Modernism III

In her brilliant essay A Room of One’s Own, one of the greatest modernist writers Virginia Woolf says that she prefers Jane Austen’s novels to those of Charlotte Brontë. Woolf, a passionate feminist, rejects Brontë’s feminism in favor of Austen’s ultra-patriarchal writings because Brontë’s novels scare Woolf with their passion, their engagement, their rage. Woolf, who wrote angry, powerful essays, chose to create the kind of novels that are very sophisticated and beautifully crafted in terms of their form but completely insipid* in terms of their content.

And this is precisely why I don’t enjoy modernist art all that much. I recognize its importance and read about it obsessively. Many modernist artists themselves, however, bore me. Their art strikes me with how well it is done technically. Every work of theirs is like a country that can be explored in perpetuity. You can read even a short story or a small poem a hundred times and still discover something new every time you approach it. However, in terms of ideas, passion, political engagement – all of the things I really value both in life and in art, that is – there is nothing. As much as I admire form, I still need content, and modernist writers often fail to provide me with the kind of content I can enjoy.

Not all modernists are like that, of course. Alongside the insipid Woolf, Joyce, Valle Inclán, Akhmatova, Borges, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller** there are writers like Kafka, Faulkner, Tsvetaeva, who don’t abandon passion and give up on content in order to produce beautiful form. To give just one example, Marina Tsvetaeva once removed two incredibly beautiful verses from a poem after she discovered that the flower she mentioned in them did not grow in the area described in the poem. The poet had spent weeks crafting those verses but then destroyed them because beauty was not more important than reality to her.

The advent of modernism did not completely cancel out realist art, however. The US literature, for instance produced a middling modernism and a weak, boring post-modernism***. At the same time, it created phenomenal works of realism / naturalism long after nobody in Europe knew how to do it. Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck are amazing and deserve to be read as much as the great XIXth-century realists.

* Yes, in my opinion, who else’s? I have read every single one of Woolf’s novels and, for all their sophistication, all they made me feel was boredom.

** Yes, I know you are appalled by this list because it contains your favorite writer. This beautiful range of emotions you are experiencing right now is what these writers fail to make me feel, and that is precisely why I dislike them.

*** Breathe in very deep and don’t get too agitated. Everybody is entitled to their vision, and you can always share your own in the comments.

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4 comments on “Modernism III

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Clarissa. I agree about Virginia Woolf. The only one of hers that I managed to finish was Orlando, which I assumed was a bit of Surrealism – I was very, very young at the time… and although I do like some Jane Austin she can’t compare to the passionate Brontes.
    If you want a kind of interesting take on modernism, have you looked at the poetry of the Dada Baroness? She wrote vivid, passionate poetry with a very individual use of modern ideas. I’m not saying she was great, but she was different!
    Her full name is Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and she lived a crazy few years in deep poverty in New York from 1914-1924 or so. She was only baroness via a 5 minute marriage. She was also an artist and worked with Marcel Duchamp, but she’s been largely written out of Art History.

  2. A history professor I had a class from as an undergrad said once that Henry Miller was the only English language writer who had truly transcended the Puritan tradition. I did not have a clue what he meant, but I now agree with him.

  3. Woolf doesn’t speak to me at all. She might be writing something brilliant, or not, I cannot tell. I’m not that much fixated on realism, but like very dense poetic prose. Marechera’s work, BLACK SUNLIGHT, makes me laugh because it is so multi-layered. There’s an autobiographical layer, layers of political critique, a layer of Greek mythology and references to other literature, and yet another layer, being the narrative line itself. I think there is also a strong influence of Bataille’s VISIONS OF EXCESS in the writing.

    In terms of the interrelating meanings, if we understand that Marechera had been threatened to be “sent down” from Oxford if he did not take psychiatric drugs, we can read the narrative of BLACK SUNLIGHT as his exploration of what it would mean to take these when he didn’t consider himself ill.

    In the narrative line, he splits from himself into “Chris” a photographer, and “Christian” or Pilgrim’s Progress, who also descends into the underworld as a black Orpheus. He wreaks anarchistic havoc on the world, but then repents of his actions, which he attributes to “having taken Chris’s drugs”.

    The whole book wonderfully subverts John Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, because the protagonist and his double take a journey that does not end with enlightenment, but with certain knowledge that one has been trapped in “Devil’s End”. The devil eventually excretes the pilgrim and he looks back on his anarchist mayhem in a more balanced and experienced way. He had not been himself, because he had taken drugs belonging to another.

    The final passages of the novel are particularly evocative, philosophical and beautiful. They reflect on the meaning of life — our differences and interconnectivity.

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