When I began University education many moons ago, the very mention of Modernist literature was enough to strike fear into my tiny fresher heart. Young and bewildered, all I knew of the style and era was what I had gleaned from lengthy explanations in musty old books, (that didn’t serve to explain much at all) and my mother’s wry suggestions that I attempt to read Finnegans Wake before starting my courses. Needless to say, like many I was intimidated and approached the subject with great trepidation.
Cut to years later and I find myself lamenting the fact that Modernist literature gets the reputation it does: of being staggeringly elitist, difficult, and now belonging to a realm of skinny-jeaned boys posing on the Tube with a battered copy of Gertrude Stein that they have never given more than a glance. That or a realm of academics who philosophise the writing to the extent that somewhere along the way, it’s appeal gets lost under a sea of contradicting definitions and lingo. Among the frequent criticisms of this era of writing is that which argues the authors and poets purposefully made their work hard for the layman to understand. And, while this is arguably true for some works (Ezra Pound‘s ‘Cantos‘, anyone?) beneath others lie stark and astute observations of what it means to be human. In our everyday lives, under the most mundane scenarios lie brief rushes of emotion that can be overpoweringly devastating or ecstatic. Modernist writing captures these rushes and expands them into fragments of thought and dialogue. Take for example Pound’s close friend, T.S. Eliot’s famous ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ While containing layer upon layer of meaning that have been poured over by academics for decades, at its heart the poem contends with the internal musings and self-deprecations of a severely uncomfortable and frustrated man, eager to ask a question he just cannot ask:
‘And indeed there will be time
To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair -
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’)
Indeed, if you look past the highbrow flourishes, multilingual verses and snooty self-proclamations of some of the movement’s key players, you’ll find some truly astonishing literature that resonates completely with the everyday experiences of merely existing. In waking life, we don’t fully understand everything – confusion is an integral part of the experience itself.
It is arguably no coincidence that the introspection and free-associative prose of Modernist writing exploded around about the same time that Sigmund Freud was first formulating his theory and practice of Psychoanalysis. This revolutionary therapeutic method involved patients recounting earlier experiences of life in order to make sense of their influence on current problems. In a way, meaning a more structured account of the bombardments of recollections and thoughts that we experience in our everyday lives. Poet H.D wrote extensively on her experiences in analysis and patient relationship with Freud. Meanwhile Virginia Woolf, who so vehemently attacked the ‘middlebrow,’ claimed to use Freud’s methods in the composition of 1927’s To The Lighthouse. She once stated: “I suppose that I did for myself what psychoanalysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotions. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” Prior to this, her Mrs. Dalloway was a tightly controlled float from conscience to conscience as a shared history between characters is explored through memories in the course of an ordinary day. There is no great moment of action – a suicide is depicted quite matter-of-factly. The great moments are those of personal revelation and processes of thought.
This isn’t to say that associating it with Psychoanalysis makes Modernism a walk in the park, but even a walk in the park itself can be fraught with internal conflicts and memories as the brain goes through the motions of making sense of life. I can imagine that spending a day seeing the world from someone else’s perspective would be a pretty disconcerting yet enlightening experience, particularly the aforementioned skinny-jeaned chaps on the train. This, to me, is exactly what Modernist literature provides. So next time you feel apprehensive about delving into the great Modernist texts, don’t be scared. Really they’re about as bewildering as a jaunt round Oxford Street in the January Sales and all the memories that crop up along the way.