Thursday, July 7, 2011

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici

Since the passages I quoted in the last chapter from Mallarme, Hofmannsthal, Kafka and Beckett all fall between the years 1850 and 1950 the temptation is strong to date Modernism in that hundred-year period. This is certainly when it flourished and when its manifestations were so prevalent that no-one could ignore it. The danger in seeing it like that, though, is that Modernism is thereby turned into a style, like Mannerism or Impressionism, and into a period of art history, like the Augustan or the Victorian age, and therefore as something that can be clearly defined and is safely behind us. I, on the other hand, want to argue that Modernism needs to be understood in a completely different way,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. Seen this way, modernism, I would suggest, becomes a response by artists to that 'disenchantment of the world' to which cultural historians have long been drawing our attention.

This is the central insight of What Ever Happened to Modernism? and the one that strikes me as the most undeniably persuasive. By defining Modernism as a crucial mental shift and not an arbitrary period, Josipovici transcends the petty boundary-setting of the academic.

Here is the following argument, as best I can understand it: Modernism is the expression of the mental crisis that comes from the loss of reliable standards of truth. Art is not a mirror to the world, but a set of signs and symbols that describe it--what may seem a quibbling difference, but quite important. The Modernist, Josipovici argues, is all too aware that art can never really reach its goal, which is to describe the experience of life, and so the old realism games begin to seem disingenuous. The real artist then has only one recourse, which is to create art that is cognizant of this tension:

The remarks of Kierkegaard and Sartre help explain why so many Modernist writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. Not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the reality of the world, as uncomprehending critics charge them, but on the contrary, out of a profound sense that they will only be able to speak the truth about the world if the bad faith of the novel, its inevitable production of plot and meaning, is acknowledged and, somehow, 'placed.'

In supporting this argument, Josipovici is both broad (he includes examples from visual art and music, not just literature) and deep (he goes back as far as Cervantes and Albrecht Durer, who he claims as Modernists). I am delighted to report that he repeats Erich Heller's idea that the problem of poetry began with the Marburg Colloquy, where Protestant reformers were unable to compromise between the various truth claims of the eucharist, though he fails to note that Ford placed this moment at the heart of The Good Soldier when Heller was three years old.

Furthermore, he complains that the modern novel--especially the English one--fails to acknowledge this shift, preferring to pretend as if this crisis of conscience has never happened. His focus on the contemporary, however, I find to be the weakest part of his argument. At one point he presents for criticism a set of quotations from contemporary writers like Iris Murdoch and Philip Roth (!) which are meant to represent the kind of bread-and-butter realism that ought to be banished to the pre-Enlightenment, but as a critical method this is uncharitable at best. Does Josipovici really think that it is impossible to find a similarly banal block of text from In Search of Lost Time? Like in Wood's essays, John Updike and Graham Greene are presented as betes noires, which tells me that Josipovici has never read Greene's short story "Under the Garden," which would have fit nicely between the bit on Beckett and the bit on Kafka.

I come back to an anecdote Josipovici dregs up about Francis Bacon and his correspondent, David Sylvester:

Abstract painters, [Bacon] suggests, only have allegiance to the artwork, and to themselves. Hence the work will lack what he feels to be a vital ingredient. Sylvester, however, is puzzled: 'If abstract paintings are no more than pattern-making, how do you explain the fact that there are people like myself who have some sort of visceral response to them at times as they have to figurative work?'

Bacon's response is, "Fashion." But I do not see why this claim can't be made in reverse--while what Josipovici is saying is quite persuasive, how does it deal with the very real response many of us have to the psychological fineness of Rabbit, Run or A House for Mr. Biswas? It is not very pleasant to have one's favorite works trucked off because they fail to meet art's new "responsibilities," a phrase which seems unfittingly draconian.

At the end, Josipovici makes this concession, saying, "But I realise that this may be largely because of who and what I am." Of course, he does this only at the end and really quite reluctantly, but it is true: the final arbiter of artistic quality remains, infuriatingly, personal taste.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

I hate personal taste too.