Sometime in, it seems, early October, I read Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which I enjoyed a great deal, despite its occasionally dreadful copyediting, paltry critical apparatus, and one absolute howler pretty early on (a misrendition of "the disenchantment of the world"). Josipovici states in the beginning that what will follow is a fairly personal statement, and occasionally in the remainder of the text issues reminders, near the end suggesting that this is the only sort of investigation into modernism that the subject can bear without being falsified: "I am aware too that these stories are sites of contestation; more is at stake than how we view the past. That is what is wrong with positivist accounts of Modernism, which purport simply to 'tell the story', like Peter Gay's Modernism." Thierry de Duve's book on Duchamp is ultimately criticized because, in the end, de Duve is given to pronunciamentos about who's in and who ain't: "Rodchenko is an artist and Bonnard is not" (Josipovici favors Bonnard), while T.J. Clark's is given the nod for not providing a narrative that proceeds tidily forward, and, I assume, for opposing the hardening into orthodoxy of views on Modernism—Josipivoci quotes a passage lamenting Greenberg's dominance. The latter because part of what matters to Josipovici about modernist works (and this will be a dim reconstruction, no doubt influenced a good deal by what most struck me—while I'm obviously revisiting the text in writing this post in order to get the quotations right, it's been a bit since I read the whole thing and I did do it as in leisure) is that their creators are uncertain about the significance of their specific individual works and about the significance and indeed possibility of the sort of thing they are engaged in in the first place. Cervantes, for instance, counts as modernist because for him, "the question of what is 'real life' and how an artist today (his today and our today) can claim to deal with it is a fundamental concern"—hence its various involutions and callings of attention to its being written. Whether this undertaking is legitimate—what this artistic pursuit is, whether it is anymore (wegen der
EntziehungEntzauberung der Welt) possible anyway—is a standing issue for such works, so that an interpretation that simply settles the question one way or another is not really taking the works in the right spirit. (Here I prescind from hobbyhorsical musings pertaining to readymades.)
Nevertheless, Josipovici himself is occasionally dogmatic when passing judgment on some of the artists who pass under his consideration. (Of course he is free to judge negatively those whom he does, and I don't demand that he preface such judgments with hedges about their merely being his taste—I find the reasons he proffers puzzling, given what else he has to say.) Agreeing, regarding the supposed naïveté of Verdi, with Berlin (whose article on same is interestingly belletristic, even, one almost wants to say, slight, though one doesn't say so to put it down), he goes on to find him (along with Balzac and Dickens, about whom he later has nicer things to say) that he is "hollow", because of his "inability to question what it is [he] is doing". In this trio at least that quality is said to be at "the root of their strength as artists", even if he does take back that praise immediately after in having them prefigure "that split between popularity and artistic depth which is to become the hallmark of popular culture". Severer, or at least uninterrupted, but in the same vein is his appraisal of Philip Roth, whom he introduces, perhaps, to remind the reader that for him modernism is not a primarily formal matter ("But surely, you may say, Philip Roth is an experimental writer! … If that is your reaction you have not really been taking in what I have been saying.") What is Roth's sin? "He never doubts the validity of what he is doing"; perhaps also his consequent fearful productivity. Finally, and most dogmatically of all, "[Adam] Thirlwell and his mentor Craig Raine, for all their waving of Modernist credentials, seem as confident as Jane Austen that the ground they stand on is solid. What I have tried to suggest in the course of this book is that, for some artists at least since the time of Dürer, and for any serious artist since 1789, the ground has been anything but solid" (my italics).
I find this curious. One may dislike the works of those not afflicted with modernist doubts. Certainly one understandable reason for this is that they may be dully written—perhaps for formal reasons (we are given a discussion of the passé simple whose upshots recur at various points). Certainly one who is oneself afflicted with such doubts and aware of himself as such may be more likely to like the works of those who work from the same, and may well resent (or find deluded, or something less loaded) those who are not. To that extent it's not curious—the curiosity is that I don't really think this attitude should survive reflection, or anyway be presented without reflection. Isn't it odd, after all, to discredit something because one suspects it came too easily to the creator? The thesis is surely that people who don't have these (at times apparently crippling) doubts are really missing something, which it is art's remit to address or start from; but this is not established and is made difficult to establish precisely by the existence of people such as Roth is claimed to be. For if one wishes to say something like "we no longer find meaning in the world, the old orders have passed, man's connection to his world is severed" (or whatever), "and all great art springs from this realization and must address itself to it", the first conjunct is rather threatened if one can point to someone else and say, "things seem to be going OK for that guy." (The "what do you mean 'we', kemosabe?" objection.)
(A friend has made representations regarding Larkin's "Sad Steps" and the present impossibility of writing poetry in a certain mode, to which my response has always been: impossible for Larkin, maybe. The last line suggests that Larkin might be sympathetic to this.)
In reading these later sections I was reminded a bit of Stroud's treatment of, or rather puzzlement over, Moore in The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism: Moore is there figured somewhat similarly (albeit much less derisively) to the way Josipovici seems to think of the still naïve and therefore uninteresting writers and artists of the period after the French Revolution. There is something peculiar, not about Moore's philosophy, but about his personality: "It will now be puzzling how Moore could ever have come to understand philosophers' remarks in the way he does", says Stroud, finishing the paragraph with a series of incredulous questions. ("How could he miss" this or that?) These incredulous questions are all "genuine", "although largely questions about the thoughts or perceptions of G. E. Moore". Later "Moore gives the impression of having no idea what the sceptical philosopher really wants to say or do. We feel he constantly construes the epistemologist's words only in a non-'philosophical', everyday, and therefore completely uninteresting way"; he is possessed of a "child-like honesty". The end of the last main section of the chapter returns to the basic puzzlement concerning Moore's resolute and apparently unreflectively arrived at lack of anxiety (his simple confidence of the firmness (and existence!) of the ground on which he stands): "How could Moore show no signs of acknowledging that they [the philosophers' questions] are even intended to be taken in a special 'external' way derived from the Cartesian project of assessing all our knowledge of the external world all at once? That is the question about the mind of G. E. Moore that I cannot answer. Moore is an extremely puzzling philosophical phenomenon". Fin.
Moore, on Stroud's presentation, is in precisely the situation, vis-a-vis post-Cartesian (i.e., modern) philosophy, as Verdi is, on Josipovici's, vis-a-vis the related isolation from the world and loss of authority characteristic of literary/artistic modernity. In Moore's case I am not inclined in the slightest to think he's missing anything important. The goal for philosophers who are caught up in their interesting problems of knowing the world is or ought to be to be able to get back (or perhaps not simply back) to a position like Moore's—to be able to stop philosophizing when one wishes. I am doubtful that such a thing is really possible (IIRC Martin Gustafsson's "Austinian Examples and Perfect Pitch" is a nice read on this score) but am disinclined to discount Moore, if such exertions are really unnecessary for him, because of that. And of course similar thoughts have ruled in explicitly artistic/literary spheres, as all the unendlichen Annäherungen and infinite tasks of e.g. sentimental poets in Romanticism attest. Nevertheless Schiller wasn't (I believe—it's ages since I read it) willing to go as far as Josipovici in making the problem one everyone had, calling Goethe a naïve rather than sentimental, even at that late date. This was not, I don't think, any knock on Goethe.