Believed to have evolved from some time after 1860, Modernism is an ambiguous term representing a radical transition in how we see our human condition after Nietzsche proclaimed the death of the gods, leaving us fragile; abandoned, on our own, in a pitiless universe. The later part of the 19th century saw the rise of many “isms” including clericalism, Marxism, liberalism, socialism….. Two salient ones are covered below, Absurdism and Existentialism. The side-bar menu covers others.

John Borstlap in The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century writes:

To those whom modernism excluded, the movement seemed like a betrayal of the past. Tonality and tunefulness in music; the human image in painting; the pleasing dignity of metre and rhyme–even the homely comfort of a story well told–all these ways in which art had opened its arms to normal humanity were suddenly rejected, like a false embrace. To the modernists, however, the past was betrayed not by modernism but by popular culture. Tonal harmonies had been corrupted and banalized by popular music; figurative painting had been trumped by photography; rhyme and metre had become the stuff of Christmas cards, and the stories had been too often told. Everything out there, in the world of naive and unthinking people, was kitsch. Modernism was not an assault on the artistic tradition, but an attempt to rescue it. Such was the surprising thought expressed by Eliott and Schonberg, and their eloquence transformed the high culture of Europe.'

As the art historian Ernest Gombrich said in an interview in 1994:

“‘Objective assessments about art are not possible. In art there are debates, but objective arguments are not possible in that territory and on this point art is different from science. The reason for this is not that judgment in art would merely be a matter of taste, but because our experience of art is so closely intertwined with our culture and personal development.’ (Dutch newspaper NRC 28/10/94: ‘The unexpected is trivial’)

The Literature of the Absurd #

The Literature of the Absurd had its origins in Lewis Carroll - Alice In Wonderland. As we fall down the rabbit hole with Alice exploring different worlds, viewpoints and realities, we enter an absurd universe.

The 1865 novel by Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the pen-name Lewis Carroll, celebrates trickery in perception management. The magic of Lewis Carrol’s story has endured more than 100 years across cultures, embedding itself in our collective imaginations and psyches. Carroll foresaw how the curious, the absurd, can become routine and the human capacity to accept the impossible as normal.

It appears fabulists fall down a rabbit hole to that other Tea Party hosted by the Mad Hatter, where Humpty Dumpty patronisingly explains to Alice, a stubborn voice of reason, that the meaning of a word is simply determined by “who is to be master -, that is all”, following not Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” but Darwin’s “survival of the fittest. Where might is right”

Later Alice also learns from the White Queen, that with more effort and practice in these post-ironical, post - modern and post cynical times, “we can all be expected to dutifully believe six impossible things before breakfast”.

According to Steph Harmon, of The Guardian, It’s pretty remarkable that Alice has stood the test of time, as a continually evolving hero. She’s such a strong reflection of young women everywhere. She’s as smart as she is curious as she is courageous, as she’s totally cheeky. And there’s a kind of innocence in her as well that you see in your own kids. It demonstrates the strength and stubbornness of Alice.

“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.

“I won’t!” said Alice. “The more curious you are, the more you’ll find.”

However, as things become curiouser and curiouser, Alice yearns for “something to make sense around here” but finally concludes that “This is just a house of cards”.

The question remains, who are the jokers?

Theatre of the Absurd, notably following the first and second world wars reflects absurdity (that which has no purpose, meaning goal or objective) is the result of disillusionment with the rationalism, which attempted to justify the exploitation of the working class and poor, the affluence of the rich, the wanton yet condoned destructiveness of two world wars, and the unquestioned belief in evolution and progress. No longer can we accept a unanimous consensus of moral and social order.

The decline of religious faith, the destruction of the belief in automatic social and biological progress, the discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche, the loss of a sense of control over human development in an age of totalitarianism, and weapons of mass destruction and mass persuasion, have all eroded a sense of confidence in the future of the world. - The Theatre of the Absurd - Martin Esslin

Features of Modernism #

New weapons of mass destruction beginning with the slaughter of thousands of young men in futile senseless charges over the top, followed by the mass slaughter of WWII, especially the horror of the holocaust and Hiroshima. Language is incapable expressing unspeakable crimes. Words have spent their credibility. They are old, worn thin by too much usage and misusage. Language is no longer referential – not tied to reality. What is happening to humanity? Are we collapsing into a new form of barbarism? “The rest is silence”. Beckett has silence pouring into his plays as a sign of impotence.

The decay of religious faith — moral values. Nietzsche proclaiming the death of the gods means omniscient points of view in novels and the breaking up of structure of time in novels, ushering in stream of consciousness. We return to myth, image and metaphor in say just what we mean.

  • Predominance of naturalistic view of life and man.

  • Mechanisation of both external existence and individual personality. That’s what produces the modernist dissonance. It’s an exercise in syncopation, like a Cubist portrait. It perpetually wrong-foots you. Eliot thought that Stravinsky, in “The Rite of Spring,” had transformed “the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life.” He had taken something primitive and recast it in a contemporary idiom

  • The change from communal stability to the urban atomising of society.

These features are the offspring of science.

New impulses before First World War- in poetry and criticism. Several movements forwarded by dynamic, erratic and flamboyant, Ezra Pound (1885 -1972). It could be safely argued that Pound, while not the most read author, had the greatest influence on writers following his leads. An early mentor to Yeats, Joyce and Eliot, Pound revolutionised modern literature. He defies easy classification. While he studied Philosophy and Literature, he advocated for plain spoken poetry; not aesthetically adorned. He urged imagists – everyday words with multi voices, - cacophany or montage. We have lost our identity. We enjoy no determinates, a lack of certitudes so writers ask questions without providing answers, allowing the readers to ponder issues and work them out themselves. Yeats was the first to comply, followed by Eliot. Robert Frost likes to throw his readers into the dark, and let them find their own way out.

Inner and lower were the directions modernist writers took literature, toward what goes on inside the head and below the waist. That is certainly how readers experienced modernism, at least, and why the books attracted the censors. For the writers themselves, it was largely about technique.

To modernize is not to make a brand-new thing; it’s to bring an old thing up to date.

Eliot’s The Waste Land #

T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” (l917) may be said to have inaugurated modern poetry Very much an internationalist or cross culturalist, heavily influenced by French, German, British and Oriental writers.

According to Donia Gamila, T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is regarded as a central work of modernist poetry. Throughout all five of its sections, The Waste Land creatively portrays diverse themes and notions that have been distorted as an effect of war and the instability of industrialization; it includes disillusionment, despair, love, death, lust and rebirth. It also highly represents many characteristics of modernist poetry; like, diversity of themes, paradoxes, realism, allusions, religion and mysticism, simple diction, and free-verse as a style, the first section of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ perfectly sums and represents all elements and characteristics of modernist poetry.

Though many claim it as his greatest work, that is likely because it is so confounding. Eliot did not consider it his best work. In fact he dismissed it as the result of his ill-fated marriage to Vivienne, describing it as reflux and admitting that at times he didn’t care what he was writing or whether it made sense or not. It is dissonant and extremely disjointed. A bit like life.

Imagist: Concentration on clear-cut images and the virtual excluding of traditional reflection were an effort to strike through the soft haze of romanticism and the movement did help to sharpen perception and phasing and eliminate emotional vagueness.Uses real images that stand for ideas: flowers –

Lilacs for spring and hope

Lavender for sweetness

Rose for love/romance

Wisteria for climbing/clinging/smothering

It also helped to break down merely conventional metrics and allowed poets to write a poem as it came; to let theme and mood take their natural shape.

Rhythm often imitates ordinary speech yet uses devices of poetry such as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and other sound effects.

Such emancipation was no doubt a good thing, though it encouraged an amount of lazy sprawling that was not poetry by any definition. The chief modern poets (Yeats, Eliot etc.) have combined liberty with vigorous discipline and their powerful and individual rhythms are very far from polyphonic or chopped prose.

G.M. Hopkins (d. 1889) had already electrified many of the younger writers with his unorthodox writing.

Wilfred Owen “Poems” (l920) (Killed Dec 1918) uses more prosaic effects and a more direct didactic style.

D.H. Lawrence (1885—1930) began writing during the carnage of the First World War sought saturation in the reality of animal energy and sex. He loathed scientific intellect and all his Works portray the misery of the hordes of humanity.

Thomas Hardy was prosaic while Yeats converted or modernised the romantic, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Aldous Huxley and the Sitwells.

Three works, prose and verse — mark the year 1922, a landmark in modern literature: “Ulysses” and “The Wasteland” “The Second Coming”, though not all received with general understanding and acclamation.

Hostility to the romantic tradition was a conspicuous strain in the new movement. Romantics were displaced and ‘replaced by Donne and his school (the metaphysicals).

Matthew Arnold claimed the romantics simply “did not know enough”.

Metaphysical colloquialism of style and rhythm, realistic particularity, thoughtfulness of sensibility, the complex and often dissonant

It uses expression of tension and conflict, the resources of irony, ambiguity, paradox and wit.

Unlike most earlier poetry, a modern poem may seem to be, in a sense, only half—written; elliptical, much more is left to be done by the reader and interpretation may admit a wide solution. Emily Dickinson’s poetry, though not discovered till later presaged this technique.

Modern poetry, has anything and everything as its subject,

  • Reflects human fragility, angst and loss of values,

  • Reflects knowledge of psychology, the unconscious

  • Uses free verse,

  • Individualistic use of poetic devices,

  • Manipulates form to suit subject and function

  • Uses imagery and symbolism.

  • It is generally about ordinary everyday things and ordinary people.

  • It uses ordinary, prosaic, colloquial or vernacular language even the vulgate.

Existentialism #

Existentialism is a 19^(th) C. philosophy that rejects the determinist view that the universe is preordained or programmed. It questions the nature of our existence rather than threats to it.

If there is a god he/she has abandoned us to our own freely willed fate. The individual is fully responsible for their own destiny. Life is generally depicted as austere, full of anguish, and pointless.

According to Nietzsche each of us has to rise above our limitations and become an “Ubermensch” (superman) and be a god unto himself or alternatively become an “untermench (loser) who can only follow orders.

Existentialism has come to mean an individual’s perspective on life, its purpose, direction and meaning.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism implies that it is possible to be authentic and free, as long as you keep up the effort. It is exhilarating to exactly the same degree that it’s frightening, and for the same reasons. As Sartre summed it up in an interview:

“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”

Sartre’s audience heard his message at a time when much of Europe lay in ruins, news of Nazi death camps had emerged, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by atom bombs. The war had made people realise that they and their fellow humans were capable of departing entirely from civilised norms; no wonder the idea of a fixed human nature seemed questionable. Whatever new world was going to arise out of the old one, it would probably need to be built without reliable guidance from sources of authority such as politicians, religious leaders, and even philosophers – the old kind of philosophers, a new kind of philosopher, ready to wade in and perfectly suited to the task.

Albert Camus (1913 to 1960), best known for literary works such as The Stranger and The Plague , was a philosopher of the absurd who was often closely linked to Jean-Paul Sartre and his philosophy of existentialism. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

For Camus …

”our astonishment at life results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world.

Camus writes:

“ The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love. Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.”

Camus wrote in his great novel, The Plague, “is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”

For Camus, resistance was the heroism of goodness and kindness.

“It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

“The plague bacillus, never dies or vanishes entirely … it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and … the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”

In November [1940], Camus confided to his journal:

‘Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.’ “

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

“Although there is no reason to hope, that is no reason for despair.”