On what basis can a piece of literature can be called modern? What are the basic elements of modernity in literature?

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In my mind, one of the most powerful elements of modernist literature is the idea of being able to undercut the notion of transcendence or totality.  Part of what makes modernist literature so powerful was it was one of the first moments in intellectual history where there was a purely tragic condition evoked in literature, where there is a powerful undermining of all notions of transcendence or totality that is meant to provide a sense of meaning without questioning.  When reading modernist works such as "The Second Coming" or Virginia Woolf, as examples,  there is a strong and powerful element of compelling the individual to assess validity in notions that were previously accepted as totalizing forces.

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Modern literature began around the late 19th Century with, among others, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1863).

Dostoevsky's (1821-1881) ranting, unromantic polemic begins the existential literary canon, characterizing modern Man as "sick," "spiteful," "unattractive," "diseased," "superstitious," "mortifying," and "divorced from life," separated from his inner resources of faith and mindful of his inability to choose against the alternative. The Underground Man is split between action and observation, will and reason, freedom and authority, consciousness and narcissism. All of these paradoxes add up to man's existential questioning of a God whose responses may or may not be his own, a kind of single-minded double argument.

The Underground Man passionately reasons himself into non-action and insults men of action for mistaking secondary causes for primary ones, which is to say they determine value according to objects, abstraction, and essence instead of defining self in concrete existence. The Underground Man supplies the reader with few answers save one: man should create new roads wherever they may lead. In a sense then, man must become a "god" in delineating the answers for himself, not based on reason but faith.

So says Irivng Howe:

[Notes from Underground] is often described as a revolutionary work that helped introduce a distinctively modern feeling or style into European culture. The term "modern" is here both elusive and essential. With different writers it takes on different shades of meaning. But when we speak of Notes from Underground as a forerunner of a distinctively "modern" sensibility, one that has dominated Western culture for about the last century, we have in mind at least the following:"

  • an existential mindset which is supports perfervid individualism, that the individual be defined from within, not by external forces
  • a distrust of group ideologies: colonial, industrial, nationalistic, institutional, urban, even traditional religious values
  • two distinctive styles (Faulkner vs. Hemingway): perspectivism in narration (unreliable narrator) and relativism in thought (Faulkner)
  • a move away from Victorian values and ornate style, favoring a plain, tough, macho, journalistic style which endears the reader toward trust, ethos (Hemingway)
  • a movement toward absurdism and extreme Juvenalian satire in the wake of mass destruction, war, and holocaust.


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