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NEW YORK—A winter wind howls outside Peter Gay’s eighth-floor Riverside Drive apartment. The panorama of the chilly Hudson beyond its broad windows looks like one more painting, added by nature to the many that grace his walls.


Gazing out, the eminent 84-year-old cultural historian recalls the odd way “the whole damn thing” began—that is, his magisterial new book, “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy” (W.W. Norton, $35).


“It was Bob Weil, it was his idea,” Gay explains, referring to his energetic editor, an ex-student of Gay’s at Yale. “I had a contract with Norton to do something else, and it must have been around the time of 9/11. ... He called me up and said he’d had this idea, and would I be willing to postpone my other contract? Couldn’t I do something on modernism?”


Gay, who now moves around with a walker (though that didn’t stop a recent jaunt to Greece), assumes the uncertain expression he had at the time:


“I asked him, `What do you have in mind? Painting? Or poetry? And he said, `No, no, I mean everything.’ So I said, `I don’t know everything! And I don’t know how I could even learn everything!’”


That’s the way they treat you when you’re America’s foremost historian of European culture and ideas.


“And then he said, which, I guess, was very clever on his part: `You’re the only person in the world who could do this!’ So I resisted for a while, but then I thought, `What the hell? Why not?’”


The beauty (and wisdom) of Gay’s new book is that he doesn’t pretend to know everything. Although he begins with French poet Charles Baudelaire and ends more or less yesterday, Gay admits he could have started the book 50 years earlier and closed it differently.


“The modesty,” Gay explains, “has to do in part with the unlimited material—I couldn’t possibly manage it all. I wasn’t planning to write a history, I was planning to write an argument. ... It was virtually impossible to do this book.”


In short, Gay tells a story of modernism, but so well that perhaps it will become the story of modernism.


To most readers, modernism is a movement, centered in Europe despite its large influence on America, in which artists rejected historic aspects of their arts, from academicism in painting, to melody in music, to ornamentalism in architecture.


Gay builds on that core notion and refines it. Conceding that modernism “is far easier to exemplify than to define,” he argues that it’s “a climate of thought, feeling and opinion” with two key features: “the lure of heresy” against “conventional sensibilities,” and “a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.”


Modernism, Gay asserts, “is not a democratic ideology,” despite being rooted in liberalism’s freeing of artistic sensibility from authority. Modernist art is typically “difficult art” that acknowledges a gap between high and low aesthetic performance. Yet Gay believes it’s wrong to see modernist art as reflexively opposed to bourgeois values, or always secular.


Within those philosophical parameters, Gay examines the “long run” of his subject over 510 pages. “Some reviewers,” he says ruefully, “have looked at it as if I were writing a textbook for freshmen.”


In Part 1, titled “Founders,” Gay explores such figures as Baudelaire, Flaubert and Wilde. In Part 2, “Classics,” he takes us through emblematic artists in painting and sculpture, music and dance, architecture and design, and drama and film. The cavalcade of greats (among them Picasso, Kafka, Stravinsky, Wright, Chaplin and Eisenstein) can make you dizzy with sophistication.


Finally, in Part 3, “Endings,” he ponders “Eccentrics and Barbarians” (e.g., Charles Ives and Knut Hamsun) who help us understand modernism contextually. In a “Coda,” Gay reflects on a visit to Frank Gehry’s acclaimed Guggenheim building in Bilbao, Spain.


How does he manage such a synoptic overview? Consider the life.


Born Peter Frahlich in Berlin in 1923, Gay observed Hitler at the 1932 Olympics, witnessed Kristallnacht up-front in 1938, and fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1939. (“It was pretty clear from 1933 on,” Gay says, “that my generation was not likely to do very well in Germany.”)


He made it to the United States in 1941 after his family changed its booking from the ill-fated SS St. Louis to an earlier ship. Once here, Gay’s family changed its surname. Gay graduated from the University of Denver (1946), gained his U.S. citizenship the same year, then earned his Ph.D. at Columbia (1951), where he came under the influence of the great historian Richard Hofstadter.


After teaching at Columbia from 1948 to 1969, Gay moved to Yale. His extraordinary record of scholarship grew throughout, even after “retirement” in 1993. “Voltaire’s Politics” (1959) set him on the road as an intellectual historian, leading to “The Enlightenment: An Interpretation” (1969), which won the National Book Award. From 1984 to 1998, Gay published his five-volume masterwork, “The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud.” Other notable volumes include “My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin” (1998), a memoir.


Ruminating about his long career and latest book, Gay, in demure blue turtleneck and sports jacket, is as civilized, cultured and sensible as the living room around him. (A stately Steinway sits in the corner with a handsome framed photo of his wife, the writer Ruth Gay, who died last year.)


Gay agrees that one could exchange some artists he writes about with others he leaves out, though a handful, such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, are “revolutionaries” who “had to be there.”


To the suggestion that he’s an “essentialist” who finds necessary characteristics across modernism that perhaps don’t exist, he replies, “Maybe it’s partly a matter of character. I tend to see what people have in common.”


He quickly points out that he dropped some of his original views about common aspects, such as that all modernists were leftists or anti-order. As Gay makes such distinctions, that colloquial Americanese he first picked up in Denver, which makes his prose so readable, occasionally bursts out.


“Coming back to my Romantics,” Gay advises, “they also, you know, say, `Be yourself! Follow your own inner voice!’ and all that stuff! And at the same time they’re full of rules!”


Gay understands that with his deep attention to Europe, Freudian perspective, and fondness for bourgeois values, he represents an older style of humanist scholar. What about that younger generation? Do we have great historical scholars aborning, or is that kind of devotion passe in 24/7 America?


“Do we have Hofstadters and Woodwards right now?” he says, alluding to two of his mentors. “I would say: Probably not a lot. ...”


“But who knows?” he adds immediately, as if aware that his modesty is slipping into a different tone. “Maybe we’ll get a great generation.”


No matter. Gay himself is already thinking of returning to that book on liberal theory he put aside for Modernism.

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31 Jan 2008
Alas, this entire book amounts to a collection of blurbs on various artists that might easily have been gleaned from program notes, dust jackets, or the brief commentary one reads on museum walls next to paintings.
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