History of a Shiver: The Sublime Impudence of Modernism by Jed Rasula
Jed Rasula’s latest book on modernism is built on two contrasting arguments that work very nicely together—even though Rasula insists that he is trying to avoid pounding away at an argument (21). One is that modernism is inconceivable without understanding the importance of music (what he calls “melomania”), embodied in the first place by Richard Wagner, meaning specifically the role played by his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). The other is that modernism is, to borrow from Baudelaire, the essence of the ephemeral and contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable. In other words, Rasula understands modernism as a phenomenon “with no end in sight,” the final and quite moving words of his thoughtful and thought-provoking book (258).
These two guiding principles lead to two further, rather unusual, and absolutely crucial insights concerning modernism’s beginnings and endings. One is that the roots of modernism lie in romanticism and, more specifically still, in German romanticism. Modernism, for Rasula, becomes a second wave of romanticism, this time forced to share the world with photography and cinema, and compelled to face the full impact of modernity, meaning industrialization, consumerism, and what Rasula somewhat lazily calls capitalism—an ideologically tinged term that addresses only one facet of a tremendously complex socio-economic system which has seemingly become inseparable from modernity itself. It is in the chronological gap between romanticism and modernism that Wagner takes on his central role. Born in 1813 at the height of romanticism, he died in 1883 having, together with Baudelaire, prepared the path to modernism. Wagner is the bridge embodying both the apotheosis of romanticism and, specifically with Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, the founding gestures of modernism.
The second insight is perhaps best approached by replacing Baudelaire’s “half of art” with the term “half-life.” Rasula’s book looks at the half-life (my term) of modernism, and that is in a sense all it can do. The term half-life denotes the decay time of radioactive elements, which is mathematically infinite, because if one takes a number and continually divides it and its dividend by two, one will never get to zero. Radioactivity thus never disappears, even if its echo eventually becomes imperceptibly faint. And so too is it with modernism, or at least, this seems to be the point Rasula is making. The concept of half-life is perhaps also appropriate because it was coined in 1907, as modernism itself was getting underway. Indeed much of modernism, and especially much of what Rasula focuses on, provides a counterpoint to the literally stunning advances in the realm of theoretical physics. The most significant of these came from the pioneering work of Albert Einstein, especially during 1905, when in the space of four articles he laid the foundation of modern physics. His theories radically changed our views of space and time—concepts which haunt modernism as it struggles to be heard and remain relevant in a world apparently dispensing with the need for aesthetics to address questions of the infinite and the unknowable (most powerfully expressed by music). It is in the sections where Rasula addresses modernism’s obsessions with space and time that I wish he had given a nod to the parallel, contemporaneous, and in many ways competing discussions of the same phenomena, but from a very different set of assumptions. No less speculative, perhaps, but issuing from the ultimate demonstrability of mathematical operations and experimental processes, physics made sense of Wagner’s enigmatic intuition in Parsifal where “space becomes time,” to explain how the two are in fact one. The unrelenting path pursued by the sciences perhaps needed to be countered by the “sublime impudence of modernism,” the subtitle that Rasula references once or twice but could have, I believe, exploited to far greater effect. [End Page 211]
To be fair, Rasula does briefly venture in this direction, but adding the dimension of physics more substantially to his account would actually have worked quite well, given Rasula’s expansive and somewhat serendipitous stroll through an at times almost bewildering array of people, places, and strands, what Rasula refers to as the “fits and starts” of modernism (32, 9). From Mallarmé to Kerouac, from painting to dance, and from Belgium to the California coast. Rasula’s main contention is that all the arts were in some way drawn to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning in this sense the synesthetic interweaving and fusing of different arts, in the first place, music, to create a richer and more meaningful platform for expression. Music, I would argue, is precisely that ephemeral, otherworldly search for the ultimate that provides the spiritual counterpoint to the explorations of physicists, hence, in part, its attraction for the modernists.
While the central chapters of History of a Shiver are devoted to the serendipitous meander, the outer chapters are more specifically devoted to music, Wagner, and the two main arguments of the book mentioned above. The book opens with a discussion of “Wagnerism” and Gesamtkunstwerk. While Rasula is good about stressing that he is talking about “Wagnerism” and “Gesamtkunstwerk” as ideas that were in a sense separate from the historical Wagner, it would have been helpful to clarify the impoverishment over time of the Gesamtkunstwerk concept, which was conceived by Wagner as being an artwork whose mission was social healing and spiritual transcendence. For the modernists, this grandiose objective became diminished, reduced to the relatively simplified undertaking of mixing the various arts or, to paraphrase Mallarmé, holding that each art should henceforth “perform” another art (256). In other words, most modernists simply took from Wagner the notion of what we can call aesthetic “interdisciplinarity” and left the laden ideology by the wayside.
Rasula’s final chapter, devoted to modernism’s infinitudes or “endless modernism,” draws once again from Wagner, this time his musical device commonly known as “endless melody” (222). It is actually quite a stunning and novel idea to make this connection between Wagner’s compositional structures and the essence of modernism. Rasula proceeds to discuss the relationship between the Wagnerian “leitmotif” and endless melody, the former being structurally equivalent to the molecule, the latter being a limitless organism. Again, the comparison could have been made to the properties of light which, as Max Planck and Einstein demonstrated, can be understood as both a particle and a wave: leitmotif and endless melody, in other words, are in a sense describing one and the same phenomenon. Rasula opens fascinating windows into the worlds of modernism that beg for further investigation and contemplation.
History of a Shiver is hard to review in the normal academic sense because, despite the erudition and the hundreds of endnotes, this is not a standard academic book. It is more like a sprawling essay, a thought experiment on modernism as a set of themes and variations, to extend the musical metaphor that thankfully dominates this book. It is a treasure-trove of ideas and memorable formulations too numerous to list. Its reach is both modest and wide-ranging. Modest, because it concedes at the outset that it cannot provide a full account of modernism. Wide-ranging because, released from this impossible burden, it is free to roam where fancy takes him. The roaming, in turn, runs the risk of sometimes becoming a bit unfocused, but perhaps this is as it should be, a faithful rendition of modernism itself. [End Page 212]