“New” and “Modern” are old notions, but in our world the first people who thought of themselves as “Moderns” did so in order to distinguish themselves from Ancients; thus they established the habit we all have of being extremely conscious of epoch. The growth of this habit is obviously regulated, in some measure, by the rate of technological and economic change; so that the sense of living at a time of transition and being subject to permanent and irreversible forces of change and novelty grows more and more commonplace. Since the Modern implies rapid obsolescence and sharp discontinuities in matters of form and value, anybody who wants to characterize it has to be conscious of the possibility that the descriptive and evaluative techniques at his disposal are decaying as he uses them. Whether this is a real threat or a paper tiger is part of the problem, a problem that is at present attracting much attention. Mr. Kampf is the latest scholar to face it, and he seems particularly aware of the difficulty of standing upright for long enough to take a steady Arnoldian look at it, borne along as he is by the ceaseless tide of change, and bruised by all the theoretical flotsam in its current.
It is perfectly possible, though to many Modernists it is irrelevant, to take a purely historical view of the problem, as Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson did in their huge anthology* ; you can trace the roots of some of the things we call Modernism back to the eighteenth century, or, if you like, even further. Or you can settle for the view that the first quarter of this century saw the establishment of the categories within which most of the modernist phenomena fall. This implies that the formal (or anti-formal) innovations and discoveries of that period, for example in Cubism, Dada, Schoenbergian music, Poundian poetry, and so forth, added up to a revolution so total that for a long time there will be nothing absolutely new to do, and subsequent modernisms, however novel they contrive to look, turn out on examination either to be operating within the area staked out in the old days, or to be excursions over the frontiers of sense and communicability.
In so far as later modernisms work, they will, on this view, always at some point comply with, or anyway allude to, the categories of the older, primary modernism. But of course this leaves one to explain the obvious and disturbing dissimilarities between primary and secondary, or, if you prefer, palaeo and neo-modernisms. One is in the matter of tradition, the use of the past: primary modernism remade it, neo-modernism at any rate professes to ignore it. (Yet the insult-word passéiste came in at the very beginning of the older modernism.) Another is the political aspect of the two modernisms: the first encouraged, in some influential practitioners, a political authoritarianism which more or less identified itself with fascism; the second is usually as apolitical or anarchistic as can be got, and seems, to put it very simply, to have taken up and developed a tradition of popular libertarianism which the older movement deplored and assaulted.
IT IS NOT VERY SURPRISING that the impersonalism and formalism of the primary movement should have swung it, politically, to the Right, given the world situation of the Twenties and Thirties. And the indifferentism, broken only by moments of more or less private protest, of neo-modernism represents a change which can’t be explained simply as a change in world politics: it has to be related to a new personalism. Think how hard Eliot had to work to make it seem sensible that a poem, which might be called the resolution of a conflict within a private consciousness, could also be thought of as belonging to an objective order quite independent of the writer, an order in which he has no interesting place. Now, as in abstract expressionism, that resolution actually is form, provided, that is, you care for the concept “form” at all. The older modernism necessitated a defense of unreason, certainly; but however much the newer modernism owes to that defense, and to the technical implications of the revolution that occurred in the idea of tradition, it remains true that a distinguishing characteristic of the new is that it promotes unreason to a positive program and aesthetic. Thus both Hans Hofmann and, more recently, Anton Ehrenzweig, both of them teachers and not mere aestheticians, campaigned for the destruction of all forms that might be held to have been determined by external authority or agreement, or to derive their authority from a tradition. Historical discontinuity, the breach of all existing aesthetic or social contracts, becomes an absolute requirement, whether you speak, with Ehrenzweig, of “hidden form” (intuited by the spectator from the unrealized formal possibilities offered by a painter’s record of conflicts in his own ego) or, with John Cage and others, abjure the notion of form altogether.
THESE RIVAL ATTITUDES—here expressed in crude opposition as a formalism and an anti-formalism—may not be so in reconcilable as they look, but there is no doubt at all that the conscious abandonment of any contract, any shared language, between maker and observer, and the denial of any relevance to one’s experience of the past, make the role of critic peculiarly hard to sustain. Mr. Kampf’s book has more to say about this role and its difficulties than about the arts themselves. How should he see his role in an epoch of discontinuities, short generations, exacerbated intergenerational disputes on value, and failure to communicate? Kampf’s solution is basically Arnoldian (there is a curious moment in the book when he has a sort of back-to-front recognition scene with the master, remarking that some celebrated remarks of Arnold’s “seem to paraphrase” his own). But his view of culture is much more anarchic than Arnold’s; to stand back and see steadily, to remember the best that has been thought and said, seems to him to require not only the classlessness—the freedom from ideological surrender—that Arnold would also have liked, but a more radical political critique, for which he turns to another of his heroes, Alexander Herzen.
These attitudes, so different from those of early modernists, combine to produce a book very unlike the recent crop, and closer, in some ways, to Jacques Barzun’s Romanticism and the Modern Ego. Kampf writes as one subject to the peculiar pressures felt by intellectuals (at least they ought to feel them) in institutions such as M.I.T., where the relationship with the state may be such that employees are sometimes hard put to maintain the freedom and the exercise of unhurried skeptical enquiry which, Kampf maintains, are the historic role of the intellectual. On this urgent issue he is always interesting, clear, and courageous—he names names, some very big, in his indictment of the modern trahison des clercs, and one senses the authenticity of the commitment he is trying to define. It is a commitment to criticism of the loftiest kind, considered as an indispensable instrument of liberty and humanity.
But for all its passion and its being on the right side, one can’t quite call this a good book; its energy is sometimes only argumentative fuss, its historical instances arbitrary and ill-balanced. It is far too long; substantial excursions into Baroque aesthetic, the philosophy of Hume, and so forth, are worked out beyond the necessity of the argument, which sags in consequence. At 100 pages and three dollars, it would have had more readers and hit them harder. But who will persuade universities and publishers of that? The length and price of this book constitute an involuntary sell-out to the Establishment Mr. Kampf attacks.
With one foot in the sliding present, Mr. Kampf plants the other in the past. He wants to know how we got to be so diverse in our styles and roles. And he decides that since the Enlightenment there has been a progressive increase in the self-consciousness of all modes of knowledge, so that the sciences and arts all grow more profoundly concerned with methodology and epistemology. This is generally true, though too simple (if you use Sterne as an example of fiction coming to be increasingly about the principles of fiction, what do you do about the nineteenth-century novel, which should be more so and isn’t?). Let’s call this a mere ellipse in the argument: Kampf does say something about the way in which the modern arts came to take as their subject “the theory of their own composition.” Since the epistemological upheavals of the eighteenth century, they develop, like the sciences, out of the logic of their own problems.
His real difficulty begins here; for granted this degree of determinism, it is hard to blame artists for doing the kind of thing Kampf dislikes—action painting, happenings, can all be said to belong to this logical progress. Kampf, however, finds them inhumane, and part of their inhumanity lies in their destructive attitude to the past, what Jacques Barzun calls their “abolitionism.” So he chooses a paradigm case, Gelber’s Connection; this is neither a happening nor an old-style structured drama; it neither ignores the spectator nor offers him the old-time catharsis (which Kampf reduces to a rhetorical device persuading us that everything’s all right with the status quo). The Connection, though not in his view a work of very great merit, does ask us to create values, and helps us to be free. It contrives to do this under the conditions of skepticism created by that modern doubt about the foundations of all knowledge.
Kampf’s potted history of philosophy (Cartesian doubt, Humean skepticism, Kantian critique) is meant to explain how we came by our desire for connection, and by our lust for randomness, and why we assume the need—are compelled to do so by the logic of the problems—for constant renewal and for the discarding of yesterday’s new solution, now grown rhetorical or ornamental. But the gist of the book isn’t there; it is in the talk of the intellectual’s need for a similarly constant self-renewal, for a freedom maintained by unrelenting skeptical enquiry. Kampf’s intellectual is a perpetual revolutionary, committed to his own necessary freedom; and his treason is to allow himself to be bought by a class ideology, or to sell out to something just as bad, which goes under the name of The End of Ideology. The United States, Kampf believes, is full of these honorable traitors: “the supposed heirs of Louis Blanc have become members of an affluent bureaucracy,” connecting only with the State. Of their progress he exclaims contemptuously that it is “from intellectual to scholar-expert.” Thus are the cultural tasks of criticism abandoned by presidential advisers and formalist critics alike.
In the end Kampf stands for an old-fashioned humanity with its eyes open to the world. However, he puts it into modern language: the arts can do the job of the analyst in another way. They can reconcile instinct and intellect; by a therapy which has its Wittgensteinian as well as its Freudian parallels, they can facilitate our movement round the inhuman world, and enable us to choose rational and human ends. To the question whether, given such a world and such desperate needs, drugs might not do as well, or happenings without human relevance, his reply is really only this: we have another way that preserves, as the alternative destroys, the dignity of man. It is an admirable though not, in the book, a well-supported argument. I like it better than Kampf’s literary analyses (though he has some excellent pages on Beckett), and I think that indignation rather than reason motivates his rejection of aleatory and serial music, and of Robbe-Grillet. But if he chooses to use these as unresisting whipping-boys in his rage for human freedom, they can stand it. The cause is a good one, and he may be right in saying that unless it succeeds we shall have no art at all, not even the kind he dislikes.
IN THE FIRST New American Review, risen from the ashes of the old New World Writing, there is little that is aggressively “modern,” self-consciously destructive of the schemata and so forth; yet it is very good, and well-tuned in on the modernist debate. We still think we know what “good writing” is (there must be some continuity), and the Editor understands that you need some of that for a periodical with the aims of this one. There is some; above all a story of staggering talent by Philip Roth. Another, by Keith Botsford, is about being thirty-eight and having a young girl, very exact and moving, but also a parable of the problems touched on in this review. Wanting to love girls or paintings younger than ourselves we may get some shocks, and want to agree that they are mutants; but we know more about their pasts and futures than they do, and should refrain. Theodore Roszak’s “Complacencies of the Academy” documents Kampf on the academic sell-out, and Benjamin DeMott writes with intelligence and humanity, in the manner of the Kampf intellectual, on homosexuality and its role in the arts. There is a good complementary piece on Genet by George Dennison. (Genet’s name occurs about a hundred times in the issue, and is mispelled all but once or twice: “The Legend of Genêt” has nothing to do with Janet Flanner.) There is a laborious attack on the absurd MacBird!, and Stanley Kauffmann describes at length his life and hard times at the Times. Most of the poetry is weak. But the magazine is very good as a whole, a first-rate blend of good “creative” writing and spacious, skeptical, humane comment, just what Kampf and all the rest of us are crying out for.
October 26, 1967