Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Book to Come: A note prior to reading What Ever Happened to Modernism?

I keep thinking I'm going to find the time to finish up the set of blog posts I have hanging fire, but it doesn't seem to happen. One of these days. In the meantime, I ordered three new Gabriel Josipovici books, including What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which arrived today and has lately been the cause of much uncomprehending stir in the British press. As if he hadn't been making much the same sort of argument for 35 years. As it happens, the lecture Josipovici gave some three-plus years ago that led to this book was a momentous occasion in my life, and I wasn't even there. But the better blogs covered it, and the ensuing conversation led me back to his earlier books, On Trust and The Book of God. Much of my thinking since then, reflected in the content of this blog, has been guided, if you will, by the gentle spirit of those books. Indeed, the posts I have in mind to finish are very much in the vein of arguments I've been pursuing in that time. What does it mean to live in this time, now? What is our relationship to art? What is the meaning of art? What does it have to do with living now?

It's possible that I take the argument further afield than Josipovici takes it, if only because I'm more likely to write explicitly about politics. In his recent piece in the New Statesman, he attempted to explain some of the impetus behind the book, and specifically addressed the silly controversy surrounding his passing remarks on various high profile contemporary British writers (e.g., Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes). In it, he asks, again, what it is that happened to literary modernism in England, and in English-language writers more generally. Here, he is more focused on England itself, especially given the scuttlebutt about his assessments of Amis, McEwan, Barnes, etc. He recalls a different situation in the 1950s, when he first arrived in England, and wonders at how that culture has since become small and mean. In an earlier post, I excerpted some lines from that aforementioned lecture. In part he said there
. . . that England was just about the only European country not to be overrun by Nazi forces during the Second World War, which was a blessing for it but has left it strangely innocent and resistant to Europe, and thrown it into the arms, culturally as well as politically, of the even more innocent United States. This has turned a robust, pragmatic tradition, always suspicious of the things of the mind, into a philistine one.
I was reminded in a comment to that post that, while England was not overrun by Nazis, it was nevertheless "bombed to smithereens" during the war. I did not need the reminder, but it's still important to keep in mind. I wonder if the uncertainty following the war helped create a kind of cultural bubble, allowing for a final flowering of the modernist impulse, before that turning towards the "more innocent United States".

The United States, untouched by the war, in a position of immense political and, especially, economic power and prestige, actively taking on many of the responsibilities of the former British Empire—and also home to a spate of writers who either explicitly conceived of themselves, or were so identified by enthusiastic critics, as continuing in the spirit of modernism, writers who were collectively called "post-modernists" (cf. Barth, Gaddis, Pynchon, Gass, Hawkes, Elkin, Sorrentino, etc.). Of course, for them, as for so many, modernism was a period of literary history (hence post), in which certain literary techniques were introduced; that is, the modernists were innovators. And so the American post-modernists continued on innovating, apparently untroubled by doubt as to the legitimacy of the project itself. Now, the term post-modernism has been much abused, but I think it was inevitable that it morphed into the cultural tendency dominating our sense of the word today. It's a situation in which anything goes, in which there is no reason not to do any particular thing, let alone write a novel and try to get it published. A situation very different to that faced, on the one hand by the historical European modernists up to World War II or so, and on the other, by European writers at the close of the war.


Anonymous said...

The last paragraph is kind of intriguing. You seem to say that America's lack of damage (and success of triumph) in WW2 created national arrogance that inspired even subservise writers like the "post-modernist" writers (so are they just modernists?) you listed to experiment like crazy without any serious doubts about their technique like the European modernists (who are these people?) whose countries were shattered by WW2. It seems like you're saying that American writers (Barth, Gaddis et. al) are less serious-minded and troubled by doubt than European writers. Is this right?

Richard said...

Ha, something like that! Actually, I'm not saying that the lack of damage caused that national arrogance, except insofar as that lack of damage did nothing to arrest the sense of American triumphalism/exceptionalism which would only have been reinforced by the massive post-war dominance enjoyed by the United States.

So, this, combined with a general cultural sense of being "innocent" of the problems of the rest of the world.

Anyway, I keep meaning to come back to this point, but I've been busy lately. Thanks for commenting and helping to re-frame the topic for me.

Richard said...

I should add, it's not that the American writers are not "serious". Rather, I think, they don't question the validity of their project. Just as it is a American tendency to not question the inexorable march forward. Again, much more to say about this, soon...