Commentary/Review: Modernism Takes To The Barricades

In this valuable book, Gabriel Josipovici raises radical doubts about the aesthetic and spiritual satisfactions of conventional storytelling as well as the unquestioned values of realism, at one point condemning writers simply content to tell a story “and telling it in such a way as to make readers feel that they are not reading about a world freshly made but about one that has always existed.”

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici. Yale University Press, 208 pages. $28.

By Bill Marx

“Modernism is making a comeback,” warns critic Robert Boyers in his New Republic review of Gabriel Josipovici’s valuable polemic What Ever Happened to Modernism? There’s no need to panic, lovers of bourgeois realism. Let the ragamuffins of modernism fight for fiction that is difficult, experimental, and challenging. According to Boyers, these threatening futurists don’t even know how to use email: “This is nothing like a movement or a counter-movement. The rabblerousers belong to no coherent group and proceed—so it seems—with little or no awareness of one another.” Who’s afraid of the avant-gardists who couldn’t log in straight?

Boyers doesn’t tell us why the rebels sense a weakness in the “state of things in the arts” and have decided to strike at this time. But why bother when these “activists,” a motley crew of “angry,” “not-so-youthful provocateurs,” can be squashed so easily. Many, according to Boyers, hit the barricades with only a rudimentary idea of what modernism is or that it is over 100 years old. Common readers, graduate students, and established mainstream critics mindful of history need not fear that the literary stock prices of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwen, and Philip Roth are in danger of falling.

The implication is that these scalawags, by questioning the politics and historical niceties of the empire of realism, are venturing beyond acceptable academic borders. (Though Josipovici, a superb critic and fiction writer, teaches at the University of Sussex.) In his book, Josipovici raises radical doubts about the aesthetic satisfactions of conventional storytelling as well as the values of realism, at one point condemning writers simply content to tell a story “and telling it in such a way as to make readers feel that they are not reading about a world freshly made but about one that has always existed.” A dependence on formula and plot highlights “the thinness and insubstantiality of what is being depicted.”

Taking an axe to realism is not syllabus-acceptable roars Boyers: “This is the sort of thing he routinely declares in a book determined to make a case for modernism by disparaging works of another kind in ways he would be hard put to defend in a classroom or seminar.” If it can’t be easily backed up in an English graduate confab, then that pretty well settles it, doesn’t it? That affection for the hermetically sealed doesn’t fit well with Boyers’s belief that both common readers and theory-crazed scholars are equally strafed by Josipovici’s call for a return to wild-and-woolly modernism. The common reader doesn’t really care all that much for worthy seminar chat.

Boyers proffers an argument that reeks of a “kids-get-off-my-lawn” sort of touchiness. He tries to have it both ways, suggesting that academia welcomes the experimental only to domesticate it, quoting Lionel Trilling on how the classroom inevitably smooths out modernism’s rough edges. Nothing that calls itself art shocks us any more—the edgy only titillates. Academically speaking, the “we are all post-modernists now” trope enforces rules, such as that certain works are not to be disparaged in certain ways. But that means that the classroomers should find the genuinely “sweeping and incendiary” nature of Josipovici’s case for modernism to be a strength rather than a weakness. After all, here is a position that Boyers admits doesn’t fit neatly into the lecture hall because it is too extreme, perhaps even dangerous. Perfect fodder to be defanged.

Boyers’s broad-brushed review comes off as curiously defensive: if this is the best the guardians of bourgeois reading can do, than the aging agitators for the experimental chose to move at a good time. Because What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a polemic rather than a history, there is no need for the critic to talk about the inevitable failures of the avant-guarde or to supply explanations for the self-destructive past of modernism. Josipovici provides a provocative description of what he sees as a contradictory tradition dedicated to an ever-challenging vision of the new (“I think of Modernism as that paradox, a tradition of those who have no tradition”) that continues to offer a valuable alternative to the conventional, a linguistic/spiritual protest against accepted, agreed upon systems of designation for what has been made to appear to be necessary, normal, and inevitable.

Writer Gabriel Josipovici — he takes a sweeping and incendiary look at contemporary culture.

What’s more, despite the review’s claim that Josipovici is extreme in his love of the radical, his version of modernism offers a balanced approach for fiction, not too realistic or too self-conscious: “… neither illustration or abstraction but the daily struggle of a dialogue with the world, without any assurance that what one will produce will have value because there is nothing already there against which to test it, but with the possibility always present that something new, something genuine, something surprising, will emerge.” That sounds reasonable enough, though Josipovici applies his primal preference for the “surprising” somewhat eccentrically—aren’t there moments of astonishment in the novels of Gustave Flaubert, Vladimir Nabokov, and other modernists he feels are far too enslaved to delineating the real?

And the critic sometimes hoists himself on his own enticing rhetoric, such as when he insists novels are not “mirrors held up to the world,” but “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world and so muddy the waters of genuine understanding of the human condition.” But if novels are an important part of a “dialogue with the world,” doesn’t that include the possibility that they provide some sort of real insight?

Also, while What Ever Happened to Modernism? is chockablock to a dizzying fault with fly-by-night references to powerful thinkers and writers (there’s a trenchant section on Kierkegaard), the book isn’t fiery enough, at least for me, when it comes to providing damning specifics about contemporary critical and artistic malfeasance. There’s little on the homogenizing sins of academe. The horde of established book reviewers, who should know better when it comes to spotting rather than prizing the dead wood of realism, get off fairly light.

A spiky section on critic/novelist Adam (The Delighted States) Thirlwell, who thinks modernism primarily deals with “finding a way to describe real life,” packs a wallop. Thirlwell serves as the poster boy for how-to-serve modernism badly; he sees it as a style, a lyrical mirror of the world. “What is at issue is reality itself,” argues Josipovici, “what it is and how an art which of necessity renounces all claim to contact with the transcendent can relate to it, and, if it cannot, what possible reason it can have for existing.” You don’t have to agree with all of Josipovici’s demanding ideas about what it means to write fiction after modernism to be stimulated and provoked by this book. And the empire of realism can rest easy—history suggests that an acquaintance with the anomalous only strengthens an appreciation of the normal.

Another Rabblerouser for Modernism

Encounter by Milan Kundera. Translated from the French by Linda Asher, Harper, 178 pages, $23.99.

Celebrated Franco-Czech novelist (The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and critic Milan Kundera probably wouldn’t see himself as an aging literary activist, though his latest collection of essays furiously rejects conventional realism for the kind of expansive, imaginative possibility Josipovici celebrates in his volume. For Kundera, the finest novels playfully arbitrate—rather than reflect—reality. His oppositional stance springs from his dedication to what he sees as the unruly, mixed essence of fiction:

I imagined the modern novel not as an anti-novel but an arch-novel. The arch-novel would, primo, focus on what only the novel can say; and secundo, it would revive all the neglected and forgotten possibilities that art has accumulated over the four centuries of its history.

To be honest, Encounter would be best read after encountering the wit and wisdom in his previous essay collections (Testaments Betrayed, The Art of the Novel, and The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts), which offer much more detailed elaborations of his bracing vision of fiction as a site for “the poetry of the improbable.” Encounter assumes you already know what he has written before about fiction and aesthetics, suggesting that Kundera is either too lazy to bring the reader up to speed or to bother himself with having to back up his proclamations with reasoning and evidence. And there is an ironically sour note struck from time to time such as his claim, made without much substantiation, that even living under Stalin he never felt—as he does in the West—that “we have come to the era of post-art, in a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and love for it, is dying.”

Everything Kundera writes about art is worth a look, and there are some fine essays here, particularly a sharp appreciation of the neglected French writer Anatole France and an affectionate homage to composer Leoš Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen. He also has some perceptive things to say about one of the great living writers, Spanish novelist and journalist Juan Goytisolo, as well as the Italian Curzio Malaparte. Encounter will whet appetites about Kundera’s sophisticated delineations of Modernism’s potential—his earlier collections provide the main course.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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