Paul LakelandDecember 19, 2008 - 12:31pm0 comments
The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond
W. W. Norton, $35, 640 pp.
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...