I thought I might as well know my enemy a bit more, so I’m reading Bradbury and McFarlane’s classic book on Modernism, Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930.
It does in the first chapter actually pay lip-service to Obooki’s view with the comment, “one [view] is that our art is not totally divorced from tradition and humanism, and that there is nothing especally singular and novel about our [“Modernist”] art and situation at all”; but in a 570-page collection of essays on the subject, perhaps it’s not surprising that this idea is quickly forgotten – indeed, accepted as self-evidentedly untrue without further argument.
The first chapter is largely on that tricky subject, what is modernism? and when did it happen anyway?
The second question, the date, they have already answered in the title: it happened between 1890 and 1930, though putting in the usual caveats around it perhaps existing before 1890 and after 1930. They don’t though opt for 1922, though they do mention other people’s enthusiasm for it and admit it as an annus mirabilis, but add – to Obooki’s satisfaction – that only people blinkered by Anglo-American isolationism and ignorance would ever believe such a thing (or, perhaps we should say Francophile Anglo-American isolationism). In particular, they note previous modernist movements in Russian and German (not to mention Scandinavian).
So what is modernism? Is it a change in sensibility “consequent on Heisenburg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle'”, as is suggested in one place, or “a crisis of reality”? Perhaps it is many things: that is “the paradox of Modernism”.
Suppose, then, that the period we are calling the Modern shows us not the mere rehabiliation of the irrational after a period of ordered Realism, or for that matter the reverse, a period of Classicism after a phase of Romanticism, but rather a compounding of all these potentials: the interpenetration, the reconciliation, the coalescence, the fusion … of reason and unreason, intellect and emotion, subjective and objective.
As much as to say its defining characteristic is its lack of defining characteristic, the variousness of its “grouped” writers; – and besides, why is any of this peculiarly Modern; man has ever been a mix of the rational and irrational: what writer isn’t? – this is how we experience the world and how we have always experienced the world.
The specific date of 1890, however, is based upon a change in the German view of what constitutes Modernity in literature – or more specifically, the moment when Georg Brandes decided Strindberg better represented this zeitgeist than Ibsen (a fundamental negativity had replaced a fundamentally positivity).
All the same, I am quite looking forward to the Russian and German chapters, if only for the factual information I might glean – and maybe there’ll be some new writers to track down.