On Modernism: The Prospects for Literature and Freedom
New American Review, No. 1
“New” and “Modern” are old notions, but in our world the first people who thought of themselves as “Moderns” did so in order to distinguish themselves from Ancients; thus they established the habit we all have of being extremely conscious of epoch. The growth of this habit is obviously regulated, in some measure, by the rate of technological and economic change; so that the sense of living at a time of transition and being subject to permanent and irreversible forces of change and novelty grows more and more commonplace. Since the Modern implies rapid obsolescence and sharp discontinuities in matters of form and value, anybody who wants to characterize it has to be conscious of the possibility that the descriptive and evaluative techniques at his disposal are decaying as he uses them. Whether this is a real threat or a paper tiger is part of the problem, a problem that is at present attracting much attention. Mr. Kampf is the latest scholar to face it, and he seems particularly aware of the difficulty of standing upright for long enough to take a steady Arnoldian look at it, borne along as he is by the ceaseless tide of change, and bruised by all the theoretical flotsam in its current.
It is perfectly possible, though to many Modernists it is irrelevant, to take a purely historical view of the problem, as Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson did in their huge anthology* ; you can trace the roots of some of the things we call Modernism back to the eighteenth century, or, if you like, even further. Or you can settle for the view that the first quarter of this century saw the establishment of the categories within which most of the modernist phenomena fall. This implies that the formal (or anti-formal) innovations and discoveries of that period, for example in Cubism, Dada, Schoenbergian music, Poundian poetry, and so forth, added up to a revolution so total that for a long time there will be nothing absolutely new to do, and subsequent modernisms, however novel they contrive to look, turn out on examination either to be operating within the area staked out in the old days, or to be excursions over the frontiers of sense and communicability.
In so far as later modernisms work, they will, on this view, always at some point comply with, or anyway allude to, the categories of the older, primary modernism. But of course this leaves one to explain the obvious and disturbing dissimilarities between primary and secondary, or, if you prefer, palaeo and neo-modernisms. One is in the matter of tradition, the use of the past: primary modernism remade it, neo-modernism at any rate professes to ignore it. (Yet the insult-word passéiste came in at the very beginning of the older modernism.) Another is the political aspect of the two modernisms: the first encouraged, in some influential practitioners, a political authoritarianism which more or less identified itself with fascism; the second is usually as apolitical or…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.