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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“There’s no equality in healthcare”: Working under the shadow of Ireland’s 8th

As the referendum on Ireland's anti-abortion law nears, the New Statesman talks to those working on the frontline of pregnancy about how the amendment affects their work. 

On 25 May, Ireland will hold a referendum that has been 35 years in the making. And it’s one of particular significance to women, whichever side they’re on.

The question is whether the 8th Amendment, which recognises the equal right to life of the unborn, should be removed from the constitution. While it is still in place, abortion cannot be legislated for or regulated in Ireland.

The only scenario in which abortion is currently legal in the Republic is where there is a “real and substantial” risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of a woman. In all other circumstances, including rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities, it is a criminal act to obtain one, with a maximum sentence of up to 14 years in prison.

This puts Ireland’s abortion laws well behind all other EU countries aside from Malta and Northern Ireland (as part of the UK). And it’s a human rights debate that has been raging in this historically Catholic country ever since conservative campaigners pushed for the amendment to be added back in 1983.

The impact of the current situation on Irish women and their health is clear, with thousands travelling abroad every year – mainly to England – to terminate unwanted or non-viable pregnancies. But what is it like to be the pro-choice medical professional who cannot support them? And what impact does the 8th have on Ireland’s maternity services as a whole?

“I was one of those people who grew up ‘pro-life’ and became pro-choice,” says midwife Jeannine Webster. “As I understood it then, you were not really a good person if you had an abortion. And then you learn, you know?”

Webster, who is 52, became a midwife in her early forties. She currently works at one of Ireland’s largest maternity hospitals, and has three adult children. In 2016 she became part of the campaign group Midwives for Choice.

For her, the issue with the 8th Amendment is the disparity in the level of care she can provide to women who make different choices: “There’s no equality in healthcare. Because as much as I can 100 per cent support a couple that want to continue with their pregnancy, I can’t do that for those who feel emotionally that would be too much.”

Webster tells me a story about a couple who came into her clinic a few months ago. During this visit, they learned their baby had a fatal foetal abnormality and would not survive outside the womb. The mother was in her second trimester of pregnancy with their third child.

 “The woman said, ‘Can we not just have the baby now?’ And I said, ‘No, because the baby still has a heartbeat.’ And she turned around to me, ‘But what’ll happen? What can I do?’ And I felt I couldn’t tell her what she could do. I can’t.”

“It absolutely makes a traumatic situation massively more difficult for them.”

In Ireland, as a medical professional, giving out information on abortion services abroad is subject to strict guidelines. It must not be accompanied by any advocacy or promotion of abortion and all options must be fully outlined. It is also against the law to make a referral to an abortion service on behalf of the pregnant woman. This makes difficult conversations tricky to navigate.

Despite this, 3,265 women travelled from Ireland to the UK in 2016 to have an abortion. That figure accounts for nearly 70 per cent of all non-resident abortions carried out in the UK that year.

Dr Jennifer Donnelly is a consultant obstetrician at Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital who deals with foetal abnormalities and complex maternal problems. She says that being unable to refer patients for termination services either at home or abroad creates health risks and unwelcome gaps in care.

“If somebody has got a devastating diagnosis and then has to try and negotiate a whole other health system with minimal support, it absolutely makes a traumatic situation massively more difficult for them,” she says. “We want to provide care for women. Part of that care is looking after women who are bereaved under those circumstances.”

Not all medical professionals agree.

“The Eighth Amendment has one medical effect only: it prevents Irish doctors from deliberately, as an elective matter, causing the death of an unborn child,” wrote Professor Eamon McGuinness, a consultant obstetrician and pro-life campaigner, in The Irish Times earlier this month.

“That right does not restrict doctors from acting to save the life of a woman where a serious complication arises,” McGuinness continued, in reference to recent reports of women being denied life-saving cancer treatment due to an unplanned pregnancy.

Dr Maeve Eogan, a fellow consultant obstetrician, was quick to point out on social media that although abortion is lawful where there is “a real and substantial risk” to a woman’s life, McGuinness had failed to address a number of important areas. For example, sexual violence and life-limiting foetal conditions, “or the fact that women travel and take unregulated medications every day”.

Eogan is Medical Director of Ireland’s National SATU (Sexual Assault Treatment Unit) Services. She has witnessed the trauma caused to women by both sexual violence and fatal foetal abnormalities first hand. One of her primary concerns is women’s fragmented experience of care.

“At the moment, Irish women who travel to the UK for termination of pregnancy – or access unregulated medications online – are not getting the full range of termination of pregnancy care,” she says.

“So they’re not getting the post termination follow-up, and they’re not getting the appropriate contraception. There isn’t the holistic care package. They’re accessing one piece of the jigsaw, but they’re not accessing the other things which promote their health in the long-term.”

“It in essence means that women have no guaranteed role in decisions about their care.”

When it comes to continued pregnancies in Ireland, pro-choice health professionals have differing views on whether the 8th Amendment plays any role.

Philomena Canning, a 57-year-old independent home birth midwife and founder of Midwives for Choice, believes the 8th Amendment undermines the rights of all pregnant women; not just those seeking an abortion.

 “The 8th Amendment strikes at the core of midwifery,” Canning says. “And at the core of midwifery is respect for the human rights and personal decision-making of the woman. It in essence means that women have no guaranteed role in decisions about their care and treatment from the time they get pregnant until the baby is actively born.”

She cites the 2016 case of Geraldine Williams, from Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, who had three children delivered by caesarean section and wanted to have her fourth child naturally.

In September of that year, when Williams was 40 weeks pregnant, the Health Service Executive applied to the High Court for an order allowing it to carry out a caesarean section against her wishes. This was to assert her baby’s right to life under article 40.3.3 of the constitution. Williams had already been hospitalised and would not agree to a c-section.

The judge ultimately refused to grant the order, saying the increased risks associated with a natural birth did not justify “effectively authorising to have her uterus opened against her will, something which would constitute a grievous assault if done on a woman who was not pregnant”.

But Eogan and Donnelly, both specialist consultants in their fields, insist that the impact of the 8th is generally restricted to women seeking terminations.

“That kind of situation is extremely rare,” says Donnelly. “A woman’s wishes should not be overwritten and a procedure should not be done to her without her consent.

“I think rather than it being the 8th Amendment, there certainly can be old fashioned attitudes from doctors and midwives to core ways of approaching things,” she concedes. “The woman’s views should not be disregarded and I think that would be a traditional patriarchal model, which is definitely changing, but I’m sure it may still be present in certain places.”

“We don’t have to have the 8th Amendment to be able to value women.”

Though their views might differ on this subject, all agree that Ireland’s maternity services still have a way to go to compete with the UK’s progressive, midwifery-led model for low risk births.

“We have pockets of excellent community midwifery in a whole range of areas in Ireland,” says Eogan. “But it is not universal. And some women who may wish to attend a community midwifery service, proximate to their home and their hospital, may not be able to do so.”

"While I may not agree personally that the amendment affects care in the labour ward, I don’t think it should be used as an excuse for poor professional behaviour either,” says Donnelly. “Our aim is to provide an excellent standard of care for women and we shouldn’t be using that as a barrier to consent, to exploring women’s concerns and choices in labour. From a cultural perspective, listening and communication is totally crucial, and if getting rid of the 8th helped to improve that culture, then I’m all in favour of that too."

And how might that culture change in Ireland, if the 8th Amendment is removed? “I hope that because that provision won’t be there that undermines women’s rights and choices that their voices will be a little more heard,” says 32-year old Dublin midwife Róisín Smith.

“And the things that women want – whether it be midwife-led care, midwife-led units, homebirths, being allowed more flexibility in terms of time in labour – all of that will be much more possible.

“We don’t have to have the 8th Amendment in our constitution for us to be able to value women and unborn babies as a society. Those kind of moralistic arguments that people make for the 8th, those morals don’t have to disappear because we also want to value women as mothers and decision-makers.”

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