Heretical origins of Modernists

Times Staff Writer

A great medievalist once remarked that, in the end, Byzantine civilization failed because it was merely ingenious rather than original. Thanks to what we now call modernism, that can’t be said of the Euro-American culture that has dominated the world for the last two centuries.

Peter Gay is perhaps our leading historian of culture and ideas, and in “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond,” he sets himself an interesting -- personally felt -- task. It is not, as he writes in his introduction, to give a comprehensive history of the movement. Rather, Gay undertakes a reconstruction of modernism’s origins in the lives and work of various seminal artists -- Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, their supporters and friends. Then he moves through a series of essay-like chapters devoted to modernism’s workings in each of the arts -- painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance, architecture and so on.

Gay, who has undergone formal psychoanalytic training, is a leading, though undogmatic, practitioner of what has come to be called psychohistory -- and Sigmund Freud’s shadow lies across many of these essays. He is a generally helpful presence because Gay, as his subtitle suggests, convincingly locates the modernist impulse in the talented individual’s struggle against convention and orthodoxy. This focus on the protean artist makes broad descriptions difficult, since, as Gay points out, “Whatever cultural symptoms of modernism we explore, the particular threatens to overpower the general.” Still, he maintains, modernism “produced a fresh way of seeing society and the artist’s role in it, a fresh way of valuing works of culture and their makers. In short, what I am calling the modernist style was a climate of thought, feeling and opinion.”


Its defining characteristics, according to Gay, were two: “First, the lure of heresy that impelled [artists’] actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.”

Good Freudian that he is, Gay’s touch is particularly sure where modernism is most verbal -- in literature. He’s a close reader and keen interpreter of the experience, as in this appraisal of Leopold Bloom, the Jewish Dubliner whom James Joyce set wandering on literary modernism’s most famous odyssey: Joyce, Gay writes, “gives Bloom a certain dignity and fundamental decency, an ability to confront life under inauspicious circumstances. Bloom is, in his fleshly way, one of Baudelaire’s heroes of modern life.

“He may be a humble advertising canvasser with a wife who takes lovers, but he possesses a modicum of learning -- certainly Molly appreciates it -- and courage and curiosity all his own. And these qualities make him a worthy moral and emotional companion for Stephen Dedalus. . . . But to Joyce, Ulysses is more than that: He is the complete human being in literature . . . he is son, father, lover, friend, warrior, companion at arms, a man of wisdom, and a good man into the bargain. Joyce, in search of disinterested subjectivity, parades before his readers one of the transcendent inventions of modernist literature. His Bloom, as he casually notes, is Everyman. . . . “

Later, Gay imagines a dialogue between those modernist icons Freud and Franz Kafka in similarly shrewd terms:

“Freud’s verdict on the human animal, was severe,” he writes. “In his judgment, conflict was built into every child’s developmental history even at its best. But Freud, the principled pessimist, believed that psychoanalysts might alleviate some fixations and enlarge the range of rationality. . . . For his part Kafka would have taken this tough-minded realism as just another instance of all too human self-deception. Uncomfortably close to nihilist despair, he saw life itself as the villain. The conflict between Kafka’s unflinching bleakness and the attitude of other modernist writers could not be any greater. I recall the last word in ‘Ulysses,’ the most positive in the language, that Joyce gave to Molly Bloom -- ‘Yes.’ Kafka’s last word in all its forms was ‘No.’ ”

Oddly, though, Gay is unsympathetic -- even slightly uncomprehending -- in his treatment of Samuel Beckett. His otherwise shrewd literary appraisals serve him in good stead when he takes on the vexing problem of those movements and individuals he calls “anti-modern modernists.” His assessments of T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism and Charles Ives’ homophobia are sharply telling, and he’s particularly good on Knut Hamsun’s chilling idolatry of Hitler. His dissections of the Soviets, Nazis and Italian fascists are at once economical and judicious.

Gay finds a watershed for modernism in pop art’s obliteration of the always vexing dichotomy between high and low culture. Modernism’s central problem, however, wasn’t so much the tension between high and low, but the frustrations and failures that grew out of its practitioners’ desire to bring ideas and artifacts they deemed high to the masses they thought low. Those masses behaved pretty much as masses are inclined to do and turned out to be fairly indifferent, even sullen in the face of their proffered redemption. More than once, for example, William Morris raged that he and his compatriots had set out to change the world and ended up making precious objects “for the swinish rich.”

And, of course, the middle classes, which proved themselves eager to absorb modernism’s heretical ideas, expressions and objects just as quickly as the consumer economy could housebreak them into commodities. Today, a cynic might find high modernism’s real legacy on the pages of a glossy decorating magazine -- a single austerely curved Barcelona chair before a color field painting in a hospital-white box of a downtown loft. That cynic might go on to observe that a certain kind of Freudian might argue that modernism’s great ally was the masochism of the middle classes, an indefatigable willingness to be abused and affronted over their own petty bourgeois appetite for comfort and serenity.

Fortunately, Gay is not among those cynics, though he is unwilling to play “the prophet.” As a careful historian, he is hesitant to say more than that modernism has had “a good long run.”

He is uncertain of modernism’s future because the democratization of culture continues apace, and modernism “is not a democratic ideology.” That’s not to say that it’s antagonistic to political democracy, but that it requires an elite willing and able to make the case for “difficult art.”

The technology of entertainment, Gay worries, has deafened us to a culture of heresy and heroism: “It is not, as conservative cultural critics have maintained, that culture has been commodified: It has always had a commercial angle to it, even among the ancient Greeks and Romans. But the sophistication of the cultural trades, the ease and speed of communications that are of particular interest to the middle classes, have encouraged compromises that cannot help but favor the marginalization of future avant-gardes. We live in an age of musical comedies.”

That’s a nice bit of Middle European irony, but Gay begins his final chapter by recounting the “enthusiasm” he felt a few years ago when he stood before Frank Gehry’s magnificent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. He contrasts the Los Angeles architect’s close relationship with his clients and other artists with the condescension and contempt the high modernists felt toward those for whom they worked. In Bilbao, Gay found not only aesthetic integrity but a “likable” modernism.

Here in this citadel of commercialized popular culture, any Angeleno who has had the thrilling experience of sitting in Gehry’s great Disney Hall, listening to Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in another stunning piece of new music, is bound to share Gay’s unspoken -- but obvious -- intuition that modernism has a bit more to tell us before it ends its run.