We take it for granted that the intellectual and esthetic preoccupations of high modern culture stood opposed to narrative, whether as form, as rhetoric or heuristic. History is storytelling and the 20th century was the century that tried to forget. But analysis in language is storytelling in the form of a graph, an ideal logic built on a presumption, implying truth by way of an analogy of science and the scientist. Society is the result of processes bearing little relation to the dialectics within the individual imagination, yet the cult of the individual and of individualism, less opposed to each other than we like to admit, remain the central tenets of modern culture, and of all intellectual and high-cultural life well into our supposedly post-modern present.
My interest in this essay is to describe the rough parameters of modernism and its relation to the world, not only as partisans described them at the time but as they appear to us in retrospect. The transformations of modernity affected all aspects of cultural life. The template was the same regardless of how the participants saw themselves, though some chose to advocate for progress and others for conservation or reaction. The story of the 20th century is the story of how those groups or desires, often overlapping in the actors themselves, grew together and apart and together again, in ways few or any were able to foretell, least of all those who tried.
High modernism’s preoccupations were twofold and contradictory: on the one hand in absolute identity in self as opposed to society, and on the other in abstract principles as opposed to the individual elements actions or people to which they were applied. Formalism, or structuralism (in its most general sense) describes an interest in the arrangement of ideas and processes and was meant to oppose any implicit and therefore metaphysical predisposition toward one or another technique or methodology. The goal was not so much to choose but to study the process of decision-making, since preference for A or B could be merely that, and not truth. This was the narrative of objectivity that gave modernism its power.
Those at the beginning of the last century who were not comfortable with this activist philosophy were in a bind. Many were more comfortable with a known past than an unstable present and remained attached to 19th century cultural life. But this chimera could not do well against the concrete reality of scientific and mechanical progress and the power that electric lights, and motors, and soon automobiles and airplanes could carry as popular and later universal metaphors. But the past was still in living memory; how else do we describe Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce or Marcel Proust, but as moderns –not modernists- remembering that past in the language of the present.
If some succeeded in maintaining and documenting an anxious in-between, others with less imagination and even more powerfully drawn to the past could only identify with the lesser siblings of 19th century high culture, the demimonde following of the Marquis de Sade. Their tastes ran therefore from the overtly to the overwhelmingly sensual: to the easy out of an overloaded physical and metaphysical immediacy. And they did this with more desperation than irony. The anti-materialist Marquis rebelled against an Enlightenment that he could not take part in and a past that that he could not escape. What he wanted was release, from the social obligations of mediated communication, from the banality of chitchat, and he could he no more accept the pretensions of conservative Christian faith than of secular optimism, no more than Alfred Jarry, 130 years later, would accept or escape Per Ubu. The self-destructive acknowledgement of impotence in the face of perceived hypocrisy and mediocrity marked de Sade as it marked his descendants, from Sacher-Masoch and Huysmans, to Jarry, Dada, Surrealism, and on. These esthetic radicals therefore share the fringes of modernism with conservative or reactionary fantasists: Jung, Gurdjieff, and a jaded aristocracy best defined as the defenders of an 18th century metaphysical tradition in the age of bourgeois democracy.
The issue in terms of art is one of successful mediation...