Self-Reference Is Not Enough

A review of Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-300-16577-7, 208 pp., $28.00.

Nicholas Birns, Eugene Lang College, the New School

Gabriel Josipovici is one of the most lucid and independent critics of his time. Since he began writing in the late 1960s, his books and articles have been noticeable for their trenchancy, originality, and willingness to ignore received opinion. He is also a skillful, although overly neglected; novelist and his fiction will assuredly one day receive the serious consideration it deserves. His role as a practitioner may have assisted him in arriving at his distinct and characteristic stance: a vigorous defense of Modernism against all attempts in the past forty years to render it obsolescent. This is a brave move at this point in time, when Modernism still tends to be the subject of sneering obloquy rather than the reverence that one greeted it, and the study of what used to be the Modernist era has now been redefined as “the modern period,” including not just works that were Modernist in technique or vision but any text published in the historical era 1900-1950. What is wrong with postModernism for Josipovici? Why cannot he accept it as the mode of the moment? Josipovici finds that postModernism has retreated from Modernism’s ambition to mount in T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, “a raid on the

inarticulate", and become too satisfied, as it were, with a raid on the alreadyarticulate: an immersion in with the given, in is immediately available on the referential level. We gravitate too much, argues Josipovici, art that might keep the surface frills of Modernist self-awareness but at its core retreats into bourgeois complacency and into reassuringly affirming the world as it is. Josipovici staunchly reaffirms the difficult aesthetics of characteristic Modernist figures, being especially eloquent on the subject of Picasso, who Josipovici praises not for his abstraction— Josipovici embraces all aspects of Picasso’s career, including his pastiche and Neoclassical aspects—but for his radical, if questioning, engagement with the world. Indeed, though Josipovici is not against self-reference he does not regard it as the cardinal indicator of Modernism. To be meaningful, self-reference must not be the mere advertisement or parading of textuality but use that self-awareness to ask serious questions about the world as we know it. One of the finest moments of this book occurs on page 166, when Josipovici splashes the reader with a jolt of cold water for lazily supposing that Philip Roth is “an experimental novelist” just because Roth makes a few gestures to unreliable narration and epistemological multiplicity in books like The Counterlife. Roth’s "heavy-handed playfulness” (167) never causes the novelist to lose utter confidence in what he is doing; he remains a master puppeteer behind the various frames of his work, and does not truly attain “a form of fiction that goes beyond the anecdotal” (166). Josipovici genuinely admires Roth, but he wants to make clear that Rothian self-referentiality is not the same as that of Modernism; he would probably say—with no doubt equivalent respect something similar of David Foster Wallace or, in general, the way self-reference has become

unthreatening, acceptable, in the contemporary novel, a sort of consumer appurtenance. Josipovici, conversely, sees self-reference as at once a suspension of usual knowledges and as a path to attain deeper knowledge. In his bravura analysis of Cervantes, Josipovici follows the eminent Cervantist Marthe Robert in not seeing Don Quixote as a critique of idealism but as an advertisement of the plurality and irreverence of modern narrative—irreverence not flaunted for mere display but that solicits the ontological instability that fiction both exploits and sutures. Opposed to both “fantasy and realism” (75) Modernism demands both uncertainty and discipline; the fissures it senses do not lead to exhilaration but to discernment with as much emphasis on self-limitation as self-liberation. Neither the imagination or reality is privileged; Josipovici opposes the hedonistic celebration of art for its own sake (one of the reasons that Beckett and Borges are mentioned in this book far more than is Nabokov). He also opposes realism that either affirms reality too much (as in postmodern mega-novels that despite experimental bells and whistles celebrate or confirm the status of some referential or historical subject) or rhetorics of realism that claim to get ot the base, down-and-dirty plain truth like the contemproary British novleist Adam Thirlwell does and urges. The Cervantes example shows that Josipovici does not see Modernism as a defined period, though his outstanding examples—Eliot, Beckett, Picasso—all come from the early to mid twentieth century. Much time is spent on Kierkegaard—who of course was often acknowledged in the Modernist era as a precursor, though early—but Josipovici Kierkegaard is less existentialist, more an inheritor of

romantic subjectivity. This ties in with what is, in context, Josipovici’s major rehabilitation of Wordsworth as a Modernist. For Wordsworth’s shattering of generic norms, for Wordsworth being intensely visionary while all the while being conscious of the vision-experiencing process, Wordsworth’s combination of intense passion and vigilant electiveness, Josipovici puts Wordsworth into a new context, with the bonus of providing superb and evocative close readings of “The Boy of Winander” and “Snowdon" passages in The Prelude. Josipovici achieves something similar with Wallace Stevens—never entirely eluded from the canon of Modernism, but who came into his own after Modernism waned. Giving one of the best readings ever of “The Comedian as the letter C”—a poem oddly slighted by Stevens criticism since 1960—Josipovici delineates the protagonist Crispin’s quest for both scope and certainty as a cognitive equivalent to that of Cervantes’s ingenious knight. Crispin settles for less epistemologically, but thus is not humiliation or truncation but a knowledge of reality that was achieved “dialectically and by indirection: (131). Josipovici thus vigorously defends Modernism against postmodern attempts to discard or outflank it. But his is a somewhat different Modernism than would have been seen in the days when Modernism was still the intellectual norm. There is no attempt to link it to contemporary events to the two World Wars or Hiroshima, or to contemporary science, to the theory of relativity and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. There is no hypostatized nostalgiaa for days gone by, no pining for e. g. the 1950s as a time period. Nor does Josipovici, unlike George Steiner, denounce Postmodernism’s embrace of popular culture, which hen this book would not be possible as Josipovici is so aware of how Picasso, for instance, profited from an

immersion in the ephemera of his surroundings. Nor is there an attempt to extol Modernism at the expense of Romanticism, to contend Romantic subjectivity was inflated or got it all wrong. Like previous exponents of Modernism, Josipovici dwells on Hugo von Hofmannsthal's "Chandos letter’” unlike most of them, he does not congratulate Hofmannsthal on having sensed a crisis of language uncanvassed by thinkers of the previous century, but sees him as continuing the sense of crisis— creative crisis—felt by Cervantes and Wordsworth and Kierkegaard. Josipovici's acknowledgment of the Modernism of Wordsworth marks a decisive break from the Eliot-Leavis tradition in English criticism and puts him in the company of Geoffrey Hartman—whom he quotes, and who blurbs the book on the back cover, but who would normally be considered more part of Postmodernism than of Modernism. Indeed there remains the issue of—with all due respect for his severity and rigor—whether Josipovici has drawn the line too firmly. It is one thing to dismiss claims by such as Roth and Thirlwell to Modernism, or to deny that they have significantly transcended it. But the bridge is raised too high when Josipovici lumps in with Angus Wilson—a fine novelist who worked within largely realistic, ultimately Victorian conventions—or Iris Murdoch—a largely realistic novelist despite her standing as a philosophical thinker (not acknowledged by Josipovici) with Anthony Powell. Powell consciously used Modernist devices like the “mythical method”, emualted Joyce, Proust, and Eliot, and in his manipulation of time certainly avoided the reality-confirming passé simple Josipovici scolds neo-realistic novelists such as Irène Némirovsky for using. To inveigh against Wilson and Murdoch and Powell, as Josipovici does twice, as if they were a trio of retro-

normative nostalgias is to take Wilson for the others, and scants Powell especially. One wonders if, as is often the case with critics of Powell, this is simply because Powell had the wrong (Tory) politics, and any Tory has to not be a Modernist; one only needs to look to T. S. Eliot to see why this is wrong. On the other side, as it were, of the spectrum, Josipovici lumps Toni Morrison in with Philip Roth, when Morrison is far more committed to using Modernist devices like stream—ofconsciousness in ways that are not (as Josipovici correctly says of Roth) ultimately thematic, but are profoundly formal. But because Morrison has been used to bolster African American identity politics, Josipovici assumes that the devices in her fiction must be in the service of these politics—which is no more true than to say Powell’s analepses and mythical residues are in the service of Conservative Central Office, which they are not. Morrison and Powell could have been supports for a lot of Josipovici’s arguments, but they are cast out like Hephaestus from among the Immortals. So are French theorists. Josipovici madly scolds Roland Barthes for “merely developing the ideas of great Modernists (80) without wondering if French theory, in general, might be anally of his, and indeed the place, as opposed to post-1970 practices of fiction and other creative forms, where Modernism actually ‘went’. Josipovici could potentially have applauded Barthes for keeping Modernism alive by articulating it within a new, fictocritical genre. But he does not choose to do so, even though he uses Barthes as ally when he needs him, using the Barthesian term ‘reality-effect’ to undercut Thirlwell’s claims to have arrived at the base, plain, uninhibited truth.

These, though, are all ultimately questions of taste. This reader, as a reader, happens to like Powell and Morrison and Barthes, and part of the triumph of Josipovici’s exposition is that it is a thorough unity—despite seeming to be at first a series of essays, it is in fact a tightly argued, discursively poised unfolding—yet does not surrender its sense of the critic as someone idiosyncratic, with particular tastes, distastes, and quirks. This is also it should be; all criticism does not need to be on high, and Josipovici’s stance is wining in that he writes, as Wordsworth might say, as a man speaking to men, not as an oracular presence. Nor does Josipovici merely dismiss; he also recaptures, as in his refreshing treatment of Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex, too often lost in the shuffle when Modernist classicism is discussed. But it is with respect to classical Greece that Josipovici makes his biggest and most surprising mistake, treating Euripides as an example of all Modernism rightly dismissed. Yes, Nietzsche, of course, did this. But Nietzsche had good reason sin his time and place and milieu for doing this, and what was a bracing critique in the 1870s is too much of—as Josipovici says of Picasso—a rhetorical pastiche in the 2010s. Iphigenia in Taurus is not a drawing-room comedy in which a family crisis is resolved but a demanding speculation which affords the redder the possibility, the question, of hope extending beyond despair, in the aftermath of the transvaluation of all values. Given Josipovici’s disinclination towards theory and indeed most academic work of the past two generations, one would not expect him to solicit thinkers as admittedly disparate as Pierre Hadot, Marcel Detienne, Peter Kingsley, Froma Zeitlin, and Stephen Halliwell . But one would expect Josipovici to acknowledge the work on Euripides of Gilbert Murray, who gave us a Modernist

Euripides, a Euripides that was not just happy reunions and deus ex machinas, a Euripides even whose restitutions shook us to the core, All this, though, is really a matter of personal taste, and this reader is just a Powell-Morrison-Barthes-Euripides fan—whatever that says about him—and Josipovici is his own delightful idiosyncratic mix of a Cervantes-WordsworthStevens-Picasso-Stravinsky fan, and reading should be an act not just of schools or protocols but of individuals. Josipovici, though, also has an important public message. We have to examine the claims of Postmodernism more scrupulously, and raising the specter of Modernism once aging is a way to do this. Too often, Postmodernisms’ sheer bulk, along with a revived yearning for preferentiality has caused us to jettison Modernisms serious ontological probing, self-reference has become less a mode of cognitive awareness than a gimmick. Difficulty is only hailed so long as it connotes cultural capital, therefore inherently compromising its difficulty. Complexity and a delight in linguistic resourcefulness are hailed today, but lack the risk and the avowal of artistic uncertainty that were there in Picasso or Stravinsky. Josipovici has been forthright in telling us this as no one else has, and it is a message we need to heed. Josipovici is a singular critic; one who here has really dare dot stand up to the consensus—a rare critical act in any era.

Nicholas Birns is the author of Theory After Theory (Broadview) and the co-editor of Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics (Palgrave), both published in 2010,

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