What Ever Happened To Modernism?

Gabriel Josipovici’s beautiful exposition of Modernism rests on the recognition that it was born out of a crisis in the arts. Unlike other writers on Modernism, he does not seek to situate a historical era in which this crisis erupted, but understands it instead to be a question of individual awareness on the part of a range of artists across time that the task of representation they have set themselves is impossible. But the courage and brilliance of these artists lay in the way they determined to create nevertheless, but with this acknowledgement of inevitable failure, fraudulence, uncertainty, anxiety – call it what you will – present at every step of the way. The art that emerged from this conundrum provided us with some of the most startling and provocative aesthetic experiences –  among them the singular narratives of Cervantes, Beckett, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, the poetry of Wordsworth and Eliot, the art of Picasso, Durer, Duchamp, Rembrandt.

I mention here some of the myriad of artists whose work is explored in this book so you can see the sheer breadth of Josipovici’s scholarship. Between you and me, I get the feeling he has read everything.  The point, though, is that Modernist art can be understood as a sort of hothouse flower, something that grows only under special conditions, but reliably grows under them. Prime among these is what he terms ‘the disenchantment of the world’, a rich and complex situation in which man (and it does tend to be mostly man in this book) recognises the split between himself and the world in which he lives. Increasing clear-sightedness about man’s place in the universe might have been enlightenment of one kind, but it came at a price: the loss of the numinous, a sort of healing magic that bound man to his place and his destiny and conferred perfect meaning. Religion and history combined to create disquieting new conditions of existence whose consequences Josipovici finds best embodied in the philosophy of Kierkegaard: ‘All Kierkegaard can do is to try and explore in every way imaginable the troubled heart and soul of nineteenth-century man, one who has been given his freedom twice over, first by God and then by the French Revolution, but who does not know what to do with it except torment himself with the sense he is wasting his life.’

Kierkegaard is often considered one of the earliest Existentialists, which is to say, a philosopher wired in to the extreme anxiety that arises out of freedom. He cannoned back and forth between the terms of ‘possibility’ – essential to breathe but scarily indeterminate – and ‘necessity’ – a form of imprisonment that was also security. He identifies a sickness of confusion and despair attacking the lionheart of his peers that is summed up in the recognition that whilst one might be a genius, one could no longer be an authority. Belief in the old traditions that conferred authority was crumbling away, and there was nothing that could be found to replace them. The truth was that life had no essential purpose, no given meaning, and, crucially for art, any attempt to make life coherent and meaningful was fundamentally dishonest. This is why, for instance, ‘for Kafka, the act of writing was itself seen as a kind of violation of the world’. The imposition of order and structure and form on chaos was precisely that – an imposition that failed to evoke the visceral punch of reality.

In the central part of this book, Josipovici explores the strategies Modernist artists adopted to respond to this catalogue of doubt and uncertainty. Central is Barthes’ understanding that realist art foregoes the ‘trembling of existence’; well, to be accurate, Barthes found a formulation for a quest that had long motivated a certain section of artists. If traditional representation produced only a copy of reality, a tracing from real life that lacked its vitality and presence, the answer was to create a kind of art that bristled and trembled with its own aesthetic existence. This is what artists like Mallarmé, Picasso and Cézanne were trying to achieve – something so visually stimulating and alive, something so challenging to our perception, that to engage with it was to have a highly specific and charged experience. There are some exquisite analyses in this section, employing a technique I particularly appreciated of tracking, in subtle ways, similar creative processes across different artistic forms: music, painting, poetry, writing. One of the intriguing aspects of Modernism is that it was an artistic movement that involved a wide variety of forms, and their comparison is always illuminating.

When this book came out it provoked something of a hostile reaction in the critical press. Reviews focused almost exclusively on one of the closing chapters that attacks modern novelists like Ian McEwan, Philip Roth and Julian Barnes. Having read the book, I can now understand why. After a series of gorgeously delicate explorations, the switch to straightforward negativity is surprising. For me it was rather like watching the prima ballerina accomplish her series of complex pirouettes, only to turn around and start slugging the corps de ballet. I suppose it was necessary in order to make this book a polemic, but the problem with polemics is that they take pride in being partisan and uncomplicated. So, for instance, Josipovici also has a pot shot at the British, which seems odd, after so much careful interdisciplinary, international work. What about contemporary art in Italy, say, or France? Have they kept the Modernist torch alive in a way Britain hasn’t? And if they have, then I would rather have read about that – it would have interested me much more.

Josipovici is an astute critic and one who has clearly thought deeply about what the critic ought to be doing. The good critic, he says, should be able to ‘get close enough to [works of art] to convey something of what their making involved for their makers and their viewers’ and I would happily endorse that. I think of the critic as part skilled diplomat, introducing a variety of sometimes conflicting perspectives in such a way that the value of all can be heard. And I think of the critic as part mental sherpa, doing the intellectual heavy lifting with grace, so that those travelling alongside can really experience the view. But when Josipovici claims that the critic fails when s/he ‘cannot see the difference between…works that illustrate and works that live’ I can’t really go along with that. In the very terms of debate this book prizes, the good works of art are honest about the mechanisms of their production  – they draw back the stage curtain, if you like, so you can see the ropes and props and personnel of the theatre that work to create the illusion. Well, the fundamental building block of all criticism, and one that is often hidden away so that illusion may be maintained, is subjective opinion. The good critic, to my mind, is never far away from the acknowledgement that his or her experience is not always, inevitably the ‘right’ one. Josipovici acknowledges that there are many different stories of Modernism, of which his is only one version; but he is insistent that Modernism produces the best art. And that, quite honestly, can only be up for discussion. I am quite ready to believe Josipovici is a man of genius, but he cannot be – for they are now irrevocably extinct – a man of authority.

Fortunately nobody ever said you had to read a book and agree with every word of it. There are many wonderful explorations of Modernist art in its pages and for anyone who has an interest in the history and development of art, this book is essential reading.

ETA: I meant to say! This is for the Wolves group read of What Ever Happened To Modernism? Many thanks to them for choosing this book and letting me take part.

14 thoughts on “What Ever Happened To Modernism?

  1. I read Richard’s review as well and it seems, though he accentuates other things too, he also had a problem with some of the generalizations. To me it sounds a bit like a magician performing a trick. He stuffs an idea in a hat and loads and loads of pigeon names swarm out and the reader follows their flight astonished … It’s really just a feeling as I haven’t read it… I’m still tempted to read it.

  2. Leave it to you to make a coherent and salient summary! I just sat there holding all the pieces having no idea how to fit them all together. I loved your prima ballerina image. It was totally like that. I too would have much preferred to read about whether there was any contemporary literature in the world that still followed modernist thinking. I was very puzzled about why he insists that modernism produces the best art, especially since the couple of his novels I’ve read I felt were more post-modern than modern.

  3. “I think of the critic as part mental sherpa, doing the intellectual heavy lifting with grace, so that those travelling alongside can really experience the view.” I doubt I’ll ever read this book, given how little purchase I can get when it comes to works of criticism, but I want you to know that I do indeed love travelling alongside you and experiencing the view.

  4. I’ve yet to read this book, so I won’t comment on its strengths and failings (though I’d agree that British literary fiction, especially the 80s Blokes are failing fast). But I would suggest that Modernism emerged from the feeling that a stable culture had been pitched into anarchy due to war, class struggle, industrialisation, psychology destabilising the coherent self, and the end of grand narratives such as empire and religion. What’s happened since is that we’ve realised that there wasn’t a coherent stable society before or after Modernism. We’re not shocked by doubt and insecurity, so we can’t make great art from the realisation of its existence

    Some culture continues to pretend that there is/was/could be and produces cultural work that tries to make it so. Others accept the anarchy (I know this is the wrong word) and produce fragmented and dissonant texts. Modernism isn’t dead, it’s adapted and superseded and moved into other genres. Producing ‘Modernist’ literature now would be like making wax cylinders for music: I’d admire the craft but question the purpose and suspect it of being reactionary.

    I’ll come back if I think of anything intelligent to say.

  5. A brilliant review! I had read some of the hostile reviews of this book so wasn’t terribly bothered about reading it, but now I think I’d really like to. I’m intrigued by his very liberal definition, in historical terms, of Modernism.

    And like Bloglily I enjoyed your definition of a critic. I’ve just started blogging and am struggling with writing book reviews (well, writing full stop) and what I’d like them to be, so your description has encouraged me and given me something to strive for.

  6. You convince me I must read this!

    I did hear Gabriel Josipovici talk about it, a while back, was riveted by some of what he had to say, but not sure how much it related to the book. On the platform with him were Dubravka Ugresic and Geoff Dyer, both of whose work I like very much also. But, oh dear, they’re all such eccentric, brilliant individualists, they didn’t really manage to talk to each other – I guess it would have taken much longer than an hour-long public discussion for such minds to intersect!

    Most interesting to me was the tension between Josipovici and Ugresic. She was arguing for the present historic moment (technology, human movement) as unprecedented and the possibilities for narrative and literature as equally unprecedented – both in terms of challenge and of opportunity. He came across as much more of an esentialist, arguing, as you say above, for the crisis of some individuals in EVERY age and the literature that comes from that. I agreed with both of them, much as I commented on your post about creativity that I found myself agreeing with two polarised views – I think I’m confused! (but creatively, I think).

    The other very compelling thing that Josipovici said on that occasion was that most of us, including writers, have found by early adulthood the essential question or questions that we will gnaw at all our lives. This really hit home with me since lately I’ve been not only coming back to wanting to think seriously about literature and narrative for the first time in many, many years, but also realised that the two writers who most affected me when I was anundergraduate are still perhaps the ones that compel me most: Julio Cortazar and subversion of narrative and character; Simone de Beauvoir and the relationship between life, memoir and fiction.

    Yes, I must read this book.

  7. Litlove, I too loved your description of the critic as “part mental sherpa”: insightful and amusing! And you do a wonderful job of balancing the various pros and cons of Josipovici’s approach. For my part, I actually enjoyed the “controversial” concluding chapter–not because I necessarily agree with all of Josipovici’s judgements on the authors he took to task (I only know most of them by reputation anyway) but because I thought it was refreshingly honest of him to comment on what he feels is missing from contemporary literature. I didn’t see it so much as picking on the British either (although clearly there was an element of that), or at least not inordinately so given that he was speaking about the land where he’s lived and taught. Had he been an American Ivy League professor, I suspect he would have taken American authors to task instead to make his point. Anyway, fine post–thanks so much for reading along with the Wolves on this title!

  8. A great review – I really like the way you present both what you like and what you dislike in a very respectful way.
    I have not read Josipovici’s book yet, but definitely will.
    Here are some thoughts that popped up in my head as I was reading your review:
    I wrote my master degree on Beckett and subjectivity ten years ago, but my interest has lately turned towards authors and visual artists who are no longer (or never was) interested in the ‘the disenchantment of the world’ or the split between themselves and the world in which they live, but rather work from an integrated (anti-modernist???) position, freed from irony and alienation. Like the modern this kind of art can not be reduced to specific period of time, but is something that one can find all the way trough history, sometimes in many artists at the same time, other times as outliers.
    It seems to like many of todays environmental oriented artists/writers and nature writers make a point – in opposition to the modernists – of our, humanities, connectedness to the world as a whole. Not understood as a kind of romantic looking back, but seen as an argument for taking responsibility through art.

  9. Caroline – you really should read it. It’s quite a hard book to convey properly, not least because it is highly complex and moves between a broad story of literary history and very detailed, close-up readings of individual works. I’d love to know what you think of it!

    Stefanie – ah-ha, I have the very unfair advantage of having had to sum up modernism before! But I love your point about Josipovici’s own works being rather post-modernist. I think you have an excellent insight there.

    Bloglily – now that is just so nice! Thank you. I love it when you can come along for the ride.🙂

    Plashing Vole – wow, if this is your idea of unintelligent, I dread to think what intelligent would look like! Out of the stratosphere, I’d say! I quite agree with you. I think that the works Josipovici points to that are modernist without being Modernist are a bit different, like Wordsworth for instance, in whose work he identifies the qualities he’s looking for, but those poems don’t knock me between the eyes with their evident similarity to Eliot, Woolf, Kafka, etc. So it stands to perfect reason that what might have modernist influences today is going to be equally different on the surface. We can’t go backwards, no matter what.

    Helen – leave your blogging address next time, and I’ll come and visit! Thank you for your lovely comment. I’d love to know what you think of this book and certainly, you should read it if you can. It’s very rich and would make a different impression on each reader, I think.

    Jean – such an interesting comment! I’d love to have heard that talk, and I laughed so at your description of the way the writers failed to interact. I can so imagine that! I would definitely believe both those points of view – I think Josipovici is talking quite pure aesthetics, and his concern is often focused on form. The influence of history, which is always changing, always dynamic, could surely never be denied, and it must have specific effects on the art that is produced. And then, there’s the input of the individual. I do like what Josipovici says about finding your questions quite early – I actually think my own have changed a lot, of late, but it’s probably only modifications in the end. I do like your pairing of Cortazar and de Beauvoir – what an interesting combination!

    Richard – this is what makes this kind of book such a good group read. I found my own understanding much enriched by reading the posts you and the other Wolves wrote, because we all responded to different parts of the book. Josipovici has a really European sensibility, I find, even though he’s lived in the UK for much of his life, and that makes it (for us insular Brits in any case!) less clear-cut when he’s critical. And I have a natural preference for critics doing positive things with material rather than negative (Stephen Fry has this funny line where he claims his beef with critics is theological – God gave them two hands, two eyes, two legs, and a brain and the best they can do with it is to say: “This doesn’t work at all levels” !’ and I tend to agree with him). But I’m always open to persuasion from other points of view.

    Sigrun – what a fascinating point of view on the debate. Thank you for that. I really like the way you draw attention to the environmental artists and writers, who never get enough attention in any case. The pairing of art and responsibility is interesting, too, because evidently the Modernist movement had a very vexed relationship with action, political or otherwise. If we had just modernist art, what would not be said that very much needed to be heard?

  10. It sounds like a worthwhile read. I’m just totally immersed right now in my last draft and feel like I can’t come up for air until it’s done. Then I plan to have a great time doing nothing but reading and walking for a while.

  11. This sounds like an interesting book and one that might be good to read if only for the earlier chapters that explain modernism. I think this is a grey area for me as I don’t read a lot of what J would consider modernist authors. It would be nice to know who he thinks is writing in an innovative way today–surely he must have favorites? Didn’t you meet him once?

  12. Litlove, hello. I liked the combativeness and candour of the last chapter. Among other things, it clarifies that Josipovici’s talking directly to those who like Barnes (who you like a lot, I realize), Amis and others, instead of being vague and coy or gesturing to unnameable figures. While I also may have liked reading positive things there too, an author, at whatever age, who’s not been given his due respect, is entitled to say whatever he or she wants about other writers. Thank goodness for free speech. If this means he turns against the writing in his own (or adopted) country, then that’s all right. The State and the People will survive. To heck with patriotism, anyway, if it means servility or being quiet about things you think are dead wrong. Sometimes we can be so well-mannered that it works against us. In the u.s., I think of William Gass expressing greater sensitivity for Rushdie’s plight than for Solzhenitsyn’s long imprisonment in large and small prisons without benefit of bodyguards; Gass was asinine, but at least he stated his position clearly. Josipovici locates his argument by placing it in context, which means rebuking McEwen et al, but he does spend time in this book describing why he likes certain works by Golding, for example.

    Thanks for your review. I was waiting to read it, and found it sensible and charitable, as well as full of distinct insights; and I liked your arguments against it, too.

  13. Lilian – sometimes a person just needs to focus until a job is done, right? I’m sure you don’t need excess words messing up your mental space right now. Good luck with the final draft – I have every faith in you!

    Danielle – I did meet him once! He was charming, very sweet, and very informative. I would love to know who he rates who is writing right now – after all, what are translations for? This is a good book, but to be fair, I don’t think it’s very helpful for readers wanting to know more about modernism. I felt I got more out of it because I knew a bit about modernism in the first place. If you fancy reading any Josipovici, start with his fiction, which is very accessible, and I think you might like it. Try In a Hotel Garden, or After & Making Mistakes. He’s definitely worth trying.

    Jeff – I thought probably you or Steve would want to pick me up on my discussion of that chapter! Now, where to start… let’s begin with the British thing, which isn’t to my mind about patriotism at all. My point here is that modernism is a pan-European movement, and whilst Britain did have some important modernist writers, I wouldn’t say it was the real crucible of the modernist movement. Having engaged in a debate with modernist writers of various nationalities, mostly European, it seems strange to me then to only focus on Britain in this chapter. There is no stated justification for why GJ does it that way, except he seems to take Britain (and America to some extent) as paradigmatic of the rest of the Western world in contemporary writing; but why do that, when it clearly isn’t the case? In critical terms, I felt it needed more grounding to work as an effective rebuke.

    Now, of course GJ can say whatever he likes; it’s his book. But this chapter is simply not as well argued as the others. If you look back to chapter nine, say, and see the way he works with Picasso, Dostoevsky, Woolf, Duras, with a bit of Eliot and Kierkegaard, now that argument is a thing of beauty. It’s subtle and clever and allusive. The argument against contemporary realism is based solely on a plea: that we understand realism to be ‘dead’. I do like Barnes, but I’m no fan of Amis, so GJ could easily have won me over there, and in any case, I appreciate a good argument, and don’t have to agree with its premises to value its coherence or persuasiveness. But I can’t do that here because the argument itself just isn’t strong enough.

    Throughout the rest of the book, GJ is encouraging the reader to be supremely open and attentive to the text – and I’m right behind that. I’m all for readers being as open and unprejudiced as possible to what they read. And then he seems to be blocking off a whole chunk of literature on the grounds that he doesn’t like it. Of course he’s entitled to do that, and clearly he feels it deeply. But it doesn’t seem in keeping with the openness he promotes elsewhere. When critics say ‘read this because I tell you it’s good, and don’t read that because I tell you it isn’t’ it’s a manipulation of their power that makes me feel uncomfortable. GJ himself points to one of the essential realisations of modernism that there can be no claims to absolute authority any more, and that applies to critics as much as to writers. I think what’s tricky about this book is that it is both a personal account AND a critical appraisal, and those two things abide by different rules (well, critical appraisals have their own sets of rules anyway). That GJ pulls it off as well as he does is testimony to his impressive skill, I think.

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