Edmund Wilson memorably characterized the later novels of Henry James as “large, loose, baggy monsters.” It might be unkind to describe historian Peter Gay’s latest book in the same way, yet Gay’s subject, modernism, itself exhibits all the symptoms—not only largeness and looseness, but also extensive baggydom and not a little monstrosity. In undertaking a six-hundred-page guide to a movement that has affected every art form for over a century, Gay intrepidly aims to bring order out of chaos and help a reader grasp at least the major features of the thing. If he is only partially successful, it is hard to imagine anyone else doing much better. After all, what do Baudelaire, Mies van der Rohe, Virginia Woolf, and Charlie Chaplin have in common, and how do they connect to Picasso?
Gay warns the reader that modernism is more “a climate of thought, feeling, and opinion” than a movement or even a distinctive style, and that it is best understood as a “large, interesting, far-flung family” whose members, though distinctive, have lots in common. However much they may differ in other respects, all modernists, Gay suggests, share two defining attributes: “the lure of heresy,” or “successful insubordination against ruling authority”; and “a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” Since these criteria bind together, as children of modernism, Marxists and fascists, high Anglicans and atheists, villains and saints, we should not be surprised to find family parties frequently disrupted by internecine feuds.
After his opening discussion, Gay briefly examines Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde as harbingers of modernism, then glances at late-nineteenth-century French painting, devoting a few fascinating pages to the role of art dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel in the education of taste. But the heart of the book—and perhaps its weakest part—consists of five long chapters considering, in turn, painting and sculpture, prose and poetry, music and dance, architecture and design, and drama and the movies. What gradually becomes clear in Modernism is that neither the vague family resemblances Gay evokes nor the themes of heresy and introspection he sets forth can coherently unite the persons and phenomena his book contains. How to explain, for example, that much of modernist painting has become entirely mainstream, along with at least some fiction and poetry, while popular taste remains mostly allergic to Schönberg’s music? Or that people have remained unwilling to embrace the cold edginess of modernist architecture—not to mention sitting on its furniture? The truth is that Gay’s “lure of heresy” could be described as the mark of almost any artist not under the sway of classicism’s insistence on imitating the ancients. Mozart was undeniably breaking away from the past, as Haydn had and Beethoven later would—but they could not be called modernists without the label ceasing to mean anything at all. And as for privileged self-scrutiny, how “introspective” (really) are the racist parables of filmmaker D. W. Griffiths?
Such questions throw Gay’s categorizations into doubt. Griffiths, he allows, is “an unusual modernist,” since his work was, “in a word, reactionary,” yet the filmmaker makes the list, even though Gay informs us later that liberalism is “that fundamentalism principle of modernism.” Strindberg, meanwhile, was “an almost unconscious modernist,” and Chekhov “the most old-fashioned among the modernists.” Conversely, Gay omits people from his pantheon who ought to be there. Why spend so much time on the deeply ambiguous legacy of T. S. Eliot while saying nothing about Wallace Stevens, surely a much more consistent modernist? Where is Gertrude Stein? Robert Mapplethorpe? Man Ray? And why devote pages to determining that Wagner is not a modernist, then all but ignore Benjamin Britten, Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc, and Sergei Prokofiev—after having described them as “the first modernist musicians who come to mind”?
Modernism closes with chapters in which its author seems to throw in the taxonomic towel. When he offers up Charles Ives and Knut Hamsun (and an older if not wiser Eliot) as “antimodern modernists,” Gay suggests that something beyond style and subjectivity does indeed distinguish a “true” modernist from an impostor-a point he has spent most of the book trying to refute. A brief section on “barbarians” follows, in which Nazism and Stalinism are rightly excoriated for their treatment of independent artists, and the book ends by summoning Andy Warhol, Gabriel García Márquez, and others in an attempt to discern if modernism still lives. But by this time, both argument and author seem to have run out of steam. Perhaps Modernism marked out too much cultural terrain for any one critic to cover, no matter how astute.
Ultimately, Gay’s insistence that modernism cannot be identified in political terms should not preclude our attempting to explain the movement in terms of social change. Modernism—the creative face of the past hundred or so years-gained its particular character through the disappearance of ethical boundaries and social constraints. The modernists did not create a more tolerant cultural climate; they benefited from it, even as many of them stretched it still further. Victorian and Edwardian social limits were undone not by impressionists and poets but by the Great War and the Russian Revolution, cataclysmic events that rewrote the limits of the possible. A more coherent treatment of modernism as a cultural phenomenon might have reflected upon the seismic shifts in consciousness that the arts reflect but do not create. That said, one closes this huge and periodically entertaining book grateful to an author who has made a valiant effort to do the impossible.
Read more: Letters, January 30, 2009