Question: Write a short note on Modernism with special reference to Literature Almost every generation of society has a habit of reacting against the past by declaring itself “modern. ” This quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns is a cyclical phenomenon. Modernism was a similar trend that spanned all of the arts and even spilled into politics and philosophy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Anyone who looks at the evolution of western culture must note a distinct change in thought, behavior and culutural production during this time. This change is known as Modernism.
During the course of this essay, I will attempt to discuss briefly the origins of the Modernist movement. Further, I will analyse one of the primary manifestations of the modernist aesthetic, Literature. Lastly , I wish to identify stylistic and thematic traits of the movement as well as probe representative works such as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to demonstrate the same. During the late nineteenth century many of Society’s cornerstones were broken. Scientific discoveries such as those of the X-Ray had egalitarian effects on society.
Everyone was “intriniscally” made of the same structure, and things that society held value for such as beauty and grace were revealed as purely superficial. The virtuous maiden and the evil witch were the same. Darwin provided evidence that the Bible may not be true and that Humans actually descended from apes and were not simply “created by God”. The time also saw the rise of Psychoanalytical practice with Freud postulating theories such as the Oedipus complex, where the earlier “innocent and naive child” was portrayed as an incestuous being. The advent of the First World War, exposed the sheer brutal nature of man.
All these demonstrated how slowly and steadly society was moving in to a state of “meaninglessness”. A new structure was needed and it manifested itself into the “Modern”. The movement was characterised by a rejection of earlier customs and practices of representation. There was a thirst to find a new avenue within the same medium of literature or art. The need to express things that were “new” in ways that were also “new” was the primary ethos of the change. Sub Movements in art such as Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism etc. which all were influenced greatly by science and technology.
The stress was to reveal and expose the inner reality rather than the external. Modernist writers sought to leave the traditions of nineteenth-century literature behind in terms of form, content, and expression. They realized that a new industrial age—full of machines, buildings, and technology—had ushered out rural living forever. In its heyday, Modernism did not exist. That is to say, the word Modernism did not have the meaning that it has today. Modernism referred to technology, to an openness to the new commercially-driven society that was coming about, and to changes in Catholic theology.
The literary themes and concerns and stylistic innovations that today are called modernist belonged, in their time, to dozens of different writers who lived in different places, spoke different languages, were members of different groups, and very often were hostile toward each other and their work. It was only later in the twentieth century, years after the movement ended, that the term Modernism came to designate a group of writers preoccupied with alienation and the destruction of old certainties. If there is one undisputed attribute of the modernist temper, it is self-consciousness.
Even quarrels over the merits of that temper fall into agreement here: self-consciousness—in such guises as the mirror, shadow, multiple selves, self-reflecting thought, an anxious pause between sensation and expression, shuffling feet, or quickly averted eyes—marks every work of the modernist imagination. Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness conforms to form but not style. He consciously “distances” himself from the reader, by creating multiple layers of narrative between the narrator and the implied author. Such techniques blur the lines of interpretation and hence the novel is the reader’s to understand, and not the author’s to explain.
This is a huge shift from Victorian novel writing that often dictates to the reader how the novel should be understood. For example, Jane Austen often spoke directly to the reader (“Dear reader…”). Though Conrad was writing about his own experiences in Africa, he creates an avenue for multiple perspectives through the presence of his multiple narratives. According to B. Haxley, Conrad introduces “ complex ambiguity” in order to “…give incentive to ideologically polar perspectives”. Heart of Darkness paved the way between Victorian values and Modernist ideals.
The concepts of “home” and “civilization” are hypocritical ideas that are simply meaningless to the men struggling for survival. The threats Conrad’s characters face are genuine but never really are developed to fruition. Heart of Darkness demonstrates the typical theme of Modernism- that of alienation and confusion. All these cast “profound doubt” on the main theme of the novel- the Imperial project, further shattering beliefs and perspectives common to the age. Virginia Woolf portrays her characters as “thinking individuals”, emphasizing the unconscious rather than the external material world.
The plot is not sequential, but more about a group of incidents (related or unrelated) and their effect on the individual. For example, In Mrs. Dalloway Woolf uses the ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing. In the novel, Clarissa is arranging a party for her husband. Woolf however creates psychological binaries in her characters. Clarissa is also regretting her rejection of Peter Walsh before her marriage to Richard Dalloway. So on one level she is conforming to the patriarchal framework and fulfilling her duties as a good wife, and on another level she is in love with someone else.
This confusion creates a characteristic ‘modern’ binary that leaves the reader wondering who is the “real Clarissa”? Eliot too, uses the “stream of consciousness” technique in his poetry. In his landmark poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot follows the thoughts of Prufrock, a man lamenting his life’s inertia. Eliot’s poetics also dictate that a piece of writing is only of any worth when it has “historical sense”. Eliot strongly believed that one should be heavily influenced by the past and not merely seek to imitate it, but add new meaning to it.
The epigraph of Prufrock and other observations is taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy and is dedicated to his friend Jean Verdenal. The epigraph is a dialogue of praise between two spirits, Statius and Virgil. In a sense, Eliot is creating a spirit persona for himself, though he was not yet dead. In this way, he creates an “impersonal identity”. At the same time he gives “new meaning” to Dante. All these demonstrate how Eliot embodied the true meaning of the Modern as one understands it today. In conclusion , I belive that Modernism should not be viewed in isolation of the conditions that caused its presence.
All the sociological, scientific, and hisotrical events that led up to the movement are important to understand when one truly places each modernist writer in their respective “historical” senses. It became impossible to identify one single truth. Like Blake, who didn’t believe in a “one single truth” and believed in the presence of Binaries, the age too was set in a similar confusion. To understand this particular movement one needs to appreciate that it was not only a shift in society and vis a vis representation of art, but also on a much deeper level, a shift in the understanding of the meaning of art itself.