Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a densely-packed examination of modernism in art and literature that in the end is an attempt by Josipovici to explain modernism, mourn its passing, and call for, not exactly a return to modernism, but a revitalization of the modernist stance and the questions modernism addresses.

As a tour of modernism, the book is interesting and, I think, successful. Josipovici suggests that modernism did not begin in 1850 or end in 1950. Instead, we can see modernist questions and issues beginning with Don Quixote and being taken up in art and texts whose creators are responding to a “disenchantment of the world.” Josipovici wants to make us understand that modernism is not a movement or the name of a period, but

[…] the daily struggle of a dialogue with the world, without any assurance that what one will produce will have value because there is nothing already there against which to test it, but with the possibility always present that something new, something genuine, something surprising will emerge.

And so, in the modernist enterprise that is more a way of being in the world, we have such luminaries as Cervantes, Dürer, Sterne and Wordsworth and of course all those who we typically think of like Picasso, Woolf, Duchamp, and Eliot. Wait a second, Wordsworth, you say? I know. This gave me a little jolt too since I have always thought of Wordsworth, mostly because I was taught it in college, as firmly belonging to the Romantic Period. But, part of being a Modernist for Josipovici means questioning what you are doing as an artist. So while someone like Wordsworth questions the purpose and method of his art, he is modernist, but someone like Dickens who never stops to ponder the question, is decidedly not modern.

In an odd way, Josipovici sets up a duality of modern/not modern and the art that comes down on the modern side he finds rich, rewarding, moving and most importantly, alive. All that falls to the not modern side, while perhaps interesting, offers little to no satisfaction and rarely, if ever, moves Josipovici in any meaningful way.

There was a bit of a fuss after the book first came out when the Guardian published a piece in which they chose to focus on this passage:

Reading [Julian] Barnes, like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. Ah, they will say, but that is just what we wanted, to free you from your illusions. But I don’t believe them. I don’t buy into their view of life. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language, which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism, which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

Philip Roth and John Updike do not sit well with Josipovici either. The criticism of these writers was, naturally, blown all out of proportion. In response, Josipovici wrote an article for the September 6, 2010 New Statesman (not available online but I highly recommend checking it out if you have access to it through your library).

In the article, Josipovici tries to explain why he wrote the book and what he means by modernism and why it is he doesn’t like the authors he mentions. And one of the reasons for writing the book was an attempt to figure out why literary modernism seems to have disappeared even as it continues in art and music. And disappeared from literature it apparently has because he does not name one living writer who he considers part of the modernist endeavor.

What about post-modernism? He pretty much dismisses it in two pages in chapter one. It seems he dismisses post-modernism because he perceives Philip Larkin and Amis as making fun of it. He concedes that post-modernism does make a few valid criticisms of modernism such as how “Modernists do occasionally give the impression that they are fighting old battles with inadequate tools,” but Josipovici counters with this by saying that those who undertook the task were well aware of the pitfalls. He even goes so far as to say that because modernists “laid their lives on the line” and even though we “might feel that they were misguided we should think twice before presuming to tell them they were wrong.”

Laid their lives on the line? Think twice before presuming to tell them they were wrong? Is Josipovici engaging in a little hyperbole here or does he really mean this? It seems like he does. Or maybe I am wrong and he is joking and I missed the punchline.

I feel like I’ve talking about the book but haven’t really said anything about it. But I don’t know how else to talk about the book since I can’t, and you don’t want me to, reiterate all of Josipovici’s argument. If you want that, then just read the book. I can say I am glad I read the book. I learned quite a bit about modernism in its many guises and I have a better sense of what some of my favorite modernist writers like Woolf and Kafka were about. I even, surprisingly and pleasantly, learned some interesting things about ancient Greek drama.

While I enjoy many modernist artists and writers, I can’t go along with Josipovici and desire a continuation of the modernist approach in literature. At this point in time it would seem more like a return rather than a continuation or revitalization and what point is there in a return? Life has moved on, culture has changed, the world is different than it was and so are the questions that need examining. This doesn’t mean that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, of course some of the questions and issues raised by modernism still trouble us today otherwise modernism would have disappeared from the art and music world too. But today’s writers’ “dialogue with the world” is different and as a result, so is literature.

This was a reading choice of The Wolves for May. I’m glad to have read the book and appreciate that The Wolves picked such a provocative book for a group read.