The seismic decades that rocked literature a century ago with the ‘revolution of the word’

Here we have the first large-scale book to provide a systematic overview of modernist literature as it developed in England from the late 1890s through to the late 1930s.

It was by exploring contemporary life in innovative ways which led modernist writers to test the limits of established literary modes, transforming them in the process, and challenging accepted views of what literature could do, while offering powerful readings of a rapidly changing and unsettling world.

Andrzej Gasiorek, in his A History of Modernist Literature (Wiley Blackwell, £75 / €101.30, hb, June 2015), argues cogently that modernist innovators did not represent a swing to artistic detachment from the real world, and to an alienation of readers — the oft levelled diatribe — but an effort to engage with contemporary reality and the nature of consciousness in the languages and forms which they deemed best able, in their own imagined worlds, to register radically changing circumstances.

And today, modernism is not dead, nor was it what might be termed a failed ‘project’, as some academics seem to think; it remains an extraordinary artistic legacy that continues to be an indispensable stimulus for creative and critical work today.

Thus A History of Modernist Literature is indispensable in its critical overview of modernism in England between the late 1890s and the late 1930s, and its comprehensive focus on the writers, texts and movements that were central to its development, and the ‘revolution of the word’, to take a phrase from the 1929 ‘modernist manifesto’ of the writer and critic Eugene Jolas.

Gasiorek, a professor of twentieth-century literature at the University of Birmingham, UK, deserves high praise for a remarkable achievement in producing such an engaging and persuasive account of modernism for everyone with an interest in the subject, emphasising carefully the attainments of influential and controversial figures and offering close readings of key works by the most significant authors of the period.

He also discusses in depth the intellectual debates and the material conditions of literary production and dissemination which were integral to the transformation of literary culture in England in the early twentieth-century. I feel sure his history will turn out to be the standard reference work in its field, affording as it does valuable insights into the conceptual and philosophical kaleidoscope of modernism.

A ‘key modernist anxiety’, that destiny has no meaning in a mechanical universe — if, as T S Eliot wrote, that which is wound up must run down — is expressed in various works through depictions of the cosmos as a congeries of random atoms, the human subject as a machine and the world as an absurd accident that should be viewed as a comic spectacle.

But the counterpoint to this is modernism’s explorations of consciousness which can move the subject beyond the pessimistic position, as seen in the use of the device of ‘secular epiphany’, which is mentioned by Gasiorek only in passing, so leading to my only criticism of A History of Modernist Literature. ‘Epiphany’ appears in the book’s index, but not ‘consciousness’. Admittedly, for some literary academics, and Gasiorek might be one of them, the device, or experience, of epiphany has lost its relevance and become, for them, a cliché. This, I feel, is lamentable, and I must explain why.

Consciousness was barred from serious scientific research for most of the twentieth century, but over the last two decades it has become a rapidly growing area of study for psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists, although their studies are far from conclusive about the nature of consciousness, frequently referred to as ‘the last great mystery of science’.

Yet a hundred years ago, certain novelists grasped the significance of the epiphanic experience, that revelatory breakthrough from everyday consciousness, for the expansion of human consciousness and the furtherance of their art. It was integral to the ‘poetic turn’ manifest in fiction of the modernist period, and represented a breakthrough in the representation of consciousness within novelistic discourse.

I would say its use was a way of eternalising symbolic truth, and it was an important presence in the works of a number of American and European authors, for example, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Dorothy Richardson, Henry James, Edith Wharton, D H Lawrence, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust and Hermann Hesse.

For Joyce, Richardson and Woolf, Conrad to a certain extent, and Walter Pater, a forerunner in the field (being a leading figure in the English aesthetic movement of the 1880s), epiphany was bound up with aesthetics which, through its principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in art, might be regarded itself as an entry point to a higher consciousness. Indeed, it can be argued that there is no fundamental difference between the aesthetic experience and the mystical experience, that the ‘psychological mechanisms’ are identical in each case.

Epiphany, as emphasised by Joyce (similarly, the ‘moment of vision’ of Conrad, and the ‘moment of being’ of Woolf), is crucial to the structure and development of the narrative of particular novels and, in particular, to the question of the attainment of selfhood (that quality that constitutes one’s individuality) in their central characters. In order to convey such potential, the novel had to embrace the techniques of poetry where the origins of novelistic epiphany, for the most part, lay.

Epiphanic experiences are a crucial part of what I would describe as a pilgrimage to the self portrayed in such works; they are the most personal elements in the narratives, both in the created worlds of the protagonists and in their being arguably the most direct contributions made by the authors which, I would suggest, represent the defining points of the quality of their imagination. The novelists I mention relied on these illuminating incidents to reveal and emphasise, with immediacy, the inner meaning of situations affecting the individuation of a character.

As for poetry, the general modernist legacy is as strong today as ever. However, for T S Eliot, as for Laura Riding, as Gasiorek says, poetry was a form of action its own right, a creative practice inseparable from a universalist view of literature as a form of, in Riding’s words, ‘common human truth-bearing’ — an approach which, I would argue, has been sadly lacking in academia and English language poetry for the past half-century or more.

Andrzej Gasiorek is the author of Postwar British Fiction: Realism and After (1995), Wyndham Lewis and Modernism (2003) and J. G. Ballard (2005), and the co-editor of T. E. Hulme and the Question of Modernism (2006), Ford Madox Ford: Literary Networks and Cultural Transformations (2008), The Oxford History of the Novel in English Vol. 4: The Reinvention of the British and Irish Novel 1880–1940 (2010), The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms (2010), and Wyndham Lewis and the Cultures of Modernity(2011). He is also co-editor of the journal Modernist Cultures and editor of the Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies.

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