There is a malicious joke about probability theory. A scientist tells a millionaire that if he gives a hundred monkeys chalk and books and sets them in front of a chalkboard for thirty years, it is probable that, sooner or later, one of them will write something. The man locks the monkeys in and goes about his business; two months later he wonders what they’re up to, and when he walks in, while he finds them as monkeyish as ever, he sees a sentence on the chalkboard: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” It’s not a great joke, but it does come to mind when one seeks to explain to oneself the year 1922—not only because Proust (the sentence’s author) died in 1922, but also because it suggests that no theory will ever abolish the Masterpiece. Much less if the Masterpieces come in a deluge. In truth, 1922 leaves its interpreter adrift between argumentative reason and faith in mystery. So the story can start anywhere. For example, with comings and goings.
Among the displaced who wandered the Europe of the twenties, dumbstruck by national break-ups and the trauma of the First World War, was Galician Jew Joseph Roth, the top storyteller of the fall: the disintegrative fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the vertiginous fall of bourgeois Philistinism. In a passage from The Emperor’s Tomb, former fop Francisco Trotta returns from the front to his family home. It is not enough that Vienna is in ruins and he feels guilty for not having died: he finds his mother widowed, unscathed in her dignity, playing a piano whose keys no longer sound because she has sold the wires in order to eat. Luckily, the lady no longer suffers because, try as she might to deny it, she is deaf.
Few attain such symbolic concentration. And still, it wasn’t enough. The First War was much more: rats in the trenches, a sky of Zeppelins spilling fire over churches, shreds of the sixteen cultures that once came together under Franz Joseph’s crown. During the war, the Bolsheviks established socialism in Russia and the Dadaists dynamited grammar in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire. During the war, Kandinsky painted the first abstract painting and the expressionists refined an aesthetic of shadows to fend off the disappearance of God. “A world has come to an end,” ruled Walter Gropius. But the drama went beyond the worldly. Physicists said the observer modified experience, light was a wave and a particle at once, matter was not substance but energy; Freud described the Ego as a makeshift mediator between two subconsciouses; technique created superhuman artifacts; Bergson said we are time in flow. The City was crowned as the fantastic arena of the subject’s dissolution into a tapestry of sensations. Schoenberg’s atonalism ate away at the majestic stonework of German music. In 1922, Spengler would hit the jackpot among pessimists with The Decline of the West. It was a problem of his. The language that had lent supreme authority to positivism was no longer of any more use than a bouquet of wormy chrysanthemums.
But, all of a sudden, something else happened. Some set about grinding the dry petals of language, taking it to a potency that, instead of representing reality according to positive reason, created something more vigorous, racked by its closeness to that which language will never possess. Language was a cage, yes, but a cage that could expand to the size of the universe. And the process of expansion practically began with this year. The arrogant James Joyce had turned a blind eye to the war in Zurich, immersed in supporting his family and writing a book in which the history of humanity would be condensed into one day in the history of a single man. Ulysses: a string of synchronies in the consciousness of the prototypical Leopold Bloom, a timorous and sensual Dublin Jew, and, like Odysseus, “a son, a husband, a workmate and a father, an overcomer of trials through common sense.” An amalgam of Bloom’s equanimity, Stephen Dedalus’s struggle to free himself of History, and Molly Bloom’s germinative power. Minutiae, thickness, sexuality, and polyphony of language in the changing City. Ezra Pound, promoter of innovators in tight spots, did not sleep through it. He convinced Joyce to set up shop in Paris. Isn’t it fantastic to have arrived in a city barefoot and to end up in a luxury apartment?, as Joyce would say. Pound got him shoes, accommodation, furniture, connections, and an editor: Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate and owner of the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. The book no English-speaking country had wanted to publish for its recalcitrance and scabrosity came out on 2-2-1922, the day Joyce turned forty. A thousand copies sold, and soon two thousand more; the avant-garde was a powerful network of optional circulation.
As if emptied into writing, close to the year’s other end, on November 18, Marcel Proust would die after murmuring the word Mother. Weeks before, the recent edition of Sodom and Gomorrah had sold out, the fourth of the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Thus, it has been said, the twilight of one literary era coincided with the dawn of another. But it was not so: while Proust’s novel might seem to be the last word of the prior century, romantic and temporalist to distraction, its monodic exploration of feeling prefigures the new analytical era. Because we now know Proust’s art consisted not so much of remembering, but rather of tending to memory in order to illuminate, with painful grace, not only the generality of suffering, but also the fertile work of the spirit on itself; in an unfolding of the self to get hold of a fragment of time in its pure state. This purity is not amoral, but its laws are not natural.
Rilke knew this: Art is the world’s most impassioned inversion, a journey back from the Infinite on which one comes across all that is honorable going the other way, he had written. Still, this inverse journey did not keep him from being the idol of the sleepless German youth of the Weimar Republic. Rilke was the Bard. He gave advice, adored vast perspective, and urged the lover to take the beloved as a platform toward intemporality. While he knew there is no reverse of language, Rilke thought song is consonance with the Other Side; he therefore loved Orpheus and called for taking in death in order to complete oneself. This thorough understanding that surrender annihilates came to him… in February 1922. Shut away in Château de Muzot, beside the Rhone, he finished the Duino Elegies and, in the same turn, wrote the first part of the Sonnets to Orpheus. At this point, the story of the year 1922 starts to turn unreal. Every angel is terrifying, says a famous line from the Elegies. But Rilke’s angels are not so Christian; they are a myth of human making that looks at man from everything man is not; the safeguard of a longing without which words would crush us. Being here is glorious, he wrote, and with an impassioned patience he reconfigured German such that it could take in this glory.
Passion and application dominated the climate. It was the Roaring Twenties, the Revolution and the Idea loomed large, excess and carousing equaled hardship. Humanity could only regenerate itself in art, because art knew how to use its materials to destroy more rightly than the cannons and build better. 1922. In humiliated Germany, you needed a wheelbarrow to carry a week’s wages; The Economic Consequences of the Peace irritated many, because Keynes said inflation could spur on development. Far away, in Chicago, King Oliver added the flamboyant trumpet of Louis Armstrong to his Creole Jazz Band and the dance began. Having published the epic of a generation of flirty girls and tortured heartthrobs, Tales of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald went off to get drunk in Paris. There already were Hemingway learning the art of the ellipsis in Maupassant’s stories and Louis Aragon translating the collage of urban visions invented by Picasso and Braque into the novel. All of them crossed paths in Paris: Stravinsky, Diaghilev, the tenants of Le Sphinx brothel, Gide, Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Pound, and Josephine Baker. André Breton, set upon transfiguring life through objective chance, proposed a national congress for the regulation of modern art. The premiere of the stage version of Locus Solus, funded by Raymond Roussel himself, was a brawl. Every morning the remote Paul Valery got up at four to write his diary: He who thinks observes himself in what he is not; even still, that year he published Charmes, where we find “The Graveyard by the Sea.” In Berlin, Theodor Däubler compared expressionism to the synthesis of a whole life perceived by someone who is drowning to death. Synthesizing dialects, cabaret jargon, and parody of religious texts, Bertolt Brecht created an anti-cathartic theater. In Moscow, Lenin elevated Stalin to general secretary of the Party. The Russian poets saw it coming. Formalists as they were, they languished to reconcile the egalitarianism of the Revolution with the egalitarianism of forms. The imaginist Esenin decided to marry Isadora Duncan. Before going into exile from Moscow, where, to her misfortune, she would return at the height of the Stalinist terror, Marina Tsvetaeva brought coloquial peasant language to the epic poem in “The Maiden Tsar,” “Alleyways,” and “The Lad.” From his internal exile in Crimea, the greatest, Ossip Mandelstam, published Tristia, an Ovidian affirmation of poetry as universal means of expression: I am left with one care only, a golden one: / To free myself from the burden of time. In ancient Venice, Robert Musil finished Three Women, Alban Berg did the same to the definitive version of Wozzeck, and Freud received the exploratory visit from Arthur Schnitzler, his literary double, to talk about dreams. Solvay, the inventor of soda, died, as did Graham Bell, the false inventor of the telephone. The happening of the year in Italy was not Gli indomabili—a lazy tale by Marinetti—but the fascist march on Rome, which, on October 28, imposed Mussolini as Head of Government. That month, fifty thousand people had heard Adolf Hitler speak in Munich. The English took this only slightly into account. In the bosom of the intense Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf met her future beloved Vita Sackville-West and published The Common Reader, essays by an unequaled reader who treated books like living things. Fernando Pessoa, a commercial translator from Lisbon, pushed forward with the division of himself into various capitalized poets. In Prague, Franz Kafka wrote in his diary: They all of them stretch out their hands to me: forebears, marriage, and heirs, but too far away for me. Surreptitiously back from a diplomatic mission in China, with nothing but praises for the way of the world, Saint-John Perse contributed to the prodigy publishing Anabasis. Einstein received the Nobel Prize for Physics. The Nobel for Literature was won by Jacinto Benavente. If the Spanish language shone in these circumstances it was because in Latin America the mestizo César Vallejo published Trilce, verging on that private language that Wittgenstein considered impossible, and Oliverio Girondo Twenty Poems to be Read on the Streetcar. But in Latin America, all sorts of transitions were starting: between the high and radiating laces of Rubén Darío, López Velarde, Lugones, Huidobro, and Herrera y Reissig’s modernism and the hallucinations of marvels and tragedies that technique was stripping from the sign board of mystery. Horacio Quiroga, the Uruguayan who had lived for years in the jungle of Misiones, Argentina, one of the nature-culture binary’s first detractors, articulated his notions of storytelling in film in weekly notes for the journal El Hogar, where, years later, Borges would write about foreign books. In the year at hand, Quiroga—who had inherited Kipling’s jungle and Poe’s inversion of horror, and had written a tale about a war waged by snakes against the unscrupulous humans eager to kill them and turn a profit off their venom—published the story “The Spectre,” in which the spirit of a dead actor bursts into the material world from a film in which he played the leading role (a little like decades later in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo) to court a woman or pursue her. Quiroga often went to the cinema with his friend Alfonsina Storni, the poet who indefatigably sought a language that might redeem her not only from the modernist tower but also from the masculine monopoly on poetry, from fatuous bourgeois moralizing, and from condemnation to a secondary role as a fallen woman. A year before, Storni, a single mother fired from several jobs for her immorality, had bestowed Languidez, a pioneering poetic elbow to the traditional cynic or the unrepentant scumbag (you want me white…). Quiroga died by suicide. Storni died by suicide. T.S. Eliot, after being psychoanalyzed in Switzerland, launched in London the first issue of the journal Criterion, which contained his poem The Waste Land in its entirety, just as he had envisioned it, with clarifications of poetic and mythological references, corrected line by line by Ezra Pound.
The above is a sort of montage, a conglomerate of snippets that does not claim to be uncontestable. Before the avant-gardes, this technique was almost nonexistent. The work of the classical artist sought to be the living portrait of a whole, a mirror on the world. The avant-garde strove to pull fragments of reality out of context, to strip them of their function and put them back together such that they created meaning. The work of art had become artificial, liable to be interpreted bit by bit; but it honored the truth, Walter Benjamin said, “taking in the rubble of experience.” Sergei Eisenstein defined a new cinema, creating the “montage of attractions.” Max Ernst’s collages were montages, as in part were Ulysses and the novels of Dos Passos. The montage brought together parallel happenings in a single space; it was stateless, fast, and impersonal. The montage was the fetish of the avant-garde, the Ego substituted for the synchronous infinite. Eliot thought the present of language had to be staunched with vestiges of the past. The simultaneism of The Waste Land was the apogee of poetic High Modernity. April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain: this macabre irony that opens the poem, winding into ditties, Vedic hymns, Dantesque tercets, megaphoned orders and wearied bedroom dialogues, in images of purgatory, frivolous gettings-together, and rubbish in the Thames, was interpreted as a metaphor for the death throes of Europe; but it could well have been the tape of a neurotic conscience rich in myths. The more seasoned reader does not bother about understanding, Eliot said. Poetry was a fusion between emotions and a theory of writing. Perhaps this was why he had accepted that the infallible Pound—to whom, in the end, he dedicated the poem—cut four hundred of its lines. At any rate, he added to it an apparatus of explanatory notes, thereby completing that gift of the avant-garde we have not yet entirely unwrapped: complexity, difficulty, works that imply new ways of reading and include directives for critics. In The Waste Land, the two utopias of 1922 dovetail: accuracy of image and creative digression. Art as the inducer of an emancipated perception.
Perhaps what happened that year must be explained through numerology. Maybe one day we’ll think it wasn’t such a big deal. In any case, language had crashed against its ruses, its tyrannical distinctions, its lethal repetitions, and in the trembling of its shards the presence of that which escapes human dominion could be discerned. Language was the factual form of all mental life, and therefore the artist’s field of action. The Viennese Ludwig Wittgenstein, who on the warfront had conceived of a final answer to all philosophical misjudgments, also published his book in that incredible year, in Oxford, thanks to Bertrand Russell’s intercession. It was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and there Wittgenstein said: The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. He proposed a philosophy made only of elucidations; he compared words to a ladder that falls away once you’ve passed over to the other side (the mystical). There is a photo of the unflagging Wittgenstein with fire in his eyes, as if foreseeing how little can be said with clarity. He had pointed out the impotence and the cutting edge of language. Of course, in the same months, the great Mandelstam refuted poetry’s derision with a hallelujah to reconciliation: I am the gardener and the flower. After him came Stalin and Hitler. But the fog of his breath remained on time’s eternal glass.