Humanity, 1910

Virginia Woolf is famously quoted to have said:

“On or about December 1910, human character changed.”

This infamous quote is perhaps one of the best summaries of the modernist period; a period in which nothing was entirely certain, and a period which changed the future of English literature permanently. The catalyst for this cataclysmic change can be considered to be any number of things; from Nietzsche’s revelation that “God is dead”, to the emergence of Darwinism. One of the most important facets of this change however is perhaps the First World War, a topic that I have previously discussed, in relation to Wilfred Owen. The nature of this war was destruction, in return for precious little result; indeed it can be argued that the First World War served as a kind of epilogue to the destruction that was to follow, merely twenty years later. Nevertheless however, the First World War altered our perception of mankind, and of ourselves, permanently.

The aftermath of the war was that society had changed in dynamic due to the horrific death toll; hardly a woman in Europe was left with both husband and son. Men were either too old to have fought, or too young to remember. These children however, began shaping the future of literature in a dynamic way; the canon of war poetry was not shaped by its creators, but it’s critics.

This can be said for all forms of literature, however in this case, it is particularly important, especially when one considers society’s revulsion towards those who had been left behind. Society seemed to abandon the injured, favouring instead to embrace the period of extravagance that followed in the 1920s, before the wrath of the great depression. These factors culminate to a society that was somewhat frivolous towards its criticism of war poetry, especially in England; patriotism was far more popular than the shocking realities that the poems of Sassoon, Owen and their counterparts represented. No nation ever really wants to remember its blackest hour, or relive the memories of it.

However, the idea of the changing human character resonates in one’s ear; that society could change so completely in such a short space of time is shocking. Victorian reserve was abandoned, and staunch Christianity was deeply questioned. Of course, who could possibly blame them for wanting to disband the society that had created the war that killed millions?

However, Woolf explicitly states that this change began to occur before the war began; a mere four years before, but indeed it was before. This early change was perhaps less marked at the time it occurred, and we are all familiar with the power of hindsight in relation to history. Everyone has wondered, “what if I could go back, and tell myself this?”; this is the futile nature of humanity’s retrospect, however.

It is, to my mind at least, completely fascinating that these changes and discoveries across the board colluded to make such a vital, almost fatal, change. The poets, artists, and novelists of the modernist period were unsure how to approach the new attitudes towards society and humanity itself, and this is represented in the deeply experimental nature of their literature, and art. Poetry was no longer of a solid rhyming persuasion; it was chaotic, changing in form, and almost a form of anarchy, reacting to what they saw outside.

Trying to make sense of this anarchy then, was the only way for these poets to progress; they no longer had the certainty that had existed not twenty years before; they no longer had the factual basis that so many great writers before them had, to act as a template. Within this evolving society, they too had to evolve with it; there was no place for the old ways, when they represented so much fear and anxiety. They were forced to push forwards, off the edge of the world, if you like. They had to jump, to find an ocean to which they belonged.

I think it was rather courageous.

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*I was going to find some modernist art, but my image up-loader seems to be affected! I’ll try to edit it tomorrow (:.

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On Decadence and Aesthetics

English students are renouned for being fussy, sometimes pretentious students; we are the fussy eaters of the academic world. We tend to know our tastes very early on, purely because my the time we reach undergraduate level, we’ve been forced into reading something from every movement, whether we were aware of it or not. And the impressions that these types of literature make on us as children, tend to remain with us forever.

Personally, I have little patience with Greek and Roman literature, with the exception of Tales From Ovid. Mythology does not tickle my fancy very often, and instead, I’m rather enamoured with modernism, aestheticism, and nineteenth century Russian literature. I occasionally dip into the pond of Victorian certainty, when I fancy something rather more tame; occasionally into a little satire, when I’m feeling sceptical. But when I’m bored, I’ll venture to look at Virginia Woolf, and if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I’ll look into James Joyce too. When I’m in need of comfort, I’ll read some Wilde, and feel much, much better about almost everything. If I had to choose  a favourite period, I’d be hanging somewhere between aesthetics and modernism. I dare say I’d attempt to look at both of them.

An excellent quotation of Oscar Wilde (1)

The sublime was a concept present in the late Romantic period; an idea that succeeded the concept of the picturesque, but came before aestheticism. The sublime essentially meant something of overwhelming natural beauty, something that was difficult to process intellectually. Wordsworth writes of the sublime in one of his most famous poems, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This revolutionary piece of writing marked a progression in the field of aesthetics, being a truly sublime piece of writing, however is not quite a fully formed aesthetic work, still considering issues of the deity, which can be considered political. Aestheticism fundamentally leans against the inclusion of political and social themes within art.

Arguably however, Samuel Coleridge, a lover of science and geology, but also a lover of literature and poetry, wrote the first widely appreciated work in the field of aesthetics, in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whilst many can argue that the poem condemns a certain number of practices, for example the shooting of the albatross, which can be considered a metaphor for wasting life, he also writes seemingly “on the surface”, and for pleasure. This kind of writing seems connected to Oscar Wilde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Two of the biggest Romantic poets formed the basis of aestheticism; Keats, Byron, and Shelley went on to build on this very scarce foundation, left by the two famous writers.

Dante's Lady Lilith; an excellent example of the aesthetic period (2)

To my mind at least, the picturesque, the sublime, and the aesthetic seem to be progressions of one another; in picturesque artwork, a frame is used, to either include or exclude a concept or image, and the painter has final control over the scene; the imagination and the reality of a location or concept amalgamate to create something that is picturesque, but fundamentally, it is not purely realistic. Aestheticism takes this concept further by widening where the ‘picture’ can come from, and what frame can be used, and there is absolutely no requirement for the inclusion of sociopolitical themes.

Aestheticism emerged partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment as a later extension of Romanticism; instead of looking at science, and factual things, the idea of art being created because it is beautiful emerged. Oscar Wilde is probably the most prominent of the aesthetic writers, alongside people such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ overrode any social concerns, or political agendas. This was really a period of decadence and beauty.

I’m something of a fan of decadence and beauty in literature; I love things that will fascinate my mind, blow it backwards, and take me to something of a utopia whereby there are no deep social issues. Sometimes, it is nice to be immersed in such a beautiful world, and to escape darker, more imposing literature such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Devils. Literature provides a point of escape for so many people; the decadent writers lived in a world that preceded world wars, common invasion, and a plethora of other genocides; a practice that ran rampant throughout the 20th century. In many ways, their world was something far more innocent; the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, and nothing ever truly threatened the innately British superiority complex. In many ways, it was a world so supremely different from ours that it could be considered a whole other culture, an almost untainted one.

I wonder what everyone else finds fascinating…

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(1) http://files.myopera.com/tatora/blog/4878_PRO_sample_01.gif

(2) http://gypsyscarlett.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/art-dante-gabriel-rossetti-lady-lilith-18681.jpg

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Good Afternoon, Mrs. Woolf

It is not an overstatement to say that Virginia Woolf and I have had a somewhat turbulent relationship; from adoration, to despair, to overriding hatred, and then finally a return to understanding and adoration. It has however, been rather one-sided. Over the years, from the beginning of my A-levels to the present day, I have been bound to read a variety of Virginia Woolf’s works; To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own… and so forth. It was very rare that I picked up Woolf of my own freewill (in fact, I’m not sure it has ever happened… ) because I found her fiction somewhat challenging, and as I found with Jane Austen, I thought that nothing really happened. Nothing of any note, at least. Nothing quite as gripping as a Robert Ludlum thriller; I felt it was all rather dry, focussing on the tiniest possible events in the upper middle class, bourgeois world in which she lived. As tends to happen however, I changed my mind.

To begin with, I was fascinated by To the Lighthouse, because whilst I found the prose itself beautiful, I deemed the novel a nemesis of mine; the unclear narrative, and the stream of consciousness technique has never been a particular favourite, largely because I am of the opinion that stream of consciousness has its platform, for instance in dreams, and in speech; however not written on a page, without any external context. I found it simply too dense, too difficult to relate to; it challenges all the boundaries of everything that was literature before the technique, and it is similar to linguistic doodling; pretty, perhaps; even beautiful, but nevertheless, without any coherent structure, and lacking in refinement.

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Orlando however was far more structured, however as tends to be the case with Virginia Woolf, some kind of boundary had to be pushed; in this case, it was the idea of gender. In the novel, the protagonist changes gender from a man to a woman, quite literally overnight; fundamentally however, she remains essentially the same in terms of person. I personally enjoyed Orlando, especially since it also includes a trip through the ages, over the course of Orlando’s life, from the Elizabethan Age to the 20th century. The protagonist is less a description of a person as opposed to a description of a persona; a symbolic representation of the fluidity of the concept of gender. For further information, Judith Butler’s essay on “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” is fascinating.

And so by the end of 2009, I was firmly against Virginia Woolf, and was seriously considering building a time machine so that I could have gone back, changed her mind about being an author, and subsequently saved myself the agony that was that particular essay. Fortunately this somewhat childish plan changed when I had to read A Room of One’s Own. For the first time, in any of Woolf’s writings, I found her engaging, even charming. The content of the essay was delicate; it suited the theme of feminism extremely well. As a result, I became a full-time lover of Virginia Woolf, abandoning the turbulence of our previous relationship.

An astonishing element of literature, and of one’s relationship with the author, is the fact that one work can open one’s eyes to the others; providing almost a key of understanding, and a different perspective. This of course questions Roland Barthes assertion that the author is dead; when a person forms their own perception of the author, and understands their background, education and ideas, this can open up the text to the reader. It can exist in its own right, however it can also be inaccessible in this way, and so understanding a biography is just one of the ways in which a text can be understood.

Overall then, I’ve fallen for Virginia Woolf. I’m feeling tempted to go back and revisit To the Lighthouse, to see if I appreciate the techniques a little more this time around; I suspect that everything could be understood with a little perseverance and the right sort of teaching. Everything except calculus, that is.

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(1) http://content.scholastic.com/yawyr/b1ea5c45effc84c098a1644f8e0179fd8b9085a2.jpg

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Simone De Beauvoir: The Author of “The Second Sex”

Spurred on by my interest in Mary Wollstonecraft, I felt it would be prudent to look into Simone De Beauvoir; not only was she a prominent feminist writer, but also an influential critic of her period. The introduction to The Second Sex was especially enlightening, and I particularly enjoyed the piece, particularly when it is compared alongside Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Again, I used the Radio Four resource to take some extra notes and hear real experts on the subject speaking, and below are my notes on the program.

With thanks to http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b010dp15

Simone De Beauvoir (1)

Simone De Beauvoir became a poster girl for feminism, and was a strong disciple and lover of Jean Paul Sartre. The two had a very close academic relationship and within their intellectual conversation, there was a coupling which was very important to her. She strongly believed that he was the greatest philosopher of the age. Their relationship was very transparent and sometimes loyalties crossed over, and threatened to rock the boat; their emotional affairs however sometimes left gaps in the relationships and led to illness.

The two however were very much celebrities, and were part of existential philosophy, and what can be made now and of the future. They were the spokespeople of the young, and the next generation backs. Simone’s life however was very special; her parents were alarmed by her high intellectualism. Simone realised around the age of thirteen that God did not exist; she was dutiful of course, however when she became a student, departed and moved on. She was a very passionate woman; the loss of God to her and the admiration of her father was very important, and she felt things very deeply. She attempted to provide her relationship with Sartre with reason; this attempt on rationality is extremely difficult, but in a strange way becomes more emotional, and forms more rage; it replicates what went on in her childhood (her father was also a philanderer). The transparency made their relationship both weaker and stronger and formed the part of an experimental love, in the same way as she formed experimental ideas.

Women in particular have always been extremely susceptible to men of intellect and theory; De Beauvoir was no exception. She was an intellectual woman and therefore fell in love with Sartre’s mind. She however had a huge impact on Sartre and often edited, and contributed, to his writing. She stated that the success of her life had been her relationship with Sartre.

There had been very little examination of femininity and what it really meant to be a woman previously; The Second Sex was an often overlooked text of the Feminist movement and is often perceived by some academics as being old-fashioned and based on patriarchy; this is however what she knew. The text was however (later) revelatory in feminist ideology.

De Beauvoir’s life often seems to be lacking in ‘fun’. She seems to have an academic life, however a lack of social prominence, but had a tremendous capacity for fun, sitting in society and the exchange on information. She was patient throughout her life. She used her experiences to influence her writings throughout her life; she was published relatively late however she had many writings based around her earlier life. She was often found to engage in a threesome, (consider Olga). She also felt that sexual exploration was a fundamental part of growing up; the exploration of life forms. She also enjoyed the student-teacher relationship.

When Sartre returned from military service he began taking more drugs and began to hallucinate about crustaceans. When Beauvoir was moving towards wooing Olga, the crustaceans began to disappear; despite this apparently positive effect, it is possible however to consider that she never actually wanted a ménage a trois with Sartre, and that it came at great emotional cost to her. She felt destroyed by Sartre; lonely and worried at being abandoned and having failed in relationships, and being scared of death. Simone De Beauvoir’s humour was extremely dry, however her life was probably full of fun and happiness.

When she arrived in Canada in the 1950’s, the Catholic church had censored much of what she said, because of the sheer force of its impact. Nelson Algren and Beauvoir had an extremely passionate love affair, and even referred to each other as little husband, and little wife.  She wore his rings, up until her death. They had a very on and off again affair. Sartre was demanding, and due to this, Nelson Algren and Beauvoir had a gargantuan row, ending their affair temporarily. However they tried to be friends and Algren tried to understand the menage a trois. This was an experiment in how to have an open relationship more honestly.

Beauvoir was always anti establishment; she argued that the church and society were against women, and that men wanted to feel superior to these people. It is a hatred for women. This apparently was not found in Anglo-Saxon cultures. She felt however that the title “feminism” was a reductive title and would have defined her in relation to a man; she wanted to be defined as a human and as a humanist, as opposed to simply the opposite of man. Existentialism however was very much a theory of its time, and is less applicable to the modern age. The exploration of gender issues has moved on however Simone De Beauvoir is still very much the bedrock of gender and feminist studies.

“Women still form a repressed group, and have very little advantage compared to those in capitalism.”

This particular discussion was not only enlightening about her work, but also about her life. I will certainly be pursuing the career of De Beauvoir much further, especially considering her work in relation to her relationships.

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With thanks to Radio Four for the content of these notes.

(1) http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/de-beauvoir-simone.jpg

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T.S Eliot’s “The Wasteland”: Creating an Elite Literary Club

Since I began studying T.S Eliot for A level coursework last year, I have begun a long-enduring love affair with a man who could be considered modernism’s most reserved man. He belonged to the Bloomsbury group alongside others such as Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell. These academics were renowned for being sexually liberated, and experimental in every approach to life and literature they took. They took the traditional and destroyed it, and reformed it to the style we now know as modernism, and in this sense, Eliot was no different.

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T.S Eliot: A Literary Hero (1)

His poem, “The Wasteland” is written in five books, describing the spiritual journey from corruption to the potential for being reborn and rejuvenated. The essence of Eliot’s genius here however does not lie simply in the poem’s construction, and continual changes in narrative; the true depth and substance of the poem is contained in the intertextuality which serves to create an exclusive club; Eliot uses allusions to Greek mythology, Roman mythology, the Bible, Buddhism, D.H Lawrence, James Joyce, Augustine’s writings, Spencer’s works, to name a few. And in order to understand all these allusions, then surely, you’d have to have read widely and voraciously for all of your literary life. The depth of these allusions show just how educated Eliot was; for all his personal and social misgivings, he was perhaps the most inspirational literary critic and author of his time, purely because he deigned to read everything that had ever been written; nothing that had been written was deemed too insignificant, because as Jacques Derrida says: “there is nothing outside of the text.” Everything is a part of the poetry Eliot created, in the same way that he became a part of everything he read.

A major part of Eliot’s poem is the allusions to religion; Eliot spent much of his life in religious turmoil, and in this way looked into many types of religion including Buddhism, and had a deep fascination with Christianity and it’s origins in Latin and Greek. He felt it was extremely important to read the original texts in order to connect with them on a personal level. He later converted to Anglicanism, which seemed to provide him with some comfort, despite his personal struggles with sexuality and human relationships.

The poem itself formed the beginning of my fascination with modernism; despite my interest in Renaissance literature, the poem seemed, to me at least, to transcend literary periods due to the density of allusion. The poem is hailed as one of the cornerstones of 20th century literature, and rightly so; the spirituality presented is rarely explored in poetry to the level that it is, and because of this, I think it relates to everyone in some way or another. The explorations of love especially fascinate me, because the poem rejects physical love as something some people need, however that spirituality and an understanding of faith is something that people crave more. The idea that those who read it belong to a ‘club’ of elite literature is also very appealing; there is the implication that you belong to something inspirational and special; it is not accessible to all, and for those who wish to, the reward of understanding is very much an intellectual and emotional one.

I’m hoping to look into T.S Eliot in more detail, and hopefully write a thesis one day on his life and works. It is not an exaggeration to say that “The Wasteland”, alongside Wuthering Heights is my favourite work of English literature of all time, and I implore those who haven’t had the pleasure yet to delve in, accompanied by Google and a companion to T.S Eliot, and enjoy the roller-coaster he writes, perhaps unintentionally.

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(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/87/T.S._Eliot%2C_1923.JPG

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“Romantic Moderns” – Alexandra Harris

I honestly have met a lecturer who is so engaging that it’s admirable; Alexandra Harris, the author of Romantic Moderns, came to lecture as a part of the “visiting speakers” seminar series that the English department is holding. Her lecture focussed on “Ancient and Modern: Landscapes in the 1930’s and 1940’s”. And it was honestly fantastic.

Professor Harris explored, in a very dynamic, engaging fashion, the relationship between artistic portrayals of the British landscape in mediums from advertisements for petrol, to abstract painters such as John Piper, and the literature and culture of Britain at the time. At the time, nationalism was prominent in Britain, and as the Second World War approached, it became only more vital in the consciousness of the nation. There was however an artistic disagreement between the classical and the surrealist in terms of what would best represent the cultural present of the United Kingdom; Paul Nash explored in particular the relationship between internationalism and indigenous works and used surrealism in conjunction with landscape portrayal. This created an inviting familiarity and at the same time disparity with the British landscape and what people believed they were aware of within it.

Professor Harris also however moved on to explore the relationship between Virginia Woolf specifically, and the landscape of Britain itself. Woolf used to speak her writing aloud as she walked on the moors, allowing them to become part of a very physical rhythm and construction and in this way, she connected her literature to the rhythm of her walks. She found a strong archaeological connection between half remember nursery rhymes, and texts that “bumped” into one another; her own individual perception of literature shaped her physical connection to it.

Literary pilgrimage is a phenomenon in itself, in that English Literature seems to have a landscape attached to it; consider for instance the physical movement over land in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or The Picture of Dorian Grey, which considers a more mental journey over landscape, specifically against the idea of the mentality of death. These pilgrimages therefore can be considered as both physical and mental and manifest themselves across most kinds of literature. Woolf herself considered both the landscape; in her unfinished work, The Waves, she examines physical landscape in conjunction with the mind; however in A Room of One’s Own, mentality is examined alongside the static nature of a home.

Harris’s lecture was fascinating; I feel distinctly privileged to have been able to meet such an admirable academic.

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