Modernism still matters

Writers such as T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett worked in synchrony with continental Europeans

Writers such as T S Eliot and Samuel Beckett worked in synchrony with continental Europeans such as Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, pushing against the limitations of art. Why have English-language writers turned away from this challenge?

One of the minor themes of my latest book, Whatever Happened to Modernism?, is that a grave problem with cultural life in Britain today is how all issues are reduced to a question of personalities. I learned just how true this is when, shortly before the book came out, the Guardian published an article that was ostensibly about it but which, in fact, was only about personalities (in this instance, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes). The journalist who wrote it found a few sentences in one chapter of a 200-page book, wrenched them from their context and, on the basis of three telephone conversations with me, passed the whole thing off as an interview. Following the appearance of the article, I was rung up by the Evening Standard and Radio 4's PM programme and emailed by Newsnight - all of which wanted me to "elaborate" on what I had apparently said in the Guardian. When I pointed out that I had not said those things and that I would talk to them only if they gave me the chance to set the record straight (and not discuss personalities), they lost interest. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut's narrator says. I am grateful to the New Statesman for giving me the chance to explain what I was trying to do in the book.

I wrote it in the first place to try to make sense of a problem that had long puzzled me: why was it that works of literature such as the poems of T S Eliot, the stories of Kafka and Borges, the novels of Proust, Mann, Claude Simon and Thomas Bernhard seemed worlds apart from those admired by the English literary establishment (works by writers such as Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan)? The first group touched me to the core, leading me into the depths of myself even as they led me out into worlds I did not know. The latter were well-written narratives that, once I'd read them, I had no wish ever to reread. Was it my fault? Was I in some way unable to enter into the spirit of these works? Or did they belong to a kind of writing that was clearly to the taste of the English public but not to mine?

There was another problem: no composer would dream of writing like Tchaikovsky today, except in an ironic manner; no painter today would dream of painting like Sargent, except in an ironic manner; yet novelists writing in English seemed to want to write like the Victorians and the Edwardians. Others might object that literature is simply different from the other arts and it is absurd to compare them. But then why did I feel that there were profound affinities between Eliot and Picasso, Proust and Bonnard, Simon and Cézanne? Were Eliot and Proust really in thrall to the debilitating idea that they should be modern at all costs? No one who has responded to them could ever imagine this to be the case. Yet critics and reviewers who paid lip-service to Eliot and Proust seemed to fail utterly to see that to take their work seriously meant asking questions about the bulk of current English writing that were simply never asked. Even writers such as William Golding and Muriel Spark, whose work gave me the same thrill
as the one I got from Marguerite Duras and Milan Kundera, were treated as the quirky authors of books about children, shipwrecks and eccentric schoolteachers.

It had not always been like that. When I first came to England in the late 1950s, it was a reviewer in the Observer, Philip Toynbee, who alerted me to the novels of Claude Simon. It was in the pages of Encounter that I first came across the stories of Borges. The back pages of the Listener and the New Statesman were alive with critics familiar with European culture and with a wide historical grasp: John Berger, David Drew and Wilfrid Mellers, among others. By the early 1990s, Encounter and the Listener had gone, to be replaced by three-for-the-price-of-two creative writing courses and literary festivals. What had happened to literary modernism in this country? How did it expire like this, without leaving a trace?

To answer this question, it was necessary to show that modernism was not a "movement", like mannerism, or the name of a period. Like Romanticism, it is multifaceted and ambiguous. And it didn't begin in 1880 and end in 1930. Modernism, whenever it began, will always be with us, for it is not primarily a revolution in diction, or a response to indus­trialisation or the First World War, but is art coming to a consciousness of its limitations and responsibilities.

The principal issue is that of authority. Shelley talked of poets being the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world and the prophetic strand of Romanticism did, indeed, see the artist as inspired and authoritative. Modernism can be seen as a reaction to this and a recognition that the artist is no different from the rest of us. "I am no prophet," says Eliot's Prufrock, and "here's no great matter". Marcel Duchamp spelled out the implications:

The word "art", etymologically speaking, means to make, simply to make. Now what is making? Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting some of it on the palette, and always choosing the quality of blue, the quality of red, and always choosing the place to put it on canvas, always choosing.

If that is so, why not take a lavatory bowl, isolate it from its normal context, give it a title and, hey presto, it's art! Not all artists were as bold as Duchamp, but every modern artist has had, somehow or other, to come to terms with what he did. Kafka got it, but not Max Brod. Walter Benjamin got it, but not, for all his great gifts, William Empson. Simon got it, but not Irène Némirovsky. Tom Stoppard got it, but not John Osborne.

Alongside the prophetic strand of Romanticism, there runs another: despair at the thought of having come too late, of having only ruins to contemplate, of recognising that the voice of the nightingale can be heard only fleetingly, if at all. That, it would seem, is where the origins of modernism are to be located. But the coming of modernism is like the rise of the bourgeoisie - the closer you look, the further into the distance it recedes.

If, for the Romantics, Shakespeare and Milton were gigantic figures they could not hope to emulate, for some artists in the Renaissance their own age had already lost contact with authority. Albrecht Dürer sums this up in his two parallel engravings of 1514 Saint Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I. The former shows us the saint who gave the Latin west its Bible, at ease within tradition, working away peacefully in his room. The latter shows us a figure many modern artists have identified with: a wild-eyed, impotent giantess in a bleak landscape, surrounded by instruments of making, but incapable of making anything because she is unable to connect with any tradition. Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne later explored this pre­dicament in comic style and, for that reason, they seem to us to be strikingly modern, the true contemporaries of Borges and Beckett.

Thomas Mann understood all this; his wonderful novel Doctor Faustus is an exploration of the paradoxes and depths of the modernist crisis, which, as the title suggests, he locates firmly in the 16th century. Taking our cue from this, we could say that, for Homer, the Muses dictated both the content and the form of what he had to say; for medieval artists such as the sculptors of the great cathedrals, what was to be depicted was determined by the cathedral's clerics, and the forms - the way the beard of Moses or the hand of Christ were to be carved - was given by tradition. This gives medieval art, as both Pound and Proust recognised, an innocence and freedom from ego that both writers felt went missing from European art in the ensuing centuries.

By the 16th century, the consensus on which this was based had disappeared. Though patrons went on giving specific commissions to artists and composers for the next two centuries, artists were becoming increasingly conscious that, from now on, they had to rely only on their imagination. Our culture, which is still in thrall to the individualistic strain in the Renaissance and in Romanticism, welcomed this as a splendid new freedom. More prescient souls, however, sensed what Duchamp would eventually articulate so icily - if every choice is merely the artist's, why is one choice better than any other?

This is what Kafka, Beckett and Borges struggled with: how to escape the conclusion that whatever you do is private self-indulgence. Your work may earn you and your publisher money but, having no authority, it remains nothing more than an object of consumption, like a pair of shoes.
And yet the urge to speak remains. That is what we find with Prufrock, with Hamm in Beckett's Endgame, with Saul Bellow's Henderson. And this combination of the need, which we all have, to speak out our deepest feelings and the recognition that, as soon as the need is expressed, it becomes obvious that it is not what we meant at all is what makes the work of Eliot, Bellow, Beckett and Bernhard so moving. This is what is so signally lacking in the bulk of postwar English novels, which tend to consist of well-plotted tales in the first or third person, in which morality and the convolutions of plot now take the place of authority.

“How many poems he denied himself/In his observant progress, lesser things/Than the relentless contact he desired." So reads Wallace Stevens's poem "The Comedian as the Letter C". Modernism has found many ways of establishing that "relentless contact" with reality: the constant shift from book to world and back in Rabelais and Sterne; the sly reminders in Nabokov and Queneau that we are reading words on a page; the tragic, climactic wrenchings of Golding's Pincher Martin and Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt.

At those moments, modern art reaches beyond words to that which we share but cannot speak. I find it in the work of writers as diverse as Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, Peter Handke, the French-writing Hungarian Agota Kristof, Gert Hofmann and the Israeli Yaakov Shabtai. I rarely find it in the English-language writers of today.

Since the Romantics, English culture has been deeply suspicious of Romantic posturing and some of this suspicion is reasonable - posturing needs to be debunked. But suspicion too easily slides into philistinism and an intolerance of ambiguity and fear of the unknown. We find this in the cultural commentary of Evelyn Waugh (whose early novels I love and admire), Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. Unfortunately, it is now so ubiquitous that people no longer have even a glimmer of what has been lost. My book was written in an attempt to reawaken that sense.

Gabriel Josipovici's "Whatever Happened to Modernism?" is published by Yale University Press (£18.99)

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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