Modernism, Dead or Alive

By Boyers, Robert | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Modernism, Dead or Alive


Boyers, Robert, Twentieth Century Literature


Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

by Peter Gay

NewYork: W.W. Norton, 2007. 610 pages

The word modernism no longer calls to mind a simple singular aesthetic or a particular set of ideas. To think about what it means is to ask: Whose modernism? What kind? When? Barnett Newman and others of his generation believed that modern art is not about beauty or retinal gratification, but this was by no means the view of Virginia Woolf or Henri Matisse. Marcel Duchamp regarded the habit of distinguishing between good and bad taste as ridiculous. But no such animus inspired the practice of modernist writers and artists like Thomas Mann or Giorgio Morandi. The poet-critic Randall Jarrell could praise the modernist poems of William Carlos Williams for their "freshness and humor" and "fantasy" (82), yet also celebrate the "passion for philosophy" and "order" (78) in the modernist masterpieces of Wallace Stevens. W. H. Auden saw no reason to refrain from introducing politics into his work, but other modernist writers were reluctant--often on principle--to do so.

If modernism is not the name of a practice or a set of principles, it also no longer signifies a particular era. In his new book, Peter Gay operates on the assumption that nineteenth-century writers like Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky were modernists, and he contends that modernism is a phenomenon that comes and goes, dying out for a time and starting up again, as it did in the middle of the twentieth century with the galvanizing appearance of works by Jackson Pollock, Gunter Grass, and other "modernist" artists. To suppose that modernism is the name of a coherent movement that began and ended in the first 40 or 50 years of the last century seems no longer possible for most cultural historians.

Of course the term itself continues to suggest a number of identifiable features, however various the works in which these features are ostensibly embodied. A novel lacking in self-consciousness or any discernable preoccupation with form would not qualify as a modernist work, even if it appeared in the 1920s or 30s when Joyce, Proust, Faulkner, and others were defining the parameters of modernist fiction. We may admire the work of a painter like Lucian Freud and acknowledge the freshness, originality, and power of his portraiture, but we do not regard him as a modernist artist, so little does he seem to strain against the limits of the painter's available resources, so relatively straightforward do his intentions seem. Straightforward in what sense? In the sense that he is not, or does not seem to be, principally interested in questions about his medium or troubled by the relation of his work to the standard high-modernist masterpieces that dominated the period in which he came of age. We expect genuine modernist works to entertain such preoccupations and to be in some degree "experimental"--that is, to be asking themselves at every turn what they are doing and thinking about the limits and possibilities peculiar to their medium. When in Madame Bovary Flaubert briefly interrupts his narrative to reflect on the linguistic resources available to him as a novelist and complains of their inadequacy, he seems to us to be self-conscious in the way of the modernist, however much his work confirms in other respects his status as a realist writer. The preoccupation with form and medium will vary in emphasis and intensity from one modernist to another, but where it is entirely absent, the writer will inevitably belong to some other dispensation.

Is this kind of preoccupation a good thing? Obviously, the commitment to the experimental, like the habit of self-consciousness, is not bound to produce masterpieces. The annals of modernism are filled with tenth-rate "experiments" and pretentious, stultifyingly tedious, ostentatiously self-conscious works. But modernism was, at its best, a bracing idea. It seemed, for a time, the enemy of complacency in art and thought. …

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