How modernism is ancient by Darran Anderson.
‘On or about December 1910,’ Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, ‘human character changed.’ Homo modernus had emerged, like some rough but eloquent beast, in the depths of an English winter. Woolf’s perspective of the birth of modernism was subjective of course and the date has been continually disputed. In his recent study, Constellation of Genius, Kevin Jackson selected as late as 1922 as ‘Modernism Year One.’ For many, T.S. Eliot included, the industrialised threshing of an entire generation of European youths by their parents in the Great War of 1914 to 1918 fragmented the old order and created something different, either as a presence or an absence. This was supported by the appearance of dada in the wartime refuge of Zurich; being a wilfully deranged but, to paraphrase R.D. Laing, rational reaction to an insane world. Yet there were identifiable modernists before this – Apollinaire, Marinetti, Jarry – to say nothing of the forerunners of modernism: Nietzsche, Ibsen, Jean-Pierre Brisset, Conrad, Strindberg, Lautréamont, Rimbaud. What becomes clear the further back you go, is this process does not effectively come to a standstill. There is no absolute point of beginning. As a way of looking at the world and recreating it, modernism, meta-modernism, postmodernism and deconstructionism have always been with us, long before we gave them such ludicrous names.
The timing of modernism is important because of the vacuum it’s perceived to have left when it dissipated (a likewise disputed period between the World Wars). With commendable intentions, the more adventurous writers today bemoan the fall of the movement and the retreat of much of the literary community into pseudo-Victorian ways of approaching the novel. They discuss its loss with a hint of grief and the desire that it will come again, resurrected to save the day, like millenarian peasants awaiting the Messiah or Jacobites the Young Pretender. Who will save us from ourselves? A more compelling view is that modernism was not entirely obliterated in a collective loss of nerve but survived abroad, in isolated pockets, underground, or flourished in science fiction and comic books. Yet when you begin to list the writers who have reputedly kept the spirit of modernism alive, you find their number is colossal, making up the more critically acclaimed sections of contemporary literature. Indeed, the loss of confidence is not restricted to mainstream novelists. The admirable question posed by Gabriel Josipovici – What Ever Happened to Modernism? – has been answered not by polemics but by fiction. It is still there when we search for it.
Modernism didn’t disappear because it never definitively appeared. It has been part of our character since at least the earliest identifiable story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the trail only runs cold there because the archaeology of the written word does. It’s not a question of colonising the past and extending modernism back through the centuries. Rather, it is to merely detect what’s already there when we look back.