sábado, 28 de mayo de 2011

What Ever Happened to Modernism?

What Ever Happened to Modernism?  (Yale University Press, 2010)
by Gabriel Josipovici
England, 2010

Even though it's way too hot to be doing any typing in this house at the moment, I suppose a few cranky words are in order in regard to this uneven but ultimately invigorating example of literary criticism from sometime novelist and longtime Georges Perec fan Gabriel Josipovici.  To begin with, Josipovici actually pissed me off early on with a couple of sweeping generalizations like the following one used to assert the importance of Rabelais and Cervantes as 16th and 17th century modernist forebears: "It is no coincidence that the novel emerges at the very moment when the world is growing disenchanted" (34).  What the hell, man?  Nobody in the world was ever disenchanted before the Protestant Reformation?  And what about all the ancient novels like those by Petronius and Apuleius that emerged centuries before the ones described here?  They don't rate a mention?  Similarly, I was also mildly annoyed by Josipovici's somewhat lazy celebration of Don Quixote as the game changer among all genre-bending novels--not because I don't agee with the sentiment in itself but because Josipovici seemed to rather questionably overlook non-novel game changers like Ovid's 1st century Metamorphoses and Juan Ruiz's 14th century Libro de buen amor in his stressing of the "tradition" that provided authority to "genre-derived" works before Cervantes (65-66).  Outside the novel format, the Quixote wasn't actually so novel in that regard (which the writer eventually owns up to in an important later chapter comparing Greek tragedy to contemporary drama).  Josipovici also dismayed me on occasion with his hackneyed Old World references to how artistic conventions sometimes "mesh...with the conventions by which bourgeois society lives" (139), but maybe that's just the slovenly middle-class American in me finding a dapper Euro critic's comments about bourgeois society as laughably passé as references to "landed gentry" or some such other nonsense.  In any event, these false starts aside, Josipovici clearly rallied as his extended essay progressed.  While I don't necessarily share his conviction that "Modernism is a response to the simplifications of the self and of life which Protestantism and the Enlightenment brought with them" (154-155), it's thankfully not necessary to agree on that point to enjoy the work as a whole.  Using examples from the world of art and music to complement his focus on the modernist novel and poetry, Josipovici was frequently at his most insightful and/or provocative when drawing parallels between the nonconformist tendencies of modernists working in different media and eras.  Insightful: Using Picasso's 1912-1913 collages to claim that that was the precise moment "when artists grasped that what they were producing were signs or emblems for the external world, not mirrors reflecting it" (114).  Provocative: The sequence where Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass occasioned this interpretive nugget: "Duchamp being Duchamp--it is difficult to know whether to take [the boxes of notes that accompany the artwork] seriously or as a spoof.  They have of course, like the novels of Thomas Bernhard, to be taken both ways" (134).  A few pages later, Duchamp himself contributes a memorable anecdotal highlight of his own in the middle of a sequence where Josipovici has been discussing the way modernists and non-modernists confront "the threshold of boredom" during the creative process: "Dear Stieglitz, Even a few words I don't feel like writing.  You know exactly how I feel about photography.  I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.  There we are.  Affectueusement, Marcel Duchamp" (138-139). With people like Borges, Jarry, Proust, Robbe-Grillet, and Woolf getting a thumbs up from Josipovici and people like Austen, Dickens, Ian McEwan, Irène Némirovsky, and Philip Roth getting a qualified or even a complete thumbs down, it's safe to say that you might enjoy this book--but I'd definitely hesitate to recommend it to any bloggers contemplating a Library Loot, a Mailbox Monday, or a TLC Book Tours post anytime soon! (www.yalebooks.com)

Gabriel Josipovici

What Ever Happened to Modernism? was the Wolves' May reading pick as selected by the lovely Frances.  Please consider joining us June 24th-June 26th for the next pick, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as selected by the equally lovely Claire.

Other Views

20 comentarios:

  1. I've been looking forward to hearing The Wolves take on WEHM.

    To pick up your point about sweeping generalizations, in particular the disenchantment of the world: I read this differently. I don't think Josipovici intended disenchantment to be read as mere disillusionment or discontent, which is of course ever present. 'Protestant Reformation' replaced the supernatural religion of the Middle Ages with an intellectualised religion. The removal of a set of supernatural rituals from people's lives is the source of the disenchantment that Josipovici explores. As a consequence of seeking re-enchantment, 'the novel emerges.'

    My grounding in the ancient novels you mention is not solid, and you have the advantage of reading Don Q in its original language but I think that the game-changing aspect of Don Q is the genius Cervantes employs to ensnare his readers. Not just employing doubt and meta-reflection, but using that uncertainty to make us feel more realistic, 'less enchanted', until we come to realise we have merely been lured into deeper uncertainty.

    I've gone on too long. Thanks for the link and a post that provoked thought.

  2. Hard to comment on this richard ,I ve only one of his books and haven't read it yet ,know he is a writer that people genrally love or hate ,I may read this at some point just to see what fuss is about ,all the best stu

  3. I'm in two minds about this book. Especially your first part makes me shy away from it. I coincidentally just ordered Ovid's Metamorphoses yesterday. I can see your being annoyed with his almost ahistorical approach. Despite all this I also see how you must have enjoyed his thumbs up/down. He seems not to be into storytellers.

  4. When did Don Quixote change the game? Is the answer to this question at all relevant to J.'s argument?

    Does it matter that Rabelais and Cervantes were not Protestant?

    I suppose this grotesque pre-history of Modernism is not terribly relevant to most of whatever J. is doing. I fear I would find it similarly irritating, though.

  5. *Anthony: While I get what you and Josipovici are saying about the impact of the Reformation, I guess I just find the argument unconvincing. Too pat. In any event, it's not like it even matters unless you have a vested interest in determining when and why the novel began--which I don't, except maybe as an intellectual or a cultural puzzle. The good thing that came out of my "disagreement" with Josipovici on this point, though, is that I was reminded that I'd been meaning to read some Erasmus a few years back. He was supposedly a big influence on writers from Cervantes' day and age in Spain (and elsewhere on the continent, of course), and I've read next to nothing by him. Don Quixote is great for plenty of reasons, of course, as are those rambunctious ancient novels The Satyricon and The Golden Ass. No need to apologize for the length of your comment--it was a good one!

    *Stu: I've liked both Josipovicis that I've read (one novel and now this critical piece) as well as an article on Life A User's Manual that he wrote comparing Perec's language experiments to Joyce's. Even though I disagreed with him in several places here, I think he's a very thought-provoking guy.

    *Caroline: I hope my complaints don't turn you or anybody else away from the book because it's mostly a rich and rewarding study overall (and Josipovici is quite clear about why he prefers the modernists to the traditional storytellers, whether one agrees with his reasons or not). In fact, I wish somebody would write a similar book on the Latin American modernists because I believe Borges is the only Lat Am writer who got any attention here. Lucky you to have The Metamorphoses coming your way; I need to make time to reread it this year as well as more Ovid in general. He's one of my all-time favorites, although nobody would ever know it from my blog.

    *Amateur Reader: Most of the Don Quixote and Protestant Reformation arguments come early on in Part I in a series of chapters called "The Disenchantment of the World." While not without insight, no, they aren't particularly germane to the passages on 20th century writers and artists that come later. Of course, your comment on the religious persuasions of Cervantes and Rabelais points out some of the shaky ground on which Josipovici has erected his precursors argument.

  6. I'm working on my Josipovici post right now. I absolutely agree that he's at his best when linking different forms of art together and demonstrating how painting, music, literature, etc reinforce and build off one another. I did find his entire premise very subjective, however, and am not sure that a traditional, highly structured work is necessarily a "bad thing." Like the Hudson School of American painting, which can be quite majestic. I understand where Josipovici's coming from but he also seems a bit of a Modernist snob at times.

  7. This sounds like an interesting read. I'm not that familiar with modernism as it pertains to literature, having encountered modernism primarily as pertaining to architecture and the visual arts, so the thought of reading/learning about links between the different arts with literature is really intriguing to me. Of course, I think I'd prefer to learn more about what modernism means in literature first.

  8. I tend to agree with Anthony and would add that Josipovici suggests the disenchantment arrives from the movement away from what he identifies as the sacramental or "ordered world of community" to a more secular existence in which an emphasis upon liberal individualism "stressed" or "disenchanted" many.

    Glad you almost or kind of liked this. :)

  9. *E.L. Fay: I'm actually OK with Josipovici's premise being subjective here because I think most works of this kind are anyway and he's pretty straightforward about how this is his story he's telling from the outset. As far as the traditional, structured storytelling thing goes, I found his arguments in favor of a modernist style fairly persuasive myself. Ultimately, it's a personal choice anyway, so no biggie.

    *Amanda: With your background/interest in modernist arts and architecture, you might find this a particularly interesting read for the literary parallels. In any event, if you were to just skim through the book at your local library, you'd find plenty of names to get you started on the modernist literature experiment as vouched for by Josipovici. You could do worse!

    *Frances: Since you and Anthony are ganging up on me on this one, I'll say that I think the emergence of the modern novel in Europe probably had more to do with the rise of the Romance languages and the subsequent proliferation of secular writers than the Reformation impact that Josipovici argues for. You'll note that Josipovici's thesis about Cervantes and Rabelais doesn't even touch on why prose was suddenly ascendent and poetry about to go on the decline after centuries of poetry being favored in terms of its status as the "high art" medium. Would he attribute prose's rise to the new crisis in faith as well? Would you? Not to be unduly combative with you on this point, but I think Josipovici grossly overstates the transition from a superstitious medievalism to a culture acutely aware of and in crisis in faith as a root cause for the emergence of the novel. Then again, even as old as I am, I wasn't there! :D

  10. "which the writer eventually owns up to in an important later chapter comparing Greek tragedy to contemporary drama"

    I'm not so sure about its importance, though I only understand it from internet references and standing in the bookshop reading excerpts: but he appears to base his views of Greek tragedy vs modern tragedy largely on Kierkegaard (which is like listening to my views on quantum mechanics) and one other obscure and overlooked writer who happens to back up his argument.

    I think the ancient writer who is the clue here is Lucian (does J mention him at all?). He was enormously popular around the time of the reformation / enlightenment, what with the "rediscovery" of Greek literature about that time (Erasmus spent time translating him / and he even influenced Apuleius - I remember writing an essay about it once), and fits the bill perfectly, what with his witty metafiction and his ridicule of epic form / the gods etc.

    I know, I should read this book just to annoy myself.

  11. Whereas I agree in part with what you are saying, I think that we are not considering a time gap here. Does Josipovici actually suggest that his disenchantment theory actually gave way to the modern novel directly or just provided roots for modernism seen through subsequent "movements" to the emergence of said novel? The difference in our thinking I believe arises from different perceptions of the text - indirect versus direct influence. Perhaps you read more closely. :)

  12. obooki is right about Lucian - Richard, read some Lucian, if you haven't, before reading In Praise of Folly or even Utopia. Many things will be much clearer.

    Lucian's writing is itself a great treat, so this is not exactly dull prep work I am recommending.

  13. *Obooki: Wherever Josipovici derived his understanding of Greek tragedy, I thought the chapter was important to the framework of his study because he mostly overlooks the impact of pre-Rabelaisian/Cervantean writing on concepts of the self elsewhere (perhaps because they aren't convenient to his argument, as you suggest). I probably would have been more sympathetic to his emergence of the novel hypothesis if he had looked outside the modern novel box a bit more, but I enjoyed many other conclusions of his all the same. Anyway, thanks very much for the tip on Lucian--Josipovici doesn't mention him as I recall, and I haven't read him although your description certainly sounds up my alley. Cheers!

    *Frances: The indirect vs. direct influence would make a lot more sense (and I'd like to believe that that's what Josipovici meant to say), but he mucks things up a bit by bringing up that bit about the emergence of the novel midway through an analysis of Don Quixote as if there's some causal link between Martin Luther and the origins of the novel. I don't buy it, but I will shut up about that already! In the meantime, thanks for indulging my argumentative streak, ha ha...

    *Amateur Reader: Glad to hear you second Obooki so enthusiastically on the mocking, scoffing virtues of Lucian! At your suggestion, I'll definitely try to get to him before I get to Erasmus (he sounds more fun anyway, and I'm a simple lad in that regard).

  14. I'm a stowaway on the ship of Wolves this month and I did enjoy your review here - it made me laugh, because I quite agree that bashing the bourgeoisie is rather an old-fashioned pastime. I'm grateful too for the insight about the early works, given that my own literary interests begin about 1830 - probably in the winter, around teatime. I found the subjective nature of the preference for Modernism above other forms of art harder to take than the subjective framework he builds for tracing the development of modernist strategies, but there you go. I just can't buy into this idea that some of us are born with exquisite artistic sensitivities and the rest are condemned to be philistines. But this response, along with many others noted in the above comments, shows that what critics do and how they do it is still an important conversation, and one that is worth having repeatedly.

  15. Richard, I've been thinking at some point down the road I would like to do some sort of Modernist project--I know (or have a good idea) what Modernism meant to architecture, but not really how that relates to literature, what connections there might be between the two (and surely there are). I'll have to keep this book in mind for when I get to that point.

  16. Enjoyed your post, you made me laugh, and the great discussion it generated. I thought J's arguments were sometimes stretched a bit thin but overall enjoyed the book quite a lot. Though, like Litlove, I was rather peeved about how everything that wasn't/isn't Modernist just doesn't seem to be worthwhile or have anything important to say.

  17. Invigorating indeed. While I don't have much of a background in Modernism and haven't read many of the authors mentioned, and so feel rather like I'm listening to a brilliant professor here whose every word must be true (well, kinda), Josipovici has definitely inspired me to persue many of the authors mentioned and get a better feel for this thing called Modernism. I liked the mixture of art and music criticism combined with literature. My only real complaint is that for all his love of Perec the guy was barely mentioned...!

  18. *Litlove: First, thanks for your kind comment and your graceful post on the book--it was lovely having you read along with us on this work. I agree with you (and I think Stefanie in a comment elsewhere) that the "important conversation" that Josipovici started was probably more beneficial than the more polemic sides of his criticism. That being said, it's been interesting seeing people's reactions to Josipovici's modernist/non-modernist hierarchy of tastes. I wasn't so bothered by it at the time or even now, but now I have to figure out whether that was because I somewhat agree with him or because I was too easily distracted by other, maybe less important idiosyncrasies of his argument! For sure, his point of view was a welcome change of pace for me from what I usually run into in the English-speaking corners of the blog world. Cheers!

    *Amanda: I'll be interested in hearing more about your project when you get around to it. In the meantime, I appreciated Josipovici's prodding to read more Kafka (whom I haven't read in years except for one or two short stories) and incitation to read a new to me author like Claude Simon (an unsung hero among Nobel laureates, it would seem).

    *Stefanie: Thanks for sharing the bit about the laughter and for reading along with us all on this one--I've been enjoying the conversations on people's blogs so much that I've probably been singlehandedly driving up traffic in a suspicious manner! As to your being peeved about Josipovici's standards, I guess I was more immune to that than many others have been--maybe in part because it's so much easier to run into Austen and Dickens fans in the blog world who openly kvetch about any type of formal innovation on the part of a "difficult" modern author (on the other hand, yes, I know there are also plenty of people who love the traditionalists as well as the modernists). Cheers!

    *Sarah: I noticed what you did about the relative scarcity of Perec-love, but I attributed that to the fact that Josipovici's already talked plenty about Perec elsewhere (not sure that's the real reason, though). In any event, I share all your reasons for enjoying this and am kind of hoping that we can add another critical study to next year's Wolves' reading list if we do it again. It's been quite rewarding.

  19. Whoa, what a great conversation got going here, Richard! It sounds like I missed a somewhat divisive but thoroughly engaging read. I'm very curious how I'll react to Josipovici's privileging of Modernism above other artistic oeuvres, since it's undoubtedly my favorite literary movement yet I tend to have a kneejerk reaction against that kind of sweeping generalization. Also the historical arguments you spotlight in your original post. Hmm. In any case his case seems nuanced and passionate, and he is certainly smart and well-read as Moo Pak proves, so everyone's posts are making me that much more curious to check this out.

  20. *Emily: Bonjour! Yes, "somewhat divisive but thoroughly engaging" sounds about right (esp. since this was one of the more interesting Wolves conversations for me to participate in, and I got bonus reading tips out of it to boot). Naturally, I hope to hear your comments on the book when/if you get around to it upon your return. Until then, enjoy the rest of your trip over there in Cathar land (I wanted to hit Toulouse on my last trip there, but I settled for overnights in Montpellier and Narbonne instead) and please say hi to all the heretic girls for me!