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Literature Modernism Poetry Study Notes

Notes on the contexts of Modernism

Happy new year everyone. Today I have begun studying the period between 1870 & 1940 as part of my degree in English Language & Literature. The module I am part way through is entitled ‘Literature in Transition: from 1800 to the present’. The introduction to book 2 (entitled Movements: 1870-1940) of the module examines the contexts around what we think of as Modernist literature and art. As a precursor to some planned content examining Modernist literature over the coming year, I have decided to share my notes as I believe they serve as a useful primer to thoughts about this subject.

Unlike similar terms such as romanticism, Modernism is difficult to define and critics are in disagreement over its origins, significant features, and historical parameters. Key reference points for Modernism are three thinkers:

  • Karl Marx (1818-1883), whose economic theory of capital predicted the revolutionary overthrow of class hierarchy.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), whose philosophy questioned truth and the moral framework of Christianity.
  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who constructed a new model of the human subject through psychoanalysis.

Some of the stylistic aspects of Modernism can be traced back to nineteenth-century avant-garde writers like poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and critic Walter Pater (1839-1894).

High point of modernism occurred between 1910 and 1930. This was also a period in which European, and especially British, colonialism entered an aggressive ‘imperialist’ phase, initiated by the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. One effect of this was an awareness and interest in the art and cultures of colonised peoples.

Simultaneously, colonial rule began to be questioned and opposed during this period (ie. Ireland) and this generated politicised art such as Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (1907).

Artists and writers from the colonies also came to the ‘great European cities’, inflecting Modernism with their own unique perspectives.

We should keep in mind an awareness of contemporary art and literature which the term Modernism leaves out, such as Edwardian realism, New Women writers, the First World War poets, and the engaged political fictions of the 1930s.

Energies of Modernism are most evident, perhaps, within the various ‘movements’ which it nurtured:

  • Forms of Symbolism and Impressionism
  • Imagism
  • Vorticism
  • Cubism
  • Italian and Russian Futurism
  • Expressionism
  • Dadaism
  • Surrealism

An important ‘movement’ to consider is the Bloomsbury circle of writers associated with Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and E. M. Forster, which did not have a set artistic agenda, but did pioneer innovative stylistic and formal techniques in literature.

A common feature of Modernism is its proponents seeing art and literature as having revolutionary potential.  This period is distinctive in fostering radical political movements:

Anarchism and Syndicalism in Europe

Bolshevism in Russia

Fascism in Germany and Italy

Writers like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis readily adopted roles as political organisers, producing manifestos and seeing their art as a kind of challenge or attack on outmoded values and forms.

Right or Left wing, Modernist writers tended towards an equivocal or elitist stance in relation to the masses, even as they incorporated aspects of popular culture into their work. Alongside their formal experimentation, this elitism and ambivalent relation to the popular accounts for the self-conscious “difficulty” of many Modernist works.

A recurrent feature of Modernist writing is that it seeks to respond to a prevailing sense of crisis and fragmentation.

David Lodge notes that the Modernist novel rejects a linear ordering of narrative and does away with the overarching controlling feature of ‘a reliable, omniscient and intrusive narrator’. Instead we are often presented with a single limited viewpoint, or multiple different points of view, which are often incomplete, fallible or unreliable.

This may be seen as a symptom of Modernist literature’s concern with ‘the question of how to live within a new context of thought, or a  new worldview’, but it is also a formal experimental challenge to established novelistic convention and other norms within art and literature.

Modernist writing rebels against conventions (notably forms of nineteenth-century realism) and instead presents life in more subjective, abstract or impressionistic terms.

Modernist novels and poems seem to lack proper beginnings or endings, plunging the reader instead into a running narrative.

In place of a ‘constraining’ narrative structure, alternative devices such as symbol and myth would be used to order otherwise seemingly disjointed poetic or prose forms.

The decentred and fragmented characteristics of Modernist literature reflected contemporary ideas about subjectivity, perspective, and consciousness. Sigmund Freud had shown how the human mind was not the centre of a unified self, but was split and divided into a collection of drives and socially-learnt compulsions, trapped in uneasy existence.

Modernist writers like James Joyce experimented with forms of internal monologue and stream-of-consciousness (Ulysses, 1922). D. H. Lawrence developed a new sense of the primacy of sexuality, undoubtedly facilitated by Freuds ideas (which he was personally critical of).

The broken perspectives of modern art and literature, their shattered forms and odd viewpoints, were grimly appropriate to a generation which had been physically and psychologically shattered by the First World War.

Psychological disorientation however, could also be liberating. Movements like Dadaism and Surrealism used chance objects and contingent juxtapositions to create art which subverted societal and artistic norms, enabling new, creative avenues to the representation of experience.

Scientific advances, such as The Special Theory of Relativity (1905) postulated by Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the influence of philosophers such as Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and the dizzily accelerating machines and vehicles of the modern era meant that time had lost its linear predictability and its conventional progressive form.

In Modernist writing, time could be arrested or reversed, and the psychologism of many Modernist texts meant that forms of subjective time and memory could be exploited for literary effect. Just as how narratives could be reframed via the narrow subjective frame of a single consciousness, the manipulation of time (as the medium within which character development usually takes place) could also change characterisation.

For some writers, the new conceptual flexibility of time had further, far-reaching implications for the apprehension of history and the persistence of the cultural trace of the past on the present.

Writers expressing the modern condition as a catastrophic and/or liberating dissolution also attempted to collate some form of system or mythology to make sense of and compensate for a lost unity. Writers like T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats used myth and archetype to create a revelatory or divinatory system through which the world could be pieced back together through poetry. As Eliot stated at the end of The Waste Land (1922), which reworked classical fertility myths and the Christian Grail legend, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”.

Modernism sought to destroy and then remake the world. In this dangerous process its writers could never be sure of their cultural foundations. The intensity and excitement of Modernist literature derived from a tension between the desire to ‘make it new’ and an awareness that now the creative processes had no guiding forms and would have to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of a previous age.

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