Literary modernism  

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"In modernist literature, plot is secondary to philosophical introspection, and the prose can be winding and hard to follow." --Sholem Stein

"Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert are the most commonly cited figures in accounts of modernist literature's originating moment. Baudelaire for poetry, Flaubert for prose." --Sholem Stein

"The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand—and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as modernism. --John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, p. 16-17

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Literary modernism, or modernist literature, has its origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly in Europe and North America. Some philosophers, like Georg Lukacs, theorized that literary modernism had its origins in the philosophy of Walter Benjamin. Modernism is characterized by a self-conscious break with traditional styles of poetry and verse. Modernists experimented with literary form and expression, adhering to Ezra Pound's maxim to "Make it new". The modernist literary movement was driven by a conscious desire to overturn traditional modes of representation and express the new sensibilities of their time. The horrors of the First World War saw the prevailing assumptions about society reassessed. Thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx questioned the rationality of mankind.



In the 1880s, increased attention was given to the idea that it was necessary to push aside previous norms entirely, instead of merely revising past knowledge in light of contemporary techniques. The theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and Ernst Mach (1838–1916) influenced early Modernist literature. Mach argued that the mind had a fundamental structure, and that subjective experience was based on the interplay of parts of the mind in The Science of Mechanics (1883). Freud's first major work was Studies on Hysteria (with Josef Breuer) (1895). According to Freud, all subjective reality was based on the play of basic drives and instincts, through which the outside world was perceived. As a philosopher of science, Ernst Mach was a major influence on logical positivism, and through his criticism of Isaac Newton, a forerunner of Einstein's theory of relativity.

Many prior theories about epistemology argued that external and absolute reality could impress itself, as it were, on an individual, as, for example, John Locke's (1632–1704) empiricism, which saw the mind beginning as a tabula rasa, a blank slate (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690). Freud's description of subjective states, involving an unconscious mind full of primal impulses and counterbalancing self-imposed restrictions, was combined by Carl Jung (1875–1961) with the idea of the collective unconscious, which the conscious mind either fought or embraced. While Charles Darwin's work remade the Aristotelian concept of "man, the animal" in the public mind, Jung suggested that human impulses toward breaking social norms were not the product of childishness, or ignorance, but rather derived from the essential nature of the human animal.

Another major precursor of modernism was Friedrich Nietzsche, especially his idea that psychological drives, specifically the "will to power", were more important than facts, or things. Henri Bergson (1859–1941), on the other hand, emphasized the difference between scientific, clock time and the direct, subjective, human experience of time. His work on time and consciousness had a great influence, especially those modernists who used the stream of consciousness technique, such as Dorothy Richardson for the book Pointed Roofs (1915), James Joyce for Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) for Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Also important in Bergson's philosophy was the idea of élan vital, the life force. His philosophy also placed a high value on intuition, though without rejecting the importance of the intellect. These various thinkers were united by a distrust of Victorian positivism and certainty. Modernism as a literary movement can be seen also, as a reaction to industrialization, urbanization and new technologies.

Important literary precursors of Modernism were: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) (Crime and Punishment (1866), The Brothers Karamazov (1880)); Walt Whitman (1819–92) (Leaves of Grass) (1855–91); Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) (Les Fleurs du mal), Rimbaud (1854–91) (Illuminations, 1874); August Strindberg (1849–1912), especially his later plays, including, the trilogy To Damascus 1898–1901, A Dream Play (1902), The Ghost Sonata (1907).

Initially, some modernists fostered a utopian spirit, stimulated by innovations in anthropology, psychology, philosophy, political theory, physics and psychoanalysis. The poets of the Imagist movement, founded by Ezra Pound in 1912 as a new poetic style, gave Modernism its early start in the 20th century, and were characterized by a poetry that favoured a precision of imagery, brevity and Free verse. This idealism, however, ended, with the outbreak of World War I, and writers created more cynical works that reflected a prevailing sense of disillusionment. Many modernist writers also shared a mistrust of institutions of power such as government and religion, and rejected the notion of absolute truths. Modernist works such as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), were increasingly self-aware, introspective, and explored the darker aspects of human nature.

The term modernism covers a number of related, and overlapping, artistic and literary movements, including Imagism, Symbolism, Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, and Dada.

Early modernist writers

Early modernist writers, especially those writing after World War I and the disillusionment that followed, broke the implicit contract with the general public that artists were the reliable interpreters and representatives of mainstream ("bourgeois") culture and ideas, and, instead, developed unreliable narrators.

They also attempted to take into account changing ideas about reality developed by Darwin, Mach, Freud, Einstein, Nietzsche, Bergson and others. From this developed innovative literary techniques such as stream-of-consciousness, interior monologue, as well as the use of multiple points-of-view. This can reflect doubts about the philosophical basis of realism, or alternatively an expansion of our understanding of what is meant by realism. So that, for example the use of stream-of-consciousness, or interior monologue reflects the need for greater psychological realism.

It is debatable when the modernist literary movement began, though some have chosen 1910 as roughly marking the beginning and quote novelist Virginia Woolf, who declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change "on or about December 1910." But modernism was already stirring by 1902, with works such as Joseph Conrad's (1857–1924) Heart of Darkness, while Alfred Jarry's (1873–1907) absurdist play, Ubu Roi appeared even earlier, in 1896.

Among early modernist non-literary landmarks is the atonal ending of Arnold Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in 1908, the Expressionist paintings of Wassily Kandinsky starting in 1903 and culminating with his first abstract painting and the founding of the Expressionist Blue Rider group in Munich in 1911, the rise of fauvism, and the introduction of cubism from the studios of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and others between 1900 and 1910.

Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio is known as an early work of modernism for its plain-spoken prose style and emphasis on psychological insight into characters. Other early modernist writers and selected works include:

James Joyce was a major modernist writer whose strategies in his novel Ulysses (1922) for depicting the events in the life of his protagonist, Leopold Bloom, have come to epitomize modernism's approach to fiction. The poet T.S. Eliot described these qualities in 1923, noting that Joyce's technique is "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.... Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art." Eliot's own modernist poem The Waste Land (1922) mirrors "the futility and anarchy" in its own way, in its fragmented structure, and the absence of an obvious central, unifying narrative. This is in fact a rhetorical technique to convey the poem's theme: "The decay and fragmentation of Western Culture". The poem, despite the absence of a linear narrative, does have a structure: this is provided by both fertility symbolism derived from anthropology, and other elements such as the use of quotations and juxtaposition.

Modernist literature addressed similar aesthetic problems as contemporary Modernist art. Gertrude Stein's abstract writings, for example, have been compared to the fragmentary and multi-perspective Cubist paintings of her friend Pablo Picasso. The questioning spirit of modernism, as part of a necessary search for ways to make sense of a broken world, can also be seen in a different form in the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926). In this poem, MacDiarmid applies Eliot's techniques to respond to the question of nationalism, using comedic parody, in an optimistic (though no less hopeless) form of modernism in which the artist as "hero" seeks to embrace complexity and locate new meanings.

Continuation: 1920s and 1930s

Significant modernist works continued to be created in the 1920s and 1930s, including further novels by Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Robert Musil, and Dorothy Richardson. The American modernist dramatist Eugene O'Neill's career began in 1914, but his major works appeared in the 1920s and 1930s and early 1940s. Two other significant modernist dramatists writing in the 1920s and 1930s were Bertolt Brecht and Federico García Lorca. D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was published in 1928, while another important landmark for the history of the modern novel came with the publication of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in 1929. In the 1930s, in addition to further major works by Faulkner, Samuel Beckett published his first major work, the novel Murphy (1938), while in 1932 John Cowper Powys published A Glastonbury Romance, the same year as Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalker. One of greatest achievement in modernist poetry is then followed by Miroslav Krleža's Ballads of Petrica Kerempuh in 1936. Then in 1939 James Joyce's Finnegans Wake appeared. It was in this year that another Irish modernist, W. B. Yeats, died. In poetry T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and Wallace Stevens continued writing from the 1920s until the 1950s. While modernist poetry in English is often viewed as an American phenomenon, with leading exponents including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Louis Zukofsky, there were important British modernist poets, including David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid, Basil Bunting, and W. H. Auden. European modernist poets include Federico García Lorca, Anna Akhmatova, Constantine Cavafy, and Paul Valéry.

Modernist literature after 1939

Though The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature sees Modernism ending by c.1939, with regard to British and American literature, "When (if) Modernism petered out and postmodernism began has been contested almost as hotly as when the transition from Victorianism to Modernism occurred". Clement Greenberg sees Modernism ending in the 1930s, with the exception of the visual and performing arts. In fact, many literary modernists lived into the 1950s and 1960s, though generally speaking they were no longer producing major works.

Late Modernism

The term late modernism is sometimes applied to modernist works published after 1930. Among modernists (or late modernists) still publishing after 1945 were Wallace Stevens, Gottfried Benn, T. S. Eliot, Anna Akhmatova, William Faulkner, Dorothy Richardson, John Cowper Powys, and Ezra Pound. Basil Bunting, born in 1901, published his most important modernist poem Briggflatts in 1965. In addition Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil was published in 1945 and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus in 1947. Samuel Beckett, who died in 1989, has been described as a "later modernist". Beckett is a writer with roots in the expressionist tradition of modernism, who produced works from the 1930s until the 1980s, including Molloy (1951), En attendant Godot (1953), Happy Days (1961) and Rockaby (1981). The terms minimalist and post-modernist have also been applied to his later works. The poets Charles Olson (1910–1970) and J. H. Prynne (b. 1936) have been described as late modernists.

More recently the term late modernism has been redefined by at least one critic and used to refer to works written after 1945, rather than 1930. With this usage goes the idea that the ideology of modernism was significantly re-shaped by the events of World War II, especially the Holocaust and the dropping of the atom bomb.

Theatre of the Absurd

The term Theatre of the Absurd is applied to plays written by primarily European playwrights, that express the belief that human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down. Logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech and to its ultimate conclusion, silence. While there are significant precursors, including Alfred Jarry (1873–1907), the Theatre of the Absurd is generally seen as beginning in the 1950s with the plays of Samuel Beckett.

Critic Martin Esslin coined the term in his 1960 essay, "Theatre of the Absurd." He related these plays based on a broad theme of the Absurd, similar to the way Albert Camus uses the term in his 1942 essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus". The Absurd in these plays takes the form of man’s reaction to a world apparently without meaning, and/or man as a puppet controlled or menaced by invisible outside forces. Though the term is applied to a wide range of plays, some characteristics coincide in many of the plays: broad comedy, often similar to Vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism and the concept of the "well-made play".

Playwrights commonly associated with the Theatre of the Absurd include Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Eugène Ionesco (1909–1994), Jean Genet (1910–1986), Harold Pinter (1930–2008), Tom Stoppard (b. 1937), Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–1990), Alejandro Jodorowsky (b. 1929), Fernando Arrabal (b. 1932), Václav Havel (1936–2011) and Edward Albee (b. 1928).

Modernist writers

By region

See also

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