Louis Kampf

Louis Kampf was distinguished Professor Emeritus of Literature and Women's Studies at MIT.

  • On Modernism

    The Prospects for Literature and Freedom

    Louis Kampf

    This book will be challenged and attacked, both because it runs against some current clichés-the death of God, mass culture, and the impact of technology upon society-and because the author does not conceal his hostility toward camp, happenings, the absurd, and other modish goings-on. But the controversy will be, for once, healthy. For part of the unusual quality of this book is its combination of serious analysis and moral forthrightness-an unaccustomed marriage of late. Mr. Kampf has bypassed the narcissism of much literature on the modern temper and produced a work highly original and intellectually impeccable.

    What I should like to consider... may not resolve our collective identity crisis, but it may help us locate the sources of some of our difficulties. Here is the question I shall pose: What elements in the past made possible the present diversity of artistic styles and the corresponding diversity of the role played by artists and intellectuals?

    This book presents, essentially, a perceptive and engaging intellect coming to grips with certain currents of thought inherent in modern art, psychology, and philosophy. By deriving the modernism of these fields from dilemmas of rationalist and empiricist philosophy. Louis Kampf defines these currents and characterizes the cognitive and emotional understructure of the modern intellectual response to artistic and social problems.

    The extraordinary intellectual range of this undertaking is evident in the diversity of figures discussed: Bernini, Beckett, Hume, Rousseau, Gibbon, Rembrandt, and Proust-plus Marx, Freud, Descartes, and contemporary authors Robbe-Grillet, Doris Lessing, and Jack Gelber-to name a few. The book evaluates the permanence of modernism, examines the legacy of Cartesian doubt, discusses the relation between the intellectual and the power structure, analyzes transference as a literary mode, and, in conclusion, examines the problem of order in modern artistic expressions of reality.

    Mr. Kampf perceives that many traditional frames of thought are no longer applicable to the present state of the arts. As its task has become “to erupt into reality,” the art work's effect-and indeed that of any human proceeding-must be grounded in the “actuality of human contact.” For this to be accomplished, “instead of using the frame which tradition has established, of exploiting the state of mind and knowledge we bring to a work of art, the work of art must destroy these, and somehow [create in us] the capacity for perceiving its own method-or perceiving just what it is.”

    Existing feelings toward modernity will not be affirmed by this book. The general reader will be challenged rather than comforted. Students of literature, philosophy, psychology, or any phase of intellectual history will find it the most cogent of all expressions of modernism.

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