Note: this is neither a review (critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses) of the author’s book nor one of my “Digested Reads” (in which I attempt to give both myself and the reader as complete an experience of the author’s arguments as I can manage in as short a space as possible), but an “Appreciation”— as in a quotation-heavy, somewhat-lengthy summary of and rumination upon some of the author’s key insights, but leaving out much of the particularity that make the book so worth reading. Whereas a “Digested Read” might be seen, by those in a hurry, as a substitute for reading the entire work, the following should hopefully take both you and I back to the book itself: it’s that good!

Finally, unless otherwise noted, all emphasis (bold italics) is mine, and not the author’s.

To be modern is to know that which is not possible any more

Roland Barthes, quoted in What Ever Happened To Modernism?  (164)

Gabriel Josipovici’s centuries-spanning book on modernism urges us to resist straightjacketing our understanding of modern art by categorizing modernism chronologically—it did not merely begin, as Virginia Woolf famously quipped, “on or about December 1910”, when supposedly the Victorian “world changed”, changed utterly.  In Josipovici’s view, modernism is not just another artistic “-ism” or loose collection of successive “-isms” in which art can be seen necessarily marching forward in some important sense. Rather, in his view, modernism is how the prescient and sensitive artist tries to cope with modernity, that “structure of feeling”, as Raymond Williams coined it, which results from living within the constantly shifting and eternally crumbling economic and ideological structures of the modern, rationalized and capitalist world. It is about combating the reality that art as we once knew it is no longer possible, and yet soldiering on—if not marching forward, exactly. It is about struggling to make sense of an absurd, disenchanted world, one in which the old artistic categories and modes no can longer sustain, or ring true, much less grapple with the world as we found it, one less inherited than into which we’ve been thrown. It is, to quote the author quoting activist and art historian T.J. Clark quoting Samuel Beckett, “the ‘can’t go on, will go on’ syndrome”(212).

If you hear echoes of Weber, Benjamin, and Sartre in the above, you’re not wrong, as all three figure in this book as influences—as do Cervantes, Wordsworth, Kafka, Mallarmé, Picasso, and others, many of whom are given their own chapter or at least section in this exciting excursus through four centuries of art, musical and literary history in following an Ariadne’s thread which is all of Josipovici’s own devising, but which like the best artistic-critics’ apologia pro vitae sua, always rings true—not because it is the story of a univocal, Olympian, reductive (and possibly monomaniacal) aesthetic, but because it tells a story of modernism in a personal and modest, and yet thoroughly erudite and scholarly way.

The manner in which he does so is, moreover, that of the poetry aficionado who keeps coming back to that singular sonnet which can never be quite satisfactorily explained away, or like that visitor to the Musée des Beaux Arts who continually haunts that one specific gallery which never stops calling out to him, or that music lover whose dreams are haunted by enigmatic shapes which emerge from the orchestra when they play that one piece which has always haunted him—a teasing of both his intellect and emotions that he’ll keep coming back to over and over, because it strikes at the core life, and shall forever resist being explained away….

In other words, Josipovici hopes that by leading us on a tour of certain specific artists and their works, (by showing us how their efforts to shine a light in their own dark tunnels has guided his own explorations), we, too, can chart our own course through the disenchanted wasteland of our times, by drawing on resources from allies who, together, form a tradition born not of a given style or or form (much less a coherent set of philosophical concerns), but from the necessity to continually reevaluate the very possibility of art itself.

Thus it is not surprising that Josipovici begins his book by having us take a bath, as it were, in the recounting of several key artists’ feelings of personal struggle and failure: there is Mallarmé, who confesses, “‘I feel I’m collapsing in on myself day by day, each day discouragement overwhelms me, and the lethargy is killing me. When I emerge from this I’ll be stupefied, nullified”(13). There is also Kafka, who experiences something all-too-similar:

I can’t write. I haven’t written a single line that I can accept, instead I have crossed out all I have written – there wasn’t much – since my return from Paris. My whole body puts me on my guard against each word; each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands, I see what they are like inside and then I have to stop quickly. (15)

And then there is Beckett, whose writing is “weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road“(17). What all three artists share in common here is not merely the sense that the old artistic methods not only no longer really ‘work’ (i.e. to produce a work of art that feels alive to the zeitgeist of the current moment, or something. No. It is more that, by continuing on in an inherited tradition, these artists feel that their work deadens them even more somehow—they are filled with a bodily-felt sense of disgust that their art is somehow complicit in some “dead, deadening and deadly” (Richard Godden) process in the world, a process which other artists and consumers of art may be either happily ignorant of or even complicit with, but which seems to them, rather, as a matter of life and death, somehow. Their world has become “disenchanted”, in Max Weber’s term, and Josipovici rightly reminds us that, while the word itself is the Romantic philosopher Schiller’s, this quintessential modernist structurelessness of feeling arguably dates back to the transition from medievalism to early modernity, and this centuries old/perennially new feeling is one of “stand[ing] outside, looking in, aware only of what [we] have lost”(25), of being estranged from ourselves, from each other and from our place in the world. “This sense of somehow having arrived too late,” Josipovici writes, “of having lost for ever something that was once a common possession, is a, if not the, key Romantic concern”(26), but it is really the concern of all modernists, in whatever era they happen to find themselves. It is a feeling of failure, loss and despair which, when pursued to its nadir, can yield new insight, and possible new avenues of exploration or modes of expression. The cliché modernist imperative, “Make it new!”, then, is not merely an external call to innovate newer and trendier, superficial fashions to throw into the cultural marketplace, but is rather the internal imperative felt within the very sinews of the artist’s entire being, of wrestling with the very (im)possibility of remaining true to the seriousness of one’s work, regardless of how unserious or trivial or marginal it may appear to others, or to one’s culture as a whole.

With the Melancholia, “Dürer seems here to have wished to invert the St Jerome. The female figure with her useless wings represents art in competition with God. The Melencolia is a terrestrial craftsman cut off from all tradition and therefore incapable of productive work… ‘The lie is in our understanding, and darkness is so firmly entrenched in our mind that even our groping will fail’ (35)

This sense of loss and belatedness is not mere nostalgia for some glorious past, however (at least, not when we are in the hands of the truly self-aware modern artist). It does involve “lament” for all that has been lost, of course (the author usefully digs into Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus and Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I in this regard), but above all, the modernist work is characterized by a double vision, one that may first be glimpsed in Rabelais tyrant Picrochole, who in Ch. 33 of Gargantua (1534) is ridiculed for the megalomania which possesses all tyrants who wish to bend the world to their imaginations:

Picrochole, already, in his mind, crossing the deserts of Arabia, suddenly becomes aware of the fact that his army will need water if it is to survive. In the world of the imagination, however, this is no problem: ‘In the Siriack sea’, his courtiers reassure him, ‘you have nine thousand and fourteen great ships laden with the best wines in the world’. In reality, though, Picrochole and his army are routed by Gargantua only a few miles from his palace.In reality? No. In reality there is no Picrochole and there is no Gargantua, nor is there any palace. In strict reality these are only the words Rabelais has written, now read by us and transformed in our imagination. But by making of Picrochole such a blatant flouter of reality Rabelais nudges us into accepting his reality – as a mad tyrant. Picrochole may be a figure of the tyrant, but he is also a figure of the artist in his new circumstances, cut off from tradition and without either the Muses or the rules of Christian iconography to guide him as they guided Homer and the medieval artist, and so having to fall back on his imagination. The imagination is quite capable of conjuring up whole worlds, but unfortunately these worlds are made up only of words and images. The writer, alone now in his room, puts these words down on paper and, a little later the reader, alone in his room, with only the printed book in his hands, is given the tools to recreate this world in his imagination. For Rabelais this new freedom of the imagination is not, as it was for Dürer in the Melencolia, a cause of despair; but it is not a reason for rejoicing either, as it was for the Florentine Neo-Platonists and has been for the majority of those who have written about art in the West since then. Rather, it is a cause of laughter. (40-41)

Thus, in artistic terms, modernity is characterized by a simultaneity of vision: artists lack the authority and justification of earlier traditions and genres, but are free to imagine the world as they see fit. Artists are no longer, though, allowed to portray themselves as having a special purchase on the world—they are not prophets, seers or inspired by gods or muses: “instead of trying to persuade us of his omniscience as an author – who would, after all, only be a version of Picrochole – Rabelais puts before us a fictional author who is shown to us in all his fleshly weakness, thereby stressing rather than denying that he, the real author, is a man not essentially different from his readers

Cervantes, too, troubles those readers who desire nothing more than to be swept away into another world—into the arms of an omniscient god-like author who will safely and providentially guide us to the end of his book. For Don Quixote is not merely asking us to laugh at the misplaced, anachronistic idealism of its titular hero, but to laugh with and be perturbed by (and with!) the author of a book who is as besotted with his loss of the past as his character is, as his readers are—an author who has lost the ability to believe in the delusions that he cannot quite seem to entirely shake, for they make up so much of the fabric of the world we call “human”:

Dulcinea. Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely in order to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative. And it dramatises the way we as readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world. It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment when the world is growing disenchanted. We need enchantment and are prepared to pay good money to get at least a dose of it. The profound irony of Don Quixote is this: that as we read about the hero’s obvious delusions we believe that we are more realistic about the world than he is, less enchanted, whereas we are of course ourselves in that very moment caught in Cervantes’ web and enchanted by his tale. (48)

Thus are we (the author plus his readers) simultaneously enchanted and disenchanted at one and the same time. We experience double-vision (but try not to hear the words to Foreigner’s power ballad from the 70s). In this we are all moderns.

Josipovici rightly quotes Walter Benjamin on the novel (as distinguished from the “oral tale”) in this regard:

What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature – the fairy tale, the legend, even the novella – is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.(51-52)

So the Protestant Reformation and the Humanist movement gave us all individuality, though it tore us from the bosoms and hearthsides of the medieval family and village, while the capitalist mode of production isolated and fragmented us still further, and decisively and steadily erased whatever “aura” (Benjamin) of enchantment artists of a nostalgic/romantic bent might have wished to cast back upon the world (I think of Mary Shelley’s valorization of medieval life, for example). And then the liberal democratic revolutions of the 18C paved the way for the inevitable “freeing” of said individual: s/he could henceforth (in theory) do/be anything, really—what’s not to like?!

Well, Josipovici reminds, us: half of it, pretty much! We all can be Napoleon and remake the entire world—but are rather more likely to end up menial tutors or bookkeepers or scriveners, like Melville’s Bartleby, whose heroic inaction and negation of the brave new world of liberal capitalism is immortalised in the phrase “I would prefer not to“. Or, we could all be Beethoven (“‘In the plenitude of [whose] resource, every obstacle seemed to vanish’”(56)), except that, in his wake, composers were left with nothing to hold on to except for their individuality, and, without Beethoven’s dynamism or optimism, this gradually led, in the course of the nineteenth century, to an art more and more prone to stasis, dreaminess and disintegration.”

Kierkegaard, Josipovici maintains, is another thinker who offers us a coruscating vision of what it means to be modern. While someone like Dante, writing centuries earlier, could envision an entire unified artistic, moral and religious system, by Kierkegaard’s time, 1840,

all that has long gone. All Kierkegaard can do is to try and explore in every way imaginable the troubled heart and soul of nineteenth-century man, one who has been given his freedom twice over, first by God and then by the French Revolution, but who does not know what to do with it except torment himself with the sense that he is wasting his life. Already in his first mature work Either/Or (1842), he had begun to explore what it might mean for a youth with brains and imagination to grasp that he was free to do what he wanted and to grasp at the same time that that freedom condemned him to a life of melancholy and inaction, as though the plethora of possibilities made all actualities seem pale and insubstantial. (58)

For Kierkegaard to be modern is to be anxious, as anxiety is the product of the formal freedoms we, er, enjoy: we fear, however vaguely and inappositely, specific, “definite” things (immigrants, the teaching of evolution in schools…) but “‘anxiety is freedom’s actuality, the possibility of possibility’” (59). In other words, freedom is both something to be desired, and something to be anxious about—in a novel, it means having no rules, expectations or restrictions to worry about. But it also means having no tradition to fall back upon or to be guided by. Freedom means nothing more than the possibility as well as necessity to reinvent the art form itself. This reminds me of Milan Kundera’s explication of the feeling of vertigo—that fear of falling which is also a desire to fall, because if one falls (to earth, a symbolic death(?), “I can’t go on” ), though one has failed/is no longer free, one is also absolved of the existential responsibilities imposed upon one by freedom (to act, to invent, to choose, “I’ll go on” ). In Kierkegaard’s terms:

Now if possibility outstrips necessity, the self runs away from itself in possibility so that it has no necessity to return to. This then is possibility’s despair. Here the self becomes an abstract possibility; it exhausts itself in floundering about in possibility, yet it never moves from where it is nor gets anywhere, for necessity is just that ‘where’ … Thus possibility seems greater and greater to the self; more and more becomes possible because nothing becomes actual. In the end it seems as though everything were possible, but that is the very moment that the self is swallowed up in the abyss. (61)

That the abyss stares back is something the modernist never lets him or herself (or the reader) forget. How much more comforting, then, to be in the hands of a realist author and the external limitations s/he willingly obeys! How uncomfortable it is to encounter the modernist urging us to join him or her in their high-wire act over the abyss! In Josipovici’s explanation, this is to be understood as the “jettison[ing] of the notion of genre” (64), which he explores in his chapter on two artists who are usually classified as arch-Romantics: the poet William Wordsworth and the painter Casper David Friedrich.

Part of the problem of getting to grips with Wordsworth and Friedrich is that both of them seem early on to jettison the notion of genre. A genre is a bit like a family: when you are with your family you do not have to explain who you are each time you enter a room; you are taken for granted. But families can seem constricting as well as enabling, and a moment comes when confidence in genre starts to wane [… when] genre has come to seem, like aristocratic privilege, a false imposition rather than a natural condition. The subtitle ‘epic’ or ‘comedy’ or ‘pastoral elegy’ had prepared readers or spectators for what they were about to experience and helped the writer enter his subject and establish an agreement with the reader […] Like Kierkegaard’s young man, what tradition has to offer seems to [Wordsworth and Friedrich] false and no longer to chime with how things are.

What we inherit from the artists who come before us can come to seem ossified, no longer true to life, out of tune “with how things are”. For, like the rest of us, artists live and work inside history, and what that now means at the dawn of the 19C (after Kant) is that there is no escaping from how consciousness is shaped by experience: at root, artists are no Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world”(72), but “a man speaking to men”, an individual who has been created as such by Locke’s empiricism and Kant’s categories perhaps, and who exists within a cultural history governed by the imperatives of a nascent industrial capitalism, but for Josipovici “art, in the hands of the greatest masters, will always find a way out of the impasses” imposed upon it by its political, cultural and historical milieu (71).

Wordsworth and Friedrich do this by reinventing or transcending genre, as it were. Wordsworth, seeking in nature the answers to industrial capitalism, creates a living space for his art not merely through his choice of content, but by conducting what Martin Amis (not the author’s favourite writer, however!) a “war against cliché”, worrying over “syntax, rhythm and enjambment” until a new “visionary experience” is finally possible, until his methods line up with the changed external reality once more, gain a new, “quiet authority” that those who toil in outworn modes cannot discover, such that his novel “eccentricities” of form come to be seen by attentive readers now “as inevitable, as unquestionable and there as an outcrop of rock.

The artist is now also a key participant in the art work itself. If the Lyrical Ballads concern themselves with the poet’s powerful emotional experience “reflected in tranquility”, Frierich’s paintings often centre upon

Wanderer in The Sea of Fog, Casper David Friedrich (1818) —Wikipedia

“the Rückenfigur, the figure who is and is not the painter, who is and is not the viewer, who stands at the limit of the picture, with his back to us, so that what we see is not what he sees, but him seeing . It is very important to Friedrich, [critic Joseph] Koerner points out, that this figure should be there, for he reminds us that vision is always vision at a particular moment, from a particular place, and that though vision may be the goal it does not subsume life but is only one moment, one experience, within life. And it is also very important that this figure should be, as he is for Wordsworth on Snowdon, bathed in mist, for mist is what unites the elements of the picture, what brings individual and vision into one orbit. It is also, of course, a figure for paint itself, which conceals the canvas and reveals figures, yet is the medium in which the entire scene exists. ‘ Wanderer above the Sea of Fog ’, writes Koerner, ‘stands suspended between two notional paintings: on the one hand, the total replication of a valley in all its detail that has been overpainted in white; on the other hand, a blank canvas in which have begun to appear, here and there, the fragments of a scene.’ What this is saying, I take it, is that such Romantic artists as Friedrich (and Wordsworth) are not so much visionaries as explorers of what it means to see and what it means to paint or write. (76)

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, Casper David Friedrich (1824) —Wikipedia

We are approaching now a preliminary understanding of what Josipovici means by the modern. It is partly to be an individual who not only rejects genre, but who has been abandoned by it. The artist refuses the authority of past tradition because its authority has dwindled, disenchanting art along with the world itself. In such a context does the novel arise, almost sui-generis, and before the 19C imposed the strictures of realism on the form, bowing to no authority other than itself.

But the market is an authority which enjoys being bowed to, and in Josipovici’s next exemplary pair of artists, Dickens and Balzac, we see our contemporary, Tweeting and Platform-building 21C novelist-as-entrepreneur in utero, as it were. Now, personally, I have read little Balzac, but have been a great admirer of Dickens, and so I half-believe Josipovici’s analysis of the latter’s literary career, but I will not quibble over details when his point is to show how some artists struggle to escape or reinvent genre, and how others, aided by the concerns of the market become its victims—and of course, as in the case of Dickens, both phenomena can occur at the same time, the point being a useful analytical distinction for the purposes of understanding the modernist impulse rather than making a rigorously historical truth-claim. And for assistance in making this distinction, Josipovici returns to another of Kierkegaard’s fine distinctions—between the “apostle ” and the “genius”, as in the work of these two writers, Josipovici believes, we “can see the beginnings of that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of modern culture” (81).

We can read the distinction between the “genius” and the “apostle” in Kierkegaard’s On Authority and Revelation, then, in a cultural-artistic light rather than in its original, religious sense, as a distinction between merely “great writers” and those who truly “speak with authority” (remembering from earlier on in this book, that modernity has swept away, along with the cobwebs of medievalism, all of the author’s traditional grounds for authority—of channeling the gods/muses, say, or working within an established genre or tradition). What interests Josipovici about Kierkegaard’s insight here , though, is that “our age has not only lost access to authority, it no longer even recognises the crucial distinction between one who has authority and one who only has genius“(83, Josipovici’s italics).

In the modern world, the author (one who writes with authority) has vanished, along with “transcendental” meaning (84), leaving us with only writers (howbeit writers of talent and “genius”), it seems, especially when these writers “naively” imagine that we can continue on blithely as if nothing has been lost. For,

In our modern age, an age without access to the transcendental and therefore an age without any sure guide, an age of geniuses but no apostles, only those who do not understand what has happened will imagine that they can give their lives (and their works) a shape and therefore a meaning, the shape and meaning conferred by an ending. The task of those who have grasped the implications of this will be to try and bring home to those who haven’t what it is that has been lost. Kierkegaard brings this part of his argument to an end with a pregnant aphorism: ‘To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it.’

‘To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it.’ I have bolded that final bit of Kierkegaard because Josipovici returns to it again and again: central to the artist’s experience of modernity is that of loss: artists can now only invent their capacity to end/complete their work when, with clear eyes, they see that art (and thus meaning) is no longer even possible—not only are there no guides or rules to go by, there is nowhere to go. Only through desperation and sheer invention can this paradox be confronted, if not transcended. Modern art is a monument to failure, in a way, and a hymn to the critical spirit, to negativity: the task is to observe what is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it—how many contemporary novels betray precisely zero sense that anything is lacking, especially the authority to hold the mirror up to the light, to re-present!

[For Kierkegaard,] negativity is a very delicate thing; all too often even those who talk of negativity, by talking, turn it into its opposite: “Among so-called negative thinkers, there are some who after having had a glimpse of the negative have relapsed into positiveness, and now go out into the world like town criers, to advertise, prescribe and offer for sale their beatific negative wisdom – and of course, a result can quite well be announced through the town crier, just like herring from Holstein … But the genuine subjective existing thinker … is conscious of the negativity of the infinite in existence, and he constantly keeps the wound of the negative open, which in the bodily realm is sometimes the condition for a cure. (85)

Sartre’s La Nausée, too, is alive to the numbing deadening effect that most novels have on this disease, as they offer analgesia where they should bring the cure:

I walk down the road, he says, my life is open before me. I do not know what will happen to me, and, if my life so far is anything to go by, nothing will. Even if something dramatic happens, if a car, say, runs me over and kills me, that will not have conferred meaning on a meaningless life, only brought it to an end. But if I open a novel and read in its first pages that the hero is walking down a deserted road I know that this is the beginning of an adventure, of love, perhaps, or espionage, it does not matter, it is an adventure. I feel the comforting thickness of the remainder of the novel between the thumb and index finger of my right hand and I settle back with satisfaction. This, after all, is why I am reading the novel in the first place. Not, as the banal view has it, in order to entertain myself, but to give myself the feeling that meaning exists in the world, even if I have not yet found it. That is the secret power of novels: they look like mirrors held up to the world, but what they are is machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world and so muddy the waters of genuine understanding of the human condition. (86)

Milan Kundera writes that the only immoral novel is the novel which does not discover some new aspect of the human condition: in other words, the root of its immorality lies not in portraying/representing (thereby somehow validating, one presumes) some extant evil in the world, but through a kind of Sartrean “Bad Faith” with the world, imposing “spurious” meaning onto existence rather than wrestling with its lack through a furious, desperate, sober, disillusioned “act of imagination and…mastery of…craft“(94), such that something entirely new is brought into the world, a bolt of light in the darkness, a genuine reconfiguration of the problem of the human condition—because the artist’s “life depend[s] on it” somehow:

the point is that, in a world without authority, each of them has to find his way for himself. No-one can do it for them. Each new attempt, as Eliot wrote in what could almost be described as a manual of Modernism, the Four Quartets,
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion
Always precise, though, he adds that we must not thereby be discouraged: ‘For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business’

Each genuine new work of art attempts to evade the trap of immorality, then, tries to outmaneuver the Bad Faith which lurks at every plot twist in the novel, works to “somehow write against” the received form of the well-crafted, classic novel, or paint against, as Francis Bacon maintains, the desire for illustration, re-presentation, to which Bacon opposes “invention“—illustration soothes, while invention pierces, is “poignant“:

this particular way of painting is more poignant than illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently. (97)

Josipovici summons Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero (1953) to help him elaborate how the true modern writer must not write in order for this more violent return to life to be possible in the novel:

It’s perfectly possible, he points out, to write novels in the form of letters and to write history through analysis and economic tables, but at a particular moment, in the nineteenth century, both history and the novel chose as their preferred form what he calls the récit. And the keystone of the récit is the passé simple: Through its passé simple the verb implicitly takes its place in a causal chain, it participates in a group of actions which are of a piece and forward driven, it functions as the algebraic sign of an intention … It supposes a world which is constructed, elaborated, detached, reduced to a few significant lines, not a world which is thrown, displayed, offered [jeté, étalé, offert]. Behind the passé simple there always hides a demiurge, god or reciter; the world is not inexplicable when one recites it […]For all the great storytellers of the nineteenth century the world may be filled with pathos, but it is not abandoned, since it is a cluster of coherent relations, since there is no friction between the written elements, since he who recounts has the power to challenge the opacity and the solitude of the existences which make it up, since he can testify with each phrase to the possibility of communication and to a hierarchy of actions.(99)

The “classic” novel, then, tells stories, sets-and-resolves plots, as if making out a “fitted kitchen” or “package holiday” for the consumer of the tale—commerce, not life, is what is at stake here. The [“immoral” for Kundera, remember] novelist of Bad Faith tells mere stories because that is what the market, and realism, demand (100). Modernism, on the other hand, tears the veil off of this illusion, and “drive[s] the contradictions” of making sense of art and life “out into the open”, making the reader wrestle with them on the page or canvass just as the artists themselves did. For writers such as Borges, “Proust, and Kafka and Virginia Woolf, writing is a way of surviving” in a world “‘thrown’, ‘offered’, ‘abandoned'”, and the artist survives only by trying to discover, to own up to what is lacking, and to do this he or she “wages constant war on the classic tradition of fiction“(102).

Another way of putting this struggle, this agon, this war it is that the modern work of art strives to be rather than to mean. It resists the digest, rejects the summary, evades the easy paraphrase. In Kundera’s terms, it is the novel which refuses to be turned into a film. It tends, rather, towards the direction of unfathomably dense, but electrifyingly alive poetry. Take, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ devastating sonnet, “No Worst, There Is None”, from which Josipovici in the following passage quotes a pair of indescribably poignant, harrowing, unforgettable lines: this is writing that is essaying to take

to extremes what poetry has always done: playing off meaning against rhythm and rhyme, forward movement against stillness and repetition. English poetry contains many examples of dense and compacted poetry, often in the form of sonnets, from Shakespeare to Hopkins. We could say that what happens in such poems is that the clear distinction between foreground and background, between what the poet ‘is saying’ and ‘how he says it’, grows more and more blurred the more dense and compact the language. We can, in other words, after a while, provide a rough paraphrase of

‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’,

but what Hopkins is saying cannot really be separated from how he is saying it. Or rather, to say the same thing in a different way would take several pages, while Hopkins does it in two lines. Those lines, moreover, are ‘alive’ in Bacon’s sense, in a way the paraphrase would never be. Indeed, the poem as a whole fulfils Bacon’s prescription for an art that is more than illustrational, anecdotal: ‘It lives on its own, like the image one’s trying to trap.’ The reader engages with a living thing, not merely a ‘story’.

If we think we have succeeded and have “trapped” or “grasped” meaning, however, we (writer and reader both) have failed. If the artist is successful, he or she creates something external to themselves which comes alive by reconfiguring the problem somehow, in which “something happens as it unfolds, but it does not happen so much to the characters […]as to the reader (and to the author as reader of his or her own work). All we can say is that something has become unblocked, a change has taken place” (132).

As the writer of modern life resists “story”, the painter of modern life resists “illustration”. This does not mean, however, a complete retreat into abstraction (a là Kandinsky and Mondrian, who are somewhat deprecated in Josipovici’s journey through modern art in this book). And while we have already seen him celebrate Bacon in this regard, he also raises up Cézanne, Picasso and Duchamp as exemplars of visual artists (as well as Rosalind Kraus and T.J. Clark as fellow-travelling art historians) who resist, rebel against, and reconfigure their tradition in order to produce, in Hopkins’ terms, “one work that wakes“. I am mainly interested in talking about the novel, though, and won’t be going deep into their stories here, though it is well worth reading and most a propos to the writer as well—but this is getting long enough already!

But one thing that Josipovici draws our attention to in Krauss’ work on Picasso is something that Milan Kundera is also obsessed with: the idea (as plumbed by Bakhtin in his work on Dostoevsky) of polyphony:

Bakhtin argues in his book on Dostoevsky that we are faced here with a wholly new kind of novel, a polyphonic work in which multiple voices make themselves heard. Every thought, he says, ‘senses itself to be from the very beginning a rejoinder in an unfinalized dialogue. Such thought is not impelled toward a well-rounded, finalized, systemically monologic whole. It lives a tense life on the borders of someone else’s thought.’ (128)

The question that Josipovici says is latent here, however, is just who is speaking these voices? Is the novel a “single consciousness’s vision of [a] fragmented world”, or is one voice privileged among the many, as a kind of proxy for the author’s own voice? Both possibilities are traps of a kind, which attempt to reduce the multivocal to the monologic, and while Josipovici himself illustrates the problem by segueing into brief discussions of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse at this point, it is salutary, I think to add Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being into the mix here: the polyphony in this novel comes from several voices—those of the principal characters (Tomas, Tereza, Sabina and Franz), but also those of the inherited culture of the West as it speaks through those characters (in the section “Words Misunderstood”, but also throughout, via the many problematized binary oppositions in the novel), as well as that of the author himself, who “intrudes” into the narrative not merely as a Brechtian alienation device and to call attention to the novel’s fictional status, but also to meditate upon the philosophical assumptions and insights and blind spots that each character’s voice speaks, in addition to their quite specific “individuality”. They are characters from a classic realist novel, complete with “interiority”, yet language and history speak through, with, and even against their conscious choices, desires and speech acts—none of which gets resolved, of course, “redeemed” or “grasped”. But something has become unblocked in the process of reading this novel, a change has taken place in the reader as well as in the writer as reader of his own work. For the novel is an “exploration” (Kundera says overtly somewhat early on in the book), in a dialogue between form and content, of something which the author feels bothered by, but of which he or she is only obscurely aware, not an exegesis of an already-formulated idea, much less a coherent, meaningful narrative brought to us mere mortals down from Parnassus, recited in a stentorian tone, with all the confidence the speaker’s authority has given it, sub specie aeternitatis

As I have pointed out before, characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about. But isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself? […] I have experienced [much of what my characters have experienced] myself, yet none of them has given rise to the person my curriculum vitae and I represent. The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own I ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.

In Josipovici’s terms (and in his fascinating discussion of Margarite Duras’ novel L’Amante Anglais, which I shall leave for the reader to pursue), this kind of open-ended “investigation” involves a constant circling round the event [in question] and the refusal to come up with explanations [for it](135), producing a proliferation of “signs or emblems for the external world, not mirrors reflecting it“(137), “releasing [those] multiple voices which would not have been given a hearing had not something been made (or nudged into being) by an artist”(142) who is like a plowman (or perhaps an archaeologist?) turning over a “ field […]; when it has been thoroughly tilled the book ends, leaving us with a powerful sense of having undergone an intense if inarticulate experience(145). Note that the book does not end when the plot is resolved, but when “the field […]has been thoroughly tilled. Neither the reader nor the author “grasps” anything, but something has changed, perhaps even unblocked. Some byway of the labyrinthine trap of the world has been explored, and some boundary has been crossed. It begins with a question, or even a negation, and it ends not with an ending, but an enlargement of possibilities, an ongoing discussion of Leonard Cohen’s “Ordinary Eternal Machinery” of Giorgio Di Cicco’s “one-night stand” that we have “with the earth”. And meaning is not made, much less resolved—rather, a terrible beauty is born:

What [the artist] wants is to make something that will be as alive as the world they inhabit, something that, in Barthes’ words, possesses ‘the trembling of existence (le tremblement de l’existence)’; they are made sick by the thought that all the tradition seems to offer them is, instead, ‘a world which is constructed, elaborated, detached’, a world in which everything has its place, in which everything, even the most terrible, has ‘a peaceful look, an air of respectful decency, which comes of their being held beneath a gaze fixed at infinity,’ as Merleau-Ponty put it. (166)

Those two words, terrible and beauty usher us into an understanding of modernism which is dialectical, perhaps, but hardly chronological. In fact, traces of it can be found, Josipovici argues, in ancient Greek tragedy, which embraces the paradoxical duality of that phrase. And the Tiresias who has shown him the way, as it were, through the masterpieces of that tradition is the unsung critic John Jones and his work On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (1962), and for whom

Aristotle, as Kierkegaard had noted, subordinates character to action: ‘Tragedy is an imitation not of human beings’, says Aristotle, ‘but of action and life.’ It is the mimesis of a praxis , the imitation of an action. Jones demonstrates how nineteenth-century translators of the Poetics , though many of them were notable scholars, consistently mistranslated it because their (essentially Romantic) world view led them to read into Aristotle what was not there.

Thus the focus should be less on what the tragic hero is, but on what he or she does: he or she makes choices, and acts: the inward deliberation of a Hamlet is absent from this world; rather, it is the context of their action which matters most: its effect on the oikos or house that the individual belongs to is a social rather matter than an affair of personal conscience. And the dilemmas that they faced are incommensurable: they have duties to both oikos and their country which may come into conflict, but which both deserve their full attention and complete loyalty—the important thing for us being the both/and of duties and loyalties mixed up with the either/or of choice (something which is also on full display in Kundera’s novels, by the way).

The mystery that these plays by Sophocles and Euripides produce is one of “brilliant impenetrability”, then, like life itself, which we readers must learn to “relax and savour”, make a part of our own lives, “for it is very precious” (177) and goes against the notion of art-as-balm or of art as telling us how to become better people, or art as escape from (rather than back to) the world. From Greek tragedy Modernism, then, learns to ask us to embrace this doubling of vision (in which, say, Oedipus is sacrificed, but Thebes is saved, or Kundera’s Tomas’s twin careers —as doctor and ladies’ man—must be forfeited if a life of intimacy with Tereza is to be made —impermanently, and quite problematically—possible), and is itself

a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them, in return of course for many impressive achievements, then it has everything to do with it. In Euripides we can see emerging precisely those elements that were to form the pillars of art from the Renaissance on: an emphasis on the subjective self and on complicated plotting; a new emphasis on realism; a fascination with those on the margins of society; and a replacement of the sense that it is what we do that defines us by the notion that it is who and what we are that does so. (180)

Pain and joy, terrible beauty: easy to say, harder to wrestle with, “impossible […]to reconcile“(202). The novel must not let either the reader or its author forget this; rather, it must “implicate” both.

In the end, as the author himself states, this is a highly personal take on what constitutes the heart of modernism—and is all the better for that. I would place it on a level with Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel and Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air in this regard, as in each of these works we get a profound glimpse at just what is at stake here: this is not an academic enterprise, but a matter of life and/or death:

When Mallarmé said that he felt stupefied, nullified, by the effort of writing, and on top of that disgusted with himself; when Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos said that he had lost the ability to speak in a coherent fashion; when Kafka lamented that he hadn’t written a single line that he could accept, that his body put him on his guard against every word; and Beckett that he was weary of going a little further along dreary road – they all testified to their revulsion at having, for the sake of something called art, to repeat the confused and half-thought-through actions of their predecessors, which, far from shedding light on the human condition, only muddied the waters. When Lord Chandos confessed to being moved only by the unnamed or the barely nameable, an abandoned harrow, a dog in the sun, a cripple, he touched unwittingly on the antidote to this, the effort, through art, to recognise that which will fit into no system, no story, that which resolutely refuses to be turned into art. That effort is at the heart of the Modernist enterprise.(135)

If you enjoyed reading this, check out my companion ‘Appreciation” of Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel—the two book go quite well together!