30 Jan 2008

Modernism: Lure of Heresy (A Review) … Peter Gay

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Books, Contemporary Ethics, Kingdom, Ministry, Mission

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

Memory is essential to living healthily in the world. History is simply memory writ large. If this is true then Peter Gay has done us a favor in writing his work Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond (Norton 2008). Modernism is 510 pages of spritely written text with numerous illustrations throughout the book. Since I have had trouble sleeping this book has kept me company for the past couple of weeks.

Gay is a highly regarded cultural historian with great books on the Enlightenment (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation) and Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914 and many more to his credit.

“Modernism is far easier to exemplify than to define” is how Gay begins his book. In this particular book modernism is exemplified through the arts. We encounter impressionism and abstract art. We encounter a “new way of seeing” the world that Modernism brought about. Gay takes us into the brave new world of novels and poetry and then music and dance. We walk with Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (known as Le Corbusier) and listen as they declare that a “house is a machine for living in.” We watch as stage is transformed and the emergence of the “only all-modern art” in film (such as Citizen Kane)

Gay insightfully details the assaults on Modernism that came from the far right and left in Nazism/Facism and Stalinism. Finally he speaks to the emergence of Pop Art which, in his mind, has lead to the death of Modernism as a cultural movement. Placing the boundaries of Modernism from about 1850ish to the 1960s one can look back and see that indeed the world went through a revolution in that century and is still reeling from it.

One feature I really like about this book is that though Gay is a “fan” of Modernism and even celebrates some of its excesses he does not hide its failings. One theme that comes through periodically is the sheer arrogance of Modernism. Modernists had many dissimilarities but they all had one thing in common “they staged a humorously aggressive self-liberation from prescribed ancestor worship.” Put plainly that is a repudiation of history. As Frederic Bazille declared “What I do here will at least have the merit of not resembling anybody.” The shackles of the past were to be discarded as utterly irrelevant to “modern man.”

Another manifestation of the sheer arrogance of Modernism that is evident throughout the book is that it was not a “democratic movement.” Most Modernists had contempt for the average person and even on the people who would purchase their art or buy into the world view (which nearly all of us have btw!). Gay is enough of a chastened historian that he can write truthfully yet sympathetically, “It may be that the greatest illusion they treasured was their conviction that they had overcome all illusions.” One of the lasting illnesses of Modernism is the sovereignty of individualism. One did not have to be part of the avant-garde to buy into the illusions of Modernism.

One of the great ironies of Modernism is that much of its creative genius has now become “traditional.” In fact many Modernistic cultural works are now “classics!” Most college educated folks have read James Joyce (Ulysses), T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land), Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) or have viewed Edvard Munch’s The Scream or Monet’s Impression, Sunrise or Brancusi’s Bird in Space. Most folks know Wright’s Fallingwater or the Guggenheim.

They thought they were escaping history only to became part of it … Irony indeed!

Gay’s Modernism is not a perfect book. His love affair with Saint Sigmund is plainly evident as it is in most of his writing but this is not unbearable or offensive as you go through his very readable prose. And no doubt some specialist out there will disagree with some of his interpretations. Yet I learned a lot from Gay and what I already knew took on deeper significance. Reading Modernism has helped me tap into the “memory” of just how we got where we are and why it matters. I can recommend this book as a way of exegeting the time and place that God has put me. It is helpful to see how philosophical movements filter down from the rarefied air of the academy to the world that ordinary folks live and breath.

Seeking Shalom,
Bobby Valentine

13 Responses to “Modernism: Lure of Heresy (A Review) … Peter Gay”

  1. Danny Says:

    Thanks for the review. I will have to check this one out for sure.

  2. Falantedios Says:

    “The sovereignty of individualism.”

    Nice turn of phrase, and very apt.

    I think this sovereignty makes Paul particularly hard for the modern reader, because Paul is an ancient, not a modern. The ancients did not look for great new ways to share their unique personhood with the world.

    Much of Christianity’s current struggle with relevance comes from trying to work out this tension between individualism and community. How much should the church bend to conform to modern individuality, and how much should it prophetically critique and compassionately reshape the world around it?


  3. preacherman Says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. AncientWanderer Says:

    You are probably way ahead of me on this one but you might want to look at:

    It is H.G. Wells’ views on what a or the possibilities of a utopia and the absolute sovereignty of the individual.

    Wells says at one point:

    “This insistence upon the element of uniqueness in being, this subordination of the class to the individual difference, not only destroys the universal claim of philosophy, but the universal claim of ethical imperatives, the universal claim of any religious teaching. If you press me back upon my fundamental position I must confess I put faith and standards and rules of conduct upon exactly the same level as I put my belief of what is right in art, and what I consider right practice in art. I have arrived at a certain sort of self-knowledge and there are, I find, very distinct imperatives for me, but I am quite prepared to admit there is no proving them imperative on any one else.”

    It is (Wells’) manner of absolute (what a strange word before sovereignty) sovereignty of individualism that has muddy most of the water on the planet. IMO

  5. Jim Martin Says:

    Very nice review. This work sounds very interesting and thoughtful.

    Hope you are doing well.

  6. David Says:

    I find it sad that many in churches of Christ are incapable of seeing their own modernist biases when they interpret scripture. As one of the other commenters said, Paul was an ancient, not a modern, yet there is an assumption among some of us that we can interpret scripture perfectly through modernistic lenses. When this turns out not to be the case, we attack others as being unfaithful to God, fast and loose with the truth, etc.

    The newest thing is the current assault by conservatives on everything postmodernism, consigning such things to the devil and his minions, when in fact modernism is just as dangerous a mindset as any other worldview.

    Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  7. Bill Says:

    Good work, Bobby.

    I really like the paragraph the observation re: one of the great ironies of Modernism. Amazing stuff!

    Spiritual Oasis Blog

  8. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Bobby, thanks for pointing out this book. And thanks for the review that actually says what the book is about.

  9. preacherman Says:

    Thanks for the review Bobby. I appreicate it. I a can’t wait to read this book myself.

  10. Gardner Hall Says:

    I can never read all the books you read but benefit from your Cliffs Notes versions! Hope your insomnia is not serious.

  11. Darin L. Hamm Says:

    Sounds interesting.

  12. preacherman Says:

    Some of you know that I might be repeating some of the words, statements that I say on blogs for that I am sorry. You can find out more on my blog. I love each and everyone.

  13. Zack Says:

    I just wrote another blog about A Gathered People. Please let me know what you think.
    This book sounds interesting. 510 pages? That’s a long book! Goodness gracious. Bet it’s really good though. I’ll try to check it out at some point. God bless you Bobby!

Leave a Reply