In the first half of this course, we have looked at examples from the precursors of modernism. What the primary characteristics of this early Modernism? Pick 2 of 3 texts to discuss in-depth your...

In the first half of this course, we have looked at examples from the precursors of modernism. What the primary characteristics of this early Modernism? Pick 2 of 3 texts to discuss in-depth your description of early Modernism.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the most compelling descriptions of early Modernism would be its articulation in shifting notions of power.  Modernist works such as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground are essential works of early Modernism because of how they depict power.  In both works, power is radically transformed from a traditional authoritarian structure.  Both Russian authors articulate a condition of power that is defined from "the bottom up," asserting that power is fluid and reflective of constant change.

In The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov defines power as a changing quality.  Power is not static.  Rather, a malleable construction of power is critical in human consciousness.  It is the means by which individuals understand themselves, their world, and their place in it.  The drama's basic idea of an aristocratic estate being sent up for auction, while its inhabitants struggle to make sense of it is reflective of an understanding of the change and lack of totality within power. The rich and landed elite no longer enjoy the power they once did.  The disenfranchisement of the Ranevsky family is critical to the changing scene of power.  The rise of former serfs like Lokhapin reflect an emerging middle class, one that will transform the conditions of power.  When Trofimov comments on this condition of power, it becomes clear that Chekhov sees the changing face of power as an essential part of human identity, something that resonates in the works of early Modernism:

 ...all your ancestors owned serfs. They owned living beings. Can't you see human beings looking at you from every cherry tree in your orchard, from every leaf and every tree trunk? To own living souls—that's what has changed you all so much—That's why your mother, you yourself, and your uncle no longer realize that you are living on borrowed capital, at other people's expense, at the expense of those whom you don't admit farther than your entrance hall.

Trofimov's comment about the nature of power reflects how early Modernists viewed it.  They saw it as a quality that embodied the "shift" that was so much a part of the social context.  Nothing was certain, and everything was subject to change.  This extended into the realm of power and who possessed it.  This quality of The Cherry Orchard makes it representative of early Modernism, reflective of an essential part of its description.

The Underground Man is the embodiment of how power is changing.  Chekhov articulates that the changing face of power is evident in the social changes taking place.  Dostevsky is even more far reaching in his characterization of the Underground Man.  Power is a quality that resides within the individual.  Power is far from lucid.  Rather, it is dependent on perspective and the individual's varying understandings of power make it far from clear and definable.  The Underground Man offers a paradox on power.  On one hand, he suggests that he lacks power in order to activate social change or create the conditions that provide an external construct of meaning.  Yet, he also suggests that in his assertion that he lacks power, he possesses it because he holds a freedom that lies outside of the realm of social control.  It is paradoxical.  It is confusing.  It is how power is conceived in the Underground Man's mind, and reflective of how a work of early Modernism defines it. Consider the Underground Man's description of physical pain:

I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don't know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me. I don't treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let's say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can't explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "get even" with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don't treat it, its is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then-- let it get even worse!

Dostoevksy's description of how the Underground Man views pain is reflective of the shifting construction of power.  From power being an external quality that regal monarchs or civic leaders exert, it is now something in which human beings have so little of that the freedom to cause pain is the only real tangible expression of it.  When he says, "Let it get even worse," it is reflection of the negative capacity of power, the only power that one has.  This becomes the most valid expression of power.  This dynamic is seen in other instances, such as when the Underground Man articulates that "Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over the other organisms" and that self definition is a display of the shifting reality of power in the modern condition:

I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something. 

Dostevsky asserts a vision of power that is not necessarily progressive.  It is not totalizing in its attempt to "make the world a better place."  Rather, it exists in different expressions from which human beings initially might turn.  Power exists in self- harm, in the degradation of others, and in being able to assert one's own voice of dissent even amidst a world designed to embrace assent.  This definition of power is critical to Notes from the Underground.

As Moderism advanced, Virginia Woolf offered a fairly compelling definition of the movement.  She argued that Modernism existed in the articulation of shifting dynamics that governed the individual and their world:  “All human relations shifted... and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”  Woolf's understanding of how Modernism is associated with shifting valences of power is evident in the early works of the movement that Chekhov and Dostoevsky offer.

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