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by Michael Levenson

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In this wide-ranging and original account of Modernism, Michael Levenson draws on more than twenty years of research and a career-long fascination with the movement, its participants, and the period during which it thrived. Seeking a more subtle understanding of the relations between the period's texts and contexts, he provides not only an excellent survey but also


In this wide-ranging and original account of Modernism, Michael Levenson draws on more than twenty years of research and a career-long fascination with the movement, its participants, and the period during which it thrived. Seeking a more subtle understanding of the relations between the period's texts and contexts, he provides not only an excellent survey but also a significant reassessment of Modernism itself.

Spanning many decades, illuminating individual achievements and locating them within the intersecting histories of experiment (Symbolism to Surrealism, Naturalism to Expressionism, Futurism to Dadaism), the book places the transformations of culture alongside the agitations of modernity (war, revolution, feminism, psychoanalysis). In this perspective, Modernism must be understood more broadly than simply in terms of its provocative works, experimental forms, and singular careers. Rather, as Levenson demonstrates, Modernism should be viewed as the emergence of an adversary culture of the New that depended on audiences as well as artists, enemies as well as supporters.

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By Michael Levenson


Copyright © 2011 Michael Levenson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11173-6

Chapter One

the avant-garde in modernism

The account of the avant-garde here builds upon assumptions laid out in the introduction, above all the conviction that the tumultuous events of cultural modernity appeared not merely as a succession of disturbing artifacts or critical provocations but as constituents of an oppositional social milieu, as a radically alternative practice that presented a counterhistory for modernity. In this view, the telling events were not the text, the painting, the film, or the quartet, no matter how extreme, but the artifacts as emblems of a widening counterworld. The growing perception, as conspicuous in the dominant press as in the avant-garde journals, was that these formidable artifacts exemplified rival forms of life, other styles of thinking and feeling.


The dislike of the new art, so marked in the epoch of Modernism, is not surprising, but the extent of the revulsion and the fear that civilization was at stake continue to startle. Enemies of experimental culture were numerous and stubborn; their charges—of madness and insurrection—were extravagant. The background to the furor lies first of all in the political struggles of the nineteenth century. From the middle of the century a subversive art often appeared as a reflection of revolutionary politics, with the small sect of embattled artists, no matter what their stated views, seen as comrades of anarchists, socialists, feminists, vegetarians. In 1871, at the Paris Commune, artists stood alongside workers at the barricades. Out of the violent events of these months, including the bloody catastrophe at its end, came a multitude of artworks, especially paintings and engravings, that secured a connection between art and revolutionary politics. The political desire to transform society met the aesthetic desire to represent and to circulate the signs of transformation. For many figures of the period, the Paris Commune took on the aspect of a glimpsed utopia; over succeeding decades it lingered as an image of the union of aesthetics and politics. But even in the absence of overt alliances between artists and revolutionaries, even, indeed, when artists disdained the aims of politics, the threat of social insurrection was part of the connotation of new aesthetic forms. The fear of the revolutionary political sect was quickly displaced by the fear of the radical artist. If politics seemed a more urgent threat, art was often taken as the determinative index of crisis.

On the side of the artists, the connection to insurrection was more uncertain than their critics suggested. A rejection of the prevailing order often became opposition to the entire field of social and political relations, as well as the dominating bourgeoisie. Revolutionary politics could appear as tainted as the bourgeois alternative. An early expression of this attitude appeared in Symbolism, which played a leading role in the history to follow. On one side, symbolist poets, critics, and dramatists repudiated the coarse materiality of everyday social life, progressive or reactionary; on the other side, they pursued an aesthetic vision—the "ideal" or "super-sensible" world —available only to initiates. The symbolist salon with its select company and its obscure ceremonies may seem to stand as far as possible from political engagement. But late-nineteenth-century realism also frequently separated itself from mass politics even as it identified itself with social liberation. The realist estrangement was not in the name of the invisible truths of the symbolists but in blunt refusal of democratic judgment and insight. Even Ibsen, in his most socially committed phase, defended the preeminence of "that minority which leads the van and pushes on to points the majority has not yet reached." And Shaw, Ibsen's most eager expositor, put the claim still more harshly: "If 'Man' means this majority, then 'Man' has made no progress; he has, on the contrary, resisted it.... The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive; and no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human material for society. In short, it is necessary to breed a race of men in whom the life-giving impulses predominate." The artist as "enemy of the people" appears sometimes in the guise of a fastidious aristocrat, a dandy, a relic of fine responsiveness; but at least as often, as here in Shaw, the artist is portrayed as a portent of the future, an Overman, who opens possibilities without precedent. Through the 1880s, Nietzsche offered both the philosophic justification and the imagery for the last figure. But for all his importance, Nietzsche belongs within a wider field of modernizing pressures.

The emergence of modernist art as "one of the practices"—I have proposed this phrase as a way to place aesthetic activity within a network of activities: making, exhibiting, reading, debating, viewing, reviewing. Acknowledging that such networks had no determinate origin, we can nevertheless argue that by the last third of the nineteenth century a recognizably distinct artworld had appeared, with a web of practices separate from politics and religion. The crucial event was not an inward turning, a cult of ornamental form and a narrowing to an initiated elite, although contraction was indeed a tendency. More significant was the establishment of art as the practice of a broadening subculture. The career of Gustave Flaubert was a paradigm and a lingering memory. Despite his famous agonies ("It's pleasure and torture combined. And nothing that I write is what I want to write"), Flaubert understood his labor as fully justified. What justifies the work is not only the satisfaction of having wrought an artifact but the conviction that it will be sanctioned by artistic comrades, that it will be published and reviewed, and that it will exert a force, however indeterminate, upon society. Flaubert was sustained by the thought of the encounter between his books and the world.

The growth of art as a self-conscious practice rarely implied indifference to the social realm. Rather, it suggested that aesthetic labor had a distinctive, not an autonomous, character. Its formal features aside, what gave it distinctiveness, I argue here, was the presence of an artworld as complex as the political culture with which it vied. Moreover, as I have suggested, it need not have vied with politics. Much like the career of Flaubert, the events of the Paris Commune hung over later Modernism as a memory. For a period of months in the French capital, it seemed possible to invent new social forms; it also seemed that two great social practices could converge. We need only think ahead to the connection between Modernism and the Russian Revolution, or between Dadaism and postwar political insurgency, or between Bertolt Brecht and revolutionary theater, to realize that the period 1870–1940 saw recurrent episodes of intensely politicized art. But it was the radical undecidability of the tie between aesthetics and politics that became an abiding mark of Modernism. Social transformation and the transformation of art were concurrent possibilities: they knew one another; the dialogues between them were as telling as their separate monologues. When Shaw offered a view of Ibsen's work as part of a revolutionary social movement and described him as a Socialist, the Daily Chronicle printed an interview purporting to show Ibsen renouncing the political affiliation. There followed a revealing letter from Ibsen himself.

Where the correspondent repeats my assertion that I do not belong to the Social-Democratic party, I wish that he had not omitted what I expressly added, namely, that I never have belonged, and probably never shall belong, to any party whatever. I may add here that it has become an absolute necessity to me to work quite independently and to shape my own course. What the correspondent writes about my surprise at seeing my name put forward by Socialistic agitators as that of a supporter of their dogmas is particularly liable to be misunderstood. What I really said was that I was surprised that I, who had made it my chief life-task to depict human characters and human destinies, should, without conscious or direct intention, have arrived in several matters at the same conclusions as the social-democratic moral philosophers had arrived at by scientific processes.

The incident highlights the uncertain boundaries between modernizing art and modern politics. In much writing on the subject, social urgency is seen as making demands on an uncommitted art. But demands come from both sides. Even as activists in the midst of political struggle called on art to make common cause, so artists demanded that politics recover its radical inspiration. Modern politics has followed an arc of hope and disenchantment, and in the periods of disenchantment—after the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, the First World War—it was art that often assailed compromise, convention, and weak will and that summoned politics back to its radical vision.

Ibsen speaks of his surprise that his independent course as a dramatist converged with revolutionary politics "in several matters." We can take this as a sign of the separation of these two great modern practices: their separation, but also their competition and intense mutual consciousness. At the end of the nineteenth century Ibsen saw his art as at once separate from politics (he did not belong "to any party whatever") and, at the deepest level, concerned with the same questions: "human characters and human destinies." The correspondent for the Daily Chronicle wanted to fan the coals of competition, but Ibsen refused the invitation; at the same time he defiantly held to the integrity of his vocation.

During times of political impasse and disorientation, as in the last third of the nineteenth century, newly confident artists saw themselves assuming the mantle of radicalism. Like the political revolutionaries, they deplored the complacency of the public and the widespread blinkered surrender to cliché and fantasy. As long as the political struggle remained in deadlock, artists could claim the central role in rousing a dormant modernity. Ibsen accepted it as his task "to awaken individuals to freedom and independence —and as many of them as possible."

Such independent radicalism of the arts found one epitome in Stéphane Mallarmé's notorious utterance "Let man be democratic; the artist must separate and remain an aristocrat." Art, he writes, "is a mystery accessible to the very few." Here appears a view of the artist as the only living relic of hierarchical society, the one who sustains high values within a leveling age. The dandy is related to this figure of the aristocratic artist, who caresses difference, even eccentricity, in a bid to preserve a threatened zone of culture. Raymond Williams persuasively sees the artist-aristocrat as one of the roles that will remain continually available to modernists. Yet we need to distinguish this rearguard gesture—the effort to preserve old values and old mysteries—from another lineage of oppositionalism, exemplified in the career of Arthur Rimbaud. The life (and legend) of Rimbaud is that of the modernist who leaps into culture without warning, who produces unprecedented verse that breaks long-standing conventions, and who embodies a principle of artistic/sexual/political radicalism.

For Rimbaud the crucial gesture was not to withdraw in order to preserve threatened values; it was to enter the world in order to break through. His poetic seer is precisely not one who tends the ancient mysteries; the seer is a thief of novelty, and he steals by submitting to the most strenuous psychic regimen. "The poet makes himself a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses. Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts every possible poison, so that only the essence remains. He undergoes unspeakable tortures that require complete faith and superhuman strength, rendering him the ultimate Invalid among men, the master criminal, the first among the damned, and the supreme Savant! For he arrives at the unknown!" Again: "The poet is really a thief of fire." This dramatic rendering of the artist aligns with Nietzsche's portrait of the Overman, and such images—vigorous, sensuous, unrepentant, unconstrained—stand against the stately ceremonies of Mallarméan aristocracy. Marjorie Perloff has located a root division in modernist poetry that begins with the late-nineteenth-century struggle between the open forms of Rimbaud and the exquisite music sought by Mallarmé. This contrast will return in the discussion of the modernist lyric. At the moment, though, the careers of Mallarmé and Rimbaud open to another distinction.

From one historical perspective, the avant-garde has always seemed an affair of elites. Mallarmé, for instance, has been taken as a paradigm of the refined artist with rarefied sensibilities, whereas part of the legend of Rimbaud is that of the poet who came from nowhere. Living far from privileged metropolitan circles, he read the poems that came to him and invented the terms of his own transformation. Granted, Rimbaud sought out Paul Verlaine and made his way to Paris; granted, too, his work became indispensable to the revolutionary generation in the capital. Yet it is also true that he soon left Paris, with its select company of published poets and its emerging avant-garde, that he prized his independence from even the most advanced movements, and that his sense of extremity brought him to abandon the making of art. The example of Rimbaud was a challenge to the milieu of the Parisian salons—and continues to challenge a view of Modernism as exclusively the production of metropolitan elites.

From the 1880s on, the sheer proliferation of forms, movements, manifestos, and experimental works indicated an openness to novelty that was itself a form of social insurgency. Despite the tendencies toward closed circles of aesthetic initiates, the new conditions defied insularity and created a rapid traffic in artistic provocation. Aspiring artists came from many places and conditions; they were women as well as men, provincials as well as metropolitans. Certain individuals and groups may have perpetuated attitudes of aristocratic disdain, but no one was able to police the boundaries of innovation. From the 1880s until the First World War, the life of public culture was wider than the intentions of any artist; it was an ongoing eruption whose leading effect was an expansive field for experiment. Everywhere you looked a new magazine was in sight, or a shocking image, or a poem that would not scan.


In 1913, in a new edition of The Quintessence of Ibsenism, and earlier, in a preface to Major Barbara, Shaw evokes the international character of the shock effect. He notes that after he published his book on Ibsen in 1891, a German reader announced that all his ideas came from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. "That was the first I heard of Nietzsche," rejoins Shaw. "I mention this fact, not with the ridiculous object of vindicating my 'originality' in nineteenth century fashion, but because I attach great importance to the evidence that the movement voiced by Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Strindberg, was a world movement, and would have found expression if every one of these writers had perished in his cradle.... The movement is alive today in the philosophy of Bergson and the plays of Gorki, Tchekov, and the post-Ibsen English drama."

It is important to recover the force of this moment. The names in Shaw's list are all familiar, but now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, none of them stands as a central representative of Modernism. They characteristically appear instead under the heading of "precursor" or "context." But Shaw's remarks remind us, first of all, that Modernism has become circumscribed as a history of techniques, a species of formalism in which the figures he names here are typically set aside. Second, and more important, these remarks show that a sense of transformative change preceded the works and artists now canonically marked as high modernist. Through the first decade of the twentieth century, sensations and tremors were associated with each of the artists mentioned by Shaw. His partiality aside, we can agree that the succession of texts—works of philosophy as well as works of art—created the perception of a "world movement," though nothing as coherent as a "program" or a "zeitgeist."

The differences among the figures are as striking as their similarities: a long passage separates Wagner from Anton Chekhov and Nietzsche from Henri Bergson. Still, the artists shared an adversarial temper; they resisted the complacency of official culture that dominated the publishing industry, the venues of performance, and the pages of the mass circulation journals and newspapers. Most significantly, their challenge was fundamentally discursive, the challenge of propositions, ideas, and theories. Even in the midst of the sensuous and sometimes overwrought artifacts of August Strindberg or Wagner, or within the subtle game of perspectives in Chekhov, or in the complex rhetoric of Nietzsche, the discursive "idea" remains prominent. The discussion play of Ibsen was a vivid paradigm. But the works of all those named by Shaw initiated a play of ideas, and there can be no doubt that audiences engaged with the discursive, ideological incitement before all else. What the plays "proposed" and "argued" was what attracted the rapt attention and the splenetic rebuttal. Elsewhere in The Quintessence of Ibsenism, Shaw makes the brazen claim that "modern European literature and music now form a Bible far surpassing in importance to us the ancient Hebrew Bible that has served us so long.... There comes a time when the formula 'Also sprach Zarathustra' succeeds to the formula 'Thus saith the Lord,' and when the parable of the doll's house is more to our purpose than the parable of the prodigal son" (236). Modern culture is a scripture. It is biblical in its force and its authority—or, according to Shaw, it should be. Its lessons are parables open to committed interpretation. The new culture is portrayed as a usurping discourse, which achieves its power by generating more discourse.


Excerpted from modernism by Michael Levenson Copyright © 2011 by Michael Levenson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Levenson is William B. Christian Professor of Modern Literature and Critical Theory, University of Virginia. His publications on Modernism span some twenty years and include Modernism and the Fate of Individuality: Character and Novelistic Form from Conrad to Woolf. He lives in Charlottesville, VA.

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