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 longest and most interesting is the fourth, that on the city of Saint Petersburg. Through the literature of the nineteenth century, against the background of the city itself and its traditions, he traces a series of furtive and abortive gestures, acts of imaginative defiance against the autocracy. From Eugene’s challenge in “The Bronze Horseman” to the act of Lopukhov in Chernyshevsky’s What Is to be Done? to the climactic pedestrian feat of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (he actually jostles an officer in a crowd!), and finally (with all too little change, alas!) to the melancholy figures of Andrei Biely and Osip Mandelstam, the story is forcefully told, and related to the qualities of the city that framed it.
Saint Petersburg was a city built to order and by fiat, its creator one of those enlightened tyrants toward whom the love-hate response seems almost obligatory. Berman categorizes its history, according to his interests, as “the modernism of underdevelopment,” though it’s not clear that autocracy (enlightened and unenlightened, developed and underdeveloped) isn’t the major constant of the story. His point, however, that under oppressive circumstances even minor and conservative gestures of independence may take on revolutionary implications, rings true, and invites one to assemble parallel oddities. (Thus in 1790 the tragic actor Talma struck a blow for revolutionary modernism by playing Brutus in sandals and toga instead of red-heeled cothurnes and culottes jarretées. T.S. Eliot mounted the barricades against established bohemianism by dressing like a banker and talking like a church warden.) In evoking the spirit of Saint Petersburg and the small equivocal gestures of those extraordinary imaginations vested in ordinary people—who, by defying, fulfilled the genius loci—Berman has done his most successful work.
What he tells, to be sure, is only part of the story. Though the city went through heroic days in making the revolution, that, as Berman implies in telling the oppressive tale of Mandelstam and analyzing the hallucinatory novel of Biely (represented here by a somewhat Procrustean paraphrase), has proved to be an ambiguous achievement. An equally dramatic story, which he largely neglects, might present some of the overt and startling manifestations of artistic modernism that rose like rockets out of Saint Petersburg in those amazing first fifteen years of the twentieth century. The music of Stravinsky and Prokofiev, the explosive innovations of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, the fragile but exciting flowering of modernist art in Bakst, Chagall, and the Russian cubists, not to speak of the poetry of Blok and Khlebnikov—all these developments, which so shook and startled the “advanced” West, had roots and ramifications in Saint Petersburg. How did they arise in a society as backward as the Romanov empire seemed to be? What was their relationship to the naïve hints, whimpers, and strangled gestures of dissent that Berman chronicles? No doubt the full story would call for a study quite different from the one he has chosen to write; but it seems passing strange to find, in this generous account of the root, the stalk, and the leaves, only the slightest of references to the extraordinary flower.
In starting his study of modernism with the legendary figure of Faust, and proceeding at once to an extended discussion of Goethe’s play, Berman has taken a bold but not altogether successful gamble. Much of Goethe’s play does not sustain his thesis about Faust the insatiable developer (what’s being developed in Auerbach’s Keller or atop the Brocken?); accordingly, he jettisons the first three acts of Part II, and smothers inconvenient elements of Part I. Even so, readers will likely feel that the point has trouble working its way through the paraphrase, and that this essay stands somewhat outside the book’s main thesis. That thesis proposes a dialectic link between urban patterns of life and modernist vocabularies of adaptation and resistance. A street plan of Weimar would contribute little to this notion, and Berman wisely leaves the idea in abeyance.
By contrast, the essay on Baudelaire emphasizes his position in the Paris of Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussmann, and the street as the forum of his modernity. As an appreciation of Baudelaire, the essay is limited in not quoting or mentioning a single one of the poems (not so much as the name of the volume in which most of them appeared). It concentrates, instead, on the poet’s critical “salons” and two of his brief prose sketches. Berman’s point, that Haussmann’s new boulevards homogenized the population and politicized it in new ways, is well taken; no doubt they influenced the forms assumed by mass agitation under the Commune. But our poet is, among other things, a flâneur, a poised observer of life’s superficial and ephemeral minutiae, not just a solemn social analyst. Berman draws back just when a discussion of the relations between caricature, romanticism, and modernism threatens to become interesting. With a distinct sense of embarrassment he declares that many of Baudelaire’s celebrations of modern life are “pastorals,” which by a quick reduction shrink to advertising copy; they are dismissed as unworthy of the author. Few careful students of Baudelaire will think this is the way to grasp his mind.
In discussing Marx under the rubric of “modernism,” Berman undertakes a major rehabilitation job. “Socialist realism,” also known to enthusiasts as “worker’s culture,” has assumed many forms, but so many of them are drab, trite, and academic that to speak of Marxian modernism smacks of paradox. It is probably not true that monolithic mediocrity is an inevitable result of the dialectical materialism; and Berman does well to remind us that the dialectic, so long as it is allowed to continue, may and should lead us on to such unfolding delights as the negation of the negation of the negation and so on. But the two major present-day exemplars of Marxian logic stand before us, not only as impotent to achieve, but as ruthlessly bent on destroying any modernism that deviates by a hair from a rigid mechanical line—any modernism that is, in fact, marginally modern. Even modernization of technology in the “planned society” proceeds mainly by copying, stealing, or buying from the decadent capitalist economies. (Perhaps this is one reason why the “dialectical materialism” has degenerated in most of Eastern Europe—and not only there—to the status of a shameful joke.) Somewhere, either before or after it reached the Finland Station, the socialist express obviously went off the tracks; a candid student of the matter lies under some obligation to declare clearly what he thinks went wrong, and where, and why.
In the final essay of the book, Berman displays an unexpected gift for straightfaced zany comedy in the Yippie tradition. To propose rehabilitating the Bronx by creating earth sculptures out of the rubble and lining the walls of the Cross-Bronx Expressway with a giant historical mural is inspired clowning. Throughout this sprightly coda, the parochial egocentricity of much “modernist” thinking is shrewdly exaggerated and parodied. As relief from a tone that often verges on the portentous, such levity is very welcome. Indeed, limiting the study to New York City, and concentrating so loyally on his native Bronx, may have restricted the author’s purview of city planning in its more positive aspects; but this again implies a book on another scale and with different emphases.
One discovery of the final pages would have been more valuable had it been applied to earlier sections of the book. Many “modernist” artworks, and not just of the past two centuries, have been recoveries and re-adaptations of the past. This is by no means a fresh insight of the 1970s, as Berman presents it. Picasso’s first major cubist painting looked back to prehistoric Iberian cult figures, Eliot’s Waste Land drew on Jessie Weston’s interpretation of the Grail legend, the French Revolution found many of its inspirations in classical Rome, and Saint Petersburg itself, though created by Peter’s brutal fiat, served to restore patterns of trade that reached back to the fifteenth century. The medieval component in romanticism is as familiar as the classical component in the Renaissance; the inspiration of Palladio provides for Californians the latest fillip of architectural modernism.
Accuracy of generalization and a precise sense of the past are not Berman’s strengths. When he declares that Faust is one of the first middle-aged heroes in modern literature, it isn’t just Don Quixote that he’s ignoring. The soviet (so he says on page 252, and he apparently means any soviet) “was perhaps the most radically participatory form of democracy since ancient Greece”—helots be damned, qualifications and millions of exceptions overlooked, evidence unnecessary. We learn that the Communist Manifesto “is the first great modernist work of art,” the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence being thought unworthy of mention.
To be sure, Berman has undertaken to write a fast-moving, impressionistic book; he paints with a broad brush, and rarely hesitates over details. Daniel Bell is said to be the most serious of the polemicists arguing against modernism, but his position is represented in five perfunctory words and henceforth ignored. Equally impressionistic is the use of lists to invite some sort of free speculation on the part of the reader. Developing a modernist vocabulary of opposition is what “Stendhal, Buechner, Marx and Engels, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, were doing a century ago.” Apart from the fact that four members of this ill-assorted company were dead a hundred years ago, this is the sort of vague, honorific list to which one could add Ibsen, Garibaldi, Kipling, Lewis Carroll, and Jerome K. Jerome without making any significant difference.
Once again, we are assured that what we have learned about Saint Petersburg will “provide clues to some of the mysteries of political and spiritual life in the cities of the Third World—in Lagos, Brasilia, New Delhi, Mexico City.” If Berman knows something about the mysteries of political and spiritual life in Lagos, might he not have favored us with a concise report on the matter—or at least a footnote? Meanwhile, for those of us who scarcely know a Yoruba from a Yoraghum, the promise of enlightenment rings hollow.
All That Is Solid, etc., is, in short, a remarkably open and undefended piece of writing; a critical reader will often find it injudicious, even silly. Yet the subject itself does something to redeem the manner of its handling. Time grants us the identical fleeting moment of present existence, though some folk try to establish that they are the most timely of all. About the little groups who occasionally coagulate to reassure one another that “we” and “we” alone are modern (“the best minds of my generation,”and similar bilge), it’s always appropriate to ask George P. Elliott’s piercing question, “Who Is We?” Though Berman doesn’t always remember the force of his own nihilism, he seems to me largely right in the intuition expressed in his title that the only safe structure is built on the void, in it, and out of it. Nothing is permanently modern except nothing itself. The dialectic is not only a universal but a self-liquidating solvent, a serpent eating itself tail first.
If modern life is a race to the abyss, Slim Pickens may have spoken the last word on modernism in that wonderful animal wail which concluded (as your reviewer recalls) his part in the movie Doctor Strangelove. The up-to-date is and always was only a tick away from the unknown. The faults of a book on “the modern” that force you to question everything may lie very close to its virtues. Like his incomparable predecessor Carlyle, Berman irritates more often than he persuades, but he does stimulate. Had he written a smoother, safer study—built, for example, on a little platform of definition and historical fact, rather than on a metaphor and a legend—he might have written a less provoking but also a less provocative book.
March 4, 1982