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Eclecticism 3/4

Eclecticism is not modernism; eclecticism is the nightmare of modernism. Eclecticism is, of course, modern in the sense of contemporary; but it is the utter opposite of any movement which can be called modern or modernist.

Modernism postulates that every age has its own needs, which only it can answer for itself. For a century and more the avant-garde of modernism has been on a continual charge against the retreating remnants of a past that somehow, even in defeat, obstructs the way to an art and aesthetic and language and lifestyle belonging entirely and spontaneously to the living. This vanguard has chased the past off the field and into the hills and all the way down to the bottom of the box canyon…

Are they sure that was a retreat?

But modernism need not despise the past. Its principle is only to believe that each age must answer its own needs on its own terms – with or without the past’s advice, but never under its authority.

The history of modernism parallels the history of fashion; thus the decline of fashion parallels the decline of modernism. What was fashion but a message that went out from somewhere? – from London, from Paris, from New York, from Los Angeles. Above all, to be fashionable was to show that you had received the message; to show, by how soon you got it, how close you were to the center. But now the Internet brings all messages to everyone, and now fashion is the center of nothing but itself. We dress not to show that we get the message, but to show which message we get.

This model, with the same centers, ruled most arts in the twentieth century. And though the informal workings of culture have abandoned the model, the institutions of education and career in the arts and humanities still presume it. They are thus left in the worst kind of obsolescence: looking backward for the future that was to be, forlorn as Communists in a Moscow McDonald’s.

In retrospect modernism seems less a movement than a quest. The Grail Quest – as Mallory tells it – disbanded the Round Table and killed off most of its knights. The quest of modernism, though less successful, was no less costly. Its cost – but who counted while all those strong young questers were falling in private experiment or public revolution? How they searched: outward among the tribesmen, among the workers, among the priests and prophets, among the scientists; inward in analyzed dreams, in redeemed madness, behind all the doors of perception. And for what grail?

For the myth, the truth, that would given them place and purpose in the world, that would give the world place and purpose for them.

But after all their questing, we have our truths from the study of the week; and our myths, not from the frenzies and blacklights of Bohemia, but from the library quiet of Tolkien’s Oxford, the narrow windows of Lovecraft’s Providence, the concept art of Lucas’s California. We have our places where we renovate, and we set our purposes with mission statements.

Their efforts brought returns, but never the desired return. One after another they threw their work, their ideas, their methods, their insights, their movements, their visions at the world. And the world simply took them in, one after another. They hoped to recreate and revolutionize; but all they did was add. To add is good; it is in truth as much as we can ask or hope for who work; but it was not what they meant – not what any of it was for.

What they carved with acid honesty and discipline and integrity from the granite of their own true natures, they had to watch become the affectation or the property of those who could not have made it, who could not understand it, who could not even have recognized it on their own.

They called it loss, defeat, violation. The eclectic must answer, instead, that their pain was the pain of revelation: the pain of the discovery that there is no bedrock to our nature, only slow sand under fast sand, only common affectations concealing uncommon ones. For the true eclectic, the only real affectation is authenticity.