I have come to the conclusion that we learn more, we appreciate more, from the books we disagree with. I have just been listening to a recording of part of a lecture on poetry by Jorge Luis Borges, and was struck when he said that when we read X or Y or Z we think we are studying poetry. We are not, we are only studying artefacts. A poem is just marks on a dead object until the reader finds it. I don’t think by this that Borges means the reader makes the poem, but rather that the poem is a sequence that begins with the poet and ends with the reader, and the poem does not fully exist until the whole sequence is complete. Something similar applies to ideas, not so much in the sequence of writer and reader but in the sequence thought and anti-thought. An idea is just unconsidered prejudice until we challenge it; it is only when we say, ‘no, I don’t agree with that’, that we begin to understand what it is we do agree with.
I was forcibly reminded of this dialectic when reading Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? All the way through I found myself shaking my head: no, it’s not like that; I’m not sure that works; surely what you say here contradicts what you said there. As I said in my previous post on the subject I don’t agree with the periodisation of movements like modernism and post-modernism. There was a striking image I came across in a programme on geology on BBC TV last week. In a remote part of Argyll in Scotland, Ian Stewart pointed out where igneous rock had flowed into pre-existing sedimentary rock. The result was an almost organic merging of the two types of rock, one may have come after the other (in geological terms they were a demonstration that igneous activity came after sedimentation) but they were now so complexly interlayered that they had made something new. I feel like that about literary movements. There may have been an historical sequence in which they emerged (do we count Don Quixote as the first modernist work, Tristram Shandy as the first postmodernist work, Robinson Crusoe as the first realist work – to choose not quite at random three works that just happen to be named after their central character?) but what is more interesting is that each form runs alongside the others, flows into it, makes a complex and organic whole that is simply literature.
But if we remove the periodising aspect from our understanding of modernism, what is left? I find the term modernism still useful, I have a rough idea of something that is delineated by the term. In this respect it is like science fiction. There is no satisfactory definition of science fiction, there is no object referent that one could point to and say: ‘that is science fiction’. And yet I find the term useful, I still have an idea of what it is I am talking about when I talk about science fiction. So with modernism, and with postmodernism come to that. They are useful terms, but they don’t actually refer to anything.
What results, of course, is that we each have our own ways of using modernism. Indeed we change our use of the term depending on the conversation we are engaged in. This is what I think Josipovici is doing, without actually spelling it out, possibly even without being fully aware that this is what he is doing. He is writing about a modernism that is a fully coherent entity throughout the course of his book, but it is not necessarily the same modernism that you or I might talk about.
I got my clue to this shift in perspective in a dichotomy that lies at the heart of Josipovici’s thesis, the dichotomy between praxis and mimesis. But, after initial confusion, I realized that this is not mimesis as a literary scholar might ordinarily use the term. For Josipovici, praxis is the real within the novel, the author’s attempt to capture the world as it actually is. In other words, straight down the line realism. Mimesis, on the other hand, is the author’s recognition that such absolute realism is impossible; mimesis is a mimicking of reality that knowingly falls short of the real. This conscious failing of reality allows the unreal into fiction, and so in Josipovici’s terms works such as, say, Animal Farm would be mimetic. Or, since Josipovici uses so many examples from modern art, a more telling comparison might be a painting by Magritte in which a framed painting on an easel stands directly in front of a window which frames the same scene. One of the characteristics he puts forward of this brand of mimesis is an awareness of the frame (which I have always felt was more characteristic of postmodernism than modernism, but since he seems to elide the two we’ll let that pass). Accepting these notions of praxis and mimesis allows everything else in Josipovici’s book to fall into place. And he equates modernism with this sense of mimetic.
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, the book opens with an anecdote about the young Josipovici attending, in the late 50s, a lecture by Lord David Cecil about the best in contemporary English fiction. Josipovici dutifully tried all the writers that Cecil recommended, and found them dull. They all wrote in a purely realist mode, and this did not compare with the excitement Josipovici found in the more daring prose of contemporary continental authors, and these were what he called the modern writers. This polemic, therefore, identifies modernism not in positive terms, ‘modernism is X’, but in negative terms, ‘modernism is not realism’. Significantly, much later in the book, Josipovici actually praises two works of English fiction that were pretty near contemporary with that lecture by Cecil: Pincher Martin by William Golding and The Hothouse on the East River by Muriel Spark. In both of these novels the protagonist is dead, and the novel is about their discovery of, and their coming to terms with, this fact. They are, therefore, works that partake of what I would call the fantastic; though, significantly, Josipovici never uses the words ‘fantasy’ or ‘fantastic’, one gets the impression that such an equivalence would demean what he thinks of as the modern.
The dichotomy between praxis and mimesis thus leads to a simple equation: realism = bad, the non-real = modernism (and by implication is good). If we take this on board, there’s actually a lot of interesting, revealing and thought-provoking stuff in the book. His close reading of some individual works is exemplary. But there are always points where you run up against something and feel as if you’ve crashed into a brick wall. Because the whole book is an attempt to change parameters, revise definitions, rip the rug out from under our standard, commonly-understood definitions and present mimesis and modernism as something else; and there are always going to be points where that something else doesn’t seem to make sense.
At, roughly, the mid point of the book there is a chapter called ‘The Marquise Went Out At Five’. This, by way of Barthes, riffs on something Valéry said. ‘The phrase,’ as Josipovici puts it, ‘was one he would always avoid, as it was the type of bad opening of classic nineteenth-century narratives … [Valéry objected to] the arbitrariness implied in the use of the phrase’ (81). What Josipovici is essentially arguing in this chapter is that the realist novel (he uses Dickens as an exemplar) relies on coincidences and upon arbitrarily contrived situations. A phrase like ‘the marquise went out at five’ is an example of such contrivance, there is nothing necessary about such a statement. The implication is obvious: the mimetic, modernist novel does not rely upon coincidence, or if it does rely upon coincidence it makes a point of it; and the mimetic, modernist novel does not rely upon contrivance.
What I read this chapter as doing is sneering at plot, at the craft of constructing a novel. But such craft is not solely associated with realism. Pincher Martin is a well-crafted novel; Golding had to plan very carefully the stages in which Martin explored his tooth/island, the sequence of memories that reveal his true character, the course through which his actual state is revealed to Martin and to the reader. In a sense, every single detail about this novel is as arbitrary as saying ‘the marquise went out at five’, there is nothing that is not artificial about it, there would be no novel if these arbitrary things did not happen in their arbitrary sequence. Now it has to be said that my tastes coincide quite closely with Josipovici’s, there are one or two authors he hates that I like (Ian McEwan), one or two he likes that I can’t say I’m a fan of (Proust), but in broad terms there seems enough of a similarity of taste that I’ll probably seek out some of the authors he mentions that I haven’t encountered before. And yet when you read a chapter like that your immediate response is not that we disagree over the use of words like ‘mimesis’ or ‘modernism’, but that there is a far more profound difference in what we consider a novel to be.
And yet, for all that I disagree so much with his argument in detail, there is something about the bravura way in which he simply changes the nature of the discourse that I cannot help but admire. It is, in other words, a book that I shall be arguing with and therefore thinking about for some time to come.