I’ve been writing books for decades, teaching writing on and off for less than 20 years. Teaching makes up much less of who I am or how I present myself to myself than writing, being a father, etc. But it does provide me with a measuring stick (what are people thinking and reading these days?) and an occasional locus for thought (how does one explain how a work of literature is built?). One of the things I’ve noticed in my years of teaching is how few people come to the craft with much understanding of the context, the cultural backdrop, the history of ideas that informs works of art now. This is kind of like driving a car while wearing a blindfold. There is a huge difference between writing a sketch of a story or a bit of memoir and creating a work of art out of that sketch, between just getting down the bare facts and writing something beautiful, between anecdote and a short story, novel, essay, memoir. Modernism, as Gabriel Josipovici talks about it in his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? arises out of this distinction, the distinction between bare communication and art, between the naive use of language and the use of language that is aware of its own contradictions, glories and insufficiencies. I have a page on NC, the Necessary Books page, which lists some of the books I have found helpful in informing my own sense of context. And recently I’ve been telling students and the poor, long-suffering writers on the NC masthead, to read Josipovici’s book. No book tells the whole story, spells out the answers; we all have to assemble our own sense of tradition. But the ideal is always to be moving toward a larger and larger awareness of the intellectual furniture of the world. I append here three reviews of Josipovici’s book to whet your appetite. And then, to complicate matters, because matters should always be made more complicated, I add a link to David Winters’s review of Shane Weller’s Modernism and Nihilism.
A long time ago Philip Roth said that there are around 60,000 serious readers in the United States. That is 60,000 who would buy a Philip Roth book, maybe, but realistically there are much fewer serious readers. The kind of readers who sit up late with Ulysses, or who consider Kierkegaard’s Either/Or to be beach reading. What’s more, of these readers I would guess that a significant percentage of them have a go at writing fiction or poetry. Even if they were all lucky enough to be published, a single popular novel would be enough to sap all the media attention away from them (even in the age of the internet, which, by the way, is conspicuously absent as a force in this book. I’m not complaining; it was actually a serene delight to read a new non-fiction book that did not pour on the dreaded “e” prefix remorselessly.) The fault is not with the authors, as such, but with the culture and the criticism surrounding them. It is this that Josipovici wants to change.
And it is a gargantuan task. If contemporary culture has taught us anything it’s that a worldwide web, a few dragging steps towards equality, and a more inclusive attitude in general have almost no impact on public taste. Most people just don’t care enough about the arts to do anything other than lie supine and wait to be entertained, and one wonders if this book can have any traction in a culture that resists elitism so stubbornly. And yet I can’t help but feel that this book is so alive because the world is turned the other way. Even with insurmountable resistance, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers.
For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the “disenchantment of the world”. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws (yes, I did just gloss over about 400 years there).
This is absolutely critical to everything that follows. The death of enchantment does not mean that people were happy in the middle ages but disillusioned thereafter. It is not a personal loss of enchantment. The point is that the European concept of the world changed from it being a place in which the natural and supernatural were different facets of the same reality to a world in which the natural and the supernatural were firmly separated (and in which the supernatural could therefore potentially be discarded entirely).
With the death of enchantment comes the death of meaning. Before the disenchantment of the world it is possible to speak with authority, because the world has meaning from which authority can be derived. After that disenchantment there is no longer such an authority. The only authority that exists is that which we assert.
The Modernist project has been around for far longer than you might think: from Euripides, looked at one way; or from Rabelais, looked at another; certainly since Cervantes. “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember …” is how Don Quixote begins, and it is as if the rest of the book is itself a huge piss-take of the very idea of narrative, a healthy scorn for plodding literalism. When Duchamp – he of the urinal in the art gallery – was asked in 1922 for his views on photography, he replied thus: “Dear Stieglitz, Even a few words I don’t feel like writing. You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable. There we are.” Josipovici notes the “very Beckettian style” of this (pre-Beckett though it may be); and it reminds us that the Modernist avant garde is by no means without a sense of humour.
To consider the concept of nihilism, Simon Critchley once remarked 1, is to take up the trail of ‘Ariadne’s thread’, a theoretical route through the labyrinth of history. For Critchley, the story of nihilism is the story of what it means to be modern, and to read the philology of nihilism, of the nihil, is to look through a lens at modernity’s underside. Shane Weller’s survey of the web of relations between Modernism and Nihilism proceeds from the same supposition. His book unpicks the thread where it’s at its most knotted, in the high modernist literatures of the early twentieth century. For Weller, what’s at work in the works of the modernists – from Tzara to Kafka to Cioran – is a discursive puzzle for which ‘nihilism’ would seem to be the key, the master term that could unlock and make sense of the modern. Yet the thrust of his thesis is the fact that it fails to do so; the way that whatever it touches is rendered resistant to interpretation. So, on the one hand, thought and talk about ‘nihilism’ is ubiquitous across modern culture: wherever the modernist moment is, nihilism sits alongside (or inside) it. On the other, modernism proves unable to reduce nihilism to its propaedeutic, its explanatory toolkit. Rather, nihilism is what haunts modernism, as its ghost or double, a tense co-presence forever unsettling its meanings.