John Sutherland reviews Gabriel Josipovici in the Literary Review:
Josipovici takes his analysis back to the Reformation and Protestantism. Together with the concurrent rise of capitalism, Josipovici presents this as the emergence of individualism. It’s a variant of the Max Weber thesis familiar from Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, in which Watt argues that the novel is the literary form that accommodated post-Reformation individualism. As individualism rose the ‘numinous’ disappeared – along with the Pope, the priests, feudalism, the divine right of kings, and leprosy. It meant freedom, but also the downside of freedom, loneliness. ‘When in the sixteenth-century’, Josipovici records, ‘religion takes its inward turn … the world becomes a colder space.’ And a smaller space.
Modernism, as Josipovici understands, doesn’t mend things – but it is honest about the unmendability. Modernism rejects the ‘bad faith’ of Romanticism and Realism – the two great movements on which traditional English literature and art rest. Modernism is cosmically ‘disenchanted’ (Josipovici borrows this key term from Max Weber). But it is not frightened to look, even if what it looks at is as paralysing as Medusa’s head. Josipovici takes as axiomatic Beckett’s proclamation that the Modernist writer has ‘nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’ It is despairing but brave – and, more importantly, true to the human condition."
I often find it wearying in arguments of this kind that culture is invariably described in terms that are prescriptive rather than descriptive, with the usual result that the prescription largely disregards its actual subject. As a riposte, I’m a little reminded of Camille Paglia’s equally prejudiced view that modernism sent literature into a cul de sac while film was allowed to emerge as the primary cultural form, or (once more) Tom Wolfe’s view that realism of the sort practised by Dickens and Thackeray had always been demeaned as vulgar populism before it became canonical, and that realism was as important to the development of the novel as electricity was to modern technology. All of these views tell you something about their originator, little about their subject.
There are probably two meaningful two ways to address Josipovici’s argument; firstly by a descriptive analysis of English literature and secondly by a descriptive analysis of modernism. To begin with modernism itself, one of my complaints about Josipovci’s description of modernism is that it’s so porous that it could easily be viewed as a description of European culture in general. The fact that this article attributes the rise of modernism to the Reformation, whereas Josipovici had previously pinned it to the French revolution, does little to suggest that a scalpel is being wielded rather than a cudgel. By contrast, JG Ballard described English modernism as a thin veneer of techniques like stream of consciousness over a narrative form that was quite recognisably a development of the nineteenth century novel. Look behind Lawrence and Hardy and Eliot can be seen. Looking behind Woolf and Forster reveals Austen and James. With the collapse of Freudian ideas, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that the novel might at least partially revert to a pre-modernist form; in any case, Ballard saw surrealism rather than modernism as the principal movement of the twentieth century.
To proceed onto the former, Josipovici is correct to note that the emergence of individualism and capitalism were central to the literature of the country that birthed the industrial revolution and the modern metropolis alike, but he seems to ignore the fact that this inevitably meant the rise of the urban middle class that Josipovici spends so much of his time sneering at. That class provided both the principal personae and the principal audience for literature from the eighteenth century onwards. As Lukacs put it, the novel is the bourgoeis epic. As such, it can hardly be surprising if England produced novels like Middlemarch while America produced Huckleberry Finn. The difficulty for the contemporary English novel is that where Eliot and Dickens envisaged society as an organic whole with each part interconnected, modern atomised society affords rather less scope for such a project. To take two obvious examples, Arnott’s He Kills Coppers and McEwan’s On Chesil Beach are both historical novels in much the same way as Felix Holt or Barnaby Rudge, but where Eliot and Dickens portray their characters as exemplars of those times, Arnott and McEwans portray their characters as aberrations, that are no more representative of those times than of any other. The conventions of the nineteenth century continue to be used, but seem vestigial rather than central to those books.
Update:A related critique: