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Twentieth Century Limited

The Experience of Modernity
By Marshall Berman
Simon & Schuster, $16.95

What's most important about Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is that it's a good read. I embrace that cliché first of all to encourage people to read the damned thing, and I hope it helps. No doubt the news that it's not "hard" will make this study of "the experience of modernity" more attractive to young demi-intellectuals, but not necessarily enough to overcome their defenses against old-fashioned academic culture. And its very read-ability--the apparently effortless lucidity with which it passes back and forth between art ("modernism") and socio-economics ("modernization"), progressing from Rousseau to Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to a whole bunch of Russians (beginning with Nicholas I and ending with Biely and Mandelstam) and then to Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses and Richard Serra--will seem suspicious to Berman's peers. Going-on-middle-aged profs who share Berman's humanism might admire the grace of his style in the abstract, but they'll distrust the synthesis of Lionel Trilling's literary tact and Paul Goodman's pancultural radicalism which it makes possible--that dichotomy has come to seem an either-or. And across the fence, the structuralists and poststructuralists, virtually the only avowed leftists in America attempting cultural criticism of comparable scope, will continue to explain away their disdain for honest English prose the way Fredric Jameson does. Jameson, as you of course recall, proudly describes Adorno's "bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references" as "a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking."

The structuralists have a point, of course. Not only is the world complex, it's obdurately conflict-ridden, and canons of clarity often conceal ideology--they intimate that conflict can be resolved by reason alone. But though the idea that straightforward exposition equals brainwashing has its appeal (medium-is-the-message, you know), it's an untestable generalization with its own secrets. Sometimes it merely serves to obscure the fact that among the cabalists now squirreling away their aperçus in Academe are many semiskilled writers, or to rationalize a collective snobbishness about the way most "bourgeois" (formerly "middlebrow") readers conduct their discourse and their lives. But often it expresses a resignation that borders on a rather cozy despair--a withdrawal from the vulgar business of propagandistic action on the ground that it's futile, neutralized by the totalitarian information system within which it must function.

Berman makes a similar point about structuralism in his introduction, where he dispatches it as a kind of climax to his outline of the shortcomings of other modernist ideologies: futurism (callous), Bauhaus ("technocratic pastorale"), and McLuhan-Fuller Inc. ("spaced-out"); mass culture theory, hopelessly elitist from Spengler on the right through Weber in the center to Marcuse on the left; ivory-tower aestheticism from Greenberg to Barthes; the counterculture's doomed-by-definition project of escaping contemporaneity; the tradition of the new, which in its concentration on revolt "leaves out the great romance of construction," and the epidemic neoconservatism which holds that the modern edifice might actually stabilize if only modernism didn't always mess it up; pop, which in its adoration of the baby gets stuck with the bathwater; and "postmodernism," which attempts to end the era by nomenclative fiat.

Berman's alternative might be called the tradition of the modern--a tradition that becomes a necessity of life whenever human beings begin to conceive themselves as point men for history, whenever they define the present as the focus of ineluctable flux, whenever they call change their condition. For Berman, the tradition of the modern is inextricable from "the tragedy of development," in which "the affinity between the cultural ideal of self-development and the real social movement toward economic development . . . turn[s] out to exact great human costs." As you a might expect of a book that takes its title from The Communist Manifesto, Berman's basic purpose in laying out this tradition is political. And thus the irresistible polemical flow he's worked so hard and so self-effacingly to achieve does more than suggest the contradictory rush of modernity as he conceives it. His readability has a political meaning of its own--it embodies Berman's charity, the root of his faith and his hope.

For surprisingly enough, Berman is glad to be alive. Unlike most '60s veterans, he's always known the difference between the peace you long for and the escape you settle for, because he's always known that the turmoil of the moment was more or less permanent. And he learned to think this way from the tradition of the modern. Always his presentation is on both sides of the either-or. He begins with Faust, where the modern hero's tragedy stems "precisely from his desire to eliminate tragedy," his desire to create a safe new world "in which the look and feel of the old world have disappeared without a trace." His examination of Marx's "self-critical" side warns that in Marx criticism is "meant to be dynamic, to drive and inspire the person criticized to overcome both his critics and himself," while his take on Baudelaire emphasizes the old flâneur's struggle to bring together the enthusiast who invented "modernolatry" and the skeptic who invented "cultural despair." Berman both extols the city and explores--"the modernization of underdevelopment" in a long history of St. Petersburg, where "a politics of enforced backwardness in the midst of forms and symbols of enforced modernization" produced the surreal, self-conscious antigentility of the raznochintsy--sons of clerks and tailors, inventors of nihilism, forerunners of Picasso, Neil Young, and the Latin American novel. The final section is about the author's New York--how in the '50s Robert Moses's pseudo-Faustian vision destroyed the look and feel of Berman's old world, the Bronx; how in the '60s museum artists like Claes Oldenburg and the latterday raznochintsy of Berman's generation brought their own visions into the streets; how in the '70s Berman came to understand that expressway or no expressway he would never have stayed in the Bronx, and that he was determined to define a past for himself regardless.

Of course, those who set about defining their pasts, especially with the sweet ease Berman manages, leave themselves open to charges of sentimentality, charges Berman doesn't foreclose as conclusively as he might. A shameless urban romantic, he revels in the hurly-burly socialization of the street like Red Grooms with a Ph.D. He betrays a lurking idealism when he mentions the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" and a weakness for civics-class corn when he slips into phrases like "the modern world we all share." And some of his readings are on the wishful side. Dostoyevsky becomes an admirer of engineers and the Manifesto an "impassioned, enthusiastic, often lyrical celebration of bourgeois works, ideas and, achievements" only if one disregards the Underground Man's sallow sarcasm and Marx's bitter, magisterial irony.

But if Berman seems a little naive, that's mostly because these are cynical times: when John Leonard says that Berman "indulges" Gramsci's "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will," it takes a moment to realize that he might better have used the word "exerts." Exertion is what Berman's kind of criticism is all about--he's less an explicator or a commentator than an inspired reinterpreter. This is doing it the hard way. When he devoted The Politics of Authenticity (1970) to Montesquieu and Rousseau, whom he claimed as "first seekers" after a "radical liberalism" that prefigured the new left, Berman could almost have been a college student trying to fit all the world's wisdom into a term paper about Heart of Darkness, or a post-Marcusian poring over Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts not for insight but for corroboration by holy writ. His second book is entirely more confident, more sweeping, more his own. Like many leftist aesthetes before him, Berman is convinced that the art he loves (a category which includes all the writing he loves) is consistent with the rest of what he knows and feels. "Modernity"--a less nebulous concept than "authenticity," thanks be--is his rubric, but what drives him is a refusal to abandon either pessimistic intellect or optimistic will. In his first book he suggested that "authenticity" synthesized freedom and happiness; now he defines "modernity" as demanding both criticism and celebration. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a report from a passionate reader who has put his passions in order.

As far as I'm concerned, the softness around the edges of Berman's argument is small price to pay for his passion, and in the end it only affects the edges. Because he's taken the dialectic to heart, he's forever doubling back on himself--again and again I found him filling in the holes I'd poked in what he had to say, often in surprising ways, and though some of my questions stand it's reassuring to know that Berman felt the need to answer them in his own terms. Anyway, the man has been to college. He's quite aware that Marx opposed the bourgeoisie and that Dostoyevsky hated Western European culture, and when he refers to "unacknowledged legislators" he's not so much citing Shelley as updating him, saying that even if artists can't make law they can suggest forms for political action. All he wants to do is identify undercurrents that really are present in these writers, even if they weren't fully conscious of them themselves. It is these undercurrents that enable most of us to respond to Marx and Dostoyevsky as deeply as we do. Berman is proposing a slight readjustment of our response, so that it jibes with the rest of what we know and feel. And if once in a while he must risk truism or gush to make his proposal clearer, he's willing to lose face.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a visionary work which by all rights ought to have the impact of such '60s bibles as Growing Up Absurd and Life Against Death; very roughly speaking I'd say it combines Against Interpretation (Berman makes up in warmth for Sontag's blinding brilliance) and The Accidental Century (Harrington is cruder both critically and politically, but he does call his final chapter "A Hope"). I wish I believed Berman will get what he deserves, but he probably won't. For one thing, the time for such books may have passed, at least partly because what there is of a young audience for radical literacy is no longer prepared to accept the trickle-down theory of culture; that's why the closest we came to '70s bibles was such left-field ventures as Mythologies and The Teachings of Don Juan, both of which commented on the European Tradition primarily by ignoring it. Berman is no art snob, but because his loyalty to his own intellectual roots assures that his passing references to Chaplin, Dylan, Coltrane, Crumb, and others will remain just that, he surrenders some of the accessibility he's striven for. And in any case he's up against something bigger and more ominous--the simple fact that these really are cynical times. Because today's would-be visionaries are usually arrant fools, most thinking people consider it a sign of bad breeding to "indulge" in visionary work.

This feeling is shared by intellectuals on the left, Berman's natural constituency, and on the right (i.e. "center"), where any hint of new left revanchism is greeted these days with machine-gun fire. On both sides they'll tell you that these ought to be cynical times--because all eras offer less than meets the mind (which is what neo-conservatives believe) or because our contemporary despair is historically determined (the mandarin-Marxist approach). At the same time they'll complain that All That Is Solid Melts Into Air offers no political program. The fact that Berman climaxes his argument by proposing an immense mural/sculpture on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which struck me as a properly self-deflating absurdist finale to a book that might otherwise seem overearnest, has elicited much mockery among the reviewerati. But because poets really can't legislate anything, it's unreasonable to demand that in addition to limning our dilemma Berman tell us how to get out of it. Works of art are exemplary, this one included. Berman can't teach any individual, much less an entire culture or an entire world, how to achieve pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. But he can demonstrate that it's possible.

Most of my reservations about what Berman has to say connect up with that observation of Jean Renoir's: "It is practically the only question of the age, this question of primitivism and how it can be sustained in the face of sophistication." It's a question Berman cares about--hence his attention to "the modernism of under-development"--but his kind words for Roots-style ethnic neotraditionalism are hardly adequate to it, as the current up-surge of antimodernist (and antiurban) politics in Iran, the U.S., etc., makes all too vivid. There's a sense in which the simple accumulation of time has eroded the patience of 20th century men and women; if Goethe had had to live through 150 more years of Sturm und Drang, he might have sent Faust back to Gretchen in Part III. But that's just why we need this book--a book that traces modernist roots so naturally it seems like you always knew (or never forgot) they were there. Marx and Baudelaire and lots of others figured out that what human beings had to do was get past the either-or, and maybe it's not our job to be geniuses in their wake. Maybe it's merely to exceed their will.

Village Voice, Mar. 16, 1982