:: Article

Modernism Then and Now

By David Winters and Anthony Brown.


This exchange began as a planned book review of Michael Levenson’s Modernism (Yale, 2011). But modernism has a way of making plans fall apart. Our conversation was conducted by email in the viciously cold January of 2012. As Ezra Pound put it, we cannot make it cohere.

AB: My attempts to define modernism either drift into its origins or become unsatisfactorily reductive, so I’ll borrow T. J. Clark‘s framing of modernism as ‘a distinctive patterning of mental and technical possibilities’. It’s almost easier to define modernism in negative terms, as what it is against. For example, in literature: a reaction to narrative, to needless artifice. I like Gabriel Josipovici‘s suggestion that modernism is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities. I’m also fully behind Tom McCarthy‘s conception that ‘modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond.’


DW: Yes, I share your sense of the difficulty of reaching a definition. For a start, it seems to me that the term ‘modernism’ only tends to arise when it needs to be mobilised for some rhetorical reason. It’s one of those words we ‘perform’ for each other, isn’t it? Think of how whole subfamilies of modernist ‘movements’ – from Fauvism to Futurism (Dada is perhaps the paradigm case) – were constructed as such via public acts of naming which, while rhetorically rich, were seldom semantically coherent. In the same way, I think it’s hard to unpick the meaning of ‘modernism’ from the performative force that underwrites its usage.

That said, I don’t think ‘modernism’ is or was some sort of philological mirage, or that the problems the word poses for us would disappear if we dispensed with it. They’re far from being ‘false’ problems. Yet, as you say, as soon as we examine the idea we do experience a sort of ‘drift’. It’s easy to let the whole thing dissolve across impossibly broad historical and intellectual fields. Maybe the name captures more than our cognitive mapping can handle.

Of course, one way of resisting this risk is to periodise modernism. For me though, investing too much meaning in periodisation raises risks of its own. An extreme example would be Woolf’s remark: ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed.’ I’m sure she wasn’t being serious, but still, I always found that line irritatingly pompous. McCarthy’s suggestion seems much more thoughtful, since it strips modernism of several layers of misleading localisation. But I’d want to work out what’s meant by ‘event’, in this instance. Are we talking about an event with a historical quality (if so, are we then also talking about ‘modernity’) or one that we encounter in the act of writing; in the ‘work’ of art?


AB: Periodisation is fascinating; every critique presents a different starting point and this point gets earlier each time, with suggestions stretching back to Wordsworth, Swift, Dante, even Catullus. The danger, as Josipovici acknowledges, is that modernism is turned into a period of art history, a style. This is why I prefer the formulation of modernism as an event, one that will always exist, and with which artists must in some way contend. The event, which Josipovici deals with at length in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, is, to use the term that Weber borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ This links neatly with Simon Critchley’s position that modernity is the achievement of a secular form of life, which clearly we haven’t got to yet. I am less convinced that modernism is simply a response to ‘modernity’ (beyond Critchley’s position on modernity). Woolf’s statement is a neat soundbite, clearly hyperbolic but also with the typical smugness of that coterie. I enjoy Woof’s writing tremendously but it requires looking beyond the deep-rooted snobbery.


DW: One of the many merits of Josipovici’s book is its acute awareness of this tension between ‘period’ and ‘event’, in the terms we’re using. The issue seems central to any attempt to make sense of modernism. At the same time, I’d say the problems it points to are irresolvable.

Here’s an idea. What if we recast this opposition as one between ‘history’ and ‘mythology’?  We could then claim that any account of modernism must involve each of these categories.

For instance, when Weber takes up the term ‘disenchantment’, he wants it to carry a high degree of historical content.  For him it designates concrete, traceable trends relating to rationalisation, bureaucratisation, and so on. But it’s also a sign of something he calls ‘the spirit of capitalism’. My hunch is that here he’s crossing over into the language of myth. And as soon as he starts alluding to literary texts (Goethe’s Faust in particular) his argument is no longer strictly ‘descriptive’, in the sociological sense. It also partakes of something poetic, or mythopoetic.

After all, isn’t the very idea of ‘disenchantment’ (Entzauberung, which I guess suggests a ‘breaking of the spell’) more intelligible as myth than as history? In a way, the same could be said of Eliot‘s lament for a supposed ‘dissociation of sensibility.’

I think our confusions arise because the concepts we’re dealing with aren’t ‘purely’ historical, but are entangled in two very different explanatory frameworks. And this itself reflects the complexity of our object.

Northrop Frye famously said that literature is an extension of myth. Perhaps we can say something similar of literary history. Or at least, let’s remember that there are two terms in ‘literary history’, and that the ways we relate to literary history are always already ‘literary’ as well as historical.


AB: That idea sounds workable. It offers a point of connection between the different frameworks, one that is a German sociological argument and the other more English or perhaps transatlantic in origin. Both are necessary in any account of modernism.

The idea of ‘disenchantment’, of a devaluation of the ineffable in people’s lives, has always seemed to me better suited to the German tradition, capturing a Nietzschean insight. Though it is part of the English tradition, it is harder to see through an English literary or philosophical filter.

Eliot’s use of myth seems more symbolic than in the example of Goethe’s Faust, where it is offered up as a complete package. Josipovici cites Kermode’s suggestion that Eliot was a ‘closet Romantic’ for the idea of a period when there was a ‘dissociation of sensibility’.

Disenchantment is closely connected with secularism, which we are arguably further away from, in England anyway, than in Eliot’s day.


DW: Let’s turn to Michael Levenson’s latest book, Modernism. We found that we’d both read that book around the same time, which was what prompted this conversation.

We’ve sketched some of the issues involved in thinking through modernism, although, for my part, I won’t kid myself that I’ve come any closer to comprehending them. I doubt I’ll ever do much more than stretch the scope, or raise the stakes, of my misunderstanding.

Anyway, I’m wondering how these ideas relate to Levenson’s study. I think the book presents an impressively rich, synthetic survey of quite a tightly ‘periodised’ model of modernism. For that reason, though, I’m afraid I felt something was lacking. Reading Josipovici revolutionised my view of modernism, letting me look at it in terms of something like a longue durée.  Levenson is rather less bold: all he does is redescribe (however expertly) the standard view we already knew. Well, that’s my take on it.

But then, he does begin to thicken the picture by stressing the ways in which art, as he says, ‘is a social practice’, embedded in networks of pragmatic actions: ‘exhibiting, publishing, performing, selling, discussing, viewing, debating’ etcetera.  Nonetheless, I don’t think his book delves into that in as much depth as, say, Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism.

I’m rambling again. What do you reckon?


AB: Levenson’s Modernism is less bold than Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? He offers no revelations or contentious perspective, but I see each book as striving toward a different goal. Josipovici’s book is polemical, offering a personal critique of modernism that is bold and unfamiliar. Levenson’s goal appears more rudimentary, more in the nature of an overarching history of modernism.

Reading Josipovici’s book redefined my understanding of modernism and helped me decipher why some types of literature intrigue me and others leave me cold. In this sense it crystallised my literary tastes in the same way that T. J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism shaped my taste in the visual arts.

My objective for reading Levenson’s book was precisely for a definitive, synoptic outline of modernism. In that sense Levenson’s book succeeded, far better than Peter Gay’s flawed obituary. Levenson’s emphasis on the importance of Ibsen, Wagner, Nietzsche and Strindberg as foundational in establishing an oppositional culture is vital. Each of Levenson’s chapters could quite easily deepen to individual meticulous studies, I’m sure some exist, but that would be outside the intention of this particular book.


DW: One thing I’m interested in is the ‘use’ to which these books could be put. I guess this reconnects with my earlier point about performativity. Maybe the measure of any account of modernism is not so much its accurate tracking of history (a la Levenson’s rich but rather flat retelling of ‘the way things were’), as its potential to be put to work in the present.

You claim that Clark and Josipovici helped you to ‘crystallise’ your literary allegiances. This at least proves that engaging with modernism – reading, thinking and writing about it – can still serve some purpose for people like us. If that’s so, then what’s the most useful way of relating to modernism today?

You call Peter Gay’s book an ‘obituary’, which seems precisely right. And for me that word captures what’s wrong with some ways of remembering modernism. For instance, I do have a few misgivings about Lars Iyer’s remarks on ‘the death of literature.’ Representing an entire tradition as ‘exhausted’ and inaccessible (which is also an indirect way of putting it on a pedestal) surely isn’t that useful to us, in the sense I’m suggesting.

What Josipovici does so well is defamiliarise modernism. He productively dislocates it from its context, ‘making it new’ in a way that’s, in fact, emblematically modernist. When you think about it, his whole approach to the historicity of his object is conducted in kind of a modernist spirit. Crucially, what that allows him to do is recover something ‘unfinished’ within modernism; maybe something ‘dialectical.’

As a result, when he writes about middlebrow fiction’s failure to live up to the modernist legacy, his isn’t simply a narrative of loss and nostalgia, as I sometimes suspect Lars Iyer’s is. Instead, I’d say he reorients modernism, recasting it not as a long-gone culture’s last flourish, but as what it still should be for us: a challenge.


AB: Levenson’s study is weaker in its closing chapter, when he delivers his obituary for modernism, conflating, which I see as a common misinterpretation, modernism and experimentation. If you recall, he writes,

‘…seen from one point of view, the succession of new forms – the self-succeeding, self-cancelling pursuit of novelty – led ultimately to exhaustion. The repertory of modernist possibilities was large but not infinite; radical though the experiments often were, they were bound to become repetitive and no longer reproductive.’

Essentially, this is Peter Gay’s ‘modernism as style’ position. It is one way of ‘telling the story’, but it seems unnecessarily reductive and superficial. Josipovici’s argument, similar to Critchley’s, is practical and posits an ongoing engagement. That modernism is a response to the ‘simplifications of the self’ and an attempt to achieve a secular way of life offers an unfinished challenge. Your argument that Josipovici defamiliarises and reorients modernism is exactly right, and that’s why I find his book very different from, but also more important than Levenson’s.

I always enjoy reading ‘death of literature’ pieces. David Shields’ Reality Hunger was exquisitely infuriating. Every time the form appears exhausted, an author breathes life into it in an unexpected way. Contemporary authors like Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, László Krasznahorkai, Lydia Davis, J.M. Coetzee, Gerald Murnane and Geoff Dyer are moulding literature in unexpected directions. Those middlebrow authors that Josipovici castigates as ‘prep-school boys showing off’ are easy targets for all the reasons that Josipovici suggests, but this also emphasises that the modernist project, in England anyway, is far from done.


DW: This brings us quite neatly around to a question with which we could ‘close’ this discussion, if only by opening it onto others. Let’s say that, as ever, literature’s death looks a little exaggerated. If this is so, I’m with you in ardently wanting not to ‘have done with’ the modernist impulse, in the way we’ve sought to describe it.

How then might writing return to the problems that modernism presents? Or rather, how will writing refuse to delude itself that it’s rid of those problems? And can it still do so while ‘making it new,’ that is, without lapsing into pastiche, or fetishising a ‘period’ that’s part of the past?

For the record, one literary form I do think is ‘dead’ is the novel of ideas. I’m a cultural pessimist insofar as I can’t see our future producing another Mann, a Goethe, a Sartre. But nor would I want it to. I’d say the days of the great, stately ‘philosophical’ novel are gone, and they’re gone for a reason. Put bluntly, I think it’s no longer enough for writing to ‘thematise’ its conjuncture. Today, treating modernity as a theme has become one more way of turning away from it.

You mention Bernhard in the same breath as Lydia Davis, which I think is fruitful. What I mean here is that I read Bernhard for the same reasons I read some recent American writers. I want to say that I read for the style, but I don’t mean ‘style’ in the ‘superficial’ sense you astutely describe. In the work of the writers I most admire, a style is always also a stance. That is, for them, a way of arranging words on the page is also a way of reaching a view of the world.

I don’t want to go on and on, so all I’ll say is this: if modernism persists, it surely doesn’t do so as a disembodied idea. Instead, it’s deeply embedded inside the stylistic stances of writers who might not think of themselves as ‘modernists,’ but whose writing itself somehow can’t help but be modern.



David Winters is a literary critic and a co-editor at 3:AM. Links to his recent articles are collected at Why Not Burn Books?

Anthony Brown is based in London and blogs at Time’s Flow Stemmed. His interests include modernism, post-punk and contemporary classical music, literature and the visual arts.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 3rd, 2012.