Modernism in the Streets

Modernism in the Streets

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy
by Peter Gay
W.W. Norton, 2007 640 pp $35

PETER GAY has had a remarkable career as a scholar. He has gone through many metamorphoses and left a great paper trail. Well into his eighties, he shows no signs of slowing down. He has written about many different things, and he has always been smart and serious, vivid and nuanced. He has a flair for telling stories, and he believes in narrative. He knows a lot, but wears it lightly. Modernism is his twenty-sixth book.

Disclosure number one: I’ve written a big book on modernism myself titled All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. There are many accounts of modernism available today. Sometimes they complement each other, sometimes they clash. But they all accept the core idea that art and thought are shaped by the artist’s or thinker’s perspective. In that light, it would be perverse if I left out mine.

Disclosure number two: Gay was my teacher at Columbia half a century ago—can it really be, half a century ago? My first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1971), on Montesquieu and Rousseau, cites him as a prime influence.

Gay hasn’t taught at Columbia for forty years or so. But although he left a long time ago, it left a mark on him. Modernism is very much a “Columbia book,” a recognizable product of the ambience that pervaded the university in the years when he and I were there. What was special about Columbia then wasn’t just the brilliance of the faculty; American universities were flourishing then, and there were many brilliant faculties. What was special was the shared obsession of many of its best minds with modernity.

Old heads like Lionel Trilling, Margaret Mead, Meyer Schapiro, Karl Polanyi and younger ones like C. Wright Mills, Steven Marcus, Daniel Bell, Jacob Taubes, Susan Sontag were all expending their best energy on the question, What does it mean to be modern? Their visions of modernity were different, but all rich and complex. They were expansive and cosmopolitan, they brushed aside both disciplinary and national barriers. Their politics were ambiguous, but all to be found along a liberal/left spectrum. They agreed that America, along with the world’s other advanced capitalist societies, had serious human problems, and none believed that communism could solve these problems. But they all thought that modern men and women had the potential to work it out. It was a thrill to absorb the enormity and audacity of their visions. They opened up a horizon that was a whole world.

GAY ENRICHED this discourse. In a long series of works on the Enlightenment, he argued that any attempt to live decently in modern times had to start from Enlightenment ideas of Humanity and human rights. His short 1968 study, Weimar Culture, portrayed the disastrous trajectory of two very strong currents in interwar German...