Thursday, December 06, 2007

A crucial moment in the history of art

Adam Kirsch redeems himself from scorning book blogs by noting the utter wrongheadedness of Peter Gay's new book Modernism: the lure of heresy. Along the way, Gay writes "the modernist novel is an exercise in subjectivity" and "for Mondrian subjectivity was all". This "subjectivity", Kirsch writes
... is precisely what is missing from the most genuinely modern artwork. Where is the self in "The Waste Land," a poem that notoriously has no "I," and whose speakers seem to follow one another like voices overheard in a crowd? What could be more "objective" than the geometric grids of a Mondrian painting, which could almost be generated by an algorithm?
Gay's gross misunderstanding suggests that this grand overview of Modernism is worse than unreliable. Yet many other reviews have been respectful if not also full of praise. Rupert Christiansen notes only two "significant" errors, not one being Kirsch's, and says "one could recommend the book wholeheartedly to a bright A-level student or undergraduate in search of a broader picture", Sophie Ratcliffe hails it as "an enormous achievement" and Terry Teachout calls it a success and Modernism "a thing of the past".

What stands out in the reviews is the coverage given to the artists' extra-artistic opinions and behaviour. As Tim Rutten explains, Gay spends time assessing "T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism and Charles Ives' homophobia" and Knut Hamsun's "chilling idolatry of Hitler". While this is certainly relevant to Modernism, it isn't unique to it, as we know from Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, so why the fuss? In this light it's significant for this history that Gay is, as Rutten also explains, "unsympathetic - even slightly uncomprehending - in his treatment of Samuel Beckett". Perhaps this is because Beckett doesn't offer such easy assimilation with biographical nuggets. He was above all an artist.

I've now got a copy of Gabriel Josipovici's review of the book hidden behind the Irish Times' pay wall. He calls the book "appallingly bad" and offers far more errors:
The Rite of Spring dates from 1913, not 1911; The Waste Land is not ‘five poems assembled under one title’, and to believe it is surely disqualifies one from speaking at all on the subject of Modernism; the figure with the enormous penis in Baselitz’s early painting, Great Night Down the Drain is not female (Baselitz tells us he was thinking of an image of Brendan Behan); L’Année dernière à Marienbad is not taken from a novel by Robbe-Grillet. And so on and on.
But his critique differs from all the others by arguing that Gay's discussion of Modernism as "a single historical epoch" is inadequate to the subject:
The book is a wonderful example of Walter Benjamin’s theses on history and his argument that because positivist history does not question it cannot get a handle on the multiform events that form the past. To compare Gay’s plodding 500 pages with five pages of Barthes or Blanchot or Erich Heller is illuminating: for them Modernism is not a period, like Mannerism, but a crucial moment in the history of art, when art arrives at an understanding of itself, a degré zéro beyond which there is only silence. Grasping this they can see what it is Modernist artists were really up to, from Mallarmé to Beckett, and they can see the relations of Modernism to Romanticism and beyond, to that first modern European intellectual and spiritual crisis, the Reformation. In so doing they are at one with the authors they are looking at. Compare Gay’s bland, ‘No doubt Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the choral last movement had much to answer for,’ with Wendell Kretschmar’s impassioned lectures in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus on why Beethoven never composed a third movement to the piano sonata opus 111 and on Beethoven and the fugue. In a few pages Mann succeeds in conveying the issues that faced Beethoven and have faced composers ever since, while Gay cops out comprehensively with his ‘much to answer for’. The best that can be said for this sorry production is that it provides us with a lesson on the poverty of a certain kind of history, but, at 500 pages, that is a lesson that most students will be happy to dispense with.


  1. In his review, Teachout makes a number of assertions that seem highly questionable.

  2. Anonymous7:22 pm

    "The 'lure' of heresy"? I can see Romanticism, the Victorian novel, or revolution to be lures, to allure or fascinate -- but heresy? Heresy strikes me as an act without compromise; a lonely & necessary response from individuals who have simply had enough of the established orders. Colonialism, the bloodbath of the "Great War," its aftermath, the rise of fascism, the excesses of art nouveau, etc.... clearly times for a series of emphatic NO!s. Modernism's project?-- it's barely begun; something we need now more than ever.

  3. Stephen, your analysis is very literal-minded. What you must understand is that many important works of Modernism devote themselves to reconceiving what subjectivity and the self are. Trace the development of Mondrian’s work and you’ll see how it moves from representation (which is the basic objectivity that Modernism interrogates — the depiction of objects) through more and more subjective interpretations to the abstract. Don’t make the mistake of confusing geometric form with objectivity. Mondrian is one of many Modernists who thematize the objectivizing cultural forces that shape subjectivity. The subject is formed by its objects, so it often comes to resemble an object itself.

    That’s the kind of alienating effect that Eliot dramatizes in The Wasteland. There may be no “I” in that poem, but that simply means there is no governing subject, which is precisely the objectivizing center of realist aesthetics that Modernism seeks to unmask. The Wasteland is full of subjectivities and the intersubjectivities (textual or otherwise) that form them. You can’t suggest that “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” lacks an “I,” but that work is completely in accord with the model of subjectivity in The Wasteland, just as much a fabric of quotation, intersubjectivity, and uncertainty. Prufrock's subjectivity is dialogic: "Let us go then, you and I." He is a divided subject, maintaining his sense of selfhood only in an ineffectual reaching toward other selves, even himself (Eliot never tells us), which reduces the self to tenuous relationships between objects.

    You also can’t suggest that Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses lack an "I". But those works too are part of the same central project that defines Eliot’s and Mondrian’s Modernism. Stream of consciousness is a crucial innovation of Modernism and though the kind of consciousness you seek is not to be found in The Wasteland or Mondrian, the kind of mixed and alienated consciousness that Woolf and Joyce generate certainly is.

    The subjectivity that you and Kirsch seek belongs to Romantic poetry, or at least to Wordsworth and the crude popular understanding of Romanticism that still persists. It is a nostalgic fantasy, and a pretty conservative one, to go seeking that kind of autonomous, originary selfhood in literature written after 1805, or pretty much anywhere outside of The Prelude. You won’t find a unified, creative self in Modernism, because that’s not what Modernists think a self is.

    You should also consider restraining the contempt you express for Peter Gay’s skill as a critic when you dismiss his “utter wrongheadedness,” his “gross misunderstanding,” and his “worse than unreliable” overview. You risk substituting invective for critique and you confirm the opinions of those who suspect that litbloggers are, as Adam Kirsch says elsewhere, “isolated and inexperienced … tend[ing] to consider themselves disenfranchised … [and] naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world.”

  4. "You won’t find a unified, creative self in Modernism, because that’s not what Modernists think a self is."

    So Gay's statement that "the modernist novel is an exercise in subjectivity" is not wrong? I wouldn't have said anything if it had been "the modern novel reconceives what subjectivity and the self are"; that is precisely as I see it. Thanks for putting it so well.

    But it's not a litblogger who called the book "appallingly bad". That's much worse than what I wrote. Let me send you the entirety of Josipovici's review.

    I think the book deserves the attack so many reviews failed to deliver because it perpetuates a narrow, philistine attitude toward what EM correctly identifies as something we need more than ever.

    BTW, it's "The Waste Land"; I think that's an objective fact ;-)

  5. Just listen to yourself. Where do you get the self-importance to say that a work of serious scholarship deserves to be attacked in such an insulting manner by someone like you? You may disagree with Gay's analysis, but it just seems hypocritical for you to set up your own pedantic, vague, smug, and very small critical perspective in judgment. I know I have turned to invective now too, but since it's the currency here, I won't be shy. I don't particularly care to defend Gay any further, I just want to suggest to you again, that the reason litblogs don't merit recognition as serious criticism is because they continue to traffic in vitriol and to refuse any genuine discussion. All I find in your blog is sloppy, ill-informed, and tendentious thinking, and dull priggish prose. Try to actually hear what others say to you. Drop the nitpicky dismissals and evasions and aspire to engage in critical discussion rather than petty name-calling.

    I apologize for the heat in this posting. Trying to engage with litblogs in general can be very frustrating and I mean my comments as much for the litblogosphere in general as for you personally. I don't mind if you choose not to post this response, but please try to hear what I'm saying.

  6. As I said (what did you say about not listening?), I wasn't as harsh as the review I quoted at length. Given his background and reputation, what would you say to him?

    And your comments on my blog: good to see you're acknowledging your influences.

  7. Alright, please provide a snide parting shot for this response: Stephen is a boogerhead.

  8. Well, let me stink ... I now nose you are of North American persuasion because this word is not British English. Though I nare say you will pick up on me again.



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