MODERN AND MODERNISM: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885-1925 by Frederick Karl

MODERN AND MODERNISM: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885-1925

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Karl specializes in unwieldy books of literary scholarship; he followed his biography of Joseph Conrad with American Fiction: 1940-1980, a work so outsized it required two columns of type per page. His latest tome is no exception: over 400 dense pages in which his grandiose ambition--to define modernism as a distinct movement in thought--far exceeds his critical acumen. An unabashed apologist for everything modern, Karl finds his thesis in Nietzche (his guiding spirit): "". . .whoever wants to be a creator. . .must first be an annihilator and break values."" The need to reinvent language, to secede from what comes before, to defamiliarize everyday reality: all these disruptions characterize, in Karl's view, the typical modernist project. He links his often perceptive analyses of individual moderns (everyone from Baudelaire and Proust to Kafka and Conrad) with ponderous generalizations, eschewing conventional historical narrative (in this respect the subtitle clearly misleads). His stock-in-trade is the breathless catalogue. Here, for example, are some representative, adversarial modern ideas: ""Durkheim's 'suicide,' Freud's 'unconscious' and 'dreams,' Weber's 'charisma,' Bergson's 'memory,' Nordau's 'degeneration,' Mallarme's ptyx, Marx's 'alienation,' Ibsen's 'gyntian self,' Schoenberg's 'atonality'. . ."" The list goes on, and although it includes many of the thinkers discussed in detail, it also indicates the fast and loose manner in which Karl punctuates nearly every page with endless, often unelaborated, analogies. Entire chapters seem misconceived (on ""Spiritual Autobiography"") if not commonplace (on stream of consciousness). Nevertheless, there are some fine essays and monographs buried in this masoleum of ideas (the penultimate chapter on Pound's anti-Semitism, for example), but excavation requires too much spadework. It's difficult to imagine who Karl's audience is. His colleagues will find little original here and along with their students will be put off by his wordy style, confusing organization, and kitchen-sink scholarship.

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1985
Publisher: Atheneum