For Jed Rasula, in History of a Shiver, all the modernist arts are post-Wagnerian. Modernist artists, in Rasula’s terms, long for an art that could be as abstract as music, in which an illusion of insight is gained, but we can never know what that insight is. This ambitious book professes to be about “melomania,” an excessive love of music, as manifested across multiple modernist art forms. Yet it is about much more. At its heart, the book poses one of modernism’s great conundrums: why did modernist art, across many of its forms, veer, in the pre– and post–Second World War years, toward abstraction? By focusing on how many of the modernist arts aimed for the condition of music, Rasula, in this wide-ranging and suggestive critical work, links somatic experience, a sense of spirituality, and the impulse to abstraction which, for him, characterize...

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