My attempts to define modernism either drift into its origins or become unsatisfactorily reductive, so I’ll borrow T. J. Clark’s framing of modernism as ‘a distinctive patterning of mental and technical possibilities’. It’s almost easier to define modernism in negative terms, as what it is against. For example, in literature: a reaction to narrative, to needless artifice. I like Gabriel Josipovici’s suggestion that modernism is art coming to consciousness of its own limits and responsibilities. I’m also fully behind Tom McCarthy’s conception that ‘modernism is not a movement, nor even a way of thinking, but an event: an event with which any serious writer has, in some way or another, to engage, and to which they should respond.’

Even in the context of an article predicated upon – and attempting to come to terms with – how difficult it is to define, can we really say modernism is "a reaction to narrative, to needless artifice"? I don't think we can... Regardless, Anthony Brown and David Winters have a fascinating conversation over on 3:AM working through these definitional problems in a thought-provoking piece. Nice idea doing this as a dialogue: the form is anti-didactic from the get-go and allows both authors to open the problem out knowing full well they'll never close it down. It bears a full response. Am working on it. And countless other things!

Readers Comments

  1. Where I think I was disagree with the points made in that discussion is I don't agree modernism was about a sense of artifice. It seemed to me when Woolf said "human character changed", she was redefining the ways writing could capture consciousness and emotional depths as the engines of narrative. That is, literary modernism was beginning to deal with then (then) newly "modern" concepts of the nature of consciousness itself, not external description and realism, and in Joyce, whole epics (and literary myths) were recreated as intimate and chaotic, a "Shout in the street". Stephen Daedulus became a character of authenticity and raw sexual yearning. Proust focused on time and, memory , the natural world as mirroring the psychological self, (Proust wrote the he understood that the geography of the "Self" could be an exquisite narrative at the center of a personal novel.The emphasis in Proust and Woolf was on the authentic self (I think, not artifice) and a solitary "being",moving subjectively through events asking the question l of "what is being?" ( a "modern" question, Heideggerian)

  2. Just to bring in some of these points again:
    Proust wrote in "Search for Lost Time": " In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself."

    Also I love this ... he wrote: The imagination, the reflective faculty may be admirable machines in themselves but they may also be inert. Suffering sets them in motion...and ...we enter only in these periods (that) which lies deep with us..."

    It was I think about consciousness itself.

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