Sunday, May 20, 2012

BW21: Modernism

Hans Hofman "The Gate"
If you've read James Joyce's Portrait of a Young Artist, Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse or other modernist authors you've had the joy of reading stream of consciousness narrative.  It takes a bit of getting used too, being pulled into the mind of characters whose thoughts go from here to there and back again.   It can be amusing, exasperating, mind expanding or make your brain explode, depending on the story.  You definitely have to read a bit more slowly and be in the mood in order to read their books. 

The Literature Network (one of my favorite resources) sums is all up:

In American Literature, the group of writers and thinkers known as the Lost Generation has become synonymous with Modernism. In the wake of the First World War, several American artists chose to live abroad as they pursued their creative impulses. These included the intellectual Gertrude Stein, the novelists Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the painter Waldo Pierce, among others. The term itself refers to the spiritual and existential hangover left by four years of unimaginably destructive warfare. The artists of the Lost Generation struggled to find some meaning in the world in the wake of chaos.

As with much of Modernist literature, this was achieved by turning the mind’s eye inward and attempting to record the workings of consciousness. For Hemingway, this meant the abandonment of all ornamental language. His novels are famous for their extremely spare, blunt, simple sentences and emotions that play out right on the surface of things. There is an irony to this bluntness, however, as his characters often have hidden agendas, hidden sometimes even from themselves, which serve to guide their actions. The Lost Generation, like other “High Modernists,” gave up on the idea that anything was truly knowable. All truth became relative, conditional, and in flux. The War demonstrated that no guiding spirit rules the events of the world, and that absolute destruction was kept in check by only the tiniest of margins.

The novel was by no means immune from the self-conscious, reflective impulses of the new century. Modernism introduced a new kind of narration to the novel, one that would fundamentally change the entire essence of novel writing. The “unreliable” narrator supplanted the omniscient, trustworthy narrator of preceding centuries, and readers were forced to question even the most basic assumptions about how the novel should operate. James Joyce’s Ulysses is the prime example of a novel whose events are really the happenings of the mind, the goal of which is to translate as well as possible the strange pathways of human consciousness. A whole new perspective came into being known as “stream of consciousness.” Rather than looking out into the world, the great novelists of the early twentieth century surveyed the inner space of the human mind. At the same time, the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud had come into mainstream acceptance. These two forces worked together to alter people’s basic understanding of what constituted truth and reality.

Experimentation with genre and form was yet another defining characteristic of Modernist literature. Perhaps the most representative example of this experimental mode is T. S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land. Literary critics often single out The Waste Land as the definitive sample of Modernist literature. In it, one is confronted by biblical-sounding verse forms, quasi-conversational interludes, dense and frequent references which frustrate even the most well-read readers, and sections that resemble prose more than poetry. At the same time, Eliot fully displays all the conventions which one expects in Modernist literature. There is the occupation with self and inwardness, the loss of traditional structures to buttress the ego against shocking realities, and a fluid nature to truth and knowledge.

Major modernist writers also includes Marcel Proust, T.S. Eliot,  E.E. Cummings, William Faulkner, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, Boris Pasternak, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and W.B. Yeats to name a few.  

I've had The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald on the shelves for a few years now and for some reason have never gotten around to reading it.  I seem to be stuck at G and H in my A to Z Challenge because there are a few interesting books on my shelves that struck my fancy. And it's also on SWB's list of books to read from the Well Educated Mind. So....  My quest will be to read The Great Gatsby this week. Who wants to join me?

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  1. Read quite a few of the "modernists" you mention above while in college - many years ago! One course we called, "Joyce, Yeats, and Eliot", but it probably had a different real title. Should go back to reread some of those works, especially, "Ulysses" which I didn't understand at all! "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" was easier, as were Yeats & Eliot, at least in my memory!Would be interesting to see what I think of them now after all these years!

  2. Oops, just noticed that my post hadn't published! Now it's up.

  3. I have several on my shelves/kindle but haven't gotten to them.

    Finished The Blind Side by Michael Lewis today


Thank you for your kind comments.