Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

England and Modernism

So far I have resisted commenting here about the reviews of Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?. Tom McCarthy's in The Guardian (and now Michael Sayeau's in The New Statesman) are by far the most attentive to the book itself and should take priority over the others which only – and it takes some effort not to write more here – confirm Josipovici's thesis that the mainstream critical culture in this country has lost its way.

To redress the balance, let's not ignore what the blogosphere has said. Anthony at Time's Flowed Stemmed says the book has "redefined [his] literary appetite". He goes on: "What Ever Happened to Modernism? enables me pin down just why some writers and artists electrify me and others leave me cold. It has given definition to what I had previously thought an almost arbitrary, random collection of preferences."

I hope more bloggers can add their thoughts because Josipovici has provided tenfold more food for thought about the future of fiction than David Shields' monumentally wrongheaded Reality Hunger.

Another reason to commend Tom McCarthy's review is that he does not take umbrage at Josipovici's dismissal of contemporary English fiction. By contrast, John Sutherland is particularly annoyed and wonders:
[W]hy has he not ... engaged at any length with critics who have defended unregenerate 'Englishness'? Donald Davie, for example, who eloquently argued that the main strand in our national poetry is not Eliot, or Pound, but Thomas Hardy (a naif on whom Josipovici will not waste a single sentence).
It's a question worth asking, particularly if the book did not include a chapter on Wordsworth and discussions of the novels of Muriel Spark and William Golding, while also expressing admiration along the way for John Donne, Harrison Birtwistle, PG Wodehouse, Virginia Woolf and Ivy Compton-Burnett. But it does. Perhaps for Sutherland these are not good examples of 'unregenerate Englishness'. Yet what is Englishness – unregenerate or otherwise? It's not the subject of Josipovici's book so it seems unfair to expect him to answer there. Yet, had Sutherland done more homework with the colleagues to whom he alludes in this review, he may have discovered that Josipovici has indeed engaged with one of the most indefatigable defenders of Englishness and that his book implicitly demonstrates it.

I was fortunate enough to have been taught at the University of Sussex by Stephen Medcalf and remember well the character described in Brian Cummings' funny and moving obituary. But, in those days, I didn't appreciate that his love of English literature was not identical to the little-Englanderism displayed by Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin of old, and Philip Hensher and DJ Taylor of new. I know better now because, earlier this year, The Spirit of England, a collection of Medcalf's essays, was published by Legenda Press. It contains some remarkable pieces on very English writers (even if one is also American): Williams Langland, Shakespeare and Golding, Rudyard Kipling, John Betjeman, GK Chesterton, PG Wodehouse and TS Eliot, among others. What Medcalf does here that is relevant to the question of Englishness is that he shows how there was a profound engagement by many of these writers with other, non-English literatures. The essay on Kipling, for instance, is a close reading of his response to Horace's Odes, while another reads Eliot's The Waste Land alongside Ovid's Metamorphoses. In their introduction to the volume, Cummings and Josipovici explain how Medcalf's conception of Englishness did not exclude modernism because, as they put it, "the move of self-consciousness, the reflexive turn – is there in Virgil, in Ovid, in Augustine, in Chaucer, in Shakespeare":
This also distinguishes Medcalf's complex conception of Englishness. For England is never in Medcalf a little England, a place of mere nostalgia or retreat or homeliness. Great and generous though his admission was of a certain kind of old-fashionedness in himself [...] he meant of Englishness something both more open and more sensuous. For one thing, his Englishness participates in this same culture of mimesis – of imitation of the literatures of the past. But also, he saw literary Englishness as entirely in communication with the other languages of Europe. Englishness reaches back to Virgil not in Edwardian fancies that the Empire is the true home of Aeneas, but in the more challenging sense that Virgil forces the English language to live up to an ideal higher and deeper than itself. Medcalf himself was a praeceptor of literature on a truly European scale. He loved England but he loved it as a European nation and culture. A central manifesto of this was 'seeing European literature as whole in which the ancient literatures interpenetrate the English and other modern literatures'. Perhaps only a mind as capacious as his could see so much of this at one time.
As we can see more clearly now, Stephen Medcalf's influence lives on in works such as What Ever Happened to Modernism?.

2 comments:

  1. But do you agree with McCarthy’s complaint about Josipovici’s definition of modernism (a ‘general characterisation’)?

    I like that general characterisation and what’s interesting about Josipovici’s approach to modernism is that he sees it as exemplifying a much broader literary temper involving resistance to genre and awareness of the inexpressible rather than, conventionally, something found in certain writers from (very roughly) the period 1890-1930. However, I agree with McCarthy that Wordsworth is a slightly eccentric choice to foreground as a modernist. Shakespeare, on the other hand, played it both ways – at times the crowd-pleasing sentimentalist, at others the genre-imploding modernist confronting the limits of language.

    Sadly, it seems the review we will never read is Josipovici’s response to ‘C’.

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  2. Hi Ellis - good to hear from you again.

    No, I don't agree inasmuch as the general creates an experience that is unique and has to be faced uniquely by each writer (as opposed to the tradition that went before). A more specific definition is the one that led a late friend of mine to assume Modernism meant Stream of Consciousness. (BTW, the book doesn't mention Joyce's Ulysses which, if you go back to an essay in The Mirror of Criticism, you realise why.)

    WETHM? focusses on "awareness of the inexpressible" which is why Wordsworth is such a good example. He's written about Shakespeare often enough in the past. And the introduction to Lyrical Ballads he calls perhaps the first avant-garde manifesto, so...

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