Newsreel History

Terry Eagleton

  • Modern Times, Modern Places by Peter Conrad
    Thames and Hudson, 752 pp, £24.95, October 1998, ISBN 0 500 01877 4

Of all historical periods, modernity is the only one to designate itself, vacuously, in terms of its up-to-dateness. Does this imply that the Renaissance lagged behind the times, or that classical antiquity (from where, ironically, we derive the word ‘modern’) could never quite catch up with itself? The fact is, of course, that in their own eyes the Stuarts were quite as modern as the Spice Girls, but labels like ‘Modernism’ and ‘modernity’ tend to obscure this fact. Every epoch suffers from the disability of being contemporaneous with itself, and of having no idea where it might lead. In some ways, we know a good deal more about the doctrine of divine right than the Stuarts did, not least that it failed to survive them for very long.

Why should modernity define itself in purely temporal terms, rather than by reference to a cultural style, a mode of production, an intellectual climate, a reversion to the past or the sway of a particular monarch? The answer must surely be that though all ages are bang up-to-date, not all of them are as entranced by the fact as our own epoch. All periods are modern, but not all of them live their experience in this mode. Indeed the classical is a way of living one’s current experience as though it were simply a reprise of the past, so that only those bits of it which bear the legitimating seal of tradition can be regarded as authentic. In this view, what is important about the contemporary is precisely what is least new fangled about it. Modernity, by contrast, sees itself not just as one more phase of time, but as a phase of time which re-evaluates the very notion of temporality, and thus as in and out of time simultaneously. What strikes it as most typical about itself is the dazzling, dismaying experience of time, which no longer comes wrapped in history or habit or custom but is now becoming almost their opposite. The modern is that which reduces everything which happened up to half an hour ago to an oppressive traditionalism; it is less a continuation of history than an abolition of it.

This, to be sure, is an ironic enough notion, since nothing is more time-honoured than efforts to break with the past. A great deal of history has followed from attempts to blow history to pieces. Hegel believed that the Zeitgeist had arrived at its final consummation inside his own head, but this simply provided a cue to Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and a range of others to keep it going by challenging Hegel’s assumption. Marx’s cavalier declaration that all previous history had been no more than ‘pre-history’ was as Modernist a gesture as Fauvism. Pronouncements of the end of history simply contribute another event to the history they declare over and done with, as Francis Fukuyama has no doubt been discovering from his post-bag. They are self-disconfirming prophecies, Cretan Liar paradoxes which, like all appeals to make it new, add one more item to that venerable lineage known as the avant-garde. Besides, you can only break with history if you are already standing somewhere inside it, and the instruments with which you emancipate yourself from it must be fashioned from its own unpromising stuff. It is also hard to be sure that your power to transcend the past is not itself determined by it – that you are not the plaything of history in the very act of leaping free of it. Modernity is the era in which time speeds up because democracy and technology now allow us to fashion our own destinies instead of waiting on the longues durées of Nature or Providence; but the same technology comes to be felt as an implacable, quasi-natural force of which we are the mere passive products.

Even so, the claims of modernity are not entirely bogus. The modern era really is different from what preceded it. The world has probably changed more swiftly and deeply in the last two centuries than ever before, and our own century can lay claim to being easily the bloodiest on record. Until quite recently, most men and women lived their modernity as tradition: truth was a contract between yourself, your ancestors and your progeny, and radical innovation was either wicked or unthinkable. All the most important truths were already known, since God would not be so prejudiced as to reserve them only for future generations. One moved backwards into the future with one’s eyes fixed on the past, and in this way was less likely to come a cropper. The present was what had the most history behind it, not what was struggling to awaken from it; and if the present knew more than the past, it was the past that it knew. The modern idea that one lives best as an amnesiac, that history is somehow behind us and that the present is necessarily the new, could find no foothold here.

In any case, the modern is not really about up-to-dateness. To seize the time is to find that nothing is more eternal than nowness. It is also to discover that this apparently self-contained moment is secretly fractured, hollowed out by a future on whose brink it is perpetually trembling. In a curious crossing of tenses, ‘futuristic’ is sometimes used to mean the latest thing, and le dernier cri is nicely ambiguous, meaning the latest but also the last. In the Modernist time-scheme, every moment ushers in some fleeting future which will be instantly superseded, rather as for Walter Benjamin even the most perishable of historical moments is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter. If classicism, which slows time down, undermines the importance of the contemporary, the same might be said of Modernism, which speeds time up. The present is now continually undercut by a future which can never quite arrive – partly because in some sense it is already here, partly because it will arrive only under the sign of its own instant negation.

The problem with trying to characterise the modern age in these terms is that it is almost impossible not to lapse into high cliché. Historical textbooks always seem to make three claims about the era they are dealing with: it was a period of change; it was essentially a transitional epoch; and the middle classes went on rising. Since all this is truer of the 20th century than of any other time, the clichés are bound to be compounded. Fragmentation, a sense of space shrunken and time accelerated, giddying technological advance, the crumbling of moral certitudes, the rise of the faceless masses, the human individual as fractured, estranged, disorientated: all this is now as drearily familiar a discourse as the Elizabethan world picture, if somewhat more accurate. Peter Conrad’s monumental study of Modernism falls foul of such platitudes from time to time, not least in its tendency to a kind of newsreel history. ‘The 19th century, powered by the internal combustion engine, was a time of hectic, propulsive dynamism.’ Conrad’s reach-me-down sociology contrasts sharply with the subtlety of his analyses of art, in what is surely the most wide-ranging book on the subject yet to appear in English.

Conrad organises his book around topics, not authors or art-forms. There are chapters on primitivism, apocalypse, the body, the image, light, militarism, dehumanisation, space and time, political revolution, technology, language and a good deal else; Charlie Chaplin is the only Modernist icon to be granted a section to himself. Each chapter pulls in a formidable array of artists, art-forms, movements, scientists and philosophers, raiding them for examples of its theme. The book’s method thus reflects its subject-matter: Conrad has produced a kind of Modernist montage of Modernism, a curved, centreless space in which any item can be permutated with any other. Each chapter is a mesh of connections but self-contained, so that in a Modernist smack at realist notions of narrative order, no chapter can claim priority over another. The form of the book is Einsteinian rather than Newtonian; indeed the Einsteinian world-picture is a subject it explores at length. Relativity, like everything else in the book, is treated relativistically: Conrad’s prose leaps mercurially from one cultural illustration of the doctrine to another, weaving an intricate web of relations in which they all come to seem indifferently interchangeable. If the book wasn’t so nervous of cultural theory, one might even detect in this method a trace of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno’s notion of ‘constellations’, a brand of surrealist sociology which abandons hierarchies and abstractions and lets its general ideas emerge from the interaction of minute particulars. This, anyway, would be a charitable way of avoiding the conclusion that Conrad is just a good old empiricist who happens to enjoy Continental art.

Einstein’s continuum of time and space, so Conrad claims, was just what the reckless gang of Italian Futurists thought they could experience when they drove their racing-cars, and there are submerged relations between the theory of relativity and J.M. Barrie’s unageing Peter Pan. Modern railways involve a mutual adjustment of disparate places, just like T.S. Eliot’s theory of a sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. Proust wanted characters you could walk around, like the Cubists’ cones, and his Albertine ‘with promiscuous relativity . . . distributes herself around the world’. In his great work on dreams, Freud discovered inside the mind something like the continuum which Einstein had revealed in the physical world. Meanwhile, ‘the expanding universe of the new physics matched the geopolitical world of the 20th century, with its revised or erased borders and its fleeing populations.’ And just as Rutherford’s account of atomic structure had shown matter to be volatile and improvised, so Modernist architecture had to come to grips with this perturbing lack of solidity. The vacuity which both Rutherford and the X-ray machine had uncovered was imaged in the Eiffel Tower, which seems to repel any definitive way of being looked at or any mandatory standpoint from which to do so. ‘Here,’ Conrad remarks, ‘was the relativity theory built in iron, or the uncertainty principle absorbed in a merry, maddening dance.’ Atomic physics would reappear later in the figure of Charlie Chaplin, described by one commentator as ‘an atom that must journey alone through the world’. As for vacuity, this crops up later in the book in the guise of the vacuum cleaner, another mode of dematerialisation which ‘gobbles mislaid wedding rings as if they were cobwebs’.

Freud, as it happens, had a name for this obsessive perception of affinities (he called it paranoia), but a more literary word for it is allegory. Some of the Modernists favoured allegory over symbolism because it forged connections in a fragmentary world while retaining an ironic sense of their arbitrariness. Allegory allowed for a number of possible resemblances between things, and so made it clear that any particular set of relations sprang from a specific standpoint. Conrad writes as though the parallels he perceives between different bits of Modernism are somehow objectively there, and indeed some of them are; but he is least impressive when they seem forced and fanciful, the product of his own relative viewpoint. The Russian painter Malevich’s steady distancing of the material world is said to be like our view of a plane taking off, while in the Weimar Republic, so Conrad remarks, the same printing presses which manufactured journalistic lies also churned out economic fictions like one thousand billion mark bills. The communal latrines of World War One were part of a ‘renunciation of personality’ which crops up in all kinds of modern artistic manifestos. The war itself ‘redesigned the human body’, and thus has affinities with Cubism.

If anything can mean anything else, as allegory tends to believe, then it is both enriched and impoverished; and this is also true of the procedure of this book. Some of Conrad’s parallelisms are perceptive, some of them are slick, and others are clever in both the laudatory and limiting senses of the word. Modern Times, Modern Places is an astonishingly well-informed piece of work, which roams from ballet to Berg, Fritz Lang to Jack Nicholson, with the omnivorous energy of the Modernist art it addresses. But Conrad’s pithy style, which hardly stumbles for over seven hundred pages, also sails close to a sort of colour-supplement smartness, hovering somewhere between epigram and sound-bite (‘Freud’s thought turned reality upside down’). If his writing is pointed it can also be glib, covertly sensationalist beneath its clipped impersonality: early 20th-century Vienna possessed ‘a Jewish clerisy, excluded from power, which in revenge exposed the discontents suppressed by civilisation, released the empty air pent up in language, and dismantled the melodic scale’. A lot of the book is more high-class cultural journalism than rigorous inquiry. Social context is conveniently packaged, and though there is much play with scientists and philosophers, one doesn’t sense that the author could hold his own in a discussion of primary narcissism or perlocutionary acts.

With commendable impudence, Conrad refuses to disfigure his text with a single footnote, even if some readers may feel that he wears his learning too lightly. Unlike some avant-garde works of art, this book erases all traces of the labour which produced it. What is worrying, however, is less the absence of footnotes than of original thought. Conrad’s general ideas about Modernism are for the most part standard stuff; what is gripping is the intelligence with which he puts them concretely to work. But this vivid quiltwork of allusions lacks conceptual depth. Analysis gives way to metaphorical resemblances – a flurry of analogies which, as in the Martian school of poetry, are some times coruscating and sometimes callow.

In this, Modern Times, Modern Places is more Post-Modern than Modern. Modernist art may be allergic to absolute meanings, but it cannot rid itself of a dream of depth, plagued as it is by a nostalgia for the days when truth, reality and redemption were still notions to be reckoned with. If the Modernist artwork has shattered into fragments, what this leaves at its centre is not just a blank, but a hole whose shape is still hauntingly reminiscent. Unlike the Post-Modern work, the Modernist artefact cannot give up its hermeneutical hankering, its belief that the world might just be the kind of thing that could be meaningful. For Post-Modernism, by contrast, this is just a kind of category mistake, a scratching where it doesn’t itch, part of a post-metaphysical hangover which deludedly assumes that for a thing to lack a sense is as grievous as for a person to lack a limb. Post-Modernism, being too young to remember a time when there was truth and reality, is out to persuade its Modernist elders that if only they were to abandon their hunger for meaning they would be free.

Modern Times, Modern Places is Modernist in its allegorical habits but Post-Modern ist in its carefully contrived depthlessness. It is a brilliantly two-dimensional book, miles wide but only a few feet thick, which has all the virtues of what Eliot called an art of the surface. Its dispassionate, hardboiled style filters the lurid through the clinical in true Post-Modern fashion, as in the account of Picasso’s Guernica, in which Conrad’s prose seems to be casting a sideways glance at itself: ‘Guernica picks out the soft, sensitive extremities which are of interest to torturers: the sole of the foot and the palm of a hand, both scored with stigmata, anchor the composition in its bottom corners. Nipples seem to be squeamishly detachable, mouths are megaphones for broadcasting agony.’ The scrupulous alliteration of ‘scored with stigmata’, the suave placing of ‘squeamishly’, the overpitched final image: all this stylistic self-consciousness creates a Post-Modern ‘lack of affect’, which is evident in other ways, too. Most of the time, it is hard to know what Conrad actually feels about his subject, as everything is churned through the mill of his blankly non-judgmental style. Style is the universal medium which translates one thing into another but somehow levels and neutralises them in the process. The point of this oddly positivistic study is not to evaluate but to describe. To judge, for Conrad, would presumably be to court the perils of political radicalism, which fondly imagines that things might have been different and cannot accept that the world is simply what ever is the case. But the sceptical, streetwise, Post-Modern Conrad is at odds with the patrician Modernist who clearly finds much in the modern world thoroughly distasteful; and the problem is how to pass judgment on this world without lapsing into the naiveties of utopian thought. Conrad’s answer to this dilemma is style, which in Flaubertian fashion clings to its object while managing to rise imaginatively above it.

It is a cliché of cultural history that England had to import most of its Modernist writers from abroad. By the time Modernism arrived on the scene, realism was too deeply entrenched a cultural mode in English society for any homegrown artistic experiment to have much chance of flourishing. The only region of these islands to produce a vigorous Modernism earlier this century was also the most alien and unstable: Ireland. Since then, English critics addressing the topic of Modernism have regularly betrayed a philistine parochialism, from F.R. Leavis onwards. Fortunately, however, Peter Conrad is not English but Tasmanian, and brings to bear on his subject the synoptic view of a genuine cosmopolitan. Like all the best commentators on Modernist art, he is something of a hybrid and exile himself, adept at shifting between different cultures and rather more open to their cross-influences than the fans of Philip Larkin. Whatever its limits, his book communicates the exuberance of Modernism as few native English critics have managed to do, and does so with an elegance and concision in which each sentence strives to be an aperçu. If his analogies are sometimes strained, they are rarely less than suggestive. Modern Times, Modern Places tells the story of modern cultural history with unflagging freshness, and without an ounce of surplus stylistic fat.