Literary Modernism

       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 upheaval.

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 god’s creation.

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."