Modris Eksteins in LRB
Voici le temps des assassins,’ Rimbaud announced in the wake of the Paris Commune. One could argue that the central motif in Modernism was the notion of violation: André Breton saying that ‘the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can, into the crowd’; Otto Dix portraying a crazed murderer dismembering a female body, flinging limbs hither and thither; Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí slitting an eyeball with a razor in the unwatchable opening sequence of Un Chien andalou. The mutilation of symbol, value, history and even of self was crucial to the Modernist urge. The moderns wanted to be new, fast. This urgency demanded that the old be eliminated. ‘I am dynamite,’ Nietzsche bellowed. Echoing this, the French incendiary Louis Aragon remarked that he could think of nothing more beautiful than a church and some dynamite.
The immediate enemy was of course the beefy bourgeois, defender of property and social order, with his fixed ideas about beauty, truth and respectability. Voltaire had wished to crush this tedious specimen; Gautier wanted to drown him in eau de vie; and, from the mid-19th century on, venom and violence began to build. Artists and writers led the assault – they were indeed the advance guard – but in certain quarters public scorn mounted too. In the longer term the moderns aimed to discard not merely Monsieur Prud’homme, but all existing structure and command. ‘The true Dadas are against Dada,’ Tristan Tzara would proclaim. Were one to chart Modernism as a mood – and that’s the best way to look at it, as a cultural temper rather than as a specific style, let alone movement – existing between, say, the 1870s and the end of the Second World War, the trend would be a gradual ascent with some stunning vertical spurts before and after the First World War.
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. ‘One can take pride in going as far in crime as . . . in virtue,’ a character in Huysmans’s Là-bas exclaims. For Thomas Mann art was the equivalent of illness. To emphasise the liberal characteristics of Modernism requires a highly selective approach, and even then Gay’s idiosyncratic portrait gallery is hardly a cheerful and optimistic place. It is full of sneering manic depressives and churlish mystics. In order to cram some of them, like Knut Hamsun, into his box and then to be able to close the lid, Gay has to create the category of anti-modern Modernist.
He arranges his protagonists in traditional groupings, visual artists first, followed by the literary crowd, the music consort, then architects and designers, and finally dramatists and film-makers. There is little of the thematic discussion that has been the organising principle of many of his other books. The present categorisation is one that the moderns themselves would have derided. Their goal was to destroy fixed categories and definitions, to blend genres so as to unleash energy and life. Kandinsky, the first to experiment with pure abstraction in art, played the piano and cello, wrote poetry, and claimed that colour and music were related. His Impression III: Concert from 1911 expresses his experience of attending a performance of Schoenberg’s music. Kokoschka wrote for the theatre. According to the playwright Paul Kornfeld, ‘a drama by Kokoschka is only a variation on his pictures and vice versa. Tone and melody, rhythm and gesture in his words are paralleled by the same effects in his pictures.’ Drama and spectacle, the arts as one, life as full-bodied experience: that was the point.