Thursday, June 09, 2011

Two paths for absolutising failure

Scott Esposito calls it an odd takedown. "I’d been expecting an inspired reaction to an inspired book," he writes "but that is not what I found. Weinberger clearly did not like the book, but I cannot figure out quite why." Scott anyway gives plenty of examples to demonstrate Weinberger's misreading. The book is Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? and the review is in the New York Review (subscriber access only). The reasons are intrinsic to the book's question and Weinberger's aggressive reply confirms Josipovici was right to assign much of the blame to critics. What happened to modernism is its betrayal by those who should know better than to, for example, swoon at books like Némirovsky’s Suite Française.

To respond to Scott's perplexity: I think Weinberger doesn't like the book because he's a postmodern optimist, much like the character Josipovici describes at the beginning of the book kicking the wainscoting of a lecture hall to rebut the works of various tortured artists. This is the prideful innocence Josipovici detects in English and American culture and one of the symptoms confirming that England has largely escaped the exponential spread of "the disenchantment of the world" (the "of" is important) and retains a bucolic innocence . Scott says Weinberger comes close to a real rebuttal at the end of the review:
But it is astonishing that his is a Modernism without the rise of the city, with its factories, crowds, and anonymity; without the devastation of the Napoleonic and First World Wars; without the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, the thrill of speed, the new symbolic language of the telegraph, the international voices of radio, mass migrations, the representational “reality” of photographs and the collapse of time in film montage, anthropological investigations of tribal cultures, or the beauties and terrors of industrial products.
What is astonishing is that Weinberger misses Josipovici's reasons for what is apparently missing. He wonders if Britain is relatively innocent of Modernism precisely because it wasn't touched by the Napoleonic and First World Wars, the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, and mass migrations. At least, not to the same extent as Europe was touched. Of course, hundreds of thousands of Britons died in WW1, only it took place on the other side of the English Channel and has always been somehow unreal; told rather than experienced. As the Battle of the Somme turned the sky dark and scorched the landscape, in England the sun still shone and birds still cheeped. It still does, they still do. It explains why we still write and reward novels about a century-old war.

Weinberger's review has lazy asides that need to be addressed. Does he really believe that Perec and Bernhard have received anything like the adulation and attention Némirovsky continues to receive? And Claude Simon's Nobel wasn't awarded by a British jury. The point made clear in the book is that these writers may have admirers in Britain, and indeed one has received more attention lately, but the formal adventurousness of their style has been ignored and everyone more or less still writes like Némirovsky. Also, the final line is astounding: how can he read the chapter on Wordsworth and accuse the book of an agoraphobic interiority? What Josipovici says in his Berfois interview matches what he says in the book:
[My argument] may make it sound terribly introverted and art-for-art’s-sake-y, but it is just the opposite. The artists I see as Modernist, from Rabelais and Cervantes through Sterne to Wordsworth, Holderlin and Kleist and on to Mallarme, Eliot, Kafka, Proust and the rest, are all primarily concerned with exploring the world, but they also recognise that to do so effectively is to grasp that to write is to work with words, to write music is to work with sounds, etc. Thus, for the writers one key strategy is to make clear to the reader where the boundaries fall between the book and the world.
Weinberger's approach is in contrast to Wordsworth: he doesn't see any problem about taking possession of the world with words. As befits his nation, he is a literary imperialist. While he doesn't offer any examples of "what's happening" to refute the book, if the smugness on display in What I heard about Iraq is anything to go by, it's not worth hearing.

Postscript: Some years ago Ed Champion expressed disappointment at the "near silence from the litblogosphere" about Adam Thirlwell's Miss Herbert (entitled The Delighted States in the US). Here was a book he assumed we would love because "it speaks of literature in a giddy, informed, and near intoxicated manner". I assumed the same would be the case with What Ever Happened to Modernism?, only for different reasons. Giddy, near intoxicated criticism is indeed Thirlwell's virtue and I enjoyed the book as much as I disagreed with its optimism and oppostions (I approached a response in a review of another book). But I think the book didn't receive attention precisely because of this virtue. There was only pleasure to be had and not much inspiration. Josipovici's book addresses Thirlwell's reading of Don Quixote and in doing so perhaps reveals why there has been only slightly less silence in response to his book. What Ever Happened to Modernism? offers a huge challenge to the aspiring author, yet not to one demanding the creation of a world-historical 800-page tome "tackling" the great questions or producing yet another ghost of the Great American Novel, but one which shows how the writers to whom we look up created their greatest works by including their own sense of failure and impossibility rather than transcending it. We're asked to fail better; that is, Beckett's injunction as glossed by David Winters:
'Try again. Fail again. Fail better', surely the most misread sequence in all of Beckett. He would have been horrified to see it appropriated as a catch-all stoic maxim (e.g. 'OK, you're destined to fail, but never mind, keep trying, keep failing in such a way that your failures come closer to success'). Beckett would have poured scorn on this sort of chocolate-box philosophy. The intended meaning is, directly and literally, 'fail more fully, more catastrophically. Absolutize your failure.'


  1. This optimism might be the reason why I find so many artists I like from America to be from the south. Walker Percy was asked why there were so many good writers in the South and he said "Because we lost the War." Flannery O'Connor mentions this in her essay The Regional Writer and goes on: "What he was saying was that we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of our human limitations and a sense of mystery that could not have developed in our first state of innocence-as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country."

  2. since i have neither read josopivici's book nor elliot weinberger's review i will avert this controversy. have a sufficiency of them in my life. however, tom mcgonigle of
    might be cantankerous enough to weigh in.
    i myself will do a "number" as we say here on david shield's "reality hunger", to get me jollies off while completing something in german on handke for an essay collection on the effect of the "wende" and literary reception in krautland, althoug with all those bacteria sprouting there, maybe they will foreswear kraut from now on, and a big chapter of my THE IDYLLIC YEARS, the last chapter SOUR ORANGES AND GENTLE OAKS,

  3. Michael, that's Josipo- as in Joseph Son. And one L in the other name, as in Toilet.

    Dylan, Peter Handke translated Walker Percy's The Moviegoer - the only one he has translated because he loved it so much - and though it's in our library, it's never on the shelf.

  4. steve, spelling is not my strong suit, even less on computers.

    let me agree with dylan on why there are so many good writers in the south: nothing like a good defeat to instill a lasting sense of tragedy. which is why i took to faulkner early on in the us.



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