Modernism, 1890-1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury etc. – Chapter 1

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.

3 thoughts on “Modernism, 1890-1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury etc. – Chapter 1

  1. Trying to define an “-ism” always seems like a mug’s game to me. There is no movement that is so unified that one can identify common features. Same with Romanticism: I can see that Dryden and Pope, say, are pre-Romantic and Shelley & Byron & co are Romantic, but I’m certainly not going to try to explain why!

    I wouldn’t deny that , in the decades around the turn of the century, writers, artists and composers were all trying to express things in ways quite different from what had gone before. True, writers, artists & composers are always trying to do things differently from previously – but the differences in this period are sufficiently radical as to be noticeable. I can’t see this as being anything other than an accident of history. Attempts to relate this to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or to the carnage of WW1 or whatever seem to me utterly unconvincing. But, now that we are a century or so from that era, what strikes me more – and what I find more interesting – are not so much the differences, but the continuities.

    In the meantime, if someone can explain what single set of features (other than having lived in the same decades) link Joyce and Kafka and Woolf and Eliot and Proust; or Stravinsky and Bartok and Berg and Schoenberg; and Picasso and , I’d be very interested. Unconvinced, no doubt, but very interested all the same.

  2. I have the idea that these waves of radicalism derive not so much from the times as from the fact that writers tend to read each other’s work, and perhaps take ideas from one another.

    I’m not wholly opposed to the idea that a writer may become conscious of the act of writing and try to connect form with human psychology.

    I even have a suspicion that at times the general social and political milieu in which a writer moves may have an influence on his work: I find it understandable, at least, that radical revolutionary art and radical revolutionary politics in c19th are both often to be found in France.

    Perhaps, these days though, writers at times try a little too hard.

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