From Marx to Robert Moses

All that is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity.
by Marshall Berman.
Simon & Schuster. 384 pp. $17.50.

The role played by modernist culture in the radical movement of the 1960’s, though often assumed to have been a significant one, has never really been clarified. Has it, indeed, ever really been studied? It was certainly a more ambivalent role than the intellectual champions of the movement could ever bring themselves to acknowledge. What, after all, had the tutelary deities of the counterculture of the 60’s in common with Eliot or Stravinsky or Proust or Mondrian or Mies van der Rohe? It was not to the dour strains of Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic compositions that the disciples of Timothy Leary turned on, as I recall, nor was either Ulysses or Harmonium the book most likely to be found in the backpacks of the antiwar protesters or under study in the communes of Vermont and Colorado.

To the extent that the literary and artistic avant-garde could be seen to foster an adversary attitude toward the institutions and the ethos of middle-class life, it was welcomed, to be sure, as an ally in the struggle to undermine “the system”—meaning, of course, bourgeois democracy—and the “repressive” cultural values that it was alleged to have engendered. But at the time of the movement’s eruption in the 1960’s this was by no means the way that modernist culture was being perceived by the radicals themselves.

For one thing, modernist culture was clearly understood to mean high culture—the culture of an educated elite—and toward the very existence of elite culture, modernist or otherwise, the ideologues of the radical movement adopted an attitude of extreme political hostility. The real “aesthetic” loyalties of the movement lay, in any case, in the realm of popular culture—in rock music, the “new” journalism, and the movies. High culture, to the extent that it was not rejected outright, had to be made to conform to the “popular” values it had always opposed. Thus it became one of the imperative tasks of the movement’s intellectuals—especially those who spoke in the name of high culture—to blur the kind of distinction that had traditionally been made between high culture and popular culture. This took some doing—the Beatles had to be treated as serious art-song composers, for example, and all sorts of moral and cultural benefits ascribed to the rising glut of pornographic trash—but the movement never lacked for gifted volunteers in this enterprise. The net effect, however, was not the enhancement of high culture but its degradation.

By the 1960’s, moreover, modernist culture presented the radical movement with another problem. Modernism had clearly ceased to be avant-garde. It was taught in the schools, it dominated the museums, it was praised in the press, and it commanded a formidable system of public and private patronage. It was solidly established as part of the mainstream culture of the liberal middle class. It could therefore not be easily or permanently separated from the interests of that class. This constituted an immense difficulty for radicals who wished to perpetuate the myth of the modernist avant-garde as a revolutionary force, for it could no longer be seriously claimed that the objectives of modernist culture and those of the radical movement were really identical.

The truth is, of course, that radical movements tend sooner or later to be resolutely philistine and populist in their cultural programs. It is only within the free-wheeling culture of bourgeois societies that modernism has ever prospered for as long as a single generation without encountering real repression—the kind that makes artists and writers fear for their lives, and flee to safe bourgeois havens. Yet in the comfortable purlieus of these havens—it is quite another story elsewhere—the myth of some ideal compact binding modernist culture to the ideology of revolution survives unchanged and largely unchallenged. It persists as an object of piety even in an age that has seen modernism stripped of whatever radical functions it might once have been able to lay claim to, and today serves as a kind of ideological sanctuary for those intellectual survivors of the radical movement who are obliged to look to culture—especially the museum culture of modernism—to bind up their political wounds and assist them in adjusting to a permanent posture of professorial, risk-free dissidence.

It is upon precisely this piety that Marshall Berman, who is professor of political science at the City University of New York, has erected the bizarre tableaux that make up the bulk of his new book on “The Experience of Modernity.” All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, being less a work of analysis than of fantasy and incantation, is a very difficult book to describe, but its purpose is nonetheless easily discerned. It is designed to offer the academic radical mind a refuge from the disappointments of the present in the promises and prophecies of the past.

Its ambitions are nothing if not large, for what it purports to give us is a comprehensive account of the historical relation that has obtained in the 19th and 20th centuries between the rise of cultural modernism, on the one hand, and the forces of social modernization, on the other—the relation, in short, between the avant-garde and bourgeois capitalism. It is out of both the creative and the destructive collision of these developments that there has arisen, according to Berman, the “experience of modernity.” The book thus attempts to combine literary criticism, historical narrative, and sociological analysis in what is essentially a moral and highly moralistic critique of modern life. Baudelaire’s poetry is related to Baron Haussmann’s transformation of the Paris cityscape, Dostoevsky’s fiction is set against the development of St. Petersburg as an urban center, and the author’s own, rather less interesting sensibilities are defined in relation to Robert Moses’s work in reconstructing various parts of New York City and Long Island, but especially the Bronx, where Berman grew up. It is Berman’s view that the keys to the spirit of modernity are to be found, above all, in the writings of Goethe and Marx.



Traditionally, of course, radical ideology has been militantly forward-looking and “progressive,” upholding the glories of the future against a benighted past and a dismal present. Berman reverses this stance. His focus is firmly on the glories of the past. “I want to bring the dynamic and dialectical modernism of the 19th century to life again,” he declares in the introduction, and it is to this task that his book is more or less devoted. And while he makes the expected obeisances to the rhetoric of progressivism—“It may turn out, then, that going back can be a way to go forward: that remembering the modernisms of the 19th century can give us the vision and courage to create the modernisms of the 21st,” etc.—it is clearly not the future that now holds much interest for him.

The past that is conjured up in the pages of this book is not exactly history, however. More than anything else it resembles one of those flea markets where we find the discarded and obsolete objects of an earlier era refurbished to serve newer and more up-to-date functions. Thus, just as old crocks are now turned into electric lamps and old bed quilts made to serve as modern abstract “pictures” to hang on the wall, so All That Is Solid Melts Into Air performs many similar acts of conversion on certain relics of 19th-century culture. Berman’s prized crock, in this instance, is Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which in its new guise is offered to us as nothing less than “the first great modernist work of art.”

It is from the Manifesto that Berman has drawn the title of this work—“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”—but Marx’s historical pronunciamento is treated less as a political document than as a prose poem deemed to be “remarkable for its imaginative power, its expression and grasp of the luminous and dreadful possibilities that pervade modern life.” It is not for its radical ideology that we are invited to savor this poetic achievement, but for its “radical tensions,” and in keeping with this literary approach to the Manifesto, Berman manages to discover as many “tensions” in its text as any New Critic ever found in the poetry of John Donne. One sometimes wonders if this book should not really have been called All That Is Solid Melts Into—ART!

The book abounds in conversions of this sort. Goethe’s Faust is dubbed a “Tragedy of Development,” and its hero turns out to bear a distinct likeness to Robert Moses, the creator—inter alia—of Jones Beach and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Which isn’t as much of a comedown for Faust as it may seem, for Moses—Robert, that is—is placed by Berman in the company of a “long line of titanic builders and destroyers . . . Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Baron Haussmann, Joseph Stalin . . . Bugsy Siegel . . . ‘Kingfish’ Huey Long; Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Goethe’s Faust, Captain Ahab, Mr. Kurtz, Citizen Kane.” I doubt if even Robert Moses’s outsize ego could have comfortably accommodated itself to this curious roster of “builders and destroyers,” but for the reader, at least, the list serves as a nice example of Berman’s gift for making fine discriminations.

Robert Moses, whether or not he can be said to belong in the company of Louis XIV or Bugsy Siegel or Alice in Wonderland, is important to the dramaturgy of Berman’s fable of modernity. For it was the creation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway that allegedly brought about the ruin of our author’s beloved old neighborhood, thus depriving him of the kind of “primal modern scenes,” as he calls them—“everyday encounters in the city street that are raised to first intensity . . ., to the point where they express fundamental possibilities and pitfalls, allures and impasses of modern life”—that he so much envies in Baudelaire’s Paris and Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg. My own impression is that New York City nowadays provides its residents with a great many more “primal modern scenes” on its streets than they have a taste for, but this, I suppose, is to descend to a vugar plane of reality—something that Marshall Berman can never be accused of doing.



There are whole sections of this book devoted to Paris and St. Petersburg—these, together with the final section on the Bronx, constitute the principal tableaux around which the book is constructed—but, like the treatment of the Communist Manifesto, they are so egregiously “literary,” so little based on historical actualities, and so much given to substituting images and anecdotes for analysis, that they are virtually worthless as guides to their subjects. Berman seems to have discovered 19th-century Paris in the pages of Walter Benjamin, and as for St. Petersburg—well, suffice it to say that for our author 19th-century Russia is the “archetype of the emerging 20th-century Third World.” Exactly how Dostoevsky and Gogol and the other literary eminences who dominate the discussion of St. Petersburg can be made to accord with this view is never made clear, but then the whole section on Russia is little more than a literary blur.

It is Berman’s belief that in the 20th century “we don’t know how to use our modernism”—even though, as he hastens to affirm, “The 20th century may well be the most brilliantly creative in the history of the world”—and that “we have missed or broken the connection between our culture and our lives.” In this matter, at least, it is averred that they ordered these things much better in the 19th century when the relation of aesthetic modernism to social modernization is claimed to have been more creative, more dynamic, more dialectical, and more wonderful in every way. This, above all, is the reason why we should now be setting our sights backward—on Baudelaire’s Paris and Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg. There, apparently, the connection between “our culture” and “our lives” would have had much more to offer us than the dismal present.

Missing from this discussion, astonishingly enough, is the notion of alienation, which, it may be recalled, emerged in the 19th century as a way of accounting for a phenomenon suspiciously akin to those “missed or broken” connections that Berman is eager to blame on Robert Moses or sundry other villains of our time. The word “alienation” does not even appear in the well-made index of this book. Which gives All That Is Solid Melts Into Air a certain distinction in the annals of radical literature. One quite understands why Berman would want to shy away from this notion. It would not have much to contribute to his tableaux of the glorious past to which we are being invited to return for a renewal of our dampened spirits. All the same, one rather misses it.

I am afraid that he is no more intelligent about the modernism of the present age. The roll call he offers as representing the “brilliance and depth of living modernism”—“Grass, Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Cunningham, Nevelson, di Suvero, Kenso Tange, Fassbinder, Herzog, Sembene, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Richard Foreman, Twyla Tharp, Maxine Hong Kingston”—is, two or three names excepted, merely another roundup of the usual suspects, aesthetically chic and politically Left. It is, in any case, more revealing for the names it omits than for those it includes.

The real giveaway, however, comes in the fantasy that overtakes the final section of the book. There Berman presents us with what he calls “my Bronx modernist dream: The Bronx Mural”:

The Bronx Mural, as I imagine it, would be painted onto the brick and concrete retaining walls that run alongside most of the eight miles of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, so that every automobile trip through and out of the Bronx would become a trip into its buried depths. . . . The mural might depict cross-sections of streets of houses, even of rooms full of people just as they were before the Expressway cut through them all.

In this mural would be depicted, more or less (one gathers) in the manner of the old “Ballad for Americans,” a cast of thousands representing successive waves of immigration, radical sects, and prosperous Bronx alumni who have made their mark in American life. Never for a moment does Berman suspect that his “modernist dream”—which seems to have been compounded of 1930’s-style post-office murals, Soviet-style Socialist Realism, and perhaps a bit of Southern California kitsch—represents everything that the modernist imaginative has long ago repudiated.

If we ever doubted that it is the destiny of the radical mind to ally itself, sooner or later, with philistine taste and populist values, then we have only to turn to Marshall Berman’s dream for his “Bronx Mural.” All the vulgarity and sentimentality and bad faith that it has long been the mission of authentic modernist culture to penetrate and expose are there writ large enough for all but the most obtuse—or the most committed—to see. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a very muddled book, but this point at least is made vividly clear.

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