At the home of the world’s most authoritative dictionary, perhaps it is not inappropriate to play a word association game. If I say the word “modern,” what comes into your mind? The chances are, it will be some variation of “new,” “recent,” or “contemporary.” This understanding of modernity is so ingrained that we rarely pause to reflect on its historical implications. Yet there is another way of conceiving the term, one that brings with it a whole different set of associations. What if we were to turn the telescope around, like Copernicus, and view modernity not as a new beginning, but as an end, as a period that is defined by the fact that it comes after everything else? What, in short, if we were to understand modernity as the old age of the world?
This simple inversion opens up a new approach to a whole range of assumptions about modern culture, history, and politics. If modernity emerges in this sense as a kind of historical late style, then the ways in which we understand late style – not only as it relates to major artistic figures such as Goethe, Beethoven, or Picasso, but also in terms of how it has been retrospectively constructed by critical tradition – become of central relevance to how we understand modernity. Much of modern literature, to take just one example, can be defined as an attempt to engage with, and ultimately to overcome, its belated historical status. Already in the Early Modern period, Francis Bacon argued that the old “age of the world … is the attribute of our own times,” a sentiment that Descartes reduced to the pithy claim “C’est nous qui sommes les anciens.” By the end of the seventeenth century, the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns placed the question of historical self-understanding at the center of debates about the legitimacy of modernity: in the words of Charles Perrault, “should our forefathers not be regarded as the children & we as the Elders and true Ancients of the world?” Perrault maps the development of cultural history onto the life of man not in order to describe the late seventeenth century as an era of virility, but as one of senescence: after the childhood of Antiquity and the adulthood of the Renaissance, mankind has now entered upon the old age of modernity. Seen from this perspective, modern literature from the eighteenth century onward emerges as what Thomas Hardy, in his description of Little Jude, calls “Age masquerading as Juvenility.”
Much of modern literature, to take just one example, can be defined as an attempt to engage with, and ultimately to overcome, its belated historical status.
Such a vision of modernity amounts to the flip-side of “progress,” that great god of post-Enlightenment secularity. It suggests that modern culture is shaped by the sense of an ending – to quote Frank Kermode’s influential phrase – as much as by the hope of beginning. Yet this is not as unremittingly negative as it may sound. For late style, in the traditional understanding of the term, is also great style, a way of conferring elite, timeless stature on a chosen canon of artists. As such, when applied to modernity as a whole it becomes a way of smuggling in the grandeur of culmination – a way of suggesting, to paraphrase Nietzsche’s joke about Hegel, that history culminates in your own house. To live in the old age of the world is to live in its climax.
That there is also an alternative, more muted model of lateness – the coda to the crescendo, so to speak – suggests the richness of the term: the idea of late style as predicated on illness or infirmity (Beethoven’s deafness, Paul Klee’s sclerosis) offers a model of increased productivity under the shadow of death. To trace the ways in which modernity has been understood as “late” is to realize, then, that it can have both regressive and progressive implications; every end implies a new beginning. If late style is like a Rorschach test, where the observer sees what she wants to see in the inkblot, then so is our view of late modernity, composed as it is of competing claims to historical superiority.
This is not to say, however, that lateness does not offer a concept of real substance; in an era obsessed with interdisciplinary, one of the reasons for the recent revival of lateness studies is surely its broad applicability across a range of subjects and cultures. Strategic expediency aside, perhaps the most compelling intellectual model for the universal resonance of lateness is offered by Theodor Adorno, the high priest of the discipline. Writing to Thomas Mann in 1951 about the latter’s novel The Holy Sinner, Adorno claims that lateness represents the very culmination of European identity: “It often sounds as though, at a certain decayed level of language, … you had somehow disclosed the latent possibility of a truly European language, one which was formerly obstructed by national divisions but now, at the end, shines forth as a primordial stratum precisely by virtue of its latest character.” Already for Adorno a term of aesthetic praise, lateness here literally becomes its own superlative. Modernism is understood not just as the late, but as the latest, as a category that collapses divisions both geographically (as a European meta-language) and historically (as a ‘primordial stratum’ now finally uncovered ‘at the end’). With all the pathos of the post-war yearning for reconciliation, Adorno offers lateness as something like the Esperanto of intellectual history – in theory comprehensible by all, but in practice understood by very few.
Returning to our word association game, then, perhaps we would do well to understand “modern” not just as new, but also as old; not just as innovation, but also as culmination; not just as a beginning, but also as an ending. In an ageing society, it may yet prove productive to conceive an ageing world.
Featured image credit: “Double Word and Triple Letter Score” by Dustin Gaffke. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.