Literary Modernism

Buy at Amazon Bradbury, Malcom and James McFarlane. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890–1930. Penguin, 1976. ISBN: 9780140138320.

Many commentators have treated Modernism as a consequence of cultural catastrophe, a violent breach with the past in terms of both content and style; others have seen it as a logical development of what went before. Since a number of writers on this course consciously reflected the Modernist style, it may be useful if we know a little of what this might mean. See how many of the following features you can trace in the texts that follow:

Bradbury and McFarlane's introductory essay "Name and Nature of Modernism" speaks of "overwhelming dislocations, cataclysmic upheavals of culture, fundamental convulsions of the creative human spirit that seem to topple even the most solid and substantial of our beliefs and assumptions, leave great areas of the past in ruins, question an entire civilization or culture, and stimulate frenzied rebuilding" (pp. 19–20).

The word Modern is elusive and difficult of definition, and also very awkward for describing what is now a historical period. It covers a considerable multiplicity of styles. "The term has been used to cover a wide variety of movements subversive of the realist or the romantic impulse and disposed towards abstraction (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Symbolism, Imagism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Surrealism); but these are not...all movements of one kind, and some are radical reactions against others" (p. 23).

Bradbury and McFarlane see the unifying feature of the various branches of the Modernist enterprise as a case of manner rather than content whose distinguishing qualities are abstraction and highly conscious artifice, taking us behind familiar reality, breaking away from familiar functions of language and conventions of form. Definitions of "the real" are important because the common strand in modernist art is somehow to become independent of it or to transcend it. Qualities include:

  • sophistication
  • mannerism
  • introversion (i.e. intense self-absorption on the part of the writer)
  • technical display

Its characteristic forms are:

  • anti-representationalism in painting
  • atonalism in music
  • verse libre in poetry
  • stream-of-consciousness narrative in the novel. 
  • a sensing of, an exploitation of, a celebration of, cultural disaster, an "immense panorama of futility and anarchy" (p. 27).

Bradbury and Mcfarlane identify amongst the leading Modernist writers Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Proust, Valery, Gide, Mann, Rilke, Kafka, and Virginia Woolf. Dating is problematic but most accounts concentrate on the first thirty or so years of the 20th century, seeing Modernism's "annus mirabilis" as 1922, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land, of Brecht's Baal, of Lawrence's Aaron's Rod, Woolf's Jacob's Room, Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe, and Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. Nihilism, alienation, and angst are generally seen as the classic attributes of Modernist writers and Modernist artworks. A reaction against 19th-century Positivism introduced a corresponding interest in irrational and unconscious forces in thinkers like Sorel, Bergson, and Pareto.

Modernism in most countries was an extraordinary compound of the futuristic and the nihilistic, the revolutionary and the conservative [the politics of some leading Modernist artists was extremely reactionary], the naturalistic and the symbolistic, the romantic and the classical. It was a celebration of a technological age and a condemnation of it... in most countries the fermenting decade was the eighteen nineties. (p. 46)

Richard Sheppard's essay, "German Expressionism", pp. 274–291, traces its foundation to the second decade of the 20th century. Destructive in intent, and directed against the comfortable certainties of bourgeois platitude in art: "conviction that the institutions of industrial capitalism were maiming and distorting human nature by developing the intellect and the will in the service of material production and neglecting the spirit, feelings and imagination...Paul Fechter [writing in 1920 in Der Expressionismus] spoke about'the shift of emphasis from inner to outer matters is victorious all along the line'" (p. 276). In his essay "Dada and Surrealism", pp. 292–308, Robert Short says of this group "..they disputed whether, in the light of new knowledge about man's psychology and the nature of the universe which was his environment, the production of works of art or literature was any longer feasible, morally justifiable or socially worthwhile" (p. 301).

"The Language of Modernist Fiction: Metaphor and Metonymy" by David Lodge, pp. 481–496, itemises the qualities which mark modernist writing:

First, it is experimental or innovatory in form, exhibiting marked deviations from existing modes of discourse, literary and non-literary. Next, it is much concerned with consciousness, and also with the subconscious or unconscious workings of the human mind...Lastly, modern fiction eschews the straight chronological ordering of its material, and the use of a reliable, omniscient and intrusive narrator. It employs, instead, either a single, limited point of view, or multiple viewpoints, all more or less limited and fallible; and it tends toward a complex or fluid handling of time, involving much cross-reference back and forward across the temporal span of the action. (p. 482)