What Ever Happened to Modernism? — Gabriel Josipovici

I’ve been meaning to write about What Ever Happened to Modernism? for a while, but this This New York Review of Books essay by Eliot Weinberger hits the major points I’d like to make better than I would’ve. It also describes the major issue I have with What Ever Happened to Modernism?: we never really find out what, if anything, happened to Modernism—or who, in Josipovici’s eyes, we should admire. Weinberger notes that “There are some unkind words about Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (“this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”) [. . .]” and that “Regardless of whether a climate can see—and Josipovici’s condescension that laureled mediocrities can’t help being what they are—the argument is undermined by the fact that he declines to name a single living author who should be praised.” Both are true. Polemics work best when we have positive and negative examples. Josipovici mostly gives us the negative.

The other thing I notice in What Ever Happened to Modernism? is the slipperiness of definition, which leads to the larger problem of Modernism and Postmodernism in general: we can get point to some works that we think embody some values of either movement, but we find deriving general principles from those specific works hard, if not impossible. Now, the real question to anyone who says anything about Modernism or Postmodernism is, “What do you mean by those words or artistic movements?” Even the phrase “artistic movements” might be wrong, since some have argued for the political value of them, and to the extent art and politics are separate one should note the binary.

How do we decide on what Modernism is? We can’t, really, as Weinberger notes:

Every general consideration of Modernism quickly crashes on the rocks of categorization: Which Modernism? Is it Rilke or Tristan Tzara? Matisse or Duchamp? Thomas Mann or Gertrude Stein? Arnold Schoenberg or Duke Ellington? Nearly anything that can be said about the one can’t be said about the other. Josipovici attempts to navigate these waters by simultaneously broadening the definition of Modernism itself, while greatly limiting the range of its concerns, its varying contexts, and its enormous cast of twentieth-century characters.

The more specific the definition, the more it leaves out; the more general, the harder the whole idea is to discuss. That doesn’t stop writers of polemics, of course, and as I read What Ever Happened to Modernism? I did think. . . something. I’m just not real sure what exactly I thought or why. I’m flipping through my much-marked copy, looking for a characteristic passage or turn of phrase, but you’d be better off reading Weinberger on Josipovici.

I suspect I’m not the only person with such a hazy reaction. Lately, I’ve been rereading novels I really admire as I start another novel of my own. Those I admire include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Tom Perrotta’s Election, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. After reading them, I almost always have a better sense of what I should be doing as a writer and what a particular book should do. This feeling isn’t limited to fiction: I get the same sense from James Wood’s How Fiction Works, or John Barth’s essays in The Friday Book. They’re all enmeshed in individuality.

Josipovici is aware of his narrativizing tendency and some of the dangers of definition; he says:

Naturally I think the story I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that take more or less account of the facts. I am aware too that these stories are sites of contestation; more is at stake than how we view the past.

There are many stories, and I don’t fully buy his.

Speaking of Barth, I find myself most drawn to his formulation in The Friday Book, which is cruelly out of print:

I happen to believe that just as an excellent teacher is likely to teach well no matter what pedagogical theory he suffers from, so a gifted writer is likely to rise above what he takes to be his aesthetic principles, not to mention what others take to be his aesthetic principles. Indeed, I believe that a truly splendid specimen in whatever aesthetic mode will pull critical ideology along behind it, like an ocean liner trailing seagulls. Actual artists, actual texts, are seldom more than more or less modernist, postmodernist, formalist, symbolist, realist, surrealist, politically committed, aesthetically ‘pure,’ ‘experimental,’ regionalist, internationalist, what have you. The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.

Notice how Barth conveys his view of generality in a single word: “suffers,” as if literary categorization is a disease. In the wrong person, it is one. Discussing generalities is not much fun unless you have a lot of specifics to back them up, and I have no way to paraphrase or add to Barth’s last sentence from that quote: “The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.” Martin Amis’ Money, regardless of how you categorize it, still stands out to me as being a) unique and b) good, which very few novels of any sort achieve. To lambast Amis in general, as Josipovici does, is to miss all those particularities that make him stand out. Of course, I’m committing the same sin here because I’m not citing specifics in Money. But I also sometimes rise to the level of the work being discussed, so perhaps that sin can be excused.

2 responses

  1. “we never really find out what, if anything, happened to Modernism”

    NOTHING happened to modernism: isn’t that obvious? His point is that it is always here but ignored by critics and readers who value god awful novels like … like, well all those you admire.

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    • I like this formulation: “His point is that it is always here but ignored by critics and readers who value god awful novels like … like, well all those you admire” since it does seem to encompass Josipovici’s views, especially with the comical ellipsis and the “well.” Let me try my own: I suppose that, if one dislikes novels with recognizable characters, plots in which something happens, and language that is unexpected but comprehensible, then the novels I tend to value are in fact god awful. That they should be is, I think, part of Lev Grossman’s point in Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard.

      Not as funny alas. Still, if nothing has happened to Modernism since the 1920s and Modernism is still a or the dominant literary style, I think that says more about Modernism than it does about anything else. It may also explain why Tyler Cowen writes posts about the relative value of fiction and nonfiction, leading me to respond with posts like Nonfiction, fiction, and the perceived quality race.

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