Modernism #7: So what is Modernism?

As will be clear by now, Modernism is notoriously tricky to define. In fact, it is wrong to think of Modernism as just one thing. It is made up of all kinds of other isms: Impressionism, Expressionism, Imagism, Vorticism, Futurism, Absurdism, Dadism, Surrealism, to name but a few. For sure, these different isms share some characteristics: an interest in the limits of subjectivity; nihilism; a self-conscious laying-bare of the processes of artistic construction; an emphasis on fragmentation, chaos and broken-ness as opposed to cohesion, order and harmony; an awareness of the limits of language and the difficulty of communication; a distrust of authority. But many other writers – from Shakespeare to Zadie Smith – share these characterstics, too.

Perhaps the thing that marks something as “Modernist”, then, is an emphatic break from tradition, a rebellion against old ways of doing things. The modernist poet Ezra Pound’s (1885-1972) motto, “Make it new”, might well be the battle cry of the movement. But artists have been “making it new” for as long as art has existed, so it seems odd to confine Modermism to a slim slither of the 20thcentury. Perhaps Josipovici was right – perhaps Don Quixote was a Modernist text. It is, after all, popularly thought of as the first novel – and the word novel literally means “new thing”. And perhaps people are still producing Modernist texts – perhaps, as Will Self recently put it, “we are still solidly within the Modernist era”.

Further Reading:

Gabriel Josipovici, Whatever Happened to Modernism? (New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2010)

Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou (ed.), Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 1998)

Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971)

Michael Sayeau, Against the Event: the Everyday and the Emergence of Modernist Narrative(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

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