In thinking about the previous post, I realize that those intriguing above-listed qualities of the modern can appear to be abstruse and difficult to a fault, particularly in the context of university study (as opposed to the context of the active and initiated practitioner, whether artist or scientist). So in order to work through that difficulty, I think it would be good to note a few illustrative examples for those “features of the modern.”
Perhaps autonomy and independence of vantage point (and structure of thought) are best exemplified by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which proposes a radically new alternative physics to that developed by Newton; Einstein’s leap of thought is strikingly independent of previous assumptions in physics. Autonomy can be manifested also in abstraction, for example in Picasso’s analytical cubism paintings – abstract in both content and structure – with their geometric forms achieving an expressiveness independent of any represented subject. Abstraction can obliterate the content of a representation, as it begins to do in the female figure on the right side of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, whose shape is a set of lines and planes and whose face is a geometrical mask. That canvas also illustrates the primitivism central to modernity, for the female figure on the left side of the painting are sensuously immediate, rendered with a vivid undulating line; the middle images of women are increasingly geometrical.
Of course, the modernist effort to confront the nature of immediacy, of the “moment” in consciousness and perception, is at the root of much of its literature and philosophy, from Walter Pater through Husserl, say, or Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf. Like the combination of abstraction and immediacy in their renderings of the stream of perception, Picasso’s Demoiselles painting – simultaneously sensuous and geometric – illustrates the paradoxical coexistence of the abstract and the momentary, of apparently opposed qualities in a single work or concept (suggesting the pervasive ambiguity central to much modernist production). Contradiction and paradox in the modern are related to modernist perspectivism or relativity/relativism (in the layperson’s sense of Einstein or Nietzsche’s thought, the latter reminding us of the accompanying risk of nihilism). “Very well, I contradict myself,” Whitman writes, a few decades before the full development of the modern.
The exploration of “the stream of consciousness” in the work of modern novelists and philosophers is also a part of the commitment to realism in this period. And the term realism signals equally a modern ethos of confrontation, and the need to critique society among modernists of all political persuasions culminates in the act (on the part, say, of Spengler or of T. S. Eliot) of judging the entire course of Western civilization up to the modern period. The fierce critique of society and culture can result in a destabilization of tradition, of received convention, and manifest itself as negation, rebellion, or subversive freedom (think of the intentional subversions of sense in the poetry of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé).
Charged by all of these forces, modern thought is characterized above all by an openness to experiment and change across the arts, the natural sciences, and the new social sciences – yielding new concepts, approaches, and achievements, and these changes can be seen as representing a paradigm shift, an incommensurable development of a new “disciplinary matrix” in each field (from physics to psychology, musical composition to literature). Given these radical changes and a resulting destabilization as well as the great disillusionment arising from – among other ‘factors’ – the unprecedentedly destructive wars, the modern is beset by a sense of cultural mourning and belatedness. Understandably, as a result, modern thought seeks even a fragmentary, transfiguring unity of vision, a sort of healing order or at least healing process in the face of change and collapse, and the newly liberated quest for a transfigured fullness of experience yields a dangerous sense of the death of the ordinary self – evident in Yeats’ and Rilke’s poetry (and prefigured even by Keats’s Odes).
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and reconfigures and edits) my blogs on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulte. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]