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After the Revolution

The signs are good. Modernism is making a comeback. After decades of books and essays with titles like “Beyond Modernism,” “The Death of Modernism” and After The Avant-Garde, a number of prominent writers and thinkers are staging a protest. This is nothing like a movement or a counter-movement. The rabble-rousers belong to no coherent group and proceed—so it seems—with little or no awareness of one another. Some of them are newly angry with the state of things in the arts and are asking, as if for the first time, how we came to be where we find ourselves. Others are not-so-youthful provocateurs who have been waiting all their lives for what now appears to be the right moment to strike. For all of them, modernism is an idea that must not die.

To some of the new activists, the term itself hardly matters. The idea of art taking its impetus and its shape from an opposition to established forms and decorums is the thing. In truth, many of those who proclaim their allegiance to a modernist revival would seem to have no firm grasp of modernism at all. But their determination to go against the grain of what had seemed a comfortable consensus about its death, or its irrelevance, has begun to make waves.

The most audacious of the new books is Reality Hunger by the American novelist David Shields. On the face of it, Shields has little or no interest in modernism. His ostensible goal is to clear some space for randomness and spontaneity in art, to argue that “nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes [are] unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” Though he apparently subscribes to the “postmodern,” his book quotes from, and appropriates, so many different sources, many of them contradicting one another, that it is never safe to assume too much about his allegiances. What places his book squarely in the camp of those for whom modernism must be the name of our collective desire is its predilection for art that is “nonlinear” and “discontinuous,” its impatience with “narrative legerdemain” and plot. Shields wants art to create its own facts, to create and to be its own reality. He wants it to be difficult.

“The life we live is not enough of a subject for the serious artist,” Shields says, thereby indicating to some of us that he does not actually know very much about the life we live or the substantial uses made of it by artists as serious and gifted as he and his friends might ever hope to be. But never mind. What Shields wants is “authenticity,” which he thinks can only be reached by “fabrication, imagination, stylization.” He may not want to believe that most of what he says he is after belongs to the program, and practice, of a modernism that is now more than a hundred years old, but there is no escaping the fact.

For all of its professed interest in essay and autobiography and other enterprises not central to the classic modernist project, Reality Hunger is a brash new document in the war against bourgeois realism and the conventions favored by the common reader. When Shields declares that he always tries “to read form as content, style as meaning” and that a book “is always, in some sense, stutteringly, about its own language,” he is making modernist noises with a pedigree that derives from Eliot to Borges, from Picasso to Benjamin.

The newest entry in this campaign comes from Gabriel Josipovici, an English avant-garde novelist and critic whose work deserves to be much better known in this country. What Ever Happened To Modernism? is at once a polemic and a rigorous exposition of certain aspects of modernist practice. Like other such works on this subject, the book is confident and erudite, though often misguided and occasionally bizarre. Does Josipovici really mean to say that books with a “need to tell a story” inevitably convey “the thinness and insubstantiality of what is being depicted”? This is the sort of thing he routinely declares in a book determined to make a case for modernism by disparaging works of another kind in ways he would be hard put to defend in a classroom or seminar.

Josipovici believes that the return of modernism requires that the early twentieth-century wars fought against the dead hand of the past be fought anew. He says that it is not his wish to indict “a whole tradition,” but his polemic is decidedly sweeping and incendiary, and it is not easy to take altogether seriously an argument in which the fictions of Phillip Roth and Ian McEwan are said to be merely “anecdotal” and “thought-provoking … only as good journalism can be funny and thought-provoking.” Even books that seem to Josipovici in their own way quite good are written off as “run-of-the-mill middle-brow narrative,” so that the term “middle-brow” here simply refers to works, any works, preoccupied with questions of interest to ordinary readers. Works, one presumes, by “middle-brow” writers such as J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer and Pat Barker. Just so, those who nowadays embrace a modernist aesthetic are said to “defend a version of Modernism that is at once crude and superficial,” so that the situation as described must seem grim and unpromising indeed.

Josipovici ranges freely over the literature and art of centuries past to avoid reducing modernism to a narrow set of masterpieces or “a lowest common denominator.” At the same time, to his credit, he tries to come up with a description of the many-headed beast that will seem adequate. Thus he quotes Beckett: “I speak of an art…weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able to, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing.” And Kafka: “My whole body puts me on my guard against each word…; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands.” For Josipovici, modernism is “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities.” He admires only the work of artists “aware of the fact that in today’s world there is no place for natural, spontaneous creation.” A work such as Don Quixote can seem a proto-modernist work in its alertness to “the dead wood of convention” and in its willingness to explore “the nature of novels and their ontological status.” Cervantes was therefore the right kind of enchanter, one who knew how to pull “the rug (the magic carpet) from under our feet.” So, too, was Kierkegaard a forerunner of the modernist imagination, one who long ago grasped that “more and more becomes possible because nothing becomes actual.”

Again and again Josipovici casts modernism in essentially oppositional terms. The artists he admires always reject and repudiate and recoil. They are inclined inexorably to disenchantment, poised to be revolted by anything easy or natural, pleasing or confident. In this Josipovici participates in a venerable tradition. Modernist artists and their celebrants have long trumpeted their allegiance to the experimental and the untried. They have insisted upon asking themselves, at every turn, what they are doing, thinking about the limits and possibilities peculiar to their medium. The preoccupation with form and medium has varied in emphasis and intensity from one modernist maker to another, but where it has been absent or incidental, the artist has been denied accreditation as a bona fide modernist.

Obviously, the commitment to the experimental, like the habit of self-consciousness, is not of itself bound to produce masterpieces. The annals of modernism are filled with tenth-rate “experiments” and pretentious, stultifyingly tedious works. And it does seem odd that Josipovici should fail in the main to concede this much as he makes his case. But then modernism was, at its best, a bracing idea. It seemed, for a time, the enemy of complacency in art and thought. It challenged the established canons of good taste and tested, by example, the belief that realism was, to a considerable degree, an exhausted idiom. It also made untenable the notion that success in art had much to do with popular acceptance or transparency of purpose, or proper sentiments, or verisimilitude. Though particular modernist works could seem unduly tendentious or obscure, or obstinately resistant to the elementary satisfactions offered by more accessible works of art, the modernist revolution did inspire several generations of artists and their audiences to think seriously about the values only to be found in art, and to try not to confuse them with values to be found elsewhere.

When modernism was first discussed as an identifiable phenomenon, interest was fueled by the outrage and incomprehension that often greeted the appearance of a new work. The howls of dismay sounded at the initial performance of Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring became at once a signal feature of the legend of modernism. Joyce’s Ulysses was early celebrated in advanced circles in part because it was felt to be too much, too difficult, and obviously beyond the comprehension of ordinary bourgeois readers. The frequent expressions of outrage and mistrust allowed modernist artists and their fans to mock the philistine, stiff-necked middle classes who had disdained Picasso and Eliot and others who seemed needlessly committed to difficulty. The success of modernism, its growing command of an era and of the artistic protocols that defined that era for sophisticated people, had much to do with the perception that, in this case, the success was hard-won, the enemies of modernism—from the regular arts reviewers of the New York Times to popular novelists such as Evelyn Waugh—entrenched and unwilling to embrace the new.

When Randall Jarrell wrote in 1953 about “the obscurity of the poet,” he reminded his readers that earlier poets had once inspired similar cries of incomprehension and disdain from their original audiences. But the modernists often made a virtue of their obscurity. They declared, in effect, that they were decidedly not in the business of providing edification or pleasure. The enormously influential Clement Greenberg was not alone in declaring advanced modernist art unsuited to the appetites of the masses, who would want “a kind of culture fit for their own consumption.” Even a magazine such as The New Yorker, as Greenberg had it, simply “converts and waters down a great deal of avant-garde material for its own uses,” catering to a “luxury trade,” comfortable people largely unequipped to handle anything unfamiliar or demanding. Of course, as more and more people wished to think themselves advanced, the very audience Greenberg associated with the “luxury trade” made itself into a willing constituency for modernism and came to crave the shock of the new.

Though Josipovici does not deal with the growing popularity of modernist art in the first half of the twentieth century, he would have done well to think about it, and to engage especially with Lionel Trilling’s classic essay on “The Teaching of Modern Literature.” There Trilling examined problems generated by the widespread acceptance of modernism as a source of accredited masterpieces, and as an ethos that had renewed a culture otherwise invested in the conventional and the safe. In the university, as Trilling noted, teachers were eager to share their enthusiasm for the unfamiliar and the dangerous, and students were primed to submit to a canon recently enlarged to accommodate not only cubism and Duchamp but also the varieties of decadence and nihilism to be found in the writings of Céline. The problem was that fewer and fewer people in the newly enlarged audience for advanced work were inclined to resist or to challenge the destabilizing insights and the disordered forms served up by the modernists. Students were led to the lip of many an abyss, as Trilling had it, only to gaily look down and feel uplifted by their enlarging encounters with the creatures of the night. What had seemed unassimilable had gradually become safe. Trilling called this “the legitimation of the subversive.” The consequence, certainly in pedagogic terms, was an invitation to students to collude in the domestication of modernist literature, which had rapidly become a standard academic subject, no more unsettling than any other object of study.

Many of us will feel a stab of nostalgia for a time when an exhibition of surrealist paintings or the sight of a urinal mounted on a museum pedestal might inspire heartfelt revulsion or incomprehension. But what Harold Rosenberg long ago called “the herd of independent minds” is today turned off by nothing. What passes for appreciation in the wake of modernism is a bland receptivity. Little effort is made in the domain of the higher criticism to differentiate between the genuine and the specious in works that aim to be provocative. Of course it is possible even now to find instances of stubborn philistine resistance to new or demanding work, though in the visual arts especially resistance to anything that looks remotely new is exceedingly rare. In deciding not to ask why the avant-garde rapidly deteriorated into sophomoric nose thumbings and empty posturings, the better to keep its credentials in order and satisfy the audience greedy for anything that looked exciting, Josipovici misses a crucial aspect of the modernist story.

Since Josipovici mainly keeps his eye on literature and the general literary scene, he believes that modernism, as he understands it, has ceased to be a force for renewal. He wonders how educated readers can possibly be excited by the realist fiction of Irene Nemirovsky. Here was a writer, he argues, whose work constitutes “a written renunciation to all claim to be an author.” Why? Because, clearly, “she uses the clichés of the middle-brow novel without embarrassment.” Like other realist writers, she does not earn a valid claim to her material. Josipovici is unapologetic in his resort to terms such as “embarrassment,” and in his willingness to come down hard on writers who “betray their calling,” whose work displays no “contact with the transcendent.”

To be sure, he is accurate in contending that realism still commands the field in the domain of fiction. Experimental or avant-garde writers typically inspire only a tiny following. In commercially successful novels, a pinched, tired cynicism does often pass for an ostensibly brave realism. No doubt, as he says, the disenchantment with the ordinary and available sponsored by modernism has devolved, in most contemporary fiction, into a familiar preoccupation with the small and the mean and, in many of the leading British writers, a “schoolboy desire to boast and to shock.”

But an attack on “realism” conceived in these terms will not do, and modernism cannot be effectually revived on the basis of a face-off with a largely imaginary and misconceived opposition. Josipovici insists that everything we can honor and bear to look at must bear notable traces of the “can’t go on, will go on” syndrome associated with Beckett. How, he wonders, can we take seriously anything that does not “flout the laws of probability”? How is it that we can admire writers who do not acknowledge, in every sentence they write, that “some things can no longer be done”? Which things, exactly? For starters, the presentation of a world that has apparently existed in actuality, instead of a world freshly invented by the writer himself. Writers who do not repudiate the actual and the given cannot claim our attention or admiration.

Where Trilling had worried, fifty years ago, that the modernist revolution had created an audience all too willing to swallow what passed for the new, Josipovici now declares the appetite for the unfamiliar and difficult largely dead, at least in the domain of the novel, where his own interests principally lie. But much that Josipovici argues is based upon a caricature of the traditional novel and what he calls “naïve realism.” He acknowledges that he warms to certain things and not to others “largely because of who and what I am,” but so what? His account seems in places unreliable and sometimes frivolous. Yes, Thomas Mann’s character Adrian Leverkuhn, in Doctor Faustus, powerfully indicted “the methods and conventions” of traditional art as “false, laboured, second-hand” and good mainly for parodybut the argument mounted there is by no means as unanswerable as Josipovici assumes, and he would have done well to acknowledge the misgivings elsewhere expressed by Mann himself, as by other original and ambitious writers of the era. After all, Mann did not think the novels of Tolstoy and the other great realist writers in any way false or elementary, and much of his own best fiction is clearly determined not to flout the laws of probability.

Josipovici does occasionally acknowledge some mild discomfort with the drift of his own argument. Yes, the “mysterious,” that which is “incapable of being absorbed into any system,” may sometimes be encompassed even by nineteenth-century authors such as Melville or Dostoyevsky. And after all, among the various literary forms, the novel was always least apt to require any “sign of submission to authority and tradition,” and most apt to appeal to writers eager to throw off shackles of any kind. Why, the critic wonders, should a form so promising have so rapidly acquiesced in the exhaustion of its possibilities? But the head-scratching would seem more credible if it did not rest upon the critic’s constant animus towards “the classic novel.” What was that, again? It was, Josipovici insists, a sort of drug designed to produce “in the reader the impression that he or she understands something.” It was committed to story-telling as its primary business, and was incapable of making us see that the what of the story “cannot really be separated” from the way it is told. In realism, or so we are told, we get mainly story, which cannot by definition be “a living thing.”

To secure our consent, Josipovici deftly invokes a variety of modernist works which collectively attest to the proposition that “traditional” works aim to produce an impression of peacefulness and comfort wholly at odds with the impression elicited by revolutionary artists such as Cezanne and Proust. On one side, story, plot, elementary narrative, complacency, illusion; on the other side, vitality and the indeterminate. Drawn, are you, to novels by Tolstoy or, heaven forbid, Toni Morrison or Roth or McEwan? Clearly you are a reader for whom novels need not put you in touch with the sense that anything important is at stake. Clearly you will not wish to feel that “at every moment [in the composition of a novel] choices were being made.” Just look at Picasso and you will see how, by contrast, traditional works cannot play “at the border” between comprehension and incomprehension, between resolution and uncertainty.

So insistent is this black and white version that Josipovici simply finds ways to repeat it again and again. In this version of things, a traditional novel will inevitably be “easy to read,” will purport to tell an uncomplicated truth,” and will have “no life of [its] own.” It will deny “the openness…of life itself” and will give “the lie to our own sense of things being confused, dark, impossible to grasp fully.” Bottom line: such works “do not speak to our condition.”

It is unnecessary, I think, to mount an elaborate case for the defense, to say at length what ought to be perfectly obvious—that in the realism so roundly deplored by Josipovici we are often made to doubt the truth of a narrative and to mistrust the presented motives or views of the teller; that many classic fictions—by Dickens, by Fielding, by Stendhal—brazenly flout the ordinary laws of probability; that The Brothers Karamazov is by no means “easy to read,” and that even a compact, well-made realist novel like Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons routinely inspires incompatible interpretations. Surely Josipovici knows that Anna Karenina—to select but a single notable example—communicates to us that nothing is clear, that in goodness there may well be the seeds of confusion and looming instability, that in intensity of feeling there is often a will to reckless self-destruction, that in moderation there may well lurk coldness and the unacknowledged will to power. Such a work does unmistakably “speak to our condition” and in fact gives the lie to the easy disparagement informing efforts to portray modernism as the antidote to everything elementary and dead.

Apart from his unfortunate caricature of the classic novel, Josipovici informs and disappoints in more or less equal measure. He does beautifully when he juxtaposes old and new, like and unlike, in an effort to get at the core attitudes at the heart of modernism. We are gratified to learn that not only Borges and Ionesco can point the way to the heart of the matter, but also Cervantes and Rabelais. But I must wonder why the focus of the book did not allow for the raising of questions that have been opened up before but never adequately or decisively addressed. Why no attempt to consider that many of the leading modernists were themselves political reactionaries? Why nothing on the much disputed matter of politics in the art of modernism? What about the role of ideas, a role dismissed as inconsequential by Nabokov, among others, in spite of the fact that ideas clearly play a very large role in modernist works by Mann and Eliot and Stevens, among many others? By ignoring such questions, Josipovici limits substantially the picture he provides of a movement a good deal more complex than he lets on.

But the most important omission lies in the failure to raise questions about the delinquencies and the self-indulgences that compromised modernism from within. To read Josipovici’s book is to believe that the demise of modernism had mainly to do with the unfortunate drying up of its radical impulses and the attendant reemergence of realism and the “classic” values that supported it. But there is a more persuasive argument to be made by looking at the tensions and incompatibilities within modernism that made it a field of combat. This was a movement that contained the seeds of its own demise, quite as many other movements do.

Harold Rosenberg long ago noted that the avant-garde audience rapidly ceased to be interested in art itself, and that this development was inspired in large measure by the so-called avant-garde artists who followed on the heels of the great generations in the early years of the twentieth century. The late avant-garde audience in fact operated as if “art was not something to look at; it had become, in the newly popular phrase, an ‘environment.’” This audience needed only to know that a new, ostensibly cutting edge exhibition was out there and could make anyone feel advanced simply by acknowledging its claim to be interesting: you could apprehend it, in fact, “with your back.” As Leo Castelli told Rosenberg about an art exhibition, there was “no need to see it … The pictures are the same as the announcement I sent you.”

Josipovici wants to make a case about playing it safe, on the one hand, and untrammeled invention, on the other, but he ignores the several tendencies within the avant-garde that tore it to pieces and spelled the death of what used to be high modernism. In its final phase, Rosenberg wrote, both the avant-gardists and their acolytes had come to revel in works possessing “no intrinsic qualities that invite devotion.” Anyone who doubts that this spelled the end of modernism as a vital force in the culture might simply ask why, in advanced precincts of our culture, the very words employed by Rosenberg—“intrinsic qualities”, “devotion”—now seem quaint, inflated, even comical.

Robert Boyers is editor of the quarterly Salmagundi and director of The New York State Summer Writers Institute.