Modernism generally thought to
apply to the work of writers and artists who emerged about the time of WWI.
This historical element is important, as the horror and devastation of this
war caused thinkers to question any stable and meaningful, ordered existence.
Add to that the disorienting effect of such nineteenth century thinkers
as Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and these artists are prepared for
First a brief overview of literary “periodization.
Enlightenment, also known as Age of Reason.
Around 1650 to the time of the French Revolution (1789). Primacy of logic,
of science, of "cogito, ergo sum.” Encyclopedia and dictionary
projects. World exploration, and the attendant world conquest, use of slave
labor to exploit natural resource and satisfy markets, etc. Artists at this
time able to balance faith in god with belief in scientific progress. Look
at Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”
"All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, 'Whatever is, is right.'"
Or Sor Juna Ines de la Cruz, whose masterful “Reply” justifies
woman’s education and education in general as greater knowledge of
Romanticism—French Revolution to
the end of 19th century (overlaps with others, like realism).
Greater importance of passion over logic.
Greater importance of the individual man over the collective body (the
fact that the individual now elects national leaders gives him a great
primacy). First modern autobiography written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau,
who also wrote The Social Contract, kind of the theoretical underpinning
of democracy. Elements of romanticism—that man and his feelings
are important, and these can be found reflected in and as a reflection
of nature. The pastoral and the sublime.
Realism. 1850- present. Art as a reflection
of nature—hold the mirror up. Dissatisfied with the idealism present
in romanticism—both in its nature descriptions and its use of exalted
heroes in poetry and fiction. Begin to get more common men and women in
literature. An offshoot of this is naturalism, which imposes an almost
scientific rigor on the human motives and actions and particularly the
descriptions of the human body (in naturalism it is often diseased and
decrepit) an nature (we see the horsepiles teeming with maggots in the
mirror held up to nature).
Now we get to modernism—it becomes
aware that this mirror held up to nature can only capture the surface.
There is an awareness that there is much that lies under the surface—especially
with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), there are subconscious urges, dream states,
whole psychic realms unavailable to normal consciousness, etc. And it
is this that the artist attempts to portray.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his theory
of evolution, of natural selection, continues to challenge some people
whose faith resists the long gradual process of the development of man.
How much more radical he must have seemed when he first came into print.
Challenge mostly to a long-held belief in man’s primacy in the universe,
the means of creation of such a central being. The interconnectedness
of all things.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) challenges
the kinds of attributes of Christianity that he believes has the human
denying the fullest parts of his potential—attributes of meekness
and self denial that allow people to welcome suffering in expectation
of greater rewards in another life. Rails against “the herd.”
Sees much of this Christian ideology as in service to the powerful who
exploit the weak, the meek.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) challenges the religion
on capitalism along the same lines—as he sees the worker being exploited
in service of the rich and the powerful. Sees this exploitation as built
in to the very ideology of the capitalist system, and the system as a
very un-democratic institution.
Here is what occurs—a breakdown of
those vaunted institutions that once were the repository of meaning and
which assigned one their place in the world. The nation breaks down with
the depose of the king. The absolute authority of the church breaks down
under scientific and philosophical scrutiny. The past and its hierarchical
values (ancient Greece as the zenith of man’s artistic and political
development). Add to that the horrors of a WWI.
The solution—recreate meaning—a
structure of meaning, through the work of men. The greatest potential
for this is seen in the possibilities of art. So, by making something
absolutely new in art, civilization is offered a great gift, a new kind
of potentiality. We’ll see what some of this new world looks like
when we examine work by four European modernists and two Asian ones. We’ll
carry these modernists with us through the semester—as the influence
remains with writers to this day. Somewhere along the line, and perhaps
not until our August 1 reading, we’ll have some time to discuss
the response to modernism offered by post-modernism.Here is a quote from
Virginia Woolf’s 1919 essay “Modern Fiction” that gives
one idea of the rationale behind a different approach to writing, and
that shows that the idea of realism is insufficient to express everything
the writer wants to express:
"Examine for a moment an ordinary mind
on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic,
evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they
come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they
shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls
differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there;
so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write
what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own
feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no
tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps
not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it.
Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous
halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of
consciousness to the end."