Modernism can broadly be defined as the period where new, radical steps were taken to revitalize the way society viewed life, art, and sciences. The poet Ezra Pound characterized the movement best in 1934 when he exclaimed, “Make it new!” This was Modernism’s approach towards what it saw as the now obsolete culture of the past. Artists, writers, and thinkers searched for new forms of expression and broke from the traditional views of the world. The movement rose out of the rebellious mood the world fostered from the late 19th century to the early 20th century but, to really understand this rebellion, we must acknowledge the drastic social, economic, and political change that the world underwent during this time period.
Modernism was born while the world was undergoing a great industrial change that resulted in new discoveries, technologies, and inventions. Some of these include electricity, the incandescent light bulb, the automobile, the combustion engine, the airplane, X-rays, and the radio. All these revolutionary discoveries created a sense of pride for mankind. They were also able to accelerate the pace by which people experienced life. Man could now accomplish much more through the use of the machine, and this invigorated and empowered us.
New philosophical theories were influential to the Modernism Movement as well. The refutation of the Newtonian principle that reality was an absolute, unquestionable entity divorced from those observing it was a key belief for Modernists. This was a revolutionary theory, which truly makes it a Modernist idea. In 1905, Albert Einstein further supported this refutation when he coined his iconic theory of relativity. It held that time and motion are relative to the observer since for all frames of reference the speed of light is constant and all natural laws are the same. In other words, there is no such thing as universal time and thus experience runs very differently from man to man. Subjectivity and individuality became a focal point for all thinkers alike. Nihilism was yet another flourishing ideology of this time. Nihilism is defined as the rejection of all religious and moral principles as the only means of obtaining social progress. In other words, the modernists repudiated the moral codes of the society in which they were living in. The reason that they did so was not necessarily because they did not believe in God, although there was a great majority of them who were atheists, or that they experienced great doubt about the meaninglessness of life. Rather, their rejection of conventional morality was based on its arbitrariness, its conformity and its exertion of control over human feelings. In other words, the rules of conduct were a restrictive and limiting force over the human spirit. The modernists believed that for an individual to feel whole and a contributor to the revitalization of the social process, he or she needed to be free of all the encumbering baggage of hundreds of years of hypocrisy (mdc.edu).
Modern economics and the role of people in the workforce were transformed by the increasing technology previously described. But, despite us only describing the positive effects these inventions had, there were still negatives that were associated with this new machinery. People used to be involved in all facets of production but, this new age turned men into simple tools that only accomplish small, insignificant tasks. This led to a lack of satisfaction from jobs and work. These dissatisfied workers formed into coalitions which politically threatened the upper class for the first time.
Perhaps most importantly however, was the progress made in the field of psychology. One of the most influential theories which is still discussed today is Freudian psychology. Sigmund Freud was the first to gaze inwardly and to discover a world within where dynamic, often warring forces shape the individual’s psyche and personality. To explain this internal world within each of us, he developed a complex theory of the unconscious that illustrated the importance of unconscious motivation in behavior and the proposition that psychological events can go on outside of conscious awareness. And so, according to Freud, fantasies, dreams, and slips of the tongue are outward manifestations of unconscious motives. Furthermore, in explaining the development of personality, Freud expanded man’s definition of sexuality to include oral, anal, and other bodily sensations. Thus, his legacy to the modern world was to expose a darker side of man that had been hidden from view by the hypocrisy of 19th- century society (mdc.edu).
All of these factors, along with the fact that the world just witnessed the ghastly horrors of the supposed War to End All Wars, contributed to the emergence of Modernism. The consequences of technological advancements were that Modernists felt that they didn’t want to commit themselves to any one system or style. They wanted to be free in their art and went as far as to shame academic art for trying to restrict the freedom art grants. Many new styles and experimentation was the ultimate result. The wrestling with all of the new assumptions about reality and culture generated a new sense of freedom in the realm of the arts. The arts were now beginning to break all of the rules since they were trying to keep pace with all of the theoretical and technological advances that were changing the whole structure of life. In doing so, artists broke rank with everything that had been taught as being sacred and invented and experimented with new artistic languages that could more appropriately express the meaning of all of the new changes that were occurring. The result was a new art that appeared strange and radical to whoever experienced it because the artistic standard had always been mimesis, the literal imitation or representation of the appearance of nature, people, and society. In other words, art was supposed to be judged on the standard of how well it realistically reflected what something looked or sounded like. The new psychological breakthroughs’ impacts on Modernism are not to be discounted as well. Freud had asked us to look inwardly into a personal world that had previously been repressed, and Einstein taught us that relativity was everything. And, thus, new artistic forms had to be found that expressed this new subjectivity. Artists countered with works that were so personal that they distorted the natural appearance of things and with reason. Each individual work begged to be judged as a self-sufficient unit which obeyed its own internal laws and its own internal logic, thereby attaining its own individual character. No more conventional cookie-cutter forms to be superimposed on human expression.
Katherine Mansfield is considered one of the quintessential Modernist writers who is most famous for her short story, The Garden Party. This story was written in 1921 and contains many elements that one would expect to see in a Modernist piece. Firstly, this story was written after WWI and, as most stories that are written post WWI, it is much darker in nature than other stories had previously been. Mansfield also doesn’t really apply a solid structure in her story. For Modernist Writers, plots were no longer linear and did not always contain a beginning, middle, or end. The modernists wanted to capture the moment of a story and often began their narratives mid-action with little to no introduction to setting or background information on characters. Stories’ climaxes were reached through distracted, often fragmented storytelling with unresolved or ambiguous endings (gradesaver.com). The Garden Party is no exception to this as Mansfield began her story in media res, focused the core of her plot on single epiphany moment, and left us with an extremely ambiguous ending. Lastly, it is hard to overlook the classic Modernist use of perspective The Garden Party boasts. Just as the psychology and philosophy of the time began to focus on subjective individuals, so did the writing. Authors began to experiment with perspectives such as stream of consciousness, multiple viewpoints, or internal monologues. Mansfield uses internal monologue here which clearly expresses the thoughts of Laura as her complicated story unfolds.
All of this shows how The Garden Party was a Modernist piece based off when and how it was written. But, the overall plot is also influenced by the Modernism period. Just as Freud and Einstein stressed each person’s individuality, the main character, Laura, also shares this sentiment. She originally feels a great deal of compassion for the Scott family when no one around her batted an eye. In addition, the epiphany that occurs is also in line with classic Modernism style. The seemingly small event of viewing the dead body has a plethora of effects on Laura. She now rethinks all of her previous misconceptions about class relationships, comes to a new realization of the nature of life as a whole, and even truly becomes an adult in just a few moments. She was once a naive girl who fluttered around in her perfect garden world before she witnessed this death and gained all of these realizations. Here the symbolism of the garden takes on a new meaning: like the paradise that was the Garden of Eden, the sheltered world of the Sheridan household is blown open when Laura comes into the possession of forbidden knowledge: knowledge of death, of the realities of life (interestingliterature.com).
T.E. Hulme’s impact on Modernist Poetry is remarkable with him even being the author of the manifesto for modern poetry. He is considered the first modern poet as he wrote the first modern poem in 1908, on the back of a hotel bill (huffpost.com). After the formal, flowery, and romantic era of Victorian literature, Modernist works leaned towards experimentation as they wished to comment candidly and competently on the degenerating state of the world. This context helps to explain the pervasive characteristics of Modern poetry: free verse and otherwise untraditional forms, disillusionment and a preoccupation with perception, and how to cope with a fragmented reality. The Embankment by Hulme is not only his most famous poem, but also a classic Modernist Poem. It discusses a fallen man who sleeps on the pavement of London’s Embankment, a commonly known area where homeless people sleep. He’s down on his luck and reminisces about the old dance parties he’s been at and women he’s been with. Now though, while he has nothing, he realizes that warmth is what really matters and what poems should be written about. The poem then ends with a heartfelt entreaty to the heavens, with the poem’s speaker beseeching God to make a blanket of the starry sky so that the speaker’s wish for warmth might be granted (interestingliterature.com). Hulme’s free verse poem here uses a striking image that’s very uncommon and fits into the Modernism classification. The sky is described as an old star-eaten blanket. In previous years, the sky was seen as something romantic to go along with distinguished and refined individuals. A homeless man in those poems would look up to the star-studded sky and gain the hope to one day pick themselves up. This poem, on the other hand, uses a homeless man who got into his position through his sexual temptations and economic irresponsibility and then wishes the sky was a torn, moth-eaten blanket because that would be more practical for him. This embodies the cynicism of Modernism along and the vices of men which Freud exposed. Modernism didn’t hide from portraying these characters and their misgivings and sins as other periods had. They embraced them and even placed them in the forefront of their movement.
George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is certainly his most famous and influential painting. It’s a staple of Modernism and even began some artistic movements itself. Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. He believed that this form of painting, called Divisionism at the time (a term he preferred) but now known as Pointillism, would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brushstrokes (impressionniste.net). This method was revolutionary and helped him start Neo-impressionism, where artists explored ways of expressing emotions in their work, by using simplified colors and definitive forms rather than simply painting what they saw. While the fact that the methods by which the painting was made makes it Modern in it of itself, the meaning of the painting coincides with the beliefs of Modernism as well. Some of the characters are doing curious things. The lady on the right side has a monkey on a leash. A lady on the left near the river bank is fishing. The area was known at the time as being a place to procure prostitutes among the bourgeoisie, a likely allusion of the otherwise odd “fishing” rod. In the painting’s center stands a little girl dressed in white (who is not in a shadow), who stares directly at the viewer of the painting. This may be interpreted as someone who is silently questioning the audience: “What will become of these people and their class? Seurat paints their prospects bleakly, cloaked as they are in shadow and suspicion of sin (iub.edu).”
Modernism is certainly one of the most important and experimental literary periods that the world has experienced to date. With all that was happening in the world at the time it is not hard to see why all this change occurred. I think it is important in all ages to challenge and progress from the old and start to make something new.