Berfrois

Berfrois Interviews Gabriel Josipovici

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 by Russell Bennetts 

Gabriel Josipovici is a prolific and eminent novelist, literary theorist, critic, and scholar. He has won the Somerset Maugham Award for Short Fiction and his The World and The Book remains a landmark text in literary studies. A former Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford, he is presently Research Professor in the Graduate School of Humanities at the University of Sussex.

In his latest nonfiction book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Josipovici charts Modernism’s key stages and suggests that, essentially, it is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities.

Berfrois

          What does Modernism mean to you?

Josipovici

           The first thing to be said is that to define Modernism in any way at all is to take a stand. In that it is like Romanticism. You cannot write a ‘history of Romanticism’ or of Modernism, because you cannot stand above it on some neutral vantage-point. In my book I argued that though Modernism is associated with certain avant-garde artists working between 1850 and 1950 it is quite wrong to think of it as period-based, like Mannerism, or The Victorian Period, because that implies that it is now over and behind us. Rather, I want to suggest, it is best seen as the coming to consciousness by art of its limits and therefore its potential. That may make it sound terribly introverted and art-for-art’s-sake-y, but it is just the opposite. The artists I see as Modernist, from Rabelais and Cervantes through Sterne to Wordsworth, Holderlin and Kleist and on to Mallarme, Eliot, Kafka, Proust and the rest, are all primarily concerned with exploring the world, but they also recognise that to do so effectively is to grasp that to write is to work with words, to write music is to work with sounds, etc. Thus, for the writers one key strategy is to make clear to the reader where the boundaries fall between the book and the world.

Berfrois

           What is the problem with Modernism today?

Josipovici

           There is no problem with Modernism today. Or rather, the same problems as existed 150 or 500 years ago.

Berfrois

           Does responsibility for the disappearance of literary Modernism in England rest more with her critics or writers?

Josipovici

          Artists do what they can, but critics owe it to the public to take a larger view. When I came to England in the late 1950s I could read reviews of literature, art and music in national papers by critics like Philip Toynbee, John Berger, Wilfred Mellers and David Drew. These men were steeped in the art of the past 100 years and judged what they read saw and heard by standards derived from such art. They had a European sensibility, and were at home in the Paris of the First World War years, the Russia of the 1920s, Weimar Germany, and so on. Nowadays reviewers feel to be, when I read them, essentially provincial, looking, if anything, towards an equally provincial United States, but out of touch with the art of Europe. It makes me feel an outsider, as I did not feel when I first arrived on these shores.

Berfrois

           Do you see Modernism thriving elsewhere in the world?

Josipovici

          I don’t think Modernism has ever ‘thrived’. Even Picasso had to work in obscurity for years. But it’s true that in France and Germany there is still a place, somewhere at the edge, for serious (which does not mean solemn) debate about culture and the arts, and the space for interesting new work to appear. When I do readings in Germany I encounter audiences which are ready to engage with the works on their merits. In England the first question tends to be: “Why do you write such difficult books?” This baffles me because I do not think of my books as difficult. In Germany they ask:  “How did you arrive at this solution?” In France: “Can you talk a bit about the colon in your title: Goldberg; Variations ?”

Berfrois

           How does post-Modernism fit into your argument?

Josipovici

          It doesn’t. One of the implicit arguments of the book is that to talk of post-Modernism is another example of trying to put Modernism safely behind us, not to have to face its uncomfortable questions. I would say, though, that there is a second phase of Modernism, in a sense, with Borges, with Queneau, with Perec, with Bernhardt, with Gert Hofman, with Kundera, as though the great battles having been fought and won by Proust, Kafka, Mann, Musil, and so on, one could be more modest, lighter if you will. You can see it in the relation of Ligeti and Kurtag to Schoenberg and Webern, for example, or early Hockney and Kitaj to Picasso and Cubism.

Berfrois

          You make a persuasive case that Modernism began at a far earlier date than is commonly accepted. What was it about the 16th Century that led to disenchantment, a loss of innocence and the insertion of ego into art?

Josipovici

          In earlier books and essays, such as The World and the Book and On Trust I explored the world of Dante and Chaucer, and examined how, in a play like Richard II, Shakespeare marks the moment when we leave a medieval and enter a ‘modern’ world. Scholars such as Charles Singleton and Eamon Duffy have charted the transition in great and perceptive detail. Foucault, in a more polemical spirit, has also explored the transition, in book after book. What needs to be understood is that for the medieval sculptor working on the tympanum of a cathedral, say, both the subject matter and the style were given. That does not mean that there are not huge differences between sculptures in different cathedrals or that there was no room for innovation, but it was always within the tradition. That is how all the arts of the world have always functioned, till the coming of modernity – in Western Europe in the sixteenth century, in the rest of the world in the twentieth perhaps. But even here we have to remember the Nietszchean insight that ‘falls’ occur many times in history. That is why I included a chapter in the book on the three Greek classical dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, because the change one can discern from the first two to the third is very similar to the one one can find in Europe between, say, Dante and Milton, or Gawain and Defoe and Richardson.

Berfrois

           How did you feel about the reaction in the mainstream media to the publication of What Ever Happened to Modernism? I refer mainly to the Guardian interview you gave shortly before the book’s publication and the ensuing coverage this garnered.

Josipovici

           The Guardian ‘interview’ was not an interview and did not reflect my views. The journalist seized on two or three sentences from one chapter of a dense 200 page book, yanked them out of context and, on the basis of a series of phone conversations which mainly consisted of my trying to explain to her that she had misunderstood what I was trying to say, passed it off as an interview. After it came out other papers and the broadcast media were keen to get me to ‘elaborate’ on what I had ‘said’ to the Guardian. When I declined but offered instead to talk about my book, they said they were in that case not interested. Then reviews started coming that had nothing to do with the book but were personal attacks on me for what I was supposed to have said. Later some reviews did get published where the reviewer, I felt, had actually read the book. Some were full of praise, some were critical, but at least they engaged with it.

Berfrois

          Was this reaction, with its focus on personalities, symptomatic of the problems you have identified in the book?

Josipovici

           Symptomatic of the malaise I had, at the beginning and end of the book, identified with the cultural climate in England. So I shouldn’t have been surprised – but the vitriol, I must say, did surprise me, and the sarcasm. 

Berfrois

            How does your own role as writer-critic influence your thoughts concerning Modernism?

Josipovici

           I think all artists are selfish and look in the past for what can help them in the present. Then they praise those older artists partly in the hope that this will make audiences understand their own work better. Examples would be Eliot on Donne and Proust on Ruskin. But all criticism is really like that, and the question is (and it is the question I end my book with): ‘Does having a particular standpoint help you see better or stop you seeing properly?’ There are no absolute truths in such debates – only the attempt to make people see things from your point of view in the belief that it is more true to the facts than other points of view. Only time will tell whether you have been successful – and you can never know if you are right.


Saint Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I, Albrecht Dürer, 1514