Modernity

George Steiner

  • Visions and Blueprints: Avant-Garde Culture and Radical Politics in Early 20th-century Europe edited by Edward Timms and Peter Collier
    Manchester, 328 pp, £29.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 7190 2260 6

Memories would seem to come in waves. Just now the Twenties and the Thirties have taken on a vivid presence. Their music, their arts, their decorative styles and fashions are being rediscovered and imitated. Vintage cars out of those two decades have become emblematic of a lost nerve and ostentatious brio. There may be pretty obvious reasons for this mode. Our bourses and currencies are haunted by intimations of the previous crash and of the turmoil and recession which ensued. Our sense of the inward connections between the two world wars and of the decline of Europe looks to the armistice of the inter-war years with a new scrutiny. Could saner accommodations have been found? Could the palpable lessons of Armageddon have been learnt in time? And if we now find ourselves, more or less convincingly, at the twilight of Modernism in sensibility, in experimental form, is it not natural that we should seek out the sources and attempt a balance-sheet? But these could well be rationalisations. Shifts of taste, of mimetic focus, are obscure phenomena. The tango is back, and so is scotch.

The two decades after Versailles saw the explosive surge of Fascism and of Leninist-Stalinist Marxism. They witnessed the rise to power of National Socialism. The despotic insanities, the self-destruction, the spiralling descent into barbarism which they brought to Russia and to Europe constitute the gravest crisis in modern history, perhaps in Western history as a whole. Though the fact has at times escaped English notice, the deaths by civil conflict, starvation, deportation, slavery, massacre and declared war of an estimated seventy million men, women and children between 1914 and 1945, in an area bounded, roughly, by Siberia to the east and Madrid to the west, has broken our history in two. There is – theologically, philosophically, ethically, politically, but also in respect to the most down-to-earth common perception of human identity – a dispensation before Auschwitz and one after. The promise of the Enlightenment, the confidence of liberal meliorism (however selective, however privileged its actual realisations), are now of Arcadia.

Inevitably, the literary and artistic movements of the Twenties and the Thirties reflected, interacted with or sought escape from the almost maddening insistence and ubiquity of the political. They encompassed the spectrum of available reflexes all the way from total engagement to the most abstruse, esoteric tactics of abstention. Only, perhaps, the period from 1789 to 1830 is comparable in reference to the saturation of the aesthetic by the political. And there the pace was gentler.

This collection of articles by diverse academic hands sets out to explore the manifold relations between the several major currents of the artistic, literary, cinematographic, theatrical avant-garde in Europe and, to a cursory degree, in Russia, on the one hand, and the new ideologies and systematic mythologies such as psychoanalysis, on the other. Music is very largely left out. But for the rest, the range is far-flung. Surrealism, Futurism, the new classicism, socialist realism, Sachlichkeit, are surveyed. If such self-evident figures as Brecht, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Marinetti and Eisenstein receive attention, so do lesser, but none the less seminal or typical personae such as Benda, Benn, Eluard and Nazim Hikmet. The kaleidoscope takes us from Gramsci’s prison-cell to Eisenstein’s Mexico; from the Montmartre of Breton to the Budapest of Lukacs; from the trenches in front of beleaguered Madrid to the groves of Bloomsbury. The brief years before the second round of mass-murder may indeed, as Auden variously designated them, have been mean, soiled, and replete with mendacity: they were also inventive, gestural and prone to emotional and intellectual risk to a degree that makes our current grayness and prudential sleekness the more shaming.

Two meditations by Raymond Williams (in sadness, one imagines them to have been his epilogue) frame the contents. The prefatory statement is hesitant and somewhat opaque. Too briefly, it seeks to discriminate between Modernism and avant-garde, between authentic socialist impulses and those of an aesthetic populism essentially élitist in provenance. The ineradicable ambiguity in the concept of ‘bourgeois’ always preoccupied Williams. He gnaws at it once again. The bourgeois is, to the aristocracy, the vulgate; to the new working-class he is the enemy. Those who denounce bourgeois values most fiercely, from Baudelaire to Sartre, from Trotsky to Brecht, are themselves products of bourgeois culture and advantage. Rightly, Williams hears within closely analogous denunciations of the bourgeois ‘radically different positions, which would lead eventually, both theoretically and under the pressure of actual political crisis, not only to different but to directly opposed kind of politics: to Fascism or to communism; to social democracy or to conservatism and the cult of excellence’. Raymond Williams’s consoling sanity may have excluded from his interest the solutions in extremis to these ambiguities: the madness of Artaud, the life and works of Céline, Sartre trying to complete his mandarin-leviathan ‘Flaubert’ while peddling Maoist and Situationist tracts on an indifferent boulevard. The end-paper, on political theatre, is rather weary. It acknowledges, but cannot hope to resolve, the paradox whereby so much of what is truly experimental, innovative, avant-garde in 20th-century drama and stage-craft is either apolitical, as in Beckett, or bloodily reactionary as in Yeats and Claudel. It is all a vexation. And one can only wonder at a summary, however brief, of the emergence of popular modes of speech, of sub-literacies in modern drama which does not even refer to Büchner and Woyzeck.

The intervening pieces are of the fortune-cookie kind. Some have savour and yield arresting messages. Others are crumbly or empty or both. The editing is lazy. Some articles are followed by potted reading-lists, others not. There is no description of the contributors.

Edward Timms writes usefully about Benda and Gottfried Benn. He notes accurately that the Dreyfus Affair lies at the very roots of the relations between intellect and power, between the literary intelligentsia and the increasingly totalitarian claims of the nation and the state, as these characterise the modern condition. But the reference is too cursory and the omission of Péguy – he does not even figure in the index – means that the most radical and deepest thinker on socialism and the arts, on the problems of ‘high culture’ and the new media and mass public, does not appear. Peter Collier is not the first to report the rather entrancing self-contradictions in Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution. Would that he had cited the great coda in which Trotsky’s vision of the utopian future is that of an Aristotelian aesthetic exemplified by the genius of Goethe! And, again, in the brief consideration of French Surrealism, Hamlet is missing from the play. With distance, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Marcel Duchamp is the seminal figure. There is hardly a strain in Modernism and Post-Modernism which does not find precedent and self-ironising justification in Duchamp’s jests out of the abyss.

Limitations on length must have inhibited Helga Geyer-Ryan. Her contribution on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history is characteristically intelligent and dense (she thinks in German, which, in this context, is altogether an advantage). But her sketch makes use neither of the polemic correspondence between Benjamin and Adorno, nor of the crucial Benjamin-Scholem debates. It is in these two cardinal documentations that Benjamin’s tortured, fundamentally anarchic flirtations with dialectical materialism, and his attempts, sometimes profoundly ironic, to make some hybrid of Proudhon and Marx, on the one hand, and messianic mysticism, on the other, are set out. A larger point arises. In this book, references to Lukacs, Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Adorno, Trotsky, Marcuse, not to speak of Karl Marx himself, are, inevitably, manifold. I have looked in vain, in the Geyer-Ryan piece and elsewhere, for any treatment of the central and drastic fact: all these master spirits, sources, witnesses were Jews or of Jewish origin. No reflection on modernity, no analysis of the alliances and quarrels between the utopian and the political, between sociology and aesthetics, can even hope to get matters into focus if it refuses to countenance the centrality of the Jewish presence. Whether it is in the sense, journalistically banal, that the modern climate is so largely the legacy of Marx, Freud and Einstein, or in the more penetrating perspective of the implications of Judaism in the counter messianic contract of Communism and, parodistically, in the chiliasm of National Socialism, modernity and modernism are, in vital respects, a chapter (the most creative and tragic chapter) in the bitter history of the Jew. A collection of essays on ‘radical culture’ which omits the whole topic, in which the name of Karl Kraus (among others) goes unmentioned, is difficult to take altogether seriously.

This sense of unreality deepens somewhat in the chapter by Margot Heinemann on the literary ‘broad alliance against Fascism’, particularly in reference to the Spanish Civil War. How poignant are the remnants of party discipline which enable this testimony to omit, from the list of significant British writers involved in the Spanish cockpit, the very name of George Orwell! Or how ambiguous are the criteria which impel Peter Collier to cite, with almost breathless admiration, Auden’s commendation of ‘the necessary murder’. Ritchie Robertson is concise and authoritative on the Zionist impulse in Herzl and Roth. The difficulty, however, is this: in its Bismarckian model, in its espousal of 19th-century nationalism, the Zionist blueprint was almost antithetical to modernity, to the internationalism which, as Raymond Williams stresses at the outset, was so decisive in avant-garde and Modernist attitudes. It is the Jewish function in these attitudes which was all-important and which, as I noted above, is passed over. Judy Davies makes one of the most convincing contributions in her survey of Marinetti and early Fascism. Even as her fine chapter appears, Marinetti and Boccioni seem to be coming back into fashion. The piece on ‘sexual politics and the avant-garde’, on the other hand, is disastrous. One learns that Proust is the author of ‘a massive work’; that Virginia Woolf had ‘the typical agoraphobia of the anorexic’; and that ‘patriarchy’s language’ has prevented the avant-garde from ‘the real liberation of desire’. Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva please take note.

The closing section, on art in Nazi Germany, on De Stijl (an enlightening summary by Elsa Strietman) and on the politics of the silent cinema – predictably, but with much insight, Michael Minden concentrates on Dr Caligari and Battleship Potemkin – is straight-forward. Here the undergraduate, for instance, will find much of use. Minden’s discriminations between Brecht and Eisenstein are finely argued. Van Doesburg emerges as a fascinating figure among those artists who, while in essence non-partisan, expected the imminent and catastrophic collapse of bourgeois society.

This is a compendious volume written, put together, by academics, critics, scholars, mostly of a younger generation. It deals with questions of art, of poetry, of style. Yet one looks with increasing sadness for any accord between subject and form. Almost throughout, the language of the presenters is drab, leaden and routine. They write of Eluard, of Brecht’s lyrics, of Picasso or Pasternak: there is neither music nor colour in their own voices. To this, there is a sparkling exception. Michael Long’s paper on Eliot, Pound and Joyce stands out. It is written with searching wit and elegance. The characterisation of Eliot’s early poems with their ‘ear for the sudden terror and panic of things’, with their ‘wistful, fragile moments of longing’ for a humanity soon to be soured, is admirable. As is the concise account of how ‘the intellectual stockade’ of the poet’s mind ‘was shut tight’. One pauses over the implicit image in Long’s observation of Pound’s insertion of ‘Iagoesque notions uncensored into his verse’. From very slight personal contact, I believe, unlike Mike Long, that Eliot’s anti-semitism was far deeper than Pound’s. ‘Old Ez’ spouted venomous, cracker barrel Jew-baiting and lunatic Fascist economics while continuing to help individual Jews wherever he could. Nothing in Pound’s black silliness equals the footnote in the Notes towards a Definition of Culture in which Eliot, after Auschwitz, suggests, with feline caution, that the Jews did have some historical responsibility for the fate just visited upon them But this difference of assessment in no way impairs the acumen, the stylishness, of this piece. Would that it had incited others. What we get instead is a vaguely conspiratorial, bruised conversation in a small circle, somewhere in the fens on a drizzly day. Even those who proclaimed ‘the necessary murder’ or wrote their odes to Stalin (M. Aragon) had more fun.