What Ever Happened to Modernism?

What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by Gabriel Josipovici, Yale RRP£18.99, 224 pages

Gabriel Josipovici, a research professor at the University of Sussex, is disenchanted with the absence of disenchantment with the world.

Unlike his beloved modernist authors and artists, who dominated the late 19th and early 20th century with their pained and knowing struggles to make sense of their craft, today’s crop seem blissfully unaware of, or have shirked, art’s “precarious status and responsibilities” and have tamely settled for the lesser tropes of sentimentality, irony or just plain showing off.

That is the thesis put forward by this slim and occasionally inelegant work, and it partly convinces. The author is sound in his eclectic and learned exposition of the beginnings of modernism, tracing its roots back to the 16th century.

He has a good understanding of what, in the Anglo-Saxon world, is still labelled “continental” philosophy (it is rarely meant as a compliment) and its unsettling observations. There is a good section on the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, who anticipated the existential agonies of fictional anti-heroes to come.

The Danish philosopher’s aphorism on the impossibility of art giving shape, meaning and coherent ending to life – “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” – is repeated by Josipovici as a key insight.

It bothers him greatly that today’s artists refuse to face that philosophical riddle. In his eyes, modernism is less a historical movement than a breakthrough from which there is no turning back.

So, the first three-quarters of the book rattle along in pleasing enough fashion, leaving suspended the question posed by its title, exploring little detours such as one on the primacy of Greek tragedy and its ability to infuse in us the “sense of having bathed in the waters of life”. The deeper the waters, the happier Josipovici’s erudite paddling; but it is in the relative shallows that he comes unstuck.

In its final couple of chapters, the book suddenly turns into a polemic, as if an impatient publisher had exhorted the author to provide some juicy Sunday supplement fodder. So Josipovici turns on the literary darlings of English fiction – Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and others – who leave him “feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner”.

“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,” he continues.

I have a certain amount of sympathy with this view, but it does feel as if it belongs to a different book. All those writers, nothing if not sophisticated, demand a more thorough analysis than that. The English style – that is itself an uneasy generalisation – may well be more concerned with the “itch of sex” than stars-in-your-eyes romanticism; but what is wrong with that?

Realism can be a refreshing response to the impasse described by Josipovici. He insists that, in a secular age that is “without access to the transcendental”, modernism is a philosophical inevitability. But that does not mean we have to be forever subject to its arch, self-conscious expressions of impotence.

He pays scant attention to the validity of the postmodern view that accepts the problems posed by modernism, but presses forward all the same, using irony not as a lame cop-out but as a lubricant that reconnects us with ancient forces. The US philosopher Richard Rorty, tired of the stalemates that afflicted his profession’s dallying with competing truth claims, was the most articulate advocate of this view.

The best contemporary fiction fizzes with multiplicities, ambiguities and playful experiments with form. It surely does not need to keep reminding us of its own anxieties. It would make for a dull and angst-ridden literary universe that was permanently and ostentatiously wrestling with its own inadequacies. That may keep academics in work, but it would bore the hell out of the rest of us. The market for disenchantment is a limited one.

The author is equally dismissive of what he calls Marxist arguments against modernism. Yet some more social context would not be amiss. In a world that is becoming more globalised, more frenetic, more multi-layered, it seems absurd still to be trapped inside a 150-year-old dilemma of how to present art that at once acknowledges it own limitations, and yet manages to speak movingly of the human condition. The death of God, and thereby the possibility of transcendence, is primarily a western story, and one that is anyway sharply contested.

In the end Josipovici comes across as something of a killjoy, lamenting three-for-two offers in the bookstores (why?), and decrying the way in which “High Art and Fashion [note those portentous capital letters] have married in a spirit joyously welcomed by both parties ... we have truly arrived at an age where art and showbiz are the same.” What ever happened to modernism? Why, it found its dancing shoes and lightened up.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

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