An Unflinching Defense of Modernism

Article excerpt

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010)

Every so often a book comes along that, while faulty in overall conception, addresses crucial issues in an especially productive way. Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a flawed but quite thoughtful effort to vindicate an aesthetic vision--that of high modern-ism--that few would now defend in such an unreserved manner. In the course of this defense, Josipovici forces the reader to confront essential aesthetic and moral questions and to clarify his own thinking in relation to the philosophical assumptions that underlie modernist art. In this respect, What Ever Happened to Modernism? performs a most valuable service. Far more than a historical review of the modernist movement, Josipovici's book cuts to the heart of the question: not just "what happened" to modernism but why modernism should have arisen to begin with and why, especially within Anglo-American criticism, it has fallen so quickly from favor (or, as Josipovici argues, was never really understood or accepted in the first place).

In this earnest and admittedly personal manifesto, Josipovici argues for the centrality of Proust, Kafka, and Beckett in modern literature and beyond that for the crucial importance of those high-modernist painters, artists, and musicians who constituted the experimental vanguard of the early twentieth century. The shared quality of these artists would seem to be their insistence on pressing toward the extreme, by means of which effort alone art was thought to afford meaning. As Kafka wrote, "Literature helps me to live," an assertion that those familiar with Kafka's biography might well question but that nonetheless plays a key role in Josipovici's book. The issues Josipovici raises, in fact, have everything to do with the relationship of art and experience. Is the fundamental virtue of art, as Kafka asserted, that it makes possible the survival of an authentic selfhood in the face of what modernists conceive as a barbarous culture of materialism and conventionality? Is the maintenance of the artist's pure sensibility the most important consideration, and is the assumption that ordinary life has descended into deathly philistinism an accurate one?

Contrary to all that Josipovici says in Modernism, one might suggest that what the high modernists failed to comprehend was precisely this: art's place within a public sphere of activity that includes obligations to family, country, religion, and so much else. This truth was obvious to the great writers in the classic tradition: Virgil, Dante, and Chaucer among them. Even among modern writers, one can point to the work of traditionalists such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, Flannery O'Connor, and V. S. Naipaul, all of whom were modernists in some sense but not in terms of elevating the artistic sensibility above the common experience of mankind. Josipovici either ignores or dismisses these writers, preferring to take as his examples of traditionalism Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and Iris Murdoch--writers of a different order of talent entirely. While he does briefly discuss Dickens, Josipovici never comes to terms with the greatness of this author, nor does he explain Dickens's enduring influence. Nor can he explain the lasting importance of Jane Austen, a writer whom he far too readily dismisses as one overly confident that she stood "on solid ground." Could it be that Dickens and Austen were right and that the artist, shaping artistic work from experience, really does stand on solid ground, or at least on ground that is more solid that Josipovici would have us believe?

It may be that the supposed falling off of art that Josipovici perceives in the contemporary period is not so much a decline as evidence of a healthy reassessment of the misguided aims of high modernism. …