WSJ reviews Gabriel Josipovici on Modernism

Eric Ormsby traces the literary revolution at the heart of Josipovici's new study

In the Wall Street Journal this week, Eric Ormsby weighs the strengths and weaknesses of Gabriel Josipovici's recent literary study, What Ever Happened to Modernism? (via Conversational Reading):
With the 20th century and his most cherished authors and artists, Mr. Josipovici comes into his own. Whether discussing a key passage in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus or quoting from an interview with the painter Francis Bacon, whether drawing on Rosalind Krauss's studies of Picasso or on Marcel Duchamp's comments on his own work, he is both passionate and lucid. If he is notably perceptive on such authors as Borges and Kafka, he is equally fine on less familiar authors, such as Claude Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist whom he cites to brilliant effect. Thus, in "The Flanders Road," Simon evokes the German invasion of France in 1940, depicting the "civilians who doggedly went on wandering about in incomprehensible fashion, dragging a battered suitcase after them or pushing one of those children's perambulators filled with vague belongings." In such a scene, the pathos is one with the absurdity, and we feel the force of a difficult truth. [...]

Mr. Josipovici has a gift for sweeping the reader along, but even so, reservations arise. One of the least attractive aspects of literary Modernism has been its penchant for casting what it dislikes into outer darkness. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were especially skilled at such excommunicatory tosses. I've known poets who refuse to read Virgil or Milton because of the belittling judgments of the high modernists; and the judgments are always couched as a polarity: Homer but not Virgil, Marvell but not Milton. Mr. Josipovici betrays something of this doctrinaire tendency; he is scornful of Anthony Powell and V.S. Naipaul, both of whom he dismisses with a quip. But Powell's "Dance to the Music of Time" and Naipaul's "A House for Mr. Biswas" are great 20th-century novels.

Mr. Josipovici faults Philip Roth's fiction for lacking "that sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words, which we experience when reading Proust or James." Then he imagines his reader objecting that "Roth is an experimental writer!" and "Is that not what Modernism is about?" Here Mr. Josipovici displays a peevish side, remarking: "If that is your reaction you have not really been taking in what I have been saying." Well, maybe. He's baffled by intelligent reviewers, "many of whom have studied the poems of Eliot or the novels of Virginia Woolf," who "betray their calling" by praising what he considers second-rate work—not just Roth but Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Salman Rushdie.

Mr. Josipovici does not countenance the possibility that in the works of the Modernist writers, artists and composers he most admires there lay hidden some dimly willed element that led to their supersession. The caustic self-doubt, and doubt of the world, that drove their genius may have proved corrosive over time, diluting the severe standards they applied to art. He quotes Marcel Duchamp, for example, without acknowledging that his wry and cynical playfulness has led, decades later, to the trivial shenanigans of such poseurs as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.
Jorge Luis Borges (left) and Franz Kafka (right)
Perhaps the true question raised by What Ever Happened to Modernism? is about the way in which art grapples with reality. The 19th-century novelists created characters and set them within a narrative; this was an "arbitrary" process: David Copperfield and Père Goriot are as contrived as the marquise who went out at five. Balzac carried a cane inscribed with the motto "I smash all obstacles." Kafka noted that he himself should have a cane inscribed "All obstacles smash me." Kafka knew that, as Mr. Josipovici puts it, "to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done."

For Mr. Josipovici, Modernism is ultimately an ethical proposition, and a stern one at that. He says that traditional fiction deludes us, encouraging us in the conviction that "we ourselves will never die"; it "actively prevents us from having a realistic attitude to ourselves and the world." This probably isn't Mr. Josipovici's final view—he hedges a bit here—but he does fault the conventional novel for giving the reader "the impression that he or she understands something." [Read more]

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