The term ‘modernism’ is one of those words that conjures up various meanings to be almost impossible to describe given its depth and swath of credence among disciplines. It is only distinctly understood from within the house of orthodox theology and literature. Let me explain: what links the lives of Paul Valery, Milton, Marvell, Augustine Rodin, Van Gogh, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Honore Balzac, Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust? They are embodied in the life, work and sensibilities of Samuel Beckett.
The second of several anticipated future volumes of Becketts correspondence is now published. We can glimpse the diaries and letters to acknowledge the presence that goaded him. It is modernism that weighed so heavily upon the man. Samuel Beckett is what happens when one lives completely and totally within the house of Protestantism. A home built on the severance of sensibilities. A bare table or Van Gogh’s shoes is the perfect embodiment of the presence that weighed so heavily on the man.
His life with James Joyce helps as a key to unlock the mysteries that proved so fatal to him, but for me, it is in acknowledging the austere, Puritan, even Spartan flair that unlocks our understanding of the man.
Modernism is best understood within literature, for it is there that we can glimpse the chasm that goaded those who sought to vanquish the PRESENCE that offered solace to some many classic humanists. How can THAT which healed Dante, Virgil, Machiavelli, Shakespeare and many other authorities be rejected in favor of a stark cynicism. Are the ancient stoics a better, more analogous find for modernists? Perhaps? But I think the rejection of authority or better yet, the relation between inheritance and grace is seminal if one is to unlock the motivation of any modernist. Here Samuel Beckett is central.
Beckett and the modernists despised the arbitrary narrative devices that supported so many classical sensibilities. They rejected the humanizing claim that cultural authority heralds. After Somme they may have a point. What I wish to consider is this very claim. Can one grow up and be fed at the modernist table? My hunch is that they threaten more than they console. At the very least, modernists loved to expose in stark details the sham of any cultural inheritance.
The writers I mentioned above found plot, dramatic incident and narrative momentum, the very devices necessary for cogent, linear novela absurd. Upon measuring their own lives, they found such devices inept in rendering any cogent representation of daily life. What did Freud give that helped the modernist? Freud unleashed the authority of being helplessly flawed, incomplete and contradictory. For the Modernists, we begin here.
If Beckett is the perfect embodiment of modernism, then we must begin to understand the mortal drive to break with authorial tradition and seek new ground by drawing upon a new heritage: one informed from an atomized understanding of human identity.
What did our literate modernists wish for? They wanted to give a voice, a body, to those little hesitations, those sieges of doubt, those anxious questionings that beset, besiege us even as we attempt to construct a cogency being thrown to the world. How else to say it: modernist narrative ALWAYS involves a disrupted momentum.
Historically, the Enlightenment and Protestant Reformation is a great place from which one can render an examination of the intellectual patronage of modernism. But its remoteness to the devastation of the First and Second World War makes it untenable from the experience of carnage that ruled life in the trench. Perhaps a more salient feature is the disassociation of sensibility, that infamous aesthetic from Friedrich Schiller (die Entzauberung der Welt) is a far better place from which we can mine the origins of this mutable movement.
The aesthetics of modernism is the impact of disenchantment. The aesthetics of the Reformation and the Enlightenment embodied in the industrial reformation gives form. Enter the primacy of Dickens. Modernists loathed the old certainties, the immemorial rituals, the deadened hierarchies of Monarchies. Here, the informing presence of any consolation is the be reputed with impunity. In this world, grace yields to the bustling marketplace of enterprise, production and rampant individualism. Perhaps the realism of a Marxist aesthetic is more analogous in outlook. Nevertheless, the anguished life under a vanquished god is the norm.
It was under Rabelais and Cervantes that the discovery of decisive change was acknowledged. But no authority gave form to this assent until the 20th century. This is why Kafka or maybe Borges are studied. For me, Picasso or Beckett remains the perfect embodiment from which to study this disassociation of sensibility. Fair warning: it is my judgement that although worthy of serious study, one cannot live and thrive at their table. The caustic self doubt that drove their genius is poison. For me, the true judgement of modernism is discovered by examining its inability for cogency in ethics or metaphysics. But wait. . .
Modernism is ultimately an ethical proposition. And it is one that may frighten into despair.
Can we live with only the reality of Good Friday? Can a human being find reason to live when the very act of living is unbearable? Can anyone thrive in a world where power reigns supreme?
Modernism has some significance for contemporary people, especially when studied synoptically and inter-culturally with Islam or positivism.
I don’t think modernism has the last word.
The gift that is sacramental realism cannot be refuted. It can only be ignored.
The last word on this interplay will not take the shape of a syncretism. That would only cheapen the lessons that modernists could impart.
In the meantime, it is my firm belief that the absolutism of an atomized self is insufficient. Let’s start there.