Modernism Before Modernism

It’s been on my mind for a while to do yet another little project, though this one’s probably a bit longer and more open-ended than any of my other projects (but at least it should encourage me to read a few books that, in truth, I really do want to read). This one (as its title suggests) is based on a premise (perhaps self-evident, I don’t know) that modernism wasn’t really a break from anything – wasn’t, as some say, an attempt to revolutionise art in the same way that science would being revolutionised; – wasn’t, a way of mirroring this “complex” modern world of ours in art – the inherently false proposition: if the bases of our lives have changed, then the basis of our art must change as well. In fact, if modernism is anything, it is perhaps only the codification of an avant-garde spirit which has always resided in our most accomplished writers. This is going to be my proposition anyway.

But before we start an investigation into Modernism Before Modernism, I supposed we’re going to have decide two things: what exactly is modernism, and when did it begin? – Well, to take the question of the date first: modernism began roughly around 300B.C. (so, about a century and a half after post-modernism then) with the work of Callimachus and his Alexandrian cohorts, what with their focussing on the everyday lives of epic heroes; – but overlooking this, I guess probably about 1870 (largely in France, and not reaching the English-language world, seemingly, until considerably later – probably about 1910). – But as to what modernism is, ah! – this will be my downfall, since all these artistic movements like to remain vague and indefinable (I can already foresee the objection: but that isn’t what modernism is at all; he is merely constructing some sort of straw man argument), so I will just content myself with some vague notions of my own:

  • A will to produce “something completely different” / a rejection of tradition
  • An interest in interiority / psychology
  • An exploration of the possibilities of form

(Feel free to put forward more criteria)

Anyway, as I say, really it’s just an excuse to get on with, and perhaps be recommended, some books that should perhaps be recognised a little more than for being “precursors” of modernism. Here’s my list, to start with:

  • The Pillow Book, by Seo Shonagon (965)
  • Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, by Francesco Colonna (probably) (c15th)
  • The Unfortunate Traveller, and Other Works, by Thomas Nashe (late c16th)
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, by Laurence Sterne (1759-68)
  • The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)
  • Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1809)
  • Various Stories, by Heinrich von Kleist (early c19th)
  • The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, by E T A Hoffmann (1820)
  • Love, by Stendhal (1822)
  • Sartor Resartus, or The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh, by Thomas Carlyle (1831)
  • The Life of Henry Brulard, Stendhal (1835-1836)
  • Lenz, by Georg Büchner (1836)
  • Green Henry, by Gottfried Keller (1854-1855)
  • Maldoror, by Le Comte de Lautrémont (1868-9)
  • Marius the Epicurean, His Sensations and Ideas, by Walter Pater (1885)

(And sundry other c19th German works, no doubt).


4 thoughts on “Modernism Before Modernism

  1. This going back a bit I know, but did you ever read any of the threatened von Kleist?

  2. Hmm, I might have. It depends whether I’d already read what I’ve read before I wrote this post. I’ve read The Marquise of O, and a few of the shorter stories. – I might read some more very soon though: it’s a book I’m always on the point of picking up again because, once Michael Kohlhaas is out the way, it would be quite quick to finish.

    The Marquise of O was ok, as I remember. People seem to consider it a perplexing tale, it remaining somewhat uncertain what actually occurred – but I couldn’t help wondering, perhaps it was just badly thought through by Kleist.

    Looking at the above list, I haven’t really read many of these: Werther, Lenz, half of Love and Tristram Shandy and a few bits out of others. Not that I haven’t come across many more suggestions since then: not least, The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning, which I’ve just vaguely begun.

  3. I bought a copy of Michael Kohlhaas recently, without knowing much about it or Kleist.

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