The current NYRB has an article on Gabried Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, said article being written by Eliot Weinberger. I’d been expecting an inspired reaction to an inspired book, but that is not what I found.
Weinberger clearly did not like the book, but I cannot figure out quite why. He jumps from an attack on its title (based a strangely literal reading of it) to a bunch of random, nitpicky-type arguments. For instance:
“Haydn could write a hundred symphonies” but “Beethoven could write only nine” (ignoring Beethoven’s hundreds of other works) because Haydn was “at ease within a tradition. What he had to do . . . was fill in a form.” He “didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch each time.”
Weinberger means for this to rebut one of Josipovici’s “exaggerated dichotomies,” but it does nothing of the sort. For one, it’s purely wrong on the facts–even going beyond symphonies, as Weinberger suggests, we see that Haydn had some 750 compositions to Beethoven’s 138. But it does nothing to dispute the fact that Beethoven famously made many remarks along the lines that he did feel he started over with each symphony, whereas Haydn worked in an entirely different tradition and didn’t compose as Beethoven did.
Weinberger is equally nitpicky when he trots out some generic attacks on Jospovici’s prose (e.g., use of the royal we, “gratuitous references,” etc).
Aside from the nitpicking, Weinberger’s characterization of the book as “largely a stringing of short ruminations on the works of favorite writers, artists, and composers” is a complete misreading. The book very clearly and carefully lays out a case for modernism as a response to the crisis of authority experienced in the West after the fall of the Church, an argument that Weingerber makes no attempt to respond to.
The closest he comes to a real rebuttal of Josipovici’s thesis is close to the very end:
But it is astonishing that his is a Modernism without the rise of the city, with its factories, crowds, and anonymity; without the devastation of the Napoleonic and First World Wars; without the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, the thrill of speed, the new symbolic language of the telegraph, the international voices of radio, mass migrations, the representational “reality” of photographs and the collapse of time in film montage, anthropological investigations of tribal cultures, or the beauties and terrors of industrial products.
Fair enough as a beginning, but as a sum total of Weinberger’s reaction this is very unsatisfying. And it completely contradicts Weinberger’s later assertion that modernism is now taking place in (I assume) industrializing nations like China and India:
Their writers and artists are entering into a Modernism that already is both familiar and different, a cosmopolitanism that doesn’t take London or Paris as its nexus, a continuation of, and revolt against, traditions that have little or nothing to do with Josipovici’s narrative of Church and Reformation, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Kierkegaard and the nouveau roman, certainty and doubt.
But if modernism consists of the telegraph, World War I, photographs, etc, then what those people are experiencing must be something else.
I don’t mean to imply that Josipovici’s argument is beyond critique or even that I agree with it completely; I only mean to say that it’s disappointing to see someone of Weinberger’s reputation completely fail to engage with one of the more interesting and accessible critical books to be published last year.
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