What Ever Happened to Modernism?


In wondering about What Ever Happened to Modernism, Gabriel Josipovici wants us to revisit modernism for a number of reasons. He finds fiction as currently practiced to be the product of great talent, but, he borrows a phrase of  the art critic Clement Greenberg, “It took talent – among other things – to lead art that far astray. Bourgeois society gave these talents a prescription, and they fill it – with talent.” (172) He also wants us to understand the source of the great hold that the modernists, like Proust, still have for us.

If there is one phrase that lies at the heart of the modernist spirit, that would be Schiller’s “the disenchantment of the world.” (12) The loss of transcendent authority, and the rise of its replacement, individualism, meant that the artist was called to help us understand the reality that had once seemed self-evident. This calling is not to give us a new understanding of reality, to make us comfortable again, to provide a narrative with a satisfying conclusion. It is, rather, to show the world in its essential strangeness, to help us see just how far we are from comprehending how mutually blind the world and we are to each other.

He starts us with Rabelais and Cervantes. Don Quixote, for instance, invents himself as a knight, invents even his own name. But isn’t that the author’s job?

Don Quixotes’s madness dramatizes for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely in order to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative. And it dramatizes the way we as readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world. It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment when the world is growing disenchanted. We need enchantment and are prepared to pay good money to get at least a dose of it. The profound irony of Don Quixote is this: That as we read about the hero’s obvious delusions we believe that we are more realistic about the world than he is, less enchanted, whereas we are of course ourselves in that very moment caught in Cervantes’ web and enchanted by his tale. (34)

The novel is the product of individualism. Josipovici quotes Walter Benjamin on the birth of the novel:

What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature – the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella – is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounceled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. (37)

But the novel has a built-in danger, at least for the writer who is only a genius and not an apostle, one, that is, who speaks with authority. That  danger is in the novel’s conclusion: Does it tie up all the loose ends or is it like life? Kierkegaard explains:

…he may have extraordinary talents and remarkable learning, but an author he is not, in spite of the fact that he produces books…No, in spite of the fact that the man writes, he is not essentially an author; he will be capable of writing the first…and also the second part, but he cannot write the third part – the last part he cannot write. If he goes ahead naively (led astray by the reflection  that every book must have a last part) and so writes the last part, he will make it thoroughly clear by writing the last part that he makes a written renunciation to all claim to be an author. For though it is indeed by writing that one justifies the claims to be an author, it is also, strangely enough, by writing that one virtually renounces this claim. If he had been thoroughly aware of the inappropriateness of the third part – well, one may say, si tacuisset, philosophus mansisset [had he kept quiet he would have remained a philosopher].

[GJ] It could not be put more clearly. In our modern age, an age without access to the transcendental and therefore an age without any sure guide, an age of geniuses but no apostles, only those who do not understand what has happened will imagine that they can give their lives (and their works) a shape and therefore a meaning, the shape and meaning conferred by an ending. The task of those who have grasped the implications of this will be to try and bring home to those who haven’t what it is that has been lost. (68-69)

I have been suggesting that because it subtly confuses possibility and actuality it produces in the reader the impression that he or she understands something – what it feels like to be a tiger, to be boiled alive as lobsters are – when full understanding is impossible and what the writer who cares for reality should be doing is making us grasp the distance that separates us from the tiger in his tigerness, the lobster dying. Further, since we cling to the belief that we ourselves will never die and use our imaginations to bolster that belief, the novel, the unfettered product of the imagination, actively prevents us from having a realistic attitude to ourselves and the world, and therefore from achieving any sort of firmly grounded happiness. (78)

Proust recognized this danger quite early and worked even to purge his grammar of what lent itself to a closed narrative.

In his great essay on reading Proust talks with what might seem surprising passion about the tyranny of the imperfect indicative, ‘that cruel tense which portrays life to us as something at once ephemeral and passive, which, in the very act of retracing our actions, reduces them to an illusion, annihilating them in the past without leaving us, unlike the prefect tense, with the consolation of activity’. ‘Even today,’ he adds, ‘I can have been thinking calmly about death for hours, I need only open a volume of Sainte-Beuve’s Lundis and alight for example, on this sentence of Lamartine’s (it concerns Mme d’Albany): ‘Nothing about her at the that time recalled [rappelait]…She was [c’etait] a small woman…etc.’ to feel myself at once invaded by a profound melancholy. (80)

Like James, Mallarmé’s younger contemporary, Proust, is also concerned to escape from the thinness of the ‘récit,’ its sad ‘and then and then and then’  quality, when ‘doing such-and-such’, in P.G. Wodehouse’s terms, makes ‘so-and-so happen’. Clearer sighted than James, Proust makes this the central motif of his novel from the very start. The opening meditation on sleep explains it all: a man, asleep, he tells us, is like a bundle of potential, every avenue open to him; even in the moments of going to sleep or waking up he still feels, floating around him, as it were, all the rooms he has inhabited and the women he has slept with. Once awake, however, he has to return to ‘himself’, to putting on ‘his’ clothes, to doing the things ‘he’ has to do that day, and so on. Yet the possible worlds hover like a halo round his head. He understands that his life has inevitably been conditioned, like all lives, by chance encounters, chance events. Swann, acquainted with Marcel’s family because they have holiday homes in the same village, leads him to his daughter, Gilberte, and through her to the anguish of love and desire; but he also leads him to Bergotte and Balbec and Elstir and Albertine and all that subsequently unfolds in his life. Our existence is radically contingent. And yet the story of Swann himself, placed by the author near the start of his novel, demonstrate that despite the uniqueness and contingency of each of our lives, there are general laws of existence as well, which make us all behave in similar ways: the story of Swann’s love for Odette parallels that of Marcel for Gilberte and then Albertine. At the same time the novel shows how it is possible to react to similar experiences in very different ways, to learn or not to lean from what one goes through. Swann, with that slight coarseness of spirit which characterizes him, says to Marcel, dismissing his affair with Odette with the remark: ‘To think that I gave up the best years of my life to a woman who was not my type.’ Marcel, on the other hand, more intelligent, more dogged perhaps in his desire to understand, comes to see that suffering and joy are not to be dismissed like that, but form part of the fabric of existence, the exploration of which becomes the theme of his life as a writer. All this makes nonsense of the claim, still sometimes heard, that Proust is merely the exquisite chronicler of the upper echelons of French society in the years leading up to 1914. He is no more that, just as James is no more that for English society, then either of them is like John Galsworthy or Roger Martin du Gard, writers who imagine that quality lies in the length of a work and in the number of generations it deals with. For both Proust and James, despite the length of their novels, the Mallarméan description holds good: ‘Tout se passe, par raccourci, en hypothèse; on évite le récit.’ And the work of both conforms to Bacon’s recipe for a successful picture: ‘It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap.’ (90-91)

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