All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity
Marshall Berman’s new book, with its apocalyptic title, is a contribution to the large and growing literature of modernism, modernity, and the modern. Nominally, the book takes the “modern” experience to be close to five hundred years old, dating it perhaps from the Reformation or something like that, but to the first three hundred of those years it pays little attention. Many traditional accounts of modernism (for it’s a topos with a curiously long history) lay great emphasis on the seventeenth-century querelle des anciens et modernes, which began with Boileau, Perrault, and Fontenelle in France, but widened as it crossed the Channel to involve Richard Bentley, William Wotton, Sir William Temple, Charles Boyle, and of course Jonathan Swift—widened also to include, beyond matters of literary taste, a fresh assessment of the new science and its achievements. None of this concerns Berman, who for the purposes of the book seems to take modernism as beginning approximately with the Industrial Revolution or the later stages of it, when the substitution of steam for water power led to the formation, in the western midlands, of the first large-scale industrial towns.
In this, as in so many other nineteenth-century developments, the colossal, ambiguous figure of Napoleon—half-hidden in the smoke of his wars—has often held our gaze. But it does not hold that of Mr. Berman, who begins his assemblage of five interconnected essays with a study of Goethe’s Faust, then moves on to an analysis of Marx, an appraisal of Baudelaire, a celebration of Saint Petersburg, and an account of the Bronx and its sufferings at the demonic hands of Robert Moses. Faust is taken as a prophetic, an emblematic figure, but the play is not studied in relation to Goethe’s circumstances, development, or other writings. Baudelaire and Marx, on the other hand, are seen as adapting or responding to the patterns of social, and especially urban, life characteristic of their age. In the last two essays, cities directly take over as the central figures under discussion, by comparison with which human and imaginative responses are shown, though brave, to be overmatched.
This choice and arrangement of topics correspond to Berman’s basic metaphor for modernism, which he sees as a maelstrom, a violent and inhuman complex of industrial forces to which men respond imaginatively or through organizational forms, but which, for better or worse, is irresistible and ultimately destructive of its own achievements. In developing this vision, Berman writes with appropriate vehemence and without any lofty pretenses of standing above or outside the process; Aristophanes would enlist him under the banner of those who proclaim that “Whirl is King.” A closer relation would be with Thomas Carlyle, whose Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh can often be heard through Berman’s agitated, adjectival pages, proclaiming in turgid prose his doctrine of change. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—it’s nowhere more true than of the change-preachers themselves.
Of Berman’s five essays, by far the …