What is Modernism?
Why are we spending so much time on this?
Who were the Moderns? Who were the Victorians? What was the nature of this culture war that broke out in America in the late 1910s and early 1920s? How did it lead to the creation of our world?
The following excerpt comes from Malcolm Cowley’s memoir Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyessy of the 1920s:
“In those days when division after division was landing in Hoboken and marching up Fifth Avenue in full battle equipment, when Americans were fighting the Bolshies in Siberia and guarding the Rhine – in those still belligerent days that followed the Armistice there was a private war between Greenwich Village and the Saturday Evening Post.
Other magazines fought in the same cause, but the Post was persistent and powerful enough to be regarded as chief of the aggressor nations. It published stories about the Villagers, editorials and articles against them, grave or flippant serials dealing with their customs in a mood of disparagement or alarm, humorous pieces done to order by its staff writers, cartoons in which the Villagers were depicted as long-haired men and short-haired women with ridiculous bone-rimmed spectacles – in all, a long campaign of invective beginning before the steel strike or the Palmer Raids and continuing through the jazz era, the boom and the depression. The burden of it was always the same: that the Village was the haunt of affectation; that it was inhabited by fools and fakers; that the fakers hid Moscow heresies under the disguise of cubism and free verse; that the fools would eventually be cured of their folly: they would forget this funny business about art and return to domesticity in South Bend, Indiana, and sell motorcars, and in the evenings sit with slippered feet while their children romped about them in paper camps made from the advertising pages of the Saturday Evening Post. The Village was dying, had died already, smelled to high heaven and Philadelphia. …
The Villagers did not answer this attack directly: instead they carried on a campaign of their own against the culture of which the Post seemed to be the final expression. They performed autopsies, they wrote obituaries of civilization in the United States, they shook the standardized dust of the country from their feet. Here, apparently, was a symbolic struggle: on the one side, the great megaphone of middle-class America; on the other, the American disciples of art and artistic living. Here, in its latest incarnation, was the eternal warfare of bohemian against bourgeois, poet against propriety, Villon and the Bishop of Orléans, Keats and the quarterly reviewers, Rodolphe, Mimi and the landlord. But perhaps, if we review the history of the struggle, we shall find that the issue was other than it seemed, and the enmity less ancient …”
In other words, the bohemian culture and lifestyle of the Modernist avant-garde which had blossomed in late 19th century France since the days of Baudelaire, Flaubert and Manet had found its way to America where it had established its first beachhead in Greenwich Village in the 1910s.
“Greenwich Village was not only a place, a mood, a way of life: like all bohemias, it was also a doctrine. Since the days of Gautier and Murger, this doctrine had remained the same in spirit, but it had changed in several details. By 1920, it had become a system of ideas that could roughly be summarized as follows:
- The idea of salvation by the child. Each of us at birth has special potentialities which are slowly crushed by a standardized society and mechanical methods of teaching. If a new educational system can be introduced, one by which children are encouraged to develop their own personalities, to blossom freely like flowers, then the world will be saved by this new, free generation. (Each of us is a special snowflake and all cultural barriers to the full development of the modern self must be removed – HW).
- The idea of self-expression – Each man’s, each woman’s, purpose in life is to express himself, to realize his full individuality through creative work and beautiful living in beautiful surroundings. (Expressive individualism and aestheticism – HW).
- The idea of paganism – The body is a temple in which there is nothing unclean, a shrine to be adorned for the ritual of love. (Rejection of Christianity and traditional moral values – HW).
- The idea of living for the moment – It is stupid to pile up treasures that we can enjoy only in old age, when we have lost the capacity for enjoyment. Better to seize the moment as it comes, to dwell in it intensely, even at the cost of future suffering. Better to live extravagantly, gather June rosebuds, “burn my candle at both ends … It gives a lovely light.” (A culture of unbridled, self-absorbed narcissism and heedless disregard for the welfare of future generations – HW).
- The idea of liberty – Every law, convention or rule of art that prevents self-expression or the full enjoyment of the moment should be shattered and abolished. Puritanism is the great enemy. The crusade against puritanism is the only crusade with which free individuals are justified in allying themselves. (Cultural liberalism which elevates aesthetic self-expression over religion and morality – HW).
- The idea of female equality – Women should be the economic and moral equals of men. They should have the same pay, the same working conditions, the same opportunity for drinking, smoking; taking or dismissing lovers. (Cultural egalitarianism and the New Woman – HW).
- The idea of psychological adjustment – We are unhappy because we are maladjusted, and maladjusted because we are repressed. If our individual repressions can be removed – by confessing them to a Freudian psychologist – then we can adjust ourselves to any situation, and be happy in it. (But Freudianism is only one method of adjustment. What is wrong with us may be our glands, and by a slight operation, or merely by taking a daily dose of thyroid, we may alter our whole personalities. Again, we may adjust ourselves by some such psycho-physical discipline as was taught by Gurdjieff. The implication of all these methods are the same – that the environment itself need not be altered. This explains why most radicals who become converted to psychoanalysis or glands or Gurdjieff gradually abandoned their political radicalism.) (Modernism is obsessed with psychology and the “transformation of consciousness.” We are maladjusted because of our repressions. We need to be liberated from all the -isms and -phobias. – HW).
- The idea of changing place – “They do things better in Europe.” England and Germany have the wisdom of old cultures; the Latin peoples have admirably preserved their pagan heritage. By expatriating himself, by living in Paris, Capri, or the south of France, the artist can break the Puritan shackles, drink, live freely and be wholly creative.” – (Cosmopolitan nonsense. Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, F. Scott Fitzgerald died when he was 44-years-old and Ezra Pound ended up in a mental hospital. The heralds of Modernism include Baudelaire who had syphilis, Vincent van Gogh who cut his ear off and shot himself, Nietzsche who became Dionysus and went insane and Oscar Wilde who was a sodomite who was addicted to male teenage prostitutes. – HW).
There you have it.
This is where modern liberalism comes from: traditional religion, morality, culture and ethnic identity are all barriers to individual autonomy and self-expression and must be shattered and abolished in order to “liberate” the self for it can “blossom freely like flowers” and cultivate an aesthetic lifestyle.