Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond 
by Peter Gay.
Heinemann, 610 pp., £20, November 2007, 978 0 434 01044 8
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‘Voici le temps des assassins,’ Rimbaud announced in the wake of the Paris Commune. One could argue that the central motif in Modernism was the notion of violation: André Breton saying that ‘the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can, into the crowd’; Otto Dix portraying a crazed murderer dismembering a female body, flinging limbs hither and thither; Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí slitting an eyeball with a razor in the unwatchable opening sequence of Un Chien andalou. The mutilation of symbol, value, history and even of self was crucial to the Modernist urge. The moderns wanted to be new, fast. This urgency demanded that the old be eliminated. ‘I am dynamite,’ Nietzsche bellowed. Echoing this, the French incendiary Louis Aragon remarked that he could think of nothing more beautiful than a church and some dynamite.

The immediate enemy was of course the beefy bourgeois, defender of property and social order, with his fixed ideas about beauty, truth and respectability. Voltaire had wished to crush this tedious specimen; Gautier wanted to drown him in eau de vie; and, from the mid-19th century on, venom and violence began to build. Artists and writers led the assault – they were indeed the advance guard – but in certain quarters public scorn mounted too. In the longer term the moderns aimed to discard not merely Monsieur Prud’homme, but all existing structure and command. ‘The true Dadas are against Dada,’ Tristan Tzara would proclaim. Were one to chart Modernism as a mood – and that’s the best way to look at it, as a cultural temper rather than as a specific style, let alone movement – existing between, say, the 1870s and the end of the Second World War, the trend would be a gradual ascent with some stunning vertical spurts before and after the First World War.

In his new book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, the inordinately prolific and widely admired Peter Gay has much to say about the creativity of the moderns but surprisingly little about their negativity. He conceives of Modernism in older terms as principally an intellectual and artistic grouping bent on liberation rather than as a broader frame of mind distinguished by ballooning malaise and irony. While he shies away from definition because of the contradictory manifestations of Modernist effort – how does one reconcile Thomas Mann and Andy Warhol? – he can’t help but see the Modernist instinct as essentially an affirmative urge. Two-thirds of the way through his book, Gay states bluntly that ‘liberalism’ was the ‘fundamental principle of Modernism’.

But whose liberalism is he talking about? Surely not the free enterprise aspirations of the beastly bourgeoisie. Nor can he be referring to the socially conscious progressivism that arose in the later 19th century and urged a politics of compassion, moderation and compromise. In fact the heyday of Modernism, from roughly 1890 to 1930, corresponded to a mounting crisis of liberalism, in both social thought and politics. The two dispositions, Modernism and liberalism, were if anything adversarial. Modernism was all about destroying restraint, pushing to the edge, living life dangerously. Modernism was an extremism of the soul in an age of extremes. Gay makes little mention of the role of illness, abnormality and neurosis in the Modernist mindset. ‘One can take pride in going as far in crime as . . . in virtue,’ a character in Huysmans’s Là-bas exclaims. For Thomas Mann art was the equivalent of illness. To emphasise the liberal characteristics of Modernism requires a highly selective approach, and even then Gay’s idiosyncratic portrait gallery is hardly a cheerful and optimistic place. It is full of sneering manic depressives and churlish mystics. In order to cram some of them, like Knut Hamsun, into his box and then to be able to close the lid, Gay has to create the category of anti-modern Modernist.

He arranges his protagonists in traditional groupings, visual artists first, followed by the literary crowd, the music consort, then architects and designers, and finally dramatists and film-makers. There is little of the thematic discussion that has been the organising principle of many of his other books. The present categorisation is one that the moderns themselves would have derided. Their goal was to destroy fixed categories and definitions, to blend genres so as to unleash energy and life. Kandinsky, the first to experiment with pure abstraction in art, played the piano and cello, wrote poetry, and claimed that colour and music were related. His Impression III: Concert from 1911 expresses his experience of attending a performance of Schoenberg’s music. Kokoschka wrote for the theatre. According to the playwright Paul Kornfeld, ‘a drama by Kokoschka is only a variation on his pictures and vice versa. Tone and melody, rhythm and gesture in his words are paralleled by the same effects in his pictures.’ Drama and spectacle, the arts as one, life as full-bodied experience: that was the point.

Gay excited many of us a generation ago with his remarkable essay on Weimar culture, published under that title in 1968 and still in print. That book was an elixir because its focus was so different from the historiographical norm. After 1945 historical treatments of the ‘German problem’ had been dominated by politics and economics; efforts to link culture and politics had been rare, aside from the primitive roots-of-the-Nazi-mind approach of pop historians such as William Shirer and T.L. Jarman, who were inclined to draw straight lines from Arminius of the Teutoburg Forest, to Luther, Hegel, Nietzsche and on to Hitler. Gay, along with other German émigré historians, such as George Mosse and Fritz Stern, helped change all that by pointing to the variegated hue and social implications of cultural symbols. He was fond of describing his effort as the social history of ideas.

Born in Berlin in 1923, fortunate emigrant to the United States in the wake of Kristallnacht, and professor after the war at Columbia and later at Yale, Gay began his scholarly career with studies of, first, Eduard Bernstein and socialist revisionism – a book that still reads remarkably well half a century later – and then of the 18th-century Enlightenment. His early work exemplified his own need and that of his generation of European survivors to stress rationalism and positivism as opposed to the metaphysics of Sturm und Drang. In The Party of Humanity, one of his books on the Enlightenment, he called for a pragmatism in contemporary intellectual discourse that followed the example of the 18th-century philosophes. He praised them for being ‘hard-headed political men, with sensible programmes, limited expectations and a firm grasp of history’. Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider was written in this same tone, applauding Weimar’s humanists, the outsiders who of necessity had become, as he put it, insiders, until Hitler abruptly ended their courageous experiment. In this view, the Weimar period – the crucible of Modernism – ended in Germany in 1933, but then continued in exile in Paris, London, New York and even Hollywood. What Germany lost, the rest of the world gained. ‘The exiles Hitler made,’ Gay wrote, ‘were the greatest collection of transplanted intellect, talent and scholarship the world has ever seen.’ Gay himself can of course be counted in that group.

He intimated at the time that this essay on Weimar was a preliminary sortie and a substantial study would be forthcoming. ‘One day I plan to write it,’ he stated firmly in the introduction. Since then he has produced more than twenty books, including his five-volume magnum opus on middle-class sensibility, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, and numerous works – a huge biography among them – on Freud, the dominant intellectual influence in his own life. He has even gained his spurs as a lay analyst. However, for the grand synthesis on Weimar we old – certainly ageing – admirers have been waiting patiently. Is this it?

Modernism is eminently readable. Gay paints some delightful pen portraits and has fascinating views on Modernist classics by Baudelaire and Ensor, Beckett and Pinter, but to those of us who have waited a lifetime this book satisfies little of the enormous expectation engendered by the long wait. It is surely significant that Freud, so important in Gay’s own life, while mentioned frequently, receives no real attention in this volume. Without Freud, Expressionism and particularly Surrealism are gutted; without Freud, Thomas Mann is a windbag, Molly Bloom an imbecile. So why is Freud not discussed at length? Could it be that Gay needs to downplay the darker aspects of the modern? In his memoir about his youth, appropriately entitled My German Question and published a decade ago, Gay spoke of the ‘deeply repressed culture’ that had surrounded him in Berlin and admitted that he was very much a product of that culture. He cited lyrics from a Richard Tauber song from Lehár’s Land of Smiles that had remained with him all these years – ‘Always smiling and always cheerful’ – and implied that this was part of his own persona too. His new book is much like that. The darker side of Modernism is avoided; its more cheerful life-affirming features are stressed. There is, not surprisingly, a pervasive, if not explicit, autobiographical tone to this volume, and it ends on a personal note: Gay records his excitement and optimism at the sight of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The experience suggests to him that Modernism is not totally moribund, and he concludes his book with a smile. By contrast, Eric Hobsbawm ended his blockbuster Age of Extremes, covering roughly the same period, with the word ‘darkness’.

How one interprets Modernism depends on what one includes. While its intellectual aspects are important, the wider context of this culture of crisis is critical to any appreciation. Modernism was the culture of an age of mass death. It was, as Matei Calinescu has said, an ‘aesthetic thanatophilia’. Richard Howard, in his homage to Ford Madox Ford, called the modern ‘that all-inclusive negative’. Death was both figurative and literal, evident in the mechanisation of the world and the industrial killing of modern war. While Gay claims that he interprets culture in a broad anthropological sense (in The Bourgeois Experience he insisted that ‘every human artefact that contributes to the making of experience belongs under this capacious rubric’), there is little evidence of such generosity here. Aside from a perfunctory opening bow to what might lie submerged, he has his eyes glued on the tip of the iceberg. There is almost nothing about science and technology, without which any notion of the modern must remain partial. The almost exclusive attention to high culture allows him to say, for example, that the First World War was ‘comparatively inconsequential on canvas or in print’ and that the Second posed more profound existential problems. Many will see this as a false dichotomy.

The two world wars were, as most historians now admit, part of the same disaster, integral to the crisis that overwhelmed Western civilisation. If, as Gay says, the Great War was accompanied by ‘few striking innovations in high culture’, the mood of Europe and of much of the rest of the world nevertheless changed dramatically as a result of it. The deconstructed nude that Marcel Duchamp had projected, in bits and pieces, down a staircase in 1912 metamorphosed by 1919 into a hirsute Mona Lisa. Meanwhile, the cascading fountains of all eternal cities were transformed into a ferociously basic, inverted men’s urinal. In 2004 the British art world voted Fontaine by Duchamp, and not Picasso’s prewar Demoiselles d’Avignon, the most influential artwork of the 20th century.

The war radicalised but it also democratised these avant-garde instincts. Black humour was born in the trenches. Oscar Wilde’s clever formulations no longer sufficed. The five-foot-two eyes-of-blue Charleston danced by the ‘It’ generation required a leg position as awkward as the knock-kneed pose of Nijinsky’s corps de ballet. The madcap crazes of the 1920s, the frenetic club culture and the incidence of social deviance were a response to many of the same existential quandaries that perplexed the avant-garde. The endless cemeteries of the Western Front posed the same questions that Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway put to their lost generation. Contrary to Gay’s assertion that the Second World War brought on the really difficult questions (which rings like an autobiographical rather than a historical observation), the artistic response to the second act of the horror show revealed little originality. Whether we are talking about Abstract Expressionism, the Beats or the spaced-out flower children of Haight-Ashbury and Carnaby Street, it had all been done before. John Cage’s virtuoso performance of musical silence was merely a variation on a theme Malevich had presented a generation earlier in his canvases of solid colour. When Jim Dine drew an automobile, erased it, and then started over again, he was echoing Picabia, who had done much the same on stage during a Paris Dada performance in 1920. On that occasion Tristan Tzara had read aloud to the audience from a newspaper with a bell clanging in the background so that no one could actually hear him. Like Louis Napoléon’s attempt to emulate his uncle, the post-1945 version of Modernism was less a repeat than a plagiarism of history.

My greatest difficulty comes, however, with Gay’s treatment of Hitler and Nazism, which he seems to regard as some terrible alien malignancy that descended on the modern world and aborted its potential for goodness. To separate Nazism, as he does, from Weimar culture is to misrepresent both. In its attention to immanence, its rebellious instinct, its worship of techne and its aggressive minimalism, Nazism could even be characterised as the very epitome of the modern. Political extremism was in lockstep in the modern era with cultural adventurism. Onto the marching cadres at a Nuremberg rally as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl one can readily superimpose a Mondrian pictorial grid or a Bauhaus architectural design. The ties between Marinetti’s Futurism and Mussolini’s Fascism have never been questioned. Yet whether it is Goebbels’s appreciation of van Gogh, obvious in several breathless passages of his novel Michael, or the unmatched spectacles that were Nazi jamborees, or simply the priority accorded the visual and technical over the literary and philosophical, the modernism of Nazism, too, was unmistakable. Zygmunt Bauman, Peter Fritzsche and most recently Roger Griffin, in his formidable Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler, have pointed to the Modernist themes in Nazism. But Gay makes no mention of this accumulating literature. While he points, in discussing T.S. Eliot, to the self-contradictory nature of a good deal of the modern impulse, he is not willing to go on to acknowledge that political modern and cultural modern had a symbiotic relationship. Though Hitler read little, he did highlight a passage in a 1923 book by Ernst Schertel on the subject of magic: ‘He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world.’ As we have seen, Breton, Dix, Buñuel and Dalí articulated much the same idea at roughly the same time. It is no secret that many prominent moderns were attracted by the energy of interwar political extremism and especially by its uncompromising shredding of the past. ‘I write nihil on anything that has been done before,’ declaimed the Bolshevik poet-enthusiast Vladimir Mayakovsky.

As to the fate of this urge, Gay accepts the more or less standard view that Modernism lost its momentum and inspiration as it was absorbed into the mainstream. When modern art could be found in the corridors of power, when theatre of the absurd had entered the university curriculum, and when collectors were prepared to pay millions for recent works, Modernism was bound to lose its defining edge. Daniel Bell and Irving Howe argued as much some thirty years ago. In the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Gay sees an abandonment of moral purpose. When Warhol declaimed that ‘everything is art, and nothing is art,’ the end seemed to have arrived. Since then, according to Gay, the noteworthy protagonists of the modern have dwindled in number. Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez: when they are gone, the last vestiges of the modern will be gone. But then comes the epilogue, with Gay’s trip to Bilbao, and in the embrace of Gehry’s brilliance he finds a glimmer of hope. Modernism ‘has had a good long run’, the author says. We learn nothing about postmodernism, nothing about the contemporary whimper.

In 1978 the American artist Mick Haggerty produced a painting depicting a Mondrian on a gallery wall dissolving and metamorphosing, drip by drip, into a figure on the floor below that turns out to be Mickey Mouse. Haggerty seemed to be saying that an art of sensational provocation, art on the edge, as Harold Rosenberg once called it, had, by the last quarter of the 20th century, become kitsch. By then Nietzsche’s Übermensch had already become America’s Superman; Mondrian’s grid would soon be appropriated by Pac-Man. If we agree with Haggerty that many post-1945 cultural manifestations were derivative, and driven by commercial motives, then the postwar period has a mood distinctly different from the earlier one. If the new is no longer new and the ability to shock has been muted, perhaps Gay’s run ended some time ago.

Stunde Null, zero hour, 1945, with its iconography of the end, stacked corpses and mushroom clouds, is a strong candidate for the last act of Modernism. At that point, Adorno said, history had outdistanced any possibility of representation. Art, historiography, indeed any attempt to capture meaning, had been humiliated by events. Perhaps shopping is indeed all that is left.

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