Is Modern Literature Unique?

By Poznar, Walter | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Is Modern Literature Unique?


Poznar, Walter, The World and I


From all directions we are overwhelmed today by categorical statements about the decline of literature in all its traditional forms and the urgent need to fashion a new mode of literary sensibility, one appropriate to an age dominated by cataclysmic visions and a spiritually empty universe. We have been told for decades that the novel, for example, is either dying as a viable literary form or in a state of protracted invalidism. Almost all of these gloomy predictions are predicated on certain assumptions taken as axiomatic, assumptions not always critically examined to determine their validity or their applicability to contemporary conditions and to what we know of human nature and the history of man in the modern world.

Of these assertions, one of the most common is the claim that ours is a unique age governed by unique conditions, fears, and expectations that forever divorce us from the climate of opinion and systems of belief prevalent in preceding periods. Warner Berthoff writes that "the literary enterprise itself has changed, and in fundamental ways, since the American modernists finished their work, and that certain traditional conceptions of the goal of literary workmanship--and of the authority and value of perfected achievement--have fairly completely disintegrated."(1) In discussing the alleged death of romanticism in modern literature and art, Wylie Sypher has said that "our recent literature--or a--literature--proves that romanticism is unnecessary. Further, it may prove that most preceding literature and art, like most preceding ethics, has been romantic in one way or another."(2)

Frederick Karl believes that

   while we all agree that the older great writers still move us profoundly,
   their vision in its particulars cannot appeal to us: Dostoyevsky was a
   reactionary, religious fanatic; Conrad, an anti-liberal; Lawrence, for
   blood, not social action; Mann, a disillusioned nationalist; Hesse, a
   mystic who recommended asceticism. ... They are too idealistic for us.(3)

In his Nobel Prize address, William Faulkner said, "Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: when will I be blown up?" Mary McCarthy has stated that the horrors of the twentieth century put to shame the nineteenth-century novelist's interest in small-town life, "the finite scandals of the village and the province; who cares any more what happens in Highbury or the Province of 0-?"(4) What, in essence, is being claimed? Is it true that the literature of the past has no relevance to us and the age we live in?

First, we might ask whether the types of characters in the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century novel are, indeed, obsolete, irrelevant? Is it true that there are no more Emma Bovarys pining for romance and glamour? No more Ivan Karamazovs enraged at senseless brutality and injustice? No Becky Sharps exploiting their feminine charms to make it in society? No Julien Sorels burning with ambition, determined to conquer Paris and assert themselves in the jungle of competitive forces? No Ahabs tearing blindly in pursuit of the truth behind the mask of Moby Dick? Are the pictures drawn by Balzac and Flaubert and Alphonse Daudet and others of French society so dissimilar from what we see and hear in our everyday lives? Are the motives, behavior, and ambitions of Jane Austen's characters altogether incomprehensible to us when we look at ourselves and our associates?

Huckleberry Finn's dream of freedom and joy has not perished, if for no other reason than that its symptoms are everywhere flagrantly evident in commercial advertising. Ralph Nickleby's obsession with wealth has clearly not vanished from our world. Nor has the conflict within Bazarov between his materialistic ideas and his ability to love. Is Victor Hugo's Javert not living among us, a man possessed by an inhuman passion for legal justice and retribution?

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