As a literary term, modernism describes a specific period of time as well as a formally and thematically oriented artistic movement. The writers we have come to know as “modernists” read like a short list of the 20th century’s most renowned and respected authors: James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Ezra Pound.
Several elements can be said to unify the works of modernism, but we should keep in mind that these unifying ties are post facto in relation to the works themselves.
Though it is true that many famous writers of the early 20th century were familiar with one another – even friends – we cannot say that modernism was a school or intentional movement akin to the Dadaist movement in visual art or the Dogma movement later in cinema. The writers we now call modernists were not necessarily modernists when they were writing.
The individual’s relationship to history (or the “historical moment”) was a particular focus of the major modernist texts which include Ulysses (Joyce), “The Waste Land” (Eliot), The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom (Faulkner), as well as the writings of Pound. In these works we find stylistic and substantial references to Greco-Roman mythology as well as world history with an emphasis on the element of the personal experience of history.
Another marker of the modernist text is a complex narrative structure that often suggests a conflict between the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. Stream-of-consciousness narrative was utilized, the internal monologue was presented as a drama of self-revealing-hidden-elements-of-self, and characters were seen as parts of a drama within which they were integral but of which their own awareness was handicapped by immediate animal and social forces, by psychological need and by family and profession.
A World in Common
There was no modernist school, per se, and the similarities shared between the writers of modernism are interpretational, not necessarily intentional.
We can look at the conditions of the world that were common to the period when the modernists were working and from these conditions deduct some ideas as to the social dynamics that each writer experienced, considered, and lived with.
The “modern period” is described as taking place between the years following the industrial revolution and lasting up to the second World War, or roughly from 1910 to 1935.
At the turn of the century Sigmund Freud had published several works of immense popular importance. Freud’s influence on the western world was profound and is nowhere more pronounced than in the field of the arts.
Modernist literature analogized Freud’s theories of subconscious urges through explorations of the influence of the past on an individual’s waking consciousness.
Additional Modern historical context: Picasso and Cubism were popular in the early stages of the 20th century. Dali and Surrealism were on the way.
Both artistic movements took a great interest in the “historical moment” which was then ongoing as well as Freud’s theories.
Psychology, it would seem, created a sense for these writers and artists that historical progress was more of a march from one moment to the next, in a horizontal sense, as opposed to the idea that history was a series of improvements, elevations. Culture and art, as Eliot said, do not improve. They simply change.
In the modernist texts this notion of relationship between man and culture is parallel to that of the relationship between man and history. One describes the other and helps to lead to a kind of mutual understanding. One is an outgrowth of the other, sometimes surprising, sometimes profound; hinting at a human nature which is not fully understood.
Modernist Themes in the Texts
In “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot presents a fragmented set of lyrics dealing with ancient culture, contemporary culture, astrology and the bone-dead ennui of the aristocracy. His esoteric contrasts between the modern world and the ancient world are central to the poem and his voicing of situational, subjective and spiritual/mythical thought are expressive of the modernist movement’s burgeoning sense of meaning as contextual and philosophy as descriptive (not prescriptive).
The stream of consciousness narrative style of Ulysses overlays a retelling of the Homeric epic of the same name (also known as The Odyssey) and so contains all the major elements of modernism. The past’s influence on the historical moment of the present, the “problem” of subjectivity in relation to truth, and the insularity of individual perspective – all these themes are taken up in Ulysses, chewed up too and mixed with obscure and difficult languages and spat upon the page with purposeful disdain for his audience – by Mr. James Joyce.
Difficulty was an aim that some modernist writers (Eliot, Joyce, Pound) deliberately sought. They wrote about the goal of creating difficult texts in letters to one another.
Perhaps a more naturally difficult style came from an American who did not live abroad in Europe, William Faulkner.
Faulkner’s masterpieces each expressed an interest in the impact of the past on the present as well as the subjective experience of mind and the unconscious. He employed a style of rhapsody in his prose, while writing stream-of-consciousness especially, that was equally difficult but more viscerally stimulating that the works of his ex-patriot counterparts.
Faulkner also laced his novels with references to Greek mythology and Roman history. Yet his use of reference was metaphorical and contextual. The cacophonous, multi-labial classical references of Pound’s Cantos and Eliot’s “The Wasteland” are intentional expansions of the borders of the poetry, used to complicate and renew the scope of modern poetic language.
Each treatment of cultural artifacts, in the form of references to antiquity, mythology, and global language, is in keeping with the modernist platform – the world has always been the same, but only now do we see the universal psychological structures that undergird all human experience. Subjectivity is a surface phenomenon, in other words, yet our subjective experiences make up the majority of our conscious lives.