For most of the year I was engaged in several research projects, some old concerns, others new ones.
In high school one of the products of my teaching myself French was my attachment to the prose of Gustave Flaubert. Later I became interested, for theoretical reasons, in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. My comparative project, which yielded one of my longer blogposts focused on their common interest in North Africa. Because of the overtones of imperialism and orientalism, the results were somewhat astringent.
Then I turned to a real challenge: to try to make sense of the “first philosophers,” the Presocratics of ancient Greece. The most interesting ones are clearly Heraclitus and Parmenides. I assimilated as much of the recent scholarship as I could, but ultimately concluded that I was out of my depth.
Now I have returned to an interest that goes back to my teenage years: the nature of modernism. I am approaching this matter by focusing on two key figures: Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound. In 2014 Picasso has garnered renewed attention because of four exhibitions currently running here in NYC: the Lauder Collection at the Metropolitan Museum, and three big shows at private galleries. Having seen these exhibitions, I took the occasion to review recent contributions on Cubism. Of these, the Picasso monograph by Pepe Karmel seems the most probing and fundamental. All the same, the logical status of Cubism in the unfolding of modern art remains unsettled. Clearly it was very important, but it no longer ranks as a truly epochal turning point, as it did in my youth.
Pound’s eclecticism helps to explain the ongoing scholarly contributions addressing the poet, a number of them quite probing. Recent monographs - there is a whole raft of them - have explored the poet’s engagement with such topics as ancient China, John Adams, and Scotus Eriugena (the medieval Irish philosopher).
Evaluation of Pound’s extreme rightwing views continues - and the results of the inquiry are disconcerting, to say the least. However, similar political leanings characterized a number of key modernist writers, such as T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, F. T. Marinetti and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, John Dos Passos and James Burnham. Pound’s efforts in the 1930s to reinvent himself as an economist by embracing the Social Credit movement of Major C. H. Douglas now seem amateurish and half-baked. Yet in these latter days, with both Keynsianism and Austrian economics faltering, it may be time to look into alternative traditions. For example, Thomas Piketty’s formula “r > g” (meaning that the rate of return on capital is generally higher than the rate of economic growth) looks curiously like the much-criticized A plus B thesis of Social Credit.