Friday 17 June 2011

What ever did happen to Modernism?

What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by Gabriel Josipovici, Yale University Press (2010)

What Ever Happened to Modernism? is Gabriel Josipovici’s rallying cry in the face of an overly conservative literary tradition in the UK. As both a well-established academic – he has held the Weidenfeld Professorship of Comparative Literature at Oxford and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sussex – and as a writer of fiction and non-fiction, Josipovici calls out to his contemporaries by echoing and taking up Terry Eagleton’s pamphlet Whatever Happened to English Modernism? (1982). Josipovici’s strength comes from his dual engagement with literature as both a theoretician and a practician. It indeed enables him to take from his personal experience, and wide-ranging knowledge of European art and literature, to provide a heart-felt examination of the development of ‘modern’ literature.

Josipovici sheds a fascinating light on a wide array of artwork ranging from Dürer’s ‘Melencolia’ (1514) to Picasso’s ‘Violon’ (1912) and Rembrandt’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (c. 1659) or Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’ (c. 1818), and achieves a fluid handling of their relation with literature, from Cervantes to Wordsworth and Mallarmé or Thomas Mann, Beckett and Robbe-Grillet, to quote but a few. It is made clear from the start that ‘Modernism’ will not be taken to refer to an epoch, but to an ethos against whose ‘false friends’ (p171), that is post-war and contemporary English writers, we are warned. What Ever Happened to Modernism? indeed proposes its own definition of Modernism to reveal that it is more to do with a synchronic ‘structure of feeling’, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, than with a continuum in time. Modernism here refers to idiosyncratic approaches to art linked together by the wish to come to terms with the meaning of life and the value of language.

The title of chapter one, quoting a letter by Franz Kafka, sets the tone: ‘My Whole Body Puts Me On My Guard Against Each Word’. Josipovici sums up his views on modernism by referring to Barthes’ definition: ‘If Barthes is right and to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done, then Cervantes is modern and these writers [Philip Larkin, Philip Roth, Iris Murdoch, Martin Amis etc.] are not’ (pp164-5). Modernist style then to Josipovici is this experience of a dead end, or in any case of a fundamental lack in our apprehension of life and its meaning. Hence his reading of European literature through the lens of Kierkegaard’s philosophy (p80). His contending argument being that literature must be inscribed in a praxis that brings together the difficulties of living and writing. Hence also his relying for his theoretical framework on the philosopher of language, Ludgwig Wittgenstein. Josipovici sees in the philosopher’s questioning of language the key to the modernist style, and quotes him extensively:

‘Certain events would put me into a position in which I could not go on with the old language–game any further. In which I was torn away from the sureness of the game. Indeed, doesn’t it seem obvious that the possibility of a language-game is conditioned by certain facts?’ (p142)

Two of his main concerns regarding the development of literature in the British Isles are to do with the peculiarities of Englishness and the tendency towards abstraction. If Josipovici’s argument makes an excellent read, it is, however, not new as such. His denunciation of English philistinism has been a very common one both in the UK and on the Continent throughout the 20th century and early 21st century. British avant-garde writers like BS Johnson (1933-1973) wrote with great verve of the British peculiar resistance to introspection and ‘serious’ literature in comparison with their European neighbours. Perry Anderson also famously critiqued the whole of British intellectual life and academia in ‘Components of the National Culture’ (New Left Review, NLR I/50, July-August 1968). Perhaps Josipovici’s main contribution is to be found in his synchronic study of the modernist style, from Cervantes to Thomas Bernhard (whom he praises greatly in the New Statesman of 13 January 2011); a contribution which serves the purpose of highlighting the difficulties and pitfalls of modernism.

Josipovici cannot help but wonder what it is that happened in the course of the 20th century that made the legacy of such authors as Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot vanish. The author takes the case of Pablo Picasso’s career to reflect on the process by which innovation and experimentation were overtaken by abstraction in the first half of the twentieth century. In a chapter entitled ‘Fernande Has Left With A Futurist’ (pp114-124), after a letter from Picasso to Braque in 1912, Josipovici brings together the fields of music, literature and painting in an attempt to understand what happened to ‘[t]hese composers, who all came of age in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War’, and who ‘believed that the war and the devastation it had brought had given them a chance to start again, in a sense, ignoring for the most part the traditions of classical and Romantic music’ (p122). He goes on to explain:

But whereas Cage, the American, opted for a version of Duchampian scepticism, the Europeans found their inspiration in medieval and Renaissance music and the musics of the far East and central Africa. […] Where Cage and his followers drew the conclusion that all traditions were dead, they began to forge new, more inclusive traditions, though always aware that their relation to them could never be that which had obtained in the time of Bach or Haydn (p122).

Josipovici states his argument against abstraction more forcefully still in his concluding chapter, ‘Stories of Modernism’:

My own ‘story’, as I have tried to present it here, discovering what it was as I went along, is that only an art that avoids the pitfalls inherent in both realism and abstraction will be really alive. That is why I warm to the novels of Perec and Bernhard more than to Finnegans Wake or the novels of Updike and Roth, to the pictures of Bacon and early Hockney more than to Pollock or Tracey Emin, to the music of Birtwistle and Kurtág more than to Cage or Shostakovitch (p187).

Josipovici’s gesture is both bold and ambiguous. His rejection of the champion of modernism, James Joyce, indicated by his criticism of Finnegans Wake’s abstractedness - and his refusal to incorporate him into his analysis of the modernist style - sheds a slightly ironic light on his standards. Is Josipovici himself not giving in to the Establishment by constructing a literary canon that reconciles English institutionalism and Continental avant-gardism? Why indeed argue, at length, against the English literary culture and fail to reckon with James Joyce? Would Josipovici be, despite himself, an unwilling victim of the Establishment? Or is this symptomatic of a certain idealisation of European art? For it is not at all sure that La Jalousie by Robbe-Grillet is any more readable than Finnegans Wake.

It seems that what Josipovici so readily denounces in Englishness, its insularity, is precisely what prevents him from making a very convincing argument. Josipovici laments that for historical reasons the English are less sensitive to experimental and ‘modern’ literature of the kind of the nouveau roman (p122) for example and justifies it thus:

As Linda Colley has shown in her fine book, Britons, from the early eighteenth century on Britons defined themselves in opposition to others, in particular to the large, aggressive Popish nations of Spain and France: Britons are different; Britons never will be slaves, to other nations or to the ideas of other nations. To this must be added the fact that England was just about the only European country not to be overrun by enemy forces during the second World War, which was a blessing for it, but which has left it strangely innocent and thrown it into the arms, culturally as well as politically, of the even more innocent United States. This has turned a robust pragmatic tradition, always suspicious of the things of the mind, into a philistine one (p175).

The author ventures two other reasons why that might be the case. Firstly, the book market is, we are told:

… suspicious of the ‘pretentious’ [and it] 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, PG Wodehouse or Robert Pinget (p175).

Secondly, because, he claims, ‘ours is the first generation in which High Art and Fashion have married in a spirit joyously welcomed by both parties’ (p175). By this, Josipovici means to stress that ‘we have truly arrived at an age where art and showbiz are one and the same’ (p175). In other words, the English book market has fallen prey to the ‘society of the spectacle’ Guy Debord and the Frankfurt School exposed throughout the sixties.

One may wish Josipovici had made such cultural materialism his focus in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, for while the work elegantly proposes its own definition of ‘modernism’, it remains too vague on the category it tries to define, modernism, and relies on too many sweeping comments by way of explanation.

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