Boone maintains, The Young and Evil’s modernist techniques would appear to reveal that content. The novel accordingly disrupts critical narratives that relegate queerness to a “niche” realm of scholarly and literary interest and those that, like Eliot’s and many modernists’, appear to align the mythic with the heteronormative.[10] The Young and Evil implicitly poses the question: can myth be queer? If so, what would be the literary and social consequences of a mythology that posits queerness not as tangentially “alternative” but as central to literary modernist experience? As Karel, one of the novel’s focal characters, asks of the nature of desire, “Where is the line between the strange and the common?” (Y, 175), or the line between “strange” ethnic experience and “common” universal experience? To explore this question, we may similarly ask: where, in a disciplinary sense, is the line between our “common” literary history of modernism and Ford and Tyler’s “strange” novel?

In Foundlings (2001), Christopher Nealon opens inquiry into these questions when he observes that an ethnic version of queer experience, “more attuned to collective experience than to individual identity, begins to be visible around World War I and picks up momentum after World War II.”[11] While Nealon analyzes what he calls queer “foundling” texts of this period that evince a “movement between solitary exile and collective experience,” I take this movement another step to reveal how Ford and Tyler’s text shuttles between two collective, and to them similar, experiences—those of the queer community and of literary modernist culture at large—to blur the line between the strange and the common, the queer and the mainstream, in American modernism.[12] Where the ethnic specificity of its folklore depicts a queer modernist subculture, The Young and Evil’s mythic allusions and structure universalize that subculture’s experience into an exemplary myth for and about literary modernism.[13]

Integral to the question of whether myth can be queer is the question of whether community can be queer. As Michael Warner has suggested, the concept of a queer community is paradoxical, for queerness is by most definitions anti-communitarian.[14] As with the relation between myth and queerness, The Young and Evil takes this paradox as one of its central subjects: the idea of a queer community is, for this novel, itself a queer myth that foregrounds the tensions between the particular and universal that any myth must engage. When Karel, for example, says that “the ultimate value of any particular experience or any of its parts would have to be related to a whole” in works of art (Y, 126), he and another character, Louis, describe the relation between “particular” and “whole” as dialectical rather than teleological: in response to Louis’ mythic, and queer, claim to be “waiting for the day . . . when I can destroy all definitions,” Karel, representing a folkloric position, declares, “But until then . . . they are the most that matters” (Y, 112). Adhering at times to “definitions,” Ford and Tyler historicize the local communities and ethnic traditions that formed around the criterion of sexual difference throughout the twentieth century, even as they acknowledge such a criterion as paradoxical. The authors’ queer mythology and historiography expose, in other words, that trying to create a community based on difference—trying to relate any “particular” difference to an undifferentiated “whole”—is at best a fantastical endeavor. Such a project seems sympathetic, in the end, to Warner’s claim that “heteronormativity can be overcome only by actively imagining a necessarily and desirably queer world.”[15] The myth of a queer community is, for this novel, the precondition for imagining in art the very concept that it depicts as a fraught construction in historical reality.

Based on this attempt to imagine a community outside the limits of practicable reality, The Young and Evil primarily employs two antirealist literary forms: spatial narrative structure and surrealist imagery and thematics. These aesthetics are most modernist in their opposition to late-nineteenth-century literary realist and naturalist traditions. Where Ford and Tyler thought those aesthetics to universalize lived experience through positivist forms and heteronormative themes, The Young and Evil, lodged in the “until then” time between realist definitions and their queer destruction, records the “particular experience” of a queer subculture even as it aims to destroy the definitional coherence of that subculture in order to universalize its folklore as myth.[16]

It is perhaps this self-generating mythic and folkloric quality that led Gertrude Stein to remark on the novel’s dust jacket that “The Young and Evil creates this generation as This Side of Paradise by Fitzgerald created his generation. It is a good thing, whatever this generation is, to be the first to create it in a book.” As with her notorious characterization of Hemingway’s “lost generation” after The Sun Also Rises, what Stein means by “this generation” is unclear—even to herself, which is curious because she made several revisions to The Young and Evil during its composition.[17] Stein could simply mean to denote the thirteen-year gap between the novels’ publication dates, but more likely she means to highlight the Fitzgerald novel’s creation of a disillusioned and normatively heterosexual generation and the Ford and Tyler text’s creation of a vibrant, polymorphously queer generation.

Ezra Pound similarly thought Ford and Tyler capable of creating a new generation when he wrote to Ford in 1929 that “every generation or group must write its own litetary program.”[18] In spite of this encouragement, Pound would also tell Tyler five months prior to the novel’s publication that “nothing new what bloody ever has been said or thought on the subject” of what he calls “bhoogery” since “the death of Martial. And it simply can NOT be discovered 2000 years later.”[19] Responding to the exigency of this heteronormative claim, Ford and Tyler use Pound’s 1929 advice to subvert his 1933 reprimand. In accord with Tyler’s avowal that “literature is and was and is and was,” these authors believed that they could make literary and sexual modernism new by saying something old: by infusing literature that was into literature that is, and vice versa. As Tyler responded to Pound’s unencouraging letter, “Antiquity doesn’t hold any patents on homosexuality: there is plenty in the modern fauna and flora—so much—that doesnt fit into the greekvase pattern—not to speak of some freshening of myth.”[20] “Freshening” the very tradition of “myth” with which Pound derided their effort (and which, in The Cantos, he used to make his own modernist myth), Ford and Tyler thus co-opt Pound’s “MAKE IT NEW” credo to create a book not “at the margins of official modernist practice,” as Boone maintains, but aligned with many modernists’ primary concern: how to “mak[e] the modern world possible for art.”[21] The authors do so by creating an ethnically queer “generation” whose exemplarity signifies mythically: for “whatever this generation is” that Ford and Tyler depict, Stein avers, it is most important that they “create it in a book.” Using the literary imagination to reform old myths, to document ethnographically new folklore, and to create the mythic possibility of a queer community, Ford and Tyler make good on Stein’s ambiguous designation of their novel’s generation, which could be the human generation or the queer American generation of the 1930s, one that itself defies categorization. Given the text’s generically dual ambitions, we would most appropriately say that it does both at once. Understanding this duality may, I propose, enable contemporary literary historians to make modernism new, since Ford and Tyler’s effort to renovate that movement has for so long escaped critical regard.

II. Making it Mythopoeic

To understand Ford and Tyler’s use of the word in application to their novel, the slippery and now critically unfashionable term myth requires further delineation at this point. As Michael Bell observes in his Literature, Modernism and Myth (1997), because myth “means both a supremely significant foundational story and a falsehood,” the term always indicates that “there is a multiplicity of possible human worlds” at the same time that it seems to affirm one world view.[22] Rather than try to resolve this definitional paradox, I aim, as Bell does, to examine mythopoeia, or mythmaking, in The Young and Evil as the “underlying outlook that creates myth; or, more precisely again, sees the world in mythic terms.”[23] By describing the text as mythopoeic, a word that Tyler used to describe his 1945 long poem The Granite Butterfly, I attempt not to verify the truth-value of universalizing mythic claims but to examine how and why, from a literary-historical perspective, Ford and Tyler found literary and cultural value in a mythopoeic stance that could elicit a “supremely significant foundational story” for modernism even as it recognizes that such universality is definitionally also a “falsehood.”[24]

A section from the eighth canto of The Granite Butterfly clarifies how Ford and Tyler aimed throughout their careers to tell the “lie” of “myth” in order to record a non-naturalist “truth”:

So myth has always been
A lie, the moment it was uttered
just as, the moment it was
Uttered, it was also a truth:
it was a lie to test
The truth, and a truth to test the
lie, being ambivalent toward
as Narcissus is
Ambivalent toward
himself, as all con-
Cepts, once they are conceived
of as Natural
Contradict themselves
Being subject to change—[25]

Anticipating Bell’s definition, Tyler admits here that “myth has always been / A lie” even as “it was also a truth.” Against beliefs in a universally heteronormative “Nature,” the poet harnesses myth’s generically ambivalent status to posit the rather Darwinian claim that “Nature” is always “subject to change,” to queering, which Tyler emphasizes by alluding to Narcissus, one of the queerest characters in classical mythology.[26]

Despite its hallmark irony and pessimism, modernism is rife with mythopoeic texts that tell the lie of cultural universalism. While such lies often took the form of heteronormativity, queer modernist texts like Nightwood and Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdue (1927) also, as Joseph Frank argued in 1945, “transmut[ed] the time world of history into the timeless world of myth. And it is this timeless world of myth, forming the content of so much of modern literature, that finds its appropriate aesthetic expression in spatial form.”[27] Taking Frank’s lead, E. W. Herd posits that mythopoeic literature characteristically features “totality, in the sense of a representation of a universally valid reality in a series of images; timelessness [and] the transformation of an apparently real or realistically described situation into a struggle against invisible forces . . . which are inaccessible to man and incapable of rational interpretation.”[28] G. R. Manton would add to this definition “the desire to link the present with the past,” a project that involves the phenomenal ambitions of historiography but that transforms such detail into the timeless noumena of myth.[29]

 Make it New, Essays by Ezra Pound.

Make it New, Essays by Ezra Pound.

Manton’s definition echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s seminal view of history, established in “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” (1874), wherein Nietzsche argues that “a living thing can be healthy, strong and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon,” by which he means that one must assume a dialectical approach to one’s sense of history. Recalling Eliot’s definition of the mythical method, Nietzsche declares that “the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture.”[30] If we may exchange the term unhistorical for mythopoeic and the term historical for folkloric, and if, as Bell does, we recognize Nietzsche’s thought as central to modern mythopoeia, we may begin to see how the dually mythopoeic and folkloric aims of Ford and Tyler’s novel are part of a widespread—if variously manifested—metaphysical and aesthetic preoccupation with the relationships among “the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture” in the early twentieth century.[31]

The Young and Evil engages this historical dialectic with formal experiments that rupture what Eliot calls “narrative method,” or the techniques of literary realism, and create, after the mythical method, abstract-universal depths beneath particularized surfaces. Such experiments repudiate realism’s attempts to represent a universalized reality through empirical evidence alone and suggest that universalization can only be mythic: in other words, “a supremely significant falsehood.”[32] The most apparent of such features is what Frank would call the novel’s spatial form, created by the text’s montage-like structure, recursive plot, unidentified narrative voices, and lack of a central narrative thread or central characters. At the structural level, for instance, chapter divisions disrupt temporal continuity, as between chapters 13 and 14, the former ending with Julian and Karel (the text’s protagonists if it has any) discussing metaphysics in Karel’s room, the latter opening with Julian, Karel, and Frederick cruising Broadway. Karel’s lament for Louis and his desire for death in chapter 13 are thus spatialized and rendered ephemeral by the paratactic cut to chapter 14’s campy banter. The time elided between chapters—indeed, the time during which narrative action occurs at all—thus recedes from focus as the narrative emphasizes how characters fill the various spaces, including metaphysical spaces, in which they find themselves.

The Young and Evil’s characters fill those spaces with internal reflections more than they do with external actions. The novel largely omits external character detail, in fact, and what detail it offers serves less to delineate specific identities than to interrogate human experience in a symbolic fashion. Karel, for example, is so concerned with his appearance that he sets an “endurance record in front of the mirror” (Y, 32), but the narrator reports little of how he appears other than that “Karel was like a tall curved building only much smaller. He was wearing a dark green, the color of the rings around the holes, hat with an upward sweep on the left side. His overcoat seemed to fit him desperately.” Narrated with free indirect discourse from Julian’s third-person-limited perspective, this passage reveals more about Julian’s interior consciousness and his habit of looking “in the mirror from various angles” than it does about Karel’s external appearance (Y, 26). As seen through a funhouse mirror, Karel appears entirely out of proportion in the opening simile: both tall and curved, small and large as a building.[33] The ungrammatical appositive in the passage’s second sentence similarly disrupts Julian’s mimetic report about Karel’s external appearance—his dark green hat—to mimic the digressive nature of Julian’s consciousness: when he thinks of “dark green,” Julian recalls how he initially envisioned Karel as having a “slightly orange face containing eyes with holes in them” (Y, 15). Instead of providing a realistic picture of Karel—an orange-faced, diminutive, curved building with green-ringed eyeholes is more aptly a surrealist vision—this passage provides a realistic picture of Julian’s “desperately” subjective reception of Karel and anticipates the stream-of-consciousness technique that the novel most centrally employs as an alternative to external description.

The Young and Evil does not disregard surface aesthetics, then, but represents surfaces as indices of interior thoughts and feelings rather than exterior identities. When Karel claims that “sentimentality” is “a willingness to believe in form without substance” (Y, 32), he vocalizes how the novel formally rejects a realist narrative tradition associated with sentimental literature and embraces form as substantial.[34] Karel encapsulates this position when he later insists that his “tears [are] real”: he is not “the sort of person to weep for nothing—for effect,” nor is the novel (Y, 213).[35] Tyler explained this depth model of surface aesthetics to Pound, claiming that “the boys in our book while supericially sktched in as CHAracters show a special type of contemporary psychic action in relation to their several embraces of the homosexual image.”[36] The novel’s characters are rendered in minimal detail, Tyler claims, so that they can manifest internally “psychic,” not externally plot-based, “action,” related specifically to “the homosexual image,” a symbol of queerness.

Adhering to a contemporary predilection for recognizing modernist formal and sexual experimentation as performative and non-referential, Boone nevertheless argues that The Young and Evil “avoids representing states of interiority” and “offer[s] characterizations singularly devoid of psychological depth.”[37] Like its author Tyler, however, the novel invites us to read its characterological voids as representing “psychological depth” when, for instance, Karel claims that even “bracelets can become symbols,” or figures with both literal and figurative referents (Y, 38). Like Tyler, Karel seems to instruct the reader to interpret the novel’s exteriors symbolically: not as just “for nothing—for effect” but for mythic “depth.” This symbolic aesthetic is central to the novel’s mythopoeic status, for mythological literature generically relies upon the challenge that symbol presents to the ostensible realism of surface-based aesthetics: “as with the symbol in general,” Tzvetan Todorov claims, “mythology is at once general and particular, it is and it signifies.”[38]

The character Theodosia’s representation and role in The Young and Evil most consistently exemplify the substance lurking beneath the text’s queer surfaces. Despite Karel’s and Julian’s repeated attempts to write poetry, Theo’s passages are the text’s most lyrical and most expressive: with her “disquieting beauty, sarcasm, violated eyes,” Theo invites Julian to wonder, for example, “where bottomless places are and their reality,” places where “even reality [seems] a little forced” (Y, 35). Plumbing such depths, Theo constitutes the narrative’s affective center, yet the novel provides even less detail about her as a character of action and appearance than it does about Karel, Julian, Gabriel, and Louis. Theo’s function in the novel is most universalizing, then, for the text’s abrupt shifts to her point of view at the ends of chapters 3, 6, and 9—the passages in which Julian mourns his loss of Karel (3) and Theo mourns her loss of Julian (6 and 9) and a sailor named Jack (6)—provide the metaphysical underside to the physical, exterior loss that so many characters experience throughout the narrative.

In chapter 6, for example, Julian—whom Karel has just left for Louis because Julian “made things lopsided” (Y, 71)—attempts to find the depth of his loss in the surfaces around him: “He looked around the room to see what was missing. He could find a wrong space nowhere and was sad. Then he thought he saw what he had lost,” a “temporary illusion” that is finally only a kind of concealer for pain “that could be concealed by something else” (Y, 72). Recalling Karel’s claim about form and substance, surface becomes depth for Julian through the associative symbol of concealer: the next several pages consist of his musings about “murderpiss beautiful boys [who] grow out of dung” (Y, 74), boys whose exterior beauty belies their deeper decrepitude but to whose veneers Julian is nonetheless happy to be attracted so as to feel their “closetomeredder smell” (Y, 76). Julian’s acknowledgement that surface can yield affective depth (he later “knew that people had to forget appearances”) triggers an abrupt transition to a short passage about Theo and Jack, characters rendered as no more than metonymies (Jack is described only in blazon) for the kind of ephemeral love that Julian has just embraced (Y, 167). While Theo’s loss is heteroerotic (and one whose end echoes the “Nausicaa” chapter of Ulysses), Julian’s is homoerotic; the novel’s paratactic juxtaposition of the two privileges neither, however, indicating how human desire, loss, and the dialectic between surface and depth that creates symbols are the chapter’s—and the novel’s—central subjects. As Julian says, “beckoning is the same as becoming” in this queer worldscape (Y, 97).

Like its desirous characters, the novel’s plot works toward no teleological or ontological end; instead, it is built upon a series of betrayals, losses, and vagrancies. “Pack what you have and leave with me” is a sentiment repeated so often (in both speech and action) that it becomes a narrative leitmotif, framing the text thematically and structurally (Y, 110). Whereas naturalist novels like Sister Carrie (1900) typically used such emotional and spatial peripatetics for tragic purposes, however, The Young and Evil portrays betrayal, loss, and vagrancy as means toward ontological becoming. They suggest periodically arrested progress, recursive rather than linear motion, which Karel lauds when he learns that Julian has left Theo and is “not living with anyone now.” “Things do become don’t they Karel said” (Y, 109), suggesting that one “becomes” by refusing ends: “if we do not move, we will not get anywhere” (Y, 22). Because such movement is so often recursive, it assumes what the novel’s characters think to be a metaphysical depth: “‘Again’ thought Julian is more tragic than remorse” (Y, 137). As it does with symbols, meaning in The Young and Evil accumulates through “again”: through association and repetition, both of which occur with circular, not linear, motion. The novel’s second working title after Eve’s Adam—Love and Jump Back (chapter 11’s title in the final text) — encapsulates this recursive, synchronic structure and texture.

The novel’s plot does, of course, contain various conflicts and narrative threads, but those threads are multifarious, not singular or linear, as demonstrated by the final chapter, which concludes with an unexpected Dracula’s kiss when Louis bites Karel for refusing to leave Julian. Other than Louis’ examination of Julian’s teeth in the previous chapter (Y, 203), nothing in the diegesis anticipates this gothic ending—nothing other, that is, than the bite’s mythic resonance, which it shares possibly with “Little Red Riding Hood” and more certainly with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), a text that Leslie Fiedler believes created perhaps the most popular myth of the twentieth century.[39] This inconclusive conclusion, which opens rather than closes the book, echoes Fiedler’s claim that “primal myth . . . has no proper Aristotelian beginning or end—only an indefinitely extended middle.”[40] The novel’s “middle” is extended through its “end” as the text closes mid-action: the narrative concludes with Karel’s scream, omitting information about whether or how that scream stops. If anything, this “end” reinforces the narrative’s foreclosure of realist sentimentality—Louis dams Karel’s tears with a bite—and its embrace of what we will later see is a surrealist fusion of desire and death.[41]

In microcosmic fashion, chapter 8 perhaps best exemplifies The Young and Evil’s mythopoeic structure and texture and encapsulates how, at the levels of form and theme, the novel depicts the queer community itself as a mythic construction, a collective imaginable only as fragments. Titled “Letter,” the chapter is a Dear John missive from Karel to Julian and constitutes only a single page in the novel. Paratactically inserted between chapter 7 (which ends with Gabriel in Theo’s room) and chapter 9 (Julian walking to Theo’s), the letter disrupts any diachronic progression and emphasizes the atemporal affect, not the action, of Karel’s abandoning Julian. On the textural level, this emotion is created through Karel’s use of present participles and antecedentless pronouns, a technique that bears the imprint of Stein, Ford’s sometime mentor. The letter opens ambiguously: “It is not that. That wasn’t the making of it. It’s the unmaking. It is the unmaking of us. It is not that I am talking about: I am talking about us” (Y, 85). In the first two sentences, “it” has no antecedent—and while in the next two sentences “it” refers to “the unmaking,” in the following sentence Karel says that that “it” is not the “it” he is talking about. The accumulated effect of these ambiguous pronouns—and the participles among which they are situated—is to queer the concrete identity of Karel’s subject and to spatialize Karel’s emotion about the facts he cannot nominalize.

Recalling Nietzsche, Karel’s emotion is finally one of ecstasy at the promise of creative destruction. He realizes (like Joyce’s Molly Bloom) that “we were only being yes apart, not together, and that is the making of it”: for Karel, fracture—saying “yes” to “apart”—is the origin of “making,” whether the making of writing—the letter itself—or of sexual union. Karel synthesizes these topics when he writes that his departure “is good too for I am loving him, I am finding out again with someone entirely different oh so much so that there is nothing now but the writing of it” (Y, 84). Karel’s leaving produces a new union with Louis, yet Karel says that their bond, like his breakup with Julian, must be represented in “writing”: it can only be imagined in the writing of the letter, which is itself, part of the writing of The Young and Evil. “Letter” as a whole thus indicates that queer union is a myth— foundational in the imagination but a falsehood in reality—and that this myth structures the unstructured queer community. When even Julian later recognizes that he “was separated from the others and he was in it” (Y, 105), he realizes how, in the world of The Young and Evil, separation is the precondition for inclusion.

In point of fact, when Karel leaves Julian to pursue Louis, he finds Louis “turning queer so beautifully gradually and beautifully like a chameleon like a chameleon beautifully and gradually turning,” where the passage’s chiastic syntax implies that “turning queer” also involves “queer turning,” the very kind of betrayal that Louis later commits against Karel (Y, 124). Presentist like chapter 8 with its Steinian participles and chiastic spatiality, Karel’s description alludes to chapter 3’s aria of “Theodosia finding queer, saying I love you,” where loving another is synonymous with recognizing that other’s queerness (Y, 35). Gesturing self-referentially to chapters 3 and 8, Karel’s “turning” passage universalizes the feeling of labile and multi-directional desire as an atemporal affect and disperses it across the novel’s diegesis. Encapsulating the novel’s thematic and structural sensibilities, Karel’s aestheticization of promiscuous desire (Louis’ turning is “beautiful”) moreover reinforces his belief in “Letter” that queer union requires aestheticization. Recalling Stein’s reminder that “whatever this generation is” that Ford and Tyler represent, “it is a good thing . . . to be the first to create it in a book,” Karel’s letter endorsing polyamory and promiscuity reveals how queer collectivity can only be mythologized, aestheticized: represented “in a book” of queer mythology.

Taken together, these anti-realist formal techniques indicate how The Young and Evil attempts to create a mythic vision of human desire and experience—a vision that they are inevitably queer, or unstable— and why, from a historical standpoint, such a universal vision, even if granted as a “falsehood,” was “supremely significant” to queer authors writing in the wake of literary realism and naturalism.[42] Where naturalist literature is concerned with “the apparently unassailable supremacy of the natural sciences,” after all, and where those sciences in the late nineteenth century typically pathologized queer sexuality in medical cases that often became legal (if not forensic) cases, literary modes that enabled one to bypass the tyranny of the quantifiable in favor of the qualitative seemed logically amenable to writers whose queerness was all too quantified and not qualified enough.[43] Tyler in fact claimed that The Young and Evil would not “contribut[e] anything to textbook knowledge of homosexuality” because “homo information is not homorendition; there is plenty of homo information unaided by poetic insight but psychologically psychology never had any interest for me nor would mere transcribed orgy.” “The main point” of the novel, he maintained, “is NOT whether there are any new ‘scientific’ conclusions but whether there are any new phenomena.”[44]

The Young and Evil exhibits Tyler’s anti-positivist program when Karel asks Gabriel how it would feel “to consider meaning instead of being meant”: to consider representing oneself rather than being the object of representation. Instead of a naturalist predilection for quantifiable experience—“being meant”—Karel endorses a mythopoeic appreciation of qualitative experience: for “meaning” as an ongoing process, a present participle and a gerund; for “new phenomena,” in Tyler’s words, rather than “scientific conclusions” (Y, 45). Julian pointedly satirizes the aesthetic of “being meant” when he decries Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy: he campily reflects that, had he “been born as ugly . . . or as old” as them, he “should have had to be a genius,” suggesting that his own life falls outside of deterministic ontological and literary genealogies (Y, 108). Julian later extends this satire to sexology by calling Karel a “degenerate!” (Y, 115) for wanting a kiss and then by cheering his queer compatriots with a faux-eugenic toast: “To universal castration said Julian” (Y, 116).

These explicit affiliations of the nineteenth century with pathologizing dispositions toward queerness indicate how and why Ford and Tyler represent queer experience with modernist formal experimentation: they create a spatial novel whose nonlinear structure and texture mirror its nonlinear subjects, especially the nonlinear directions of queer desire. Ford and Tyler thus adhere to Eliot’s mythical method insofar as myth must “ignore simple verisimilitude,” Margaret Dalziel contends, in order “to shed light on man’s deepest questionings about himself and his place in the universe.”[45] Here Dalziel assumes that human beings’ questionings are so “deep” that they escape explicit surface representation and realist conclusions; they require, instead, illumination (but not pat answering) through implication and suggestion—through, as Karel says, “forestalling realization” (Y, 25) but not mythologization, for “stars are the reasons for men-bewildered words” (Y, 17). In The Young and Evil, cosmic illumination and mortal confusion are the source and the end of literary endeavors, “words.”

* ELH 76, 2009, pp. 1073–1086. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Making Modernism New: Queer Mythology in The Young and Evil (Part 2)


[1] T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975), 178.
[2] Joseph Allen Boone, Libidinal Currents (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), 255–56. Throughout this analysis, I will oscillate between using the terms gay and queer because scholars like George Chauncey have documented on a social/historical level what they call New York’s gay male community, one that had not congealed entirely into a particularly defined homosexual community but that was nonetheless structured on the criterion of sexual difference. See Chauncey, Gay New York (New York: Basic Books, 1993). On the formal and thematic level of The Young and Evil, however, that uncongealed community is more aptly described as queer. That is, the novel historicizes the gay male communities that historians have recorded but finds in their uncongealed particularity—their polymorphously queer, not just homosexual, population—the mythopoeic resources to offer a queer vision of humanity at large, part of what I am arguing is the novel’s fluctuation between folkloric (particular) and mythic (universal) functions.
[3] Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler to The English Journal in 1931, Charles Henri Ford Papers, YCAL MSS 32, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Box 2, Folder 176. As their comments about Blues indicate, Ford and Tyler wrote in a period that they self-consciously called modernism. In contemporary literary historiography, of course, the category modernism does not signify a monolithic aesthetic movement. Accordingly, I do not aim to simplify a variegated period under the rubric of this historical term but to examine how Ford and Tyler conceived of the period: as a movement of formal and experiential (especially sexual) experimentation. As my introductory examples suggest, such experiments in The Young and Evil most typically resemble a high modernist aesthetic, one allied with texts by James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, and Djuna Barnes and distinguished from, say, those by Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and D. H. Lawrence.
[4] Boone, 264.
[5] I use the term ethnic to denote the qualities or characteristics of a particular group. While Michael Warner claims in the “Introduction” to Fear of a Queer Planet (ed. Warner [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minneapolis Press, 1993], vii–xxxi) that “people tend not to encounter queerness in the same way as ethnic identity” (xvii), twentiethcentury queer writers’ use of mythology to create literary and historical communities tells a different story, especially about the role that mythological literature plays as a mediating force in the paradoxical construction of a non-identitarian community. For several uses of the term ethnic to refer to the queer community, see Chauncey, 271–99; Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David Halperin [New York: Routledge, 1993], 3–44); and Richard Rodriguez’s chapter “Late Victorians” in his Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (New York: Viking, 1992), 26–47.
[6] Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” 177, 176. Ford and Tyler invoke Eliot twice in the novel, in fact, which suggests their unsurprising awareness of his importance to modernist aesthetics (Y, 39, 176). For a helpful critical examination of Eliot’s “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” see Denis Donoghue’s “Yeats, Eliot, and the Mythical Method,” The Sewanee Review 105 (1997): 206–26.
[7] Ford and Tyler, The Young and Evil (New York: Masquerade Books, 1988), 1. Hereafter abbreviated Y and cited parenthetically by page number.
[8] Chauncey, 34. An entire essay could be devoted to how Ford and Tyler queer the mythological texts to which they allude in the novel, beginning with Julian’s composition and destruction of a story about Adam and Eve: just as Ford and Tyler discard the text’s first title, so too does the text discard one of the most heteronormative tales in western mythology (Y, 88–89). The allusion to Riding Hood also exemplifies such queering, for, by situating Riding Hood in the queer world of the Round Table, the authors expose the sexual non-normativity inherent but often overlooked in that fairytale. As related by Charles Perrault, female homoeroticism and drag propel the text’s plot: Red’s “mother was beyond reason excessively fond of her, and her grandmother yet much more”; so much more, in fact, that Red doesn’t pause when the person she believes to be her grandmother beckons Red to “come into bed to me.” Instead, Red “undressed her self, and went into bed” and offers a rather erotic blazon of her grandmother before the wolf devours her (“Little Red Ridinghood,” The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. Iona and Peter Opie, [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980], 122, 125). The wolf is able to do so only, of course, because he has, anticipating Ford and Tyler’s drag queen, imitated both Red and the grandmother’s voice and worn the grandmother’s clothes.
[9] Apart from those cited elsewhere in this essay, the novel’s other explicit mythical allusions include references to satyrs and naiads (Y, 12), “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (Y, 13), Arabian Nights (Y, 17), Jesus (Y, 17), Cinderella (Y, 17, 135), Prometheus (Y, 26, 48), Helen of Troy (Y, 136), and the headless horseman (Y, 171), but I would contend that the text’s various invocations of modernist writers are also mythopoeic: they attempt to mythologize the contemporary literary scene through formal juxtaposition with traditional mythological allusions.
[10] Eliot’s insistence upon mythical literature’s “way of controlling, of ordering . . . the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (177) in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” exemplifies such normativity, for he hopes that the mythical method will allow the ostensibly orderly past to control the ostensibly chaotic (and therefore meaningless) present. Eliot’s lament for unsullied, reproductive heterosexual relations in The Waste Land suggests the heteronormative assumptions behind this aesthetic, even if his own support of often queer texts like Ulysses and Nightwood betrays those assumptions. Although Heather Love has recently argued for the centrality of mythology to queer experience in Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007), esp. 5, 133, 135, most accounts of literary mythology rely upon a heteronormative framework similar to Eliot’s. See especially Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), which purports to study an interracial, “homoerotic” mythic bond between men in the American realist narrative imaginary but which renders that myth asexually homophilic when Fiedler claims that delibidinized attraction marks “a general superiority of the love of a man for man over the ignoble lust of man for woman” (369). For Fielder’s reliance upon Sigmund Freud’s heteronormative Oedipal myth, see Love and Death, 382, 390.
[11] Christopher Nealon, Foundlings: Lesbian and Gay Historical Emotion Before Stonewall (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2001), 4.
[12] Nealon, 8.
[13] In his More Man than You’ll Ever Be (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1989), Joseph Goodwin argues that folklore functions in a “subculture as a means of communication and identification, as an aid to subcultural cohesion” (xiv) and, beyond the subculture, as “a framework for ordering experience” that may “requir[e] disorganization and restructuring of our existing concepts of reality” (79). Folklore thus serves a double function of cohesion (for the subculture) and disruption (of the dominant culture), precisely the double function I am describing of The Young and Evil’s mythology. All myths were at some point folkloric, of course, but some myths—especially Biblical and classical myths—have assumed such universal status in western societies that they appear deracinated from their folkloric traditions. Ford and Tyler seize upon such false universalization to root their text’s literary critique and co-option of mythology.
[14] Warner, xxv.
[15] Warner, xvi; emphasis mine.
[16] Where Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s terms “universalizing” and “minoritizing” might be useful to consider in this context (Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet [Berkeley: UC Press, 1990], 40), as Boone does (see Boone, 252–53), I prefer the terms mythic and ethnic because they more comprehensively describe not only the sexual-historical but the literary-formal aims of Ford and Tyler’s project.
[17] About The Young and Evil, Ford writes to Stein on 20 December 1932 that “you are most good. I like the new words much better and am sure Parker will appreciate the change too” (Ford to Stein, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, YCAL MSS 76, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Box 107, Folder 2119). Ford notes that Stein made changes to drafts of the novel’s chapters “Siege” and “High Heels Over Their Corpses” (presumably revised as “Chapter Two: Julian and Karel” in the final text [Y, 20]) (Charles Henri Ford Papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 7, Folders 3 and 12). See Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Dear Sammy, ed. Samuel M. Steward (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977) for a humorous variation on Stein’s evaluation of the novel’s “first” accomplishment (34).
[18] Pound to Ford, 1 February 1929, Charles Henri Ford Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Box 2, Folder 144. Authors’ often idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation in correspondence have been preserved here and throughout this essay.
[19] George Bornstein, “Eight Letters from Ezra Pound to Parker Tyler in the 1930s,” Michigan Quarterly Review 24 [1985]: 13.
[20] Tyler to Pound, 14 October 1934, Ezra Pound Papers, YCAL MSS 43, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Box 53, Folder 2400.
[21] Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1970), 265; Boone, 264.
[22] Michael Bell, Literature, Modernism and Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), 1, 37.
[23] Bell, Literature, 2.
[24] Parker Tyler, The Granite Butterfly (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1994), 74. For further examination of the various definitions of the term myth and the ways it has been used in literary criticism, see Bell, Literature, 4, 12; Eric Gould’s Mythical Intentions in Modern Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1981), esp. 6–14; Lynda D. McNeil’s Recreating the World/Word: The Mythic Mode as Symbolic Discourse (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), esp. 260–61; and Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice, ed. John B. Vickery (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966), esp. 3–136.
[25] Tyler, 45.
[26] For just one example of Ford’s later attempts to refashion conventional myths for modern purposes, see his late film Johnny Minotaur (1971).
[27] Joseph Frank, The Idea of Spatial Form (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1991), 63–64.
[28] E. W. Herd, “Myth and Modern German Literature,” in Myth and the Modern Imagination, ed. Margaret Dalziel (Dunedin: Univ. of Otago Press, 1967), 69. 29 G. R. Manton, “The Making of Myth,” in Myth and the Modern Imagination, 16.
[29] G. R. Manton, “The Making of Myth,” in Myth and the Modern Imagination, 16.
[30] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), 63.
[31] Bell, Literature, 35.
[32] For an extended discussion of the relationship between realism and mythology, see Gregory L. Lucente’s The Narrative of Realism and Myth: Verga, Lawrence, Faulkner, Pavese (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981), esp. 41–53.
[33] My thanks to Glenn Brewer for his help with thinking through this disorienting description.
[34] Christopher Looby examines this tension between the queer novel and the genre’s historical affiliations with romance and sentimentalism. See Looby, “The Gay Novel in the United States 1900–1950,” in A Companion to the Modern American Novel 1900– 1950, ed. John Matthews (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 414–36, esp. 414–15.
[35] Ford claims something similar of himself when he writes to Pound on 15 August 1927, “I may not understand. I may not know. But I feel with no false emotion” (Pound Papers, Box 17, Folder 746).
[36] Tyler to Pound, 18 September 1933, Pound Papers, Box 53, Folder 2400.
[37] Boone, 261.
[38] Tzvetan Todorov, Theories of the Symbol, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), 210.
[39] See Fiedler, What Was Literature? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 136.
[40] Fiedler, What Was Literature?, 132.
[41] In a metatextual speech, Karel suggests how this spatial plot is mythopoeic: referring to Gabriel and Louis, he says that “they are the secret of the night but so am I and so the siege is begun. No castles have fallen nor ladies been abducted for today we are too subtle for that. I’m going to the library” (Y, 196). In a novel filled with psychic and emotional conflict, or “siege,” the characters are too “subtle” for the plot conventions of traditional narrative. Abjuring convention, the text fulfills its promise, like many high-minded modernist texts, to be a novel bound for “the library” rather than the bedside table.
[42] See Jamake Highwater’s The Mythology of Transgression (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 56, for a discussion of realism’s naturalization of myth’s unnaturalizable impulses.
[43] Herd, 53.
[44] Tyler to Pound, 18 September 1933, Pound Papers, Box 53, Folder 2400.
[45] Dalziel, “Myth in Modern English Literature,” in Myth and the Modern, 29–30.