The Modern(ist) Life

I have decided my Faulkner and Postmodernism professor is a genius. No teacher before (and, given that I only have two more courses in my academic career ahead of me, I feel safe assuming no teacher after) has made the modernist experience come alive quite the way he has. But in order to really share the scope of his virtuoso teaching style, you’ll have to allow me a little background.

Modernism began as a reaction to Victorianism. Victorians (or at least those in power) believed in a very strict core of beliefs, centered around such things as: the triumph of Good (oh yes, capital ‘G’), the inevitable payoff of hard work, absolute standards of moral conduct, a universe governed by a fixed set of (knowable) laws, and with everything presided over by a benevolent (and oh-so-Christian) god. These things were good. And any (and every) thing else was bad.

Then World War I happened. Not to say that WWI caused “modernism”—it had been building up to and since the turn of the century, Joyce, for example, published Dubliners in 1914, right before WWI started, and Woolf cites 1910 as the year everything “changed.” But as for an artistic movement, the aftermath of WWI is when literary modernism hit the ground running.

It challenged just about everything the Victorians held dear (and not in a way that they could easily suppress it). For instance, where in that war was the triumph of Good? When thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people (men, women, and children) were being slaughtered every day, on which side could one unequivocally say, “Yes, this is Good.” Also, what made mass-slaughter possible was a combination of the Victorian work ethic and the factories of the Industrial Revolution. But that didn’t follow, because how could something bad come out of hard work and (capital ‘P’) Progress? And where, oh where, in the month-long bombardments was the benevolent god, who was supposed to make sure that good things happened to good people and bad things to bad? Couple that with ol’ Einstein, whose Law of Relativity proclaimed that those immutable laws of Nature were a whole bunch more mutable, and, well, people grew just a tad impatient with Victorianism.

So modernism came to the forefront. Where the Victorians grounded, or centered, their ordered, hierarchical literary worlds, modernists wrote of a world spiraling toward chaos. Where Victorians ensured the inevitable triumph of Good, modernists introduced ambiguity—it was suddenly up to the reader to decide how the story ended (to a point). Where Victorians laid out their stories in easy to follow, chronological narratives that respected conventions, modernists broke from tradition and, in many cases, tried to make their narratives as difficult to navigate as the fast-paced, impersonal world around them.

It is important to note that modernists still believed in Right and Wrong—in Truth, if you will. They just believed that it was also impossible to ever fully know that Truth outside of an artistic context, thus, the tragic tone of most of their stories. It was only in art, so say the modernists, that one is able to break apart the fragmented aspects of life and reassemble them in a way approaching sense. And so did spawn: Cubism, Vorticism, Futurism, Dadaism, Imagism, Surrealism, etc.

But what does any of this have to do with my graduate class?

Well, as I said before, my professor has the uncanny ability of causing us students to actually live that modernist experience. We all entered the course with an idea of a shared, agreed upon definition of good teaching—but in swept the professor, casting aside convention and plunging us into the chaotic world. Where once there were easy-to-follow, dare I say “enlightening,” lectures, now there are ten, fifteen minute tangents about incidental aspects of the literature. Is the knife phallic? The knife is phallic. But how does it relate to the corkscrew-bottle-opener? And how do you think of those in terms of the red and phallic bow tie? A phallic bow tie? A phallic bow tie! Is the ending positive or negative? Well, I’ll read it as positive—Wrong! You can’t say that: the ending is ambiguous—and here is why it’s negative: . . . Question: Could Flannery O’Connor possibly be illustrating a form of Christianity she sanctions through the black character, Buford, since he is found at the beginning and end of the novel? Answer: What you should have asked is why modernists never interrogate their black characters, or rather that’s what I want to talk about so that’s the question I’ll answer . . .

In short, the man is the physical manifestation of the modernist experience, and we, his students, leave each class feeling alienated, frustrated, and confused—pining for a simpler time, when lectures cohered and their was a sense of learning.

Genius.

Alas, I’ll never have another teacher like him.

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