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This review is taken from PN Review 129, Volume 26 Number 1, September - October 1999.


In Farewell to India, the art historian Timothy Clark writes that modernism's tragic flaw or, if you prefer the Marxist, its internal contradiction, is that while it is obsessed with 'the beautiful as its ultimate commitment' yet the continual pursuit of that commitment on modernism's terms only reveals the beautiful as 'nothing but mechanism, nothing but matter dictating (dead) form'. Clark, who is something of a determinist, sees us as fated, Godot-like, to wait out modernism's manic utopianism, the boom and bust oscillation of ever failing dreams, in the hope that some form of utopia, however attenuated, will eventually arrive. Clark, who is not alone in this, sees modernism as omnivorous and fits all culture into his Procrustean schema. But is it possible, contra Clark, to reject or bypass modernism altogether? to find another way to beauty? to find a way to the human which avoids modernism's cold-steel deterministic mechanisms? Philip Levine has made this rejection his poetic project and his latest book The Mercy demonstrates the predicament of contemporary anti-modernism.

Modernism is the ideology of the winners. Levine has always been more interested in the people who are modernism's mute and invisible subjects, including history's losers. 'Photography 2' makes the point with Levine's characteristic directness:

                           When Charles Sheeler
came to Dearborn to take his famous photographs
of the great Rouge plant he caught some workers,
tiny little men, at a distance, dwarfed
under the weight of the tools they ...

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