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Modernism is a term which is not only associated with literature, but also with the great changes which affected all the arts in Europe and America starting in the years before 1914.
One of the most outstanding feature of Modernism in fiction and poetry was the radical break with the literary tradition of the 19th century. Writers did not disregard tradition in general, however, because they went back to periods before. The idea that there was nothing which could be taken for granted in literary form stimulated authors to try new ways of expression.
There was an urgency to represent the variety of modem urban life. One way of trying to create order out of the chaos of the modern world was the recourse to primitive myths. However, this kind of interpretation did not have the character of absolute truth. It also took place not through a rational process, but through single and intense moments of illuminations or epiphanies, which offered the possibility of grasping the true essence of things. This was arrived at not only through the external perception of things, but also and above all by the analysis of interior life, the conscious and the unconscious thereby acquiring the same importance.
In his The Interpretation of Dreams Sigmund Freud explained that the development of our personality was greatly affected by the unconscious, the hidden part of ourselves.
The disquieting aspect was that man had no control of this hidden side. Another important aspect of Freud’s theories was libido and its demands: man was obliged to recognize that unknown irrational forces regulated his behaviour and his relationships. On the basis of is discoveries Freud gave great importance to the interpretation of dreams and to the free association of thoughts.
Some writers were fascinated by his methods of investigating human personality and tried to apply them to the analysis of the workings of the minds of their characters.
The most outstanding examples were James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
Another element which added uncertainty and contributed to the destabilization of traditional reference points was the theory of relativity of the German physicist Albert Einstein. His theory of ‘relativity’ affected the faith in the solidity of science.
The idea that everything was relative was also introduced by anthropology.
There were no better or worse societies because behaviours depended on the environment and they were right or wrong, but simply different.
In the previous century the German philosopher Nietzsche in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra he spoke of the ‘death of God’. So religion lost its indisputable power.
The German philosopher Karl Marx considered religion as the opium of peoples because in the name of religion men justified and tolerated injustice.
Men felt deprived of all the certainties they had always believed in, but they were not able to replace the old values with new ones, so they felt a lack of any reference points and deprived of their own identity. This generated a profound feeling of-anxiety due to which the age was called by the poet Auden the ‘Age of Anxiety’.
One of the most novel and extreme movements of Modernism was Italian Futurism, with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
A group of poets who carried out a profound revolution in poetic taste and practice were the Imagists and especially American poets, whose outstanding figures were Ezra Pound and Thomas Ernest Hulme. According to Hulme poetry was to be “dry, hard and classical”. He also added that descriptions were to be “accurate, precise and definite” with the elimination of every word “that did not contribute to the presentation”, while the rhythm was to become free from any artificial demands.
The term Imagism was used for the first time by Ezra Pound, to underline the fact that at the basis of the movement there was the concept of the use of precise images.
Another movement which involved Ezra Pound and Eliot was Vorticism which was started by the American painter and writer Lewis. Together with Ezra and a sculptor, he produced a magazine, Blast, which came out in 1914. The movement was called Vorticism because the name suggested the image of a vortex, from which ideas were constantly rushing. It was an aggressive movement which attacked the sentimentality of 19th century art and exalted violence, energy and the machine.