Peter Gay on The Death of Modernism

Morgan in The Smart Set:

Screenhunter_2These days, we’re weary of being weary. But that gets us nowhere. Then, into the midst of all the funk and gloom, comes one of the most boring books of our time. And it is as deeply satisfying a dull torpor as we’ve been gifted in recent memory. The book is Peter Gay’s Modernism. It is something akin to a high school textbook, with categories like “Prose and Poetry,” “Music and Dance,” “Architecture and Design,” and the like. Gay, in explaining the difficulties presented to anyone trying to write a history of Modernism, says:

Not surprisingly, then, cultural historians intimidated by the chaotic, steadily evolving panorama they are trying in retrospect to reduce to order have sought refuge in a prudential plural: “modernisms.” This compliment to the turbulence that pervades the modern marketplace for art, literature, and the rest shows due respect for an imaginative individuality that has for almost two centuries ignited spirited debate over taste, its expressiveness, morality, economics, and politics, and over their psychological or social origins and implications.

The turbulence, Gay suggests in 510 pages, is very much over. And he has the prose to prove it. Modernism is dead. We all knew this, of course, but we still didn’t necessarily believe it. We needed to go to the funeral. We wanted to see the body. Now we have. Peter Gay is our undertaker. We needed someone to do the job of writing the final obituary for Modernism and it was such an immensely tiresome task that we left it off for more than 20 years. We were bad. Peter Gay, a good man, has finally stepped to the fore. He has written one of the least engaging books of our time. And this, I submit, is the perfect antidote to our lingering discontent. Peter Gay is a hero.