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Characteristics of Modernism

Modernist elusions: madeleines for Sweeney

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Oct 8, 2006, 1:18pm Top

I thought I'd move this topic started in the "Should we eliminate this group" into its own.

I've always understood modernism to be characterized, in many but not all ways, by a fundamental loss of faith in the institutions that had, up until WWI or so, been the most important aspects of human existence.

The modernists replaced this void with a focus and faith on and in the "individual." So you get the classic modernist characters Bloom, Marcel, and Ulrich.

This loss of faith in traditions created a vast amount of room for the experimentation in both form and content that resulted in one of the most fruitful eras of human creation.

Virtually all of my experience with modernism is with literature, so I'm interested to see how art and music fit in.

Edited: Oct 8, 2006, 7:08pm Top

You raise the question of literature as compared to art and music. So when and where is the leading edge of modernism, in art, music or literature? I think that has much to do with just what we think the modernists are rejecting or defining themselves against.

Certainly, one early marker in art is the "Salon of the Refused" in 1863, which is one of the best dates for the birth of impressionism. By this time, photographic images show technology impinging on art as never before and modern warfare rears its ugly head in the American Civil War. The Symbolist Manifesto is in 1886, and by that time there is not only a full-fledged anti-Academy movement in France, but the movement is even large enough to be splintering.

Are we willing to call any earlier literary figures modernists, or do we cede that the first modernists are the painters. Perhaps Baudelaire, whose Flowers of Evil was published in 1857?) could qualify as a modernist? I don't think any of the American's of the time could qualify - though Poe would become a favorite of many of them.

Oct 8, 2006, 6:41pm Top

I don't know much about Baudelaire, but the thought of Poe as a modernist is intriquing. It seems there are a number of Amercian authors in the middle of the 19th century who I haven't heard of being associated with any particular movement, Poe among them. Given the individualistic nature of their work, I'm thinking Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick in particular, it might be fair to apocryphally describe them as pre-modern.

And thanks for the info on the beginnings of the visual arts contribution to the movement. Is there a particular artist or work that can be described as archetypal for modernism, in the same way that Ulysses is often considered the archetypal modernist novel?

Oct 8, 2006, 7:20pm Top

I think the works that would be the poster children for modernism in the visual arts would be Les Demoiseles d'Avignon and Guernica by Picasso, The Scream by Edvard Munch, The Persistance of Memory by Salvadore Dali or the Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. I wouldn't include impressionist works, which were just too early in the development of modernism to become the kind of archetype that Ulysses (or The Wasteland ) would be for literature. I'm sure there are others that can be added, just as there are with literature.

Oct 8, 2006, 10:56pm Top

Thank you both. While I can't, yet, contribute even a useful question, this does overlap the edges of my minimal knowledge; so it's both coherent, and gratefully read. :)

I look forward to more 'eavesdropping'....

Oct 14, 2006, 1:25pm Top

If anyone has an interest in Baudelaire, check out http://fleursdumal.org, which has both all the poems from Flowers of Evil and multiple translations of them over the years (see, for example, http://fleursdumal.org/poem/101 ). Great stuff.

Oct 18, 2006, 9:53am Top

Thanks for the Baudelaire resource A_musing. It's an amazing website. I've never read any Baudelaire before and now I have the opportunity to (and in multiple translations with links to further resources) without having to spring for a book.

Nov 1, 2006, 4:45am Top

Marshall Berman in All That is Solid Melts Into Air discusses Baudelaire's courage and originality: "If we had to nominate a first modernist, Baudelaire would surely be the man."

Nov 1, 2006, 10:05pm Top

Pound and Eliot were deeply influenced by Baudelaire, so his place as a 'Modern' was written from the start. It's obvious in Pound's earlier work and Eliot quotes and alludes to him throughout The Wasteland.

Although it's received wisdom that WWI was the crucible for modernism, Joyce's Dubliners was written well before that time. Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry is an obvious precursor of the 'fractured' language of Modernist literature and the layered perspectives of cubism in painting. Whistler's paintings with their 'abstract' titles also paved the way for artists like Mondrian.

The more I read Modernist poets, the more I see their indebtedness to Japanese and Chinese poetry - sparse language, taut structure and imagism. The visual arts, music and literature were deeply entwined movements, as the diaries of writers and artists show (the Vorticists made this explicit).

Of course the War made an enormous impact on the philosophy and style of poets and writers: one only has to see the change in Wilfred Owen's poetry, for example. The seeds of change were already there, however, before the War began.

Nov 2, 2006, 10:29am Top

I've always understood WWI as a clear and convinient sign post for modernism. Of course, movements don't move like timlines and have fluid beginnings and endings. With WWI (even WWI is a fluid point as it lasted more than a day and affected people in different timeframes), I think you can say that modernism had definitely started and was the major arts, literary, and intellectual movement of the time. I think its also a fair question to ask just how much the actual war affected the artists who were driving modernism. Would Ulysses have been written without it? Some signs point to yes some to no.

What Chinese and Japanese poets do you refer to? Do you know how much of those poets Pound and the gang actually read?

Edited: Nov 2, 2006, 10:58am Top

I have no comprehension of how one could use a date as late as WWI for modernism -- it would exclude some of the painting world's icons, such as The Scream (1893) and L'Demoiseles d'Avignon (1907).

I've seen the birth of Cubism lauded as a break date, but that ignores The Scream and company.

Historically, it may all just be that there is a real but questionable bias for finding the gilded age to be stiff, staid, and traditional. Indeed, those stuffed shirts who way back in the 20th century created all this received wisdom may just have underestimated the 19th century as a whole.

Nov 3, 2006, 2:54am Top

Yes the beginnings are a matter of traces surely. (I'd be interested in learning how WWI enabled the writing of Ulysses?). Some date it at 1922 with the publication of Ulysses and The Waste Land. The famous quote from Virginia Woolf marking the beginning of modernism very precisely -- "on or about December 1910 human character changed" -- probably throws into relief the fraught nature of too precise determination of modernism's origins.

Edited: Nov 3, 2006, 10:31am Top

Is the literary side of modernism particularly important, enough so to date it from a poem and a novel?

I'd suggest modernism has a history as a world-view and as an art movement (or collection of art movements), with the visual artists at the leading edge of the art movement (and at the leading edge of the world-view, too).

Someone up above suggests Moby Dick as a notable pre-modern writing - the more I think of it, the more it shows a lot of the distinctive characterists of modernist writing 75 years later. Think of the chapter on definitions and the use of symbolism and images. Setting aside Joyce's unique personal style, what separates Moby Dick from, say, Mann's Faustus that would make Mann more of a modernist?

14artstar25 First Message
Jul 7, 2007, 7:00pm Top

I'm not sure if anyone still reads these, but I feel like there has been many authors left out of this discussion of modernism. Nightwood by Djuna barnes, Orlando by Virginia Woolf, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.. I could go on. Some of the things that I think really describe Modernism are:
A. The attempt to break the normal linear story line of the Victorian novel.
B. The new self-reflexive aspect of the novels. There was more focus on the books making.
C. The attempt to break gender-roles.

I could go on for a while, but these are things I find key to the era of Modernism.

does anyone even read these anymore...

Edited: Jul 9, 2007, 9:53am Top

I'm not sure anyone else does read them, though I at least clicked back.

I'm not sure about your (C) - maybe for some, like Virginia Woolf, but much less for Eliot. There were plenty of reactionary, traditionalist modernists, from some of the Futurists to Pound. Non-modernists like Shaw and Ibsen had waged a more fulsom attack on gender roles than many of the modernists ever did.

I think the break from the linear is important, for poets as well as novelists, and that self-reflective thing is huge.

Sep 22, 2007, 7:00am Top

Did you mean read the posts or read the books? Never give up on the readers!

I have The Good Soldier (unread) on my shelves and was about to give it away when I realised it was commonly listed on all those great books of the world lists so now I've retrieved it from my give away pile so I can see what the fuss is about. I'd be glad to be fore enlightened about why it is significant. I've read Orlando, hadn't hear of Nightwood before but if someone mounts a convincing case I might give it a go.

I'm in the middle of reading Ulysses- although it's my 3rd book at the moment- which is the one I have to return to between the other two and also late at night if I can't sleep, so give me a year and I might get through it. I also really love the Russian (art) futurists - See also my post on the group Futurism-Futurismo. I'll happily discuss Malevich and Lebedev et al with anyone.

Are there any other modernist authors this group could name? Only so I can work out whether I've read them. And when do you all think the modernists end? Were they replaced by another movement? Don't tell me I've been reading post modernists? What about Italo Svevo, "Confessions of Zeno"? Was he a modernist? And John Fowles esp the French Lieutenant's Woman with its alternative endings, 1969- is it still modernist or are the 1960s stretching it?

Sep 23, 2007, 11:44am Top

Nightwood is an odd and puzzling work that is a quick read when you're in a bit of funky mood. It's some combination of brilliant and bizzare, modern and retro, and not quite like many other works. It is short but quite turgid in places. I'm not quite sure how to describe. I have to reread it again (I stumbled on a first edition about a year or two ago, and plan to crack that spine!). It is loved, hated, and belittled by different readers - no way to know what you'll think until you pick it up.

If you like the Russian futurists, you might want to pick up At the Stray Dog Cabaret, a recent collection that covers a bunch of the Russian modernist poets (not particularly futuristically oriented, but their influence is felt) through the first half of the 20th century.

Some of my favorite in the modernist vein or with modernist influence are Nathaniel West, Samuel Becket, Luis Pirandello, Heinrich Boll, Paul Eluard and Paul Nizan. But there are probably arguments as to how much all of them any one of them fits in as a modernist.

Sep 26, 2007, 8:18am Top

I've just found this group; I studied modernism at undergrad and a little for my intro to postgrad - I'm thinking currently about continuing with an MSt in modernism.
I find Modernism one of the most difficult points in history, art and culture to discuss as it was so self-consciously reactionary - on the one hand embracing a unity of the new, and on the other realising that there is no such thing as 'unity' and 'art' and 'culture' and breaking down what these terms mean, embracing the fractured nature of art and life.
The modernist novel in general terms questions the needs of literature; should literature just tell stories, should it not question reality? Novels like To the lighthouse are jarred I think for that reason. One of my favourite novel (which I also found very hard to read) is The Waves because I find it fascinating how the stream of conscious narrative allows each character to question who they are and how their character took on this form. Identity and the nature of how we form an identity is such a mystery, it's very interesting for this to be explored.
I enjoy the fragmentation, the gaps, the loss - such is life. Thus one could in some ways view modernism as more 'real' than the lives that realism intended to portray.
Sorry not sure if I made any sense! I also don't have much experience outside of literature and am looking forward to learning more in this group.


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