Why Does Modernism Matter?

What is Modernism?

Modernism is a term used to refer to a collection of aesthetic, philosophical, and (in some cases) scientific movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, in the arts, movements like surrealism, expressionism, imagism, and vorticism are usually included under the umbrella term modernism. Today, many scholars use the term generally, but, since the inception of New Modernist Studies in the late 1990s, many agree that modernism is really more of a loose term than a rigid definition.

For many, modernism encapsulates some of the most significant events in recent history, like the First World War and the Second World War (and consequently, the Holocaust), as well as events like Einstein’s discovery of quantum physics, the invention of atomic warfare, the shift from primarily rural to urban populations (in the US), and the women’s suffrage movement (in the US and Britain). The list goes on.

Naturally, this is not to suggest the modernist period is more important than, say, the medieval or early modern periods (i.e., the Renaissance), but it is necessary to note that Western and even non-Western societies changed drastically during the modernist era.

Why Should I Care About Modernism?

For starters, modernists address many of the same issues that we still deal with today. One of the key ideas I’ll address here is the alienation of the modern world, which authors in the modernist period sought to critique. Let’s take Franz Kafka as an example.

Kafka was a Czech-born German Jewish writer who never really received literary fame until after he died. Today, we have the word Kafkaesque to describe the alienating, seemingly pointless (and often bureaucratic) way of life we experience on a day-to-day basis, and Kafka appeals to so many because he foregrounds precisely the things we might try to hide or avoid: our sense of awkwardness in social situations, our frustrations with work, failed romances, and the chaos of the modern world. Kafka teaches us that its OK to feel out of place, that there’s beauty in trivial circumstances, and that there are very real and unexpected threats to our freedom.

One of his best-known novels, The Trial (Der Prozess, or “The Process” in German) follows the protagonist, K., as he’s unexpectedly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. As far as we know, at least, he seems innocent. As the story unfolds, K. meets a cast of strange characters, like a painter, a priest, and a lawyer, who seem to know the ins and outs of the system, yet no one can tell K. precisely everything he seeks to know. K. never finds the answers he’s looking for, and he ultimately resigns to his fate: two men (who originally arrested him) come to his apartment to carry out a death sentence. K. dies “like a dog” in the final pages, and we’re left with a sense of hopelessness.

What Kafka advances in The Trial is a theory of contingency to describe the modern world. In other words, K. has an ordinary job at a bank, and he lives his life in a rather ordinary fashion; he is, for all intents and purposes, a sort of “everyman” (or woman). But, the novel is about what happens when our expectations, our understanding of the world, is disrupted. For Kafka, the modern world is chaos, even though we might try to make some sense out of it. Kafka jolts us out of complacency, impelling readers to experience the harsh realities of life; that is, K. feels secure before the events of The Trial, but that security is misplaced. The Trial not only forces its readers to consider the contingency of everyday life, but also the ways modernity creates an alienating environment. K. gets caught up in his trial like a wave, like an unceasing and incomprehensible process.

While this story might seem depressing, it also serves as a wake-up call. Kafka was writing in the years leading up to the Nazi rise to power (though he died in 1924, before Hitler took control of Germany), and, as critics like Walter Sokel have illustrated, Kafka was also writing in a period when thinkers like Freud questioned the idea that we have conscious control over our actions. Kafka seems to be trying to liberate his readers, to grab them by the shoulders and insist they question everything they take for granted.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the twenty-first century, we’re still dealing with many of the same issues Kafka raises in The Trial. That’s perhaps one reason in the recent film Blade Runner 2049 the protagonist is named K. (a transparent reference to Kafka’s work). It’s easy to be complacent, to settle for our jobs, for the current state of affairs, but what happens when that’s disrupted? Or, as Blade Runner 2049 asks, what if we’re not who we thought we were?

Kafka has a particularly bleak outlook, but some modernists, like Hermann Hesse, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, offer some answers. For Hesse, the alienation of the modern world leads to enlightenment, while Eliot insists (in works like “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) that in drawing from history we necessarily change it. Woolf shows us that there’s beauty in the quotidian, everyday stuff of the world, even if its something as simple as stopping in a garden or shopping on a busy street.

Modernism is important because it fundamentally asks us to change our perspective, whether it’s to question our surroundings or to simply stop and appreciate the world around us. For philosopher Martin Jay, in modernism, there are many viewpoints of the world–not just one. And this idea, for many, can be quite liberating.

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