MARSHALL BERMAN takes the title for his book of literary criticism-cum-social theory from Marx's Communist Manifesto. For Berman "All that is solid melts into air" is a quotation of scriptural authority and rapturous significance. He praises its "poetry" as though it were an attar distilled from the holograph manuscript of The Waste Land :
"The cosmic scope and visionary grandeur of this image, its highly compressed and dramatic power, its vaguely apocalyptic undertones, the ambiguity of its point of view--the heat that destroys is also superabundant energy, an overflow of life--all these qualities are supposed to be hallmarks of the modernist imagination. They are just the sort of thing we are prepared to find in Rimbaud or Nietzsche, Rilke or Yeats--'Things fall apart, the center does not hold.'"
In its original context, Marx's quote refers to the hurly-burly of the bourgeois world, where nothing gets done without something being catastrophically undone first. Berman argues that the necessity for this is both inescapable and peculiarly modern, that modernism in the arts and modernization in the sphere of economics and urban planning are but the two tablets of a single dialectical law. It is a theory with many precedents; my favorite is John Berger's The Moment of Cubism. But it is a sufficiently capacious generalization for Berman to stake out a claim of respectable dimensions.
When he is dealing with specific literary works, Berman can tease unsuspected meanings from texts that seemed to need no explication. In the book's acutest chapter he places two prose poems by Baudelaire in the context of Haussmann's rebuilding of Paris, and the effect is like ammonia on a dirty window. On more well-traveled ground, such as in his chapter on Goethe's Faust, Berman's services as a tour-guide will be of value chiefly to those tourists who, as the bus rides past Notre Dame, need to be told, "There is Notre Dame," before they can aim their cameras.
Berman does make one alert to the implications of a passing metaphor. I see now that the one that just went by betrays my own obdurate skepticism concerning Berman's central thesis. Does all that is solid melt into air? The French Revolution did some damage to the facade of Notre Dame, but it hasn't been wholly vaporized yet. True, entire cathedrals and whole cities were leveled in both world wars, but Berman omits discussion of this aspect of Western culture's genius for self-obsolescence. Like the title he has chosen, Berman tends to be vague about the actual processes by which solid matter is converted to rubble.
This is not to deny all validity to his central thesis. There has been a modernist tradition; it surely has a relationship to modernization (in an economic sense); and Berman has chosen texts that exemplify and illumine that relationship. But modernism can also be a mere red flag at the head of a parade (as in Chaplin's Modern Times ), a word to salute, a claim to be irresistibly on the side of History, that old Marxist Juggernaut. Too often Berman sounds like a born-again evangelist for an ecstatic radical orthodoxy:
"Marx plunges us into the depths of this life process, so that we feel ourselves charged with a vital energy that magnifies our whole being--and are simultaneously seized by shocks and convulsions that threaten at every instant to annihilate us. Then, by the power of his language and thought, he tries to entice us to trust his vision, to let ourselves be swept along with him toward a climax that lies just ahead."
I don't think it would be unfair to suppose that Berman here is describing not only the effect Marx will have on his ideal reader, but the relation Berman would like to establish with his audience. I have to confess that All That Is Solid did not charge me with a vital energy that magnified my whole being--not because I can't be enticed by bright new ideas (of which Berman offers a fair share) but because his prose is so prolix, so gassy. He never makes a point once unless he's prepared to repeat it at frequent intervals. His synopses can be longer than the texts he discusses. Finally, he's almost awesomely lacking in humor, as witness this anecdote about a "futurologist" not identified as Herman Kahn:
"I asked about his years in the Bronx. . . . I told him that Moses' (Cross-Bronx Expressway) was going to blow every trace of both our childhoods away. Fine, he said, the sooner the better; didn't I understand that the destruction of the Bronx would fulfill the Bronx's own basic moral imperative? What moral imperative? I asked. He laughed as he bellowed in my face: 'You want to know the morality of the Bronx? "Get out, schmuck, get out.'" For once in my life I was stunned into silence. It was the brutal truth: I had left the Bronx, just as he had, and just as we were all brought up to, and now the Bronx was collapsing not just because of Robert Moses but because of all of us. It was true, but did he have to laugh?"
To be fair to Berman, though his book lacks brevity and wit, it has substance. Readers who enjoy Big Theories will get their money's worth, and younger readers of susceptible sensibilities may even be evangelized into complete agreement. At the end of the book Berman rises beyond criticism to put forward an Oldenburg-like proposal for a monument to be erected in the ruins of his native Bronx, which proposal goes far to justify in an imaginative way much of what I had resisted theoretically. On the evidence of that passage I think Berman might even be able someday to reverse the process described in his title and convert some gas back to solid prose.