Modernism — Peter Gay

The great danger of a book as broad as Modernism is also its strength: breadth. In trying to cover a gigantic, multifaceted movement that lasted, by Peter Gay’s definition, from the 1840s into the 1960s, one risks a superficial treatment of so many topics as to make the entire book superfluous. But Gay avoids that fate in all subjects save film, which is the weakest section of a book that I otherwise would call “magisterial” were that term not so overused. He also uses his best tool in writing a history of all the branches of modernism well: adept comparisons abound, which show the parallel developments in visual art, books, music, and architecture and the interplay among them. Modernism ruled in some fields more than others; architecture, which, by its nature, is a rich person’s sport, sees much less modernism than, say, literature, which requires only inexpensive writing instruments. Music sat between architecture and literature, and it’s also hard to describe because it split in many directions—the rise of modernism occurred concomitantly with that of pop music. Technological developments helped cause classical music’s share in the average mind grow with the birth of radio and shrink as time progressed.

This is a small example of the idea that Gay reiterates well: that modernism was experienced by a relatively select few even as it influenced the many. It’s even true today, when, as he notes, about half of all paperbacks sold are small-r romance novels and the literary fiction covered by most major print outlets only receives a tiny slice of the market’s dollars. This is not to start a tedious genre debate, though no romance novel I’m aware of has broken from its pigeonhole, as many science fiction, fantasy, horror and detective novels have, and I suspect few owe much to “The Wasteland.” As Gay says on page 459 (of 510), “The question just whom modernist novels, or movies, were intended for was one that had been difficult to answer for decades” (there probably should be an “of” between “question” and “just”). Indeed! But such modernist works receive a share of critical attention far out of scope with their readership or waters.

Maybe the key tenants of modernism inherently limit its accessibility, especially given the definition Gay establishes for modernism: “the lure of heresy that impelled [the modernists’] actions as they confronted conventional sensibility; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” The case for using this, as opposed to other definitions, is an excellent one, and in reading Modernism I cannot help but feel that his ideas about what makes modernism modernism have been wandering about in my mind, unrevealed to me prior to this book. And yet, as Gay’s comments about romance novels demonstrate, he keeps his sense of proportion among the tectonic shifts in art and thought that occurred over the period he covers. Modernism has influenced nearly all avenues of thought, but some aspects of culture and emotion have been more touched than others, though probably none in Western culture remain unmoved.

The writing helps: Gay has many wonderful passages, including one I have already quoted and many more I would like to. A scholarly subject came surprisingly alive, like math taught by an enthusiastic teacher with a contagious sense of play—in other words, the one I never had till after I graduated from high school. But I digress: the point is that Modernism is having almost as much fun as its subjects, and perhaps implying that, even if some of its criteria are wrong or that modernists are not all that important, so what? It is an implication that I suspect modernists would agree with.

Still, the book can slide into academicese: “The indifference and hostility of conservative tastes and the ideological objections of powerful institutions often limited, or delayed, a positive response to aesthetic innovators.” Yes, I agree after Gay’s persuasion, but I’m still thinking that he traded ease for brevity. Elsewhere, he says “Much like the stream of refugees from Nazi Germany who signally enriched American and British culture, Italy, too, had its share of enforced cultural transfer […].” Wait, “signally?” What does “signally” mean here? I have no idea, but, minor issues are passing clouds in an otherwise sunny sky.

Sometimes Gay’s wrong notes do not seem part of an atonal scheme, but just an example of the elegant variation:* “On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, an irrevocable exit that would release worldwide rejoicing.” To my knowledge, suicide is always irrevocable, making the fussy phrase “irrevocable exit” redundant redundant, but he certainly gets the “rejoicing” aspect right. For the most part, Gay’s flawless prose operates on many levels:

From [Strindberg’s] subjective vantage point, he argued that human nature is not cast in bronze, but open to the most disparate pressures, some from social demands and others, less easy to trace, from inner urges. Nor can desire and anxiety escape the conflicts that contradictory impulses arouse in the individual. In a hysterical period—and Strindberg insisted that his culture was helplessly mired—contemporaries necessarily display an unsorted patchwork of qualities old and new that prove vacillating and are given to self-contradictions.

Wow: an argument about art, internal versus external manifestations of thoughts and feeling, society’s role in those manifestations, and Strindberg’s thoughts on them and his society. That I wrote “is it really, or did modernists make it so?” in the margin now seems churlish. He makes statements that are, at times, too strong or unsupported, as when he says we live in a “post-Christian” age—did no one tell America’s presidents or its legions of church-goers?—but in most ways he is just the professor you wish you had: knowledgeable, considered, devoted to correctness and willing to see many sides of a thing or idea.

He also reminds me of how far we’ve come: when I pass blank canvasses and other such foolery at the Seattle Art Museum, I just yawn and walk by. The frequent modernist cries in attempting to rip the veil from reality or “declare their [Van Gogh and Gauguin] innermost selves without bourgeois reticence” are themselves examples of veils or reticence. Such paradoxes, oxymorons, and the like might be another of modernism’s defining characteristics, and Gay shows many examples of them; I have not found a better curator.


* As defined by the eponymous blog:

The Elegant Variation is “Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do.”

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