Making sense of Modernism

Josipovici_full Tim Black reviews Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?, in Spiked:

Despite his gain in knowledge and power, Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century Doctor Faustus strikes an increasingly saturnine pose. His freedom from Christian authority, bought at such great cost from Mephistopheles, comes to be experienced as loss: not just loss of grace, but loss of meaning and of purpose, too. At the last, as we hear him here, he strives once more for the re-enchantment of the world. He can even see that symbol of the sacramental universe, ‘Christ’s blood’, ‘stream[ing] in the firmament’. But it’s too late; God has departed. In his wake, modern Faustian man is free, but rootless, liberated but cut adrift from the resources that had once furnished his life with meaning.

Such is the similarly plaintive refrain that runs through Professor Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?. Not that you would know this, given the silly-season furore that greeted the author’s much-publicised criticism of the greats of contemporary Anglo-American literature. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, even Philip Roth – all are, admittedly, the recipients of Josopivici’s critical sting. ‘Reading Barnes’, Jospovici writes – and the Guardian gleefully quoted – ‘like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner’. If these ‘precise’, ‘cynical’, and unrelentingly ‘ironical’ writers, having snuck out from under ‘Philip Larkin’s overcoat’, clearly annoy Josopivici, then at least he finds Philip Roth, a man frequently and perhaps unthinkingly hailed as ‘our greatest living writer’, funny and thought-provoking. ‘[B]ut only as good journalism can be funny and thought-provoking’, Jospivici adds, just in case his personal enjoyment be mistaken for objective literary praise.

But there is far more to Whatever Happened to Modernism? than a desire to right wrongful veneration. For a start, his barbs towards Amis and friends come in the penultimate chapter of 15. They are the result of a grand historico-philosophical perspective, not its starting point. And it is in this perspective, in this attempt to convey what modernism was and is, that this little book’s ambiguous value lies – ambiguous because its tremendous insight into the nature of Modernism reveals, and revels in, the most reactionary of sentiments: a disillusionment with Enlightenment, with reason, in short with the whole human-centricity of Western civilisation since Luther pinned up his 95 theses in Wittemburg in 1517.