Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a unique endeavor in that it seeks to overthrow the artificial absolutes generally resorted to by pundits in discussions of modernity. For these absolutists, modernity represents either “good” – an exciting and challenging opportunity to advance and develop humanity – or “evil” – an unqualified destructive force, insatiable and inescapable. For Berman, who draws upon the works of great thinkers like Rousseau, Goethe, Marx, Dostoevsky, and more to lend weight to his argument, modernity is neither good nor evil, it is both at once. Unfortunately, Berman’s argument is confused and weakened by an inability to recognize that the “ancients” – or whatever those who lived before modernity should be called – too struggled with the vicissitudes of life. This leads him to overdramatize and overvalue the modern condition and to underplay the human condition.
Berman engages with Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and more, in an effort to bring modernity – too often abstract and intangible – into real and tangible focus. In Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, Evgeny, in the modern city of Petersburg, the lighthouse of modernity in Russia, is forced to come to terms with the unrealized promise of modernity when a flood rises and destroys much of the city, taking the life of his love and mocking all that technology could do to secure the city against nature. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in Notes from Underground, takes to the very modern Nevsky Prospect and hurls himself into the maelstrom. He is a man of action, painfully aware (for the first time) of his status as “a wriggling eel” (Berman, 224). But he is also able (again for the first time) to comprehend the possibility of asserting himself as more – as a human being. Now that he shares the street with his antagonist, the Underground Man notices that even he steps out of the way and becomes small when his superiors approach. This emboldens the Underground Man and makes him aware of his humanity.
In all of this, Berman certainly makes a strong case for the ephemeral and fickle nature of modern life – “to be modern,” he writes in his introduction, “is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” (Berman, 15). He waxes eloquent about the World’s Fairs that brought dazzling new works of architecture and technology – like Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace or Robert Moses’ New York revitalization– to adoring masses. He interprets Marx innovatively and lends us an understanding of the father of socialism as a “modernist humanist.” But Berman also examines the seedier side of modern life: he tells us of Napolean III and his architect, Haussman, who leveled vast swathes of Paris; of Robert Moses’ seemingly wanton destruction of Berman’s boyhood home in the post-World’s Fair era; of Faust’s insatiable appetite for development for the sake of development. This willingness to look at both the beautiful and the ugly of modernity set Berman apart as a serious scholar of the modern age. He does indeed convince his reader that, as Marx said in his Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air” in modernity.
But Marx – and, thus, Berman – seems to fall prey to a common pitfall in human consciousness. Just as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the late 1980s and early 1990s to be the “end of history” (it wasn’t), Berman and Marx both overplay the uniqueness of their particular historical moment. All that is solid certainly does seem to melt into air, but this is far from a modern phenomenon, and this can be highlighted by comparing Berman’s own pining for the loss of the Bronx with the reaction of the “still-feudal” villagers who, in a “draconic response to Gretchen’s sexual and spiritual deviation,” murder Faust’s lover after Faust deflowers her (Berman, 56, 59).
Berman is not so different from those villagers, even if he is certain that they are far from modern. Since “all that is solid melts into air” for both Berman and the villagers, we see that this condition is a human one rather than simply a modern one. If Gretchen’s “little world” is “unwilling or unable to develop along with its children,” so too is Berman unwilling: he spends pages and pages deploring the actions and legacy of Moses, his own Faust, who took the innocence of his Bronx for his own purposes, even if the purposes weren’t specifically malignant. Berman, whose disdain for the “ancients” is clear in his word choice – “feudal… cellular… closed little worlds;” “draconic response” – would certainly not grant them the title “modern.” But they too are simply the victims of powers larger than themselves – Faust with the protection of Mephistopheles, Moses with the protection of the American government and his “public authorities” – who are doing the best they can to survive. The loss of Gretchen was a blow as serious to the community in her “little world” as the destruction of the Bronx was to Berman, and it is likely that both the villagers and Berman would do terrible things to their tormentors – Faust and Moses, respectively – if only they could get their hands on them. Of course Moses wreaks greater havoc in absolute terms – the technology available to him has changed the scale of his actions – but in relative terms Faust’s actions toward Gretchen were just as world-shattering for Goethe’s villagers. What is important is that the human response – outrage, sadness, confusion at everything that was once good seeming to vanish into the air – is the same. Such is the human condition.
And so Berman should scale outward. He struggles to understand that such actions as the destruction of the Bronx or the defloration of Gretchen are intrinsically tied to one another, and this leads Berman to dehumanize the villagers rather than recognize them as commiserators in the face of similar top-down impositions of modernity. There is great comfort to be had for Berman if he historicizes his misery and recognizes that modern men and women like him are not the only ones who have lost in the face of modernization. Berman does remarkably well at painting the modern age as one of dizzying speed, but his picture is a lonely one where it seems that it is Berman against Moses alone. He would do well to remember that all speeds and ages throughout the human experience have been, relatively speaking, dizzying, and many human beings have faced modernity, not only the moderns. We can certainly accept that “all that is solid melts into air,” but we cannot write off the “ancients.”
MA/PhD Student in History
Posted September 2014