There are a variety of words that get thrown around a lot when talking about art and, more particularly, literature: Classicism, Romanticism, Victorianism, Modernism, etc. For the most part no one knows what they mean and there is a lot of nonchalant nodding and mmhhming involved when they are thrown into a conversation. So, today, in an effort to continue my quest to help educate the masses in all things literary, I have chosen 'Modernism' as my word of the week.
The Modernist period is loosely considered to have begun with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. I say loosely because there is the argument to be made that Henry James, writing in the late 19th century, was the first modernist writer, and that Joseph Conrad, who published Heart of Darkness in 1899, was surely a modernist, as well. However, modernism didn't really become an all-encompassing movement until a bit later so 1914 tends to be a good place to start.
As you might expect with a movement that features 'modern' in its title, modernism is all about relating to the present as opposed to the past. Modernist writers sought to 'make it new' by creating original and innovative fiction that consciously rejected tradition and its values. It can be thought of, in the words of Modern Literature: A Guide for the Perplexed, 'an impulse to reshape literature and expand the borders of the possible in written language, to break out of prisons of referentiality constructed by writing traditions of the past.'
Modernism elevates the individual and the inward self over the outward and social self. It incorporates movements such as Existentialism, where the individual is perceived as a free agent capable of determining their own life, and Solipsism, a movement that argues we create the world in the act of perceiving it. As a result, there tends to be a real focus on the inner thought processes of the individual rather than external events and action. You might have heard people say that nothing happens in Virginia Woolf's high modernist novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In a way, this is true: not all that much happens in terms of big occurences. Yet within the minds of its characters, there is a lot going on.
In order to examine the inner self and its dense and unordered psyche, modernism tends to become richly experimental. A prime example of this would be the use of stream of consciousness as a literary technique by famed modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf (she's everywhere in modernism), James Joyce and William Faulkner. Although often difficult to read, stream of consciousness was arguably the closest literature has ever gotten to capturing the workings of the mind.
Due to its focus on the individual, it's not surprising a lot of modernism tends towards uncertainty. No one person knows everything, or even anything, and so there is a mirroring of this in modernist literature: themes of alienation, uncertainty and self-questioning pervade. There is a preoccupation with language and repetition, a questioning of reality and high confusion in a suddenly 'Godless' universe.
However, while modernist literature often questions the world around us, it retains a formal sense of aesthetic order. In layman's terms, this means that, although stream of consciousness in modern literature can read like a chaotic morass of random thoughts, texts are intricately designed in form and content with elaborate symbolism. A great example of this would be T.S Eliot's annotated edition of The Waste Land: it makes very clear how precise Eliot was when designing his high modernist poem by referencing the extensive allusions and symbolism incorporated throughout.
Modernism possesses a sort of idealistic faith in a sense of structure and order, which is why it often goes hand in hand with the Structuralist movement that argues there is an underlying structure to all things including art, language, etc. Art was seen as a way to make order out of chaos and, as a result, viewed as having a redeeming quality.
It wasn't until the years of the Great Depression that modernism's idealism began to give way to a denial of formal order, even more growing uncertainty and a collapse of faith and values. It is at this point that literature began tending towards irony and playfulness, and the beginning of what came to be known as postmodern literature came into being. I'll save the intricacies of postmodernism for another week but if you're looking for an example, Samuel Beckett's absurdist writing is a great place to start.
And there you have it: a brief overview of modernism. If you have any questions, leave a comment there below.