FAIL  AGAIN.      FAIL  BETTER .   The crisis called Modernism may have passed, but it remains a challenge - and an embarrassment



[ From :  Times Literary Supplement 30 November 2007, pp.14-16.  This paper is a shortened version of the

John Coffin memorial lecture delivered at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Languages, University of London, earlier in 2007.  

-  To facilitate discussion, paragraph numbers have been added in {brackets}  -  HFJM  ]



In  1864 Stephane Mallarmė, aged twenty-three, wrote to his friend Henri Cazalis: "I feel I'm collapsing in on myself day by day, each day discourage­ment dominates my mind and the lethargy is killing me.  When I emerge from this I'll be stupefied, annulled".  He begins work on a verse tragedy, Herodiade, but is soon struck by another bout of poetic impotence: "I cry when I find myself to be empty and can't get a word down on my implacably white paper.  To be an old man, finished, at 23, when all those we love live in the light and in the midst of flowers in the age of the creation of masterpieces".



Almost fifty years later we find the twenty-seven-year-old Franz Kafka expressing a some­what similar sensation to his friend Max Brod:


I can't write. I haven't written a single line that I can accept, instead I have crossed out all I have written - there wasn't much - since my return from Paris. My whole body puts me on my guard against each word; each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands, I see what they are like inside and then I have to stop quickly.



Twelve years after this, when most of what we consider to be his greatest work had been written, Kafka sent another letter to Brod, in which he made it clear that those early remarks were not the usual grumbles of a bud­ding artist frustrated at not being able to find his voice.  "Creation is a splendid reward", he writes.  "But for what ?  Last night I saw very clearly, as clearly as in an object lesson for children, that these are wages earned in the devil's service . . . maybe there exists as different kind of creation.  I know no other. And the devilry of the whole thing is quite clear to me."  Some forty years on again, Samuel Beckett, an Irishman long resident in Paris, published, in French, a series of dia­logues with the critic Georges Duthuit on the ostensible subject of painters and painting.  In the first of these, on Tal Coat, the Dutch painter so admired by Wallace Stevens as well as himself, Beckett says :  "I speak of an art ... weary of puny exploits, weary of pre­tending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road".  What would you put in its place ?  asks a puzzled Duthuit.  "The expression that there is nothing to express", Beckett responds, "nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express."

I could, of course, go on; I could quote from Melville's "Bartleby" and T. S. Eliot's "Prufrock", from Hofmannsthal's Letter to Lord Chandos and Paul Celan's address on receiving the Büchner Prize.  But let these three sets of examples stand for a century of pain, anxiety and despair on the part of writ­ers, and let their words stand for what has been called the crisis of Modernism.

Modernism is still a challenge, and an embarrassment.  We all know - and by "we" I mean all the writers, reviewers, editors and publishers who make up the literary scene in England today - we all know Modernism happened, and that it marked a decisive moment in Western culture; but most of us pre­fer not to know.  If we acknowledge that it hap­pened, we say that it was a long time ago and is of no concern to us today.  But how else are we to respond ?  One way was typified for me by a lecture I once heard given by a Professor of Philosophy, Patrick Corbett.  Corbett was a huge man, and as he spoke he prowled round the lectern, kicking at the wainscoting and the floor.  The lecture went something like this:  "Kierkegaard!  Hunh! [Kick]  Marx! Hunh! [Kick]  Dostoevsky! Hunh! [Kick]  Nietzsche! Hunh! [Kick]  Kafka! Hunh! [Kick]  Nothing that a good walk on the Downs wouldn't have put right!"  In other words these pathetic nin­nies were all suffering from over-sensitivity mingled with self-regard; what they had to say was the result of their cosseted upbringing and a bit of exercise and fresh air was all that was needed to bring them to their senses.  This, of course, is the view of a large section of the Brit­ish public today, given courage to voice it by, for example, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, whose epistolary exchanges ("all these cheerless creeps between 1900 and 1930 - Ginny Woolf and Dai Lawrence and Morgy Forster") are exactly on a par with Corbett's lecture.

A more sophisticated critique is the Marx
ist one expressed by Eduard Goldstücker, another professor, a charming and cultivated man who had fled Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring, but had before that been responsible for making Kafka acceptable inside the Soviet bloc.  He maintained that, intelligent and perceptive as these writers and thinkers were, what they really tell us is that the bourgeoisie was in crisis, that what they took to be personal and artistic problems were in fact social ones, and that once these were resolved, as they one day would be, we would look back on them and their com­plaints as mere historical curiosities.


Finally, there is the response we might label
the postmodern.  This takes the form of saying that we are all infinitely flexible, that we can all choose our traditions as and where we like, so that there is no need to worry about a crisis in one tradition, we simply need to let it go and jump onto another train, as it were.  To be as obsessed as these writers were about Truth and their failure to reach it betrays, the post­modernist suggests, an unwarranted belief in both Truth and Self.  There are, on the con­trary, he argues, many truths and many selves, and what the angst expressed by these writers shows is how much they were still in thrall to now outdated notions which had once been dear to Western thought.


None of these charges is entirely silly.  There are times when one loses patience with Kafka's masochism and self-centredness, with Beckett's over-elegant and almost man­nered assertions of despair.  Reading Larkin and Amis taking pot shots at Woolf and Law­rence is refreshing - we don't, after all, want to worship them or any writer. But in the end theirs is not simply an attack on the response these writers evoked in an academic or worldly coterie.  It slips all too easily into an attack on them as writers - and one can't help feeling that Larkin and Amis are rather like little boys overawed at a grown-up party and determined to show they are not by being rude about the guests.  As for Goldstücker, there is a point to his critique that this is a social as much as an artistic crisis.  It is not a crisis, though, that has a simple or obvious solution, whether social or artistic.  The post­modernist too puts his finger on a real prob­lem :  Modernists do occasionally give the impression that they are fighting old battles with inadequate tools.  But the best explora­tions of the issue, whether by the artists them­selves or by such critics as Maurice Blanchot and Walter Benjamin, are fully aware of these pitfalls, while at the same time firmly deny­ing that we can simply choose our traditions as and where we want them.  Finally, all three charges condescend to the Modernists - we understand, they suggest, what was wrong with them - but the Modernists' travails are so intimately bound up with their achieve­ments that this feels simply impertinent.

Of course, Modernism did not begin in 1863; or in 1914.  The search for dates and single causes is bound to fail, as there are many moments that we can seize symboli­cally to mark a beginning.  Erich Heller, the great Czech refugee critic who wrote better than almost anyone about the Modernist crisis, once suggested that it went back to the 1520s and to the moment when Ulrich Zwingli broke with Martin Luther over whether the bread and wine of the Mass were "merely" symbolic of Christ's body and blood or, as Luther held, in some ways "really" the body and blood.  (Heller had a point. Thomas Mann, writing Doctor Faustus, saw a direct link between his modern Faust and the Renaissance magus, and sug­gested that in the debate between Erasmus and Luther on free will could be found a prototype of all future debates between liberal Humanists like the well-meaning poli­ticians of the Weimar Republic and the fierce proponents of the notion of crisis, who included, Mann sorrowfully acknowledged, both his composer-hero Adrian Leverkühn and Adolf Hitler.)  I myself, in my first criti­cal book, offered Chaucer as the first Modern­ist in his ironic and anxious relation to tradi­tion, while Marthe Robert has drawn an inter­esting comparison between Don Quixote and Kafka's The Castle on the one hand, and the Odyssey on the other.  But it is perhaps easier to begin in 1789, as Saul Bellow does in some of the great riffs that occur in his nov­els, when characters make large historical generalizations which of course reflect their needs and desires, but which are also full of cultural-historical wisdom.


What the French Revolution did, argues Bellow, was to give everyone the sense that they were not stuck in their place for ever, but that they could move onwards and upwards.  Everyone was equal now and every­one, in principle, had equal opportunities.  By the time Napoleon was crowned Emperor not only did every soldier feel that he had a field marshal's baton in his knapsack, every citi­zen felt that he too might become Emperor.  Unfortunately there was not room for more than one emperor at a time, and what happened in post-Napoleonic Europe was that educated and ambitious young men found themselves in menial employment as minor civil servants or badly paid tutors to the child­ren of aristocrats when in their hearts of hearts they felt they were Napoleons.  This is the fate of Stendhal's Julien Sorel; above all it is the fate of Dostoevsky's characters.


In Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment,
it is quite explicit.  He is a nobody, cannot even earn enough to help his family, yet in his heart he knows he is destined for great things.  In the end, as the examining magis­trate, Porphyry, tells him, he murdered the old moneylender and almost asked to be caught for the simple reason that he, like the rest of us, would rather be someone, even a murderer, than a nobody.  For the reverse side of the French Revolution was that, coincid­ing as it did with the growth of urbanization and the drift to the cities, people who had once had a clear if lowly place in life as farm­ers, Masons, farriers or parish priests, now had none.  That is the trouble with the man from underground.  He wants to be pushed into the gutter because that at least will give him a sense that he exists, whereas living anonymously in the indifferent spaces of the modern city, he is not even sure that he does.


In Doctor Faustus Mann presents us with
a story about art that runs roughly parallel to this one about the individual.  Why is it that a composer such as Haydn could write a hun­dred symphonies and only a few years later Beethoven, no less industrious a composer, could only write nine ?  Quite simply because Haydn did not feel he had to start from scratch.  What he had to do was fill a form, a mould.  That he filled it supremely well, far better than any of his contemporaries except for Mozart, is neither here nor there.  In his lec­ture on sonata form early in the novel, Wendell Kretzschtmar explains how, when the form first developed, there were clear rules governing its deployment: introduction, first theme, second theme, development, recapitu­lation, coda.  What happens with Beethoven is that the development section grows out of all proportion to the rest, till it overwhelms the whole, its growth synonymous with the expression of the composer's demonic crea­tivity.  Even today Beethoven's symphonies stand in the public imagination for the most powerful expression of an individuality we know we possess but few have it in us to express.  Unfortunately, after Beethoven (who plays in this story the part that Napo­leon did in the previous one), composers were left with nothing to hold on to except their individuality, and, without Beethoven's dynamism and optimism, this gradually led, in the course of the nineteenth century, to an art less and less time-driven, more and more prone to stasis, dreaminess and disinte­gration.  The composer at the start of the twentieth century, an Adrian Leverkühn or an Arnold Schoenberg, was thus caught between repeating forms he could no longer believe in and trusting a subjectivity which was growing daily more problematic.


Mann the novelist could enter the mind of a modern composer precisely because the problems attendant on Modernism are not confined to one artistic form.  In fact the novel has become the contested site of Modernists and anti-Modernists precisely because, more than music or poetry, it embod­ies the multiple paradoxes of the modern situ­ation.  For the novel is not a genre but pre­cisely that which emerges when genres no longer seem viable.  A genre is a bit like a family: you do not have to explain who you are each time you enter the room, you are taken for granted. But families can seem constricting as well as enabling.  Similarly a moment comes when confidence in genre starts to wane.  A symbolic moment here, con­venient because it is not too far from our key date of 1789, is Dr Johnson's criticism of Milton, in his Life of the poet, for choosing to express his grief at the death of his friend Edward King in the form of a pastoral elegy.  At this point it is clear that genre has come to seem, like aristocratic privilege, a false imposition rather than a natural condition.

Where the subtitle "epic" or "comedy" or "pastoral elegy" prepared readers or specta­tors for what they were about to experience, and helped the writer enter his subject, the novel, from the start, pretended to be something else - the true memoirs of a rake or a whore, the true story of a seduction or a shipwreck.  At the same time the novel asserted, like Descartes at the start of the Discourse on Method, that its creators would bow to no authority, that they would rely on nothing but themselves.  Genres were the sign of submission to the authority of tradition, to the author
ity of the fathers, but the novel was the new form in which the individual would express himself precisely by throwing off the shack­les that bound him to his fathers and to tradi­tion.  But here it faced a paradox.  For if it threw off all authority, where then did it get its own authority from ?  The answer had to be: from the novelist's inspiration or experi­ence of aspects of life not known to the reader.  But who conferred this authority upon him ?  No one but himself.  From the begin­ning, then, the novel was caught in a double bind - asserting its truth and value (which genre-derived works had never needed to do, since it was the culture that provided them with these things), yet knowing at heart that these were assertions and nothing more.

Søren Kierkegaard, living at the periphery
of European civilization, in Copenhagen, in the mid-nineteenth century, understood this better than almost anyone.  In the preface to On Authority and Revelation, which deals with the question of authority in our modern world, he writes: "It is one thing that a life is over, and a different thing that a life is fin­ished by reaching a conclusion".  A man, he goes on, may perhaps one day decide to become an author.  But, says Kierkegaard, he may have extraordinary talents and remark­able learning, but an author he is not, in spite of the fact that he produces books.  "For though it is indeed by writing that one justi­fies the claim to be an author, it is also, strangely enough, by writing that one virtu­ally renounces this claim."  And he follows this with a pregnant aphorism: "To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it".  Finding the conclusion means giving what has gone before a meaning.  Giving something an end is not the same as giving it a meaning, any more than a man's life acquires meaning sim­ply by coming to its end.  The trouble with novels is that the only meaning they can have is that conferred on them by their authors; but what authority do they have to confer mean­ing ?  None, is the answer.  Sartre teased out the implications of Kierkegaard's remarks in a famous passage in Nausea :  I walk down the road, he says, my life is open before me.  I do not know what will happen, and, if my life so far is anything to go by, nothing of note will.  Even if it does, if a car runs me over, for  example, that will not have conferred mean­ing on my life, only brought it to an end.  But when I open a novel and read in its first pages that the hero is walking down a deserted road, I know that this is the beginning of an adventure, of love, perhaps, or of espionage, it doesn't matter, it is an adventure.  After all, I can feel the comforting thickness of the remainder of the novel between the thumb and index fingers of my right hand.  And that is why I am reading the novel in the first place.  Not, as the banal view has it, to pass the time, but in fact to give myself the feeling that meaning exists in the world, even if I have not found it yet.  That is the secret power of novels: they look like mere mirrors held up to the world, but what they are is machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world.



Or, as Mann's Adrian Leverkühn asks, sounding for all the world like Flaubert, "Why must it seem to me as if almost all, no, all the means and contrivances of art are good only for parody ?".  In other words what reason is there to go through the motions of writing a symphony, with its acres of com­plex modulation that belongs to a system in which one no longer believes, or a realist novel, with its pages of description of rooms and people and clothes that exist only in the author's head ?  To give the audience what they are expecting, when one knows it is a fraud ?  Is that why one embarked on the artis­tic life in the first place ?  Returning to my opening examples, we can begin to see that what is afflicting Mallarmė and Kafka is the sense that they feel impelled to write as the only way to be true to themselves, yet at the same time they feel that they are being deeply false to themselves by writing :  for who or what has given them the authority, the right to say this, or that ?  Going back to the world of genres is not an option, any more than it is an option to return to the ancien regime.  As for philosophers, Kierkegaard's remark that "to find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lack­ing, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it"  is surely, an apt description of all Wittgenstein's work.


But Kierkegaard's remarks also help to explain why so many Modernist writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality.  Not in order to play
games with the reader or deny the world, as their uncomprehending critics charge, but, on the contrary, out of a deep sense that the world can only be conveyed in its diversity and wonder if the bad faith of the novel is, to start with, acknowledged.  Borges, for exam­ple, in his greatest stories devises forms that will bring home the contrast between what we can only imagine and what is. What is, as Kierkegaard understood, cannot be imagined, only lived. "Actuality cannot be conceived", he writes in his notebook.


To conceive something is to dissolve actuality into possibility - but then it is impossible to conceive it, because conceiving something is transforming it into possibility and so not hold­ing on to it as actuality, But there's this deplora­ble confusion in that modern times have incor­porated "actuality" into logic and then, in dis­traction, forgotten that "actuality" in logic is still only "thought" actuality, i.e. possibility.


- Not just in logic (his target here is Hegel), but of course in the novel itself, the modern
form par excellence. That is what Beckett is struggling with in his greatest short story, "Dante and the Lobster", in which the protag­onist, Belacqua has, on his aunt's instruct­ions, bought a lobster for her to cook for their dinner and watches in horror as she prepares to drop it into the boiling water.


It had about thirty seconds to live. 

   Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death,

God help us all.

   It is not.


Beckett forces us to imagine the lobster's agony.  But of course we cannot quite do so, because when we have finished the story we can put it down and turn to something else.  The lobster can only die.  Is Belacqua more to be admired than his aunt ? He is your arche­typal liberal Guardian reader, the person at whom every publisher aims a new book about "the horrors of the Holocaust" or the Rwandan massacres.  Beckett is sympathetic to Belacqua but is nevertheless appalled by this, and cannot let the story end with Belacqua's attempt to cheer himself up.  But the simple emphatic phrase "It is not" is of course still a part of the story.  That is why Beckett elsewhere admits that you can only "fail again, fail better"; you can never suc­ceed.  For each time you think you have succeeded, each time a reader says: "Ah, I see", you have failed.  For "conceiving some­thing is transforming it into possibility and so not holding on to it as actuality".


That is why Modernists look with horror at
the proliferation in the modern world both of fantasy and of realism, both at Tolkien and Graham Greene.  Not out of a puritan disdain for the imagination or the craft of writing, but out of respect for the world and its inhabit­ants.  One of the greatest post-war British novelists, William Golding, wrote out of this tension, and one of his greatest works explores the issue head-on.  Pincher Martin deals with the desire we all have to live for ever, to cling on to what we know and love best, ourselves.  This desire, this deeply rooted unconscious need to deny the fact of death, is equated with the making of fiction.  In Golding's novel, the protagonist Pincher Martin, belying his given name of Christo­pher, the bearer of Christ, has been a deeply selfish man all his life, which means in effect a man who does not recognize other people except as means or obstacles to self-fulfilment.  Now, shipwrecked on a rock in the middle of the ocean, he fights off the thought that the only thing that mattered to him, himself, is about to disappear, imagin­ing a Robinson Crusoe-like act of survival on his island.  But the island seems vaguely familiar to him, and suddenly, with horror, he understands :  the rocks he has been climbing over have exactly the contours of his own tooth as his tongue slides over it!  What he had thought of as in the world, outside him­self, is a projection of his frantic imagination.  The extraordinary effect of this revelation on us depends on the fact that we have been liv­ing every moment of Martin's struggle to sur­vive, as we do with novels.  It would not work if we adopted a postmodern insouciance in relation to the fictions we read.  We live it, but what Golding is telling us is that we live a lie created to protect the inviolability of the self.  He uses fiction to tell a truth.


It is by an act of imagination (and the mastery of his craft) that Golding, like Borges and Beckett, escapes Kierkegaard's strictures.  They do so not because they want to be on the right side of Kierkegaard but because, in a sense, their lives depend upon it. It is the same with all the Modernists, from Mallarme to Kafka, from Virginia Woolf to Alain Robbe-Grillet.  In a world without authority, each of them has to find his or her way for themselves.  Each new attempt is, as Eliot put it in what could almost be described as a manual of Modernism, the Four Quar­tets, "a fresh raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion".  Always precise, though, he adds that we must not thereby be discouraged :  "For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business".  Out of a profound sense of failure a kind of-success can emerge.  But to understand the magnitude of the success, we have to under­stand what was lost with the advent of individ­ualism in the Renaissance and its hardening
over the next few centuries.


In Book 3 of the Iliad Helen, looking down
from the walls of Troy at the Greek army assembled below, searches in vain for her two brothers, Castor and Pollux. "But the two mar-shallers of the host can I not see", she says,


Castor, tamer of horses, and the goodly boxer Polydeuces, even mine own brethren, whom the same mother bore. Either they followed not with the host from lovely Lacedaemon, or though they followed hither in their seafaring ships, they have now no heart to enter into the battle of warriors for fear of the words of shame and the many revilings that are mine.


"So she said", says the narrator.  "But", he adds, explaining to us the real reason why she cannot see them, "they ere now were fast holden of the life-giving earth there in Lace-daemon, in their dear native land."  They are dead.  But the poet does not simply say that, he says that the earth, which gives life, now holds them in its embrace, not anywhere but in the one place everyone wants to be buried in, their dear native land.  The effect of this is both immensely sad and deeply satisfying.  The same effect is achieved by slightly differ­ent means in the Border Ballads, as here from one of the greatest of them, "The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens":


"Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all


Our guid schip sails the morne";

"O say na sae, my master deir,

For I fear a deadlie storme.


Late late yestreen I saw the new moone,

With the auld moone in hir arme,

And I feir, I feir, my deir master,

That we will cum to harme."

O our Scot nobles wer right laith
To weet their cork-heild schoone;
But lang owre a' the play wer playd
Thair hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang may their ladies sit,

Wi thair fans into their hand,

Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spens

Cum sailing to the land.


We see the fastidious Scottish nobles high-
stepping to keep their shoes dry as the sea starts to cover the decks, then two doom-laden lines describe, from some position out­side the realm of men, the whole expedition and the storm as a play or game, and present us with the stark image of the noblemen's hats afloat on the water, the only remaining sign of the fate of the ship and its occupants.  Finally, we see the wives and mothers waiting for the men to return, but waiting, of course, in vain.


Both passages are so intensely moving because they present us with a double vision, that of man with all his hopes and longings, and the larger vision of a world in which men's lives are short and of only passing significance.  Both Homer and the ballad poet can achieve this because their forms are pro­vided, as it were, by the community, and because, anonymous as they are, they speak for the community, which is larger than any individual.  The novel not only cannot achieve this, since each novel is narrated by a single individual who speaks for no one but himself or herself; it has in a sense lost the ability even to understand why it should.  But the worlds of Homer and the Border Ballads, though they may be far away from us, are not impossibly distant.  We are still born into a world we did not create; and we still leave it not having done a tenth of what we would
have liked to do.  The classic novel does not have the means to convey this, for its starting point is not the world but the individual.  Modernism, feeling the lack quite vividly, devises ways of conveying it.


I began by saying that among those who write and publish and review today there is a curious sense of knowing and not knowing.  They know about Proust and Kafka and Beckett, they even write about them and praise them, yet all goes on as if they did not know.  Ninety-nine per cent of writers and publish­ers and reviewers at work today go their merry ways as if nothing had happened, pub­licly express their earnest desire to write like Dickens and do what the novel has done since Defoe, that is, pass themselves off as truth; or else, in a spirit of postmodernist insouciance, assert their ability to use every tradition available to them, but without any sense of understanding the implications of what they are doing.  All, with varying degrees of sophistication, appear to be going through the motions, and as a consequence reading them leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.  Of course I would not want a diet of nothing but Kafka, Beckett and Bernhard.  But the question is: what has happened to our culture such that serious critics and intelli­gent, well-read reviewers, many of whom studied the poems of Eliot, the stories of Kafka and the plays of Beckett at University, should go into ecstasies over Atonement or Suite Française, while ignoring the work of marvellous novelists such as Robert Pinget and Gert Hofmann?


To answer that fully would requite a sociol­
ogist, perhaps.  I merely venture three points.  The first is that England was just about the only European country not to be overrun by Nazi forces during the Second World War, which was a blessing for it but has left it strangely innocent and resistant to Europe, and thrown it into the arms, culturally as well as politically, of the even more innocent United States.  This has turned a robust, pragmatic tradition, always suspicious of the things of the mind, into a philistine one.  Though there is something appealing in the resolute determination not to be taken in evinced by Larkin and Amis in the face of Modernism and Modernists, something that reminds me of the Just William books I so enjoyed as a child, it soon begins to pall.  Second, and related to this, ours is the first generation in which High Art and fashion have married in a spirit joyously welcomed by both parties.  When we are enjoined to buy three books for the price of two and a serious newspaper like the Independent offers its readers the chance to gatecrash a book launch of their choice with the paper's literary editor as a Christmas bonanza, we have truly arrived at the age of uncircumscribed consum­erism.  Finally, as Kierkegaard well under­stood, it is hard to keep "the wound of the neg­ative open", and we prefer not to remember that the price of not doing so is that the wound will fester.


I realize that all the above is not the Truth;
though I think it is largely true.  And the choice it faces us with is a stark one: either the Modernists were right in their suspicions, and those who would ignore them are wrong, their work not worth the paper it is written on; or, the current tacit assumption that the Modern­ists, however honest and laudable their intentions, were misguided, is correct, and we  should openly acknowledge as much.  If I incline to the first view, I also recognize that may be largely because of who and what I am.  The late R. B. Kitaj compared Cezanne's rootedness in his native Provence with what he called the diasporic imagination of the uprooted Picasso, and he suggested that at some deep level Modernism and the diasporic imagination go together.  This may be true if we understand that an apparently rooted Frenchman like Bonnard or Englishwoman like Virginia Woolf could also have created a diasporic art; it is certainly true of, say, Stravin­sky and Pound.  To that extent, the Marxist cri­tique of Modernism I mentioned at the start may have a point: Modernism may not be a consequence of a crisis of the bourgeoisie, but it may be the product of a general European rootlessness in the wake of the French Revolu­tion.  All will then depend on whether we see such rootlessness as pathological or as giving those who are imbued with it a certain vantage point, allowing them to see things which might otherwise have remained hidden.  In other words, are we to see our own history, that which makes us what we are, as something which blinkers or which sharpens our vision ?  This is, in itself, a very Modernist question.


Gabriel Josipovici and A. S. Byatt, with Julian Bell, will discuss "What Happened to the Avant Garde ?" at the British Library Con­ference Centre, on December 3 (2007) at 6.30 pm



Gabriel (David) Josipovici born Nice 1940. Education Victoria College Cairo, Cheltenham College Gloucestershire, St Edmund Hall Oxford, BA English 1961.  Career Univ of Sussex, University College London. Lecturer.  Writes Novels, Short stories, Plays.  Critical Studies of art.

< >