Modernism: On or About December 1910 Human Nature Changed

“On or about December 1910 human nature changed.” – Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay Mr Bennett and Mrs. Brown in 1924. “All human relations shifted,” Woolf continued, “and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” This intentionally provocative statement was hyperbolic in its pinpointing of a date, but in the evolution of Western culture, there indeed was a distinct change in thought, behaviour, and cultural production beginning in the late nineteenth century and coming to full fruition sometime around the Second World War. This change in art, technology, philosophy or human behaviour is generally called Modernism.

Modernism designates the broad literary and cultural movement that spanned all of the arts and even spilled into politics and philosophy, Like Romanticism, Modernism was highly varied in its manifestations between the arts and even within each art. Modernist art initially began in the late nineteenth century in Europe’s capitals, primarily London, Milan, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and especially Paris: it spread to the cities of the United States and South America after World War I.

Modernism’s roots are in the rapidly changing technology of the late nineteenth century and in the theories of such late nineteenth-century thinkers as Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche it influenced painting first (Impressionism and Cubism are forms of Modernism), but in the decade before World War such writers as Ezra Pound, Filippo Marinetti, James Joyce, and Guillaume Apollinaire translated the advances of the visual arts into literature. Such characteristically modernist techniques as stream of consciousness narration and allusiveness, by the late 1930s, spilled into popular writing and became standard.

The movement’s concerns were with the accelerating pace of society toward destruction and meaninglessness. In the late 1800s many of society’s certainties were undermined. While Marx demonstrated constructedness of the social class, Freud reduced human individuality to an animalistic sex drive, Darwin questioned the Biblical genesis of man Nietzsche argued that even the most deeply-held ethical principles were constructions. Modernist writers tried to reconcile with life and society after its traditional and philosophical foundations had been shaken. The movement “sifted through the shards of the past”, rummaging for values for the reconstruction of society.

Modernist writers attempted to come to terms with where humanity stood after its cornerstones had been pulverized. The movement sifted through the shards of the past looking for what was valuable and what could inspire of a new re construction society.

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  1. Frankfurt School and Critical Theory – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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