Modernism: Literature between the Wars

In 1924, Virginia Woolf wrote, “On or about December 1910 human nature changed. All human relations shifted, and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.” It was an era of turbulence, socio-political changes and the beginning of a new world order in global politics and word order in literature and arts.

author_portraits.jpgModernism thus designates a broad literary and cultural movement that spanned all of the arts and even spilled into politics and philosophy. It was the fear of an impending war that dominated the first decades of the 20th century.

The publication of Origin of Species in 1859 marked the erosion of religious belief simultaneous with the rise of new technologies. The foundations of Christianity were shaken and Nietzsche made his controversial statement, “God is dead, we have killed him”.

A change over from an agrarian society to the industrial resulted in the destabilization of moral values resulting in a state of acute identity crisis depicted in “the heap of broken images” in The Waste Land. Modernism marks a break in the Renaissance tradition of Humanism and rejects the centrality of the human subject/author, the notion of a permanent reality, and the belief in the perennial significance and meanings of the literary text established with the invention of printing.

The main point of contention in the Modernist framework was the technique of realism which can be traced back to The Canterbury Tales and practised by Da Vinci and Michelangelo in artRenaissance entailed geographical explorations inaugurating colonial projects. Modernism is simultaneous with the material progress and industrial mechanization that colonialism promised the Third Word. The flowering of the human spirit in the Renaissance led to the assertion of Reason in the 17th century. Reason, finding its fullest expression in the philosophy of Descartes, which legitimized the Eurocentrism of colonialism, was the founding principle of the age of Enlightenment in the 16th century. Modernism consistently rejected the ideals of objectivity, rationality and unity.

Modernism was also in opposition to the romantic approach to art. The rigid classical perceptions on art and life were undermined in the late 18th century with the ideals of the French Revolution, discovery of Shakespeare, industrial progress, revival of the Gothic traditions and through the works of the transitional writers that paved the way for Romanticism. Romantic era endorsed the humanistic, realist and the essentialist in the insistence on the noble and essential values of simple rustic life and language. Western civilization took a drastic turn in the second half of the 19th century, when the belief in the essential reality was toppled, the value of the human being interrogated and the text destabilized.

This disorientation of European culture was reflected in the movements of Surrealism (Andre Breton, Salvador Dali), Impressionism (Monet), Imagism (Pound), Symbolism (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme), Cubism (Picasso), Expressionism (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch), Dadaism (Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp) etc. These artists questioned the tyranny of conventional forms, colours, rhythm and harmony and represented reality as plural and subjective, affirming that art which exists for its own sake will provide the unity that is lost in contemporary society.

Modernism emerged from this “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” that is rightly represented in Klee‘s painting The Angel of History. In literature, Modernism employed the techniques of Impressionism and subjectivity as exemplified in the stream of consciousness method against the conventional omniscient third person narrator. Modernist literature did not employ continuous narratives, fixed points of view and clear cut moral positions. It employed the technical qualities like paradox and ambiguity praised by the New Critics. Writers like ee cummings and TS Eliot wrote prosaic poetry while Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence wrote poetic prose.

Modernist writers highlighted self-reflexivity and self-consciousness employing fragmentation and collage as illustrated in The Waste Land. One of the major motifs of Modernist literature was myth which was employed in order to give shape and significance to the contemporary fragmented reality. Eliot employed the mythical method to accentuate the experiences of loss of fertility and death-in-life in the waste land which are tied together by the multiperspectival and mythical character Tiresias.

Like Yeats in his Byzantium poems, the lost spirituality can be revived from the ancient and oriental cultures. Fragmentary technique of The Waste Land is also employed by Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury in the multiple and ambiguous representation of the character Caddy. The “Unreal Cities” of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Dublin, London, Paris etc in Modernist literature represent the turmoiling. Metropolis formed as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and is the seat of alienation, darkness, rootlessness and disorientation as illustrated in Chaplin’s Modern Times. The Modernist individual is caught in an existential angst, devoid of dignity, purpose, value and meaning reminiscent of a Beckettian void and Kafkaesque claustrophobia manifest in Lucky, Pozzo and Gregor Samsa.

Modernist fiction vindicated colonial ideology to a large extent. It involved a lament for the loss of a European centre. The novels of Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness and E M Forster A Passage to India offer ambiguous moral positions related to colonial issues. These novels illustrate Modernist features such as psychological profundity, denial of closure and poetic prose. DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man exemplify another Modernist motif — that of the artist protagonist escaping the shackles of conventional existence in search of self realization. While Stephen Dedalus evokes the spirit of the mythical Greek sculptor and in a series of epiphanies fulfills his desire to fly away and escape, Paul Morel is trapped in psychologically intense and ambiguous relationships which he cannot transcend.

20cbrit.jpgVirginia Woolf took a resisting feminist stance against the mainstream male/ female Künstlerroman Mrs Dalloway and her critical essay A Room of One’s Own which examine how women are denied their creative existence. Woolf’s novels depicted the unbroken flow of thoughts, perceptions and feelings in the minds of the characters by perfecting the stream of consciousness technique. Other artists like Henry James and Dorothy Richardson made use of this technique which has its origins in the 19th century French writer Edouard Dujardin and even in Lawrence Sterne.

Modernist poetry employed the technique of condensation, especially in Imagism, and Symbolism, methods exemplified in the critical concepts like objective correlative and unification of sensibility. Modernist art and poetry was influenced by African art especially of the Harlem Renaissance for its fresh motives, simplicity and originality of expression. It resisted as Adomo and Greenberg put it, the element of kitsch — sentimental imitative art – and advocated the virtues of alienation, experimentation and Art for Art’s Sake such as seen in Anti-art movement and Jazz music. Modernism evolved into Postmodernism which is a continuation and break away from the modernist tradition. Both schools reject genre distinctions, emphasize parody, pastiche and reflexivity, and favour the decentred and dehumanized subject.dali.jpg

However while Modernism considers fragmentation tragic, postmodernism celebrates it. Modernism believed that unity and coherence are important and possible but Postmodernism belongs to the late capitalist phase which breeds insecurity and regards neither coherence nor unity important. Though modernism is a thoroughly European practice it has had its repercussions throughout world literatures.

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3 replies


  1. Postmodernism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  2. The Poetics of Modernism: Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  3. Understanding Postmodernism – Harsh Vardhan Maya

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