A challenge and an embarrassment

Modernism is still a challenge, and an embarrassment. We all know — and by “we” I mean all the writers, reviewers, editors and publishers who make up the literary scene in England today — we all know Modernism happened, and that it marked a decisive moment in Western culture; but most of us prefer not to know.

If we acknowledge that it happened, we say that it was a long time ago and is of no concern to us today. But how else are we to respond? One way was typified for me by a lecture I once heard given by a Professor of Philosophy, Patrick Corbett. Corbett was a huge man, and as he spoke he prowled round the lectern, kicking at the wainscoting and the floor. The lecture went something like this:

“Kierkegaard! Hunh! Marx! Hunh! Dostoevsky! Hunh! Nietzsche! Hunh! Kafka! Hunh! Nothing that a good walk on the Downs wouldn’t have put right!” In other words these pathetic ninnies were all suffering from over-sensitivity mingled with self-regard; what they had to say was the result of their cosseted upbringing and a bit of exercise and fresh air was all that was needed to bring them to their senses. This, of course, is the view of a large section of the British public today, given courage to voice it by, for example, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, whose epistolary exchanges (“all these cheerless creeps between 1900 and 1930 — Ginny Woolf and Dai Lawrence and Morgy Forster”) are exactly on a par with Corbett’s lecture.

— Gabriel Josipovici, ‘Fail Again, Fail Better’

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