I am engaging (I think that is the right word, at least if you think in terms of a military engagement) with Gabriel Josipovici’s argumentative essay, What Ever Happened to Modernism? (and I am curious about the refusal to use ‘Whatever’). It’s a book that raises new questions with every page, but the first question that strikes me is simple: what do we mean by modern?
As an historian I use modern to refer to that great sweep of history that covers pretty well the last 500 years. But when does the modern age begin? With the enforced social and political changes that came about as a result of the Black Death? The modern world certainly doesn’t encompass feudalism, that effectively died of the plague. Or with the new marine technology that allowed the building of ships that could travel further that in turn changed the shape of the known world by reaching south round Africa and west to the Americas? Or with the Moslem conquest of Constantinople that sent scholars streaming westward and introduced new approaches to learning such as humanism, and that in turn became what we know as the Renaissance? Or with Luther following common practice by nailing a set of discontents to the church door at Wittenburg, and finding almost by chance that his work became the culmination of a century of increasing unhappiness with the shape of the Church so that the Reformation was launched?
And if we don’t know when it starts, no more do we know when it ends. Another book I am reading at the moment is State of Emergency by Dominic Sandbrook, a history of Britain during the Heath government, 1970-74, written by someone who was only born in 1974. For Sandbrook, then, this whole period is history that has to be researched. For me it is memory, it is the years I was at university in Ulster, so for me it is not history but contemporary. So when does the modern become now?
Josipovici, by the way, talks almost exclusively of the modern starting with the Reformation, but he sees the Reformation in terms of what it took away from community: the rise of individualism and of capitalism. He doesn’t seem to notice that one of the basics of Protestantism was that the individual should engage directly with God rather than through an intermediary priest, hence the individual should learn to read the Bible for themselves, hence in turn the introduction of schooling. One of the first things that Elizabeth I did after restoring the Protestant religion in England was expand education, spreading grammar schools across the land. One generation later we had Shakespeare and Marlowe and the rest.
But that 500-year sweep of the modern is only one version. There’s the modern that covers a new way of expressing artistically the new ways of seeing the world introduced by, for example, Freud. So the modern means a reaction against one way of presenting the world and in favour of a different way of presenting the world, a switch from the external to the internal, from the idea that the world is comprehensible to the idea that it is not. But again we have no way of dating this. Does it start with the psychological insights of Freud, or with the evolutionary insights of Darwin, or with the long history insights of the geologists that set the scene for Darwin, or with the interlinking of science and art that was a feature of the Romantic imagination? Josipovici tends to go for this last, but I find it difficult to think of the Romantics and the Moderns in the same terms.
What this view clearly seems to do is link literature and science. But the way literature has responded to science has changed over time. If we start with the Romantics, then the way they viewed science and the world had changed totally by the time we come to Wells or James or Woolf, and that scientific world view has changed again several times in the century since. So again we have the question: when does the modern end?
But that is not the only way of seeing the modern. We can also look at it as a series of literary devices introduced as a way of responding to those scientific world views, devices such as stream of consciousness, unreliable narrators, shifting viewpoints and the like. But these devices have acquired a life independent of the authors and the world view that gave them birth. And like all literary devices they have grown tired and been replaced or supplemented by other devices, because literature is an endlessly evolving form. So again, where and how do you place the beginning; where and how do you place the end?
I think identifying the modern with such devices is too mechanistic a view for Josipovici, who seems to regard the modern as a sensibility, or perhaps a set of sensibilities. But at the same time he begins his essay by talking about his disappointment with the contemporary English novelists of his youth, who were writing in an essentially mimetic form rather than the challenging and inventive forms that continental novelists were using. (He conveniently ignores the many English novelists then and since who have used, to great effect, precisely such forms, just as he ignores the many continental novelists who were writing rather conventional realist fiction.) If this is the starting point, then it is a mechanistic view of modernism as a set of narrative devices.
Again we can think of the modern in political terms, the rise of social consciousness, the economic discontents that were the culmination of the Industrial Revolution. The urbanization of European civilization, the exploitation of workers, the appalling living conditions that many had to endure, all boiling up into the sort of political sensibilities expressed by, for instance, Marx and Engels. The modern is the end of authority by birth, the end of everyone knowing their place, and the start of modern democracy, universal suffrage and empowerment. But again, we have to ask: when did this start? Marx and Engels were not the starting point, for that we have to go back maybe to Gerard Winstanley in the middle of the 17th century or even before. Or maybe the start didn’t come until much later, when philosophical ideas started to become a political reality in 1917? Or maybe they haven’t started yet? Or maybe it’s already over with the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Or maybe we should consider the modern in religious and philosophical terms, the enlightenment shift from a religious way of explaining the world into a scientific way. The end of positivism and the rise of analytical philosophy (was Wittgenstein modern or postmodern?), perhaps? But again, these are changes that were already happening in the 17th century (Locke) and are still going on in the 21st century (the rebirth of religion).
Some of these are areas directly addressed by Josipovici, many are not. But the problem I have is that the more terms like Modern are bandied around, the less I understand what they mean. Or rather, the more I understand that they mean very different things in different ‘language games’ (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein). Are we modern? Or is Modern a thing of the past? Or are we yet to achieve modernity?