The Magazine

Modern as Yesterday

How the culture evolved from Old to New.

Feb 6, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 20 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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By making this confession, Levenson spares the reviewer the trouble of pointing out that his book lacks an encompassing framework. To my jaundiced eye, the key word in the above passage is should—as in “this is not to say that we should aim toward a new coherence.” For all his fine erudition and sensibility, Levenson is also a professor of critical theory, which suggests that he is loath to embark upon that most dreaded of academic undertakings, the intellectually confident, epoch-spanning “meta-narrative.” (The last white male literary scholar to try that was boiled alive some years ago.)

Levenson’s refusal to pull his material together is frustrating, because this book contains many valuable insights. And yes, they are valuable in part because they reveal some striking connections with our own “postmodernist” era. (One of the topics Levenson should have addressed is the difference between modernism and postmodernism. Indeed, the definitive book about modernism, when it appears, will take this comparison as its starting point.)

But let us consider some of those insights, even if to do so we must pluck parts of them from different sections of the book and reassemble them here. The first such insight has to do with the modernist treatment of the industrial city. Writing about Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, Levenson describes a deeply subjective, phantasmagorical vision of Paris “as rife with plots and plans, the streets as scenes of chaos, looming faces, and receding backs, but also rife with malevolent intention.” Later on, he contrasts this vision with that of Apollinaire, Baudelaire’s presumed heir (I’m working on the limerick). The difference, Levenson argues, is between Baudelaire’s “vertical” search for meaning in the lower depths of the psyche, liberated but also lost in the faceless crowd; and Apollinaire’s “horizontal” sprint across the surface of the urban landscape, with the self reduced to a “shallow eye” that rejects “persistence, duration, continuity .  .  . in favor of half-detached perceptions that move without punctuation and at great speed.”

In a later discussion of cinema, Levenson distinguishes between “deep Modernism” and “montage Modernism.” Predictably, he follows the film theorist André Bazin in giving full credit for montage to the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein as opposed to the Hollywood pioneer, D. W. Griffith, who had developed “cross-cutting” editing 10 years earlier. Again, it may be too much to ask Levenson to connect montage modernism, which exploits “the resources of speed, discontinuity, and juxtaposition,” with contemporary Hollywood movies. But I can’t resist thinking how much Apollinaire would appreciate the way 21st-century films hurtle through the heights and depths of 21st-century cities from Toronto to Tokyo, Mogadishu to Mumbai.

Equally striking is Levenson’s distinction between “textual” and “gestural” modernism. The former he defines as the making of “a resonant and memorable artifact”—in the language of art history, the production of objets. The latter, gestural modernism, he defines as “includ[ing] all those events that live beyond the artifacts,” ranging from the “personal style” of the artists to “ephemeral happenings” such as “the spectacles engineered by Marinetti and the futurists and the riotous evenings at the Cabaret Voltaire among the Dadaists.” The contemporary significance of gestural modernism should be obvious, as we live in an era where publicity is the medium of choice for many of our most popular artists. Where would Lady Gaga be if all she did was sing?

In an earlier chapter, Levenson links the “theatricality” of modernism with the spectacle of public protest in the era of mass media. For example, he observes, “When [British] suffragettes chained themselves to the railings around government buildings, set mailboxes aflame, or paraded through the streets, they were making resourceful use of the power of spectacle.” With full appreciation for the irony involved, Levenson then relates the suffragettes’ tactics to those of their exact contemporary, the futurist artist Filippo Marinetti, whose manifesto, published on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909, urged not only the demolition of museums and the glorification of war but also “contempt for woman” and fierce hostility to “feminism.”

It is, of course, impossible to write about modernism and politics without delving into the vexed topic of modernist enthusiasm for Italian fascism and Soviet communism. This Levenson does in the penultimate chapter, which compares modernism before and after World War I, and the conclusion, which examines “the ends of modernism” as found in the right-wing affinities of Ezra Pound and the left-wing activism of Bertolt Brecht.