First Moderns

First Moderns July 27, 2009

William Everdell’s The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought is one of the most satisfying and insightful books of cultural critique and history that I’ve read in a long time. It is impressively broad. Everdell writes with easy and often witty grace about quantum mechanics, the foundations of mathematics, “pantonal” music, cubism, stream of consciousness narrative, vers libre , etc.

His central thesis is that modernism (beginning in the last decades of the 19th century) broke with a fundamental 19th-century premise, the premise of continuity.

In physics, mathematics, philosophy, and the arts, discontinuity replaced continuity as the model of reality. Atomists in physics and chemistry argued that matter itself was discontinuous; the ether evaporated; statistical and probabilist descriptions of reality took the place of deterministic ones; insoluable aporia appeared at the foundations of mathematics and logic. Arists imitated the fragmentation and discontinuity of the sciences, inventing pointillism and cubism and countless other isms. Philosophers, following Hume and Kant, wondered whether we could know anything beyong the phenomena that appear in our consciousness.

Such a summary betrays one of the great values of Everdell’s book. Instead of starting with a global theory of modernism and pressing the evidence to fit, he provides detailed biographical sketches of dozens of major figures of the period and a few central events – like the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.

Besides, the book is full of arresting connections and illuminating details. Twain and Whitman come into play with surprising regularity; Proust plods toward Recherches by translating John Ruskin’s writings on the Gothic; Geronimo plays Chief Sitting Bull in a reenactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn at the St. Louis World’s fair, and marches in TR’s inauguration parade down Pennsylvania Avenue; “Live long and prosper” predates Star Trek by decades – it was the greeting of Rip Van Winkle in a play that ran for nearly a century; and we get Ibsen’s dying words (“On the contrary . . . .”). Everdell’s chapter on the development of the concentration camp is harrowing.

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