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Who Made It New?

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‘Samuel Beckett: Double Profile’; drawing by Avigdor Arikha, 1971

After rambling through Kierkegaard, Cervantes, Rabelais, Martin Luther, Wordsworth, Napoleon, Caspar David Friedrich, Dürer, Melville, Cézanne, Picasso, Eliot, Stevens, Beckett, Kafka, Mallarmé, Greek tragedy, and the nouveau roman, the British critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici finally arrives at the question posed by the title of his book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?

There are some unkind words about Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (“this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”), which have caused a small scandal in the British press, and a long expression of dismay at the successful reception of Irène Némirovsky’s “run-of-the-mill, middlebrow narrative” Suite Française:

…The question is not why she should have written as she did, but what has happened to our culture that serious and intelligent and well-read reviewers, not to speak of prize-winning novelists and distinguished biographers, many of whom have studied the poems of Eliot or the novels of Virginia Woolf at university, should so betray their calling as to go into ecstasies over books like Némirovsky’s while, in their lifetimes and now after their deaths, ignoring the work of novelists like Claude Simon, Georges Perec, Thomas Bernhard and Gert Hofmann.

Convoluted phrasing aside, the sentence, like many in the book, immediately raises objections: Hofmann may indeed be unjustly neglected, but Perec and Bernhard certainly aren’t, and it’s doubtful that anyone considers Némirovsky their equal—or rather, they occupy entirely different critical universes. Simon, though now rarely read, did, after all, win a Nobel Prize.

This sentence is then followed by: “To answer this would require a sociologist, perhaps, and another book.” If Josipovici had displayed a sense of humor elsewhere, one might have thought that this was a Modernist joke: the book we thought we were reading is not the book we are reading, but actually another book that someone someday may write.

As it is, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is barely about whatever happened to Modernism. The presumed—and presumably decadent—present day implied by the title is dispatched in only a few pages: Modernism is in a bad way because some British “realist” novelists whom Josipovici dislikes are wildly overpraised and win prizes; Adam Thirlwell, the British novelist, misunderstands the nature of reality in Modernism; British literary [his italics] festivals feature television stars; and—a bizarre grievance—British chain bookstores are now offering three books for the price of two. Apart from Philip Roth and a passing reference to Toni Morrison—both are dismissed—no living non-British writers (or artists or composers) are mentioned. In short, after excoriating the provinciality of the British intelligentsia, Josipovici claims that an international movement like Modernism is in the doldrums because of the mediocrity of a certain segment of literary life in Britain.

The perennial laments about the sorry state of contemporary culture tend to weep over such pinheads of anecdotal evidence. They always seem to be the humorless version of Luis Buñuel’s remark that “the decline of the aperitif may well be one of the most depressing phenomena of our time.” And they assume a wholly imaginary golden age, when the brilliance of contemporary artworks was blindingly apparent to the most obtuse of leading tastemakers.

We consider 1922 a Wonder Year of Modernism: Ulysses, The Waste Land, Trilce, Duino Elegies, and so many other works. But, at the time, 1922 was the year that the Pulitzer Prize went to Booth Tarkington, the Nobel to a Spanish playwright, Jacinto Benavente, and, in England, the Booker of its day, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, was given to David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, no doubt not a novel of Josipovici’s preferred mode of auto-reflection. For a celebrated realist examination of midwestern bourgeois mores, 1922 featured, instead of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and the feminist critique of a novel’s popularity was centered not on Freedom, but on This Freedom by the best-selling A.S.M. Hutchinson, a book much praised by Chesterton.

It is surprising that Josipovici, for all his erudition, implicitly falls into this trap:

It is not…our current Booker or Nobel Prize [he means V.S. Naipaul] winners who give cause for concern, but the cultural climate that cannot see the difference between them and those writers who, in Kierkegaard’s terms, sense vividly what is lacking and then endeavor to convey a sense of this lack, between works that illustrate and works that live.

Regardless of whether a climate can see—and Josipovici’s condescension that laureled mediocrities can’t help being what they are—the argument is undermined by the fact that he declines to name a single living author who should be praised. (His pantheon seems to consist entirely of the gods of his youth in the 1950s and 1960s.) Or perhaps he is merely saying that Martin Amis is no Franz Kafka. But how is this cultural climate different from any other? They used to say that Franz Kafka was no Franz Werfel.

Every general consideration of Modernism quickly crashes on the rocks of categorization: Which Modernism? Is it Rilke or Tristan Tzara? Matisse or Duchamp? Thomas Mann or Gertrude Stein? Arnold Schoenberg or Duke Ellington? Nearly anything that can be said about the one can’t be said about the other. Josipovici attempts to navigate these waters by simultaneously broadening the definition of Modernism itself, while greatly limiting the range of its concerns, its varying contexts, and its enormous cast of twentieth-century characters.

He rejects the usual historical narrative that more or less ascribes Modernism to anything that happened in the arts from roughly 1850 to 1950: “Modernism is thereby turned into a style, like Mannerism or Impressionism.” (Of course, Modernism had many more styles than either of those two.) Instead, he proposes that “Modernism needs to be understood…as the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.” It is, in Max Weber’s phrase, the “disenchantment of the world”: an anxiety of rootlessness following the collapse of the old orders (the Church, royal families, trade guilds) and the birth of new orders (the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the cults of the individual and of rationality). It is the belief that anyone could become an emperor like Napoleon and the despair that one has become nothing.

Modernism, then, is less an aesthetic than an existential condition: the end of the old order is both liberating and overwhelming, as its freedom of possibilities and chaos of choices inevitably lead to indecision and malaise. Josipovici opens the book with vignettes of Mallarmé and Kafka being unable to write, and the inevitable Beckett, in an interview, summarizing both the kind of art he wants and the psychological state in which and by which it is produced:

The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.

These varying strands lead Josipovici to place the beginnings of Modernism early in the sixteenth century, with the Reformation and Martin Luther’s famous debate with Zwingli over whether the bread and wine are actually or only symbolically the flesh and blood of Christ: “the coming out into the open of doubts and confusions that had not, until then, found a clear voice.” (Oddly, he doesn’t mention that this was the time when the word “modern” entered into English as an antonym of “ancient”—a realization and assertion of contemporaneity.)

He places two well-known engravings by Albrecht Dürer side by side as emblematic of the new consciousness. In one, Saint Jerome sits in his sunny, orderly study, calmly translating what would become the Vulgate, his dog and his lion dozing together at his feet. In the other, Melancholy is represented as an “enormous brooding woman,” bathed in an “eerie moonlight,” surrounded, in a chaotic composition, by tools, keys, instruments for measurement, a bell, a bat with wings spread, and a huge truncated rhombohedron. She is “obviously thinking furiously, but is incapable of action.”

This is quite neat: the Church and a world of quiet order (“what has got lost”) set against a new universe of individuality and doubt, powerless to express what must be expressed. But melancholy, both as psychological state and symbolic figure, was hardly new, or representative of a new sensibility brought on by the Reformation. Hippocrates described the condition two thousand years before Luther and the figure of Dame Melancholy—always a Dame!—was common in medieval art. Johan Huizinga devoted a chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages to the subject. As Huizinga writes, there was then “a tendency to identify all serious occupation of the mind with sadness.”

Similarly, Josipovici claims Don Quixote for Modernism in part because Cervantes, in the prologue, expresses doubt about what he should write and is aware that he is not presenting an objective “realist” window on the world—what Josipovici calls the “hidden madness in every realist novel”—but rather is inventing a protagonist, who in turn invents his name and himself, in a story told in a partially missing manuscript by unreliable narrators and translators.

Josipovici makes much of the self-consciousness of Cervantes—and before him, Rabelais—that what they were making was art. Once again, this is not exactly new, or a sign of the changing times, but rather an intricate elaboration of what had come before. To take a few examples, though not quite the tricks and turns of Don Quixote, it was a standard trope of Troubadour lyrics to begin with a stanza or a few lines of commentary on the kind of song one was about to sing, and the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron are certainly polyphonies of voices, inextricable from the stories they are telling.

Throughout the book, there is a series of exaggerated dichotomies. The old order is an era of certainty and stasis; in the new order one is out on one’s own:

Dante, working in an age when an ordered universe was taken for granted, could build his poem out of a hundred cantos precisely…and place his sinners and saints in carefully graded positions in both Heaven and Hell, while drawing on a rich tradition to bring home to the reader how each of us can be saved and what steps need to be taken to find our way up the mountain of Purgatory.

Haydn could write a hundred symphonies” but “Beethoven could write only nine” (ignoring Beethoven’s hundreds of other works) because Haydn was “at ease within a tradition. What he had to do…was fill in a form.” He “didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch each time.” The modern realist novel—Josipovici’s particular bugbear, which he seems to confuse with a surveillance camera—is indicative of a regression to the old order, offering the comfortable illusion of a portrayal of life as it truly is. Balzac and Dickens, he writes, never had any doubts about what they were doing. (How does he know?) Their “popularity” is in contrast with those of “artistic depth,” the ones who never forget that one’s art is an artifice and, for writers, that one’s language is always inadequate to the task.

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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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