Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?

What Ever Happened to Modernism?What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[This review first appeared in the British journal New Walk in Spring 2011. It represents my finest hour as a published writer: in the journal, which is laid out in two columns, my review begins in the second column of a page where the first column contains the end of a review by J. M. Coetzee. Good company! I recently saw a mention of—and subsequent brief argument about—Josipivici’s book on social media and thought it worth revisiting. At the end of my review, I refer to Josipovici’s desire to “shift the status quo” and make the denizens of the literary world rethink “their political self-congratulation for ignoring difficult art.” Has any cultural battle been more decisively lost in the last decade? Already in 2010 Josipovici—a scion of Continental and Levantine Jewish emigrants to England—was anticipating that he would be called a proto-fascist, though he was plainly expecting that line of attack from the neoconservatives of the time, not from the left, which is where it would come from today. Now any work of literature that is not an unambiguous YA moral tale is considered prima facie fascist. All the more reason, then, to reacquaint ourselves with an intelligent counterargument. I have lightly edited the review’s text, mainly to Americanize the spelling and punctuation.]

Novelist and academic Gabriel Josipovici, a veteran of the British avant-garde, found himself in the Guardian in the summer of 2010 on the basis of a handful of sensational but relatively contextless quotations from his new book, What Ever Happened to Modernism? The most provocative passage comes late in this quiet manifesto, and we might as well get it out of the way now: “Reading [Julian] Barnes, like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. […] All of them ultimately come out of Philip Larkin’s overcoat.”

Josipovici’s assault on some of the big names of British literary fiction—and their poetic forebear, Larkin—make clear that he does not deal in the criteria of literary evaluation that dominate newspaper book pages, namely, the ability to reach a mass audience, the use of readily-understood language, and social relevance. In place of these moralized standards, Josipovici argues instead that readers, writers, and critics approach art on its own terms. In support of this, he makes a far more complex case than can be summarized in a headline, for What Ever Happened to Modernism? is largely a philosophical and historical account of how the arts have developed over the last several centuries.

Consequently, Josipovici’s modernism is not entirely confined to the early 20th-century highlights of Woolf or Eliot, though it includes them too. Instead, he sees the stirrings of the movement as far back as Rabelais and Cervantes. The essence of modernism for Josipovici comes with an artwork’s self-consciousness about its own limitations in the face of reality. Of Don Quixote, for instance, Josipovici writes that instead of being about “an impoverished country gentleman in the backwoods of Castile (we can easily imagine a nineteenth-century Spanish novel of this kind),” its metafictional gambits make it “something much stranger and more arresting, an exploration of the nature of novels and their ontological status.” Such reflexiveness prevents readers from growing complacent in the illusion that truth is just a well-made plot or a well-turned phrase away. Josipovici perceives a self-satisfaction in language’s power to control the world in the realist fiction of McEwan et al., as well as in the fantasies of Tolkien or Philip Pullman, whom he also singles out for disapproval.

In pursuing this aesthetic narrative, Josipovici presents a compelling, if controversial, argument for why the signs of modernism began to appear in Renaissance novels, accelerated with self-interrogating Romantic poetics, and came to dominate the arts in the 20th century. Following Hegel and Max Weber, Josipovici lays the blame on “the disenchantment of the world.” This phrase made famous by Weber refers to those events—the Reformation, the rise of experimental science, the growth of technology, urbanization—that broke apart the organic societies of the ancient and medieval periods. In the pre-modern worldview, “there is a profound link between groups of human beings and between the living and the dead.” Humanity, nature, and spirit formed a unity—a unity now in ruins.

At this point, one can almost hear someone like Ian McEwan or John Carey crying out that pre-modern European society rested on a foundation of slave labor, priestcraft, and the subordination of women. Josipovici anticipates the objection: “Some will dismiss all this with the boo-word ‘Hegelianism’ and accuse me […] of nostalgia or, worse, of proto-fascism.” But he insists that our presentism has baleful consequences of its own: in failing to realize that we have lost transcendent sources of meaning and value, we put in their place a desire either to control reality by summing it up neatly or to fly to some imaginary world of plenitude, whether in political ideologies, realist novels, or fantasy fiction. As Josipovici puts it in explaining Kierkegaard’s philosophy, “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.”

But the disenchantment of the world presents an opportunity as well as a cost: one might responsibly shoulder the burden of our terrible freedom, and Josipovici claims that this is what modernist art does. Hence, it persistently reflects upon its own limitations in evoking reality, even as it continues to attempt that impossible task. Josipovici now charts the rise of modernism, and those who expect him to go on smashing English icons will be surprised to find him identifying William Wordsworth as the fount of the modernist tradition in English letters. Josipovici admiringly writes that, “Wordsworth’s best poetry […] is not about this or that but is rather the encapsulation in words of an event which has filled him with wonder and which remains—for him and for us—mysterious, incapable of being absorbed into any system.” In other words, Wordsworth, like the modernists to come, refuses to assimilate experience to pre-determined schemes. Conversely, the villains of Josipovici’s study, Dickens and Balzac, naïvely go on believing that artists can contain the world in their books.

Having established this historical background, Josipovici moves forward in time. The middle of What Ever Happened to Modernism? contains a set of essays reflecting on some of the major figures of the movement proper: Picasso, Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, Eliot, Stevens, Duchamp, Robbe-Grillet, Duras, and others. Those fearing an academic involution that only adds to the difficulty of already difficult texts will be pleasantly surprised by Josipovici’s powerful prose, and moreover, by his refusal to wear the impersonal mask of the scholar. Believing that modernists put everything into their art to avoid reducing reality, he attempts to do no less with his essays. For instance, he writes of an especially recondite Mallarmé poem and its relation to novels by Poe, Melville, and Mann that it takes place in a “world of chance and necessity, of shipwreck and illumination, a world where the blank page or the whiteness of the whale or of snow is both the ultimate illumination and the ultimate disaster.” Such a blend of dialectical sophistication with haunting prose is rare in scholarly writing today.

Josipovici also shows himself to be admirably non-doctrinaire in his commitment to modernism. He surprisingly names Muriel Spark and William Golding the greatest post-war English novelists. Furthermore, he has little patience for the excesses of the historical avant-garde, dismissing Futurism, Cubism, and the more programmatic aspects of the nouveau roman as fearful flights from modern Godlessness back to speciously rule-bound art. There is something of the old-fashioned Existentialist about Josipovici: an artist who refuses the responsibilities of our freedom, he suggests, can only produce cowardly work, however superficially pleasing it may be.

Here the reader may begin to quibble with some of Josipovici’s judgments. Though he insists that a respect for reality underlies modernist art’s self-limitation, one comes away with the impression that only bad faith can lead a writer to address reality without simultaneously reminding readers that language is inadequate. The authors who fail to meet this fastidious standard comprise a grand company, well beyond such contemporaries as Philip Pullman. The list includes Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and even Euripides.

But Josipovici’s choice of figures to derogate can be contested even on his own terms. His treatment of Dickens is particularly egregious: he cherry-picks for his examples those admittedly boring and conservative chapters of Oliver Twist where Dickens sentimentally dwells on middle-class life, but never even mentions the phantasmagorical passages of the same novel that detail Bill Sykes’s guilty flight from the law or Fagin’s sleepless, stream-of-consciousness night in prison. One would never know from this study that Dickens inspired modernists like Kafka, Joyce, and Eliot with his nearly Gnostic hallucinations of the modern city as abandoned cosmos.

As for poetry, Josipovici hardly bothers to justify his hostility to Larkin, which may reveal some of his larger blindspots. For don’t we know that Larkin was just a Little Englander stewing in suburban resentments? But this hardly does justice even to so brief a lyric as the devastating “Myxomatosis,” which compares with anything by Wordsworth or Stevens in its vision of life struggling in the indifferent snares of nature. The antidote to provincialism is not a reactive contrarianism, however cosmopolitan. As Kafka might be the first to remind Josipovici, otherness begins at home.

Nevertheless, a writer can be forgiven some rhetorical excesses when trying to shift the status quo. If Josipovici gets some literary journalists or academics to rethink their assent to unadventurous realism and fabulism, or their political self-congratulation for ignoring difficult art, then it will have been worth a few exaggerations. Perhaps most importantly, his book might well persuade those who aren’t literary professionals to try something new and strange. Here is Josipovici’s most decisive riposte to those who champion current literary fiction in the name of accessibility or easy pleasure: his eloquent, moving, and jargon-free essays demonstrate that the human stakes of modernism can be made clear and even urgent to ordinary readers.