Cover image for Modern times, modern places
Modern times, modern places
Conrad, Peter, 1948-
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf, 1998.
Physical Description:
752 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
CB425 .C583 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
CB425 .C583 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The world changed faster during the twentieth century than ever before. Science and technology set the pace, promoting men to the air like gods. There were revolutions on the streets, but also in the head: uprisings of the Marxist proletariat and of the Freudian id. The new physics of Einstein and his colleagues changed our understanding of nature by showing that matter is made up of empty space, and modern architects constructed buildings to match those new structural principles. Painters such as Picasso and Dali denied they were distorting the human form: they were simply acknowledging the ways in which modern men and women were different, both physiologically and psychologically. Little wonder that, even before our unprecedented century has concluded, its culture has been studied, dissected, analyzed, questioned, rejected, and embraced. We are exhilarated by our own story. Yet the twentieth century's proud rejection of the Western humanist past and its newly specialized intellectual style has left our understanding of it in fragments. But rescue is at hand, for in Modern Times, Modern Places, the noted critic Peter Conrad--ranging brilliantly between literature, the visual arts, music and the performing arts, science, and psychoanalysis--connects these disparate areas and sees the modern era as a whole. Taking his cue from the declaration of the Italian futurists that time and space had been abruptly killed off by Einstein's time-space continuum, he investigates the notion and the nature of modern times: the justified conviction that we have lived through a unique testing period in the experience of mankind. He also describes the places that were frontiers of modernity--cities like Vienna, Moscow, Paris, and Berlin; new worlds in the Americas; a preview of a possible future in Tokyo. Did it all happen too fast and go too far? Modernity was like a roller coaster ride, during which the human race jested with disaster and delighted in the havoc created by the play of g-forces. Yet we can take pride in our century's mental achievements, as well as regretting its crimes. Despite the dangers we confront, with the uniquely clear perspective Peter Conrad provides on a phase of history that has nearly passed we are much better prepared to confront the new millennium.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Conrad, a prolific author, opera expert, and Oxford University literature professor, has performed the seemingly quixotic task of writing a book large, coherent, and specific enough to explicate art's grand effort to decipher, reflect, and assess all the ways in which life has radically and precipitously changed over the last hundred years. He states his central premise: "Innovations in art are attuned to changes in the way people behave, the way society works, the way the universe is construed: that is what modernity was all about." Einstein and Freud are his polestars, and he adeptly and insightfully tracks the impact their discoveries about time, space, and the human unconscious had on artists as diverse and influential as Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Schoenberg, Eisenstein, and Rothko. Conrad's knowledge of the artistic universe is truly encyclopedic, and he brings his panoramic timeline to oceanic life with deeply engaging analyses of literature, music, and cinema, augmented by choice observations about dance, painting, architecture, and photography. He always has the perfect example at hand for illuminating our conflicted aesthetic, political, and moral responses to the century's most drastic events--the Russian revolution, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, the Cold War, and, broadly, the dehumanizing consequences of our infatuation with machines, novelty, speed, and simultaneity--renewing over and over again our appreciation of art's prescient revelations. So fluid and rich are his interpretations, his book is like an intellectual spa where readers can sink gratefully into his prose and absorb all his erudition, perceptiveness, originality, passion, and hard work. There are, of course, inevitable omissions and biases, but for a one-volume study of modernism's birth and evolution, Conrad's is in a class of its own. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Examining art as evidence of the massive changes in human society during this most hectic of centuries rather than as a subject in itself, Conrad has organized this herculean project into thematic, almost free-standing essays. The nuclear bomb is for him the emblem, the "equivocal triumph," of modernity, an age that both "took the world to pieces" scientifically and redefined suicide as a heroically defiant gesture. Conrad's narrative moves from European cultural capitals at their peaks to America after WWII, traveling eastward only at the book's end. When dealing with European modernist arts, Conrad is at his best, capturing elusive issues with apt phrasing and lucidity even when drawing on academic studies. Still, at times he opts for superficial, if provocative soundbytes, as the subject changes every few pages. This problem worsens as Conrad approaches the present: in a lazily dismissive paragraph, for instance, he trivializes a series of Cindy Sherman photographs as a "woman rehearsing and exhausting our shared quota of cultural stereotypes." Attending to jazz more closely also could only have benefited his discussion. Part of the trouble is that Conrad's tastes are unrepentantly highbrow, which ill serves an era of postmodern repetition and lowering standards. While attempting to understand what "it has meant to be alive in the twentieth century," he uses the first-person plural throughoutÄsuggesting a wistful fantasy that his elite reader represents all of humankind. But many aspects of the multifaceted modernity he describes don't exist even for many in the first world. Read as a sweeping intellectual autobiography, from the viewpoint of an idiosyncratic "I," however, the book becomes a deeply compelling study, and a highly engaging feat of scholarship. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The approach of the millennium has inspired the publication of a number of books reflecting on the significance of Modernism. Oxford English professor and critic Conrad here examines Modernism's meaning and scope. While he offers insightful comments on the canonical works of modernist art, music, literature, architecture, and culture, he extends this discussion to the end of the century, looking at other works, genres, and media as well. For Conrad, Modernism is defined by its apocalyptic experiments, its overturning of previous assumptions, and its challenging of taboos. In turn, Conrad sees a continuity between Modernism and Postmodernism and an extension of modernist centers from Vienna, Moscow, and Paris to cities such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. His scope is monumental, his treatment perceptive and fluid. Modernism is more canonical in its focus, offering a rich selection of written material relevant to the study of Modernism from early anticipations in Marx in 1843 through Richard Wright in 1940. Rather than poems, plays, or other "primary" materials, the editors have compiled various modernist statements: letters, manifestos, and contemporary essays and reviews. An invaluable resource for the student of Modernism.ÄThomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, GA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chaplin mistrusted sound because it threatened his universality: Meyerhold warned in 1936 that Russian peasants would cease to feel an affinity with the tramp if he insisted on addressing them as an Englishman. But there were more complex reasons for his resistance to technological innovation in a medium which had been made possible by technology. His practical jokes reveal a quizzical modern awareness that language impedes communication. He once attended a Hollywood dinner for the ballerina Anna Pavlova. Having suffered through a verbose eulogy in Russian, when his turn to speak arrived he paid tribute to her in a lingo which he claimed was Chinese. What Chaplin wanted to show was a period in our psychological history before speech became unthinkingly available to us. He returns to the arduous invention of language, and emphasizes its ingenuity in helping us to overcome a handicap or manoeuvre an exit from difficulty. In The Circus he passes food up to a colleague on the trapeze. He misses his aim, and it slops back to ground, splashing over one of the acrobats. Chaplin excuses himself by acting out an elaborate alibi. With a motion of his hands he invents a passing bird, which has dropped this wet tribute. We learn to talk--he suggests--in order to talk our way out of things. He expertly revealed the body's capacity, even when it remains silent, for telling lies about its actual motives. In The Kid Jackie Coogan's hand, preparing to throw a stone through a window, grazes the sleeve of a policeman who has come up behind him. He at once begins playing with the missile, tossing it about harmlessly while looking for a chance to run away. Chaplin in The Adventurer is similarly caught out. Lying on top of a cliff, he fights off the police who are pursuing him by hurling rocks down at them. Then he notices a boot which has suddenly planted itself in the ground beside his head: it belongs to another policeman. His response is a brilliant physiognomic lie. He quickly covers it up with dirt and sand. If he cannot see it, how can it exist? Reducing a man's qualities to tattered lendings like the tramp's costume, Chaplin rejoiced in taking away physical skills which are the body's own laboriously home-grown machinery. In The Idle Class he is trapped in a phone booth without his trousers. He escapes by wishfully amputating his own legs, and scuttles through a gaggle of censorious matrons under cover of his shirt tails: he has no need for trousers, because he ends at the waist. Chaplin's gags demonstrated that a man can survive without a tongue or legs. Sometimes survival is easier if the mind or the memory is removed, leaving only a well-oiled, obedient automaton. The Jewish barber in The Great Dictator spends the years between world wars in hospital, suffering from amnesia. When he returns to the ghetto, his affectlessness proves psychologically helpful. He slips back into the repetitive motions of his previous life, only slightly puzzled by the decades of dust and cobwebs in his shop. He is taken aback by the anti-Semitic graffiti painted on his window, but wipes off the mess without thinking further. Told to hail Hynkel by the storm-troopers, he shrugs that he has never heard of the man. But when they insist, he consents: 'Oh, all right.' This is how men behave in a totalitarian society, or in any mass society which takes no account of individuals. They try not to notice, or train themselves to be less sensitive. Anonymity is the safest camouflage. In Shoulder Arms Chaplin gets through a battle by pretending to be a hollow tree, its lopped, butchered branches testifying to man's war against nature. To cope with the world, he allowed the tramp only the talents and the tactics of the early people: native wit, and a gift for evasion. Chaplin resented technology because it speeded up evolution and dispensed too easily with difficulties. Given a gadget, he could be counted on to destroy it. In The Pawnshop, he eavesdrops on the vital signs of an alarm clock with a stethoscope. After a punctilious examination, he decides to perform surgery, and makes an incision with a can-opener. The operation naturally kills the patient. Although film may be able to do without sound, it cannot exist without sight. Yet Chaplin flirted with that disability too. His chosen persona was that of the man who is overlooked; although his popularity soon made him the most recognizable figure in the world, the character he played is disregarded by everyone, insignificant even in his own estimation. In City Lights the blind flower-seller recovers her vision thanks to his charity. But once she is able to see, he becomes invisible to her--just one more passer-by, absorbed into the crowd of lookalikes. At the end of The Circus he altruistically erases himself. He arranges a marriage between the girl he dotes on and his rival, showers them with rice, and encourages them to forget that he ever existed. The tramp's self-sacrificing meekness gave him a religious aura. Chaplin's fellow director Jean Renoir called him 'the god of non-violence', and volunteered to serve as his apostle. When the dramatist Clifford Odets offered to introduce him to Chaplin, Renoir felt like 'a devout Christian [invited] to meet God in person'. The twentieth century, as the introduction to The Great Dictator announced, experimentally diminished or even dismantled humanity. Christ's detractors nailed to the cross a slogan declaring 'Ecce Homo': behold the man. The title of Primo Levi's memoir, If This Be a Man, implies that, after Auschwitz, we can no longer be sure what a man is. Certainly it is no longer conceivable that God should permit his only-begotten son to live and die as one of us. Nietzsche, espousing the anti-Christ, claimed that human beings did not need to be redeemed in this way. Chaplin's victimized and sweetly beatified tramp brought Christ back. The humblest of men restored the lustre of humanity. Eisenstein compared the tramp with Parsifal, the pure fool who inherits Christ's Grail in Wagner's last opera, and called him the incarnation of 'Christ's simple man'. Hart Crane's poem 'Chaplinesque', vaguely recalling The Kid, admired the same radiant goodness, which transforms comedy into communion: 'the moon in lonely alleys' makes 'a grail of laughter of an empty ash can'. Eisenstein described the factory in Modern Times as a 'motorised Golgotha'. In Limelight Chaplin played a dying comedian called Calvero; the film, as Cocteau noted, was 'the calvary of a clown'. Chaplin's sense of his own sanctity and martyrdom increased as he was persecuted for his socialist sympathies, and for alleged sexual infractions. He told Winston Churchill (according to Orson Welles) that he intended to star in a biopic about Christ, prompting Churchill to ask if he had cleared the rights. Chaplin also wanted to collaborate with Stravinsky on a surrealist film about a decadent night-club which presented the crucifixion as its floor show. Blood would have dripped onto one of the dancers, prompting her to complain about the mess. Stravinsky thought the idea sacrilegious, which was probably the point of it. The project gave warning of Chaplin's messianic ambition. He came to feel that he had been elected to a mission, entrusted with a responsibility to rescue humanity. On the soundtrack of The Great Dictator he twice used the prelude to Lohengrin, in which Wagner's high, shimmering strings narrate the descent of grace to earth as the Grail knight Lohengrin, Parsifal's son, wafts down from the sky to perform miracles. At the end Paulette Goddard listens in exile to a radio broadcast by the Jewish barber, who has assumed the identity of Hynkel. The barber, disarming the dictator's regime, calls for peace on earth and goodwill between men. His voice, transmitted directly from heaven, tells her to look up at the sun, and promises that mankind is 'flying into the rainbow, the hope, the future'. The Lohengrin prelude makes that assurance audible. But if the music brings this consolation with it, why did Chaplin use the same excerpt from Wagner in an earlier scene, when Hynkel does his crazed, conquering dance with the weightless globe? The coincidence suggests that the two characters Chaplin plays in the film may be secretly similar, despite their racial enmity. The dictator is a little man magnified by technology, which gives him global power. When Chaplin first saw photographs of Hitler, he described him as 'a bad imitation of me', and threatened to sue for plagiarism of his moustache. Another of his unrealized proj-ects was a film about Napoleon, whom he idolized. Comedy is aggression by other means. Laughter has no conscience, and shows no mercy. In The Great Dictator Chaplin dangerously mocks Hynkel's Jewish victims, who are being recruited for an assassination plot by a renegade fascist. The ancient Aryan tribes, they are told, performed rites of human sacrifice, picking out the victim by lot at a feast. The ghetto elders organize a midnight supper to choose the saboteur who must die while blowing up Hynkel's palace. The lucky man will find a coin hidden in the pudding he eats. Paulette Goddard, however, overhears this plan, and puts a coin in every pudding. They all chew nervously, gag when their teeth strike metal, and either swallow the evidence or surreptitiously slip the coins onto someone else's plate. Chaplin himself gobbles down half a dozen. When he hiccups, they clink inside him, as farcically as the swallowed whistle which chirrups throughout an operatic recital in City Lights ; eventually he coughs them all up. Despite the brilliance with which the scene is directed and performed, this anatomy of shifty cowardice hardly supports the barber's final appeal to 'universal brotherhood'. The girl Chaplin rescues from the streets in Monsieur Verdoux expresses the world's gratitude to him: 'I was beginning to lose faith, then this happens and I want to believe all over again.' Her devout little prayer to her personal comforter, who has fed her and sent her home without expecting sex, is mordantly ironic. The murderer Verdoux was intending to try out a new poison on her; he only spares her life because--when she tells him that she would have killed to protect her invalid husband--he recognizes her as an amoral equal, impelled like him to renounce the categories of good and evil. Chaplin's gradual exposure of his own darker side--which led to his ostracism from public favour after he released Monsieur Verdoux in 1947--forced the twentieth century to recognize once again the falsity of its hopes for redemption and renewal. The common man had incubated a monster. Excerpted from Modern Times, Modern Places: A Monumental Study of the Transformation of Art and Life in the Twentieth Century by Peter Conrad All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.