What Ever Happened to Modernism?

January 4th, 2011 by EVENTS

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici

In 1864 Stéphane Mallarmé said “I feel I’m collapsing in on myself day by day, each day discouragement overwhelms me, and the lethargy is killing me. When I emerge from this I’ll be stupefied, annulled.” In 1910 Franz Kafka wrote to his friend Max Brod “I can’t write . . . . My whole body puts me on my guard against each word; each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands, I see what they are like inside and then I have to stop quickly.” Samuel Beckett, when asked how he would characterize the state of art, said “[T]here is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” These great writers were expressing the overwhelming need they felt to write and, at the same time, the near impossibility of doing so; they were conveying the dilemma that Modernist artists find themselves in. Despite the overpowering difficulties they faced (or perhaps because of them), these three outstanding authors, plus a number of others, produced some of the most moving, original literature ever written.

In What Ever Happened To Modernism? Gabriel Josipovici, novelist, critic, essayist, and  intellectual, explains his conception of Modernism. Modernism, Josipovici argues, is a response by artists, writers, philosophers, etc. to their changed understanding of how the world is perceived, exemplified by a quote from Hegel, ‘Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished.’ This means that, instead of representing the world through their art according to the dictates of tradition and church, artists were now free to express reality as they saw it. “The author,” Josipovici says, “though he would like to be the inspired spokesman of the community, recognizes that he is only a solitary individual, ‘filled with the inconstant thoughts never imagined by anyone else,’ and therefore with no authority for what he says and no access to the truth or to a Muse who would herself have access to it.” Modernists, then, are faced with a great dilemma; they are attempting to express the actual, but the fact that they are writing it down means that it is not real. Authors, artists, musicians, and philosophers are compelled to write, compose, and create knowing full well that the results will always be unsatisfying.

Novelists, in particular, have a vexing problem because

“the novel was the new form in which the individual would express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition. But here he faced a paradox. For if it threw off all authority, where then did it get its authority from? The answer had to be: from the novelist’s inspiration or experience of aspects of life not known to the reader. But who conferred this authority upon him? No one but himself.”

Novelists feel driven to express the actual but it can only be their actual. Mallarmé and Kafka “feel impelled to write as the only way to be true to themselves, yet at the same time they feel that they are being false to themselves by writing: for who or what has given them the authority, the right to say this or that?” According to Josipovici, Kierkegaard “understood this better than almost anyone.” One may write books and still not be an author, says Kierkegaard, because one needs to find a conclusion, not just an ending. “To find the conclusion,” according to Kierkegard, “it is necessary to first of all observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it,’ and “finding the conclusion means giving what has gone before a meaning.” The trouble, of course, is that meaning can only be conferred by the author who does not have the authority to do so.

Often, Josipovici appears to stray from his topic. He goes into detail analyzing the art of Dürer, Duchamp, Picasso, Cézanne, among others; the music of Beethoven and Stravinsky; and the writing of Rabelais, Cervantes, Kafka, Borges, Wordsworth, and, of course, others. But the more I read, the more I realized that while Josipovici was giving context to his Modernism argument he was providing his readers with a fascinating introduction to the arts over the last three hundred years. While some of his text is challenging, especially as regards the work of Kierkegaard, his writing generally is cogent and clear, and unfailingly interesting.

What Ever Happened To Modernism? is a work of extraordinary insight and intelligence. Not only does Josipovici discuss the work of many of the major artists, authors, and philosophers of the last three hundred years, he also implies that understanding the ideas of Modernism gives the non-artist a clearer sense of who he is and what his place is the universe is. He concludes by saying,

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 depend on whether we see such rootlessness as pathological or as giving those who are imbued 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 which sharpens our vision?

In reading, one gains an exciting new insight into the thoughts that shaped and continue to shape our arts, and ultimately there’s no one better to guide us on this journey than Josipovici.

Reviewed by Stan Izen

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici
Yale University Press, 2010
Cloth, 224 pp, $28.00
ISBN-13: 9780300165777

Posted in Reviews

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