Monday, August 24, 2009

modernism: an organic definition

In his introduction to Modernism, Lewis Pericles cites scenes from Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby and from Walter Benjamin's “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the former an image of humanity “'borne back ceaselessly into the past'” despite its attempts to row against the current of time and the latter an interpretation of a painting of an angel “of history . . . irresistibly propelled into the future” (Pericles 32). Such juxtaposition aptly identifies the position of Modernism: a compilation of sometimes contradictory reactions all attempting to cope with the same phenomenon of modernity. Thus Christopher Reed's treatment of the contesting views on interior decorating represented by Le Corbussier's techno-modern approach and the Bloomsburies' domestic ideal as epitomized in the Omega Workshops illustrates well the fractured struggle within Modernism to appropriately express modern life in modern terms.

The vast changes in technology and the paradigm shifts caused by revolution in scientific (evolution) and religious (German higher criticism) thought all combined to form a mirroring combination of optimistic excitement and pessimistic anxiety toward progress, especially after the Great War. The world was moving faster and became for many more impersonal, leading to Michael Levenson's assertion that “crisis is inevitably the central term of art in discussions” (4) of Modernism. The writers of the period, especially of the Bloomsbury group, often sought to engage these tensions politically and socially, making vocal their disapproval of the war and of the inherited social mores of the Victorian era.

Modernists concerned themselves to a large degree with form. Pound's famously ironic dictum, “Make it new,” does in fact characterize a large part of modernist art as cubism and abstract art along with atonal music challenged the traditional mimetic and harmonic expectations in their respective fields. Dramatists such as Luigi Pirandello experimented with conventions of the theater by having their characters consciously break the theatrical illusion through metadrama. And many times such experimentation lead to what Eliot advocated as difficult literature capable of expressing the difficulty of the times. However, as attested to by Bonnie Kime Scott, “aloof indecipherability is not much valued among the [largely female group of] writers contained in [The Gender of Modernism]” (15).

The issue of gender also figures prominently in modernist literature, highlighted by the manner in which it was marginalized by the initial treatment of the period. Women writers were active, producing their own work as well as engaging the texts of their male counterparts. Women's suffrage movements were in full swing in the early 1900s and before, and others like Virginia Woolf followed in the footsteps of Mary Wollstonecraft in advocating that the universities be opened to women, and further, that women writers of the past be revisited and given their own room in the canon. As illustrated in Scott's introduction to the updated Gender in Modernism, the critical approach and treatment of gender is still evolving and expanding as she compares and contrasts passages from her previous edition.

As treatment of Modernism continues to develop, and its scope continues to broaden, Eliot's statement quoted by Pericles seems ever more appropriate: “the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (27). The writers themselves felt the pressures of the times in which they lived and strove to react to them, to exchange the baton that had been passed on to them by their predecessors. And criticism even today is reshaping the way we view their world as well as our own. Perhaps, in light of the factors of time, resistance against tradition, experimentation, activism, and the redefining of gender among many others, Modernism may best be described as a movement of many actors, speaking not always in unison—often in discord—yet somehow contrapuntal, joined together by their like-minded attempt to deal intimately with the fragmented world in which they found themselves in an attempt to build up the individual in defense against a broken world.