The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 22, 2002

All that is solid melts into air
Rumina Sethi

Introducing Modernism
by Chris Rodrigues and Chris Garratt. 
Icon Press, Cambridge, UK. Pages 176. £ 9. 99

MODERNISM must be understood as separate from Modernity. It is undoubtedly a modern movement: experimentalism in writing is definitely modern. But so was the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Modernism should be seen as a continuation of these movements as well as a reaction to them. All significant movements are progressive and, at the same time, regressive. If Modernism shows itself as innovating and creating newness, it also criticises what came before it. The Enlightenment principles of the 17th and 18th centuries had produced enough Reason and Rationality to satisfy the mind of Europe. Explanations to all problems were sought and defined and natural laws had been outlined. Hadn’t Newton discovered gravity? And Pope had said: ‘True wit is nature to advantage dressed, What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ And as far as New Criticism goes, had it not outlined the hard, gritty rules needed for the right kinds of compositions in literature? In spite of the ‘enlightened’ thinking of the time, what, then, brought on the First World War and revealed the barbarism beneath all the civilisational good? Can the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the Nazi Holocaust in the 1940s be considered an experiment in modernity? Was the A-bomb which exterminated millions an instance of modernity? Nothing enshrined in the Enlightenment principles could prepare the European intellectual for the mood of bleakness and gloom brought on by the early ravages of the twentieth century.


By the turn of the 19th century, four great minds had pioneered ‘progress’. Freud, with his discovery of the latent behaviour which could be linked to sexual repression, revealed a world of frustrated desire hitherto unknown. Darwin shocked the world by discarding our white parents, Adam and Eve, allowing Evolution to replace Genesis. Marx displaced tradition by rejecting the aristocracy in his dream of bringing classlessness while Nietzsche completely disallowed the existence of God. With the ensuing of certainties’, more and more intellectuals turned away from these prophets of Despair, expressing their disillusionment with the Myth of Progress through their art. And it would be no ordinary art — its manifestations were Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism..

Introducing Modernism attempts to answer all the above ambiguities for the new reader. Chris Rodrigues, along with the fine strokes of the artist, Chris Garratt, explains how Modernism is a movement in the early 20th century which is marked by innovation and experimentation in art, architecture, poetry and novel writing. If a date has to be given, we could roughly date it around the 1890s or even the beginning of the twentieth century, or perhaps after the First World War. Many feel that if there was one year which characterised the Modernist impulse, it would be 1922 when T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room were published. These writings were characterised by avant-garde techniques: they primarily brought in anti-representationalism i.e. reality was no longer available in the standard form one had been accustomed to; so how could literature or art represent it in a linear manner? Tonality in music likewise required a suspension of agreed conventions. The emergence of the psychological novel or the stream-of-consciousness technique which exhibited the brokenness of actual experience and its circularity is another landmark of this time. But there is another covert dimension related to the development of Modernism which this book highlights. Modernism’s emergence coincided with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s: as the European powers busied themselves in grabbing parts of Africa, another facet of ‘progess’ was revealed — the materialistic. By and by, Europe was flooded with African, Asian and Latin American masks, carvings, jewellery and other artifacts. Its museums of Natural History sometimes exhibited Dodos and other times drums..

Though ‘backward’ and ‘barbaric’, these primitive communities were attractive centres of preserved culture for many romantic conservatives. Ordered and stabilised, they represented a return to innocence, to a still point in the turning world, in an otherwise disintegrated and chaotic world. Around 1870, Sir Henry Maine’s philological enthusiasm brought forth exaggerated notions of permanence in his theory of racial diffusion that saw Europe and the Orient as different phases in the same passage of development, with the Orient as the earliest form of European civilisation. In this schema, the primitive tribe symbolised the fossilised remains of the then contemporary Europe that had remained intact owing to geographical isolation and represented ‘the early European village community extant.’ The author-anthropologist began to imagine Africa as a stage of European civilisation arrested half way. Europe could even imagine Africa to be its dark Other, its primitive Alter Ego that rendered its own civilisational status as a mere veneer. When Conrad’s Kurtz cries out ‘The Horror, the Horror’ in the modernist novella Heart of Darkness, his exclamation shows his inability to come to terms with not just the soul of Africa but also his anguish at acknowledging the enemy within, his own European mind. To read Eliot’s lines about the end of civilisation as a ‘heap of broken images’ or to witness Emil Nolde’s Expressionist primitivism can have meaning only within this context. This was the artist’s rejection of ‘antiquated Europe’ which was dedicated in some obscure way to an idealised vision of progress.