Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

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(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
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A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Peter Gay, Modernism : The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (London: Vintage Books, 2007). £10.99, 640 pages, ISBN: 978-0-099-44196-0—Eric Athenot, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy is the latest in Peter Gay’s awe-inspiringly long list of publications. Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, he has recently been hailed by the New York Times as “the country’s pre-eminent cultural historian.” He is most famous on this side of the Atlantic for his writings on Freud—among which Freud: a Life for Our Time (1988), Freud for Historians (1985), Freud, Jews and Other Germans (1978), A Godless Jew (1987)—, and his earlier studies devoted to the Enlightenment—including The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1969), The Party of Humanism (1964), and Voltaire’s Politics (1959).

Published in 2007, the present book offers a sweeping view of the cultural phenomenon that has come to be known as Modernism—or modernism as Gay (and I after him) chooses to spell it. The author traces two “defining attributes” of this movement—the eponymous “lure of heresy” and “a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” He rests most of his argument on the artists’ hatred of the bourgeois, which, he forgets to note, has been a staple of western art at least since the seventeenth century. Throughout the book, he adroitly demonstrates how these self-styled superior souls depended for their survival on the very people they so conspicuously detested and attacked in their creations. He underlines the well-documented debt owed to capitalism by the modernists, which made the international circulation of their works and ideas possible. On the same note, Gay establishes a convincing link between the development of the movement and the rise of “cultural middlemen”—art dealers, critics, and museum administrators (strangely enough, publishers are not included in that list). Gay offers ample evidence of his love for the artists, writers, architects and filmmakers he writes about while managing to keep critically detached through a tone at times bordering on gentle irony, as when he notes playfully that their works were only “shocking to the shockable,” or when he puts into relief the modernists’ bellicose and confrontational tactics in self-promotion, through a witty analysis of the military origin of the word avant-garde.

The most interesting passages, logically, may be those devoted to the politics of modernism. If the author keeps insisting that it was not a democratic movement—mostly because of the aesthetic demands its practitioners placed on their public—, of particular note and at least to me the book’s strongest pages are the passages dealing with the link between the modernists and the three major totalitarian regimes of the past century. In these, Gay notes the hiatus existing between these regimes’ exploitation of modernity and their brutal rejection of modernism, a distinction that I will soon come back to. He concludes this chapter by noting that “among the indispensable preconditions of modernism, political freedom must rank high.”

The book’s great strength comes from its author’s relish for pithy pronouncements, as when he writes that “real originality is never collective.” The sheer bulk of references, once again, documents Gay’s truly remarkable and wide-ranging culture. One has to note, however, that despite Stephen Greenblatt’s ecstatic endorsement on its back-cover, this book delivers a rather one-sided and frustratingly limited approach to the topic: witness, towards the end, Gay’s surreal lament that modernism is a phenomenon whose revival “is neither impossible nor assured.” Why we would need such a revival is never made clear. If the links between modernism and the Enlightenment do not escape Gay’s attention, he has nothing to say about the link and the debt of post-modernism to the modernist period. As I progressed through the book, I came gradually to read “modernism” and “modernity” as two interchangeable notions. This was somehow confirmed in the two concluding chapters, devoted to Gabriel García Márquez and Frank Gehry. The two figures are ranked by Gay among the modernists and elicit from him the following comment that “considering the fiction of García Márquez and the architecture of Frank Gehry, we can imagine artists not yet known, perhaps even not yet born, who may provide a new birth of life after death.” The present period, pace Gay [509], has produced and is no doubt still producing artists whose creations can hold their own next to their modernist forbears (my own list would be too long, and I am confident any reader can muster his or her own). The book’s editors would have been equally well advised to trim the number of pages recounting the aesthetic emotion felt by the author at the Bilbao Guggenheim museum, which do not actually bring much to the discussion.

The author, to do him justice, candidly explains in the Preface that this volume is “[t]he work of a historian but not a history book.” Furthermore, he refers in the first chapter to “historians of culture,” and it is as one of them that he seems to approach his subject while also aiming—but with limited success in my view—to pass for an adept reader of cultural artifacts as aesthetic constructs. That he has many interesting points to make as a cultural historian makes it all the more frustrating that he frequently fails to address the works of art under discussion as more than time-bound creative pieces, however sincere and catching his appreciation of them may be. As regards methodology, finally, chronology, or so we are told in the Preface, has been disregarded when “useful or necessary,” yet the book still progresses in linear fashion from the past to the present, and dates are occasionally approximate (as when 1911 is given instead of 1913 as the date of the première of The Rite of Spring). Context has been preferred to the “formal analysis of novels and sculptures and buildings,” and the chapters sketch out the fascinating if ultimately disappointingly traditional narrative of a period running from the 1840s to the 1960s spawning brilliant uncompromising individuals that just happened to be born in those years. The book, to its credit, includes a comprehensive bibliographical essay, which will be invaluable to anyone reading and writing on the period. But I fail to see why none of the numerous writings included in the list is ever evoked within the study proper. This makes it difficult to figure out for whom exactly this book was written. It will likely come as a surprise, too, that in the course of over six hundred pages the author completely leaves out all philosophical discourse written in the period. One will find two meager pages devoted to Nietzsche, two references to Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies but not a single word on Wittgenstein, Bergson, or, even more shockingly, Benjamin, the arch-modernist thinker. Peter Gay, in view of his truly astounding culture in things literary, musical, architectural and cinematic, may have felt he could do without any ostentatious theoretical help. I, for one, feel this seriously limits the book’s intellectual scope and interest. This will surely make The Lure of Heresy a very informative and enjoyable read to anyone looking for an introductory volume on the topic. Scholars and professional readers of modernism will turn to the bibliographical essay with profit but may well glean less from the pages preceding it.

© 2010 Eric Athenot& GRAAT











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