Monday, January 10, 2011

Amelia Atlas on Gabriel Josipovici

I had intended to write about Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? but I don't think I need to anymore: Amelia Atlas has said nearly all of what I would say, and has done so much more articulately than I could have. Read the whole thing on n+1, but here is what I consider the clinching argument:
To say [in Josipovici's earlier book, The World and the Book {1971}] that we are reading modern novels incorrectly is very different from—and more persuasive than—saying all novels should, accordingly, be modernist [Josipovici's argument in What Ever Happened…]. There are multiple traditions at work in the literary canon, and modernism isn’t the only one with a living inheritance from which to draw. Should it be? Josipovici grounds his case for the primacy of modernism in its ostensible moral superiority, its formal honesty. What separates the modernist novel is the “shock administered to the reader when the work reveals itself as a ‘pure object’”—that is, in accordance with his title, as a book, and not actually the world. “The final meaning of a Robbe-Grillet novel (or, as we have seen, of a Nabokov or a Golding or a Bellow novel),” he writes, “resides in the effect which this discovery has upon us, an effect far greater than that which a novel by George Eliot or Tolstoy could have, since it is a shock administered to that most precious part of ourselves, our pride or inherent narcissism.” The sensation Josipovici describes here may be a powerful one, but the notion that it should fall to the novel to jolt us, over and over, out of the reality of our solipsism is itself the worst form of solipsism.

Can the explosive feeling of being transported by a book into the world really only be achieved by the revelation of form? What happens when we turn a novel’s last page and pick up a new book? Must we go back into ourselves in order to again be rooted out? Josipovici’s self-referential vision of what it is to read dooms us to begin always with the self. It implies that the imagination turns endlessly inward. Call me an idealist, but I think novels by Eliot and Tolstoy administer a shock by daring to traffic with the world in a way that doesn’t take our narcissism as a given. Josipovici’s claim that the “classic” novel “confuses possibility and actuality” seems to me a fundamental misreading of the prerogatives of realism. He writes as if its only ambition were mimetic, as if the realist novel—from the nineteenth-century to the present—aspires to nothing more than the collapse of all distinction between art and world. Quite the contrary. It’s by producing an apparently real, but sensorily heightened world that novelists like Tolstoy and his brethren explore this very boundary. In returning from the novel to the real, we come away with a sense of what could be: how the world would look if we forced ourselves into contact with all the subtleties and subtexts that are actually at play. [my italics] 


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

Well that's nice for you but this part of the review at least has very little to do with the content of the book.

"There are multiple traditions at work in the literary canon, and modernism isn’t the only one with a living inheritance from which to draw."

The book makes a clear and persuasive argument that modernism is not a tradition or an inheritance in the manner of a "literary movement" but is something each artist has to face himself because tradition and inheritance have been eroded or lost completely. "Should it be"" she asks. Well, if one has a choice...

I could argue with the rest too but so many other reviews of this book are full of such daft misreadings and arrogant presumptions ("moral superiority" my arse) that it's not worth it.

Jeff said...

Modernism, in Josipovici's book, is a way (or you could be mean and call it a condition) of feeling in relation to the world (best not to say reality, for what constitutes one person's reality isn't likely to be shared completely by anyone), and not a device or period of writing. Stephen Mitchelmore has rightly said that there are a lot of poor arguments out there against the book.

ben w said...

Josipovici is very explicit, when he turns his attention to Roth, that what he's after is not primarily formal at all.

Shelley said...

It's always amusing when a second-rate critic takes it upon himself to point out flaws in a first-rate writer like Tolstoy or Eliot.

Richard said...

Josipovici is the finest critic working today, Shelley. If he's second-rate, then we're in bigger trouble than I thought.

I can only assume you haven't actually read him yourself and are entirely basing your comment on Andrew's excerpt from a review which missed the point.