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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Where Modernism and Socialism went wrong

– or:
Why I’m glad I come from the slums of Manchester


I’m reading Gabriel Josipovici's fascinating book on modernism at the moment. To my shame, I've never read any of Josipovici's novels but in this book at least, he writes fluidly, vibrantly and with flashes of brilliance and panache. The book is very good at describing that modernist moment when many old certainties began to disappear and artists began to explore their minds for new answers.- what was to be done now that man was God? The gap between aspiration and some divine achievement. (Warning – don’t try that at home!). He's particularly good at explaining why, for example, Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for that matter, were so desperate to make a leap into something, anything, now that the new age was upon them and a vague notion of unlimited freedom beckoned. (Warning! ..etc)

Before I tell you all, very briefly, why Josipvici couldn’t be more wrong (but in an aesthetically pleasing way) in his arguments as to why modernism failed, readers might want to read this very useful account of his life and works here -

One of the reasons I was keen to read this book is that the author (henceforth GJ) places my philosophical and authorial hero Søren Kierkegaard at the centre of his arguments as to why modernism has been misunderstood and under appreciated. Indeed one of his central quotes is taken from Kierkegaard's study of authority and revelation. The quote from Kierkegaard says –

“To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it.”
(see pages 68/69 for those who have the hardback edition of the book)

Søren Kierkegaard - apostle of modernism?

The above quote is, of course, perfect for the modernist agenda given that Kierkegaard says we must "feel vividly" - sounds great. The point SK was making in his "lack of conclusion" quote was that authors are far better off (and are more interesting) when reflecting on the human condition rather than attempting the impossible task of definitively explaining it. And this is indeed a very modernist view. What gives anyone the right to claim that they have experienced divine revelation, or, by extension, the right to inflict their tortuous deadening prose on the rest of us? – ‘and then she did this, and then she sat down in a faint, and Giles gallantly ran to her aid with a wet hanky' - blah. The whole tyranny of the completed past tense, page after numbing page of it.

You can see GJ’s modernist point.

However, GJ’s championing of Kierkegaard and his critique of certain authors in fact shows the limitations of his argument. What modernists have continually chosen to ignore about this Danish genius is the fact that, for Kierkegaard, God was most definitely not dead. More to the point, Kierkegaard was arguing that it was the very notion amongst priests, artists, philosophers, and society generally that they were the new Gods that was causing the widespread neuroses and angst in society. He was in fact anticipating and criticising modernist thinking. He was pointing backwards to The Cross and Socrates not forwards to Proust.

For Kierkegaard, there was no getting round the God argument and an authorial conclusion did indeed finally come when this absurdity of the human condition was faced up to and then embraced. He was writing frantically, furiously back to the future and in doing so, it is true (to be fair to Josipovici), laid bare the alienation that was to come. The perfect confessor to Karl Marx.

Wasteland modernists - overwhelmed by meaning

The great revelation that modernism gave us in its search for new meaning was not only that it's OK to be sensitive and admit that life can be bleak (The Waste Land - TS Eliot), but also that introspection can create great art (To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf). And yes we often feel like its “impossible to leave and no less impossible to turn back” to quote Thomas Mann. Bono has created a whole musical genre out of such modern contradictions – he’s always running to stand still.

But modernism's key flaw was to see its art form as elevated above the people and so it refused to engage with us. We were going to get that existential tower block whether we liked it or not and If we didn’t understand those three stripes up on that canvas, well tough shit all you philistines out there. It was how the artist felt at the time, nothing more.

Modernism rejected the one great strength of Romanticism, which recognised that workers and peasants are a true repository of wisdom and continuity – the joy of the world and labour in all its forms. Modernism cut itself adrift in a sea of angst and threw catcalls at us where we stood on the shore our lifebelts at the ready, mystified by the whole spectacle. We turned our backs in the end and Picasso painted Guernika.

There, to conclude, is the rub.

Tory Island "Naïf" painters - a riot of imagination and a rock of sense

Modernists remind me of secular socialists the world over. Neither group (and they are often interchangeable) have ever been able to engage with the people because, frankly, we embarrass them. We still persist with our old myths and dreams, we still see an order to things and we are still rooted in ancient notions of family, folk lore and story telling. Why can’t we have all these things and modernism as well Gabriel? Why cant we have both explosions of emotion, or brain twisting streams of authorial consciousness AND Cormac McCarthy’s conventional but existentialist cowboy stories, Mills and Boon panty fests or naïf Tory Island painters if we want them? Effete Modernists became like that bad guy in one of the Superman films who says that it was not enough that he should succeed (You Fools!), everyone else must FAIL!

The Immortal Dignity of Labour

If you want to read an author who has embraced the fragile beauty inherent in modernist neuroses but has retained the traditions and solidity of story telling – the importance of a beginning a middle and end (but not necessarily in that order), the presence of heroes in our lives, the fight between certainties such as good and evil - read In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.

Or try world citizen and comrade Arundhati Roy's wonderful The God of Small Things -

It is the poor who carry the weight of culture and the spirit world, and they carry it lightly. That said, some serious wealth distribution wouldn’t go amiss either. Gabriel Josipovici's arguments are a world away from these considerations and yet he insists that modernists were the ones who investigated life to its existential depths.

This is a beautiful book but it misses the key point about life and art and the point is to make it better and keep it exactly the same - now riddle me that...

Artists of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your therapy bill.

@ Paul Larkin
Baile Átha Cliath - Mi an Mhárta, 2011

1 comment:

Fuair me seo ó chomrádaí amháin - this came from one comrade regarding the above essay:

Alt suimiúl a Phablo.
Sin ráite, ní aontaím go h-iomlán leis an tuairim faoi modernism.
Bhí modernism (ó thaobh na fís ealaíne) mar kick back an gnáth dhuine in eadán na "academiies" agus "official art." agus chomh maith le sin, bhí sé mar macalla daonlathach in ndomhain a bhí a tharraingt féin
as a cheile. (cubism mar shampla)

Imperfect? definately.

"But modernism's key flaw was to see its art form as elevated above the people and so it refused to engage with us. We were going to get that existential tower block whether we liked it or not and If we didn’t understand those three stripes up on that canvas, well tough shit all you philistines out there. It was how the artist felt at the time, nothing more."

... the three stripes on the canvas was more an invitation (or the result of an invitation) to the "people" to create art.

God didn't exist where men painted, because they were more interested in the consequence of human actions,
(world war and scientific advances) than an unsubstantiated medieval superstition.
by: Pol (contact) - 28 Mar '11 - 11:04


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Title: Where Modernism and Socialism went wrong
Date posted: 26 Mar '11 - 15:16
Filed under: General
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