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An Introduction to Modernism in Literature

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1 An Introduction to Modernism in Literature
English III AP/IB Troy High School

2 Precursory Information: Neoclassicism
Neoclassicism dominates literary production for centuries leading up to the Romantic period in literature (roughly the 19th century, though its underpinnings can be traced back to as early as the early 17th century in some parts of Europe, specifically Germany). Neoclassicism has its roots with the Classical period, during which time we meet Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Sophocles, and so on, though much more of Plato than any other Greek fellow is to be found in this literature.

3 The “Neo” is added to the label Classicism so as to imply that various, though very subtle, alterations to “classic” Classicism were made throughout the years. That Neoclassicism dominates the literature of more than 1500 years tells us that Plato, et al really had some valuable insights to offer. Literature during this reign is orderly, logical, and fact-based, produced by authors who are detached and unemotional in their writing (“hello Plato”). This style of literature is seen most profoundly, in our near past, in the writings of Realism (roughly the late 19th century), through which writers depicted life as they believed it really was, without grandiose or sensational projections of what life might be.

4 Romanticism: Moving on in this reign of logic and order is Romanticism, a period during which many of Aristotle’s notions can be found. What follows is a list (not exhaustive) of what Romanticism looks like. Keep in mind that only rarely would all or even most of these elements be present in a single piece of writing, nor would they decidedly be presented in the extremes the following characterizations put forth—they serve to offer general characterization only.

5 Romanticism (continued):
Stresses the freedom of the artist to be highly imaginative, emotional, and/or spontaneous: no longer was the artist to work to achieve mimesis of anything (such as a “Form” or ideal). Asserts the worth of the individual person, the goodness of humanity, and the glory of communication with nature. Sensibility and imagination are valued over reason and intellect—passion and instinct are life’s law. The Romantic man looks for freedom and tries to run away from all the imposed ways that stop this freedom, just as instinct and passion lead the human being to an exaggerated enthusiasm or to a deep pessimism. In the last case, the Romantic wants to run away and there are two possibilities: the one of the travel or the one of suicide.

6 - There is metaphysical anguish: the Romantic wants to reach a superior World. But the romantic finds that reality is not the answer to his illusions. So he feels disappointed. The World where he lives is too grey and as it is too difficult to accept it he rebels against it and tries to run away, even if this is only be way of adopting illusion, by traveling, by somehow escaping that which actually directly confronts him and does not represent his ideals. - One of the most important developments of this period is the rise in the importance of individualism. Before this period, few concerned themselves with discovering their own individual identities. They were what they had been born: nobles, peasants, or merchants. As mercantilism and capitalism gradually transformed Europe, the old patterns were destabilized. The changing economy not only made individualism attractive to the newly rich, it made possible a free market in the arts. What was true in this regard for Europeans was also true for Americans.

7 - The period movement seems to rise from “the moment” when the industrial revolution was destroying huge tracts of woods and fields and creating an unprecedentedly artificial environment in Europe; but in fact it could probably have arisen in no other time. It is precisely people in urban environments aware of the stark contrast between their daily lives and the existence of the inhabitants of the wild who romanticize nature. They feel attracted to nature precisely because they are no longer unselfconsciously part of it.

8 - Because it was during this period that Europeans traveled more than ever, to examine lands of which they had read, nature becomes a central aspect within the literature. Europe had become more civilized, safer, and its citizens now felt freer to travel for the simple pleasure of it. Mountain passes and deep woods were no longer merely perilous hazards to be traversed, but view to be enjoyed and pondered. The violence of ocean storms came to be appreciated as an aesthetic object in any number of paintings, musical tone poems, and written descriptions. Man went to commune with nature so to perhaps gain a deeper understanding and a wider perspective of himself.

9 Stylistically, it exhibits exotic locations, such as the sea, wilderness, or the distant past; it depicts larger-than-life characters, usually unmistakably heroic or evil, characters who are obviously imaginary and not intended to be realistic and who are sometimes even incarnate symbols or stereotypes; its plots are usually larger-than-life fantasy and the prose action-based rather than character or narration based; and, finally, its tone typically is positive and uplifting, with clear moral ends, presenting little or no despair, depression, or negativity. One of its greatest effects is the mythologizing of the past.

10 Now…on to Modernism: Modernism (roughly 1910 – mid 1960s) is an aesthetic movement coupled with an historical time period, recording a radical break with and from the past. It is multi-national and multi-disciplinary (i.e.: present in culture, philosophy, science, literature, art). At its root, this movement is a reaction to world affairs; such a reaction bleeds into all that is created/produced during the era. Specific to the literary movement is a major and self-conscious break with the American and European literary tradition.

11 Historically instigating factors of Modernism:
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, over the expanse of the world, there were many brutal wars fought, there was unrest in the churches that had held ground for centuries, there was the return to the placement of man at the center of thought and exploration (as opposed to the periods of the Restoration and the Victorian, for example), just as there was a maintained logic, order, and style to literature and art produced. In other words, society becomes more secular, even though 95% of its citizens claim a belief in God. Nationalism of the late 19th century pinned “peoples” against “peoples”. WWI: as technology gets better and better, there are more powerful weapons, etc.—militarism—and so maybe this is why we have WWI…that there is no definitive “answer” as to why this incredibly brutal/brutalizing war was fought in an issue confronting those who come to be known as Modern writers. Also, of issue regarding WWI is that never before had there been such a “thing” as this, a happening that couldn’t seemingly be accounted for, at least by the way of employing reason.

12 Instigating social factors/the social landscape of the time:
Rise of cities, advancing technology, dehumanization resulting from mechanization Anonymity (aftermath of WWI, industrialization) Changing class structure (economic boom and swing) Einstein, quantum physics, uncertainty principle

13 - Nietzsche: “God is dead and we have killed him
- Nietzsche: “God is dead and we have killed him.” Nietzsche’s announcement comes with nothing short of great anguish for him and others…he says this late in the late 19th century when the world had, for some time, been floundering in religious conviction and activity, when the countries of the world were at war within themselves and with each other, when morality was being slowly replaced with materialism and the quest for riches, when man could no longer look at the structure and functioning of society around him and “see” God’s presence.

14 What does Modernism look like?
anti-Romantic (meaning is no longer in the act of art but in the art itself) meaning is subjective and no longer needs to be present—we don’t look to art to see ourselves deliberate break from the past (in style, form, content, as well as historical location) alienation from society, loneliness procrastination, inability to act agonized recollection of the past, causing man to create own myths in his mind to fall back on

15 fear of death coupled with a constant awareness of death
inability to express or to feel “real” love ironic: attenuated emotion yet a sense of excitement about the future (that, incidentally never amounts to anything—a tragic struggle against disappointment) world as a wasteland inability to see self reflected in the surrounding world, in others

16 The writer in the Modern period will reflect these ideas through his works. He will also:
- Work to locate meaning from the viewpoint of the individual; use of narrators located within the action of the fiction, experiencing the events from a personal, particular (as opposed to an omniscient and/or “objective”) perspective; use of many voices, contrasts and contestations of perspective so that the reader sees the story from many different “perspectives”; make disappear the omniscient narrator, especially as ‘spokesperson’ for the author

17 Move time into the interior: time becomes psychological time (time as “innerly” experienced) or symbolic time rather than a historic reality. Time is used as well more complexly as a structuring device through a movement backwards or forwards through time, the juxtaposing of events of different times, and so forth. Incidentally, art always attempts to “imitate” or re-present reality; what changes is our understanding of what constitutes reality, and how that reality can best be re-presented, presented to the mind and sense most faithfully and fully.

18 Represent various typical themes, including: question of the reality of experience itself; the search for a ground of meaning in a world without God; the critique of the traditional values of the culture; the loss of meaning and hope in the modern world and an exploration of how this loss may be faced. Work to show the surface disorder of the world/society and nevertheless imply there exists a certain underlying unity. Work to depict the myriad ways his characters can become honorable and dignified in a world seemingly lacking both honor and dignity.

19 What’s the point of all this Modernist writing?
Complete a search, or simply to undertake a search and so be “battered” and educated by it, for an understanding of the self in the context of the world/society Simple search for meaning Make meaning out of experience to make living purposeful

20 Modern characters are generally on some type of quest, preparing to recompense themselves (and often recreate themselves in a fashion that is understandable to them). They undertake this quest so as to live all they can and find meaning in a disordered and confused world. These characters do not know or understand a world of rationality and staunch morality that once reigned, but see in front of them a world characterized by loose morality and a people easily seduced by transitory pleasures, who exhibit little ambition or motivation or regard for the consequences of their actions.

21 Thus generalized, Modernism can be said to:
arise from a sharp and biting sense of loss on ontological grounding be a response to a sense of social breakdown be a reaction to WWI see the world as fragmented, unrelated in its pieces perceive the connective threads of existence (that which unites mankind) previously present as missing (i.e.: morality, religion, common goals and experiences) be ironic, but not unfeeling question the purpose of art because it perceives the world as falling apart

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