Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics

Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics

Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics

Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics

Synopsis

Matz examines the writing of such modernists as James, Conrad and Woolf, who used the word "impression" to describe what they wanted their fiction to present. Matz argues that these writers did not favor immediate subjective sense, but rather a mode that would mediate perceptual distinctions. Just as impressions fall somewhere between thought and sense, impressionist fiction occupies the middle ground between opposite ways of engaging with the world. This study addresses the problems of perception and representation that occupied writers in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

“Fiction is an impression”: so said Henry James, and many others, from Hardy to Woolf, from Pater to Conrad to Proust. But they did not mean that fiction should keep to the sketch, the fragment, the moment, the surface, the sense - that it should be “impressionistic. ” Such connotations come from painting, where impressions are momentary brushstrokes, or from philosophy, where impressions are primary sensations. The literary Impressionists meant that fiction should locate itself where we “have an impression”: not in sense, nor in thought, but in the feeling that comes between; not in the moment that passes, nor in the decision that lasts, but in the intuition that lingers. If “fiction is an impression” it mediates opposite perceptual moments. It does not choose surfaces and fragments over depths and wholes but makes surfaces show depths, make fragments suggest wholes, and devotes itself to the undoing of such distinctions.

To get in the impression not just sense perception but sense that is thought, appearances that are real, suspicions that are true and parts that are whole - this was the “total” aspiration of the Impressionist writer. The Impressionist writer sought perceptual totality, at a time in which fiction seemed perhaps best able to claim it. When the Impressionists took it up, fiction had proven its link to life and was ready to enter the realm of art. It had been fantastic and natural, had done social life on a massive scale and scaled itself down to individual psychologies. And to this breadth of interest it designated a perceptual correlate, making many agree, with James, that fiction is both most vital and most artful when it is an impression; with Conrad that an “impression conveyed through the senses” might join men's hearts with their worlds, and with Pater, Proust, and Woolf that fiction's Impressionism is even the key to success in life.

As an impression, however, fiction was nothing very certain, and so its “total” aspirations came with second thoughts. For its resolu-

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