IF ANYONE EVER doubted (and some certainly have) that the twentieth century underwent a major revolution in the arts and ideas that merits the generic name of Modernism, and so parallels the other great stylistic eras we call Neo-Classicism and Romanticism, then a recent festivity in the Guardian devoted to the topic of ‘Postmodernism’ ought to settle matters. ‘Postmodernism’ is a term that has had much currency in general western intellectual circles for a good many years now, its implications reaching from literature to philosophy, social theory, architecture, music and painting. We might or might not be grateful that the Guardian has chosen to give major coverage to this long-standing, busy debate and brought it, as is the custom, belatedly into British aesthetic speculation – such as that is.
But what the Guardian articles make very clear is that though movement terms help us to understand, or at least acknowledge, the elaborate theoretical arguments that do actually feed the arts, or some part of them, they do not necessarily bring perfect clarity. It is clear from reading the several Guardian pieces that the notion of ‘Postmodernism’ means all things to all men (for, as it happened, all the chosen commentators were men); and that what the contributors were doing was attempting at various levels of intensity to relate a wide variety of different contemporary phenomena, and give them a passing coherence or at least a setting. One main notion of this setting in context was that the entire phenomenon had something to do with that fact that we ‘live in counterrevolutionary times’, a parallel to the ‘present wave of political reaction sweeping the Western world.’ Postmodernism is thus an art of parody and pastiche belonging to a time when the avant-garde of Modernism has won bland acceptance, and when stability is preferred to change. This is the emphasis of Richard Gott, who in an interesting opening foray gives us a potted but possible history. Modernism was the art of innovation, a great embracing of the modern, an attempt to recreate the world anew; and Postmodernism is its placid progeny, but essentially its tired adversary.
Discussion of ‘Postmodernism’ may still be at a teasing stage; but we do acknowledge there was something called Modernism, that we can define it, and that we are post it. Yet this historicisation of a movement that in one sense at least refused to become historical (the avant-garde is never easily persuaded that anything can be post it) is a more difficult task than we nowadays seem to think. Most movements were revolts against most other movements. The large, generalised idea of Modernism we have now was a post facto, or indeed, Postmodern invention.
In the enterprise of the making of the ‘modern movement’ as a presiding idea after the event, there are various folkheroes; but one is certainly Cyril Connolly. As World War 2 broke out in Europe, he began his magazine Horizon with a reading of the historical clock. Joyce, Woolf and Yeats, along with Sir James Frazer and Freud, had just died, the avant-garde was over, and it was ‘closing time in the gardens of the West.’ Connolly believed in the ending of eras, and though he found modernism over by 1940 he was later, in 1965, to extend its tenure just up to 1950 – which meant that the era of Horizon, which itself closed down in that year, was included. He sketched his case in a small handbook, now very conveniently and appropriately reprinted, which is everyone’s key primer of Modernism. 100 Key Books is suitably enough described by its new publishers not only as ‘a classic account of the major literary movement of the twentieth century’ but also as ‘an invaluable touchstone for the con temporary reader trying to make sense of the literature of our own time – the postmodern era.’ And indeed, as we intensify our sense of postmodern citizenship, Connolly’s characteristically sharp, prejudiced, tilted and cunningly encapsulated version will do quite well for a sketchy idea of what Modernism, as a kind of generalised historical concept, can be.
The book is not to be mocked, but it is worth noting that it is packed with in the long run disturbing economies. Connolly’s ‘modern movement’ occurs in England, France and America between 1880 and 1950. This, as he stresses, reflects a personal education, these being the languages he can read in the original. It also means, as he says, omitting the German, Scandinavian, Russian and Italian input, which some would say was crucial, and it sets Modernism firmly on the Paris-London-New York axis, a distinctive though by now very common appropriation – but one that excludes a good part of the major modernist events and an entire alternative tradition. Everything starts in Paris with Flaubert and Baudelaire:
‘The French fathered the Modern Movement, which slowly moved beyond the Channel and then across the Irish Sea until the Americans finally took it over, bringing to it their own demonic energy, extremism and taste for the colossal.’
Certainly something passed along that track; but the question of who, when, why and what, in which order, from what emphasis and from what reading of the relationship between the tradition and the modern state, is basically omitted.
But Connolly gives us clear clues as to what makes a key book. They have ‘outstanding originality and richness of texture’ and have the ‘spark of rebellion alight.’ ‘Realism is not enough’, for there is ‘nothing specifically modern about realism.’ This poses very many problems too difficult to tease here.
An appropriate enough instinct tells Connolly that major writers like Dreiser or Dos Passos or Robert Frost do pose important difficulties; that they have not quite enough avant-garde febrility to belong to the ‘modern sensibility’, and so generally create difficult problems of accountancy. But Ronald Firbank, William Plomer, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh seemingly do not, being included here. And John Betjeman makes an unexpected late appearance because his sensibility belongs to his age, being ‘deep, discriminating, perverted and unique.’ Betjeman makes it, no doubt, because he belongs to the·’Forties’, when things were in any case petering out in deaths and defections; but there are many mysterious inclusions, and exclusions.
Connolly always made much of the prejudiced judgement or ‘instinct’ in criticism, and there is a case for it. But for a matter as potent and in a real way as crucial as Modernism, which has rightly been perceived as a major upheaval and revolution in the history of thought and society, and has an intimate if complex relationship to our modern history and its wars, our horrors and crises, our materialism and our science, our instrumentalism and our pessimism, our basic map of the relation between spiritual and imaginative and social and political existence, Connolly’s instinctive and whimsical walk through the minefield ought to be treated with the greatest caution. Modernism saw itself as in many ways marginal; that was part of its avant-garde conception of itself. But parts of it – not all the most important parts – have grown conventional, and internal. They pervade, for example, our architecture, and its mistakes – not necessarily ameliorated by adding an atrium and a cabriole top and calling it Postmodern. They equally pervade our mannerisms of alienation – the mock avant-gardeism of popular music, for instance. One crucial part of the entire Modernist enterprise – the profound intellectual and historical apprehension that really justifies us in thinking certain great works important, transformational, historically shattering, an advancement of consciousness – is easily lost in the emphasis on sensibility and style, the dress- designer view of creative achievement.
Connolly’s book of lists is, frankly, soft stuff. Its open tone freely lets it set Edith Sitwell ‘s poems adjacent to those of Pound and Eliot, or complain of Ulysses that, though it is ‘our novel’, its whole plan fails through Joyce’s ‘ intellectual preference for language rather than people.’ In any matter of close terminology Connolly is a disaster, not least in his glosses of the word ‘Modernism’ itself, which at various times has as its opposite ‘Catholic’ , ‘Fascist’, ‘ traditionalist’, ‘anti-liberal’, and ‘Marxist.’ At the same time it is full of what Connolly is so good at, the affording of mildly perverse pleasures: deftly culled quotations from contemporaries, worthy advice for the bibliophile, good (and bad) scraps of literary chatter. In a later direct address to the reader, Connolly proposes that the ‘twin features of the Modern Movement’ – he names them as faith in the sceptical intellect and belief in the validity of the imagination – must continue to inspire a new masterpiece. He also adds: ‘For students who are growing up under new tyrannies and new orthodoxies such a list may prove to be more than a parlour game – a roll of honour; a prisoner’s smuggled file; a home.’ Connolly’s book is mostly a civilized parlour game, a highminded trivial pursuit. But he has a respect for creative achievement and a justified sense of struggling, in 1965, against the critical and intellectual orthodoxies. Today that struggle is over; Modernism has been incorporated more capaciously than Connolly might in 1965 have guessed, and there is no shortage at all of guides to take us through its labyrinth . But the rogue critic deserves his credit, the eclectic and wide if overplayful mind its recognition. This is a toy-sized study, but good fun; early Postmodernism indeed. And, republished with a useful new bibliography, it still holds its place as some kind of argument for reading modern books in a modern way.
It also reminds us that, if Connolly is at all correct and the Modern movement did expire around 1940 (and there are stronger reasons than he gives for thinking that some such view might be right), then another half-century has passed since Connolly’s closing time. For all that we need a later history, and we are very badly supplied. The new popularity of the term ‘Postmodernism’ itself surely reflects that desperation. It may be glib, and it may iron out both the contradictions of Modernism and those of our newer writing. But the arts, the philosophies and the politics of the last fifty years demand an accountancy. And the stronger and fuller we make our account of Modernism, the better we will understand our own complex time.