Modernism Principles - Longwood University

Modernist Principles:
“Make it New”
English 255
American Literary Modernism
Modernism, according to Christ Baldick, The
Concise Oxford Definition of Literary Terms
is “a general term applied retrospectively to
the wide range of experimental and avantgarde trends in the literature (and other arts)
of the early 20th century”
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th
Ed. (1998) by J.A. Cuddar
“…a movement which began … in the closing years of
the 19th century and which … had a wide influence
internationally during much of the 20th century. [It]
reveals a breaking away from established rules,
traditions and conventions, fresh ways of looking at
man’s position and function in the universe and
many…experiments in form and style. It is
particularly concerned with language and how to
use it … and with writing itself.”
“…the term ‘Modernism’ is not a precise label
but instead a way of referring to the efforts of
many individuals across the arts who tried to
move away from established modes [realistic]
of representation”
Peter Childs, Modernism
Scientific Rationalism
During 19th Century, the Enlightenment
notion of the world as a machine—something
whose parts could be named and seen to
function—came back into favor.
Positivism—the 19th Century belief that
everything, including human nature, could be
explained and understood through science.
Modernism rejects this idea.
Modernist writing reacts to several changes during the first
part of the twentieth century:
industrialization and mechanization
rapid technological advances
What important changes happened?
An Ugly War
WW I was the first “total war” in
which modern weapons spared
no one, including civilians.
The casualties suffered by the
participants in World War I
dwarfed those of previous
wars: some 8,500,000 soldiers
died as a result of wounds
and/or disease.
War was increasingly
mechanized from 1914 and
produced casualties even when
nothing important was
It has been estimated that the number of civilian deaths
attributable to the war was higher than the military casualties,
or around 13,000,000. These civilian deaths were largely
caused by starvation, exposure, disease, military encounters,
and massacres.
The enormity of the war had undermined humankind's faith in
Western society and culture.
A generation of young men lost.
Survivors reexamine bases of certainly, structure of knowledge,
systems of belief and authorities.
Creating a feeling of hopelessness.
Postwar modernist literature reflected a sense of
disillusionment and fragmentation.
Karl Marx
Marx’s new
explanations of
materialism which sees
historical progress as
the political struggle
between two classes
resulting in a new
socioeconomic order
Charles Darwin
Darwin’s new view of
humanity as ascended
from apes rather than
descended from God—
shifts humanity’s
conception of its place
in the world
Ferdinand de Saussure
Swiss linguist who
argues that language is
relative, that words
have no direct
relationship to the
concepts or objects
they signify
Albert Einstein
Theory of relativity
abandoned the concepts of
absolute motion and the
absolute difference of space
and time.
Theories became interpreted
in popular culture that we
cannot know anything for
sure; all knowledge is
Einstein: his philosophies of
relativity challenge previous
scientific notions of stable
time and space
Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche: when he
said “God is Dead” and
argued for the power of
the human will, he
shifted cultural
ideologies about
religion and philosophy
Sigmund Freud
Stressed subconscious
motives and instinctual
After Freud, impossible to
ignore psychological
undercurrents of human
Writers deal with
subconscious motivations.
Employ stream of
consciousness technique
similar to Freud’s
therapeutic tactic of free
Alternate spiritualities and religions
The Golden Bough
 From Ritual to Romance
 Theosophy
 Golden Dawn
Refused direct
representation of
Favor of expressing an
inner vision, emotion, or
spiritual reality.
The Scream by Edvard
Munch evokes a whole
realm of spiritual agony.
Aim to bring a fuller
awareness of human
conscious and
unconscious states.
Key Descriptors
a “literature in crisis”
loss and despair
violence and alienation
race relations
historical discontinuity
decadence and decay
rejection of history
unavoidable change
Things Modernist Writing Does
 Elevation
of art over everything
else (morality, money, middleclass values)
 Avant garde—alienated from
social reality
Things Modernist Writing Does
Characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19thcentury traditions reader: conventions of
realism ... or traditional meter.
Predominantly cosmopolitan
Expresses a sense of urban cultural
Represents psychological time, the stream of
Things Modernist Writing Does
“Make it New”
Art is unique and original, is anti-commercial
It explores the human subconscious (think
Relies on and employs myth as a reaction
against scientific rationalism, uses sensuality,
intuition and a search for “Truth”
Things Modernist Writing Does
Time is circular rather than linear
Feels human character can only be known
through memories and thoughts versus
external description
Reacts against Realism and Victorian
morality, find sexuality and sexual desire as
a subject
Modernism is disenchanted
Forms of Modernist Writing
Experiments with point of view and narrative
Rejection of chronological and narrative
Literature and language as a game
Stream of consciousness
Unreliable narrator
Forms of Modernist Writing
Uses fragments, a non-linear plot
Juxtaposition and multiple point of view
Psychological realism—seeks to represent
the character’s thoughts, feelings, and
memories, his or her consciousness
‘Objective correlative‘--Eliot
"No ideas but in things," Williams
Modernism’s Mission
Literature = art object produced by consummate craft
rather than as a statement of emotion.
Not a set of stylistic features; an impulse to perfect
A refusal of clichés; a system of taboos
A reaction against degraded Realism, especially in
the marketplace
A repudiation of monopoly capitalism’s effects on
human being (conformity, standardization, repetition,
seriality, stupidity)
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