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Although he argues persuasively that a major insight of modern thought is that "fragments come to hold the sense of the whole," Frederick R. Karl has not joined the New Historicists in approaching history through the intricate unpacking of anecdote. Rather, he has set out to construct a grand narrative of the ways in which the modern emerged in art, literature, music, and, to a lesser extent, in science and political thought. Defining his own concern with "avant-garde," "modern," and "modernism" as categories of formal discovery in the arts, he announces at the outset that "modernity" (a term of increasing importance to many recent critics, denoting the economic and cultural conditions of advanced capitalist societies) should best be left to the historians and sociologists. Accordingly, he describes the process by which artistic language (whether of literature, painting, or music) has continually sought to achieve new kinds of order, in a process tending inevitably toward abstraction. The agency for this cycle of constant innovation is the individual artist, so that this study must of necessity focus on a strongly defined canon and, moreover, on particular moments of artistic breakthrough for those great creators rather than on their larger biographies, social commitments, and so on. These artists are said to view themselves as ahistorical rather than as belonging to any tradition and so to seek to create their own individual languages. It is not clear how this claim might be reconciled with the tendency of so many modern artists to rewrite, rather than simply evade, traditions.
For much of the book, however, these larger arguments are put aside, as particular works of art are described at considerable length and analogies are established among the various arts and sciences. Stream of consciousness in [End Page 306] literature is said to correspond to mood and atmosphere in music, whereas Cubist painting, Freud's unconscious, and Einstein's relativity all relocate the world of objects in our imagination. The desire to tag each name with a word or phrase that denotes some crucial discovery too often leads to rather sweeping generalizations, for example, that the Dreyfus affair was state suicide and so resembled the rage for suicide among individual avant-garde artists. Or that by 1900 all the various artistic avant-gardes had set themselves against all of the nineteenth century's claims to progress. In keeping with his use of avant-garde to refer to moments of individual discovery rather than to social groups or movements, Karl supports this latter claim by invoking a list of names with their associated tags (for example, Durkheim and "suicide," Freud and "unconscious" and "dreams," Marx and "alienation," Yeats and "imagism," and so on). What such attempts to write a history of great moments cannot easily account for, however, is the complexity of a figure such as Freud, who was both an iconoclast and a true believer in nineteenth-century scientific rationality.