Tuesday, January 08, 2008


. . . I find Jacques Barzun’s recent delineation of modernism in From Dawn to Decadence to be stronger than Gay’s [in Modernism: The Lure of Heresy]. Even the use of the word “heresy” in the title doesn’t quite ring true in my ears. Modernism wasn’t exactly heretical, a purification, as heresies have usually been. Though it seems wholly experimental, a seeking of complete freedom, I think Winters was onto something more important in seeing it as a foreseeable development of Romanticism. For his part, Barzun calls the overarching concept that formed modernism and many of the movements leading up to it “Emancipation,” one of Barzun’s main intellectual “themes” of the last 500 years in the cultural history of the West. Here is a snippet of what Barzun says about what he calls the decadence that seeking Emancipation has engendered:

All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

I think Barzun’s Emancipation theme and his lengthy discussion of it more clearly reflect what the moderns were after than Gay’s term “heresy.” It would require a long essay to make my case, but I do not have the time or inclination to write about this issue at the moment. But comments on this and all other matters pertaining to modernism and Peter Gay’s study of it are welcome, as always.

— Ben Kilpela, Modernism as Endless Heresy, in Mr. Kilpela’s blog Yvor Winters: The American Literary Rhadamanthus.