In a course I teach, we have explored – over the past few weeks – some of the main “features” of the modern period. [Over the years, I’ve offered this course in various forms at both Cleveland State and now at Case Western Reserve University. The current version involves less reading and more writing for the students in one of CWRU’s “university seminars,” part of the school’s 'seminar approach to general education sequence' (“sages”).]
We first discussed a list of possible features of the modern, as follows: Autonomy, independence of vantage point and structure of thought. And the related feature of abstraction, both as subject and as abstract form and structure. Primistivism (again as both form and content) or openness to immediacy of the “moment” – also, stripped-down objectivity. As in the above contradiction between “abstraction” and the “moment,” there is a recurrent quality of paradox, contradiction, or ambiguity. A commitment to realism signals the ethos of confrontation, the critique of society from both right and left, and the interest in judging the entire course of Western civilization leading to the modern period. Destabilization of received convention; negation, and/or rebellion, and subversive freedom. The quality of paradox relates to a pervasive perspectivism, relativity/relativism, with an accompanying risk of nihilism. In general, there is an openness to change and experiment across the arts, the natural sciences, and the new social sciences – yielding new forms, concepts, approaches, and achievements. Paradigm shift. A transfiguring unity of being and vision is sought in the face of change and collapse (with the fullness of experience yielding a death of the ordinary self). The modern is beset by a sense of cultural mourning and belatedness.
We then went on to examine a chronology of the modern, which of course has a fascination in and of itself (partly for what it includes and excludes). It began with the early start of Rousseau’s Social Contract in 1762 and ended with 1945 and the end of World War II. The students repeatedly commented on the paradoxical combination of destruction and achievement apparent in many of its items (for an obvious example, the American Civil War’s abolition of slavery yet its massive toll in casualties partly resulting from the increased modernization of warfare – and generally the increasing human toll of war from the Civil War to World War II).
Many comments focused on the remarkably fast pace of technological achievement in the century before 1945 (a natural focus for some of the students at the former Case Institute of Technology). Examples of those achievements include: 1873 Remington’s typewriter; 1879 Edison’s phonograph and incandescent light bulb (and the electrification of cities in later decades); 1882 Koch’s discovery of the TB bacillus but, also, the development of the machine gun; 1885 Pasteur’s Rabies vaccine, the discovery of radio waves, and the development of the internal combustion engine; 1887 Daimler’s automobile; 1890 the Kodak camera and the completion of the Eiffel Tower; 1891 the first subway in London opens; 1892 Lorenz’s electron theory; 1893 the Ford auto assembly line; 1894 the gramophone disc; 1895 Roentgen discovers x-rays, Lumiere invents the movie camera, and Marconi develops the wireless radio; 1898 the Curies isolate radium; 1903 the Wright Brothers create the first airplane; 1905 Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity; 1909 the typhus vaccine developed; 1912 the isotope theory developed; 1915 Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity; 1923 television and insulin developed, and skyscrapers begin to shape the New York skyline; 1925 the Copenhagen hypothesis of quantum physics; 1927-8 Penicillin, missiles, sound movies; 1936-9 jet engine, radar, computer; 1945 the U.S. uses atomic weapons in war.
Here are some of the other details from the chronology:
Enlightenment conceptions of individual rights: 1762 Rousseau’s Social Contract; 1776 Jefferson et al’s Declaration of Independence; 1789 French Revolution’s “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” followed by the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars (until Waterloo in 1915); the Godwins (husband and wife) on political and women’s rights.
Romantic ideas of subjectivity and beauty: 1794 and following - Blakes’s poetry (the first gas lights in Britain, even as speech and assembly are suppressed repeatedly in the following decades); 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads; plus the following, which I’ll discuss more soon: 1807 Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and 1819 Keats’ Odes.
Realist efforts and their complement in Aestheticism: 1833 Britain’s Reform Bills and, in 1836 on the eve of Victoria becoming queen, its abolition of slavery; 1848 abortive revolutions in Europe and Marx’s Communist Manifesto; 1851 the Great Exhibition of Science and Industry at the “Crystal Palace” in London (responded to with horror by Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man in 1857, the year of Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil”); 1859 Darwin’s Origin of the Species; 1861-65 the American Civil War, with its uncounted civilian toll and 620,000 soldiers dead in four years; 1865 Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde; 1866 Britain’s second Reform Bill; 1871 the unification of Germany and the Franco-Prussian War with its 200,000 solders dead in one year, and also George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the founding of Newnham College for Women in Cambridge, U.K.; 1872-3 Pater’s “Conclusion” to The Renaissance and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy; also in the 1870s the first Impressionist exhibition, the poems of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé, and Ibsen’s Ghosts; 1881 Henry James’ Portrait of A Lady; 1884 Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; 1895 Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, plus Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest as well as his imprisonment for the “issue” of his homosexuality; and finally 1900 Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams; 1902 Britain’s expanded Education Act and Gide’s The Immoralist; 1903 G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks, and Simmel’s The Metropolis.
The modern period from 1905 (with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity) to 1945: 1907 Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Matisse’s Fauve period; 1909-11 London’s First Post-Impressionist Exhibition, Bartok’s First String Quarete, and Shoenberg’s Second String Quartet; 1913 Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Proust’s Swann’s Way, and Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers; 1914 D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Wyndham Lewis’ Blast; 1914-18 World War I with uncounted millions of civilian casualties and 10 million soldiers dead (and in 1918-19 a similar number of deaths from influenza); 1915 – the year of Einstein’s General Theory – Lawrence’s Women in Love suppressed; Joyce’s A Portrait, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious; 1917 Lenin’s Russian Revolution; 1919-20 Pound’s Mauberly, Weimar cabaret and Bauhaus, Duchamp’s Mona Lisa and Dadaism, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and in America Women’s suffrage; 1922 Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; 1924 Kafka’s The Trial, Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Breton’ Surrealist Manifesto, and Forster’s A Passage to India; 1925 Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Heminway’s in our time, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and in 1927 Heidegger’s Being and Time and in Britain, Women’s suffrage; 1929 the Great Depression begins, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Brecht/Weill’s operas; 1930s Hitler comes to power, Stalin’s purges, the Spanish Civil War, and 1939-45 World War II with its scores of millions of civilian casualties, its 25 million soldiers dead, the Holocaust, and Atomic weapons first used in war. 1945 postmodernism begins.
Then the class turned to some precursors of the modern, including Kate Chopin “The Story of an Hour,” excerpts from Whitman, Emily Dickinson’s “After Great Pain,” Baudelaire’s “To the Reader,” Verlaine’s “The Art of Poetry,” and a paragraph on self-consciousness by Hegel. Those will be the subject of my next post.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 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. 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, 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.]