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MODERNISM OR MODERNISMS?

literature

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MODERNISM OR MODERNISMS?




Why should one be afraid of modernism? Numberless pages have been filled on the topic. Treatises have been written and surveys have been made with a view to grasping the essence and specificity of a still controversial issue. Critics have tried to elucidate the nature of a heterogeneous, yet, paradoxically, consistent phenomenon. The very concept of modernism in the context of the different ‘-isms’ emerging at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century has come under the scrutinising lens of analysts. Efforts have been made to identify those features that could function as the lowest common denominator for the distinct individual performances of writers whose works seemed to reflect the changes characterising the turn-of-the-century period and the first decades of the twentieth century. We might say that no previous literary phenomenon has aroused similar intense interest among the reading public. Surprisingly, however, the elucidating efforts have been accompanied by further reluctance on the part of the audience to come to grips with the modernist phenomenon proper. Readers seemed to recover with much difficulty from the shock that literary modernism had inflicted upon them. The novelty of the artistic reflection forced them to contemplate the relativity of a value system that was replacing the apparent stability of the nineteenth century. What is surprising is that, in time, while readers got used to digesting the novelty of modernism, they also got into the habit of being more eager to read about than to read modernism. The obvious difficulty of the modernist writings has generated a paradoxical phenomenon. Readers have come to know all imaginable facets of a modernist piece of writing, without having read at least a page of it. They have become conversant with the modernist strategies based on secondary sources. The original fear has disappeared, which does not mean, unfortunately, that a deeper understanding of the phenomenon has emerged, likely to lead to the common readers’ liking of the modernist productions. The modernist works, though readily qualified as ‘interesting’ or ‘remarkable’, are rejected either on account of the relationship they establish with life or reality, which is felt as altogether wrong, or because the meaning of the same relationship escapes the understanding of the readers trained in the spirit of realism. This is not to say that there have not been voices full of praise for the modernist achievements. But they only confirm the fact that the more challenging a cultural phenomenon, the more varied the response it generates.

Modernism has challenged the readers’ expectations to such an extent that little consensus has been reached to the very terminology one should use in relation to it. In the 1970s, Malcolm Bradbury voiced his dissatisfaction with the lack of terminology that one could comfortably and unambiguously associate with the literary works produced in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. “Every so often, there occur in the arts certain severe upheavals which seem to affect all their products and radically change their temper. For some reason these are often closely associated with centuries: we can sense one such change that belongs to the eighteenth century, which we call ‘Neo-Classicism’; another associated with the nineteenth, ‘Romanticism’; and another associated with our own century for which we have no clear name but which we often regard as the most radical of all. There are, then, certain phases, often taking place over a relatively short period of time, when ‘style’ shifts and the structure of perception among artists significantly alters, and when the environment and prevailing assumptions of art are so radically recreated that it seems no longer to be witnessing to the same kind of world, or employing structure, material or language in the same way as before.” The critic’s worrying about the lack of an appropriate terminology, which indicates uncertainty about the content the terms are used to designate, seems to have been put an end to at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The literary history has finally come up with a name for an artistic phenomenon perceived as radically novel when it first started to take the stage. Besides, this term has managed to impose itself as indispensable to the understanding of the twentieth century if for nothing else, at least for the fact that, for lack of imagination probably, it got incorporated into the concept of ‘postmodernism’ as well. If we could have, by any chance, done without ‘modernism’, as the case was in various Western European cultural spaces, it is hardly imaginable that we could dispense with that of ‘postmodernism’, which has been almost unanimously assimilated in all Western cultures. The term ‘modernism’ derived from the ‘modern’ has been found satisfactory to subsume the various literary manifestations represented by the individual works of writers throughout Europe and the United States. Yet producing a suitable and widely accepted name for a contradictory phenomenon is more than a Christian baptism. It essentially means that a community of readers, be they ‘common’ readers or critics, have finally managed to identify a set of features shared by a set of sometimes disconcertingly heterogeneous works and thus produce a publicly acceptable definition of a new literary trend. Therefore, we would say that it is not so much the lack of terminology that Bradbury deplores, but the lack of consensus regarding the specifics and particulars of literature in the first decades of the twentieth-century. Any form of consensus, no matter how fragile it might have been, would have led to modernism being perceived as a unitary and stable whole and, consequently, definable in relation with the artistic currents characteristic of the previous centuries. Yet, although we feel more comfortable nowadays with the modernist heterogeneity, which has been, paradoxically, tamed into the canon of modernism, we cannot ignore the fact that the individual literary contributions of modernist writers still resist categorisation and labelling. What we have learned to do, in time, is to identify pathways to the essentials of modernism, beyond the apparent differences among individual contributions.

In an attempt to discover plausible reasons for the distinctiveness of the twentieth-century literary phenomenon, we should have an insight into the specifics of the literary trends that defined the cultural periods before the twentieth century. All cultural movements that characterised the different centuries before the twentieth got crystallised, in general, on a national basis. Then they were assimilated in other cultural spaces as influences of an already delimited cultural phenomenon. The stability of such trends was given by the fact that individual contributions were basically variations on the same theme. The individual processing of the original core led to the consolidation of the whole. In most cases, the revolt against the preceding value system was initially theorised on in literary manifestos, the writers’ performance representing a varied and original practice of the stated ideas. Up to a certain point, this principle may be said to keep also valid for the various ‘-isms’ emerging at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in the field of visual arts. The new ways of relating to the real and of expressing adequately this new relationship in an artistic form were transplanted later on in different other arts.

It may not have been quite clear in the age that the twentieth-century art will depart so severely and abruptly from the inherited conventions. There existed little doubt, however, that the turn of the century was marked by a new spirit. Scientists and artists alike sensed that there had been a serious upheaval of the existing value system. This axiological upheaval generated a manifest reaction against whatever was old, which inevitably led to a desire to break with anything that represented tradition. The whole Western world shared the spirit of the modern. Various, and yet similar in intention, cultural movements emerged almost simultaneously in all countries of Western Europe and involved practically all arts. Derived from the term ‘modern’, ‘modernism’ has come thus to dominate, terminologically, the Western stage to such an extent that few will think nowadays about seriously contesting the fact that Joyce, or Woolf, or Proust, or Mann are ‘modernist’ writers. ‘Modernism’ is preferred, though one could be tempted to consider the same writers ‘symbolists’, ‘impressionists’ or ‘expressionists’, depending on what reading their work lends it to. Paradoxically, however, in spite of its extended use, the concept of modernism is marked by vagueness. Paradoxically again, although relatively vague, deriving much of its meaning and force from ‘modern’ in which it originates, the concept of modernism has acquired an incontestable critical authority, being impossible to avoid it when the questioning of stable traditional values comes under discussion. It is used to designate the most recent forms of artistic innovation, an exacerbation of modernity in the attempt to break with any existing conventions.

In his study exclusively devoted to the concept of modernism, Eysteinsson considers that “[t]here is little doubt that of all the concepts used in discussing and mapping twentieth-century Western literature, ‘modernism’ has become the most important, either as used by itself or as part of the kindred concept ‘postmodernism’”. It is generally agreed that modernism is a term used to signify “a paradigmatic shift, a major revolt, beginning in the mid- and late nineteenth century, against the prevalent literary and aesthetic traditions of the Western world.”[3] Although different theories and opinions are formulated as to the nature and depth of the revolt, there are not too many divergent views regarding the strength and indispensability of the concept of modernism. This convergence of views may be explained starting from the scope and intensity of individual artistic achievements at the beginning of the twentieth century. The spirit of negation and the necessity of renewal shared by the Western world underlie the whole modernist enterprise. The consolidation of the concept is largely due to the contribution of individual writers and artists who can scarcely be brought otherwise under one common denominator. Individual works contributed to the shaping of what was to become later the canon of modernism.

The artistic modernity of the twentieth century defines itself against the conventions of the nineteenth century realism. It is to be interpreted in the sense of a new perception of reality and of new relationships established between the work of art and reality. As Bernard Bergonzi pertinently stated in The Situation of the Novel, “[t]he tradition of the nineteenth-century realism […] depended on a degree of relative stability in three separate areas: the idea of reality; the nature of the fictional form; and the kind of relationship that might predictably exist between them … It goes without saying that for many of the twentieth-century novelists and critics this assumption is no longer credible…”[4] Consequently, if there is an aspect shared by practically all modernist productions, no matter how different in appearance they may be, this is placed in the realm of the relations established between the perceiving subject and the perceived object. Therefore, the modern revolt against tradition does not mean complete rejection of the realist conventions, as we are sometimes wrongly inclined to believe, but a far subtler incorporation of this tradition, translated into the questioning of the relationship between the self and the outer world.

This is the premise from which anyone studying modernism should start if one wants to cope with the difficulties raised by incontestably difficult works that force audiences to reorganise their system of knowledge and views of art. To place modernism under the sign of complete innovation can only baffle readers used to tracing continuities between the works of the present and those belonging to the previous periods. This is also the conclusion one should reach after having deliberately chosen to embark upon the project of analysing the modernist experiment. It is only by seeing modernism in and out of the literary system at the same time that one can fruitfully make sense of such a controversial issue.

Those who study or teach modernism cannot help noticing that the most often used qualifying epithets associated with the modernist enterprise are ‘interesting’ and ‘difficult’, both vague and uninviting. It is never ‘pleasant’ or ‘attractive’ or ‘instructing’ that the audiences educated at the school of realism, no matter what the literary affinities of their membership might be, choose to use. Readers find it difficult, sometimes even impossible, to take the modernist work down from the ‘ivory tower’ where the modernist creators seemed to have purposefully decided to place it. There is also a tendency on the part of the researchers of modernism that they should place their discourse in the same position of superiority to ordinary understanding. Modernism is unlike anything before it. It has been often assumed that the modernist artists themselves decided not to sacrifice the exactingness of their art for a wider popularity. As a consequence, one can only take the ‘difficulty’ and ‘remarkableness’ of modernism as a given, as a datum and cope with it in the best way one’s intelligence allows one to. The modernist art was meant for educated audiences. Audiences have a chance to demonstrate their education when approaching modernism. But this is not to say that audiences, ordinary in the beginning, more trained in time, that start from this assumption will ever come to like modernism. Psychologically speaking, people are always afraid of the unknown. They are always reluctant to accept the new unconditionally unless they recognise in it at least the slightest trace of the old. Interesting as modernism may be finally admitted to be, it will never cease causing fear or reluctance, it will always remain the hard nut to crack, the bitter pill to swallow, unless the premise from which the approach to it starts is changed.

To be able to correctly interpret the modernist effort of renewal, the most reassuring assumption to use profitably as a starting point is that, in spite of their obvious experimental character, the modernist novels are based on an assimilation and revaluation of tradition. This is a reasonable premise from which any analysis of modernism may proceed if the validity and indispensability of modernist literature is to be asserted in the broader context of literary tradition. On a closer reading of modernist novels, what one may have the chance to discover is that, through innovation, the modernist writers challenged their readers’ expectations, by artfully exploiting the conventions inherited as part of the novelistic tradition. Thus they satisfied their readers’ sense of literary comfort, while playing with their horizon of expectations, in an effort to refresh the audience’s perceptions of what a novel was expected or intended to be. This is not a demarche that will necessarily increase the popularity of modernism. And certainly it is not intended as a popularisation enterprise, which would be contrary to any of the ideas professed by the modernists themselves. It is just a pathway to take if one wants to move beyond the ‘interesting’ and ‘difficult’ aspect of modernism and to make the reading of modernism into a worthwhile, perhaps even enjoyable, activity.

Partly due to the original enthusiasm with which the modernists’ work was received in the age by readers and critics and partly because of the shock that modernism inflicted upon the audience, any approach to modernism has constantly included a necessary reference to its experimental dimension. The enthusiasm was accounted for by the fact that the modernist literary enterprise was generally felt as more appropriate to the spirit of a changing world. At the turn of the century and for the next couple of decades, modernism seemed to be offering a solution of coherence to a dismembering value system. Yet, although many developed an explicit interest in the evolution of the twentieth-century novel, sensing it as different from whatever had been before, few were those who enthusiastically signalled the necessity, even the indispensability of this new trend of development. The modernist writers proposed a type of literature centred on the self and its subjective manner of relating to reality to counterbalance the nineteenth century novelistic conventions that were already perceived as limiting, restricting and detrimental to the expression of the complexity of life. This proposal implied that the modernist novelists should assume the responsibility of inventing a series of sometimes radically renewing techniques, interpreted as experiments, which give, to a certain extent, a justification for the evaluation of modernism as a severe break with the whole literary tradition preceding the twentieth century. The assumed responsibility of questioning the literary heritage, of inventing and experimenting in point of technique implied focus on the medium specific to the art of writing, which generated a new self-awareness of art. The interest in language and its mechanisms created the impression that the modernists were wilfully placing themselves in a position of apparent isolation from the practical, social and political, reality of their age. The linguistic experiment, as it will be shown in the second chapter, was noticed by those who welcomed the worldview promoted by the modernists, as well as by those who found it difficult to come to terms with it. From the latter’s point of view, it was exactly the experiment that made the modernist novel be seen as remarkable, even if dull and inappropriate. Critics and practitioners of modernism disagreed, however, on the extent to which the modernist art was a response to the problematic issues raised by the modern world. Thus we may assert that it is for their experiment that, more often than not, the modernists are praised, and feared. Similarly, one may say that it is mainly the modernist experiment that has constituted the central discussion point of an exceedingly large number of critical readings from all imaginable points of view, number probably paralleled only by that of the works devoted to the still controversial issue of postmodernism.

The shock caused by modernism is associated with the way in which the modernist writers’ treatment of the taboo subjects of the Victorian period was perceived in the age. Although some of the Victorian writers had undoubtedly expressed, in different ways, their dissatisfaction with the Victorian value system, “the nineteenth-century novel was anchored in a world of public value agreed on by reader and writer.”[5] The public value system was essentially centred on the idea of God and faith in God, reason for which it was interpreted in terms of a rather rigid moral code. Thus, as David Daiches remarked while trying to delimit the modernist undertaking, “however much the Victorian novelist may criticise the society of his time, his war with society is never radical enough to sweep away public criteria of what is significant in human action.” The modernists developed an explicit interest in the relevance of the ordinary and the trivial as part of life in the new acceptation that they associated with the concept. They were also particularly sensitive to the complexity and depth of the inner motions of the self, which they considered to be more truthful than anything that the self could represent within a network of external relationships. Both their interest and this new sensitivity made the modernist novelists foreground particulars of life that had been attentively avoided or hidden by the nineteenth-century writers who had attempted thus to preserve the cohesive image of a publicly shared value system. The moment such taboo subjects became the subject matter of literature, the audience trained in the conventions of the realist novel reacted vehemently discarding such experiments as frivolous, immoral, obscene, unsuited to the public moral sense.



The vehement reaction of some of the readers of Lawrence’s, or Joyce’s work may be partly understandable given the mentality still existing in the period, which was, at best, reminiscent of the Victorian one. One could say that the mentality that generated such reactions was not just a shadow of the mentality of the past, but rather the result of a clear projection of the Victorian value system in the first decades of the twentieth century. However, this reaction also raises significant problems related less to mentality than to some relevant issues pertaining to the field of literature. When a work like Joyce’s Ulysses is qualified as licentious and scatological, the question that immediately comes to our mind is by what standards the work has been judged. If a writer like Lawrence is accused of immorality, it is certain that the standards applied to the reading of his work have not been of an artistic nature. Or, if the novel is an art form, it is by artistic standards only that it should be judged, not by moral, philosophical, political or any other standards that the handling of subject matter may encourage. A novel is good not because its characters observe the moral precepts and live morally pure lives. A novel is good if it displays a perfect match between form and content, between the method adopted and the material to be represented according to the novelist’s intention.

In time, as the mentality changed and the readers’ horizon of knowledge was broadened, the original shock has been attenuated. What has certainly outlived the period of cultural renewal when modernism asserted itself as an alternative to the realist tradition is the idea of experiment and radical break with the nineteenth-century tradition. This has remained the favourite starting point, and we may add, ironically, ‘hobby horse’, in the analysis of an undoubtedly challenging phenomenon. Yet, what we are too little aware of is how detrimental the insistence on experiment is to the overall image of modernism, as far as its integration in the system of literary tradition is concerned. Besides, the constant references to the experimental side of modernism tend to blur the anchoring of modernist writings in the solid ground of realism, which the modernists never rejected, but repeatedly admitted to have originally assimilated.

Faced with a fragmentary, shaking and far from shared value system, the modernist novelists devised a form capable of grasping the fragmentariness and relativity of the age, while constituting itself into the only instrument able to cast coherence upon an externally dismembered system. By focusing on the self, on the one hand, and on their art, on the other, the modernists meant to produce a stable and stabilising mental and artistic force to be placed at the centre of a tormented and disorderly universe. The modernist experiment should not be approached as a phenomenon interesting in itself, but as a solution offered by literature to the unity problems of an age.

The modernist practice stands up against the accusation of isolation and elitism so frequently formulated in connection with the modernists’ writings. The highly praised, but feared modernist technique of novel writing demonstrates that the modernist creator is aware of the fact that the success of the literary undertaking is as much dependent on his/ her literary ability as it is on the receiver’s contribution to the decoding of the literary meaning. The correct reception can be ensured only by a well balanced interplay of given and new information, of convention and innovation, in other words, by diplomatically playing with the reader’s horizon of expectations, thus getting integrated into the system of literature.

To prove this, we should free ourselves from prejudiced ideas when considering some of the modernist ‘experimental’ novels. If we forget about the so much advocated ‘difficulty’, ‘remarkableness’, ‘distinctiveness’, we may have the chance to discover that these novels, elaborate and opaque as they might seem at first sight, imply an acknowledgement, assimilation and processing of the nineteenth-century conventions. Though apparently intricate, due to an extensive use of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique for the investigation of the self, and linguistically over elaborate, the modernist novels are neither better, nor worse than the literary productions representative of the previous periods. They are just another way, new when it was proposed, old a few decades later, of responding to the challenges of an age. The modernist novelists did not categorically reject the inherited conventions. They rather questioned their capacity to express the specificity of a new spirit, be it called life or reality. For this reason, the modernists took over, revalued and exploited these methods, casting them into the new moulds of modernist literature. Under different forms, all modernists conceived their work as an interplay of realist, symbolist and modernist narrative conventions. No matter how radically they chose to experiment in point of technique, the modernist novelists preserved the realist framework and embedded the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique in an elaborate imagery and symbolism. Thus they gave readers a feeling of confidence, creating the illusion that the experience of reading that they possessed and their knowledge of the world and of novelistic conventions are comfortably applicable to the new literary offer. It is always against the realist background that the modernist investigation of the self is placed, by various means, with primacy given to the mental. The modernist challenge is never left unanchored in a solid tradition. The modernist writer proves thus to be aware of the fact that no novelty can be perceived and quantified properly unless defined in relation with the correct amount of given information. What the modernist creator considered to be life or reality in the context of the twentieth century is always balanced with what the reader expected life or reality to be in the context of the nineteenth-century realist conventions. The new form of the novel seen as more appropriate to the spirit of the age is skilfully created starting from what the reader expected a novel to be, given his own experience.

James Joyce is almost unanimously considered to be the most radical experimenter in technique of all modernists. Yet, he constructed his novels in such a way as to ensure a correct ratio between what the readers knew about and expected from a novel and what the writer intended to do as far as the redefinition of reality and of the novelistic conventions was concerned. Paradoxically, it was not Joyce’s insistence on technique and investigation of the potentialities of literary language, which he shaped totally anew, but the inclusion of the minute realist detail in his work that shocked the audience. In Joyce’s case, what readers found more difficult to come to terms with was not the technical intricacy of the narrative but what the adopted method managed to bring to the surface. Joyce was mainly interested in the inner life of the characters, more than in their coming into relevant relationships at the exterior level. Yet the reader’s direct access to the character’s mind and self, by the use of methods meant to render the inner life transparent, is always prepared and facilitated by a realistically achieved presentation of time, place and character.

Virginia Woolf adopts a similar strategy in her purely modernist novels. Her plunge into the character’s consciousness, however, is more abrupt, even if less apparent at first sight. Although the concepts of space and time or the category of character seem to be used in ways that make them function as stable reference points for the reader, Woolf demonstrates that everything that has a certain degree of relevance in reality is only a matter of individual perception. By her extensive use of the narrated monologue, out of all the consciousness investigating techniques, Woolf effected a subtle and sophisticated narrative compromise between the realist conventions and the modernist’s intention, letting the reader oscillate between what he expected and what he received from a narrative point of view. In Woolf’s case, the generally disturbing, sometimes annoying, multiple points of view are expertly hidden under one narrative voice, that of an impersonal narrator, who loses, however, that position of supremacy that had been unquestionably relied on before. Woolf created thus a multiple-voice narrative able to render the fragmentariness and complexity of life, while maintaining the illusion of stability conveyed by the presence of a truth possessing, though not controlling voice.

In Lawrence’s case, typical Victorian institutions, with all the underlying value system, such as family, marriage, religion, the individual’s position in society, or education are foregrounded under the form of a novel apparently written in the pure realist fashion. Yet, from the very first lines, expectations are challenged, the reader being then confronted with the deepest zones of the human unconscious. The reader feels so at ease with the novel’s formal conventionality that he may forget about the fact that the taboo subjects that Lawrence openly discussed in his work had been, in most cases, avoided by the Victorian novelists. Lawrence’s innovation in form was less explicit than that of Joyce or Woolf. Yet the ‘moral’ shock that he caused in the age certainly exceeded the one produced by his fellow novelists. We could say that the radicalness of his experiment, more than in any other case, resided in the obvious discrepancy between the conventionality of form and the boldness with which he dared discuss issues difficult to accept even for twentieth-century inhabitants.

What an unprejudiced reading of the modernist narrative literature may prove is that, although they were generally seen as radical experimenters effecting a total break with the previous centuries’ novelistic conventions, the modernist writers directed their creative efforts towards an assimilation and revaluation of the literary tradition. Far from ignoring the ‘common’ reader, leaving it only to the ‘elite’ to decode the meaning of their work, the modernists incorporated the very conventions that they questioned into the texture of their novels, attracting thus their readers into the process of meaning creation. Convention and innovation are subtly balanced so as to ensure the readers’ feeling of comfort, while refreshing, at the same time, their perceptions and knowledge. For readers to understand and respond appropriately to the challenges of literature, the difference should not be interpreted as a break, but as conformity between the new and the old. While placing their experiment against a background of already mastered conventions for contrast and comparison, the modernist novelists taught their readers to look with different eyes at the literary achievements of the past. Far from being an isolated remarkable phenomenon, they won themselves a place within the system of the literary tradition. According to T. S. Eliot, it is exactly this mutual refraction between past and present that is essential to the proper understanding of all valuable literature.

“No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. […] The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”[7]

Modernism is not, however, the only term used to express a significant revolt at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. There were also various other ‘-isms’ emerging almost simultaneously in different European cultural spaces that presupposed a redefinition and a renewed perception of reality. Whether modernism is one among the other ‘-isms’ in the age or a superordinate term to include the various specific ‘-isms’ is still a subject of controversy. What would be interesting to see, from our point of view, is how the modernist novelists managed to make language into a specific medium of literature, whose power of representation equalled that of the medium of all the other arts, whose status as art was never contested. This implied, in the context of the discussions that took place in the age over the status of the modern novel, a demonstration and recognition of the status of fiction as art.

By having a look at the various ‘-isms’ as forms of artistic revolt at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, without any claim to exhaustiveness however, we may produce an explanation for the apparently dissimilar literary offers of novelists such as Lawrence, Joyce or Woolf. In our opinion, the works of the modernist English novelists do not reflect so much a difference in literary tenets but a very personal assimilation of the principles of the various strategies of revolt in the age. These writers are modernists not necessarily because they belong to the trend called modernism, but because their individual modern(ism)(s) largely contributed to the shaping of what may be termed the canon of modernism. For this reason, the novelists’ allegiance to the principles of modernism, although an acknowledged fact, is in some cases very difficult to demonstrate. This is at least surprising at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when critics and readers begin speaking about the ‘death’ of postmodernism and they attempt to come to grips with the still puzzling contemporary literary phenomenon. The difficulty of approach and the resistance to ultimate definitions are clear evidence of the fact that modernism still represents a challenge. It refuses to be contained in the ill-fitting vestments such as the critics try to provide, to paraphrase Woolf and her quarrel with the materialist writers at the beginning of the twentieth century. When analysing English modernist fiction, we may also embrace Nicholls’ view according to which, when used to refer to an age of marked instability and relativity, the very concept of modernism tends to become relative. Nicholls introduces thus the term ‘modernisms’, considering it a happier terminological solution for the pluralism of the twentieth-century art, which suggests the coexistence, but also equal cultural importance of the several strategies of negation whose explosion definitely marked the first three decades of the twentieth century. He purposely avoided using the term ‘modernism’ in its broader acceptation, and focused mainly on those elements of innovation, and renewal of perception, no matter if they were a Dada, or a ‘High’ Modernism contribution.

The productions of the modernist English novelists prove that there is a shared core of modernism, consisting in the foregrounding of the self, doubled by an apparent unawareness of the objective outer world, as a sign of a self-conscious break with the tradition of realism. Yet, they bring equally strong evidence that, while being rooted in realism, they divert from the realist conventions in an effort to assert their novelty and uniqueness as various facets of one and the same highly controversial trend. Emerging out of an explicit state of revolt, against a background of crisis, the representative productions of the various modernisms in literature, as well as in all the other arts, represent an attempt to assert the autonomy of the work of art, by intently, sometimes excessively, focusing on form and artistic language.

The break with the nineteenth-century realism was initiated in France by a group of young artists who were denied the right to exhibit their paintings in the annual exhibition of the excessively traditional French Royal Academy. They were derisively labelled ‘Impressionists’ on account of their technique that presupposed an individual impression of the object, and not the imitation of the object itself. The Impressionist ideas were neither underlain by a specific theory nor regulated by a manifesto. Without following the prescriptions of a programme, the Impressionists felt free and liberated. The Impressionists, of different personalities and belonging to various schools, developed a style of painting that opposed the approach to painting practised in the highly official Salon. Seeking to reveal immediate sense impressions through their work, the Impressionists opened the way towards an art understood as a process in which the observer’s mind was expected to fill in additional details of meaning. The Impressionist painters offered a different view of nature, of great interest to them being the reflection of light on water. They tried to reflect nature in its movements and the natural pulse, rejecting the idea that nature was static. Sensitive to the colours of the reflections, the artists thought of painting light by using bands of complementary colours, without dark tones for the shadows. Laying great emphasis on the aesthetic value, the Impressionists insisted on the importance of painting as painting, starting thus a modernist ‘tradition’ of art as autonomous and reformulating the relationship between the work of art and reality. The traditionalists based their objections to the new movement on two aspects of the Impressionist art that will be found as objectionable in the case of modernist literature as well. Paradoxically, the Impressionists were accused of aestheticism, while being judged for their having brought the trivial and the vulgar detail of everyday life into their art. The new ‘Impressionist’ language challenged the whole conventional way of seeing the world, as well as the human relationships with reality. The Impressionist explicit tendency towards renewal was to become central to other arts, literature included.

Emerging around the 1860s, Impressionism, though short-lived as an artistic movement, had a considerable impact on the European public. It is very unlikely that the educated spirits of the time should remain indifferent to the type of art the Impressionists proposed, all the more so that there seemed to be a shared climate that generated a desire to renew in the direction of a clear subjectivising of perception. It may not, thus, be surprising that one of the words with the highest frequency of occurrence in Henry James’ The Ambassadors is ‘impression’. It might be pure coincidence, but it is also reasonable to believe, given James’ theory of point of view, that Impressionism exerted some influence on the novelist who was to considerably affect in his turn the future performance of the later modernists.



[…] in the apartment of the Boulevard Malesherbes, where his position affirmed itself again as ministering to an easy exchange of impressions. (285)

One thing remained well before him – a conviction that was in fact to gain sharpness from the impressions of this evening. (287)

Well then,’ his friend replied, ‘there you are; I give you my impression for what it’s worth. (289)

In the interludes preceding each chapter of The Waves, Woolf manifests an explicit interest in the representation of light and its reflection in the water. As a matter of fact, The Waves as a whole largely depends upon the effects created by light reflected in water. By extension, the novel is centred on the various individual reflections of the real. The technique Virginia Woolf uses for the description of nature is quite similar to that of the Impressionists, with bands of complementary colours, without dark tones for the shadows. This may explain why Woolf purposely avoids darkness, though it may have served as an element of contrast for light.

The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.

In line with the Impressionists’ views, Woolf considers that what is perceived is more important to the mind than what is actually real. Reality is a matter of individual creation. The individual perceptions of one thing are seen as more truthful than a detailed imitation of the real, and thus more likely to contribute to the making of a comprehensive image of reality. This can be demonstrated by the presentation of the natural landscape through the different perceptions of the six children in the opening pages of The Waves, at various sensorial levels.

‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’

‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’

‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down.’

‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.’

‘I see a crimson tassel,’ said Jinny, ‘twisted with gold threads.’

‘I hear something stamping,’ said Louis. ‘A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.’(5)

Impressionist in its rendering of individual perceptions or impressions, the Woolfian text displays incontestable features of Symbolism, in its exploration of the relationships between sounds, smells, and colours. The characters’ soliloquies also suggest, in a Symbolist manner, that there must be a mysterious relation between the visible and the invisible. Thus, if the Impressionists’ endeavour moved in the direction of subjectivising the objective, the Symbolist artists’ task was rather to objectivise the subjective.

A poetics of fragments and discontinuity, Symbolism definitely set up the principles of the European modernism. The reconsideration of the relationship between art and society brought about a reshaping of “the psychological (or interior) landscape” as “a zone of the mind where objects pulse with the same inner vibration.” The Symbolist rejection of any convention or authority represented a form of asserting the idea of modernity. The rational discourse is replaced by the poetic language of multiplicity and indeterminacy, which “originates not from a stable centre but from the point at which the boundaries of self begin to fray, where subject and object flow together.” To be modern, from the Symbolists’ point of view is to be able to go over imposed aesthetic or moral limits. The Symbolists consider that modern sensibility distinguishes itself by multiplicity and mobility, and their art centres on the potentialities of a multiplied self. Rooted in the nineteenth-century Romantic tradition, Symbolism constituted itself into a reaction against an objective recording of nature, life or reality by extension. The artists attempted to gain insight into a reality beyond the limits of the visual. The mere sight was infused with spiritual elements, allusions and ambiguities.

The concluding paragraph of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, with its specific reference to painting, invites the reader to focus on its Symbolist dimension. Insight is gained into the invisible through the visual and, in a more extended sense, through art as a means of objectivising the subjective. When the remaining members of the Ramsay family reached the lighthouse, symbol of Mrs Ramsay’s unifying force, Lily Briscoe, who had started her painting with Mrs Ramsay at the centre ten years before, finally had her vision. She managed to pierce the barrier of the visual, reaching far beyond into the essence of a woman, of femininity, of art or of human life, as the ambiguity of the fragment seems to suggest.

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, [Lily Briscoe] turned to her canvas. There it was – her picture. Yes, with all its green and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did it matter? She asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. (224-225)

The turn of the century does not confront the public only with ethereal and evanescent artistic representations of the real. Artists will also bring to the fore a more active and dynamic self confident that, facing a world of radical change, he has the freedom to oppose to it meanings of his own creation. Italian Futurism gave a more conspicuous social dimension to the interpretation of the modern and of the twentieth-century modernity. Modernity resulted from the impact the technological innovation had on the cultural tradition. The Futurists took an increased aesthetic interest in technology. Dynamic in simultaneity, Futurist art rejects the static, identifying itself as a process. Product of an urban, technologised society, the Futurist art is oriented towards the future, expressing its love of the dynamism and force given by technology. Literary Futurism invented a totally new language, reserving itself the right to combine words in an original way. The depth, verticality, and eventually meaning, presupposed by the symbol is replaced by horizontal juxtaposition of disparate images meant to unify apparently unrelated zones of experience. The ambition of the Futurists, which may be seen as a feature of literary modernism, is to create an art of totality, which can simultaneously appeal, in a manner initiated by the Symbolists, to all senses.

D. H. Lawrence is the English modernist most fascinated with the Futurist ideas, and especially with the Futurists’ belief that physical objects had their own vitality and personality. He was in search for the Futurist inhuman will underlying all existence. His work is the one that best embodies the Futurist love of movement and dynamism. Besides, he can be noted for the elaborate analysis of the feverish life of the metropolis, as opposed to the life in the provincial area. All Lawrence’s characters are highly sensitive to the social, and even the technological, differently from the characters of all the other English modernists. When analysed in the depths of their subconscious or unconscious, Lawrence’s characters emanate an almost inhuman energy that can be associated with the vitalistic energies that make flowers bloom and animals mate. This Futurist dimension is obvious in Women in Love, rightly considered a novel of, or about, the modern age.

Gudrun, looking as if some invisible chain weighed on her hands and feet, began slowly to dance in the eurhythmic manner, pulsing and fluttering rhythmically with her feet making slower, regular gestures with her hands and arms, now spreading her arms wide, now raising them above her head, now flinging them softly apart, and lifting her face, her feet all the time beating and running to the measure of the song, as if it were some strange incantation[…] (194)

Cubism asserted its modernity by rejecting imitation as the principle of creation, and formulating a clear option for an art of representation. It shared with Futurism the love of the dynamic and the simultaneous, an interest in duration and multiplicity of perspectives. Giving up a fixed and single perspective, the Cubist painter presents the object tridimensionally in simultaneity. Reality is represented in fragments and it is reconstituted from fragments. The Futurist fragmentation suggested speed, rhythm, it meant perpetual movement. The Cubist fragmentation and multiple perspective define a new vision of the world, a new type of aesthetic knowledge, which undoubtedly shaped literary modernism, resulting in a different construction of the twentieth-century modernity.

Cubism and Futurism, under the form of Cubo-Futurism, a bridge to the abstract art, exercised the most easily traceable and durable influence on the art of the twentieth century. The principles of splitting the reality into fragments, to capture the image of a split and mobile identity, and of the collage of fragments fuse with the Futurist dynamism and simultaneity. The work of art is no longer created on the principle of verisimilitude. It ceases to be “a transparent window on the world”, as modern(ist) literature “tries to block the illusion of reference by emphasising the material nature of language, the marks and spaces which make up the words on the page.”[10] The purpose of Cubism and Futurism was to defy all traditional notions of form. They searched for that form most able to express an age of fragments, trying to built up wholes from a number of ‘myriad impressions’. The object was decomposed to its ultimate components. Yet, what seemed to be a technique of dematerialising the reality proved nothing but a technique of investigation of the hidden aspects of reality. Cubists decomposed reality just to be able to penetrate it to its very depths and produce as much information about it as possible.

If there is a clear individual preference for the ideas and techniques of one or another of the various ‘-isms’, what we discover when approaching the modernist undertaking from a ‘loftier pinnacle’ is that, no matter how distinctive individual performances are, there is always a shared conviction. Reality has changed, the perception of reality has changed and the task of the artist is to invent methods to investigate the no longer cohesive and unitary material. Thus, giving credit to individual, though subjective, points of view, the modernist novelists gave up the obtrusive presence of the omniscient narrator. This led to the relativisation of the perception of a relativised reality, but also to a higher degree of freedom on the part of readers, whose contribution to meaning creation became more significant than ever before. Following the Cubist technique, the reality was split into fragments, of perception, and the reader was expected to construct the whole out of the infinity of fragments.

The twentieth-century Western modernity was equally marked by the Surrealist experiment which, following Sigmund Freud’s example, attempted to surface zones that had not been explored before. Breton’s manifesto defines surrealism as a “pure psychic automatism, which aims at expressing orally, in writing, or in any other form, the functioning of the mind.”[11] It is a reproduction of the mind in absence of any control of reason, outside any aesthetic or moral preoccupations. Art opens towards the unconscious and the dream in an attempt to free life in the recognition of the self. The probing of the mind constitutes the substance of literary modernism, inevitably paralleled by the invention and adoption of new literary techniques meant to identify and bring to the surface mental spaces that had been considered inaccessible before.

A ceaseless innovator in technique, each new technique always giving him further access to the deepest zones of the human psyche, James Joyce was probably the modernist most open towards the surrealist experiment. His interest in the human mind was insatiable, which prompted his literary investigation of practically all the imaginable aspects of the human mind. The varied techniques of rendering the mind transparent are encountered in Joyce’s work, with all the linguistic alterations that the representation of the mind required. The processes of the unconscious are foregrounded, with a particular stress laid on the significance of dreams, in an attempt to give meaning to apparently disconnected and incoherent thought-associations and free associative ideas.

He was not foxing. No, no: he was really thick. He was not foxing. And he felt the prefect’s hand on his forehead; and he felt his forehead warm and damp against the prefect’s cold damp hand. That was the way a rat felt, slimy and damp and cold. Every rat had two eyes to look out of. Sleek slimy coats, little little feet tucked up to jump, black slimy eyes to look out of. They could understand how to jump. But the minds of the rats could not understand trigonometry. When they were dead they lay on their sides Their coats dried then. They were only dead things. (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 24)



Expressionism, manifestation of modernism in the art of the German space, “tended to value a radical aesthetic for its capacity to bring release from a claustrofobic social environment.”[12] An art of scepticism, of disillusionment in front of a technologised society which alienates the individual, instead of freeing him, expressionism foregrounds a creative self that, no longer passive and subordinated to the object, struggles to give things a new expression infused with subjectivity. In front of a dehumanised, traumatising urban civilisation, the expressionist art subjectively relates itself to the absolute, tragically transcending reality in hallucination and phantasm. “Never has there been a time so disturbed by desperation, by the horrors of death … Never has he been more troubled. Never has joy been more absent and freedom more dead. Here is the cry of desperation; man cries out for his soul, a lone cry of anguish rises out of our time. Art also cries out in the dark, calling for help, appealing to the spirit: this is Expressionism.”

The spirit, in hallucinatory and phantasmal states, struggles its way to the surface. It becomes the task of the modernist writer to objectify the darkest recesses of the human mind. This is what Joyce did in the puzzling phantasmagoria in ‘Circe’ episode in Ulysses, in which by dramatising thought, he offered an image of irrational mental processes. Events, objects, thoughts and actions of people living or dead intermingle in a whirl, whose meaning is far from being the logical rational one, but which sends a clear message about man’s unconscious.

From all the modernists, Lawrence is the one in whose work the attraction to the ideas and principles of Expressionism are most explicit. His novels, especially Women in Love, attempt to offer a new vision of time and history, underlain by vitalism and evolution. With his intent focus on the social as much as on the individual, or on the individual’s relation to the social, Lawrence managed to capture a climate of social unrest that deepened the individual’s state of anxiety. For this reason, Lawrence’s investigation of the self moves further than the mental, into the hidden zones of the subconscious and the unconscious.

Tomorrow was Monday. Monday, the beginning of another school-week! Another shameful, barren school-week, mere routine and mechanical activity. Was not the adventure of death infinitely preferable? Was not death infinitely more lovely and noble than such a life? A life of barren routine, without inner meaning, without any real significance. How sordid life was, how it was a terrible shame to the soul, to live now! How much cleaner and more dignified to be dead! One could not bear any more of this shame of sordid routine and mechanical nullity. One might come to fruit in death. She had had enough. For where was life to be found? No flowers grow upon busy machinery, there is no sky to a routine, there is no space to a rotary motion. And all life was a rotary motion, mechanised, cut off from reality. (224)

The concept of modernism has been more frequently used in the Anglo-American and Scandinavian sphere. The French, German and Italian criticism preferred either the concept of ‘modern’ to designate the cultural changes taking place at the turn of century, or the more specialised ‘-isms’ that embodied the sense and spirit of renewal against the background of tradition. Yet Modernism, be it under the form of the avant-garde movements or the performance of the ‘high’ modernists, is a poetics of the self-conscious creation of fragments. Impersonality and exacerbated subjectivity are simultaneously included in the practice of modernism, which questions and reformulates the relationship between subject and reality. Revolt against tradition is central to all the modernist enterprise. Paradoxically, however, while consciously breaking with tradition, modernism has to assume tradition as part of its paradigm.

In the English cultural space, the dissimilarities between the varied performances of the modernist novelists may be accounted for by their manifesting a certain preference for the principles of one or several of the ‘- isms’ emerging at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. However, they should necessarily be dissociated from the radical avant-gardes, since “in the final achieved masterpieces of the twenties and thirties, the major Modernists went beyond their earlier associations with the avant-garde and brought to their works a sense of personal appropriation that resulted in fuller aesthetic experience.”

Although, originally, it was a strategy of negation, modernism synthesised the elements of innovation into what was to become “the humanity of the modernist enterprise. At the heart of that enterprise one discerns the intense need to shape a disordered world – not, in the first instance, either to reform or escape it but, instead, to establish, if only negatively, a relationship with it.”[15]



Malcolm Bradbury, The Social Context of Modern Literature (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972) xxviii.

for further details on the concept of ‘modernism’, see Astradur Eynsteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Cornell: Cornell UP, 1990).

Astradur Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Cornell: Cornell UP, 1990) 1-2.

Bernard Bergonzi, The Situation of the Novel (London: Macmillan, 1970) 16.

David Daiches, The Novel and the Modern World (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1970) 25.

Ibid., 25.

T. S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ The Idea of Literature. The Foundations of English Criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1979) 215.

Peter Nicholls, Modernisms. A Literary Guide (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995) 26.

Ibid., 30.

Peter Nicholls, op. cit., 117-118.

Dictionar de termeni literari (Bucuresti, Editura Academiei, 1976) (our translation).

Peter Nicholls, op. cit., 138.

Hermann Bahr, quoted in Art. A World History (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1998) 568.

Ricardo Quinones, Mapping Literary Modernism, quoted in Astradur Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Cornell: Cornell UP, 1990) 145-146.

Alan Wilde, ‘Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis,’ Postmodernism. A Reader, ed. Patricia Waugh (London, New York, Melbourne, Auckland: Edward Arnold, 1992) 19.






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