If Modernism begins with the death of God & the subsequent plunge into subjective experience in Western culture, it remains true that old traditions keep turning up in new forms. Whereas Modernism dismisses folk beliefs for an urban cosmopolitanism, it has never managed to completely banish the old atavisms of the folk. And good thing, too, since those deep & shadowy forces continually challenge the progressivism of Modernism. All of which is prologue to reporting that I read two books this summer, one after the other, that play with their relations between the old and the new. The first, The Old, Weird America, by Greil Marcus is ostensibly a report on the creation of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band in 1967, but is, as the title suggests, a meditation on Dylan’s reinvention of American folk music; the book is actually at its strongest when discussing Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music [Amazon link] and the country banjo player & singer Dock Boggs. Boggs is a remarkable character in Marcus’ telling, a rounder & a poet of the old America.
Dock Boggs made a primitive-modernist music about death. Primitive because the music was put together out of junk you could find in anyone’s yard, hand-me-down melodies, folk-lyric fragments, pieces of Child ballads, mail-order instruments, and the new women’s blues records they were making in the northern cities in the early years of the 1920s; modernist because the music was about choices you made in a world a disinterested god had plainly left to its own devices, a world where only art or revolution, the symbolic remaking of the world, could take you out of yourself. [Marcus153-154]
I also read Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, which is about the old, weird Scotland; or rather, about the cusp between the old, weird Scotland & the modern nation of the same name. And about the hubris of science & the power of the inexplicable. Gray’s novel recounts the life of Bella Baxter, who may or may not be the creation of the deformed giant & scientific genius Godwin Baxter, whom Bella refers to as “God,” short for Godwin, which is also a sly reference to William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story is composed of multiple narratives, different voices, documents, footnotes, maps, & bits of historical fact. The novel presents Godwin as, like Frankenstein, half scientist & half mage. And his creation, Bella, is beautiful, not monstrous (though she has monstrous appetites). Gray’s novel explores possible responses to what we might think of as the Modernist dissolution of epistemological certainty & personal identity. But none of these abstractions really capture the deep, sweet, weirdness of the novel.
- NPR story on Harry Smith & the Anthology with audio links.
- Dock Boggs lyrics & other information.