Modernism Questions and Answers

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What are the themes and characteristics of Modernism? 

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Modernism was marked by a deliberate, intentional break with tradition. Modernism challenged established religious, political, and social ideas. In the wake of First World War, with its catastrophic bloodshed, it seemed that many old cultural certainties had vanished forever. Modernism sought to mirror the uncertainties of the time while at the same time adding to them.

Modernism emphasized subjective perception rather than objective truth. Modernists didn't deny the existence of objective truth, but they believed that an overemphasis on objective truth ignored the vast, hitherto unexplored depths of human subjectivity. Modernist authors such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce used the literary technique known as stream-of-consciousness to elucidate the inner workings of the mind in its engagements with the external world.

Modernism focused on individualism. For the most part, modernists saw themselves as individualists, pitting themselves against a society in decline. As many of the old values no longer commanded respect, modernists looked to themselves as individuals to create their own values, both in terms of the art they produced and also the moral values by which they lived their lives.

Modernism was interested in alienation, loss, and despair. To a large extent, modernism arose out of the alienation caused by the First World War. The so-called lost generation of artists felt particularly alienated from the society around them. Many of them succumbed to despair, feeling that society was so broken that there was no possible hope of redemption. Much modernist work is characterized by a pervading sense of nihilism—that there are no absolute values and that meaning itself is difficult to discern.

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In "The Case for the Ephemeral," G. K. Chesterton attacked both the idea and the name of Modernism, writing:

It is incomprehensible to me that any thinker can calmly call himself a modernist; he might as well call himself a Thursdayite.

Chesterton regards Modernism as shallow and snobbish in the same way that it is shallow and snobbish to look down on others because one has a newer car or more fashionable clothes than they do. An intellectual and artistic movement ought to have more to offer than being the most recent phenomenon, which, of course, Modernism no longer is.

While Modernism certainly has an element of snobbery in it, it is far from being the blind worship of progress Chesterton is criticizing. Modernity is clearly one of the principal themes of Modernism, but the great Modernist writers—including T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce—are far from worshipping the modern age. On the contrary, they write very scathingly about modernity, constantly complaining that it is empty and vapid. The snobbish element of their attitude lies not in any pride at being up to date, but in their dislike of democracy as a central element of modernity.

In The Intellectuals and the Masses , John Carey argues that the obscurity and difficulty generally associated with Modernism are a...

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