Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
Memory is essential to living healthily in the world. History is simply memory writ large. If this is true then Peter Gay has done us a favor in writing his work Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (Norton 2008). Modernism is 510 pages of spritely written text with numerous illustrations throughout the book. Since I have had trouble sleeping this book has kept me company for the past couple of weeks.
Gay is a highly regarded cultural historian with great books on the Enlightenment (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation) and Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914 and many more to his credit.
"Modernism is far easier to exemplify than to define" is how Gay begins his book. In this particular book modernism is exemplified through the arts. We encounter impressionism and abstract art. We encounter a "new way of seeing" the world that Modernism brought about. Gay takes us into the brave new world of novels and poetry and then music and dance. We walk with Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (known as Le Corbusier) and listen as they declare that a "house is a machine for living in." We watch as stage is transformed and the emergence of the "only all-modern art" in film (such as Citizen Kane)
Gay insightfully details the assaults on Modernism that came from the far right and left in Nazism/Facism and Stalinism. Finally he speaks to the emergence of Pop Art which, in his mind, has lead to the death of Modernism as a cultural movement. Placing the boundaries of Modernism from about 1850ish to the 1960s one can look back and see that indeed the world went through a revolution in that century and is still reeling from it.
One feature I really like about this book is that though Gay is a "fan" of Modernism and even celebrates some of its excesses he does not hide its failings. One theme that comes through periodically is the sheer arrogance of Modernism. Modernists had many dissimilarities but they all had one thing in common "they staged a humorously aggressive self-liberation from prescribed ancestor worship." Put plainly that is a repudiation of history. As Frederic Bazille declared "What I do here will at least have the merit of not resembling anybody." The shackles of the past were to be discarded as utterly irrelevant to "modern man." Another manifestation of the sheer arrogance of Modernism that is evident throughout the book is that it was not a "democratic movement." Most Modernists had contempt for the average person and even on the people who would purchase their art or buy into the world view (which nearly all of us have btw!). Gay is enough of a chastened historian that he can write truthfully yet sympathetically "It may be that the greatest illusion they treasured was their conviction that they had overcome all illusions." One of the lasting illnesses of Modernism is the sovereignty of individualism. One did not have to be part of the avant-garde to buy into the illusions of Modernism.
One of the great ironies of Modernism is that much of its creative genius has now become "traditional." In fact many Modernistic cultural works are now "classics!" Most college educated folks have read James Joyce (Ulysses), T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land), Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) or have viewed Edvard Munch's The Scream or Monet's Impression, Sunrise or Brancusi's Bird in Space. Most folks know Wright's Fallingwater or the Guggenheim. They thought they were escaping history only to became part of it ... Irony indeed!
Gay's Modernism is not a perfect book. His love affair with Saint Sigmund is plainly evident as it is in most of his writing but this is not unbearable or offensive as you go through his very readable prose. And no doubt some specialist out there will disagree with some of his interpretations. Yet I learned a lot from Gay and what I already knew took on deeper significance. Reading Modernism has helped me tap into the "memory" of just how we got where we are and why it matters. I can recommend this book as a way of exegeting the time and place that God has put me.