Reading Gabriel Josipovici’s The Lessons of Modernism, published in 1977, accentuates the palpable frustration of his latest, brilliant book; the title reflects this frustration: the Lessons of becomes What Ever Happened To. In his no less thrilling book of thirty years ago, Josipovici finished the central essay on a note of optimism:
The teacher of English does inevitably feel himself to be in a privileged position: a hander-down of culture and language, a bulwark against chaos and barbarism. Modern art asks him to relinquish this authority, but, like all authoritarians, he fears that if he does chaos will ensue. . . The two lessons of modernism, the lessons of silence and of game, are hard ones for any teacher, in school or university, to learn. But, once learned, and applied, they could lead to a renewed enthusiasm and excitement in the study of English.
In 2010 this hope is all but faded. Josipovici identifies a few contributory factors: an inherent English philistinism, the merger of showbiz and art, and intellectualism being labelled as pretentiousness. Josipovici’s latest book reopens what for him has clearly been a lengthy debate:
Wordsworth, James, Eliot and Virginia Woolf all flourished on these shores. We need to go back and try to understand what they were up to as writers, not dismiss them as reactionaries or misogynists, or adulate them as gay or feminist icons.
After a period of reading criticism, of Josipovici, Woolf, Kiberd and a first attempt at Blanchot, I finally feel able to end my post-Ulysses cessation of reading fiction. I am tackling the latest of a writer, who appears to offer at least a partial answer to the question what ever happened to modernism.