[This lecture was given on 17 March 1987 at the University of Bristol, as one of an annual series founded by a former student at the University and subsequent benefactor. The version printed here is reconstructed from my brief notes and Raymond’s even briefer ones. Although he spoke on that occasion in unhesitating, delicate and sinewy prose—the unmistakable and, where necessary, rousing Williams style—his notes are merely composed of jottings and very broad headings (‘Metropolis’, ‘Exiles’, ‘1840s’, ‘1900–1930’ etc.). Down the lefthand margin are timings in ten minute intervals: he finished according to plan exactly at fifty minutes. I cannot hope to have caught Raymond’s voice accurately, but the trenchancy and relevance of one of his last public lectures are not in doubt. Postmodernism for him was a strictly ideological compound from an enemy formation, and long in need of this authoritative rebuttal. This was a lecture by the ‘Welsh European’ given against a currently dominant international ideology.

Fred Inglis]

My title is borrowed from a book by my friend Professor Gwyn Williams: When Was Wales? That was a historical questioning of a problematic history. My own inquiry is a historical questioning of what is, in very different ways, a problem, but also a dominant and misleading ideology. ‘Modern’ began to appear as a term more or less synonymous with ‘now’ in the late sixteenth century, and in any case used to mark the period off from medieval and ancient times. By the time Jane Austen was using it with a characteristically qualified inflection, she could define it (in Persuasion) as ‘a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement’, but her eighteenth-century contemporaries used ‘modernize’, ‘modernism’ and ‘modernist’, without her irony, to indicate updating and improvement. In the nineteenth century it began to take on a more favourable and progressive ring: Ruskin’s Modern Painters was published in 1846, and Turner became the type of modern painter for his demonstration of the distinctively up-to-date quality of truth-to-nature. Very quickly, however, ‘modern’ shifted its reference from ‘now’ to ‘just now’ or even ‘then’, and for some time has been a designation always going into the past with which ‘contemporary’ may be contrasted for its presentness. ‘Modernism’, as a title for a whole cultural movement and moment, has been retrospective as a general term since the 1950s, thereby stranding the dominant version of ‘modern’ or even ‘absolute modern’ between, say, 1890 and 1940. We still habitually use ‘modern’ of a world between a century and half-a-century old. When we note that in English at least (French usage still retaining some of the meaning for which the term was coined) ‘avant-garde’ may be indifferently used to refer to Dadaism seventy years after the event or to recent fringe theatre, the confusion both willed and involuntary which leaves our own deadly separate era in anonymity becomes less an intellectual problem and more an ideological perspective. By its point of view, all that is left to us is to become post-moderns.

Determining the process which fixed the moment of modernism is a matter, as so often, of identifying the machinery of selective tradition. If we follow the Romantics’ victorious definition of the arts as outriders, heralds, and witnesses of social change, then we may ask why the extraordinary innovations in social realism, the metaphoric control and economy of seeing discovered and refined by Gogol, Flaubert or Dickens from the 1840s on, should not take precedence over the conventionally modernist names of Proust, Kafka or Joyce. The earlier novelists, it is widely acknowledged, make the later work possible; without Dickens, no Joyce. But in excluding the great realists, this version of modernism refuses to see how they devised and organized a whole vocabulary and its structure of figures of speech with which to grasp the unprecedented social forms of the industrial city. By the same token, the Impressionists in the 1860s also defined a new vision and a technique to match in their painting of modern Parisian life, but it is of course only the post-Impressionists and the Cubists who are situated in the tradition.

The same questions can be put to the rest of the literary canon and the answers will seem as arbitrary: the Symbolist poets of the 1880s are superannuated by the Imagists, Surrealists, Futurists, Formalists and others from 1910 onwards. In drama, Ibsen and Strindberg are left behind, and Brecht dominates the period from 1920 to 1950. In each of these oppositions the late-born ideology of modernism selects the later group. In doing so, it aligns the later writers and painters with Freud’s discoveries and imputes to them a view of the primacy of the subconscious or unconscious as well as, in both writing and painting, a radical questioning of the processes of representation. The writers are applauded for their denaturalizing of language, their break with the allegedly prior view that language is either a clear, transparent glass or a mirror, and for their making abruptly apparent in the texture of narrative the problematic status of the author and his authority. As the author appears in the text, so does the painter in the painting. The self-reflexive text assumes the centre of the public and aesthetic stage, and in doing so declaratively repudiates the fixed forms, the settled cultural authority of the academies and their bourgeois taste, and the very necessity of market popularity (such as Dickens’s or Manet’s).

These are indeed the theoretic contours and specific authors of ‘modernism’, a highly selected version of the modern which then offers to appropriate the whole of modernity. We have only to review the names in the real history to see the open ideologizing which permits the selection. At the same time, there is unquestionably a series of breaks in all arts in the late nineteenth century, breaks with forms (the three-decker novel disappears) and with power, especially as manifested in bourgeois censorship—the artist becomes a dandy or an anti-commercial radical, sometimes both.

Any explanation of these changes and their ideological consequences must start from the fact that the late nineteenth century was the occasion for the greatest changes ever seen in the media of cultural production. Photography, cinema, radio, television reproduction and recording all make their decisive advances during the period identified as modernist, and it is in response to these that there arise what in the first instance were formed as defensive cultural groupings, rapidly if partially becoming competitively self-promoting. The 1890s were the earliest moment of the movements, the moment at which the manifesto (in the new magazine) became the badge of self-conscious and self-advertising schools. Futurists, Imagists, Surrealists, Cubists, Vorticists, Formalists and Constructivists all variously announced their arrival with a passionate and scornful vision of the new, and as quickly became fissiparous, friendships breaking across the heresies required in order to prevent innovations becoming fixed as orthodoxies.