Why We're Still Struggling to Make Sense of Modernism

We may like to think of ourselves as postmodern, but the modernists upended conventions—in art and in life—in ways that have challenged us ever since.

From left: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso.  (Associated Press; Corbis; Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis)

Beckett wrote “unenjoyable” books, says Martin Amis. Paulo Coelho believes Joyce’s Ulysses caused “great harm,” while Roddy Doyle doubts any readers are “really moved by it.” “Shabby chic” is the Financial Times’ verdict on modernist architecture. You hear it often these days, this grousing about difficult, pretentious modernism: Woolf, Kafka, Stein, and Picasso come in for it too. The emperor has no clothes. The flight from modernism—we know the names but skirt the works—may be a sign of the cultural times, a symptom of our special mix of fatigue, cynicism, and complacency. And then, of course, the art can indeed try your patience and stamina. Its demands are relentless; these are creations that decline to traffic in reassurance or open themselves to clicks and scans.

One hundred years ago, more or less, those rebel modernists were not aiming to make trouble for its own savage sake. Their forbidding work belonged to complicated, unforgiving times. Living without the gods of progress or reason—and without God—they tried this, tried that, reached further, failed, and then failed better (Beckett’s phrase). Not all: some had no clothes. But for roughly four decades, from 1890 to 1930, many risked poverty and courted humiliation. Even the most extraordinary had no idea that their works would endure, or be read by more than a few hundred committed admirers—much less find their place on college reading lists. Now, even unread, they haunt the present, ghostly images of what visionary culture might be.

Across the reach of literature, music, art, and architecture, “Make It New” (Pound’s phrase) was the uncompromising slogan that summoned a gathering of brazen imaginations. The insurrectionists collaborated and competed, calling for speech without cliché, love without embarrassment, truth without self-deception. The idea was that art could be what religion had been, and what politics had failed to become—a sphere of conviction and a site of shared value. For the most audacious, this was the gamble with history that we pay a price for forgetting. We have never been postmodern, not in any sense of living after, or beyond, the decades of rupture, the modernist break with taken-for-granted conventions. Those years set the terms for our own struggle with the New. They inform our uneasy dance between art and fashion, art and money—and our fraught debates over the claims of art, politics, and religion. If you take the view that we haven’t yet lived up to their challenges, as I do, then the question is how to rouse ourselves to an unfinished task: How can we accept the call of our modernist origins?

The flight from modernism—we know the names but skirt the works—may be a sign of the cultural times, a symptom of our special mix of fatigue, cynicism, and complacency.

In Constellation of Genius, the British critic Kevin Jackson has his own way of putting the question, and returning to the scene of revolution. He asks how it happened so suddenly, the triumph of English-language innovation in 1922, when Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s “The Waste Land” appeared. His odd, obsessive compendium of events, month by month, day by day, captures the churning disorder well. Known in the modernist trade as the annus mirabilis, 1922 saw not only the eruptions of Joyce and Eliot but also (this is Jackson’s thrust) so much else we’ve forgotten or never knew. If you couldn’t come up with a date for Nanook of the North or The Velveteen Rabbit (I couldn’t), now you know they belong to the mix of ’22. Mao Zedong fathered his first child that year. Hitchcock directed his first film. E. E. Cummings published The Enormous Room. Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape opened in March, and Robin Hood (with Douglas Fairbanks) was released in October.

At the same time, Jackson believes in the myth of the miracle year. He can’t shake the thought that everything changed during those 12 months. The introduction announces his theme: in 1922 the English-speaking literary world “finally entered the new century,” catching up to Continental breakthroughs such as Alfred Jarry’s absurdist drama Ubu Roi and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Everyone, naturally, gets a little thrill in learning that Joyce and Eliot published their ambitious ferocities in the same calendar year. Yet why make so much of the convergence—especially when it’s easy to show that Anglo-American modernists had already launched the campaign of novelty?

Eight years earlier, in 1914, Yeats threw off the “old mythologies” and began “walking naked” in Responsibilities. That was also the year of Gertrude Stein’s astonishing catalog of everyday objects in exploded sentences, the prose poem Tender Buttons. Eliot’s “Prufrock” (1915) showed just how emotionally subtle the new free verse could be, and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist (1916) took only a page and a half to change the sound of what could be heard in fiction. Singling out 1922 has been a useful shorthand, a way to heighten the shock effect that in fact recurred over several decades. (Take 1925, for instance, which delivered Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Stein’s The Making of Americans, Kafka’s The Trial, and Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.) Really, it’s hype and hyperbole to present 1922 as uniquely radiant.

Which is exactly what Constellation of Genius shows, in spite of itself. The cumulative effect of the book is not to clinch the case for a miracle year, but to show the chaos of simultaneity. In short entries, sometimes no longer than a sentence, details come shooting out of somewhere and are released into nowhere. In the last weeks of May, Lenin had a stroke, Joyce met Proust, Bix Beiderbecke was expelled from boarding school, O’Neill won the Pulitzer, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. So it inexorably goes. Jackson’s calendar, by giving roughly equal weight to each month, makes all events look much the same size. Even in the quiet summer when little happens, the days must be filled: the young Orwell takes an examination in late June, Cocteau writes to his mother in July. Distant events don’t connect; nothing develops. The year turns out to be just a heap of days.

Constellation of Genius amounts to a tarted-up timeline that can’t give us what we need—which is a sense of relationship, of modernism as works-in-dialogue, and the New as something that doesn’t drop from the sky but grows out of struggle and exchange over many years. Implicitly, the book admits what it pretends to deny: that all this annus-mirabilising misses too much. A section called “Aftermath” breaks the rule of 1922, introducing short summaries to fill in the before-and-after, as long footnotes do throughout the book. Jackson culls from two generations of indispensable scholarship, especially the great biographers of the period, Richard Ellmann (Joyce), Roy Foster (Yeats), and Hermione Lee (Woolf), who have all shown that the New is never born in a year but lives, like the rest of us, in time.

A modest book with surprising bite helps to mark what’s at stake and what else might be done. Stephen Klaidman’s double biography of Sydney and Violet Schiff follows two minor figures through the modernist tumult who, until now, have been overlooked and underrecorded. The Schiffs were wealthy, cultured, generous, and attentive. They married late, but just in time to wed their lives to the emerging cause of modernism, as tireless patrons and promoters. Klaidman tells how he stumbled upon passing references to the couple in two books; once he began to notice, he found traces of the Schiffs everywhere.

They kept winding through the lives of the soon-to-be-famous. T. S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne were friends for several years; so was the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis, who betrayed them in the unsparing satire The Apes of God; Katherine Mansfield was dependent and difficult. Klaidman argues persuasively that at the end of Proust’s life, almost no one was as near to him as Sydney Schiff. It was the Schiffs who gave the legendary dinner at the Hotel Majestic in honor of Stravinsky and Diaghilev—in 1922—when Joyce and Proust had their one fizzling encounter (each complained about his health to the other). Everything in the story of the Schiffs turns on relationships. They forged associations where there were none; they brokered friendships, and sometimes incited conflict. Set alongside Kevin Jackson’s calendar of coincidence, Klaidman’s sleuthing shows the power of connectedness.

It’s a small story, with plenty of gaps unfilled, but it throws light on our own inheritance of modernism. At their best, the Schiffs can be models for renewing the unquenched aspiration of a century ago, to place art and its imaginative demands at the center of an effort to build a more humane future. They led imperfect lives, caught up in vain hopes that Sydney’s novels would stand with the greatest fiction of the age. But they were also absorbed in the imaginations of others, in works that required immense persistence and inspired self-scrutiny, and openness rather than skepticism. They knew it was a vocation, not just a recreation, to gaze at the disassembled bodies of Picasso, to hear the pagan percussives of Stravinsky, to follow Proust through endless clauses unspooling human loss. Brilliant new forms are good in themselves. But they’re even better when they inform new ethics, showing us how to acknowledge our contradictory modern selves and still marry for love (Woolf), or how to go on when you can’t go on (Beckett). Even the wrenching controversies—it’s not art!—send thought and feeling down to their roots.