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The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought
William Everdell
University of Chicago, $29.95, $16 (paper)

In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Harvard University Press, $55, $24.95 (paper)


by Edwin Frank

Do the achievements of the moderns still claim our immediate attention, and if so, do they constitute a legacy for us to develop, or have they become a stumbling block? These and similar questions, invoked by William Everdell at the beginning of The First Moderns, have occasioned the multiple theoretical obscurities of postmodernism. Everdell-and he is of course not alone in this-has grown impatient with those obscurities. He wants to go back to basics. "So what is Modernism?" he asks, and adds with a note of peculiar urgency, "we had better define [it] soon or we will lose the use of the term." The nature of the threat is uncertain. Everdell, in any case, proposes to make good the omission with "a narrative history of ideas, a thing that has become rare."

His definition of modernism-whether scientific, philosophical, literary, or artistic-is certainly remarkable for its simplicity. Modernism, he explains, equals discontinuity. He means this primarily in a theoretical sense-modernism poses an epistemological rupture between the world as it appears and the world as we represent it-but, somewhat paradoxically, he believes it manifests itself directly on the level of appearances: witness Seurat's divisionism, Picasso's cubism, genes and quanta. He contrasts this development to what he sees, citing Hegel and Brahms, as a nineteenth-century commitment to the continuous, to the evolutionary. Thus it was in 1872, Everdell tells us, with Dedekind's definition of a point as any place where a line can be cut, that modernism had its beginning.

Everdell's book is less a history of ideas than an exercise in intellectual hagiography. Each of his 22 chapters consists of a biographical sketch of one or two geniuses (he assures us early on that the modernists were "all of them individuals . . . and, in their way, geniuses"); the book is not a narrative so much as an accumulation of anecdotes unified by an unbounded fascination with coincidence ("Ludwig Boltzmann had been born on Mardi Gras night in 1844, thirty years after Karl Marx; but with the gimlet glare in his blue eyes, and his explosion of a beard he looked more like old Marx with every birthday") and a chipper triumphalism. Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is "a breakthrough work"; "Seurat was the first to consciously objectify painting, separating its rule from reality"; Mallarmé was "a genius of a poet." The effect is disconcertingly patronizing-to the subjects as well as the reader.

To say that modernism is about discontinuity, or that the nineteenth century was about continuity, is not exactly wrong, but only as true as not-which is to say pointless. Brahms saw his endeavor as continuous with Beethoven's (though so self-consciously, one could argue, as to introduce a qualitative change-to insist on continuity at all costs is not the same as simply to assume it), but what in any case about Schumann? Schoenberg certainly did alter the nature of music, though in a way that, from his day on, has been seen as a logical consequence of the increasing harmonic chromaticism of late nineteenth century music; but then he also wrote a well-known essay about Brahms as a contemporary, as well as declaring, notoriously, "I have made the supremacy of German music safe for a thousand years."

In all these cases there are of course elements of continuity, as well as of discontinuity. Looking back on modernism from a contemporary vantage, what one needs, in any case, is not definition, but definite information that might provoke new sense of curiosity, or connection, to a time that has now become both remote and over-familiar. Something specific. From Everdell however, there is little to be expected apart from simplification and generalization. Thus, typically, he informs us that, by picturing one of the Demoiselles d'Avignon from "two diametrically opposed views simultaneously," "Picasso had done for art in 1907 almost exactly what Einstein had done for physics in his 'Electrodynamics' paper of 1905." There is a lot of room in that almost, and whatever makes a difference lives in it.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who teaches comparative literature at Stanford, approaches the culture of the early twentieth century in an altogether more ingenious and intriguing way in his In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time. What interests him, he says, is to what extent a year, a simple, purely conventional unit of time, can be constituted as an object of historical inquiry-not, however, with the purpose of isolating that year's essence or significance, but rather simply by way of getting some inkling of what it was like to be alive at the time. He has chosen 1926, he insists, primarily because it is not considered a historical turning point; it is just an average year. In principle, any other year would do just as well. His book is accordingly only incidentally a study of the early twentieth century, but for just that reason offers readers what Everdell, in his arbitrary enthusiasm for definition, misses-some degree of immersion in the particularity, and irresolution, of an earlier moment.

Gumbrecht's rather elaborately structured book consists of numerous short, non-chronological chapters. In the first and greater part of the book (called "Arrays") these chapters assemble evidence from various contemporary books, journals, and witnesses, drawn from a range of places (chiefly Berlin, Paris, New York, and Buenos Aires) about subjects Gumbrecht deems to have been especially topical in '26-"Cremation," "Employees," "Mountaineering," "Ocean Liners," "Movie Palaces," and "Elevators" are some of the alphabetically grouped entries. A second briefer section ("Codes") considers larger-order polarities in light of which experience seems to have been structured-"Action vs. Impotence," "Male vs. Female"-while a third section ("Codes Collapsed") considers ways in which those same categories came under pressure-for example, "Male=Female (Gender Trouble)." The reader is invited to start the book anywhere, and to follow the multiple cross-reference at the end of each section wherever they might lead. Gumbrecht assures us, "Regardless of where you enter or exit, any reading process of some length should produce the effect to which the title alludes: you should feel 'in 1926.'"

The method is capricious, but consistently and not unappealingly so. At times, especially in the first section, the book takes on a certain spectral animation-new dispatches from a vanished world. "All kinds of timepieces are invading the world of fiction" bizarrely but effectively introduces the section headed "Timepieces." Elsewhere, by contrast, 1926 turns out to be surprisingly similar to 1998. European hoteliers already lamented Americans' aversion to heavy, "unhealthy" soups; and Gumbrecht relays an amusing episode from a Berlin newspaper involving a tourist bus on Montmartre: "Several hundred Frenchmen surround the bus with threatening gestures: 'Stay home, you pork-dealers from Chicago! We hate you! We've had it with your ways! Go home and tell the tale of our sinful babel, which you puritans are so scared of and which you don't even want to pay for!'" I suppose it could be Thailand today.

In the end, however, the book disappoints. Gumbrecht's evocation of 1926 largely reintroduces us to the familiar Roaring Twenties-drunken, globe-trotting, speed-obsessed, proto-fascist-while, too often, the self-conscious naïveté of his exposition tends to restate the obvious: "Assembly lines have revolutionized the involvement of the worker's body in the production process . . . the worker has become stationary, while the product moves . . . each worker performs over and over the same operation." Less successful yet are the analytic chapters, where the terms of analysis seem imported from the present. As a consequence, the book as a whole suffers from a certain inconsequentiality. Gumbrecht explains in a framing essay that "The suspension of sequentiality arises from the choice of a specific angle of historical representation . . . the focus on a year as . . . a world within which people lived. . . . The self-imposed imperative to suspend sequentiality obliges us to minimize recourse to subject-centered concept of causality and to the genre of historical narrative." That self-consciousness, however, is no guarantee of success.

In their different ("diametrically opposed," Everdell would say) ways, these two books are less interesting as accounts of the culture at the beginning of the century than as symptoms of its situation at the end. Both express a certain anxious self-consciousness about their authority, and a certain custodial protectiveness about their subjects. In this, they provide a notable contrast to the determination and energy of the early moderns, whose uncompromisingly transformative purpose-the outsize ambition we still associate with a Proust, Lawrence, or Joyce-remain as provocation to the present. As an aesthetic (I am not sure whether it makes sense to speak of scientific modernism, except as a matter of dating), modernism is singular not by virtue of its self-referentiality or suspicion of objectivity but in that it sees itself as historical: works of art derive their meaning partly from their power in overturning previous meanings. The irony, of course, is that would seem to commit modernism, conceived as a movement, to its own perpetual supersession. And indeed one of the reasons that Picasso remains so preoccupying to the critical imagination is that his career plays out, for better or for worse, just this predicament: to maintain his authority, he must surpass others, and then himself, and then the idea of himself, and as he does his work increasingly becomes an angry, eventually pathetic, pastiche of himself. For all that, however, it is relentless in its unapologetic energy.

But Gumbrecht's and Everdell's embarrassment also reflects a sense that the object of their concern has itself already been superseded, rendered academic. And in this, they are perhaps all too correct. The commercial culture of the century has dissolved historical awareness, rendering the accomplishments of the moderns irrelevant except to a class of professionals whose business it is to know such things. In this context, cultural products-whose prestige derives from their ostensible opposition to mere fashion and consumption-are no more intrinsically lasting than the latest software. Nonetheless, as with other areas of contemporary activity, the cultural product is increasingly less important than a general cultural productivity, designed in one form or another to satisfy the needs of the eagerly mobile contemporary agent of choice who now passes for the individual.

This is a perfectly viable notion of culture, but an essentially unreflective one. In relation to this, the works of the early moderns still offer a compelling example of resistance, provided we resist the kind of programmatic definition Everdell provides. Their resistance was, of course, partly to a nineteenth-century bourgeois culture hide-bound in its high-mindedness-a culture that has largely disappeared. Equally, however, it was to a certain facile bohemianism that is still very much with us (Picasso's Demoiselles was an aggression against the wan inventions of his own blue period, and the pretty stylicizations of his contemporaries, far more than against the smoothness of Bouguereau). We need a criticism that will free the works of the moderns from the clumsy category of modernism, making them newly available for our consideration as particular objects, and will thus serve as a point of resistance against the unreflective culture of the present.

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review



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