Who was the first to make a pact with the devil?

Malcolm Bull

  • Modernity and Identity edited by Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman
    Blackwell, 448 pp, £45.00, January 1992, ISBN 0 631 17585 7
  • Fundamentalisms Observed edited by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby
    Chicago, 872 pp, $40.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 226 50877 3
  • The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial by Margaret Rose
    Cambridge, 317 pp, £35.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 521 40131 3
  • Under God: Religion and American Politics by Garry Wills
    Simon and Schuster, 445 pp, £17.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 671 65705 4

Although the modern has been with us since the end of antiquity, it has, at least until recently, always avoided becoming antique. As early as the 17th century, some were arguing that by virtue of longevity, the moderns must already be more ancient than the ancients themselves; but unlike the true ancients, who remained trapped in undying senility, the moderns seemed to have the secret of eternal youth, and for another three centuries they grew younger as their predecessors aged. Of course, such blessings are mixed, and the modern was fated to anonymity: being merely the veil of a present awaiting its apocalypse, modernity served to conceal identity and not to claim it, and the ‘modern’ would always eventually be revealed as something else the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque. The pattern might have been expected to continue indefinitely, and yet it has not, for with the appearance of the oxymoronic prefix ‘post-’, modernity has been exiled from the future and consigned, perhaps irrevocably, to history. In return, modernity has gained the right to use its own name, and so the modern, like the man in the iron mask, is now remembered for, and not through, its disguise.

Concealment invites exposure, and from Weber onwards, almost everyone has had a theory about how the veil became a mask (or, in Weber’s interpretation, the cloak a cage) and what, if anything, lies within. Some, like Marshall Berman, in his naive and strangely inspiring study, All that is solid melts into air (1982), have reversed the paradigm and argued that the process was one of evaporation rather than condensation. But this (as Berman admits in Modernity and Identity) is the view of someone who still experiences modernity as a present reality; and at a time when others speak of the modern as if it were ‘something from another century’, and modernity lies frozen beneath ‘an inexhaustible flow of critical discourse asserting that we live in the post modern world’, it is difficult to define the modern solely in terms of the evanescence of the past. Even those who eschew the term ‘post-modernity’ feel compelled to differentiate between ‘modernity’ and the contemporary condition of ‘neo-’, ‘late’, ‘hyper’, ‘high-’ or (as the editors of Modernity and Identity prefer) ‘low-modernity’. However reluctant one may be to see it go, modernity appears to be slipping away, and the need to discover its identity seems correspondingly urgent.

If, for the sake of clarity, we take the modern era to include at least the period from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, we can define modernity in terms of the social conditions of life in the West during that period, and modernism as the positive cultural response to the experience of modernity. It is perhaps easiest to start with modernism, which must, of necessity, already contain an implicit definition of modernity. But although modernism is particularly associated with only two movements within the period – modernism in the arts and modernism in theology – the two are rarely discussed in the same context. (Of the books under review, the volume on fundamentalism makes no mention of artistic modernism, and neither of the books on modernity reveals any awareness that theological modernism ever existed.) This is surprising, for not only did the two modernisms develop in parallel and come to prominence in the same time and place – Paris at the beginning of the 20th century – but the past twenty-five years have seen the simultaneous rise of movements determined to question their achievement: fundamentalism in religion and post-modernism in philosophy and the arts.

What is usually taken as the first reference to ‘modernism’ as a movement in the arts is found in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s review of the Salon of 1879, where he reports a conversation on the subject which took place some years earlier between a ‘foreign painter’ and Fromentin, the historian of Dutch art. Modernism in theology had, however, already been denounced by another Dutchman, the Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, who, in 1871, published a book entitled Het Modernisme: Een Fata Morgana op Christelijk Gebied (‘Modernism: A fata Morgana on Christian Ground’), and the term was, as a result, widely used in both Holland and Belgium. There is no reason to suppose that the concept of modernism as a movement in the arts is derivative, but the priority of the religious variety is indisputable (the earliest reference to either movement in English – earlier, at any rate, than the one given in the OED – may well be that in the 1899 translation of Kuyper’s Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology) and, thanks to Pius X’s denunciatory encyclical of 1907, theological modernism became the primary referent of the word ‘modernism’ in English and other European languages twenty years before artistic modernism could dispute the claim.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in