Making sense of Modernism

Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism? caused a media storm with its attacks on Amis, Barnes, McEwan and Co. But there’s far more to this important and irritating book than bitter literary criticism.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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‘The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, / The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned. / O I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down? / See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! / One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! – / Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ; / Yet will I call on him – O spare me, Lucifer!’

Despite his gain in knowledge and power, Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century Doctor Faustus strikes an increasingly saturnine pose. His freedom from Christian authority, bought at such great cost from Mephistopheles, comes to be experienced as loss: not just loss of grace, but loss of meaning and of purpose, too. At the last, as we hear him here, he strives once more for the re-enchantment of the world. He can even see that symbol of the sacramental universe, ‘Christ’s blood’, ‘stream[ing] in the firmament’. But it’s too late; God has departed. In his wake, modern Faustian man is free, but rootless, liberated but cut adrift from the resources that had once furnished his life with meaning.

Such is the similarly plaintive refrain that runs through Professor Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?. Not that you would know this, given the silly-season furore that greeted the author’s much-publicised criticism of the greats of contemporary Anglo-American literature. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, even Philip Roth – all are, admittedly, the recipients of Josopivici’s critical sting. ‘Reading Barnes’, Jospovici writes – and the Guardian gleefully quoted – ‘like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner’. If these ‘precise’, ‘cynical’, and unrelentingly ‘ironical’ writers, having snuck out from under ‘Philip Larkin’s overcoat’, clearly annoy Josopivici, then at least he finds Philip Roth, a man frequently and perhaps unthinkingly hailed as ‘our greatest living writer’, funny and thought-provoking. ‘But only as good journalism can be funny and thought-provoking’, Jospivici adds, just in case his personal enjoyment be mistaken for objective literary praise.

But there is far more to Whatever Happened to Modernism? than a desire to right wrongful veneration. For a start, his barbs towards Amis and friends come in the penultimate chapter of 15. They are the result of a grand historico-philosophical perspective, not its starting point. And it is in this perspective, in this attempt to convey what modernism was and is, that this little book’s ambiguous value lies – ambiguous because its tremendous insight into the nature of Modernism reveals, and revels in, the most reactionary of sentiments: a disillusionment with Enlightenment, with reason, in short with the whole human-centricity of Western civilisation since Luther pinned up his 95 theses in Wittemburg in 1517.

For Josipovici, Modernism is not simply a cultural or literary phenomenon, to be neatly packaged off from the rest of socio-historical existence. Rather, Modernism here refers to something altogether more profound, a sense, as Virginia Woolf might have put it, that some time around the sixteenth century human nature changed. What was once accessible had been closed off, as Marlowe’s and, later, Thomas Mann’s Faustus found to his cost. TS Eliot’s lament in that paragon of twentieth-century Modernism The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock captures something of this sense of alienation: ‘I have heard the mermaids singing each to each / I do not think that they will sing to me.’

What Josipovici seems to be getting at is that that centuries-long process, that deep shift that saw the political mediation of feudal life gradually give way to the economic mediation of capitalist society, did not only liberate something like the modern individual; it isolated him, too. Isolated him, not just from the more communal and immediately social forms of feudal life, but from an authority external to himself – whether Church or Lord – an authority which gave his social existence its meaning and him his reason to be.

Art, for arch critics of modernity like Josipovici, gains in importance here. It is, albeit only potentially, the stuff in which this isolation and loss is registered. And art does this because, without an authority external to himself, be it myth or religious doctrine, the artist can no longer represent the meaning that seemed once, before this very modern Fall, to inhere within the world. ‘To be modern’, wrote the French critic Roland Barthes, ‘is to know that which is not possible any more’. Art’s continued existence – as Modernism – becomes a perpetual reminder of the rationalising, disenchanting process of modernity. This is why that theorist of high-culture disillusionment, Theodor Adorno, was able to make a political gesture of Modernism in his Aesthetic Theory (1970). ‘Art criticises society’, he noted, ‘just by being there’ (1).

As Josipovici himself acknowledges, this is far from a new argument. Friedrich Schiller and Georg Hegel, two philosophers wrestling in their different ways with this spiritual, idealised alienation, diagnosed something similar: great art was no longer possible in the self-conscious, self-reflective Age of Reason. The conditions that had allowed the Homeric epic to flourish had long since dissipated. For the epic form, so the argument runs, depended on the Ancient Greeks’ unthinking immersion in their world; it rested, in the words of Schiller, on their ‘naivety’. Each teller, each epic poet, did not create a new truth or reveal a new meaning; he simply expressed what his listeners already knew to be true. The authority of the Homeric epic seemed to spring forth spontaneously from the fact that meaning was immanent to their world, just as Apollo was the sun and Venus the sea. Mythological meaning was bodied forth. Marx expressed this best in his Grundrisse: ‘Greek art presupposes the existence of Greek mythology, ie, that nature and even the form of society are wrought up in popular fancy in an unconsciously artistic fashion. That is its material…’ (2)

Medieval art was far from what the young Georg Lukács was to describe as ‘the happy age of the Greeks’ in The Theory of the Novel (1916) (3). Christian religious doctrine made the world into a mere allegory for a meaning hidden from view. That thirteenth- and fourteenth-century art is so two-dimensional was not due to a society-wide eyesight problem; it was because the material of human life was only significant as a figure in which an eternal truth could be expressed. And yet, insofar as a representation of the here and now gained its authority and meaning from the hereafter, the artist/subject was still in touch with the absolute. Which meant he was still able to derive an authority for his representation from something seemingly outside himself.

But with modernity, with modern art – and this is what Modernism exploits – the absolute seems to recede from view. Josipovici quotes Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: ‘Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished and the Oracles which pronounced on particular questions are dumb.’ The individual, formally at least, may be increasingly free – politically and economically – but he no longer confronts a world in which he recognises himself. This is how Josipovici uses Modernism to frame modernity. It is a process of loss, of spiritual entropy. What Josipovici sees in the work of his heroes – in Kierkegaard, in Mallarmé, in Kafka – are the profound privations of modernity made conscious. ‘[Modernism] is a response’, he writes, ‘to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them’.

Modernism functions in Jospiovici’s telling as a cultural register of the downside of modernity. With all that was once solid melting into air, the individual, severed from extant authority, was increasingly having to rely entirely upon himself. For the artist, for art, this is experienced as a crisis of tradition. Pre-modern genres, from epic verse to pastoral elegy, were ceasing to make sense in a disenchanted world. Instead the artist now had not merely to make, to artifice, but to invent and create. He was no longer a mere craftsman, he was to be a genius. Just as the Lutheran notion of Sola Fide left the individual to rely upon his own spiritual resources, so the shattering of the medieval sacramental universe left the artist to forge meaning alone. Hence the self-confessed source of Cervante’s proto-novel Don Quixote: ‘my barren and poorly cultivated wits.’ Little wonder that the young Lukács described this new novel form as ‘the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God’ (4).

Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Romanticism, as the point at which the sheer subjectivity of the artist threatens to overwhelm anything outside him, becomes interesting in this regard. And that’s because it stops short of becoming what it promises to be – the revelation of the absolute. Josipovici cites Wordsworth here, but fellow poet John Keats is equally as Modernist in effect. Take ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, for instance, where the poet, enchanted by the nightingale’s song and seemingly transcending himself, seems to experience a sense of continuity, of tradition, imagining others before him listening to the same bird’s song: ‘The same that oft-times hath / Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’ But then, in the next stanza, Keats abruptly calls a halt to this flight of sightless fancy with an abrupt repetition of ‘forlorn’, playing upon its double meaning of first ‘lost’ and then ‘abandoned’. ‘Forlorn! the very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!’ Then, Keats pulls himself – and the listener – back from the reality of his dream to the lonely reality of the dreamer, as distant from the ancient sources of enchantment as he is alienated by the contemporary world of commerce and reason.

And it is this sensibility, this refusal to blur the lines between art and reality, subject and object, that makes Modernism so appealing to Josipovici. The writer is not representing any reason in the world, he is only ever imposing reason upon it. It is the painful awareness of this that leaves so many of the great twentieth-century modernists literally struggling to say anything at all. He cites Hoffmansthal’s Letter from Lord Chandos; he quotes from a letter from a 26-year-old Kafka to Max Brod in which the celebrated neurotic grapples with his inability to write – ‘my whole body puts me on my guard against each word’; he recalls that the French poet Stephane Mallarme wanted to quit writing aged 23; and he notes that Samuel Beckett, who in response to a question as to what he would replace ‘weary’ art with, answered, ‘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.’

This is a Modernism which refuses to affirm reality by identifying with it. ‘In these times’, observed the Austrian writer Karl Krauss, ‘you should not expect any words of my own from me – none but these words which barely manage to prevent silence from being misinterpreted’ (5).

Josipovici writes of his twentieth-century modernist avatars that ‘[t]heir works feel like an interference with the world, as guilt-inducing as the boy’s presence in the nut-grove in Wordsworth’s poem [‘Nutting’]: lacking proper authority they have strayed into a place where they should not be.’ There is something to this: illegitimacy is as important to Kafka’s enterprise, for instance, as fetishised sex is to DH Lawrence’s. Kafka’s novels, governed by nothing but their author’s imagination, are scarred by a consciousness of their arbitrariness. This is what gives them their nightmare-like quality; perception is simultaneous with creation, representation with invention. K in The Trial is creating his fate, whether summoning his inquisitors or deciding the verdict. His is not a bureaucratic persecution by a nameless totalitarian state; it is a search for an authority outside one’s self. This, for Kafka, is the situation of the artist. Far from being empowered by his position as an unspoken legislator of the world, as Shelly would have it, Kafka is paralysed by the position’s illegitimacy.

This is why Josipovici attacks today’s authors. Everything is too easy: their worlds are too believable; their fictions too unproblematic. Such is the ease with which McEwan or Amis discerns meaning within the world, it is as if Modernism never happened.

But this sad, bitter assault is not the problem with his championing of Modernism. The problem is that he turns a polyvalent response to modernity, whether it is the Romantic disillusionment with a then-emergent industrial capitalism or Kafka’s unconsolable vision from within the collapsing heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a hard and fast repudiation of Enlightenment per se. We lack the authority to know the world, he seems to be saying. So it is a lie to say that art or literature can capture something of the meaning of human life. He fetishises the doubt that often accompanies freedom.

In his discussion of the ‘Ideology of Modernism’, written in the 1950s, the older, defiantly Marxist Georg Lukács identified the philosophical basis for Modernism as an assumption of the ontological solitude of the individual. From such a perspective, society – the individual’s social being – appeared meaningless. What reason it had, like Weber’s view of capitalist society as an ‘iron cage of rationality’, was profoundly irrational. In the hands of ideologues of Modernism, of whom Josipovici would certainly number, an experience of alienation ceases to be a specific historical phenomenon; it becomes an eternal human fate.

To the blandishments of Modernism, Lukács countered with that other literary tradition encompassing Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy, a tradition which, far from assuming social life to be fundamentally meaningless, found its muse there. That tradition was of course realism. As Lukács presented it, realists did not seek to represent in immaculate detail this particular setting or that particular object – they were not naturalists. Rather they sought to imitate an action: the working of a very human fate. And here we have the other side to the process of disenchantment. The meaning of existence was no longer to be sought in something beyond human social life, but within the inner poetry of life. As Lukács put it, ‘the poetry of men in struggle, the poetry of the turbulent interaction of men… Epic Art – and, of course, the art of the novel – consists in discovering the significant and vital aspects of social practice.’ (6)

These ‘significant and vital aspects of social practice’ aren’t on the surface of reality. It is up to the author to ‘discover’ them. As Eric Auerbach wrote in his great work Mimesis (1946), a description of Mathlide’s drawing room in Scarlet and Black isn’t just description. It was underpinned by a knowledge of the political situation, a knowledge of economic circumstances, a knowledge of the social stratification of that moment (1814-1830). Even the room’s dullness expresses the oppressiveness of the Restoration period.

And here we have the problem of Modernism. It wasn’t that social life lacked meaning or vitality; it was that for certain writers that vitality was inaccessible. It was the view of social life held by a later, more disillusioned writer like Flaubert, who saw in every smile nothing but the yawn of boredom. For advocates of Modernism as an idea, like Josipovici, it seems that this estrangement is too easily reified and celebrated as the condition of humanity.

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