Record of our time as it ebbs away

Modern Times, Modern Places
January 1, 1999

There really is no fair and simple way to summarise a book as ambitious, audacious and idiosyncratic as this. It is written for an intelligent audience, but not a narrowly disciplinary one. It encompasses a remarkable range of supposedly disparate talents and trends. It opens itself to all manner of detours and diversions, but remains, as a narrative, appealingly cohesive. It is, in short, a highly original and very personal tour de force .

What Peter Conrad has written is a kind of intellectual biography of a century. His primary source materials are cultural, but not for the exclusive purpose of cultural history: it is, in fact, an account of "the ways in which life has changed during the last 100 years, and it looks to art - since artists are the interpreters of their age and also its memorialists - for evidence of those changes". We are thus shown some of the characteristic elements that have helped define what we have come to think of as modernity - such as the rapid acceleration of time and the ruthless dispersal of places - via analyses of such cultural motifs as the plasticity of personal identity, the ambiguous powers of science, the uncertain truths of perception and the mixture of anxiety and exhilaration shaken into life by deicide.

Conrad begins with modernists' self-conscious search for a new shape to suit the new spirit: "Between the present and a discarded past lay a chasm; there was no crossing back. To be modern, to acknowledge and to inhabit this new world, was a strict intellectual duty and a bracing imaginative challenge." The search is shown through sights of the shaven skulls of Mayakovsky and Itten and the bobbed hair of Louise Brooks, the associative jerks and spasms from thought to thought and word to word in Joyce's Ulysses , the usurpation of substance by shade in Seurat's paintings, the sweltering mirages of de Chirico's pittura metafisica , Kandinsky's radiant apocalypses, Kokoschka's studded blasphemies, the bleak auguries of H. G. Wells's science-fictions, the bold metropolitan landscapes of Paris, Moscow, Berlin and New York, the redemptive moment in Mahler's Second Symphony and the sonic futurism of Richard Strauss's Salome , all punctuated by the critical and speculative interjections of Nietzsche, Kraus, Spengler and Grosz.

Conrad, blending courage with precision, moves on to explore the varied responses of Kraus, Musil, Broch, Strauss, Klimt and Loos to "the fiction of culture" in the modern city, and the interrogation of a newly godless universe by Marinetti, Proust, Wells, Schonberg and Duchamp, and the experiments in tempo and technology by Breton and Soupault, and the redesigning of the body by Balla, Depero, El Lissitzky and Robbe-Grillet, and the reappraisal of the mind by Breuer and Freud, and he concludes with "a trip to the future" and a visit to Tokyo, "the capital of a postmodern world".

There are points and passages where the pattern of the arguments seems over-intricate or where the criss-crossing of allusions causes the essential relevance of a digression (if indeed it is a digression) to remain obscure to all save those for whom the author's diverse interests and strengths are already fully known and understood, but, in general, the discussion repays careful reading. Among the richest and most accomplished sections are "Returning the sky" - a fascinating reflection on the attempts at redefining the nature of modern music in a secular world; "The Chapliniad" - a beautifully concise and measured account of the rise of global celebrity; "Ameriques, Amerika" - an equally judicious and highly entertaining consideration of the various imaginings, by natives, immigrants and outsiders, of America; and "Gods and gadgets" - on the rewiring of the world by modern technology.

The tone, unsurprisingly, is ambivalent. This century has taught us, just as previous ones have done, that nothing straight can be made from the crooked timber of humanity: for all the hopeful talk of the emergence of a "new man" and a "new woman", "organisms redesigned according to the most modern principles of ethical and sexual hygiene", we have continued to be "terrorised by ogres" and a "combative, intolerant, inconclusive mob of isms", and technology, which shrank the globe dramatically, "allowed the world to make war against itself twice in a single generation"; just as tellingly, our dogged imperfections continued to protect us from the most zealous of perfectionists, for although our houses may now be "veined with cables" and our lives looped with high-tech circuitry, "human relationships [Remain] full of holes and snags".

Film, argues Conrad, projects the defining image of our equivocal condition: "a moving picture is a record of presentness, of time as it runs away ... and behind the animated shadows is a blank screen". Modernity sought to sweep away the past and create the world anew, and now it struggles to do more than merely rearrange the dust. Even the term "postmodern" reveals more of what we continue to lack than of what we have acquired. "Ever since the last fin de siècle ", Conrad remarks, "we have been expecting history to end. There is a heady existential thrill to be derived from the sense that we are nearing a climax, or a terminus. In our excitement, we tend to overlook the fact that the earth still persists in turning." Quite so. As Proust once put it: "The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been 'great changes'."

"We cannot anticipate our lives, or manipulate the chances which alter the course we devise for ourselves", argues Conrad; "we have no choice but to live through the portion of history assigned to us." Modern Times, Modern Places tries neither to resist nor to resign but rather to understand; it offers no conclusions, but encourages innumerable questions. It promises to provoke the broadest range of specialisms: not necessarily to agree, but most certainly to think.

Graham McCann, formerly a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, is a writer.

Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the 20th Century

Author - Peter Conrad
ISBN - 0 500 01877 4
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 736

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