This video provides an introduction to the literary movement known as Modernism.
Encompassing such writers as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Modernism developed out of a sense that the art forms of the late nineteenth-century were inadequate to describe the condition of Europe after World War I.
We’re talking about Literary Modernism, which is a subset of a larger artistic movement called Modernism that embraces painting and music. In the literary realm, it’s basically responsible for some seriously weird literature produced roughly between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II. We’re going to give a little introduction here and go over the who, the why and the what.
Literary Modernism: Who
There are some pretty famous names associated with Modernism.
We’re mainly going to talk about British Modernism and a few sort of interlopers from other countries who mostly wrote in Britain or are more associated with that part of the movement. There are some American Modernists; we’re not going to touch on them right now.
Now we’re going to talk about why these novels and poems are the way they are.
It’s seen by many people as a response to a lot of the destruction and disruption caused by World War I. Remember, like I said, this movement gets going right after World War I has concluded.To give a little overview of what happened in World War I that was so upsetting, it was actually a way more destructive war than was predicted. This is because they had technology that was better than the warfare style it was designed for.
So trench warfare with people shooting at each other wasn’t really what was anticipated. And when it happened, it turned out that tons and tons of people died.At the same time, you have the industrialization of weapons getting better.
And the city transforms in a way that’s upsetting, but also interesting, and certainly different than it was before. It’s this difference that really provoked a lot of artists, including these writers, and also painters and musicians, to really think that they need a new art to make sense of this new world. It makes a certain amount of sense, right?You’ve probably seen some modern art and you’ve probably made fun of it.
It doesn’t really look like anything. It’s kind of abstract. It might be a picture of a woman, but she’s got three faces. That’s Modernism in visual form.We have the same thing going on in Modernist Literature. It doesn’t always make sense.
In fact, it’s a good way to test: if you’re reading something and it seems to be written in contemporary, modern English, but it doesn’t make any sense, chances are that you might be looking at a work of Modernist Literature. So that’s a good little trick to use if you’re trying to identify it.
Literary Modernism: What
So that’s an overview of why and what they’re getting at with some of their weird techniques, and why they get there. Now, for our last little segment, we’ve gone over the who and the why, and now we’re going to take a look at the what.
What actually is going on in these works that makes them so weird?We’re going to boil it down to four things: nonlinearity of plot or sequence of things; irony and satire (these people love making fun of stuff and that’s a characteristic); voices and the idea of stream of consciousness – that’s going to be really important; and also allusions – basically, shout outs to other works, like you put in a little quote from something else and you’re suggesting that the reader might want to go take a look at that other thing. With these four things, we’re going to go over quick examples of all of them.Nonlinearity: basically, like I said, Modernist works don’t always necessarily have plots, first of all. When they do have plots, they don’t always seem to go in the way that you’d expect, like from beginning to middle to end.
This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar concept to you. There are tons of movies right now or recently that have taken advantage of this. Think Pulp Fiction. You never know what’s totally going on, like where things are or what’s happened before.
Also, think Inception and Memento.The thing about all of these movies – first of all, they’re all great movies – they all become puzzles. Part of the fun of it is trying to figure them out. With Inception, did the top keep spinning or did it not keep spinning? There are people debating it all over the Internet.Part of the fun of the movie is that you don’t know and that’s true of Modernist works as well. Part of the fun of reading it, or the intent of reading it, is that you’re putting together the pieces of this puzzle and trying to figure out why it’s presented the way it is.
So now irony and satire play a big role because these people are always saying things halfway. Verbal irony is just saying one thing and meaning its opposite. Let’s say someone’s got their cat and it’s crawling up your leg and they ask you how you are.
If you say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m fantastic,’ that’s verbal irony.It can also be situational. So if someone like a celebrity gets up and they’re talking about the dangers of alcoholism and then they end up in rehab the next day, that’s sort of a situational kind of irony.Sometimes, in the case of literature or plays, it’s called dramatic irony. That’s when the reader and the audience know more than the characters do. So you see a character and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna be fine.’ But you actually know that they fall off a cliff.
That’s dramatic irony.In the case of what I just mentioned, it’s not that funny. So irony isn’t necessarily humor, though it often is. But it definitely is always is sort of a mismatch between what’s actually going on and what should be going on, or what people think is going on.
The next thing I want to talk about was the idea of voices and streams of consciousness. Streams of consciousness is a term that going to be pretty synonymous with people like Joyce and people like Woolf. They employ this technique a lot.
Voices is more the poets. Eliot uses a lot of voices.What these basically just mean is that Modernists are really interested in trying to get into consciousnesses. And not just one, multiple ones. So movies like Crash, is kind of an example with its multiple storylines all at once. There isn’t one definitive voice that’s telling what you should think or believe about the text.The last thing that’s really important to Modernism that I want to talk about are allusions.
Now allusions, like I said before, they’re basically just literary shout-outs. It can be to anything. It can be to another book. It can be to music.It’s actually a lot like sampling.
To go back many, many years, that song Ice, Ice Baby? That dun-dun-dun-da-da-dun-dun? That is totally taken from Queen’s Under Pressure. He just snatched it and used it in his work. That’s sampling, but it’s also kind of an example of an allusion. It’s taking something that you recognize and using it in a new way in your work.So, for example, in Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, he quotes Shakespeare. He quotes The Tempest, which is one of Shakespeare’s plays, with a line, ‘Those were pearls that were his eyes.
‘ Since The Tempest sort of opens with this disaster at sea and the scene in The Waste Land is dealing with this fortune teller who’s maybe going to predict things, recognizing the allusion to The Tempest adds to your ability to understand what Eliot might be going for in that scene. So that’s allusions.
Let’s do a quick overview of what we have gone over. We’ve looked at kind of who the big Modernists were: Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Lawrence and Beckett. And then those sort of movers and shakers: Pound, Stein and Lewis. We’ve looked at why they wrote differently.
Basically, it was a reaction to World War I and industrialization and sort of this new world: new art for a new world. And we’ve looked at the characteristics of what makes their work weird. Those were nonlinearity, irony and satire, voices and stream of consciousness and then, finally, allusions. So that’s an overview of what goes on in Literary Modernism and I hope you enjoyed it!