Gabriel Josipovici is an author, literary critic, Professor of English at the University of Sussex, and Weidenfield Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford. His novel Moo Pak was The Wolves' selection for the month of July 2010.
Josipovici's 2009 non-fiction work, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, at times reiterates what has been said about Modernism already: namely, that it is art produced in reaction to a disillusionment with old forms arising from a disillusionment with the natural order of things. This creative weariness is said to have originated with the Industrial Revolution and crystallized with the discoveries of Darwin and Einstein which effectively demolished the old humanocentric universe. As H.P. Lovecraft memorably said, the consolidation of this new knowledge "will one day open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age." He was also famously overwrought and possessed of a fantastic imagination, but his perception of a vast universe beyond human comprehension was shared by many in the early twentieth century.
I did a post awhile back comparing Lovecraft's cosmic outlook to that of Dante, having been impressed by the exquisite orderliness of The Divine Comedy compared to what I was used to in more recent literature. (With the exception of fantasy works such as Lord of the Rings which are also strictly fictional.) Dante's Christian/neo-Classical vision was a comforting one in which divine justice prevailed and eternal reward or punishment was bestowed upon all those deserving. It was in reading Paradiso that I began to feel a sense of loss or nostalgia that such a worldview was no longer possible except as rigid adherence to archaic dogma. To Josipovici, this is precisely the paradox at the heart of Modernism: both the longing for what is lost and the freedom that said loss enables.
Dante, working in an age when an ordered universe was taken for granted, could build his poem out of a hundred cantos precisely (three canticles of thirty-three cantos plus a prologue) and place his sinners and saints in carefully guarded positions in both Heaven and Hell, while drawing on a rich tradition to bring home to the reader how each of us can be saved and what steps need to be taken. By 1840 all that has long gone. All [Søren] Kierkegaard can do is to try and explore in every way imaginable the troubled heart and soul of the nineteenth-century man, one who has been given his freedom twice over, first by God and then by the French Revolution, but who does not know what to do with it except torment himself with the sense that he is wasting his life. (43)Another example from music would be Haydn and Beethoven. The former was able to churn out hundreds of compositions since he was working within an established tradition that required obedience to prescribed forms. Beethoven, by contrast, started from scratch each time and for that reason produced only a few symphonies.
Although Kierkegaard and Beethoven are denizens of the nineteenth century, Josipovici differs from other critics by locating of the origins of Modernist thought much further back than is conventional. Certainly its manifestations were most prominent between about 1850 and 1950, Josipovici observes, but to limit Modernism to a single era is to risk turning it into just another movement or period in intellectual history. Modernism is a state of being: "the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore something that will, from now on, always be with us" (11). The accepted story is that the rise of Protestantism and Humanism in the sixteenth century liberated Western civilization from the superstition and authority of the Middle Ages, thus paving the way for the Scientific Revolution and eventually the Industrial Revolution and the Modernism that developed as reaction to it. Josipovici argues instead that Protestantism and the Renaissance were symptoms of a shifting cultural landscape to which Martin Luther merely provided a focal point. He discusses a pair of engravings by Albrecht Dürer called Melencolia I and St. Jerome in his Study, both completed in 1514. The former seems to already depict that "disenchantment with the world" so closely identified with Modernism, especially as contrasted to the latter, which evokes a sense of peace and order, of the saint at one with God.
This cosmic/artistic assurance is one of Josipovici's primary themes, appearing as a characteristic of "old-fashioned" art, regardless of the era in which it was actually produced. In fact, Josipovici attributes it to many living writers, composers, and painters whose art is, well, artificial: self-contained and dead. The very foundation of Modernism is art's interrogation of its own purpose in the absence of an established tradition. The "dreariness of 'the marquis went out at five'" is scorned by writers who "hunger for that 'relentless contact"' and a "form of fiction which transcends the anecdotal" (166). Josipovici relies mostly on case studies here, such as that of Cézanne, who was an enormous influence on ensuing generations of avant-garde painters.
According to art critic Maurice Merleau-Ponty, landscape painting before Cézanne consisted of flat representation that effectively steamrolled multiple visual impressions into a unified whole.
Landscapes painted in this way have a peaceful look, an air of respectable decency, which comes of their being held beneath a gaze fixed at infinity. They remain at a distance and do not involve the viewer. They are polite company: the gaze passes without hindrance over a landscape which offers no resistance to this supremely easy movement. (93)Josipovici links this to the use of the passé simple (or récit) in the traditional novel which implies, according to critic Roland Barthes, a hidden storyteller or chronicler and places the verb "in a casual chain, [that] participates in a group of actions which are of a piece and forward driven, it functions as the algebraic sign of an intention" (80). Such novels are neatly packaged, episodic, and bear no resemblance to real world's spontaneity and uncertainty.
To reduce our visual impressions to a singular view "kills their trembling life," says Merleau-Ponty (94). It was Cézanne who first realized that nature does not conform to the guidelines laid out in "how to paint" manuals and sought to portray on canvas how the mountain actually was and not how he, the painter, simply saw it. There is no such thing as background or foreground; these are narrative forms imposed upon nature to render it coherent to the human eye, just as the Right Hegelians used to whittle history down to a convenient tale to assert the historical inevitability of existing institutions (to give another instance of an artificial construct made to represent reality). While the struggle against the dead hand of contingency may be a futile one, Cézanne, according to Merleau-Ponty, was a successful genius whose landscapes depict an "emerging order" when the myriad "perspectival distortions" are viewed globally (95). As far as literature goes in this vein, Josipovici sees T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as the momentary vision of an Everyman reflecting on his life in opposition to the ongoing enterprise of art itself: "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" goes the refrain. He rolls the bottoms of his flannel trousers and walks upon the beach, hearing the mermaids singing to each other but not to him, leaving Prufrock in the tenuous position of knowing what will give his life meaning but finding it just out of reach. The endcap "each to each," Josipovici observes, is circular and "turns in on itself" (126). The poem seems to disintegrate with the closing verses, reminding us that it only exists as long as we read it.
While again, Modernism may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, Josipovici argues convincingly that it is not. Nor is it necessarily the future of art that has rendered all conventional forms obsolete. As in Moo Pak, Josipovici takes aim at the current state of literary affairs by decrying Oprah-esque sob stories, Big Important Tomes about Bosnia and Rwanda, and the emptiness of contemporary British literature as a bunch of prep boys showing off their shock value. A particular offender is Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, written in 1941 during the invasion of France, and then forgotten at the bottom of a suitcase after Némirovsky, a Russian Jew who had converted to Catholicism, was deported and murdered in Auschwitz. The novel's backstory is very interesting and tragic and all, Josipovici admits, but that hardly makes it a Great Book thanks to the "clichés of the middlebrow novel [used] without embarrassment, quickly filling in the background and sketching in her chosen representative family with the minimum of fuss, then cutting to the cat so as to convey the sense of ordinary life going on regardless of the great events that are unfolding" (168). The second passage he quotes demonstrates his point much better, as the "cadenced phrases," tidy description, and blatant symbolism jar badly with the chaos of battle. Josipovici contrasts Némirovsky to a WWI novel by Claude Simon, but I thought the stream-of-conscious ramblings of Mathias Énard's Zone would be another great illustration of his point.
Still, as with Moo Pak, I cannot help but to feel that there is silencing at work here – that Josipovici is telling survivors to go Modernist or shut up. It's quite contradictory that he feels Modernist literature to be closer to life yet is willing to dismiss authors with actual life experience that needs to be heard. And while I prefer more experimental literature myself and am especially partial to Modernist writers, I think it is a mistake to dismiss the traditional novel as somehow out of touch. Zone features a novel-in-a-novel told using conventional forms (passé simple, omniscient third person narration) that would be quite powerful and illuminating on its own. In fact, Énard's narrator identifies with it quite strongly, and there seems to be a strong case here for a diversity of voices and the legitimacy of traditional formats. By his own admission in the beginning, much of what Josipovici says here is subjective and a difference of opinion is encouraged. While I find his conclusions on the contemporary state of Modernism problematic, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is overall an enjoyable read that is scholarly yet never academic. Its case for Modernism's longer reach is a compelling one and quite accessible to a broad audience.
Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? was The Wolves' reading selection for May. Please feel free to join us for the rest! You can find the complete book list here.