Book Review: Historical Modernisms: Time, History and Modernist Aesthetics

4 April 2022

Katie Jones, Swansea University

Jean-Michel Rabaté and Angeliki Spiropoulou (eds.). Historical Modernisms: Time, History and Modernist Aesthetics (London, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022)

Marking the centenary of modernism’s year of miracles, Historical Modernisms makes a timely addition to scholarship – but not only for this reason. The eleven chapters, including an interview with Hayden White, explore and undo modernism’s associations with ahistoricity, as supposedly exemplified by the avant-gardes, by reading modernist arts in context. Jean-Michel Rabaté and Angeliki Spiropoulou expertly introduce the book; they ‘remain sceptical about the idea of transhistorical modernism, as do all the contributors to [Historical Modernisms]’ (5).  While we might locate modernity across time, as a reterospectively given term, modernism– unlike “dada” or similar self-defined movements – implies the critical urge to delineate, thereby restricting its usefulness to describe works of other eras.

‘Historicizing Modernism’ constitutes the first of the book’s two halves. In chapter one, Laura Marcus examines four examples of modernist life writing by Stefan Zweig, Walter Benjamin, Virginia Woolf, and Bryher (Annie Ellerman). What these authors have in common is a relationship to the nineteenth century from which they feel a separation – Stefan Zweig to Felix Braun declares ‘we are the last witnesses’ (Zweig in Marcus 38) of the fin de siècle that belonged to giants like Freud and Schnitzler. Benjamin’s concept of history as palimpsestic is considered here, a thread woven throughout many of the following chapters.  

Exploring global little magazine culture, Andrew Thacker troubles constraints engendered by the dominance of an Anglo-American critical tradition. Thacker notes modernism’s expansion thanks to the various critical interventions of the twentieth and twenty-first century – feminist and queer approaches, for instance. However, this expansion is predominantly concerned with a greater diversity of authors included in the modernist canon; less attention has been paid to a modernist ‘print media ecology’ (58). Shifting the gaze towards print media, we are shown how the global ‘expansion’ of modernism can be understood as ‘interacting with national cultural traditions to produce new forms of modernist expression’ (62), thereby challenging one-directional perspectives of influence, translation and expansion in critical approaches to global modernisms. 

Vassiliki Kolocotroni reimagines the modernist moment through Kairos, opening her chapter via consideration of the modernist moment – Joyce’s epiphany or Woolf’s moments of being – in terms of Alain Badiou’s “event”, which ‘puncture[s] time and inaugurate[s] a new subject’ (75). One understanding of the Kairotic moment is offered through Frank Kermode: ‘The fictive end purges the interval of simple chronicity. It achieves a “temporal integration” – it converts a blank into a Kairos, charges it with meaning’ (Kermode in Kolocotroni 79). Kolocotroni teases out several understandings of Kairos, establishing E.M. Forster’s queer Kairos as ‘both evental and negative’ in that while it may be experienced as a moment of rupture, the ‘restless temporality’ of the stories ‘inaugurates a betrayal rather than a fidelity to the moment’ (80).  

Like Kolocotroni, Max Saunders also looks at future-orientations and potentiality – but this time it’s the modernist historian’s oft-overlooked positioning in an imagined future: ‘the desire to look back may sound like a form of escapist nostalgia. But it is enabled by something much more surprising: a leap into the future’ (95). Saunders explores the modernist sense of historical relativity via such positioning, first through examples in modernist fictions – Vera Brittain’s twenty-first century feminist professor in Halcyon (1929), for instance – and then via historiographers, especially C. K. Ogden. 

Tyrus Miller’s contribution opens part two ‘Stories and histories of the avant-gardes’, and considers the surrealists’ search for a new medium. Miller considers the encoding of socio-historical meaning in surrealist forms, and teases out the way Benjamin and Ezra Pound both ‘predicted transformations of script as a poetic medium that develop from Mallarmé’ (131). Miller examines Kurt Pinthus’ collection of works by expressionist poets, Menschheitsdämmerung (Twilight of Mankind), as an example of an attempt to create a new medium to disrupt the implied politics of the anthology (that of territoriality) through collage and assemblage, though this is ultimately viewed as a failure – its illegibility condemning these examples to artefacts or protocols for later artists.

In ‘Time assemblage’, Sascha Bru invites us to query the customary contextualising of the avant-gardes’ relationship to history merely in terms of post-realism or anti-historicism. Instead, we might consider the anachronic or polychronic nature of all art – though this is not to say that common understandings don’t hold, but rather testing (and recognising) this habit opens up an understanding of the avant-gardes beyond a presentism or futurism: ‘the classic avant-gardes actively seized upon the potential of the anachronic nature of art in general to forge or impose a magnitude of experiences of time and views of history on an audience’ (154).

Rahma Khazam examines Clement Greenberg’s claims about art, which are contradictory – both claiming art’s ahistoricity and its indebtedness to tradition and concern with socio-political context. By tracing a pendulum-like movement between these approaches to art in Greenberg’s modernism, Khazam carefully undoes the binary between the terms of her title: the oscillation in Greenberg mirrors a ‘shift from autonomy to politicization, from the ahistorical to the historicized and back again’, which ‘recurs over and over again in the modernist period’ (170). 

Alexandra Bickley Trott reconsiders a tenet of Parisian life ordinarily characterised by its rejection of politicism: bohemian clubs, namely the Hydropathes (notable for its prohibition on political chit chat) and the Bon Bocks (“the good pint”, after Manet’s painting of the same name), spaces for the fermentation of ideas leading to Fumiste and the Journal du Bon Bock, respectively. Reading these spaces in the context of centralised or formal demonstrations of republicanism, such as the fête of 1878 to promote post-war recovery and reparation, Trott demonstrates that these ostensibly apolitical spaces performed the task of constructing identities and fraternities that express the ideologies of the emerging republic. In this context, French beer symbolises a ‘rejection of fine culture and etiquette’ (190). 

Rachel Silveri convincingly deconstructs and challenges the tendency to romanticise The Surrealist Research Bureau. In contrast to some Surrealist satirical takes on such authoritative forms, the administrative paraphernalia of the Bureau – letter heads, stationary, etc. – show no sign of irony. The author illustrates how the organisation – and particularly its sparring leaders/ managers, André Breton and Pierre Naville – performed the day’s dominant discourses on “leadership” and “management”, such as those by Frederick Wilson Taylor and Henri Fayol. These ‘envisioning[s] of administration at once naturalised leadership and deified it’ (201). 

The Belgrade surrealist circle constitutes the subject of Sanja Bahun’s contribution, a highlight of which is her exploration of simulation: ‘far from being a product of a solitary simulation of a paranoid state, simulation emerges through the collaborative “paranoic” activity of the producer of the work of art and its interpreter’ (220). This chapter – which closes the book – ends on an affirming note, emphasising history’s malleability and constructed-ness: ‘there is no history that is not a human history and thus the ultimate purpose of any creative activity can only be, as Marko Ristić claims, the “affirmation of the human”’ (231). Vane Bor’s photographs Milica S. Lazović and One Minute Before Murder (1935) exemplify the sense of a charged present, recalling the Kairotic moment.

Above, I’ve aimed to capture the shared approaches by which the authors seek to understand modernism, while also demonstrating the eclectic collage of topics collected within the text. A valuable and important addition to scholarship, Historical Modernism emphasises a concept of history as in the (re)making; it insists that modernism be understood historically, while advocating an expansive style of scholarship.

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