Franco Moretti’s stimulating contribution to the debate on Marxism and Modernism (‘The Spell of Indecision’, NLR 164) unfortunately elides, in its very opening sentences, a crucial aesthetic distinction—with the result that his critique of modernism is of much less general validity than he assumes. Frank Kermode long ago insisted, in a now famous essay, on the necessity for ‘a discrimination of modernisms’, and it is this that Moretti signally fails to provide. His critique of modernism is thus, ironically, as one-dimensional as the recent euphoric celebrations of it that he rightly deplores; his position is the mere mirror image of that of his antagonists, Lukácsian rather than Lyotardian. And this need to discriminate is all the greater in that we now have to hand, in Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, a powerful attempt to shift the debate on modernism beyond the frozen polarities of a simple for or against. footnote1

Moretti’s slide from ‘the attitude of Marxist criticism towards Modernism’ to ‘Marxist readings of avant-garde literature’ in his first two sentences must be resisted. Except in some blurred literary-historical readings (where both terms simply denote everything that has happened since 1848), ‘modernism’ and the ‘avant-garde’ are not synonymous terms—or at least should not be after Bürger’s book. Modernism, one would now incline to argue, is the avant-garde standing on its head—the latter being the rational kernel within the modernist mystical shell. Far from being simply another, accelerating stage of post-1848 (Baudelairean, Flaubertian or whatever) aesthetic modernity, another spiralling twist in the dialectics of ‘making it new’, the avant-garde movements of the early decades of our own century (the ‘historical avant-garde’, to use Bürger’s own term) are rather the negation of that project. The avant-garde may indeed have on occasion coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to modernism; but that does not prevent it from being on the whole, in intention if not always in achievement, the first movement to present the general forms of motion of aesthetic modernity in a comprehensive and conscious and, crucially, radicalized manner.

Moretti points out the survival of Romantic irony in a modernism which often—and especially in its Anglo-American inflection—presented itself in militantly classicist forms. But this particular ruse of History is a function of the survival within Romanticism itself of certain key structures of classicist aesthetics which it thought it had surpassed. If the progressive moment of Romanticism is its journey from the polite to the popular, from the country house to the country tout court, from an ornately formalized poetic diction to the language used by ordinary men and women, this must be set against its deep counter-impulse towards a transcendentalism that it usually found on Alpine mountain tops. To ascend the mountain was to shed locality, particularity, specific social identity, and to move towards an awed contemplation of totality, a God’s-eye view of the universal order. Far from being the committed spokesman of a particular, local rural community, the poet now stood resolutely outside it, his social isolation being the precondition of his contemplative access to totality. But by now the constitutive structures of classicism had been reinvented, no matter how many of its trappings had been discarded: from the mountain top, poetic truth was general not particular, timeless not historically specific, essential not contingent, objective not mediated through an individual subjectivity—it would, in short, have warmed the heart of a Samuel Johnson or Joshua Reynolds.

This essential ambivalence in Romanticism perpetuates the ‘split’ that Moretti notes between Faustian and Mephistophelean time, between an idealist realm of total possibility and the sordid, practical order of ‘decision’ and historico-political practice. The nineteenth-century realist novel does not so much heal it as install it in its very form: from a great height the transcendentalist narrator contemplates the follies of his characters, mired in passion, contradiction, mutual incomprehension, history. The form then drags even the ‘social-democratic’ content back towards a classicist order that had not, after all, been surpassed: if George Eliot starts out writing about the Adam Bedes and Hetty Sorels, she ends up among the Daniel Derondas and Gwendolen Harleths. The English response to 1848 is represented by a Matthew Arnold rather than a Baudelaire or Flaubert; but then it more vividly demonstrates how the structures of classicism survive on into—or even generate—the modernist project. The Mornettian ‘split’ which one might, charitably, regard as a sad, unmastered fatality in George Eliot is of course an explicitly announced principle in Arnold’s neo-classicist poetics and the literary-critical discourse he builds upon it: it inheres now in the radical distinction between the disinterested, universalist ‘best self’ and the shabbily self-interested and divisive ‘ordinary self’. The shabbiness, however, lies in this dualism itself which is, as Moretti points out in his discussion of Faust, a structure of disavowal. If there is, in one sense, no more radical principle of social critique than the disinterested subject, which x-rays the fumbling empiricism of English political life with the pitiless gaze of Enlightenment rationality, Arnold also builds into his system a crucial caveat which allows the world of practice and decision to run on undisturbed in its oppressive tracks: ‘force till right is ready’ is the judicious, temporizing counterpart of an apparently stringent principle of disinterestedness.

But in the modernism which derives in one way or another from Arnoldian transcendentalism—which I take (but cannot here demonstrate) to include James, Pater, Hulme, T. S. Eliot, Huxley, Woolf, Forster and Beckett—this compromise is abandoned. The irony of disinterest, the project of an absolute autonomy, spares nothing—certainly not the social world at large, and ultimately not even the literary text itself. No social identity or commitment can satisfy the would-be disinterested self; the exemplary instance here is Henry James’s Hyacinth Robinson, who vanishes into the non-being of suicide in his strenuous efforts to escape the toils of both reaction and revolution. It is thus true, as Moretti claims, that modernism is characterized by a ‘basic political indifference’, but this is a much more active, almost athletic mode of being than he allows, rigorously negating rather than languidly unconcerned. If freedom can now no longer be realized in textual content, nor, for much longer, can it in terms of form and structure. If the realist narrator is a ‘secularized’ version of the Romantic mountain top (itself a secularized version of Christian transcendence), for modernism there are no more mountain tops: Milly Theale perches on one early in The Wings of the Dove but gets destroyed just the same, Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr and Eliot’s Tiresias are also attempts to incarnate this God’s-eye, totalizing positon, and both fail. If freedom can inhere no longer in neither subject not object, narrator nor narrated, it comes increasingly to be installed in the signifier itself, gravitating as it were from author to reader: we become Hyacinth Robinsons as we swivel between incompatible readings of The Turn of the Screw or The Sacred Fount, the ambiguity of the modernist signifier becomes the only margin of disinterest now left to us. Value is projected to some wholly other, non-phenomenal realm—to those dimensions of textual free play, detotalization and carnival of which Moretti is so suspicious.