What is Modernism?

“Modernism”, in a broader sense, is a new phenomenon, modern thought, character, or practise breaking away from the old rules, traditions, and existing writing methods practised by earlier authors before the 20th century.

In art, modernism breaks away from the ideology of realism and uses the past through flashbacks, recapitulation, and incorporation.

This rebellious attitude flourished between 1900 and 1930 as its basis was the rejection of European culture for having become too corrupt and artificial. This dissatisfaction with the moral bankruptcy or dehumanising of everything European led modern thinkers and artists to explore other alternatives, especially primitive cultures.

In literature, “modernism” grows as a reaction to naturalism and realism in literature. Generally, literary texts after World War I, as well as belonging to the above qualities, are considered modern texts.

Strong and Intentional break with Established Tradition

Modernism marks a strong and intentional break with established traditions and is also related to religion, politics, etc. However, modernism becomes prominent after traditionalism, knowing the difference between these two “isms” is important to note.

What is Traditionalism? How it is differs from Modernism?

“Traditionalism”, which is based on tradition, is a dominant way of life. There are always pre-determined rules and explanations for people and their lives in traditionalism. Objectivism is another important point in traditionalism.

According to “Traditionalism”, there is one truth for everything. High-class people are more important than middle-class or low-class people in traditionalism because it gives importance to elevated style.

On the other hand, “Modernism” is a break with tradition, which includes a strong reaction against established religious, political, and social views.

According to “Modernism”, there is no such thing as absolute truth. All things are relative.

Another thing wherein traditionalism and objectivism have an important point is that modernism gives importance to subjectivism.

Inner Strength of Individual

The championing of the individual through the celebration of inner strength is one of the most prominent characteristics of modernism, and in this regard, it differs from realism.

The individual’s inner strength is expressed through four literary “isms”:

  • Subjectivism
  • Impressionism
  • Expressionism, and
  • Surrealism.

How it differs from realism?

“Realism” attempts to portray external objects and events as common or middle-class people see them in everyday life.

“Impressionism” tries to portray the psychological impressions these objects and events make on characters, emphasising the role of individual perception and exploring the nature of conscious and subconscious minds.

Whereas “realism” attempts to portray external objects and events, “expressionism” tries to explain the inner vision, emotion, or spiritual reality.

Whereas “realism” attempts to portray external objects and events as verisimilitude, “surrealism” tries to liberalise the subconscious to see connections overlooked by the logical mind.

Literary Modernism

In literature, Literary Modernism has its origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly in Europe and North America. The period of high modernism lasted twenty years, from 1910 to 1930.

Some of the high priests of the movement in literature are T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Franz Kafka, etc.

Characteristics of Literary Modernism

  • A new emphasis on impressionism and subjectivism, which we mentioned earlier, focuses on “how we see” rather than “what we see.” In this regard, a new literary technique, a stream of consciousness, is employed by James Joyce and his followers, such as Virginia Woolf, in their writings.
  • Then, regarding the narrative technique, modernist literary texts are away from the apparent objectivity provided by such features as the omniscient external narration and fixed narrative point of view.
  • Language is considered an essential device of modernism to differentiate a literary text from other texts. Modern literary texts emphasise colloquial language rather than formal language.
  • A new liking for fragmented forms and discontinuous narratives is evident in modernist literary texts. For example, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot are superb examples of fragmented forms.

Thus, modernism originated from the corruption, decadence, and frustrations in the post-war psyche of the western people, marking it off from the previous literary tradition that got reduced to cold formalism and traditionalism.