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Modernist Discontinuities
Michael Wutz

William R. Everdell
The First Moderns

The University of Chicago Press, 1997. $29.95



What do we mean by the hard-worked term modernism, that seemingly simple notion whose very genericness suggests a conceptual slipperiness beyond definition and inspection? It is a term commonly meant to signify the general developments in literature and the arts that shaped the cultural landscape in turn-of-the-century central Europe, arguably including the experiments in poetry and film of a handful of second-rate Russians. Needless to say (it would seem), such a constricted and monologic view not only reproduces the frequently elitist and hegemonic presumptions about modernist cultural formation, but also accepts the ivory-tower syndrome often associated with traditional studies of modernism: severing writers and painters of "high" culture from parallel or analogous developments in "other" disciplines and discursive domains, such as the sciences and popular culture.

William R. Everdellís The First Moderns provides a healthy and readable corrective to such narrow treatments of modernism. The book is a wonderfully wide-ranging and readable yet conceptually sophisticated discussion of some of the cross-disciplinary milestones that have shaped the series of historical moments we now collectively understand to be the modernist matrix. It does not articulate a critique of modernist male hegemony in the literary and visual arts, nor does it purport to do so. (That was recently and elegantly done by Peter Nicholls in Modernisms [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995].) Instead, the book sets out to describe what one could call the cultural coordinates of modernism by retracing in detail the intellectual work of eminent late 19th-century and early 20th-century scientists, artists, thinkers, and philosophers and by locating their contributions within the broader context of contemporary disciplinary developments. Working on a comprehensive and tenable definition of modernism "requires us to understand a bit of everything, and to indulge in the wholesale crossing of what we have come, in the twentieth century, to call Ďdisciplinary barriers,í" and Everdell indeed sweeps with magisterial depth and felicity over developments in mathematics, genetics, histology, physics, philosophy, literature and the arts, among others. The popular culture(s) of film, blues, jazz, and the cabaret are on an equal footing with the official institutions of received modernist productions, suggesting their equivalent, perhaps even their dominant, presence in forming modern culture: Le Salon, meet Le Chat Noir, Parisís famed fin-de-siècle epicenter of artistic revolt.

Structurally and methodologically, The First Moderns is organized around the notion of genius, which Everdell defines as "a person who does something no one else can do until enough time has passed for a lot of other people to learn how to do it too." This premise, resilient and complex both, allows him to describe discrete tableaux of the modernist configuration - freeze frames, so to speak, that focus on the (frequently single-handed) ground-breaking contributions of brilliant intellectual pioneers (that have often been recognized only in retrospect). But instead of a treacherous Carlylean hero worship, which such a method could easily invite, Everdellís geniuses are fully embedded within their respective cultural moment, and their work - "original" as it may be - finds immediate resonances and multiple nuanced responses within their environment. Ludwig Boltzmann, for example, was not only the first to see thermodynamics through the lenses of probability and indeterminacy (and one of the first to have suffered through piano lessons with Anton Bruckner); his work (which was, in its fundamentals, preceded by and formulated more elegantly in the work of Josiah Willard Gibbs), provided the conceptual models that allowed Planck to discover the quantum and Einstein to theorize about the photoelectric effect. Similarly, George Seurat, whose "divisionist" painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte dispersed optical perceptions into their discrete elements, synthesized not only the work of Delacroix and Corot, and in particular Michel-Eugène Chevreulís "law of simultaneous contrast," but with the help of Ogden Roodís book on color psychology, Modern Chromatics, and perhaps the added influence of new dot-based newsprint reproductions of photographs, he was also the first to explicitly emphasize the phenomenological perception, as opposed to the representation, of color. He demonstrated the way chromatic nuances can be made to register on the retina by "manipulating the effects of juxatposed patches of paint" on the canvas, in the process redirecting the artistic trajectories of his admirers, such as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. In that sense, Everdell's modernist provocateurs are, curiously perhaps, closer to Matthew Arnoldís definition of criticism as an activity shaping an intellectual climate to be subsquently absorbed and refined by later intellectuals, than with Carlyle or Nietzsche's towering giants hovering in isolation above historical processes.

In consort with recent shifts in the history of science, Everdell's second epistemological premise is one of narrativization. In contrast to more purely theoretical or discursive treatments, The First Moderns rightly presumes that "telling stories is not only... the more appealing way of arguing a case, but by far the most Modern" - modern in the sense that narration is one of the most fundamental human ways of making meaning and comprehending knowledge, of verbalizing and organizing experience within the medium of language. Thus, the book understands itself as "a narrative history of ideas" in which entertaining and informed biographical profiles alternate with site-based descriptions of cultural currents in the major European capitals. The result is an extraordinarily textured book brimming with details and local observations that, in their layered density, are truly breathtaking. In particular, Everdell brilliantly evokes the moribund nostalgia of fin-de-siècle Vienna at the same moment that Paris was bubbling with intoxicating cultural ferment, ready to assume leadership in a modernist change of guards. So multiply webbed are some of the book's chapters, in fact, that The First Moderns - to this reader, at least - almost unwittingly probes the limits of print itself, the premodern mode of data storage that was, not coincidentally, challenged by the modernist technologies of photography, film, and the gramophone. The vectors of Everdell's thought and his compositional skill (for which read: providing links) are so astounding that the medium of the book appears inadequate; in their textured multiplicity, some chapters of the book indeed approximate a hypertextual assemblage.

This orchestration of links between discrete particles of knowledge, while maintaining the integrity of such particles, also points to the book's unifying epistemological premise: the ontological discontinuity of modernism. In contrast to the 19th-century myth of ontological continuity (the legacy of the Renaissance notion of the Great Chain of Being), which variously presumed the universe to unfold in smooth and seamless pro-gression and which is inscribed in the Victorian masternarratives of Marx, Darwin and, earlier still, in Hegel, Everdell argues that modernist knowledge is fundamentally discontinuous and discrete. Historically coinciding with emergent atomistic models in chemistry, and their eventual osmosis into physics, literature, and the arts, modernism demystified notions of plenary or field-like coherence in favor of an epistemology grounded in "statistical and probabilistic descriptions of reality that were truer than the old deterministic dynamics." The Newtonian mechanics of the Englightenment was succeeded by stochastic thermodynamics and, eventually, by the indeterminacies of subatomic particles, resulting in the modern world view of fragmentation and particulate separateness. Many of the key concepts of modernism, such as "statistics, multiple perspective, subjectivity, and self-reference," among others, have evolved from "the collapse of ontological continuity"; these concepts have shaped "the nonlogical, nonobjective, and essentially causeless mental universe" we are presently inhabiting and, in the final analysis, have laid the groundwork for the shift from a fundamentally analog to a digital notion of knowledge.

Indeed, parallel developments in engineering, storage and communications technologies and linguistics, among others, confirm such a discrete ontological model. In 1889, when Santiago Ramón y Cajal developed the staining techniques necessary to isolate neurons as separate fundamental building blocks of the brain and unraveled their non-contact form of information transmission (chapter 7), Gugliemo Marconi was tinkering with an analogous technological model that evolved into wireless telegraphy. In 1903, when Edisonís gifted assistant, Edwin S. Porter, engineered the first American blockbusters, The Story of An American Fireman, followed by The Great Train Robbery, from discrete film stills (chapter 13), the principle of montage was quickly becoming de rigueur in American architecture: building structures by way of component part design. In 1908, when Arnold Schoenberg began to write keyless music and to break down the traditional system of western notation (chapter 18), Ferdinand de Saussure similarly defined language as a system of difference. Instead of a tonal or semantic continuum, both of these innovators presumed that a system of signification is composed of discrete units with unbridgeable, however infinitesimally small, voids in between. And in the 1870s, when Georg Cantor, Richard Dedekind, Gottlob Frege, and Boltzmann developed the mathematical models for defining irrational numbers and stochastic computations (chapter 3), the newly invented typewriter revolutionized the production of modernist texts through the discrete spacing between discrete letters, and allowed for the random aggregation of letter-particles on the page space. Not only did the typewriter shatter the myth of scriptive continuity and the presumption of continuous being, of the inscription of a writerís "soul" in the handwriting (understood as an act of seamless translation from brain to hand to paper); it also made possible the arbitrary combination of discrete signs into previously unseen syntactic configurations. Writing, in that sense, became an exercise in probabilities or, to speak with Mallarmé (or Einstein): un coup de dés - a throw of the dice.

How, then, does such discontinuous knowledge manifest itself? No summary could do justice to a book whose major arguments are as illuminating as the numerous asides and whose disciplinary reach is nonpareil. But, to condense the impossible: beginning with the mathematical breakthroughs about the definition of discrete numbers and sets - the originary innovation of The First Moderns - Everdell discusses the formative impact of Walt Whitmanís meterless poetry on the French symbolist and Continental modernist tradition; he retraces Hugo de Vriesís discovery of the atom, Einsteinís paradigm-creating breakthroughs, Edmund Husserlís relapse into ultimate subjectivity and solipsism in the face of positivist pressures, and Picassoís and Kandinskyís multi-perspectival, abstract revolutions in the world of painting. The disintegration of narrative coherence in the case of Joyce is put side by side with filmic segmentation, and the explosive opening of Stravinskyís Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring) and the dervish performance of Diaghilevís Ballets Russes are as well contextualized as Schoenbergís atonal compositions and the public firestorm in response to the Armory Show. A particularly suggestive chapter on Freud acknowledges his search for a subject until he found it in repression, while showing how the Herr Professor performed a gigantic act of repression (or reaction formation, if you will) in his own life: the projection of a public persona of modesty, counterpointed by a private persona of unmitigating ambition that silently erased his major intellectual collaborators, role models, and sounding boards (Jean-Martin Charcot, Joseph Breuer, Wilhelm Fliess, among others) from his autobiographical accounts.

Given the persuasiveness with which Everdell has assembled his arguments, it would be difficult to find fault with a book as well researched, conceptualized, and engaging as The First Moderns. Nevertheless, permit me to observe that, on a mundane level, the fine discussions of Seurat, Picasso, and Kandinsky would have been greatly enhanced by color reproductions of some of their central paintings (omissions that are usually driven by production costs rather than an authorís whim). Given the impressive array of modernist geniuses, the probing reader might ask what happened to, say, Henry Ford or Max Weber, among others, the one inventing the very idea of discrete, discontinuous production, the other breaking down human masses into individual and computable cases? Why is there only a cursory treatment of Italian Futurism, the opening salvo in a series of modernist interdisciplinary movements, especially in light of Marinettiís noisy visibility as a gigantic European one-man show. The likely answer is that, in a book close to 500 pages in length, it would have been easy to add more architects of modernism, but that pressures of production cost and readability necessitated legitimate choices and emphases.

More substantially, if looked at too intensely, good books are frequently equipped with a built-in self-deconstruct device: Everdellís argument about modernist discontinuity persuades, ironically, precisely because of its own continuity, the sheer indefatigable and exhausting accrual of cohering evidence to support his theses. If discontinuity and segmentation are at the heart of The First Moderns, their conceptual opposites are necessary to make its very case. This tension is also evident in the bookís epistemological assumption of organizing history through narration, which by definition seeks to wrest continuity and coherence from the chaos of experience. As well, deriving from narrative connectivity, the staggering, encyclopedic texture of the book is, in effect, very close to a field model of culture - a series of interconnected and multiply resonating events, however discrete they may be, at a historical moment - even though Everdell repeatedly debunks the field model as modernist myth, a holdover from 19th-century forms of utopian coherence.

Most puzzling to me, however, is Everdellís resistance to the work of Michel Foucault. Not only is Foucault absent in his intriguing discussion of Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Spanish governor of Cuba who in 1896 invented the modern concentration camp and provided the model for industrialized killing later in the century, even though precisely here Foucaultís extensive treatment of 19th-century penal codes and institutions would have provided suggestive resonances. More importantly, Everdell takes Foucault to task for propagating a theory of history "that makes it inconceivable for people raised and acculturated in a particular era and a particular constellation of ideas to think in any other way than the one presented to them." Yes, Foucault did speak of the "imprisoning mentality" of epistemes, of the blinding effects of living in oneís historical moment, but not to the exclusion of reflecting critically and deeply about oneís own cultural situatedness. Pondering oneís historical contingency does, after all, not require a form of transcendental spectatorship. What is more surprising still, at least to this reader, is that Everdell does not (want to) recognize the affinities between his project and that of Foucault: for Everdellís own epistemic premise of a discontinuous history or, more precisely, of a history of modernist discontinuities, would certainly have found favor with the poststructuralist high priest of historical ruptures and transformations.

Raising objections such as these, however, is unfair to a book that does so much and does it so well. They are, rather, the signs of a fascinated reviewer whose job it is to probe possible lacunae or blind spots, regardless of a bookís quality and integrity. The First Moderns is a spellbinding account of the emergence of modernist thought, extraordinarily well written and well conceived. It should be required reading for any student of modernism and belongs on the small shelf of bedazzling works of cultural analysis. It is the most engaging and learned book Iíve read in a long time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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