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Who Made It New?

Courtauld Gallery, London
‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’; painting by Honoré Daumier, circa 1870

In the old order, God may well have been in heaven and the king in his castle, but out in the countryside there were, among the agents of chaos, near-continual war, the Black Death, and apocalyptic cults. Despite his orderly cosmos, Dante may often seem like one of Josipovici’s Modernists, powerless to express: as, for example, in Canto XXX of the Paradiso, when he writes that there are no words to put in his poem to describe the beauty of Beatrice.

In fact, these supposed hallmarks of the Modernists may be found at almost any moment in history. If his worldview were not so obstinately Eurocentric—even the entire Western Hemisphere has only two exemplars: the faux Englishmen Borges and Eliot—Josipovici would have found China, to name only one, full of his kinds of Modernists. Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, 2,500 years ago, were talking about the inadequacies of mere words, of a language beyond words. Classic novels such as Golden Lotuses (The Plum in the Golden Vase) or The Story of the Stone (The Dream of the Red Chamber) played games of illusion and reality with the reader as complex as any in Cervantes. And the innovations that he finds in Wordsworth and Caspar David Friedrich—placing the observer in the scene of nature, and the realization that “vision is always vision at a particular moment, from a particular place, and that though vision may be the goal it does not subsume life but is only one moment, one experience, within life”—seem applicable to nearly the entirety of Chinese poetry and landscape painting.

What Ever Happened to Modernism?—the actual book, not the one proposed by the title—is largely a stringing of short ruminations on the works of favorite writers, artists, and composers. These appear to be lifted from lecture notes from Josipovici’s many years at Oxford and now Sussex, and they suffer from the problems that arise when lectures—unless presented as such—are translated into print.

First, the rhetorical device of the all-inclusive first-person plural is largely invisible from the lectern, but pompous on the page: “We are now in a position to understand a little better the nature of the anxieties that gripped the writers of our opening examples.” “In fact, as we will see, whatever aspect of Modernism we look at, Kierkegaard will be an invaluable guide.” “We have come across this sort of thing before, of course, in Wordsworth.” “If we are to take an Eliot, a Kafka or a Wittgenstein seriously…”

Moreover, a lecture keeps moving. Before one has had time to ponder one assertion, the lecturer has already gone on to another point. Readers, however, have their pause and rewind buttons, and are much tougher on generalities disguised by well-turned phrases. A reader may well wonder how much of these sentences or phrases is entirely or even partially true:

Further, since we cling to the belief that we ourselves will never die and use our imaginations to bolster that belief, the novel, the unfettered product of the imagination, actively prevents us from having a realistic attitude to ourselves and the world, and therefore from achieving any sort of firmly grounded happiness.
And that is why Modernists look with horror at the proliferation in Modern culture of both fantasy and realism….
[Novels are] machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world and so muddy the waters of genuine understanding of the human condition.
Finally, ours is the first generation in which High Art and Fashion have married in a spirit joyously welcomed by both parties.

Then there are the gratuitous references:

But the poem [by Wordsworth], like the late piano sonatas and quartets of Beethoven or the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, asserts a quiet authority….
Those of us who cannot find the words to make sense of our lives may look on in admiration [at Philip Roth] but not feel, as we feel with Sophocles or Duras, that this speaks to us.

And the imagined dialogue with a straw man:

But the old question, raised already, we have seen, by Rabelais and Cervantes, still remains: What gives you the authority to decide that it will be this rather than that? No authority, the classic novelist will reply, but simply the requirements of realism, the requirements of my plot. But do these things have to do with anything other than ensuring that your novel is saleable? That of course is a very reasonable requirement, but let us then simply relegate it to the world of consumerism, of fitted kitchens and package holidays, and not pretend that we are dealing with aesthetic or ethical issues.

And occasionally the frustrated professor must give his students a dressing-down:

But surely, you may say, Philip Roth is an experimental writer!… If that is your reaction you have not really been taking in what I have been saying.

Ultimately, Josipovici’s Modernism is entirely interior, the result of a few ideas and much agony, despair, and self-doubt. He dismisses as “dreadful” and “positivist” histories of Modernism that take into account what was happening physically in the world. But artists and writers are alive in certain places at certain moments, and there is no doubt that, since the mid-nineteenth century, their work has issued from and responded to the enormous changes around them.

Certainly the lingering reverberations from the Reformation and the French Revolution, the belief in artifice, and the questions about art and self and language are all strands. But it is astonishing that his is a Modernism without the rise of the city, with its factories, crowds, and anonymity; without the devastation of the Napoleonic and First World Wars; without the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, the thrill of speed, the new symbolic language of the telegraph, the international voices of radio, mass migrations, the representational “reality” of photographs and the collapse of time in film montage, anthropological investigations of tribal cultures, or the beauties and terrors of industrial products. His is a Modernism that has no place for one of its rallying cries, that of the enthusiastic William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”

The Modernists all knew they were making art—as surely Giotto and the Beowulf author did—but only some of them made art out of “disenchantment,” only some believed in the essential inadequacy of the art they were making, or of any art at all. There were also those who worked in the joy of making something new in an era of continual novelty—delighting in the sheer stuff of the world—and those less agonized souls were hardly all conventional British novelists thinking of the best-seller list.

We are still sorting out whatever happened in Modernism—particularly as more and more “lost” figures are being rediscovered—and it is difficult to believe that its moment is over, that we are not simply in a late (or later) phase. Many of its radical and once-shocking innovations (collage, abstraction, improvisation, free verse) have become so absorbed in the culture that they are now standard practice in kindergartens. But the most typical artworks of so-called postmodernism—installations, pastiche, “language” poetry—when stripped of their critical theory scaffolding aren’t all that different from those produced a hundred years ago. They have merely shifted one of the various facets of Modernism—irony—into a dominant mode.

Even more, the cliché that Modernism is the art of the city is true enough, and while massive urbanization may be old news in Josipovici’s England, it is a relatively new phenomenon in much of the rest of world. Their writers and artists are entering into a Modernism that already is both familiar and different, a cosmopolitanism that doesn’t take London or Paris as its nexus, a continuation of, and revolt against, traditions that have little or nothing to do with Josipovici’s narrative of Church and Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Kierkegaard and the nouveau roman, certainty and doubt. Nearly everything that is happening in late Modernism is taking place beyond the walls of this book’s ruminative, learned, and elegant agoraphobia.

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