Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gabriel Josipovici : “What ever happened to Modernism?”

Rene Magritte: Ceci n'est pas une pipe

I admit that I spent much time on this book. At times, I even thought I “wasted” too much time but when an authority like Gabriel Josipovici, former Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford looks back at 50 years of critical reading, makes very personal statements on the actual status of the British literary scene, redefining and explaining Modernism in Art, “en passant” listing which books are worth reading from an artistic point of view and which ones are mere entertainment, one simply has to sit up and pay attention.

Unfortunately, I needed several readings to grasp exactly what Josipovici wanted to explain. His book gets rather confusing after some chapters, for it misses on the whole a clear structure and a logical argumentation flow. Halfway through, the essay meanders too much and too often into broader artistic subjects. Instead of clarifying things for the readers, at moments he succeeds only in confusing us more.

On the other hand maybe the “confusion” is what it is all about and was my reaction to think deeply about literary value, the only correct reaction towards this very post – modernistic essay on Modernism.


The British writers that sell well today, the novels that win literary prizes in the UK, are disappointing to Josipovici because they fail to “touch him at the core of his being” ( whatever that may mean ). They are especially unsatisfying if you contrast those actual prize winning novels with what was written in the UK before the Second World War and what was and still is written today outside of the UK. Josipovici cannot find for instance in the writings of the icons of the moment, in writers like Anthony Powell and Iris Murdoch, Julian Barnes or even Evelyn Waugh, the excitement he found in reading books by earlier writers like Woolf, Conrad or Forster or in the works of “contemporaries” from outside the UK. People like Borges, Robbe – Grillet and Saul Bellow. With the exception of a few writers, most notably Muriel Sparks and the early Golding, he cannot find the intrinsic qualities he remembered and enjoyed so much from the English writers from the turn of the century, the ones, we use to call the Modernist.

Instinctively we feel that the professor is onto something. Similar remarks about contemporary prize winning writers like Ian Mc Ewan regularly flare up in the discussions on literary social networks and between more knowledgeable readers. Interestingly, Salman Rushdie is not named in the dissertation. This is curious for he is one of the more interesting writers of these days. Maybe Josipovici does not consider him a British but an Indian writer?

What misses, continues Josipovici, is “Modernism”, (hence the title of his book), but Modernism not as it is usually understood as a style or a period of Art history, but Modernism redefined as “Art becoming aware of its precarious status and responsibility”. Modernism is not something which is safely behind us, but something which will be from now on always with us.

Understandably such elaboration raises questions for it is rather risky to try to make a point while redefining certain generally agreed definitions. But let us keep listening. Josipovici kicks off his argumentation about value rather confusingly and immediately unbolts a few givens.

Modernism, as such, is a response by Artists to the “disenchantment of the world”, a response to a crisis, which he names “the crisis of Modernism” and which he illustrates by quoting from diaries and correspondence by three writers, Mallarmé, von Hofmannsthal and Kafka. All three are toiling and even suffering over their writings because they have doubts about their authority as writers and about the way they are trying to represent reality in their works.

To explain this “disenchantment of the world”, ( a concept borrowed from Max Weber ), Josipovici nudges us to an earlier period of our cultural history, to that period where man was pushed out of the so called “Dark” Middle-ages into the blinding glare of the Enlightenment. While we have congratulated ourselves on what we won, freedom from superstition, freedom from the yoke and tyranny of the church, no one seems to realize, or is even interested Josipovici adds, in what we lost in the process. What we lost is Sacrality, we lost the numinous, the divine disappeared from our daily life as well as a sense of community, our togetherness which disappeared in favor of the so lauded individualism of the Renaissance.

Before, Man was simply part of a watertight world of myth and ritual, of agreed-on hierarchies and implicit understandings, of embodied places and an ordered world, of community and family. Now he stands outside, looking in, aware only of what has been lost. Man and of course also the Artist, who have cast away their old Gods now fully realize that they have from now on to take responsibility for their own deeds.

And, according to Josipovici this is still a problem today.

Now, the crisis of Modernism if I understand Josopivici well, for again, never are the different points clearly linked to each other, the crisis of Modernism is a result of this disenchantment of the world. Michael Sayeau in his review of Josipovici’s book rephrases better what the professor means: “the crisis of Modernism”, which comes in the wake of the “disenchantment”  is “a complex of certain perennial artistic problems and the various responses that artists down the centuries have offered to these problems”.

First, the writer has to assume, especially if he wants to write “serious books”, the responsibility this newly found authority brings about. Secondly, he has to decide what he is going to write, from which point of view and how he has to overcome certain artistically, philosophic and technical hurdles which will appear when he wants to depict reality in order to shed light on our Human condition.

The seven chapters that make up the core of Josipovici’s argumentation explain this crisis and the suffering of writers who are trying to turn their novels into Art. The hurdles and pitfalls are aplenty and not only restricted to writing Literature, but also valid for Painting, Sculpture and even Music.

If we follow Josipovici’s reasoning then “Great” books, the books that “touch him at the core of his being” are those books where we see Modernism at work, where we see the intelligent creative skills the writer – artist or craftsman displays to avoid the pitfalls and hurdles which the questions around authority and reality representation bring about.

Is this sufficient to qualify the books we read? Of course not. Would this be the case, then only experimental writings, sometimes as obscure as Finnegans wake, would make it into the canon.

It is Bakthin who reminds us that literature is more than a set of clever formal devices. In Bakthin’s view, literature should not only contain great ideas, but also discover or uncover them. A display of craftsmanship is only a part of what makes up a great book.

We should also not forget that we need a story in the Forsterian sense, a narrative that pulls us through the pages. We need a poignant entertaining narrative, uncovering a plethora of emotions, well written, with an intelligent word choice, developed characters and an exciting syntax. What would the Karamazov book be for instance without the backbone story of the parricide? What would Golding’s Inheritors mean without the clash of the species?

The “craftsmanship”, ( which comes at the expense of conventional narrative ), to which Josipovici seems to restrict high Art is according to me only a part, an important part I agree, the part that best shows the skills of the writers, but insufficient on itself as a rule to value books. It could be, and again this is not clear, that Josipovici finds a good story and a philosophical core as too evident for any book worth reading to mention it.

The crisis of Modernism

This said, the development of the topic of “the crisis of Modernism”, this “Art becoming aware of its precarious status and responsibility” which Josipovici develops subsequently is the most interesting part of the book.  It is the first time I have read about this topic in such details and it made me go back to earlier readings and reviews because I got a better understanding of what is at stake.

It is interesting that Josipovici not only describes the problem, but also holds it against the light and compares it with some philosophical point of views and against other arts, like music and painting. The other Arts face the same problems.

Lets go back to how Michael Sayeau rephrased Josipovici’s words: “the crisis of Modernism”, which coming in the wake of the “disenchantment” is “a complex of certain perennial artistic problems and the various responses that artists down the centuries have offered to these problems”.

Josipovici opens his dissertation with quoting from a number of writers’ private journals and correspondence: von Hofmanstahl, Mallarme, Kafka, Becket. All these writers confess in a same way, that they intellectually suffer to the extreme, when looking for responses to the problems of authority and a depiction of realism. 

Let’s start with the problem of Authority.

In a world where nobody tells you what to do, where there is no church or any other order to guide your creative urge, if in other words external Authority has been abandoned, even in the shape of genre, then where does the writer gets his authority? Evidently from inspiration or experience of the novelist himself. Who confers this authority upon him, No one but himself. And let’s not forget that the readers also have an option. They can either agree with the authority the writer has given himself or not.

Now imagine you want to write a “book with meaning” and you have nothing more than your self declared Authority, then you have two possibilities, either your Authority is undermined by self-doubt or you have no self-doubt at all and between these two extremes there is a whole spectrum of mixed levels.

Josipovici explains this with some examples. Two writers could not believe their luck when they could write whatever they wanted, but still dampened their claim to authority with humor and a wit: Cervantes and Rabelais. Cervantes already understood that without authority one was reduced to claim authority for ourselves, when we know deep down we have none.  Regularly this awareness surfaces in his great book and he turns his narrative inside out as if to make sure that his readers are aware of this too. The fact that both Rabelais and Cervantes used humor to cope with the problem of authority gives them these strange modern feeling.

On the other side you have writers who notoriously have no doubt at all about their authority. People like Dickens, Balzac and Victor Hugo. While enormously successful as entrepreneurs, they are never able to question what it is they are doing. That is the reason, according to Josipovici, that these books however entertaining that they are still have an aftertaste of being naïve and hollow.

Josipovici at this level introduces Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard says that in our age, we confuse a genius or a great writer, with an apostle, someone who speaks with true authority. Strangely, while I would think there are no Apostles left after the “disenchantment”, Josipovici finds but does not explain why, that both Shakespeare and Dante can claim true authority.

More interesting in Kierkegaard, is his theory of the “last part”.

By writing a last part of a novel, a conclusion, the novelist gives his work and live a meaning, a meaning real life has not. He makes by this an error because, says Kierkegaard “ though it is indeed by writing that one justifies the claim to be an author ( with authority ), it is strangely  enough  by writing that one virtually renounces this claim”. Great writers must be aware of the inappropriateness of a concluding ending.

The adagio “Si tacuisset, philosophus manisset”( had he kept quite he would have remained a philosopher) brings to mind my review of Gogol’s “ The Government Inspector”. Gogol, unhappy by the unforeseen political mess his play had caused, tried to explain and rewrite his work. In this case his authority was not accepted. It was Bielinski who in his famous letter voiced the general opinion: “Gogol should have remained a Genius – Artist instead of the “Thinker” he was not prepared to be…”. Bielinski, with these words, saved both this theatrical masterpiece for posterity as well as the reputation of the writer.

Are not all great novels open ended? Is it not a blessing that neither Dostoievski nor Gogol could write a sequel to their masterpieces? Is not the strength of the Magic Mountain the the question about the lesson of life remains open? That there are no conclusions to be made?

Says Kierkegaard: “To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking and then in turn feel quite vividly the lack of it”.

Besides the problem of authority, there is another important challenge for the Modernist writer: How to render reality, how to bring real life into the pages of the novel? Real life, with its unpredictability, its lack of meaning, its butterfly-effectish string of occurrences. It is, Josipovici shows us, a never-ending quest. There comes a moment when Artist grasp that their writings are not mirrors reflecting real life but that what they are producing, are mere signs of emblems of the external world. 

In five chapters Josipovici makes a tour of the artists who have been probing the extremes of what is possible in their Art. Josipovici switches for several chapters to a discussion about the works of artists like Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and the great Marcel Duchamp. He does not analyze their works himself but he relies on the writings of Art-critics he trusts: Rosalind Krauss for Picasso and Thierry de Duve for Duchamp. While all this is very interesting, Josipovici, is in fact unnecessarily straying from his subject. Fortunately he comes back to his topic and presents us extracts of writers who are sticking to that redefined Modernism and who have explored the limits of what can be done in literature: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Malarmé, Nathalie Sarraute, Raymond Roussel, Marguarite Duras and Claude Simon. None of them British… Modernism concludes Josipovici, is not a consequence of the crisis of the Bourgeoisie, but it may be a product of the general European rootlessness in the wake of the French and industrial revolution.

The Scandal

In the last two chapters, as if he too suddenly realizes how far he has led his readers astray, Josipovici comes back to the central subject. It is these last chapters that have caught the attention of the media. Thanks to a misunderstanding by a journalist in the Guardian, the book’s final reception will be that of a rant against contemporary writers. Josipovici finds himself suddenly in the role of “l’enfant terrible” of British literature.

What does he say?

“Reading Barnes, like reading so many of the other writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian Mc Ewan, Blake Morisson, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner”.

The fear of opening itself to the world has effectively cut the British literary community from the foreign, especially the European influences which could have kept British literature at the level where Golding and Sparks left it.

Josipovici identifies three reasons for this barrier: First, fear and distrust towards what is not British, has turned the public's opinion from an earlier healthy pragmatism into a general suspiciousness of things of the mind in Art and Literature. General philistinism is the result. Secondly, while people seem to be suspicious of intellectual pretentiousness, they love the so called “serious and profound”. Historical novels about Rwanda and Bosnia are more worthy of attention than for example a Woodehouse and Pinget. Finally High art and Fashion have married in a new spirit of commercialism. Books and the whole circus around it is nothing more than business.

And who is to blame?

“ Writers of course only do what they can”, he says condescendingly. The problem is the middlemen, the critics, the academics, the people in the prize – discerning committees. “Critics and cultural analysts have to do better”, for they are the ones who are knowledgeable enough to separate art from the mere entertaining and they have the responsibility to say so. It is only they who can nudge the interested readers to better prose. It is only they who can lift the quality standards to higher levels.


In his analysis of what is wrong with the books that get the attention nowadays, Josipovici embarks on a cultural grand tour,  identifies the symptoms, uncovers the root of the problems, redefines Modernism and points to the culprits. His essay tackles much more than just Modernism, it is a also a reflection on his general unease with many contemporary writers, but most of all it is a statement on Artists and Art.

Polemical as he sounds in his opinions about good and less good books, fine and not so fine writers, intelligent and less intelligent literary reviewers and art critics, Josipovici warns the reader that his opinion is just an opinion and its validity worth no more but certainly no less than any other opinion on good and bad books.

However his definition of value might be too narrow according to me, I appreciated his development and explanation of the “Crisis of the Modernist Artist”, the problems of authority and realism.

These “aspects of the novel” will certainly help me to better formulate my own opinions on what I admire and what not. I might even go back to my earlier reviews and rewrite some parts. It certainly will sharpen my choice in what I want and do not want to read and I am certainly going to review my TBR list.

While it is a main shortcoming that Josipovici does not point to which promising contemporary authors, one should look, interesting titles from post WWII writers litter the book. While, Josipovici utters not a word about American post-modernism, Asian writers or even Salman Rushdie, the books he advises us not to forget are plenty.

As far as I am concerned, Gabriel Josipovici’s “What ever happened to Modernism” is an interesting book. True, maybe not for everybody, but for those, like you and me, who are curious about  what makes certain novels compulsive reading and others just simply entertaining.

( With special thanks to Poquette for her suggestions and encouragement )