Modernist culture may have become a museum piece and épater le bourgeois a harmless little slogan, but critics and historians seem unwilling to say good-bye to all that. Earlier this year, the omnivorous Australian critic Clive James weighed in with Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, a sprawling, ruminative homage to modernismVienna style in all but name.
The latest installment to thud onto shelves is Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. If James’s freewheeling meditation bops along with all the energy of its unruly subjects, Gay has opted for a more staid, straightforward approach. He admits his take is selective, but you could have fooled me: His aim is comprehensiveness, and he has written a panoptic survey of the modern movement in literature, painting, architecture, dance, music, film, and drama from circa 1870 to the postwar era. Proceeding by way of representative episodes and biographies of its leading men—in his telling, modernism was largely a male phenomenon––Gay ranges from the Impressionism of Monet to the Cubism of Picasso to the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock, from Henry James to James Joyce, from Arnold Schoenberg to John Cage.
Gay goes for breadth rather than depth (and it must be admitted that the breadth of this book is pretty staggering). Assembled here is a kind of greatest hits with liner notes. One minute we’re in Paris for the rowdy 1896 premier of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, “an unforgettable date in the calendar of the modernist stage,” then, zip, we’re off to Zurich for the founding of Dada in 1916. Such moments have been tamed by decades of study and cultural assimilation, and Gay doesn’t really bring anything new to this work of synthesis; for all the daring of the figures who interest him, there are no dangerous ideas lurking on his pages.
His aim is worthy—he has the general reader firmly in his sights––even if his judgments tend to the dutiful and generic. (“The conflicts of modernists with traditionalists, fellow revolutionaries, and themselves made for disorderly history, but it was always stimulating, never dull.” Or on T. S. Eliot: “The Waste Land is a veritable anthology of linguistic bravado.”) A respected social historian whose works include an acclaimed biography of Freud and a five-volume epic on the Victorian bourgeoisie, Gay acknowledges many shades of opinion within modernism, its sundry contradictions and paradoxes, but proposes a general theory of the movement: “Modernists of all stripes shared two defining attributes . . . first, the lure of heresy that impelled their actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” He is especially concerned with the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and with the pioneers of the modernist aesthetic. Looking at the work of a series of exemplary figures—Nietzsche, Wilde, Baudelaire, whom Gay calls “modernism’s first hero”—he traces a sharp inward turn and a relentless investigation of the self and its relationship to nature, the past, social convention, and the weight of tradition.
For Gay, modernism marked the efflorescence of Romanticism. A Monet landscape was a kind of disguised self-portrait: “Impressionist paintings were reports from the interior,” he writes. He scrutinizes the actual self-portraits of Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh for their disclosures of an “expressive inwardness.” Bringing his own Freudian spin to his interpretations, Gay argues that Cézanne’s exacting, reserved portraits betray an inner chaos the painter desperately tried to mask. He sees these works as “part of a great confession” that later found an even more potent outlet in the “mystical” modernism of Kandinsky and Mondrian.
Gay argues that the search for the “inner life and its felicitous portrayal” links these artists to other ventures—Mallarmé and Debussy were up to similar things—but he doesn’t let all the foggy self-absorption blind him to the social and political contexts of his story. We are reminded that even if Knut Hamsun and August Strindberg are central to the modernist canon, they had lousy politics. The vexatious Strindberg, who fused hysterical misogyny with merciless psychological insight, in fact penned an eloquent statement of his art in the preface to Miss Julie: “My souls (characters) are conglomerates of past and present stages of culture, bits out of books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, torn shreds of once fine clothing now turned to rags, exactly as the human soul is patched together.” Wisely, Gay allows these figures their inconsistencies, though he doesn’t apologize for their nastiness.
As might be expected of him, Gay keeps the bourgeoisie, both as convenient target of the avant-garde’s wilder flourishes and as consumer of art and culture, in firm view. He is good on the role of the dealers, museum directors, and publishers who served as handmaidens for the new. If newfangled painting was not always an easy sell, the reading public was even more skeptical of new fiction. But if flouting public taste leads to a Ulysses, Gay is all for the betrayal of the audience. He acknowledges that, especially in the case of music, the taste for modernism is an acquired one—even for modernists themselves. After hearing Schoenberg’s atonal Second Quartet in 1908, Arthur Schnitzler wrote in his diary, “I do not believe in Schoenberg. I immediately understood Bruckner, Mahler—should I fail now?”
Gay has an expansive definition of modernism, and as his book progresses, it becomes more and more a study of the fate of high culture in the twentieth century. In his effort to survey every field of activity, Gay perhaps spreads himself thin, but his overview provides a good starting point for a finer scrutiny of modernism’s emblematic works. So download Moses und Aron for your iPod, pick up that copy of Ulysses you’ve been meaning to read, and get to work.
Matthew Price is a writer based in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.