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Literary modernism began in France, then spread to England, America, and finally back to Europe. Although many critics trace its origins as far back as the 1890s and its "death" as late as 1939, scholars generally agree that modernism peaked during the years 1910-1925.

Identifying where and when modernism occurred is easier than defining precisely what it was. Part of the difficulty, as we have seen in earlier chapters, involves the term "modern," for almost every literary period from the eighteenth century considered its works "modern" in relation to those from preceding eras. Another problem, as many critics have noted, is that modernism appears to constitute a cluster of separate movements, such as symbolism and imagism, rather than a unified approach to literature. Finally, modern authors themselves seem more distinguished by their differences than by their similarities.

Yet, while the novels of Marcel Proust differ strikingly in subject matter and tone from those of Franz Kafka, and the poetry of William Butler Yeats sharply contrasts with that of T. S. Eliot, several crucial characteristics remain common to the moderns and entitle them to be grouped together in a cultural revolution that was as wide-ranging and significant as the Renaissance. However, before discussing those characteristics, some understanding of early twentieth-century life will be helpful.

Historical, Social, and Scientific Background

The first decades of the twentieth century witnessed upheavals in long-established political, social, economic, and religious patterns, with the result that the stability of nineteenth-century life was shattered beyond recall. World War I, with its gas and trench warfare, gave lie to the idea of progress that had seemed an inevitable heritage of the European Enlightenment. Instead, the war disillusioned an entire generation brought up on the notion that it was sweet and honorable to die for one's country.(1) While the erosion of a clearly defined class structure in a country like England undermined confidence in a stable social order, the Russian Revolution (1917) brought catastrophic change to Central and Eastern Europe. In America, the stock market crash of 1929 with its resulting world-wide financial Depression challenged the faith in traditional economic authority. Finally, the weakening hold of religion set people adrift in a morally ambiguous and frightening universe.

While bringing enormous benefits, technology and urban development also contributed to an increasingly impersonal environment. Cities grew larger -- by 1910 the populations of London and New York each numbered five million -- and their burgeoning size diminished the sense of security and community. As in the Renaissance, scientific advances revealed a universe that was both exciting and terrifying. Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1905) and Ernest Rutherford's Theory of the Atom (1911) formulated new ideas that shocked because they contradicted long held beliefs about the movement and stability of matter. Thus, the physical universe seemed to be falling apart as fast as the social and political one. This, then, was the changing world in which the cultural revolution known as modernism erupted.

Modernism and the Rebellion Against the Past

Modernism reflected the tumult of this world in various ways. On one level, the movement rebelled against the artistic past. In painting, this rebellion took the form of a complete abdication of what, until then, had preoccupied most artists in the post-medieval West -- the imitation of external reality. As if by prior agreement, modern artists of all nations and types deliberately chose not to reproduce reality or copy from nature, perhaps because photography could do so in a much more faithful way. Indeed, artists distorted natural forms and even rejected the principle of single perspective that had prevailed since the days of Michelangelo. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso embodied these new ideas to perfection. Moreover, the work's semi-abstract, fractured human bodies and use of multiple points of perspective within a single canvas seemed, like so much of modern art, purposely designed to shock the sensibilities of the public.

In music, composers rejected what, until the end of the nineteenth century, had been the basis of all Western music -- the chromatic scale and the dominant concept of consonance or harmonious sounds. Instead, the new music often abandoned tonality altogether. It substituted a mingling of discordant sounds (dissonance) and even included non-musical sounds such as those of fire engines as well as artificially produced ones such as electronically synthesized music. The work of Edgard Varèse, among others, provides a showcase of these modernist principles.

Modernism and the Reevaluation of the Distant Past

On the other hand, a renewed interest emerged in the far reaches of the human past, specifically in the areas of myth and ancient cultures. Picasso's Demoiselles reflects this trend too; the woman on the left stands with one foot forward, the typical position in ancient Egyptian art. Other figures have mask-like faces, remarkably similar to the African masks that several of Picasso's friends had acquired by 1906. Efforts to identify any one actual mask as a specific influence for the Demoiselles d'Avignon suggest that no single work that Picasso saw directly caused him to change his technique in mid-stream. Rather, the African artists' conceptual art, which made no effort to reproduce an exact lifelike image but distilled the concept of a face in almost abstract terms, reinforced the modernists in their experimentation with form. Picasso himself likened his affinity for African art, with its sophisticated abstraction of human form, to Renaissance artists' interest in Greco-Roman classicism, with its glorification of natural human form.(2)

In music, a fascination with primitive myth contributed to the dissonant tones favored by composers such as Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). In Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), Stravinsky imagines in music the pagan rituals of ancient Russia. The Rite of Spring culminates in the community's choice of a virgin who must dance herself to death to propitiate the god of spring, whose advent anxiously is awaited in the ice-bound north (compare the Dionysian fertility rites of ancient Greece described in the Classical Drama section). With its pulsating rhythms and unharmonious sounds, the first performance of The Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris on the night of May 29, 1913.

Literature, too, both embraced and abandoned the past, and like art and music, found myth a fertile ground for inspiration, thanks in large part to works like Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890-1914), an immensely influential anthropological study. Writers such as William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and William Faulkner, to name just a few, used myth both as subject matter and structure for their works. Many of Yeats's best poems derive from Irish legend ("Who Goes With Fergus") or classical myth ("Leda and the Swan"). Eliot too used myth, most notably in The Waste Land (1922). Having read Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance (1920), Eliot was struck by the Arthurian story of a sterile fisher king whose lands are symbolically barren. Seizing upon this ancient myth, Eliot saw how the legend could embody his thoughts and feelings about the present. Moreover, it was Eliot who perceived the general purpose that myth served in modern literature. Writing about James Joyce's novel Ulysses (1922), based on the adventures of Homer's legendary hero in the Odyssey, Eliot observed that myth enabled a writer to give "a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."

Some Characteristic Features of Literary Modernism

Characterization and the Hero

For all their interest in ancient myth and ritual, however, modern writers broke with the literary past in more ways than they tried to preserve it. The symbolist movement, as we have seen in the Nineteenth-Century Prose Narrative section, foreshadowed modernism's interest in a deeper than surface reality. Part of that new, deeper reality involved a change in the portrayal of literary characters. Suddenly authors became aware that, in the words of novelist Virginia Woolf, "In or about December, 1910, human character changed." Woolf's precise date could refer to two key events that, in her mind at least, signalled the end of one age and the start of another -- the death of England's King Edward VII and the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London. Though Woolf exaggerated -- human character itself had not changed -- people's knowledge of it had. Thanks in large part to the tireless documentation by Sigmund Freud of the power of the unconscious and of human sexuality, writers realized that the human personality, far from being a rational and comprehensible whole, was infinitely more complex than previously imagined. Consequently, the nineteenth century's tendency to define character by means of historical and social contexts was no longer adequate; newer, subtler techniques had to be developed to capture the irrational, unpredictable, darker side of human nature.

One such technique was the "stream of consciousness" device in which a character's thoughts are reproduced as they presumably occur, not in full sentences or in any logical sequence, but according to an associative process that depends on the conscious or unconscious connections made by each individual's mind. This device was used extensively by such authors as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in Europe, and by William Faulkner in America. The first page and a half of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist (1916) employs this technique to particularly good advantage. Here, young Stephen Dedalus describes his world in a seemingly random, disjointed prose that is actually logical and coherent once the reader recognizes that it focuses, in part, on the child's five senses and what they tell him.

In addition to abandoning a traditional concept of characterization, modernism also abandoned one of the most fundamental, but also problematic, types of character -- the hero. What constitutes heroism has always aroused debate, but the typical protagonists of modernism, having lost faith in society, religion, and the surrounding environment, seem also to have lost any claim to heroic action or stature. Indeed, faced with a terrifying and possibly meaningless world, leading characters either fear to act, having concluded that action itself is pointless, or like Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, the "hero" of The Metamorphosis (1915), or Joseph K., of The Trial (1925), cannot act in a universe that has entrapped them. Given this alienation from society, modern heroism seems often to be reduced to the heroism of becoming aware that in this new age, heroic or successful action is not only unattainable, but also perhaps undesirable.

Plot and Chronology

If heroism became a literary impossibility for many modern writers, so did the conventional way of telling a story from beginning to end; in the process, the modernists rejected traditional notions of plot and time. The nineteenth century saw time as comprising three distinct stages -- past, present and future -- through which an orderly progression of events evolves. Such a view of time produced, by necessity, a literature that focused on the major events in the life of a character and showed a rational, cause-effect relationship between those events and the character's development. By contradicting these traditional assumptions, modern authors produced an entirely different type of literature. This impulse may be traced, in part at least, to a non-literary source, the theories of the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941). In his influential study, Time and Free Will (1922), Bergson reasoned that time is not a series of logically sequential or separate stages. Rather, time is a continuous, uninterruptible flux or stream, with past, present and future simultaneously present in and indistinguishable from each other. Or, as T. S. Eliot would later write in Four Quartets (1943):

Time present and time past
Are both present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Theoretically, then, always starting a story at the beginning became irrelevant, even misleading, because, in a sense, there was no real beginning. Freed from the tyranny of time, modern writers felt justified in dislocating normal narrative chronology through flashbacks, repetitions, or even by omitting transitions entirely. This dislocation, they believed, could more truly reflect reality than a narrative structure based on the artificial Aristotelian divisions of beginning, middle, and end.

Furthermore, the idea of time as flux implicitly challenges the practice of focusing on major events in a character's life. In a temporal stream, any occurrence, even the most trivial or mundane, possesses importance and is capable of revealing much about a person or the true nature of reality. This new attention to life's isolated, commonplace moments perhaps explains the great interest of modern novelists in the short story. Writers such as James Joyce (1882-1941), Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), William Faulkner (1897-1962), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) achieved considerable success with this literary form.

The breakdown of narrative sequence in fiction was duplicated in poetry by similar changes in poetic syntax. Gone were the logical and rhetorical connectives of nineteenth-century poetry, gone were the long fluid verse paragraphs of a poem like "Tintern Abbey" which (if read superficially) read like prose. Instead, a general fragmentation in content and style appeared, along with abrupt changes in subject matter and tone, allusions to unfamiliar authors and works, and rhymes that seemed to have no relationship to their poetic context: "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo."(3) Clearly, in using these stylistic techniques of altered time schemes, complex, alienated characters, and fragmented syntax, writers were attempting to reflect the uncertain, frightening nature of modern life. At the same time, this very emphasis on style was an effort to, in the words of Samuel Beckett, "find a form for the chaos" surrounding humanity. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," says the speaker in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but his voice could be that of almost any modern author.

The Alienated Author, the Active Reader

The rejection of traditional literary techniques and the adoption of new ones created new roles for both writer and reader. Authors, like artists and composers, became part of a culturally advanced group known as the avant-garde which, for the first time, set itself aside as an elite class, the precursor of artistic trends. This group disdained responsibility to its audience in favor of a total loyalty to the work of art. The split between author and audience owed much to the experimental nature of the artist's work on the one hand and to society's inability to adjust to the radically new style of modernism on the other. As the writer's alienation from his own society increased, the only solution in many cases seemed to be that of Stephen Dedalus -- exile. Indeed, one could almost say that the hallmark of a modern writer was his inability to live in his own country and his affinity for a foreign one. Henrik Ibsen, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett all left their native lands for one more hospitable to their art. Of those who did not, or could not leave, many, like Franz Kafka, felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Changes in the style of modern literature also affected the reader. Confronted with fragmented chronology and syntax, the reader's task became in a sense, to reassemble the story or poem, to understand not only in what order the events actually occurred, but also why the author chose this particular arrangement of events or words. Thus, form acquired its own significance, and now part of the act of reading was to discover that significance. Such a task, not easy to accomplish in any time, was made all the more difficult by the fact that modern literature, like modern art, had severed its connection to the external world for a deeper examination of the internal human world, to the subjective sense of time, the unconscious self, the fragmented thoughts and language that each one of us carries within ourselves. Consequently, novels, poems, and plays became self-referential. As we have seen, Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author blurs the distinction between art and life by containing two sets of characters, characters who are actors and actors who are characters. Their confrontation produced the same effect as that of two mirrors placed to reflect each other; one cannot tell what is real and what is merely an image of reality. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot revolves around its own axis, with Act II duplicating Act I. The last sentence of the centerpiece of modernist fiction, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (1939), leads directly into its first. Thus, modernist literature becomes a closed system, its own object and its own subject.


(1) A translation of the Latin phrase,"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," the first three words of which serve as the title of a poem written during the First World War by Wilfred Owen, who was killed in battle only days before the war's end.

(2) See William Rubin, "Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction," "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art, Vol. I (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984), p. 24.

(3) A refrain from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot.