Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Chaplin's Modernist Realism

Brecht was convinced that if we were to read a fine novel and then learn later that it had been written by Lenin, our opinion of both the book and the Bolshevik would suffer. Being able to form a set of rounded characters or turn a shapely sentence aren’t, it seems, part of the skill set you demand from a revolutionary theorist and working-class leader.

It hasn’t dented my opinion of him, but discovering Charles Chaplin’s My Autobiography has been as creatively destructive an experience as the one Brecht imagined for himself. Chaplin is, of course, one of the great Modernists. His autobiography, though - a story of one man’s journey from ‘small garret’ to end up ‘sadder but wiser’ in a Swiss palace - is a triumph of a particular type of English-language Realism. Where else has this kind of double generic life been going on? What moonlighting might yet be uncovered? Did Lukacs have a similar text hidden away, History and the Stream of Class Consciousness?

All of the outrage and indignation you’d expect from the creator of The Great Dictator is here (interesting, too, his observation that he could never have made that film had he known the full extent and horrors of Nazism’s anti-Semitic outrages):

I found poverty neither attractive nor edifying. It taught me nothing but a distortion of values, an over-rating of the virtues and graces of the so-called better classes.

Wealth and celebrity, on the contrary, taught me to view the world in proper perspective, to discover that men of eminence, when I came close to them, were as deficient in their way as the rest of us.

Chaplin achieves this ‘proper perspective’ with the help of baroque vocabulary (“the ‘he man’ atmosphere of the studio would have been almost intolerable but for the pulchritudinous influence”) and high-energy ‘literary’ touches (“to gauge the morals of our family by commonplace standards would be as erroneous as putting a thermometer in boiling water.”). He even manages to come up with a quick guide to character along the way: you can always tell someone’s worth by what kind of an Oscar Wilde they turn out like. One theatrical entrepreneur “looked like a coarse edition of Oscar Wilde.” No trusting him then. Emil Ludwig, on the other hand, “looked like a refined Oscar Wilde.”

It may be that my shock at all this richly totalising detail and perspective has been conditioned by the last century’s wars of position around realism and modernism. This is how Michael Denning argues it:

The two leading transnational aesthetic terms – realism and modernism – were so embedded in the cultural Cold War that they became mere honorifics, with little actual meaning. In the communist world, favoured writers were proclaimed realists; in the capitalist world, they were deemed modernists. The discoveries that apparent modernists were actually realist – think of the cases of Brecht and Picasso – and the reverse claim that classic social realists were actually modernists (as in contemporary reinterpretations of Lu Xun) have regularly been part of the ideological battle conducted through these terms.

Perhaps, then, Chaplin’s Autobiography shows the realism in his modernism, and the modernist possibilities bursting out of his realism, and we can enlist him as an example of what John Roberts has identified as “modernist realism” or the interrupted conversation between the two:

At the depth of this dolorous period, Mother began to develop migraine headaches and was forced to give up her needlework, and for days was obliged to lie in a dark room with tea-leaf bandages over her eyes. Picasso had a blue period. We had a grey one, in which we lived on parochial charity, soup tickets and relief parcels.

Works Cited

Michael Denning, “The Novelists’ International” in Franco Moretti (ed.), The Novel, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 705.

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