In the past two decades, there has been a complete change in the dominant attitude of Marxist criticism towards Modernism. Essentially, Marxist readings of avant-garde literature are increasingly based on interpretative theories—Russian Formalism, Bakhtin’s work, theories of the ‘open’ text, deconstructionism—which, in one way or another, belong to Modernism itself. This sudden loss of distance has inevitably paved the way to a sort of interpretative vicious circle. But what seems to me even more significant is the transformation which has occurred in the field of values and value-judgements, where recent Marxist criticism is really little more than a left-wing ‘apology of Modernism’. We need only think of such pioneer Marxist work as that of Benjamin or Adorno, and the extent of this cultural somersault is evident. Benjamin and Adorno associated ‘fragmentary’ texts with melancholy, pain, defencelessness, loss of hope; today, they would evoke the far more exhilarating concepts of semantic freedom, de-totalization and productive heterogeneity. In the deliberate obscurity of modern literature, Benjamin and Adorno saw the sign of some kind of threat; nowadays, it would be taken rather as a promise of free interpretative play. For them, the key novelist of the modern world was, quite clearly, Franz Kafka; today, just as clearly, he has been replaced by James Joyce, whose work is just as great, but certainly less urgent and ‘uncanny’.

By and large, I agree with the emphasis on the anti-tragic, or non-tragic elements of Modernism. What does not convince me at all, however, is the widespread idea that what we may call the ‘ironic’ dominant of modernist literature is subversive of the modern bourgeois world-view. ‘Open’-texts contradict and subvert organicist beliefs, there is no doubt about this; but it remains to be seen whether in the past century the hegemonic frame of mind has not in fact abandoned organicism, and replaced it with openness and irony. I will try to show that such is indeed the case, and that, although irony is an indispensable compónent of any critical, democratic and progressive culture, its modernist version has a dark side with which we are not familiar enough, and which may be even more relevant to Marxist culture than those aspects focused upon in the recent past.

Let us start with a small classic of Modernist imagination (which, I believe, we owe to Lautréamont): an umbrella and a sewing-machine meeting on an anatomical table. Dada, Surrealism, Pound, Eliot and several others have produced countless variations on this basic pattern, which, to be sure, ironically negates any idea of ‘totality’ and any hierarchy of meanings, leaving the field free for a virtually unlimited interpretative play. And yet: is this really such a subversive image? It would seem that Lautréamont’s dream was shared, not only by fellow poets, but by the owners of the first department stores as well. Describing their windows, D’Avenel wrote in 1894 that ‘the most dissimilar objects lend mutual support when they are placed next to each other.’ ‘Why should this be?’ wonders Richard Sennett, to whom I owe the quotation. ‘The use character of the object,’ he replies, ‘was temporarily suspended. It became “stimulating”, one wanted to buy it, because it became temporarily an unexpected thing; it became strange.’ footnote1 A common object transformed into something unexpected and strange: is this not precisely the de-automatization of everyday perception advocated by that crucial Modernist principle—the ‘ostranenie’ of Russian Formalism? Is it not also the basic technique of modern advertising, which took off shortly after the golden age of avant-garde movements, and whose task is to endow commodities with a surprising and pleasant aesthetic aura?

These are just local affinities, so I shall try to broaden the field of inquiry a little. At the turn of the century, Georg Simmel wrote an essay—‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’—in which he maintained that the main psychological problem of the city-dweller lies in ‘the swift and continuous shift of external stimuli . . . the rapid telescoping of changing images . . . the unexpectedness of violent stimuli.’ footnote2 In this typical Modernist text which is Simmel’s metropolis, stimuli can be dangerous—can be shocks, as Benjamin will put it when writing on Baudelaire. One has to protect oneself from them. But one cannot do that simply by being blind to them, because they are the best which the modern world has to offer and suggest: objects to be owned, social roles to be played, fascinating situations to be experienced.

One has then to see and not to see, to accept and to disavow at the same time. It is a contradictory predicament, and in order to make us ‘feel at home’ in the bourgeois metropolis—a feeling which is bound to be very near the core of what we call a ‘hegemonic world-view’—both external stimuli and subjective perception have to possess rather peculiar attributes, which, once more, turn out to be barely distinguishable from those usually associated with literary Modernism. As for the stimulus, it has to be ‘evocative’ more than ‘meaningful’: it must possess as little determinacy as possible, and therefore be open to, or better still produce, such a plurality of associations that everybody may be able to ‘find something’ in it. It has, in other words, to centre on that keyword of Modernism—ambiguity. What must develop on the side of the subject, on the other hand, is the idea that this galaxy of associations is valuable as such: not as a starting point from which to move towards a definite choice—whether the choice of a specific object, in advertising, or a semantic choice, in the reading of a poem—but as a ‘field of possibilities’ whose charm lies precisely in its growing irreducibility to the field of ‘actuality’.

The aesthetic-ironical attitude, whose best definition still lies in an old formula, ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, shows how much of Modernist imagination—where indeed nothing is unbelievable—has its source in Romantic irony. And Romantic irony—observed one of its sharpest critics, Carl Schmitt, in Politische Romantik—is a frame of mind which sees in any event no more than an ‘occasion’ for free intellectual and emotional play, for a mental and subjective deconstruction of the world as it is. Devoted to the category of ‘possibility’, Romantic irony is therefore incapable of a decision, and even hostile to whatever resembles one. But decision—leaving aside Schmitt’s reactionary development of this concept—is inseparable from praxis and history. Decisions have to be taken all the time; even, paradoxically, to ensure the existence of that realm of possibility and indecision to which Romanticism and Modernism have attached such a central meaning. In order to come to terms with this paradoxical coexistence of decision and indecision, modern literature has developed one of its most powerful metaphors, of which I shall now briefly sketch three different stages.

In the first chapter of Balzac’s La Peau de chagrin, the hero has just lost his last francs at roulette. Tonight he is going to drown himself in the Seine, and in the meantime he wanders through an old curiosity shop—much more than that, really: let’s say, something mid-way between the Louvre and the Bon Marché. He is bewitched by the heterogeneous, almost surrealist collection of objects that surround him. His imagination flares up in a perfect romantic rêverie . . . and, all of a sudden, his dream comes true thanks to that metaphor I have announced: the pact with the Devil. The Devil is a highly popular character with all oppositional cultures, so I will not attempt to criticize him/her, but will simply point out the price of the pact. ‘And what shall be my counter service therefore?’ asks Goethe’s Faust; and Mephisto: ‘The time is long: thou need’st not now insist.’ footnote3 The time is long: over a century later, Thomas Mann’s Mephisto will echo this line: ‘We sell time . . . that’s the best thing we have to offer . . .’ (Doktor Faustus, ch. 25).