Posts Tagged: modernism

On & On & On

I finished reading Gabriel Josipovici’s book “Whatever Happened to Modernism” a couple of weeks ago (maybe more, who knows?). It has left an impression. On the one hand I agree with large tracts of it, such as his definition of modernism being the moment where an artist recognizes and then continues to confront and struggle with their awareness of their own lack of authority and with limits of forms instead of being a stylistic period, because it articulates sensations that I’ve felt for the longest time. On the other hand, I don’t quite see things the way he does, but that’s a matter of perspective and understanding that Josipovici doesn’t set out to establish the definitive version of modernism. I’m afraid that for those who know me that this is a book that I’m going to go on and on and on about as I continue to struggle with it.

The book developed out of a paper in the Times Literary Supplement which itself was adapted from the John Coffin memorial lecture given at the Insitute of Germanic and Romance Languages, University of London in early 2007. There is a copy of the paper which can be read here.

Two paragraphs from the paper seem worth considering in light of the recent trend to talk about the exhaustion of Science Fiction.

{13} Mann the novelist could enter the mind of a modern composer precisely because the problems attendant on Modernism are not confined to one artistic form. In fact the novel has become the contested site of Modernists and anti-Modernists precisely because, more than music or poetry, it embodies the multiple paradoxes of the modern situation. For the novel is not a genre but precisely that which emerges when genres no longer seem viable. A genre is a bit like a family: you do not have to explain who you are each time you enter the room, you are taken for granted. But families can seem constricting as well as enabling. Similarly a moment comes when confidence in genre starts to wane. A symbolic moment here, convenient because it is not too far from our key date of 1789, is Dr Johnson’s criticism of Milton, in his Life of the poet, for choosing to express his grief at the death of his friend Edward King in the form of a pastoral elegy. At this point it is clear that genre has come to seem, like aristocratic privilege, a false imposition rather than a natural condition.

{14} Where the subtitle “epic” or “comedy” or “pastoral elegy” prepared readers or spectators for what they were about to experience, and helped the writer enter his subject, the novel, from the start, pretended to be something else – the true memoirs of a rake or a whore, the true story of a seduction or a shipwreck. At the same time the novel asserted, like Descartes at the start of the Discourse on Method, that its creators would bow to no authority, that they would rely on nothing but themselves. Genres were the sign of submission to the authority of tradition, to the authority of the fathers, but 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 it faced a paradox. For if it threw off all authority, where then did it get its own 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. From the beginning, then, the novel was caught in a double bind – asserting its truth and value (which genre-derived works had never needed to do, since it was the culture that provided them with these things), yet knowing at heart that these were assertions and nothing more.

In other news the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! arrived in the post this week. This will also be played over & over & over again until I’m deaf or sick of it. It will be worth it.


DW:This brings us quite neatly around to a question with which we could ‘close’ this discussion, if only by opening it onto others. Let’s say that, as ever, literature’s death looks a little exaggerated. If this is so, I’m with you in ardently wanting not to ‘have done with’ the modernist impulse, in the way we’ve sought to describe it.

“How then might writing return to the problems that modernism presents? Or rather, how will writing refuse to delude itself that it’s rid of those problems? And can it still do so while ‘making it new,’ that is, without lapsing into pastiche, or fetishising a ‘period’ that’s part of the past?

“For the record, one literary form I do think is ‘dead’ is the novel of ideas. I’m a cultural pessimist insofar as I can’t see our future producing another Mann, a Goethe, a Sartre. But nor would I want it to. I’d say the days of the great, stately ‘philosophical’ novel are gone, and they’re gone for a reason. Put bluntly, I think it’s no longer enough for writing to ‘thematise’ its conjuncture. Today, treating modernity as a theme has become one more way of turning away from it.

“You mention Bernhard in the same breath as Lydia Davis, which I think is fruitful. What I mean here is that I read Bernhard for the same reasons I read some recent American writers. I want to say that I read for the style, but I don’t mean ‘style’ in the ‘superficial’ sense you astutely describe. In the work of the writers I most admire, a style is always also a stance. That is, for them, a way of arranging words on the page is also a way of reaching a view of the world.

“I don’t want to go on and on, so all I’ll say is this: if modernism persists, it surely doesn’t do so as a disembodied idea. Instead, it’s deeply embedded inside the stylistic stances of writers who might not think of themselves as ‘modernists,’ but whose writing itself somehow can’t help but be modern.

Modernism then and Now By David Winters and Anthony Brown.