The continued relevance of modernism

Amid the ongoing celebrations of Modernism’s centenary from 2022 to 1922, the year of Modernism’s most famous texts, eerie echoes of the traumas that overshadowed the early 20th century arise. Celebrating major works like that of TS Eliot land of wasteby Virginia Woolf Jacob’s bedroomor James Joyce Ulysses it is to commemorate texts that are still influential today and to evoke a historical moment that remains strangely familiar.

The most experimental phase of modernism, the 1920s, had three major traumatic determinants: World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-1920). In writing after these events involved writing, even obliquely, on these events – about their unmanageable interruptions, deadly upheavals, world-altering cataclysms, and utopian possibilities. Writing about the Spanish flu meant trying to understand a world that was changing drastically from year to year. Unintentionally, it also meant helping people a century later think about another virus that was changing the world – a virus that, being sent around the globe by the connective vectors that made modernism possible (e.g. the airplane) , has tragic cultural ironies.

In his groundbreaking book Viral Modernism (2019), scholar Elizabeth Outka has shown that the post-viral entanglements of modernism resonate too intimately with our present moment of COVID-19-induced turmoil. “A deadly pandemic,” writes Outka, “leaves few tangible reminders behind it. […] Its effects are felt everywhere but are not located in any particular place, except perhaps in the bodies and memories of the living that remain. Consider the protagonist of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), for example, who, like Woolf herself, was a survivor of influenza infection. In both cases, the bodies are signs of a collective trauma. Moreover, Ms Dalloway suggests that for the committed writer, viral trauma is not only a creative spur but also a kind of ethical responsibility. Modernists knew that the novel as a form had to respond to the story, embodying the dislocations of trauma in its narrative styles. Hence the experimentation of Mrs Dallowaywhose fluid mix of perspectives signals its own post-viral actuality.

Novelist and essayist, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

The trauma gave modernists new horrors to assess. She also designed new spatio-temporal mythologies. The modernist painter and writer Wyndham Lewis – no friend of Woolf but comparable to her in his earnest attitude towards epoch change – believed that the First World War had acted as a “bridge” separating eras as different as tropical landscapes and lunar. To imagine that a “new normal” could somehow recap the way things were was a fool’s game. His epic satire god’s monkeys (1930) pokes fun at those who couldn’t or wouldn’t see the bridge for what it was: a path never to be crossed again.

Wyndham Lewis wearing a suit and smoking a pipe, leaning against a studio pillarBritish writer, painter and critic, Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957)

Modernism shows how people are shattered by war, how political realities are overturned by revolution, and how virus infection ignores barriers – geographic, financial, or ideological. In 2022, we can see how modernism suggests that those who stuck their heads in the post-war, post-revolutionary sand, or who misinterpreted or downplayed the influenza pandemic in a gesture of anti-traumatic complacency , had failed to cope with the pressures of a world increasingly unsympathetic to human desires. Lewis, for his part, insisted that the new normal was indisputable: “There is no turning back”, he wrote, “to the lands of yesterday”: “those whose interests are all beforewhose credentials are in the future, move […] away from the sealed and obstructed past. Such remarks indicate the post-traumatic consciousness of modernism – its assertion that art is for the future, for reconstruction. They also hint at how modernism can still remind us now, as so many health agencies have done since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, to face reality, warning against the idea that trauma can somehow be desired.

The enduring relevance of modernism, through literature, art, sculpture, dance, music, architecture, painting, decoration and fashion, is often found in its efforts to to be New. It is also there, as the works of writers like Woolf and Lewis among many others prove, in the will of the modernism of confront new. And here there are valuable lessons for our own viral times, which continually tempt us, as modernists have been tempted, with a fantasy of recuperation – with the wistful dream of going back to yesterday.

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