LITERATURE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

MODERNISM

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Ludwig Wittgenstein

‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. … The meaning of a word is its use in the language.’

The literary and the cultural atmosphere of the 20th century were characterized by deep change. Generally, labelled as Modernism, it shattered a whole system of ideas and beliefs thanks to emerging revolutionary scientific, political and psychological theories that questioned entirely all that had been considered, till then, solid and stable.

DISCARDING TRADITION

In literature, writers discarded the traditional narrative methods which had been dominant such as the chronological setting of plots and a realistic description of society, manners and beliefs, the rational and logical exposition, by adopting instead a fragmentation of space and time, the deep and inner analysis of the subconscious. This reflected a world of rapid industrial development, technological changes and urbanisation, a world from which many certainties had disappeared and reality had seemed to have lost not only its solidity and visibility, but, all in all, any sense.

PHILOSOPHICAL AND SCIENTIFIC INFLUENCES

These general feelings that spread through out Europe were influenced especially by Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) studies on human psyche which led him to believe that all of man’s subconscious feelings and emotions, along with neurotic obsessions, were basically the manifestations of suppressed instincts or desires that the conscious mind rejects as disgusting or criminal. That is why it became necessary to investigate individual consciousness ever more deeply, knowing that there is no objective reality besides the individual and the sum of his personal experiences. This idea of a more profound human reality lying behind the surface of things was supported by other thinkers of the time as the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) according to whom “collective subconscious” would help to better understand the impact of religion, art history, mythology and symbolism on human mind and behaviour; a further contribution to the workings of the human mind were given by the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), who introduced the concept of duration. Bergson emphasizes the difference between the mathematical time of science, “e.g. one minute consists of 60 seconds and each second equals the other, and the time of the mind which is lived in a personal way and changes from one person to another, or from one situation to another. In other words, the time necessary to boil some water is the scientific time, but the time that the person waits for the water to boil is the time of spiritual experience, and is always different.” Bergson identified this second time as “duration”.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American psychologist and philosopher, William James (1842-1910), Henry James’s brother, spoke of the endless flux and infinite change of the inner life, he asserted that reality cannot be objectively given but subjectively perceived through consciousness. In his Principles of Psychology (1890) he wrote: “Consciousness (…) flows. A “river” or a “stream” is the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness , or of subjective life.” Therefore, the present does not really exist and the only reality is that of the individual consciousness where past and future constantly flow into one another.

THE 20th CENTURY AND ITS COSMOPOLITAN OUTLOOK

Modernism was also a cosmopolitan movement. It encompassed all forms of art, from painting with Matisse, Picasso, Braque to musicians like Stravinsky, novelists like Conrad, Proust, Svevo, Joyce, Kafka, Musil, Hesse and poets like Eliot, Rilke, Lorca and Apollinaire, just to mention a few.

This also meant that artists were led to travel extensively and mix with other cultures gathering in Paris, Berlin and other important capital cities, giving the idea, with their own life styles, of really being “citizens of the world”.

THE NOVEL IN THE 20th CENTURY

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Virginia Woolf

 

It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.

As we have already said, the changes that affected society during this time also influenced its literary expression and, around the second decade of the 20th century, there was a clear shift from the Victorian to the modern novel.

Let us underline right from the start that this change concerns most of all techniques and methods employed by the artists of this time who were quite stricken with the overall changes that their contemporary society was undergoing and could not but search for new forms of narration.

Writing Techniques and Devices

Needless to say that even the so-called classic novels of the Romantic and Victorian periods did not strictly stick with the chronological plotting, in fact the writers of the past also applied multi-level and multi-point-of-view narration – Emily Bronte was a forerunner in this sense.

Furthermore, no such thing as an ‘unmediated character’ can actually exist. A character comes to being only because its author decides so, therefore its perceptions and thoughts can only be in accordance with the author’s decisions and choices. Just as it is a choice on the part of the writer to behave as an unobtrusive, impersonal or even invisible mediator.

These are, then, merely fictitious devices through which artists choose to express themselves.

Themes

The choices carried on during this time are, thus, the artistic representation of the turmoil and changes lived through by the individual in that time and age. The themes then, are also different, as a matter of fact, the 20th century novel is concerned more with the inner world of a character than the outer social world, since the former allowed the author to investigate and portray the current lack of distinction between past and present in their flowing one into the other, as it clearly occurs in the mind of the individual.

For the same reason many writers prefer to concentrate on a so-called ‘anti-hero’, who might better personify the doubts and contrasting impulses that characterise man in the 20th century.

THREE MAIN GROUPS OF NOVELISTS

In order to simplify we have chosen to distinguish at least three groups of novelists among those who applied the innovations that we have referred to.

  • The First Group may be identified as the psychological novelists . These closely analyse the development of their character’s mind and human relationships and they include Joseph CONRAD who tries to go beyond the surface of outer phenomena and, in his novels, he attempts to record the mystery of human experience; D.H. LAWRENCE, who concentrated his attention on the inner conflicts of working-class people, and the liberating function of sexuality, which he considered the only force capable of establishing a relationship between man and woman. E. M. FORSTER, mainly, concerned in portraying the limitations and possibilities underlying the complexity of human relationships and the deep contrasts that are produced by the proximity of clashing and different cultures.
  • The Second Group includes James JOYCE and Virginia WOOLF, both chose the subjective narrative technique to explore the mind of one or more characters. They can be labelled as the ones who exemplified the stream of consciousness.
  • The Third Group comprises novelists who were concerned with the social and political problems of the Thirties. These took political stance against totalitarianism and the ideals of scientific progress, George ORWELL and Aldous HUXLEY were outstanding authors of anti-utopian novels.

POETRY IN THE 20th CENTURY

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T. S. Eliot

Where is all the knowledge we lost with information?

In poetry too there is an abundance of innovation, symbolism based on mythological elements and imagery, began to prevail; another important movement was the Futuristic Movement, which developed in Italy in 1909 with the Manifesto Futurista by Marinetti who advocated new ideas in an attractive and aggressive way, rejecting the past and exalting the machine and everything that was dynamic by freeing the word from grammatical and syntactical order.

But probably one of the most interesting features was the free verse, introduced by the French poets Rimbaud and Laforgue, Eliot was among the first to use this style in England.

Free Verse and Syntax

Free verse poetry is free from the traditional rules of poetry. Even though it is still based on complex patterns of sounds, words and images, which create cohesion within the text so much so that it is perceived by readers as a coherent whole.

It does not follow a strict rhyme scheme; the rhythm is given by the cadence of ordinary speech, by punctuation and repetitions, which makes the poem sound natural and spontaneous without losing its musical quality.

Yet, free verse contains syntactic flexibility, meaning that lines may be broken at any point, without respecting the ordinary rules of standard grammar and syntax. The number of lines, their organization into stanzas and their length may vary greatly. They may be very short or very long in order to quicken or slow down the reading pace, or to give emphasis to certain sections of the text, depending on the effects the author wants to achieve.

Poetry and Visual Impact

Still another element gains importance, the visual impact. The way the poem appears on the page, its shape, its lay-out and imagery may have an immediate effect and convey the poem’s subject matter or theme.

In other words there is a close relation between the form of the poem and its meaning so words may be arranged into unusual collocations, they are associated in ways that sound unfamiliar and new so as to use language in a highly subjective and imaginative style, sometimes even creating totally new expressions to surprise, amuse or even shock the reader. Thus language may be deviant.

Experimental Poetry and the Reader’s Involvement

All these experimentations offered poets new devices to create very original and evocative images to stress the poem’s deeper meaning. On the one hand, this stylistic peculiarity sometimes makes free verse poems obscure and difficult to understand. On the other hand, it requires the reader’s active participation in interpreting and making sense of the text. It is this aspect, in particular, that appeals to the contemporary reader.

Images taken respectively from:

http://www.raiscuola.rai.it

http://www.uvm.edu

http://www.viomarelli.wordpress.com

© L. R. Capuana

4 Replies to “LITERATURE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY”

  1. Aha…it took me a while…under Writing Techniques and Devices…last of the second paragraph. I believe an “impersonal or even invisible mediator” would be said to be unobtrusive rather than obtrusive.

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  2. I do love reading your teaching. Where was I when all of this was being taught to me in school? I think part of the problem lies in trying to convey too much at once, or giving too much information about each writer. Grouping them and giving succinct examples, provides so much more insight and useful knowledge that anything I recall (from a gazillion years ago.)

    Btw, did you mean “unobtrusive” as opposed to “obtrusive?”

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