Gabriel Josipovici‘s What Ever Happened to Modernism? caused a small storm when it was published by Yale University Press in 2010. The London press picked up on a few minor comments about contemporary British novelists Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, largely ignoring the more important implications of Josipovici’s admittedly local and personal reflections on the decline of Modernism; he wrote about his own reaction to this storm in the New Statesman. A shame, really; this relatively modest book makes an implicit argument for the continuing relevance of the modernist perspective, and it does so lightly, with considerable wit and learning.
What Ever Happened to Modernism? is less a consideration of the literary-historical period of capital-M Modernism from Baudelaire to Beckett and more a meditation on the world-historical influences that created it and its continuing relevance in this now arguably Postmodernist world. Josipovici reaches back to the Reformation’s “disenchantment of the world” (the phrase is Schiller’s) to describe a schism between the individual and the world in which he lives. The long period of the Reformation, from Luther on, served to alienate man from his surroundings by dismantling the authority of the church, the theology of which infused the everyday object and therefore the individual himself with a spiritual dimension which exceeded both. The consciousness of the Middle Ages permitted an interpretation of the world which granted every day experience an extra-empirical significance. As artists like Dürer recognized, it led to a divorce between the individual and the world, which now held no more significance than the individual consciousness, constantly anxious, could lend it. Whether this divorce can ever be mended — and whether it’s even worth the effort to mend it — is a question that obsessed Modernist artists and writers such as Duchamp, Picasso, Kafka, and Schoenberg.
Art then becomes not the description of the world (an empirical project made possible through the empirical certainties of the Enlightenment) but an attempt to describe the artist’s reaction to it, his construction of it — a very slippery project, especially for those who approach the Enlightenment skeptically, knowledgable of the spiritual dimension of the world that was lost with the Reformation and subsequent world-historical developments. The authority of the artist is undermined by the Protean character of identity and narrative themselves: nothing is sure, not even who is speaking, what he is seeing, or what he is feeling. (This can be observed in works as disparate as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur.) It is for this reason, Josipovici persuasively argues, that writers like Eliot and Pound, seeking spiritual and political certainties, turned to ideologies like Anglo-Catholicism and fascism respectively. Others, like Beckett and Picasso, could never find this comfort in ideology.
Time does not permit more extended writing on this now, but I do find a personal empathy with Josipovici when he writes, at the end of this short book, “My own ‘story,’ as I have tried to present it here, discovering what it was as I went along, is that only an art which recognizes 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. … Modernism may not be a consequence of the crisis of the bourgeoisie but it may be the product of a general European rootlessness in the wake of the French and Industrial revolutions. All will then depend on whether we see such rootlessness as pathological or as giving those who are inbued with it a certain vantage point, allowing them to see things which might otherwise have remained hidden. In other words, are we to see our own history, that which makes us what we are, as something which blinkers us or sharpens our vision?”
As one who finds himself seemingly eternally rootless and in exile, I also find myself heartened by such observations — even those which end with a question mark. A Guardian review by Nicholas Lezard considers the book far more eloquently than I do above.