Modernism and Time: The Logic of Abundance in Literature, Science, and Culture, 1880-1930

Modernism and Time: The Logic of Abundance in Literature, Science, and Culture, 1880-1930

Modernism and Time: The Logic of Abundance in Literature, Science, and Culture, 1880-1930

Modernism and Time: The Logic of Abundance in Literature, Science, and Culture, 1880-1930

Synopsis

Ronald Schleifer offers a powerful reassessment of the politics and culture of modernism. His study analyzes the transition from the Enlightenment to post-Enlightenment ways of understanding in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He argues that this transition expresses itself centrally in an altered conception of temporality. Addressing a variety of disciplines, this study examines the period's remarkable breaks with the past in literature, music, and the arts more generally, and engages with the work of writers and thinkers as varied as George Eliot, Walter Benjamin, Einstein and Russell.

Excerpt

Several years ago, Stephen Toulmin wrote Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity in which he argued that the origins of Enlightenment modernity in the seventeenth century, based upon the work of Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton, is best understood in the context of the great tumultuous epoch of the Thirty Years' War. Toulmin dates “the starting date for Modernity … somewhere in the period from 1600 to 1650” (1992: 7), dates which almost precisely correspond to the lifetime of Descartes. “Far from the years 1605–1650 being prosperous or comfortable, ” he argues, “they are now seen as having been among the most uncomfortable, and even frantic, years in all European history. Instead of regarding Modern Science and Philosophy as the products of leisure, therefore, we will do better to turn the received view upside down, and treat them as responses to a contemporary crisis” (1992: 16). Thus, he argues, “the 17th-century philosophers' 'Quest for Certainty' was no mere proposal to construct abstract and timeless intellectual schemas, dreamed up as objects of pure, detached intellectual study. Instead, it was a timely response to a specific historical challenge – the political, social, and theological chaos embodied in the Thirty Years' War” (1992: 70).

In Modernism and Time, I am confronting the similar problem of understanding that was occasioned by the remarkable transformations of intellectual life, social life, and private experience in the years preceding the great thirty years of European warfare in our century, the period of the second Industrial Revolution roughly spanning the late nineteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth century. This is the period of twentieth-century cultural “Modernism” that witnessed remarkable breaks with the past in literature, music, and the arts more generally, reorientations of the sciences in post-Newtonian physics and powerful reconceptions of mathematics, and almost overwhelming transformations in the . . .

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