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Peter Childs

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Peter Childs

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Modernist movements radically transformed the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary establishment, and their effects are still felt today. Modernism introduces and analyzes what amounted to nothing less than a literary and cultural revolution.

In this fully updated, expanded, and revised third edition, charting modernism in its global and local contexts, Peter Childs:

  • details the origins of modernism and the influence of thinkers such as Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Saussure and Einstein
  • explores the radical changes which occurred in the arts, literature, drama, and film of the period
  • traces 'modernism at work' in literature, especially in writings by a range of British, Irish, American and other Anglophone authors including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and many others
  • explains recent critical interest in the culture and worldwide impact of modernism
  • reflects upon the shift from modernism to postmodernism.

At once accessible and critically informed, Modernism guides readers from first steps in the field to an advanced understanding of one of the most important cultural phenomena of the last centuries.

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In 1845 Karl Marx stated that ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’ (Marx and Engels 1984: 286). This stands as a warning for the second half of the nineteenth century and a battle cry for the Modernist period. Certain writers in different fields did change the world in the sense at least of massively altering people’s most fundamental interpretations of the world. Not least in any such list would be the six figures given prominence in this chapter: Freud, Darwin, Saussure, Nietzsche, Einstein and Marx himself. They are not all from the same generation but were all born in the nineteenth century and for a short time their lives overlapped around 1880, at the threshold of the artistic revolutions that would be collected under the heading of Modernism. In this chapter, these names will be used as shorthand for the fundamental breaks with previous understandings that occurred in Victorian Britain and across the Western world at this time, in terms of politics and history, religion and evolution, psychology, philosophy, language and science. Nonetheless, it can be noted that it would be possible also to trace a shift in understanding around the work of analytical philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Russell and G. E. Moore, instead of Saussure, to bring C. G. Jung’s importance more into view alongside Freud’s, or Schopenhauer’s alongside Nietzsche’s, to emphasise in more detail that Darwin was only one amongst a number of figures who brought evolutionary thought into scientific prominence, just as Einstein has become a cultural touchstone sometimes obscuring such figures as Max Planck, Nils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Marie Curie, and to note that myriad political figures from Aimé Césaire and Mohandas Gandhi through to Marcus Garvey have occasioned shifts in intellectual history since Marx.
Modernism is a literature of the twentieth century but its clarion call is sounded throughout the nineteenth century in voices as diverse as those of Kierkegaard and Carlyle, Strindberg and Melville, Ibsen and Baudelaire. Their Janus-faced perspectives allows a bleak condemnation of the rejected past and an optimistic vision of a refashioned future, an outlook which peaks in the Italian Futurists’ recommendation to eschew history, burn its books and re-create the human in the image of the machine. Here, the belief in a possibility of wholeness, whether of society or the individual, is still evident. The Modernists who followed after World War I were more noticeable for their pessimism and their sense of a failed, fragmented society, in which the uncomprehending individual was swallowed up by huge forces outside of personal control, leaving many writers with the sense that they should withdraw into their art and an intense, aesthetic world where sense, shape and order could be achieved. Such reactions are, for example, arguably evident in the immersion in memory of Marcel Proust, the paranoid visions of Franz Kafka, and the solipsism of Samuel Beckett.

MARX (1818–83)

Karl Marx was a social, political and economic theorist grounded in French political history, German philosophy and English economics. Educated at Bonn and Berlin, he was born into a Jewish family in Germany who had to hide their religion to escape anti-Semitism. He emigrated to Paris in 1843, where he met Friedrich Engels, and there developed his idea of the alienation of humans in capitalist society and the necessity for a proletarian revolution in order to effect social change. He moved to Brussels in 1845 and wrote with Engels the Communist Manifesto (1848) and The German Ideology (posthumously published). After the failure of newspapers for which he was editor, and under political pressure, Marx and his family moved to London in 1849, and in the British Library worked on his masterpieces: Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (1857–58) and the three volumes of Das Kapital (1867, 1884 and 1894). In these he expounds the theory of surplus value, inherent class conflict, the inevitable historical evolution from capitalism to socialism and the attenuating of the state with the successful rise of the classless society achieved by communism.
Marshall Berman has argued that ‘In the first part of the Manifesto, Marx lays out the polarities that will shape and animate the culture of Modernism in the century to come: the theme of insatiable desires and drives, permanent revolution, infinite development, perpetual creation and renewal in every sphere of life; and its radical antithesis, the theme of nihilism, insatiable destruction, the shattering and swallowing up of life, the heart of darkness, the horror’ (Berman 1983: 102).
It is not surprising therefore that the large cluster of individuals and theories that cohere around the name of Marx and Marxism have been extremely important in their influence upon and conceptualisation of Modernism. Modernism has not only been theorised as an alienation from capitalism, by commentators from Georg Lukács through to Fredric Jameson, it has also had its most radical aspect in Marxist criticism and theory, as evidenced in the writings of Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno. An understanding of the nineteenth-century shifts from country to city, land to factory and individual to mass production can best be arrived at in terms of the influence of Marx’s analysis of history, politics and society. Modernism has repeatedly been characterised as a literature of crisis and it is Marx who places crisis at the centre of capitalist development. On the one hand, Marx sees that crises ‘by their periodic return put the existence of the whole bourgeois society in question, each time more threateningly’, and texts such as E. M. Forster’s Howards End, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, and W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ are driven by a similar fear of crisis and longing for rejuvenation. Also in the Communist Manifesto Marx realises how such a society, through its competitive drive, flourishes through its crises: ‘on the one hand, by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by conquest of new markets and more thorough exploitation of the old ones’ (Berman 1983: 103). Much Modernist writing also understands this cyclical movement, but ascribes it to natural not economic forces: the importance of circles and cycles, whether deduced from Darwin, James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, is clear in the work of D. H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, and many others. Lawrence, for example, insisted that ‘we have to drop our manner of on-and-on-and-on, from a start to a finish, and allow the mind to move in cycles, or to flit here and there over a cluster of images. Our idea of time as a continuity in an eternal, straight line has crippled our consciousness cruelly’ (Apocalypse: 97–98).
From a Marxist viewpoint, Modernist art grows out of a European loss of communal identity, out of alienating capitalism and constant industrial acceleration. The work of avant-garde artists was fuelled by the rise of urban living, the invention of the proletariat and the bringing together of the human with the machine, epitomised by Jacob Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ sculpture. According to Fredric Jameson (Jameson 1984: 78) Modernism is the middle part in a triad of cultural periods that begins with realism and ends with postmodernism and parallels social and economic upheavals precipitated by technological innovations, such as the shift from steam to electric motors to electronic machines, and the development of a mass commodity culture. Modernity, in classical Marxism, is a double-edged phenomenon in which capitalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie eliminated feudalism and brought enormously significant forms of communication, transport and production but also created a serially exploited proletariat which would eventually overthrow it.
Over the second half of the nineteenth century, the vision of an organic society is gradually eroded and conflict is increasingly seen as the basis of life in the industrialised West, as Marx and Engels had pictured all history at the start of the Communist Manifesto. Indeed the Manifesto may be viewed as in some senses the first of the many Modernist proclamations of (the need for) a radical break from the past. Modernist writers were most clearly affected by this in that they attempted to represent alienated urban living. The elements of defamiliarisation and difficulty in Modernist writing arguably stemmed from this disaffection; the Communist Manifesto can be said to be the first Modernist manifesto in that its dialectical contrariness appears to presage the contradictions, ambivalences and double consciousness of Modernism. Marx argues that capitalism thrives on disturbance, uncertainty and the progress that is needed to stave off stasis, and so describes the symptoms from which the Modernist writers would consider themselves to suffer. The flattening of status introduced by the authority of exchange-value also strips away many of the distinctions fundamental to previous societies. The elitism ascribed to Modernist writers can again be read in terms of the loss of authority suffered by professional, spiritual and artistic elites, who all become paid labour alongside every other wage-earner. The market economy recognises no privileges or externalities but considers all commodities and competitors equally. In fact, questions of value and vulgarity are at the heart of the bourgeois mentality but seep into the economy only in terms of the vagaries of supply and demand: Van Gogh’s paintings are valueless in the 1890s and priceless in the 1990s. Many Modernist artists reacted against this by creating a new importance for art, by elevating aesthetics above everything, including morality and money, and by condemning the everyday and the humdrum, often including ordinary life. We may take as an example T. S. Eliot’s disapproval of his contemporary figures in The Waste Land, which is more usual that Joyce’s celebration of his characters in Ulysses. The shift to abstraction in avant-garde art has also been seen as a symptom of this alienation from social reality. Even before the turn of the century, from Charles Baudelaire through to Oscar Wilde, there is a systematic elevation of art above truth, completing the shift from ‘art imitates life’, through ‘art imitates art’, to ‘life imitates art’.
The separation between art and economics within society is a theme of E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End (1910) and indicates one way in which, though the book is in many ways realist, Forster’s social analysis reaches towards a Modernist sensibility; for example, Cyril Connolly wrote in his 1938 survey of modern literature that Howards End showed ‘a great departure from the writing of the nineteenth century. Extreme simplicity, the absence of relative and conjunctive clauses, an everyday choice of words … constitute a more revolutionary break from the Mandarin style than any we have yet quoted’ (Connolly 1938: 38). The novel’s organisation and outlook rests upon a division between the male, practical, solidly middle-class English Wilcoxes and the female, artistic, upper middle-class German Schlegels, in which the former have power and money while the latter have culture and pedigree. Forster, like most liberal or leftwing Modernists, was also anti-colonial, and so it is additionally important to note that the Wilcoxes’ money largely comes from their Anglo-Imperial Rubber Company.
For Marx, modernity is a constant impulse to renewal engendered by the dynamics and crises of capitalism. He divides history not into two stages of the pre-modern and modern but into modes of production. Marx’s vocabulary is also in many ways that of the Modernists, with its apocalyptic images of earthquakes, abysses, eruptions, tidal movements, powers and forces. Marshall Berman recognises that Marx provides the definitive vision of the modern environment in his characterisation of the bourgeois era in the Communist Manifesto: ‘Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face … The real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men’ (Marx, quoted in Berman 1983: 21). Marx sees capitalism as driven to creation and re-creative destruction, renewal, innovation, and constant change, which are also the dynamics of Modernism.
In contrast to the social realist novelists of the nineteenth century, Modernist writers focused on psychology, introspection and individual consciousness. Also, while realists depicted history using a similar set of tools to historiographers, the Modernists felt that authorial omniscience and third-person narration were misleadingly ‘objective’ techniques which did not allow for the position of the storyteller. Similarly, the present always surely stood in the way of any clear and direct explanation of the past. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus declares pessimistically and introvertedly that ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. Writers such as Joyce turned against forms of historical understanding, seeing greater meaning in the individual than in society. The ideology expressed by this stance has been hotly disputed by Marxist writers, and their debate is frequently contextualised in terms of the opposed stances of the Hungarian critic Georg Lukács and the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, a dispute which was continued by Lukács and the German social philosopher Theodor Adorno after World War II. Lukács’ position is best outlined in his late essay ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ (1957), in which he argues that Modernism involves a ‘negation of history’ by self-consciously pitting itself against the past and by rejecting modes of historical understanding (Lukács 1972). Modernism, he argues, was therefore profoundly anti-Marxist. By this he means that Modernist writers were interested in the personal, spiritual or mystical transcendence of their surroundings, and so the social environment in their texts is little more than a backdrop. Lukács argues that this concern for the human rather than the social condition manifests itself in two ways: first, the protagonist is delimited by personal experience, unmarked by historical specificity, and second, the individual is isolated, neither forming, nor formed by the world. Such a subjective representation of reality seemed to Lukács profoundly reactionary, suggesting that culture could be separated from history, human beings from their actual material conditions. Lukács championed what he saw as historical realism’s dynamic presentation of dialectical change in preference to Joyce’s historical stasis, which Lukács thought reflected the individualism of bourgeois society.
Against this viewpoint, the dramatist Bertolt Brecht countered that the purpose of art for Marx and Marxists was not to reflect social conditions but to attempt to change them, and this could only be done through the shock tactics of avant-garde Modernist aesthetics. Real social conditions such as poverty and inequality should not be shown as either fixed or acceptable, as suggested by their naturalised depiction in most realist writing, but as abhorrent, outrageous and unjust. Brecht’s approach in his own plays, which intentionally alienated the audience from the characters and conditions they saw on stage, was in many ways the (formal but not ideological) incarnation of the American poet Ezra Pound’s dictum that Modernist artists should always ‘make it new’. As social conditions changed, as capitalist forces adjusted to and assimilated revolutionary forms of art, those means of artistic representation had themselves constantly to change in order to force people to reappraise their lives. Brecht argued against Lukács in 1938 that ‘Realism is not a pure question of form. Copying the methods of these realists [Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy], we should cease to be realists ourselves. For time moves on … new problems flare up and demand new techniques. Reality alters; to represent it the means of representation must alter too. Nothing arises from nothing; the new springs from the old, but that is just what makes it new’ (Brecht 1975: 424–25).
However, there are different views which take us beyond these polarised opinions and interpret Modernist writing in other ways which are illuminating. Theodor Adorno, a major figure in the Frankfurt School of critical theorists maintained that art and literature, and particularly Modernist art, could function as a kind of negative or contradictory criticism of society, in thought-provoking experimental texts. Adorno argued that difficult texts provoked new, unfamiliar, estranged conceptions of life, which is to say that the dissonances and fractures of Modernist art expressed the individual’s loss of control, centredness and harmony in the contemporary world. For Walter Benjamin, a champion of Brecht’s attempt to prise art from the confines of traditional bourgeois forms, such fragmented existence was reflected in the work of Baudelaire whose graphic portrayal of urban life was to influence Eliot’s London scenes in The Waste Land. Another important critical text is Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, written in 1936, which analyses aesthetic works in terms of alienation and commodities (Benjamin 1973). Benjamin argues that in a world of printing, duplication and photography, artistic works have lost the ‘aura’ that their uniqueness once gave them. The rising technologies of artistic reproduction dispensed with the idea of a work’s authenticity; for example, the idea of an authentic photographic or film print makes no sense. Benjamin thought this moved art’s function from the realm of ritual, where it is magical and revered, into that of politics, where it is mass produced for purposes of marketing and propaganda, with dire consequences for a politically polarised Europe after the Great War. The relation between politics and art, he felt, was radically different under fascism, which renders politics aesthetic, as in the choreography and stage management of Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies, and communism, which politicises art, as in the work of Brecht. These dialogues and debates amongst Marxist critics can be profitably studied in the collected volume Aesthetics and Politics: Debates between Bloch, Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno (Bl...

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Citation styles for Modernism
APA 6 Citation
Childs, P. (2016). Modernism (3rd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Childs, Peter. (2016) 2016. Modernism. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Childs, P. (2016) Modernism. 3rd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Childs, Peter. Modernism. 3rd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.