February 2008

Richard Wirick


Modernism: The Lure of Heresy by Peter Gay

America’s pre-eminent cultural historian has nailed it once again. Yale’s Peter Gay, who already wrote of this subject in his ravishing, multi-volume The Bourgeois Experience, has crammed about fifty years of radical artistic transformation into what a lesser craftsman would take a thousand pages to explain. And while you won’t be able to carry Modernism: The Lure of Heresy around in your pocket until it is a paperback, one should spring for this tome now, as the color plates alone are worth the modest ticket to this feast. Gay’s treatment of the “modernist phenomena” breaks down into explorations of writing, the plastic arts, and music, then finishes off with a fascinating summary of architecture as embodied in Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.


Gay saw modernist writing born with Henry James’s shift to interior monologues, however freighted they were with devices left over from Victorian prose conventions. Of course, Gay stresses Joyce’s refinements of the monologue in Ulysses, as well as Proust’s in The Past Recaptured. But if a principle -- indeed, a manifesto -- could be derived from all these experiments, it could be summed up as a developing revolt against exteriority, against rhetoric, and against the realist/naturalist tradition that by the fin de siècle had reached its apogee in French writers like Zola. Modernist prose would get its first principles from, of all things, French symbolist poetry, where “the soul of things can be made visible; literature, bowed down by so many burdens, may at last obtain liberty, and its authentic speech” (LaForgue). For the symbol to reign free, character had to be reduced to the shifting modulations of consciousness far more than the actions and external circumstances of a character’s life. The world was not what happened in it or even a character’s external observations of it; rather, it was constructed from colorings, shades, increments, rhythmic pulses and surges of consciousness itself -- what I would call anomic or phenomenological sketching.

Gay finds the pinnacle of modernist novels not in the two authors just cited, but in Virginia Woolf, who this writer has always steered away from (at least her fiction) as simply too genteel. Not so, says Gay. In the stifling dinner parties of To The Lighthouse, the Ramsey family and its guests were fixing to smash the tea service all over the dining room and then go at each others’ throats with shards of champagne bottles. And we only learn this by burrowing like viruses in their cerebral cortices. Event-plotting -- that logical sequence of moments so obligatory to Victorian fiction -- had lost its last remaining appeal. “Moments of being,” as Woolf called them in her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past,” moments of consciousness, would henceforth reveal society’s dark underside -- what “civilized” actors truly wished on one another and themselves.

Surprise was the secret ingredient: mordant, terrible revelations lifting up like steam from the Ramsays’ covered-dish entrees:

...I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is the token of some real thing behind appearances... From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. (“A Sketch of the Past”, from The Common Reader.)

“The shock of the new” -- the shock of modernism -- was at least in part these unnerving flashes of connection, the euphoric sense of enlargement and unification they brought. That shock, that “blow” -- it was all “[Dead] in us,” as Robert Creeley said forty years later. “Lest we forget/The virtues of an amulet/And quick surprise.”

Modernism in prose, then, was this deep psychic sparking, its embers blown up into glowing coals, in the light of which we glimpse part of a pattern. No such pattern existed outwardly -- it was bestowed not just by a character’s or narrator’s consciousness, but by the wayward, undirected musings of consciousness. A modernist prose-episode involves no drama, no situation, no set scene -- no necessary “happening.” Rather, Gay says, it entails a “passionate voyage to the interior, a celebration of subjectivity, a regular flouting of the rules of novel writing… that makes modernist fiction a scandal with the philistine.”


In painting and similar arts, the modernist looked for new ways to present primary human forces, presenting them in shocking hyper-realist burlesques (George Grosz and Max Beckmann) or through abstract painterly equivalences (Paul Cézanne). The German cartoon-painters stacked apples in a prostitute’s crotch; Cezanne sketched them as “a pretext for exploring the dynamics of perception.” But all practitioners threw the scrim of thinking -- not thought but thinking -- between the narrator and the sense-datum. The inscrutable, sifting and refining work of the unconscious was the only “revelator,” the skeleton key to true meaning.

Van Gogh and Gauguin’s self-portraits, then, sought to declare “their innermost selves without bourgeois reticence,” idiosyncratic, exhibitionistic, intensely alive. With no coherence save for “dream-connection,” Dada simply laid bare the attics and basements of the unconscious, showing much of their contents to be “wholly negative,” and propelling society eventually into the wars demanded by Freud’s Death Instinct. At the same time, interiority revealed tremendous forces of humor, play and fancy: Kurt Schwitters’s collages and dummy-sized constructions; Hannah Hoch and Sophie Tauber’s dolls and marionettes; Duchamp’s whimsical machines and Ernst’s yarn-streaming, wildly spinning top-puppets. (Cornell’s boxes stored the ephemeral energies of ballerinas and film sirens like cut meat in a freezer: chilly, foggy with thwarted longing, but still fun to play with -- fun to see the soft light that came on when you lifted the lid.)

Gay is not, I think, quite right in including post-War painters as “modernist.” Though Malevich and Kandinsky sought to blast away surfaces and get to an underlying grid of pictorial reality similar to Woolf’s “moments of being,” later painters really seemed to be ridiculing much of modernism’s “earnest despondency.” Pollock wasn’t trying to embody consciousness so much as give life to certain critical maxims. Rinehardt and Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman seemed to think modernism’s excesses could be tamed down into the purely decorative. Francis Bacon projected caution at the human slaughter that could come from the application of theories. Their art was not modernist or even post-modernist so much as it was parody of certain modernist strains.

What Gay touches on so well is the modernist artist’s self-awareness and self-reference in the painterly work. Once again, consciousness (and the unconscious) make up what we tend to think of as "reality," and not the other way around. For centuries, painters had provided the illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional medium. But now human arrangement and design were to be foregrounded with a vengeance. If consciousness created reality, then distortions were the essential prism of that consciousness. How else would one define Cubism?

[Picasso and Braque] shattered surfaces that in nature belong together and reassembled fragmented reality by transforming a curved object like a woman’s breast or a man’s cheek into some strange geometric contour that resembled virtually nothing certainly not a breast or a cheek. In a word, Cubists deliberately misrepresented the world of objects, giving the viewer the chore of putting the fragments together into a recognizable semblance of actuality. Curves survived in Cubist art, but they were upstaged by straight lines, by rectangles, and, as contemporaries noted with amusement, by cubes...

All of modernist painting continued to thrive on this friable, disintegrating breakdown of the presented surface. It shocked; it jarred; it reminded the world of the brain’s unpredictable and indispensable filtering. Flowerpots of brilliantly varied sand seemed dropped and shattered on underlying principles of traditional draftsmanship. Poking among them was a mysterious, utterly lovely enterprise.


Gay roves across music, film and drama with a deft searchlight, summarizing the major achievements of Stravinsky, Strindburg and Orson Welles. He is best in describing the modernist drama of Strindberg, who first used rapid action and clipped dialogue to such effect in Miss Julie and The Father. These works were “modernist” not just in their structural devices, but in the unflinching treatment of forbidden subjects like erotic power and the meaning of paternity. The narrator of Miss Julie is, after all, virtually unparalled in his psychological subtlety. A young valet who drugs and then seduces his employer’s daughter, all the while exposing his own persecution complexes and vacillating breakdown of personality, “The Driver” shows his creator abandoning any hint of traditional plot, re-working it to focus on the spiritual, psychological trajectory of modern soul-seekers. Eugene O’Neill proclaimed himself Strindberg’s disciple in 1924, heralding the Swede as “the precursor of all modernity in our present theater, the most modern of moderns.”

Strindberg himself wrote a revealing (and highly modernist) preface to Miss Julie which posited modern man’s personality as wildly wobbling between contradictory impulses, impossibly disparate pressures, unstable qualities both given and made, both consistent and self-contradictory. “As modern characters,” he wrote, “living in an age of transition more urgently hysterical than the one that preceded it, I have depicted [the play’s figures] as more split and vacillating, a mixture of the old and new.” This meant that “[m]y souls (characters) are conglomerates of past and present stages of culture, bits out of books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, torn shreds of once fine clothing turned to rags, exactly as the human heart is patched together.” He had written, he said, “a modern psychological drama,” alert to “the subtlest movements of the soul.”

“The subtlest movements of the soul” -- this was the ultimate statement of modernism’s subject, its blasted landscape. Strindberg summarized all that had just preceded him (and all that was to soon follow) in this rejection of the bourgeoisie’s concept of an impermeable soul, a highly consistent and predictable character, a personality that could be dependable and could serve as society’s fulcrum. By contrast, the new century’s representative man was “split, double and multiple; [likely to] evaporate, crystallize, scatter and converge.” He went further in his Author’s Note to A Dream Play, saying that for all the characters’ deracination, “[A] single consciousness holds sway over them all -- that of the dreamer. For him there are no secrets, no incongruities, no scruples, no law -- He neither condemns nor acquits, but only relates, and since, on the whole, there is more pain than pleasure in the dream, a tone of melancholy, and compassion for all living things, runs through these uncertain tales.”

In much of this masterly work, Gay himself appears indistinguishable from Strindberg or the Strindbergian narrator. Suspended high above his handiwork, and manipulating a canvas that it would take lesser historians volumes to manage, Gay is someone on whom none of his characters’ modulations are lost. He explains the larger contexts and results of every revolutionary brush-stroke and groundbreaking line of verse; he traces every ripple, every seemingly untraceable wave, from each of his giants’ well-dropped stones.

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy by Peter Gay
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393052052
640 Pages