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1. What Ever Happened to Modernism by Gabriel Josipovici


This review was first published in Rain Taxi in the spring of 2011. I'd actually forgotten all about it, but then came across it as I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. In case it still holds some interest, here it is. (Page references are to the Yale hardcover, and were for the copyeditors to double check my quotes; they weren't in the print version of the review, but I've kept them in because, well, why not...)


One of the pleasures of Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? is that it all but forces us — dares us, even — to argue with it.  Josipovici presents an idiosyncratic definition of Modernism, he perceives the struggles of Modernist writers and artists as fundamentally spiritual, and he frames it all by describing his disenchantment with most of the critically-lauded British fiction of the last few decades, a disenchantment that he ascribes to such fiction’s attachment to non-Modernist 19th century desires.

The only readers likely to agree with Josipovici’s general view, then, are readers who accept his terms and share his tastes.  Such readers are probably few, and they are also the readers who least need the book.  It is those of us who may be sympathetic to one or another of Josipovici’s general arguments who really need it, because it is a powerfully clarifying volume, especially in its extended discussions of particular works.


“Modernism” is one of those terms that has been used in so many different ways, with so many different meanings, that anyone seeking to discuss it must first define it.  In general, it is seen as both a tendency and an era, a style of artistic expression mostly occurring in the twentieth century, though with some examples or precursors in the latter part of the 19th century.  Josipovici rejects all of this, for while his paragons of Modernism do fit the general periodizing, his definition of the term is far broader, and is not particularly interested in situating Modernism within borders of time.  In the first chapter, he defines Modernism as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities” [11], a definition that is further refined to see Modernism as a response to the post-Medieval European world’s disenchantments.  Modernism reveals itself in the “century of pain, anxiety, and despair on the part of writers, painters, and composers” [5], which Josipovici details with examples from Mallarmé, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Kafka, and Beckett.  The pain, anxiety, and despair come from an unresolvable tension between an overwhelming desire to write and a doubt in art’s ability to represent the world.  This tension inscribes itself in the texts, undermining or even shattering the enchanting verisimilitude of, for instance, Victorian novelists such as Dickens.
Josipovici begins What Ever Happened to Modernism?with a preface in which he tells the story of being an undergraduate student, hearing a lecture about “The English Novel Today”, seeking out the recommended writers (Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch), and feeling a lack: “They told entertaining stories wittily or darkly or with sensationalist panache, and they obviously wrote well, but theirs were not novels which touched me to the core of my being, as had those of Kafka and Proust” (ix).  He goes on to discover Borges and Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Saul Bellow, Georges Perec, and Aharon Appelfeld — all writers whose work he admires — but feels more and more of an outsider within English literary culture.  “Occasionally I wondered why my own feelings and those of reviewers or critics were so much at odds, wondered, indeed, who was right, me or the entire establishment.  I didn’t think I was mad (though of course the mad rarely do), and I did occasionally meet people who shared my tastes, so how was this anomaly to be explained?

“This little book,” he says, “is an attempt to answer that question.” (xi)

Within the question itself we can glimpse the kernels of Josipovici’s argument, assumptions, and desires.  He sets up a polarity: “Who was right, me or the entire establishment?”  It’s a feeling many intelligent and thoughtful people have asked (often in their youth) for centuries, and the frustration it provides can be productive, particularly in helping people define their tastes, but in and of itself it’s humorous in its naivety.  The claim that What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an attempt to answer the question of why Josipovici’s experiences as a reader are different from those of people who don’t share his tastes may be true in terms of intention — he may have thought that was what he was trying to do — but it is false as a description of the book’s value, because Josipovici shows no interest in trying to understand tastes that differ from his own.  He truly doesn’t seem to be able to understand how people of even moderate intelligence and education could find themselves touched to the core of their beings by works that he himself doesn’t respond strongly to, and which seem to him “to belong to a different and inferior world to that of Proust and the others” (x).  Not just different, but inferior.

It should not surprise us, then, when Josipovici defines a central element of Modernism as “pain, anxiety, and despair” resulting from European culture’s growing rationalism and waning faith in unquestioned authorities and eternal verities.  Over the course of the Middle Ages, perceptions of reality changed.  Individualism took hold.  Capitalism infiltrated economies.  The Enlightenment solidified, expanded, and complexified the disenchantment, and then Romanticism reflected on it.  The Victorian novel, that form which Josipovici so disdains, sought to re-enchant the world with the legerdemain of its reality effects, the verisimilitude that lulls the reader into imagined reality.  Such a reality is unquestioned, unified — it does not admit the problems of representation in a fallen and fragmented world.  Its pains, anxieties, and despairs are not those of the Modernist, but of the illusionist.

Josipovici’s question “Who was right, me or the establishment?” is simultaneously a cliche of individualism (the absolute individualist, unburdened by doubts, answers, perhaps with a copy of The Fountainheadin hand, “ME!”) and an expression of the assumption that prevents Josipovici from empathizing with any view other than his own, because the assumption underlying the question is that there is a right and a wrong, and that this right and wrong can be discovered and elucidated.  The first chapters of the book are the weakest, because it is in them that Josipovici attempts to predict criticisms to his arguments, but he is so convinced that those criticisms must be wrong(different and inferior) that what he offers as representations of them are ridiculous: a quote from Evelyn Waugh about Picasso, a parody of Marxism (paraphrasing something Josipovici said he heard from a professor at the University of Sussex once), and a caricature of postmodernism that, were someone to represent his own conception of Modernism so badly, Josipovici would laugh off the page.  He quotes an astute statement from the art historian T.J. Clark on the difficulties of writing honestly about pre-Enlightenment Europe without sounding nostalgic, but this seems pro forma — Josipovici verges, especially in the first chapters, toward far more nostalgia than Clark’s Farewell to an Idea does, because Josipovici clings to the notion that the fragmentation and dispersal of authority should cause pain, anxiety, and despair.  He wants, still, for there to be one right and one wrong, and he sees “the establishment” as a monolithic and invalid authority.

He knows, though, that this despair can lead to terrible things, and he uses Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus particularly well to point to the dangers, for Doctor Faustus represents a Germany “which is in the grip of a party which believes it is possible to forge a new cultic and communal society in the post-industrial world,” and this Germany “appals and terrifies” the characters, Mann, and Josipovici. What is to be done?  “Can one retain the critical insights, feel the loss as real, without at the same time opting for the demented Nazi vision of a new cult?  This is the question out of which the tortured novelist, writing in distant California as the Nazi dream drags Europe to its destruction, forges one of his greatest works.” [19-20]

After these introductory pages, the book shifts more toward Josipovici’s real strengths — he moves from denigrating the mysterious forces that don’t share his opinions and perceptions to offering his interpretations of specific writers, artists, and works. In its central chapters, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is a tour de force. As the book draws connections between Albrecht Dürer, Rabelais, and Cervantes; Wordsworth and Caspar David Friedrich; Kierkegaard and everyone, the pages sing with insight. Each reader will find different thrills within the rich texture of the text. While I was familiar with some of Josipovici’s ideas about such writers as Cervantes, Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Beckett from his previous essays, I had passed over things he’d written before about Wordsworth, and so his close readings of some of Wordsworth’s most famous and most obscure poems opened those works up to me in ways I had never considered, and sent me back with passion to a writer I’d previously had little interest in. I expect most readers, especially those unfamiliar with the majority of Josipovici’s other books, will, if they can read past the polemic, find similar moments of epiphany in What Ever Happened to Modernism?.

By the end of the book, the word “Modernism” seemed to me too narrow for the tendency Josipovici described, because he convincingly shows connections between everything from ancient Greek drama to Herman Melville to Francis Bacon, suggesting that for millennia artists have concerned themselves with, if not Modernism exactly, the impulses and experiences that allow Modernism to fully reveal itself in the 19th century. What Josipovici describes is not an artistic movement or school, but a type of perception and expression present in much of the art that has been considered among the greatest of human accomplishments. The fiesty, proselytizing side of Josipovici tries hard to make it seem that everybody who has ever written about literature hates and misunderstands this tendency, but it may just be that he is uncomfortable on the side of the winners. While Proust, Kafka, Borges, et al may not be quite as popular as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown right now, they’re a whole lot more widely read than Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson, and Iris Murdoch, and a whole lot more universally beloved than even the contemporary British writers who soak up so much of the journalistic ink that rouses Josipovici’s ire.

I suspect, though, that the ire and insights need each other, and that without the passionate sense of being a lone, sane man in a madhouse of philistines, Josipovici may not have been able to make the bold and brilliant interpretive leaps displayed throughout not only What Ever Happened to Modernism?, but his entire oeuvre of essays and fiction. Careful, moderate critics are useful, but it is the fiery, aggrieved ones who scale the highest intellectual heights, and Josipovici has scaled those heights with brio and panache.

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2. Derek Jarman Rides the Rain Taxi



The latest print issue of Rain Taxi includes an essay I wrote, "Derek Jarman and The Memory Palace Of Life", about Derek Jarman's books, particularly the ones re-released by the University of Minnesota Press. I incorporated a few sentences from the piece in my video essay on Jarman and Caravaggio a few months back, but to read the whole thing you'll need to pick up a copy of Rain Taxi. Here, to tempt you (or dissuade you), are the first two paragraphs:
Derek Jarman died in 1994, leaving behind him one of the most important bodies of work of any artist or filmmaker of his generation, an oeuvre that challenged orthodoxies of sexuality, politics, and aesthetics. Though best remembered for such films as Jubilee, Caravaggio, The Last of England, Edward II, and Blue, Jarman was also a prolific writer, particularly as a diarist, and The University of Minnesota Press has now brought all of these books back into print in uniform paperback editions. Additionally, they have reprinted Tony Peake’s 1999 biography of Jarman.

Though very much an artist of his time, Jarman’s work has sustained its power and relevance long beyond its creator’s death. Having found meaning and pleasure within the bohemian, anti-establishment world of the late-'60s British avant-garde art scene, Jarman never hesitated in presenting an identity for himself that was defiantly queer. At first, this was not a political identity. In his 1992 memoir/journal/manifesto At Your Own Risk, Jarman wrote that “I danced the sixties away but I didn’t see that as hedonism; it was a REVOLUTIONARY GESTURE — you should have seen the way the other students reacted to two men kissing in public. I believed we could bring change with individual actions, it wasn’t linked to any conventional political blueprint. One person in one room quite cut off could change the world.” During the early 1970s, Jarman attended many of the meetings of the Gay Liberation Front, but though he enjoyed the more pranksterish elements of their activism, Peake quotes him as saying he “disliked these well-meaning rather lonely people laying down the law … there was an element of joylessness about it.” His early films were proudly queer (a label he came to prefer to “gay”), but their queerness was in service to their countercultural core. Jubilee (1978), his second feature-length film, was an anarchic vision of an apocalyptic England (or an apocalyptic vision of an anarchic England) full of punk rockers. With the arrival of AIDS and Thatcherism in the 1980s, though, Jarman would become radicalized, his bohemian individualism and sense of humor evolving into furious, confrontational queer communalism.

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3. Wallace Shawn at The Quarterly Conversation

I'm happy whenever one of my favorite playwrights, Wallace Shawn, gets some attention.  Andrew Ervin has written an interesting personal essay at The Quarterly Conversation about Shawn and white privilege, his thoughts sparked by Shawn's latest publications, Essays and Grasses of a Thousand Colors.

I wrote about those two books and Shawn's whole career as a writer for the most recent print issue of Rain Taxi.  While you'll have to get your hands on the dead tree magazine itself to read it all (for now), here are three paragraphs from it to whet your appetite...


More than a decade after The Designated Mourner, Grasses of a Thousand Colors received its world premiere in London (a city that has been more hospitable to [Shawn's] plays than any other). Soon after, Essays was published, collecting, in fewer than 200 pages, more than twenty years of occasional writings, including interviews with the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky and the poet Mark Strand. Shawn breaks his essays into two groups: "Reality" (mostly political commentary) and "Dream-World" (commentary on the arts), and these twin realms could apply as easily to Grasses of a Thousand Colors, wherein a wealthy and successful scientist begins by reading from his memoir (in which he justifies the work that, we soon realize, destroyed the Earth's food chain), continues by talking about his high regard for his penis, moves into a surreal and erotic variation on elements from the old story of "The White Cat" by Madame d'Aulnoy, and ends with the borders between the dream-world and reality unclear. The scientist, named alternately in the Theatre Communications Group edition of the script as The Memoirist, Ben, and He, is as unreliable a narrator of his life as any of Shawn's other characters, though perhaps more obviously compromised in his morality -- he did, after all, intentionally develop a way for animals to

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4. Likely Stories

From a wonderful new interview with Brian Evenson by John Madera at Rain Taxi:

Brian Evenson: Some of the stories I always come back to, when I’m teaching full stories and trying to get students to understand how all the different elements of a story are working together, include William Trevor’s “Miss Smith,” which I think does amazing things with shifting the reader’s sympathy; Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” which does something amazingly manic with doubling and which may be my favorite story ever; Isak Dinesen’s “The Roads Round Pisa” or “The Monkey,” both of which do things that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else do; Peter Straub’s “Bunny Is Good Bread” and “Lapland,” which do very important things in terms of questioning the relation of genre to literature; Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which manages to collapse as a story while still establishing an incredible resonance; D. H. Lawrence’s “The Prussian Officer,” because it works even though it does all sorts of things that contemporary writers have been taught a story shouldn’t do. I often teach Kafka’s “A Fratricide”—it’s far from his best story, but it’s very rich in the things it can teach a writer; I can talk about it for hours. I love, too, to teach Muriel Spark’s novellas, Ohle’s Motorman, Dambudzo Marechera, Barbara Comyns, Leonard Sciascia, Ann Quin, Jean Echenoz, Eric Chevillard, certain Chekhov stories, Bruno Schulz, Heinrich Böll, Nabokov, Gary Lutz, Stanley Crawford, Kelly Link, etc., etc. There are a lot of writers I draw on and they’re different every semester, which is probably why I find it difficult to stick to an anthology. I end up teaching stories that I think are likely to be helpful or important to particular students.

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5. Rain Taxi Auction

Rain Taxi Review of Books is a marvelous magazine, and they've just begun their annual auction, which is an event I always look forward to because of the wide variety of items they have to offer, including dozens of signed books.

The new print issue of RT includes an essay I wrote about the work of Wallace Shawn, a playwright and essayist whose face and voice many people know from some of his iconic roles in movies and TV shows, but whose writing is vastly less known -- he's one of those writers who is more popular outside of his native country than in it.

Aside from a couple short stories that are currently wending their way through the submission process, my major writings since this summer have been the Shawn essay for RT and the essay on Coetzee for The Quarterly Conversation. The effect of spending so much time reading and re-reading the writings of both men is obvious in my latest Strange Horizons column, "On the Eating of Corpses".

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6. Rain Taxi Benefit Auction

The great and glorious magazine Rain Taxi is holding a benefit auction to raise some money. They're offering a wide assortment of books and book-like items of all sorts and genres for sale -- some real treasures.

RT is a wonderful source of information on books that otherwise are difficult to learn about, and I have relied on them for years now. In a time when book coverage is disappearing from the mainstream media, it's particularly important that venues such as Rain Taxi exist.

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