What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by Gabriel Josipovici
It’s perhaps fitting that in sitting down to write this review I found myself struggling with how to start and with questions about my authority to say anything.
There are three broad strands in What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici writes a brief history of modernism (though he wouldn’t thank me for saying that). He makes an argument for why modernism is not a historical event or movement but an ongoing challenge to art (he might thank me for that). Finally he offers a critique of contemporary English literary culture (which got his book more discussed than read, but then that’s true of so many books).
I … want to argue 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.
A few years back I had a fondness for popular science books. Among my favourite authors in that field was John Gribbin. Gribbin writes about complex concepts in modern physics, but he does so in a hugely accessible way. He knows his stuff, but he can explain it to laymen. If you’re interested in understanding the rudiments of quantum physics and lack the relevant background Gribbin’s your man.
I read a fair few Gribbin books, and thanks to him have a reasonable grasp (as reasonable as I probably can have anyway) of what’s going on in the world of modern cosmology. Even so, I couldn’t pick up a text aimed at actual physicists and have a hope of understanding much beyond the commas.
What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a work of literary criticism. Literary criticism is a bit like economics. If we read and enjoy literature then literary criticism can seem intuitive, obvious even. In the same way because we all, with varying success, balance our bank accounts economics can seem intuitive, obvious even. The truth is though that I, and probably most people reading this blog, lack the background and training to engage in literary criticism at the academic level.
That’s relevant to a key problem with this book. What is it? Populist or academic? It’s a bit of both, and that raises difficulties which I’ll return to.
Finally, I should note that in order to talk about the book I’ll have to summarise its nearly 200 pages of closely argued text in my own words. That means I can’t do the argument justice. In paraphrasing it I diminish it. To properly capture what Josipovici says I would have to write it out again verbatim.
For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the “disenchantment of the world”. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws (yes, I did just gloss over about 400 years there).
This is absolutely critical to everything that follows. The death of enchantment does not mean that people were happy in the middle ages but disillusioned thereafter. It is not a personal loss of enchantment. The point is that the European concept of the world changed from it being a place in which the natural and supernatural were different facets of the same reality to a world in which the natural and the supernatural were firmly separated (and in which the supernatural could therefore potentially be discarded entirely).
With the death of enchantment comes the death of meaning. Before the disenchantment of the world it is possible to speak with authority, because the world has meaning from which authority can be derived. After that disenchantment there is no longer such an authority. The only authority that exists is that which we assert.
For Josipovici this raises questions about the authority of the artist. In particular, the authority of the author. If the world no longer grants authority then where does it come from? What right has the author to assert that what they write is in any sense true? Worse, if the world is without meaning is not the act of writing a novel itself a form of lie about the world, an imposition of narrative where none in fact exists?
Josipovici explores this in part by a frankly fascinating discussion of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. He focuses particularly on the way through the foreword and other authorial insertions Cervantes undermines the reliability of his own work and on how the text is no more reliable than Don Quixote’s perceptions within it.
Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative. And it dramatises the way we as readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world. It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment when the world is growing disenchanted. We need enchantment and are prepared to pay good money to get it. The profound irony of Don Quixote is this: that we as we read about the hero’s obvious delusions we believe that we are more realistic about the world than he is, less enchanted, whereas we are of course ourselves in that very moment caught in Cervantes’ web and enchanted by his tale.
Historically, BC (before Cervantes) the artist could appeal to tradition. The death of enchantment though means that tradition can no longer be trusted. It is founded on nothing beyond itself. The author can of course create their own tradition, can create their own reality, but in doing so they create narrative and so write something which has no real relation to the actual world around us.
In this sense then modernism is an attempt to address the problem faced by art in seeking to represent a world that is independent of humanity. When the world was created in our image we could trust it in some sense to reflect us. If it is not, we cannot, and tools of art such as perspective, harmony, narrative, may all be nothing but our own inventions; not mirrors at all.
In our modern age, an age without access to the transcendental and therefore without any sure guide, an age of geniuses but no apostles, only those who do not understand what has happened will imagine that they can give their lives (and their works) a shape and therefore a meaning; the shape and meaning conferred by an ending.
What does all this mean though for the author? If you are driven to write because writing is intrinsic to your very nature, but you no longer believe in tradition and are troubled by the implications of the act of writing, where does that leave you? The problem of modernism is the problem of the artist who no longer believes they have authority but yet must create art.
We are now in a position to understand a little better the nature of the anxieties that gripped the writers of our opening examples. What is afflicting Mallarmé, Hofmannstahl, Kafka and Beckets is the sense that they feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world – imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have – and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves.
Modernism then is “… the effort, through art, to recognise that which will fit into no system, no story, that which resolutely refuses to be turned into art. That effort is at the heart of modernism.” This is the essence of Josipovici’s argument.
Modernist fiction is fiction which seeks to engage not only with reality but also to engage with its own reality. If the only possible authority is that which the author establishes for themselves then the work itself must establish that authority and in order to do so must recognise its own existence. That means that in order to be realistic, it must acknowledge its own artificiality and therefore the fact that it is not real.
Or perhaps not. Josipovici spends a fair while attacking “false friends” of modernism. Various critics and writers who while advocating it and defending it have missed the point and so diminished it. This raises again of course a question of authority. What authority does Josipovici have to assert his interpretation over those others he regards as mistaken? Naturally, only that he establishes through his arguments through the course of his book.
That takes me back to something I mentioned early on – the issue of whether this is a populist or an academic book. Josipovici backs his arguments through frequent references to Hegel and Kierkegaard, neither of whom I’ve read. In a very real sense I’m simply not qualified to debate the points he raises. This isn’t though an academic text. Stylistically it feels aimed very much at me. It makes its arguments in lay terms but by reference to texts that most laymen won’t be familiar with.
The problem is that Josipovici is making a case for modernist literature as a valid and relevant literary form. He argues that it is a form which is superior to the novels currently enjoying success among the English speaking literary readership. To do so he must write at a populist level, but his argument is not populist and understanding it takes real work. As I write this I’m unsure that I have understood it (but am sure some would say I haven’t). This may not be an avoidable problem, but it could be that modernism needs a John Gribbin and Josipovici is by nature a physicist, not a populariser of physics.
I’m conscious that I’ve made this book sound terribly dry. That’s unfair because it’s not. Josipovici ranges widely in his use of examples, moving within the space of a page from Mann to Stravinsky to Picasso. He quotes even more than I have here, and his quotes are well chosen. He examines the poetry of Wordsworth and makes an excellent case for it as being more exciting, more innovative than in all honesty I had ever recognised. He is excited by modernism, and he communicates that. I finished the book with a fresh (if possibly wrong) understanding of modernism and a renewed desire to engage with it.
There’s a lot in here and I can only touch on a fraction of it in this blog entry. Josipovici talks about Greek drama and its focus on action (praxis) and social context rather than the individual. He made me reconsider my views on some of Picasso’s work and has me reaching for Stravinsky recordings my wife owns that I hadn’t previously even bothered to listen to. At times reading it is invigorating.
Where Josipovici is less successful is where he criticises others. To his credit he doesn’t hide behind generalities. He names authors that he regards as having missed the point of the challenge raised by modernism and who he sees as producing works that are flat, unexciting, mere anecdote. He doesn’t always persuade me on them though.
Among his examples of writers of slightly dull realist fiction (which he would note is nothing of the kind) is Anthony Powell. I have though read the entirety of A Dance to the Music of Time and to read it as purely a story, as an exercise in narrative, is rather to miss the point.
Powell is telling a story, yes, but he’s also exploring issues of the nature of personal identity, the degree to which the individual is an extension of a social context rather than an atomic unit. Powell is quite consciously looking back himself to Greek drama and to questions of what it means to have free will (arguably Nick Jenkins lacks free will, Widmerpool possesses it and this is not necessarily to his advantage).
Put bluntly, I don’t agree with Josipovici on Powell. Equally, I don’t agree that the problem with McEwan is that he is a stylistically conservative writer who writes supposedly realist novels that are in fact suffused with a wholly fictitious meaning. Actually, as I write that (and I’ll let it stand) I’m persuaded that’s precisely the problem with McEwan. He writes ostensibly realist novels that are in fact so slavishly plot driven that they become more fantastic than anything Tolkien wrote.
The irony here is that I only heard about What Ever Happened to Modernism? because of a handful of pages where Josipovici criticises certain members of the current literary canon. That got his book discussed, but it’s a very small part of it. Josipovici’s main interest is in arguing for modernism, not against what we have instead (though he is absolutely scathing about Nemirovsky, querying why a fairly middlebrow novelist is being hailed as a major literary discovery).
A little controversy is nothing to be afraid of. To argue for something is inevitably to argue against something else and I like that Josipovici names names. It also doesn’t hurt that I instinctively agree with him. I do think current Anglo-American publishing is deeply conservative and that we lack in a formally unexciting period.
… ours is an age which, while being deeply suspicious of the ‘pretentious’, worships the serious and the ‘profound’, so that large novels about massacres in Rwanda or Bosnia, or historical novels with a ‘majestic sweep’, are automatically considered more worthy of attention than the novels of, say, P.G. Wodehouse or Robert Pinget.
Quite. Still, was there ever a time that wasn’t true? Did The Great Gatsby outsell The Green Hat? I doubt it (though if it did that analogy will look pretty silly). Modernism is on Josipovici’s account a challenge, and the challenging will always be less popular. We most of us read for enjoyment, perhaps for escapism, and narrative is inherently enjoyable. It’s a lie, but it’s a beautiful lie.
I opened unsure how to start, and I close unsure how to finish. Josipovici ends by recognising that he has himself no intrinsic authority. He recognises that it could be argued that all this is just a matter of taste, though he hopes he’s shown it’s not that simple. He expects the argument to continue, and I expect he’s right. Like him, I’m glad that’s true. There are no endings in art, no final summations, so it’s probably right that I don’t really have one here either.
Here is a (predictably acid) review by Philip Hensher, here a (predictably glowing) one by Tom McCarthy. There’s also an excellent blog entry on the book by Danny S Byrne here which I strongly recommend. As I wrote this I was given the link to this blog entry which I have yet to properly engage with (partly as I didn’t want it to influence my own thoughts while I was still crystallising them) but which looks exceptionally well informed.