Although the modern has been with us since the end of antiquity, it has, at least until recently, always avoided becoming antique. As early as the 17th century, some were arguing that by virtue of longevity, the moderns must already be more ancient than the ancients themselves; but unlike the true ancients, who remained trapped in undying senility, the moderns seemed to have the secret of eternal youth, and for another three centuries they grew younger as their predecessors aged. Of course, such blessings are mixed, and the modern was fated to anonymity: being merely the veil of a present awaiting its apocalypse, modernity served to conceal identity and not to claim it, and the 'modern' would always eventually be revealed as something else the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque. The pattern might have been expected to continue indefinitely, and yet it has not, for with the appearance of the oxymoronic prefix 'post-', modernity has been exiled from the future and consigned, perhaps irrevocably, to history. In return, modernity has gained the right to use its own name, and so the modern, like the man in the iron mask, is now remembered for, and not through, its disguise.
LRB 14 May 1992 | PDF Download