Some Notes on Modernism

The notion of Modernism is not an easy one to explain, and it is not the nature of this blog to attempt a thorough explanation of it. However, to fully understand the nature of T. S. Eliot’s writing, the reader needs to have at least a sampling of post-WWI modern thought.

“It is crucial,” writes Stephen Sicari,” to make a firm and clear distinction between modernism in the arts and modernity in the general social life of the West. The Men of 1914 [James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot] responded to the degrading effects of the modernizing world. Modernism is an artistic response to the negative effects of modernity” (8) (Italics mine).

So, then, what is modernity? That is a rabbit hole that a doctoral thesis would take a tumble down, so I won’t be focusing on that here. To use a very brief definition, the Oxford English Dictionary defines modernity as:

1. b. spec. An intellectual tendency or social perspective characterized by departure from or repudiation of traditional ideas, doctrines, and cultural values in favour of contemporary or radical values and beliefs (chiefly those of scientific rationalism and liberalism).

Basically, modernity is “modernness”– that is, the intellectual and social state of being modern. What this means is that the actual notion of modernity is changing all the time, because traditional values are continually undergoing a process of reappraisal that determines their permanence in a social context.

Now, before I go too far down that rabbit hole, let me bring it back a bit.

The “negative effects of modernity” that I will be focusing on will be those concerning dehumanization. The modern world is one that is always changing and updating and discovering– often leaving the individual self behind. The writers of the early 20th century were trying to express what it meant to be caught in that place and time. Norman Pearson writes about what this meant for the early modernist writers, pertaining specifically to Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot:

Fresh metaphors demanded fresh language taking in a new measure of reality. Fresh language, of course, conversely demanded fresh metaphors… Twentieth-century man learned to see differently, as Cezanne showed him. He learned to hear differently, as Schoenberg did. he learned to think differently, by means of symbolic and non-Aristotelian logic, as Whitehead taught him. Given these parallels, the 20th-century writer had to learn to communicate differently if he was to represent the nature of what was now universally regarded as true… Their [Stein, Pound, and Eliot] syntax is an expression not simply of the 20th-century mood but of the 20th-century mind. (2)

"Monte Sainte-Victoire"-- Paul Cezanne, 1900

What the writers strove for was immediacy. Immediacy creates an intensity that “draws the reader into the immediateness of the composition. To be immediate is not to be separated in time; it is to be closely related to whoever feels immediateness. It cuts a path towards the universal” (Pearson 5).

In my analysis, it is the fragmented imagery and abstract metaphors that brings this immediacy to the early modernist writers. However, I think that it does not necessarily draw readers in, as Pearson says, but rather puts the reader at a certain distance where he has to decide for himself what is going on. What the writers of the early 20th century did seems to be a continuation of what the Impressionist painters and writers did in the late 19th century and what their contemporaries, the Cubists and Dadaists, were doing. The subject of a work was left open to the viewer or reader to determine. By using expression that was abstract and not necessarily human, they were giving the power of interpretation to the viewer, thereby making him more of an individual.

"Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" - Duchamp, 1912

One classic example is Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.” The subject of the painting itself is completely shattered, or fragmented, and in complete chaos. But the motion of a figure descending a staircase is still evident. The style of the painting was a direct contrast to the previous style of realism, and was a more extreme version of the Impressionist ideal of capturing what happens inside the moment. The viewer is both connected to the motion of the painting, but disconnected with its portrayal.

While a thesis on modernism would be a great project, it is way out of range of mine. To recap: The early modernist writers used abstract metaphors and fragmented images in order to express their consciousnesses. In my next post I will focus on how London is a model for the fragmented form of “The Waste Land.”

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One Response to Some Notes on Modernism

  1. So far, I enjoy this. It’s actually inspired me to sit down and read The Wasteland. Maybe with a little help here, I’ll understand what good old T.S. was at.

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