Drowned in Eau de Vie

Modris Eksteins reviews Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond in the LRB:

In his new book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, the inordinately prolific and widely admired Peter Gay has much to say about the creativity of the moderns but surprisingly little about their negativity. He conceives of Modernism in older terms as principally an intellectual and artistic grouping bent on liberation rather than as a broader frame of mind distinguished by ballooning malaise and irony. While he shies away from definition because of the contradictory manifestations of Modernist effort – how does one reconcile Thomas Mann and Andy Warhol? – he can’t help but see the Modernist instinct as essentially an affirmative urge. Two-thirds of the way through his book, Gay states bluntly that ‘liberalism’ was the ‘fundamental principle of Modernism’.

But whose liberalism is he talking about? Surely not the free enterprise aspirations of the beastly bourgeoisie. Nor can he be referring to the socially conscious progressivism that arose in the later 19th century and urged a politics of compassion, moderation and compromise. In fact the heyday of Modernism, from roughly 1890 to 1930, corresponded to a mounting crisis of liberalism, in both social thought and politics. The two dispositions, Modernism and liberalism, were if anything adversarial. Modernism was all about destroying restraint, pushing to the edge, living life dangerously. Modernism was an extremism of the soul in an age of extremes. Gay makes little mention of the role of illness, abnormality and neurosis in the Modernist mindset.