WORLD WAR I AND MODERNISM
Published 05 Oct 2017
Paul Fussell, author, social critic, historian and a noted University of Pennsylvania Professor of English literature, believes that the World War I was the chief instrument that changed the approach of British literature. His belief was that the war motivated the writers to indulge in creating characters that are fundamentally ‘modern’ and their presence changed the basic structure of the literature and British literature lost its innocence. Fussell also suggested that traditional themes were reconstructed and the language of literature also changed along with the themes involved. (Lamb, 227-8) In a way these statements are true and if Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is taken into consideration then there would be enough evidence to support Fussell’s belief. Regina Sweeney’s essay La Padique Anastasie: Wartime Censorship and French Bourgeois Mortality published in Douglas Peter Mackaman’s World War I and the Cultures of Modernity also supports the fact that the First World War indeed had a profound influence on the modern society. But before we indulge into discussion and analysis it would be relevant to enumerate the variables of modernism or modern society or culture.
The most distinctive features of Modernism could be enumerated as Universality, development of Political thought, advent of technology and science, different inventions, approach towards Arts, literature, Specified Cultures, distinctive warfare and industry. There are several social and economic factors that make the Modern society different from the Pre Modern Society. These social and economic factors are development of concepts like secularization, decontextualization, totalitarianism, mechanization, democratization, centralization, hierarchical organization, individualism, linear progression, homogenization, diversification, , hybridization, unification, industrial society, reductionism, , universalism, subjectivism, alienation, rationalization, and bureaucracy making the Modernism a complex and intricate civilization and the First World War accelerated the basic norms of this society and developed concepts that could well be termed as cultural revolution. (Fletcher, 118)
Another distinctive feature of Modernism is that during the modern era the advent of capital as a means of power came into existence. Previously this place was occupied by land in general. Alongside the advent of capital one of the most interesting feature that came into existence was the high volume of goods movement at a given state of time. In the Pre modern Society this phenomenon was unimaginable and Modern society only made it possible with help of capital and industrialization. Thus a drift from the old society was already in action when the First World War took place. (Fletcher, 299-302)
The First World War ended in a period of history that was a time when the world was going through a difficult phase after the horrors of the war. It could be mentioned in the initial stages that it was degeneration time. Imperialism had taken its tolls on the world, which was grilling on the last fires of the World War. The losses were too heavy, and the shocks, almost unbearable. People just lived through a test of the extent organized cruelty and purposeful ruthlessness could reach. As far as the future was concerned, the initial tremors of what would lead to a massive cross across the globe were being felt. In this context it would be relevant to mention that the generation was not finding their existence worth while or in other words they wanted more out of their life for they hardly knew what to believe. They were not able to keep complete faith in religion and neither could they abandon it completely.
The pre-war literature like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the detective stories by Arthur Conan Doyle indicates a gothic touch with the aspects of fantasy but the post war works like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises presents a whole new world of realism and hard truths about life. The pre war period saw the literary works to be more poetic and romantic in nature and in these texts death was glorified and valor was the fundamental theme. But authors like Joyce and Hemmingway showed in their texts the harsh nature of the world where survival holds the only truth and it was essential to survive and there is no heroism in surviving. They showed that the truth was no longer a romantic affair but it was more of a compulsion for which even lies would work well if that helps in survival. (Fletcher, 344)
It was also a regeneration time. Ideological conflicts and military interests were shaking civilization right up to its foundations. The doubts, dilemmas and confusions were gradually, quite slowly indeed, giving way to a new and unique cultural revolution. It was happening all across the Western world. People suddenly seemed to realize that there was enough of political warfare to disgrace humanity. The prevailing standards suddenly seemed to be meaningless, and the insurgent youths wanted something different to happen.
This difference was provided by authors like Hemingway. The author’s The Sun Also Rises presented exactly what the youth wanted and could be able to identify. This drift of culture is well noted in Regina Sweeney’s essay La Padique Anastasie: Wartime Censorship and French Bourgeois Mortality. This essay indicates the development of censorship that was implied on the civilians but the truth of the war was always evident to the soldiers in the war (Mackaman, 7). At the end of the war these experiences were published through the eyes of the soldiers and Hemmingway being a war veteran knew it all and there is no doubt the experience as a soldier and the harsh truth of the war shaped the cultural formulation of Hemmingway and compelled him to pen novels that show the realities of life. In a way his writings become aligned with the thesis laid down by Fussell and Mackaman in the context of literature.
It could well be stated that Sweeney’s essay in Mackaman’s compilation indicates every possible notion of the changing cultural world that ultimately changed the face of literature. This text is a unification of interpretations about the era of the First World War and Sweeney delivers the fundamentals that affected the nations and the shape of the modernization. In this essay it is clear that there were mass discontent among the civilians and they tried to take every opportunity to show their distrust in the authorities no matter how much the state tried to tone down the social and intellectual disgruntlement. Sweeney’s essay indicates that this was the vintage point that set the basics of modernism that would ultimately come to age at the end of the war. (Mackaman, 6)
Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises deals with the aspects of values that are buried under the harsh realities of surviving and indicates towards the inability to express emotions in a proper and conventional manner. This novel actually serves as a metaphor that signifies the loss of human values and emotions due to the ruthless nature of the war that was also instrumental in suppressing optimism it its core. It is true that war hardly appears as subject in the novel but the affects can be seen in form of Jake’s sexual impotency. (Hemmingway, 356-7) The other characters like Robert Cohn, Michael Campbell and Bill Gorton are found to be juxtaposed in alcoholism and boredom and enthusiasm. Where as character like Brett Ashley appears to be only a subject of lust. It appears to the reader that the generation has almost perished and there were little hope to live with. This hopelessness and the lack of faith and morality emerges as one of the most striking feature of the post war literature and a direct contrast to its pre war counterparts and it can be certainly stated that the First
World War was the major influence of this literary transformation. In conclusion it could be stated that the thesis put forward by Paul Fussell and Douglas Peter Mackaman holds sustainable ground and it is true that the Great War indeed was instrumental in shaping the face of modernism. However, it should also be mentioned that the aspects of modernism was already on its way from the time of industrial revolution and birth of capitalism with the assistance of better education and communication means. These aspects were influencing the society and its culture and modernism was on its way but the circumstances of the First World War changed the acceleration of this change and formulated a rapid and revolutionize transfiguration. Indeed, as suggested by Fussell and Mackaman, the First World War transformed literature but the change was already on its way and it was inevitable and the War only accelerated this alteration.
- Lamb, D (ed); Fussell, Paul; The Great War and Modern Memory; Wilber’s Selected Political Texts; Bloemfontein: ABP Ltd; 2006
- Fletcher, Robert. Cultural Conflicts: Beliefs and Knowledge; Believing and Knowing. Christchurch: Howard & Price. 2006
- Mackaman, Douglas Peter (ed.); Sweeney, Regina; La Padique Anastasie: Wartime Censorship and French Bourgeois Mortality; World War I and the Cultures of Modernity; Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi; July 2000
- Hemmingway, E; Complete Works of Hemmingway; Vol. IV; Canberra: Alliance Publications; 2005