All That is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman
Growing up in the latter part of the 20th century, it was impossible to ignore the changes going on in society around me. The old towns around me were being torn down and developed into brutalist and modernist concrete blocks; the shops were full of shiny consumer goods available to all; standards were changing; and new technology was dawning starting off with simple things like domestic cassette recorders and pocket calculators. I’ve consequently always had a nostalgic fondness for 1960s architecture and furniture, and this was one of the things that first attracted me to Berman’s book (along with the fact that it had long sections on Russian writers!). However, a read of this large and fascinating tome makes it quite clear that modernism is not something that began recently….
As Wikipedia tells us: Marshall Berman (November 24, 1940 – September 11, 2013) was an American philosopher and Marxist Humanist writer. He was a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The City College of New York and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, teaching Political Philosophy and Urbanism. His book, subtitled “The Experience of Modernity”, defines the modern age as having started when human beings made the transition from a feudal, rural kind of living to an urban, mechanical style and he uses the text “Faust” by Goethe to exemplify this change. The book goes on to travel through a wide-ranging series of works, discussing and debating the human experience of living in, and coping with, the modern world and all its conflicts. Berman covers texts by Baudelaire and Marx; Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Bely; and the late 20th century experience of living in New York during rapid and often brutal redevelopment.
It’s a breathtaking and audacious study, and quite amazing to read. Even if you haven’t read all the works Berman discusses, you can still understand the points he’s making. “Faust” for example is a story I know the basic plot of, but I’ve never read the full book. According to Berman, this is where modernisation begins, with Faust himself being the first large-scale developer, building huge cities and trampling all in his way. Cities and their boulevards become a crucial element in modern life, with the public space changing the ways humans interact with each other (a fact recognised by Baudelaire) And the section on Petersburg is inspirational, reflecting Russia’s attempts to engage with the rest of the modern world, dragging a hopelessly feudal and serf-bound society towards a way of living it couldn’t really comprehend.
By the end of the book, in the sections about the wholesale development and destruction of parts of New York during the 20th century, Berman has come full circle; we are once again witnessing the kind of large-scale push for progress that Goethe’s Faust was aiming for, and it seems that in our desperation for change and modernity, it is the little people and their human needs who will be swept aside. There is a dichotomy here, as Berman recognises, and even all this time after his book was written I’m not sure we have solved the problems.
“All that is Solid…” was first published in 1982 and has had something of a cult following since; Verso brough out this edition in 2010 and the book has had a new lease of life . Although some aspects are dated the basic premise, and the discussions of the dilemmas facing us, have not really changed (although he could not have foreseen the technological world with all its modern trappings that we are having to cope with and the political and social systems in which the individual is the least important thing).
In many ways the final section of the book, the New York portion, is the least successful; Berman moves from focusing on a literary/historical interpretation of the past to a much more personal response to the modernist developments of his lifetime. The focus has changed, and the arguments are a little harder to follow because of the author’s emotions about the destruction of the neighbourhood in which he grew up, all in the name of progress. The parallels with Faust are clear, but his narrative seems to have diffused a little. Nevertheless, it’s still a fascinating read, particularly with the perspective we now have of the decades that have passed since Berman wrote this book.
However, the part of the book I found really enlightening was the discussion of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground”, particularly in relation to his views of the ‘Crystal Palace’. I’d often wondered quite why the Underground Man was so against a glass structure in London, but Berman puts the whole thing into context; explaining how Dostoevsky (and many other writers, in particular Chernyshevsky) had visited London and seen the Palace, and how it symbolised the progress of the West, with which Russia was unable to keep pace. Chernyshevsky had lauded the Crystal Palace, and it was this with which Dostoevsky had a quarrel (and indeed which Zamyatin satirised in parts of “We”). This section alone was worth reading the book for, and although I didn’t always agree with Berman’s take on things, it was always entertaining.
It’s pretty much impossible to go into the detail that this book deserves in a blog post, as there are numerous complex and intriguing arguments on display which I think could occupy many happy evenings of discussion. However, if you’re at all interested in how we got from a feudal world to a highly mechanised one, or in the works of art that reflect that change, this is definitely a book you want to pick up!