Modernity and Literature Essay
Modernity and Literature
Modernity by itself is a very abstract concept which can be associated with all new experiences in history. It is largely temporal because what is modern today is the old or obsolete tomorrow. Modernity is said to be a logic of negation because it tends to give importance to the present over the past, and at the same time also frowns over the present with respect to the future.
From a purely historical perspective however, the society which evolved in Europe after the French Revolution of 1789 can be termed as modern in so much so that there is a marked difference or break in the way of thinking, living and enterprise between the societies after and before the French Revolution. The evolution of the modern society was not a process that happened overnight. The roots of the modern society and its gradual evolution can be traced back to the beginning of the eighteenth century.
In fact the period from that point in history to the French Revolution is termed as the period of intellectual Enlightenment when there was a radical change in philosophy, science, politics, arts and culture. It was on these new forms of knowledge that the foundation of the modern society or modernity was based. Defining the Traditional Many scholars have tried to analyze the basic or instinctive nature of human beings in attempts to track back how modernity could have affected the core individual.
In his book Leviathan, Hobbes deduced that in an environment uninfluenced by artificial systems or in a ‘state of nature’ human beings would be war like and violent, and their lives would consequently be solitary, poor, brutish and short. Rousseau however contradicts Hobbes. He claims that humans are essentially benevolent by nature. He believed in the ‘noble savage’ or the concept that devoid of civilization human beings are essentially peaceful and egalitarian and live in harmony with the environment – an idea associated with Romanticism.
Human beings have however lived in communities and formed societies since the very early ages. In what is now known as the ancient world or the world of classical pagan antiquity typical of the societies of Greece and Rome, the concept of the ‘new’ or ‘change’ was absent. Time, like the seasons, was supposed to move in cyclical order, repeating itself with regularity cycle after cycle with nothing new or changed to break away from the established order. The people were steeped in more superstitious and religious beliefs which ruled almost every aspect of their lives.
Christianity brought about changes in the belief systems of the ancient world. Christianity postulated that time was linear, that it began from the birth of Jesus Christ and would end with the apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus. This was a linear concept of time that moved in a straight line and not in a cycle that kept coming back to the same point. The Foundations of Modernity It was during the Enlightenment period that the Christian concepts of time and history were secularized to give way to the modern approach to change and progress.
There were many other basic changes during the Enlightenment. The key ideas which formed the basis of the enlightenment period were autonomy and emancipation, progress and the improvement of history and universalism. The development of scientific knowledge gave rise to religious skepticism. People were no longer willing to submit blindly to the dictates of ordained religion. In other words they attained emancipation from the shackles of religion that had governed almost all aspects of their lives. This emancipation led to autonomy of the individual.
Individuals began to decide for themselves instead submitting to an external authority such as religion. The people now decided by themselves what kind of authority, rules and regulation would be good for them, and such authority must be natural and not supernatural. Enlightenment encouraged criticism. Enlightenment thinkers did not hold anything sacred and freely criticized, questioned, examined and challenged all dogmas and institutions in their search for betterment or progress. Thinkers such as Voltaire defended reason and rationalism against institutionalized superstition and tyranny.
The belief that there could and should be a change for the better came to be a prominent characteristic of modernity. The critical attitude of enlightenment thinker to contemporary social and political institutions paved the way for scientific studies of political and social studies and subsequent evolution of better forms of such institutions. The scientific revolution during the period, culminating in the work of Isaac Newton, presented a very practical and objective view of the natural world to people at large, and science came to be regarded very highly.
Scientific inquiry was gradually extended to cover new social, political and cultural areas. Such studies were oriented around the cause-and-effect approach of naturalism. Control of prejudice was also deemed to be essential to make them value free. Enlightenment thinking emphasized the importance of reason and rationality in organization and development of knowledge. The gradual development of the scientific temperament with a paradigm change from the qualitative to the quantitative is also very evident in Europe of the time.
People came to believe that they could better their own lot through a more scientific and rational approach to everything. The concept of universalism which advocated that reason and science were applicable to all fields of study and that science laws, in particular, were universal, also grew roots during the period. People began to believe in change, development and progress – all basic tenets of modernity as we know it today. Autonomy to decide for their own good, gave the people the right to choose the form of authority that could lead them as a society or community towards a better future and progress.
This opened the doors to the emergence of states with separate and legally defined spheres of jurisdiction. Thus we find that modernity represents a transformation – philosophical, scientific, social, political and cultural – at a definite time in history at a definite spatial location. This transformation also represents a continuum up to the present in so much so that its basic principles are inherent in the societies and nations of today. The period of enlightenment can be seen as one of transition from the ‘traditional’ to the ‘modern’ forms of society, from an age of blind beliefs to a new age of reason and rational.
Different Perspectives on development of Modernity Different political and philosophical thinkers have however developed different, and sometimes contradicting, theories of the development of modernity. Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx are two of the leading thinkers whose theories run counter to each other. For Hegel, the development of modernity was a dialectical process which was governed by the increasing self-consciousness of what he termed as the collective human ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’.
According to Hegel, the dialectic process of development of the mind comprised three stages, with two initially contradicting positions synthesizing into a third reconciled position. Human beings live what Hegel called an ‘Ethical Life’ or in a social environment shaped by customs and traditions. This ethical life has three stages: the first is the family, which is dissolved in due course, the second is the ‘civil society’ that a person builds up as a result of his social interactions beyond the family and greater relations, and finally the third stage of the ‘state’ which Hegel defines as the highest form of social reason.
For Hegel therefore, the formation of the modern state is the mark of modernity when human beings achieve the ultimate stage of social existence. Hegel believed as individuals or families, human beings are too selfish and self-centered co-exist in harmony and work for development. It is the state that is able to integrate the contradictions of different individuals, and not market forces. Since the state by itself is composed of political institutions, Hegel’s theory equates the development of the modern state or modern political institutions with modernity.
Marx took a completely opposing view, when he asserted that material forces drive history. For him the state by itself is not an ideal entity for the integration of human beings into a cohesive whole for their development as a nation or a society. According to him it is the material forces comprising social and economic forces that drive history towards modernity. People engage in production for their means of subsistence, they bind together and form states for the sake of production. Different forms of productions create different class relations.
It is to maximize production and gain the maximum benefits and advantages that people bond together in different classes in the form of the modern state. The different ways in which production is organized give rise to complex forms of social organization because a particular mode of production is an entire way of life for the people who are involved in it. For Marx social existence is not consciously determined by human beings, rather, it is the other way round: their social existence determines their consciousness.
When there are contradictions between productive forces and the social relationships of production, class conflict arises. For Marx, therefore, modernity is defined by the state of social existence. Marx acknowledges that ‘capitalism has been the most productive mode of production, and it contains the most potential for the realization of human freedom’. This very dynamic characteristic of capitalism is born out of its destructiveness for all traditional social constraints such as religion, nation, family, sex, etc.
But it is the same destructiveness and creativeness that creates the experience of modernity in Capitalism. This vital association between capitalism and modernity from none less that Marx himself establishes that the capitalism that evolved after the period of enlightenment in Europe has been acknowledged as the modern era of the period of modernity by Marx. Marx however states that capitalism is exploitative, and because it is exploitative, its full potential cannot be harnessed for the benefit of all.
He therefore advocates communism which is a system of planned and conscious production by men and women of their won free will. This brings us to the question whether humanity has already passed through a stage of history that has been termed as modernity, and has moved on to the postmodern era (Mitchell, 2009). Another important point is regarding the placing of modernity. Modernity is understood to be a process that began and ended in Europe, and was later exported to other parts of the world. Thinkers like Marx tend to differ.
He saw Capitalism emerge as a ‘rosy dawn’ not in England or the Netherlands but in the production trade and finance of the colonial system (Marx, 1967). Therefore, though the concept of modernity can be defined in various ways, it definitely refers to the process of evolution of the human mind and the society to a point where people were able to come together for their own advantage and benefit and work for unceasing development under a collectively formalized authority such as the nation state.
It can also be state with a certain degree of assertiveness that the period from the beginning of the Eighteenth Century to the French Revolution in 1789 actually marked the period of active development of modernity in Europe. The concepts that were nurtured during the period bore fruit immediately afterwards in Europe and the West and later spread to the rest of the world. The world has continued since on very much the same basic principles but with far more advanced technologies and superior social, economic and political approaches.
Influence of Modernity on Literature Modernity had a profound influence on literature. As people began to think differently, they also began to write differently. The modernist ideas of religious emancipation, autonomy, reliance on reason, rationality and science, and on development and progress began to find expression in the literature that developed even during the period of enlightenment and thereafter. This new form of literature came to be known as the Modernist Literature.
Modernist literature tended to vent expression to the tendencies of modernity. Modernist literature, as also modernist art, took up cudgels against the old system of blind beliefs. Centering around the idea of individualism or the individual mind, modernist literature displayed mistrust of established institutions such as conventional forms of autocratic government and religion. It also tended not to believe in any absolute truths.
Simmel (1903) gives an overview of the thematic concerns of Modernist Literature when he states that, “The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. ” Examples from two Greats A few examples of Modernist literature will serve to make its characteristics more clear.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) is considered to be one of the early enlightenment thinkers whose literary works opened the avenues to the modern era. Known as the founder of modern philosophy and the father of modern mathematics, Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician and scientist whose influence has served to shape the beginnings of Modernist literature. In his famous work, The Discourse on Method, he presents the equally famous quotation ‘cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I am’, which about sums up the very principle of the basis of the modern era.
“I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search” (Descartes, 1637).
In this work, Descartes drew on ancients such as Sextus Emiricus to revive the idea of skepticism, and reached a truth that he found to be undeniable. “Descartes started his line of reasoning by doubting everything, so as to assess the world from a fresh perspective, clear of any preconceived notions. In other words, he rejected man’s reliance on God’s revealed word, placing his own intellect on a higher plain” (McCarter, 2006). David Hume (1711 – 1776) was a philosopher, economist and historian from Scotland, and was considered a notable personality both in western philosophy and of the Scottish Enlightenment movement.
In his works, he had a way of projecting the errors of scepticism and naturalism, thus carving out a way for secular humanism. In his most famous work, ‘An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding’, Hume asserts that all human knowledge is imbibed through our senses. He argues that unless the source from which the impression of a certain entity is conveyed to our senses is identified, that entity cannot exist. The logic would nullify the existence of God, a soul or a self. “By the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will.
And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious, when we reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned …It seems a proposition, which will not admit of much dispute, that all our ideas are nothing but copies of our impressions, or, in other words, that it is impossible for us to think of anything, which we have not antecedently felt, either by our external or internal senses…” (Dover Philosophical Classics, 2004) In the same work Hume also postulates two kinds of human reasoning – Relation of Ideas and Matters of Fact.
The former involves abstract concepts such as of mathematics where deductive faculty is required, and the later is about empirical experiences which are inductive in nature. This postulate has come to be known as Hume’s Fork. Hume, along with his contemporaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, also proposed that the basis for principles of morals is to be sought in the utility that they tend to serve. This shows the questioning nature of modernist literature not only of religious but also of moral and social norms and values. A very visible influence of modernity is therefore seen in the works of Hume.
Present-day Modernist Literature If modernity influenced literature, it also used literature to shift from a philosophical and theoretical domain into the practical lives of people. Modernity could infiltrate into the lives of people through literary works that defined and reiterated the legitimate new modes of classification. Old literary forms with traditional meanings attached to them were reworked, allowing readers to modify or contravene the older meanings. “This opening-up process allowed readers to glean new meanings that modified or contravened the older ones.
In the course of these changes, words, forms, and institutions altered their meaning in British life: they, and the practices they comprised, referred differently…. modifying ‘reference potential’ in literature fed back into how readers responded to changes in life…” (Rothstein, 2007) In art and literature, many critics view ‘modernism’ as a new trend in the field of art and literature, defined basically by stylistic and structural variations. They would not accept the fact that ‘modernism’, it is basic approach, was the principles of modernity rendered plausible in literature and art.
Modernity has always tried to hold up the world in new perspectives. Similarly, modernist literature opens up the world in all its forms – theoretical, philosophical, aesthetical and political – for fresh scrutiny. Even in its present form, modernist literature attempts to break the objective world of the realist. “Modernist writing … takes the reader into a world of unfamiliarity, a deep introspection, a cognitive thought-provoking experience, skepticism of religion, and openness to culture, technology, and innovation” (Melton, 2010).
Modernist literature exhibits a fascination with the workings of the mind, and how reality is reflected by the mind. The questioning of life, with or without the presence of God, is another trademark of the philosophical and theoretical moorings of modernist literature. Charles Darwin’s work challenges God as the Creator and presents the process of natural selection in the survival of life. This led to modernist literature of time travel, of questioning the existence of individuals and the purpose of the universe.
Modernism brought about a new openness in the areas of feminism, bisexuality, the family, and the mind. In the world of today, modernist literature still display much of the characteristics of the times in which it first took shape. A very important theme of modernist literature today is a feeling of being alone in the world – a feeling stemming from estrangement or alienation. Characters are often presented as being depressed or angry. A second common trait is that of being in doubt.
“It may be disbelief in religion, in happiness, or simply a lack of purpose and doubt in the value of human life. Finally, a third theme that is prevalent is a search for the truth” (Foster, 2010). Then there is a third theme in which the alienated character is always in the search for truth and seeks answers to a plethora of questions relating to human subjectivity. In all these characteristics are to be found the same questioning nature, the same denouncement of blind beliefs and the same dependence on reason and rationality that the Eighteenth Century enlightenment thinkers had pursued.
The character is alienated and estranged because he or she questions all that is deemed not right by his or her own mind; the character questions the beliefs of religion and other institutions which are not based on reasoning; and finally the character seeks answers and the truth. “Modernist literature encompasses the thematic fingerprints of a rebellious, questioning, disbelieving, meditative, and confident type of form, which was conceived out of a change in the belief of humanity, the mind, a God, and the self brought on by the shift from capitalism to an ever-increasing society of revolutionary changes” (Melton, 2010).
References Descartes, R. , 1637, The Discourse on Methods. Dover Philosophical Classics, 2004, David Hume, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Dover Publications Inc. Foster, J. , 2010, Modernism in Literature and History, Available: http://www. helium. com/items/743749-modernism-in-literature-and-history Karl Marx, 1967, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 3 vols. , New York: International Publishers, 1:703. McCarter, J. , P. , 2006, Literature of the Modern Era, The Puritans’ Home School Curriculum.
Melton, L. , 2010, Modernism in Literature and History, Available: http://www. helium. com/items/809291-modernism-in-literature-and-history Mitchell, T. , 2000, The Stage of Modernity, Available: http://www. ram-wan. net/restrepo/modernidad/the%20stage%20of%20modernity-mitchell. pdf Rothstein, E. , 2007, Gleaning Modernity, Earlier Eighteenth Century Literature and the Modernizing Process, Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp. , Associated University Presses. Simmel, G. , 1093, The Metropolis and Mental Life.