I’m sure the recent articles about Modernism are confusing to a lot of our readers.
I started by reaching back deep to Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century in France. I moved on and briefly looked at Nietzsche and D.H. Lawrence before describing Nietzsche, Darwin and Baudelaire as proto-Moderns who prepped the European intelligentsia for the arrival of Modernism. Yesterday, I looked at Daniel Bell who argued that Modernism undermined European culture by insisting on the autonomy of the aesthetic from moral norms and by overvaluing the self and transgression.
How should I simplify this argument? Where am I going with this?
In the 19th century, the West was liberal and believed in Progress with a capital P, but it was a world that was alien to own. America was a deeply Protestant country. It was a liberal, democratic and capitalist country. It was also what modern day progressives would describe as a “racist” and “white supremacist” country. It was a “sexist” country that took patriarchy for granted. Americans were White, Anglo-Saxon (English in culture), Protestant and liberal and republican in principles. Blacks had been given citizenship and some degree of rights which varied by state and region due to America’s commitment to liberal and republican principles, but were not considered fully American. The same was true of other minority groups because at this time being an American meant being part of a dominant ethnic group. America’s liberal elite also had a Romantic as opposed to a Modernist sensibility.
The “mainstream” as it exists today did not exist. Jews were arriving en masse in the United States during the Great Wave (American liberalism, capitalism and naiveté made this possible), but were not yet politically, economically and culturally ascendant. WASPs were still the dominant elite and expected Jews and Catholics to assimilate (Anglo-conformity) like previous groups of immigrants. The American elite was not cosmopolitan and Americans, particularly the White Protestant majority who were simply the nation, were embedded in communities. European Catholic immigrants had their own vibrant communities. American Indians had their own communities. Blacks were building their own communities. Ethnicity was not suppressed and even after the wound of the War Between the States the country was not fragmented. By that I mean Americans were generally embedded within communities. Even during the War Between the States, the two sides engaged in combat over the preservation of the Union and slavery were both Anglos and evangelical Protestants and republicans. They even celebrated the same holidays. Reunion was possible because of the overwhelming similarities between North and South.
Americans have always been individualists. In the 18th and 19th centuries though, Americans were utilitarian individualists as opposed to expressive individualists:
|Utilitarian individualism: A form of individualism that takes as given basic human appetites and fears… and sees human life as an effort by individuals to maximize their self-interest relative to these given ends. Utilitarian individualism views society as arising from a contract that individuals enter into only in order to advance their self-interest…. Utilitarian individualism has an affinity to a basically economic understanding of existence.
|Expressive individualism: A form of individualism that arose in opposition to utilitarian individualism (which see). Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized…. Under certain conditions, the expressive individualist may find it possible through intuitive feeling to “merge” with other persons, with nature, or with the cosmos as a whole.
In other words, utilitarian individualism is basically a political and economic form of individualism whereas expressive individualism is an aesthetic form of individualism. The former comes from liberalism whereas the latter comes from modernism. Liberalism is focused on the individual as the basic unit of society. Modernism is focused on the expression of the inner world of the self.
America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was a world that was suited to liberalism and utilitarian individualism. In the beginning, there was only colonists and settlers and the land alongside hostile Indians and black slaves. There was a vast frontier. America needed people and bonded labor because anyone could simply move due to the abundance of land. Labor was in short supply. Life was overwhelmingly rural. In this environment, utilitarian individualism, fierce religiosity and white supremacy were practical. It made intuitive sense to Americans that individuals are “born free and equal” because they were in a literal sense in the American colonies. The social structure of the Old World was never replicated in the frontier society of the New World. Americans were always socially mobile. As a practical matter, they had no choice but to be self governing. There was always the West as an outlet for discontent. Americans were too busy settling and building the country to have any use for this decadent garbage.
In the 1890s, the director of the U.S. Census announced the Western frontier was closed. 35% of Americans lived in cities. The overwhelming majority of them lived north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. In the 1920s, the number of Americans living in cities surpassed the number of Americans living in rural areas for the first time in American history. Once again, the vast majority of them lived north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. The South and West remained far behind the East and Midwest in urbanization until the post-World War II era. Today, 82% of Americans live in urban areas.
Mainstream conservatives do not understand the American past which they invariably perceive through the prism and myths of the post-World War II era. Americans used to be an ethnic group with liberal and republican principles. America was a “White Man’s Country” all the way down until World War II. White Americans were an ethnic group. They were the dominant ethnic group. They were the American nation. European immigrants came here and adopted their identity and historical narrative (Anglo-conformity), learned English and hopefully became Protestant. They joined the ethnic group. It is true the ethnic group was broadened over time. It went from Anglo-Protestant to Anglo White Christian. Americans were English-speaking White Christians with a black minority who were a thorny problem. Today, this has been demonized as “white supremacy” and thrown in the garbage by liberals, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. There used to be an ethnically defined American nation that incorporated immigrants.
At the beginning of the 20th century, America’s elite which were the Northern WASPs who had ruled the country since the War Between the States started to become cosmopolitan. This region north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi was essentially the Great Britain of the United States while the South and West were its colonial dependencies. It was urbanized and settled. European immigrants were pouring into the region and changing its culture and demographic makeup which was not the history of the Jim Crow South. The South didn’t industrialize and urbanize until the years between 1940 and 1960. Even today, White Southerners are overwhelmingly descended from Old American stock.
America in 1900 was White, Anglo-Saxon (English in culture), deeply Protestant, liberal and republican in principles. It was deeply bourgeois. Theodore Roosevelt who charged San Juan Hill in Cuba with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War was a Romantic president. Late Victorian morals were the mainstream. America was not particularly innovative in the arts and culture. Instead, Americans were highly innovative in technology and shaped the 20th century in this respect. The “mainstream” as it exists today did not yet exist. It was an alien world oblivious to the charge of “racism.”
America as I have described it in 1900 was an outpost of Western civilization. Most Americans lived in rural areas. The frontier had recently closed. The region north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi had a few bustling cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the United States at that time and was part of this metropole region. The truly important action in the late 19th/early 20th century though was going on in Western Europe where Modernism was born in France in the late 19th century. This was a time of enormous cultural upheaval in Western Europe.
Western Europe in the 19th century was growing liberal and democratic, but it was also under the spell of Romanticism. This is how Isaiah Berlin defines Romanticism:
“Romanticism is the primitive, the untutored, it is youth, the exuberant sense of life of the natural man, but it is also pallor, fever, disease, decadence, the maladie du siècle, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the Dance of Death, indeed Death itself. It is Shelley’s dome of many-coloured glass, and it is also his white radiance of eternity. It is the confused teeming fullness and richness of life, Fülle des Lebens, inexhaustible multiplicity, turbulence, violence, conflict, chaos, but also it is peace, oneness with the great ‘I Am’, harmony with the natural order, the music of the spheres, dissolution in the eternal all-containing spirit. It is the strange, the exotic, the grotesque, the mysterious, the supernatural, ruins, moonlight, enchanted castles, hunting horns, elves, giants, griffins, falling water, the old mill on the Floss, darkness and the powers of darkness, phantoms, vampires, nameless terror, the irrational, the unutterable. Also it is the familiar, the sense of one’s unique tradition, joy in the smiling aspect of everyday nature, and the accustomed sights and sounds of contented, simple, rural folk—the sane and happy wisdom of rosy-cheeked sons of the soil. It is the ancient, the historic, it is Gothic cathedrals, mists of antiquity, ancient roots and the old order with its unanalysable qualities, its profound but inexpressible loyalties, the impalpable, the imponderable. Also it is the pursuit of novelty, revolutionary change, concern with the fleeting present, desire to live in the moment, rejection of knowledge, past and future, the pastoral idyll of happy innocence, joy in the passing instant, a sense of timelessness. It is nostalgia, it is reverie, it is intoxicating dreams, it is sweet melancholy and bitter melancholy, solitude, the sufferings of exile, the sense of alienation, roaming in remote places, especially the East, and in remote times, especially the Middle Ages. But also it is happy co-operation in a common creative effort, the sense of forming part of a Church, a class, a party, a tradition, a great and all-containing symmetrical hierarchy, knights and retainers, the ranks of the Church, organic social ties, mystic unity, one faith, one land, one blood, ‘la terre et les morts’, as Barrès said, the great society of the dead and the living and the yet unborn. It is the the Toryism of Scott and Southey and Wordsworth, and it is the radicalism of Shelley, Büchner and Stendhal. It is Chateaubriand’s aesthetic medievalism, and it is Michelet’s loathing of the Middle Ages. It is Carlyle’s worship of authority, and Hugo’s hatred of authority. It is extreme nature mysticism, and extreme anti-naturalist aestheticism. It is energy, force, will, life étalage du moi; it is also self-torture, self-annihilation, suicide. It is the primitive, the unsophisticated, the bosom of nature, green fields, cow-bells, murmuring brooks, the infinite blue sky. No less, however, it is also dandyism, the desire to dress up, red waistcoats, green wigs, blue hair which the followers of people like Gérard de Nerval wore in Paris at a certain period. It is the lobster which Nerval led about on a string in the streets of Paris. It is wild exhibitionism, eccentricity, it is the battle of Ernani, it is ennui, it is taedium vitae, it is the death of Sardanopolis, whether painted by Delacroix, or written about by Berlioz or Byron. It is the convulsion of great empires, wars, slaughter and the crashing of worlds. It is the romantic hero—the rebel, l’homme fatal, the damned soul, the Corsairs, Manfreds, Giaours, Laras, Cains, all the population of Byron’s heroic poems. It is Melmoth, it is Jean Sbogar, all the outcasts and Ishmaels as well as the golden-hearted courtesans and the noble-hearted convicts of nineteenth-century fiction. It is drinking out of the human skull, it is Berlioz who said he wanted to climb Vesuvius in order to commune with a kindred soul. It is Satanic revels, cynical irony, diabolical laughter, black heroes, but also Blake’s vision of God and his angels, the great Christian society, the eternal order, and ‘the starry heavens which can scarce express the infinite and eternal of the Christian soul’. It is, in short, unity and multiplicity. It is fidelity to the particular, in the paintings of nature for example, and also mysterious tantalising vagueness of outline. It is beauty and ugliness. It is art for art’s sake, and art as an instrument of social salvation. It is strength and weakness, individualism and collectivism, purity and corruption, revolution and reaction, peace and war, love of life and love of death.”
This was hugely important.
Romanticism lit the fire of ethnonationalism in Europe. The educated and professional classes were enchanted by the Romantic ideal and forged the nation-states of Western Europe. Ireland, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Germany were either resurrected or unified largely as a result of the influence of Romanticism. America was unified too by Lincoln. The unification of Germany and the shift in the balance of power in Europe that caused led directly to the World Wars. The shift from Romanticism to Modernism was similarly important. It largely explains the shift from the 19th century to the 20th century.
Romanticism had been directed outward toward peasants, rural areas, the common man, Nature with a capital N, Progress with a capital P, the primordial origins of one’s own ethnic group which has been transmitted down to us through language. It allowed intellectuals and the educated and professional classes to imagine that they had an ethnic and cultural bond with the common people. Germans, for example, wanted to unify all German-speaking people under the German Reich. Theodore Roosevelt could write with great pride about the Anglo-American triumph in The Winning of the West. The Irish and the Poles could dream of an independent Ireland and Poland. Nationalism was a pillar of solidarity that buttressed liberalism and expanded alongside it into the 20th century. It solved a very important problem which was the identification of rulers with the ruled in a bond of solidarity.
What is the difference between Romanticism and Modernism? Why is this so important? What changed in the 20th century when liberals shifted from having a Romantic to a Modernist sensibility?
Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) is considered a masterpiece of Romanticism. It is a landscape of a confident European man looking down on nature.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) is considered a masterpiece of Modern art. It depicted a twisted figure on a boardwalk suffering from anxiety. It is someone experiencing a panic attack.
The biggest difference between Romanticism and Modernism is that the former is directed outwards and the latter is directed inwards. It is obsessed with the interior world of the self. It is not interested in God or Nature. It doesn’t depict an idealized form, a higher truth, the divine or objective reality. Modern art doesn’t serve any social purpose. It is about the self expression of the artist and what he is experiencing. It is art for art’s sake: capturing and retrieving a fleeting unique experience and embodying it in art.
As Charles Baudelaire said and knew from experience, down or descent is the way we go into the realm of the Devil. This is what Modernism emphasizes as a sensibility. It is about the self and its interior experiences: self exploration, self expression, self realization, self liberation. It is obsessed with how interior psychological states manifest in the real world. Every sensibility is a choice that necessarily privileges and assigns value to some things while devaluing other things. Liberalism emphasizes the individual over the collective. Modernism emphasizes the inner self and its experiences. Before Modernism, liberals had a traditionalist sensibility that went either upwards toward transcendence (religion) or outwards toward other people (ethnicity), usually both since ethnicity and religion have historically been intertwined. It was something you did with other people and determined how you thought about other people. In contrast, Modernism encouraged spelunkers of the self to pursue and express their own lifestyles.
What is Modernism? It is elitism and cosmopolitanism. It is the alienation of the intellectual and the outsider. It is hatred and rejection of the bland, philistine bourgeois and the dirty masses. It is seeing a father or a mother as an idiot. It is being stimulated by foreign cultures or exotic outgroups. It is the smug feeling of being better than everyone else. It is the absence of the sacred and transcendence in your life. It is the entire genre of science fiction. It is the wisdom of youth. It is a rootless, bohemian existence. It is hyper individualism and cultural relativism. It is the quest to find and be able to express your “true self.” It is your cool wine aunt or your hipster brother. It is changing your sex like your clothes. It is your piercings, tattoos, your tan and sunglasses. It is divorce, millions of aborted children and indifference to future generations. It is exploring and being tormented by interior psychological states. It is sniffing out and exposing the -isms and -phobias lurking in other people and ranking people on the basis of them. It is about YOU. It is narcissism and self absorption of the Summer of Love. It is the rejection of filial piety. It is social irresponsibility on a grand scale. It is the “liberation” of your innermost being. It is the rejection of the past and the celebration of the new. It is living in the present and creating utopias on earth. It is being a tourist on earth in pursuit of endless novelties. It is being a “bobo in paradise.” It is wallowing like a pig in cultural and moral decadence. It is aestheticism and nihilism. It is buying the latest product and keeping up with the latest fashions. It is “choosing” your lifestyle and living in the companionship of a small group of self chosen friends rather than being incorporated in an ethnic group or practicing a religion. It is transgression against traditional cultural norms which is confused with progress. It is being detached from your own ethnic group and your coreligionists. It is being hip as opposed to being square. It is being “cool.” It is the celebration of urbanity and rejection of “backwardness.” It is pluralism. It is the rejection of Nature and God. It is about “living” your life which is defined as the capture and retrieval of experience. It is hedonism. It is endless experimentation with sex and drugs. It is fouling our civilization and indifference to its decay. It is Vox.com and The New Yorker. It is the new Taylor Swift. It is the syphilis of Baudelaire and Nietzsche, the neuroses of Edvard Munch, the mental illness and suicide of Vincent van Gogh, the misanthropy of H.G. Wells, the perversion of Sigmund Freud, the homosexuality of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein and Michel Foucault and Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis abandoning their own children. In short, it is now what is considered “mainstream” in the contemporary West. It is our own times.
In the United States, Modernism has a beginning in the early 20th century. The following excerpt comes from Henry F. May’s book The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“Everybody knows that at some point in the twentieth century America went through a cultural revolution. One has only to glance at the family photograph album, or to pick up a book or magazine dated, say, 1907, to find oneself in a completely vanished world. On one side of some historical boundary lies the America of Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, of Chautauqua and Billy Sunday and municipal crusades, a world so foreign, so seemingly simple, that we sometimes tend, foolishly enough, to find it comical. On the other side of the barrier lies our own time, a time of fearful issues and drastic divisions, a time surely including the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the atom bomb. Clearly on one side of this line lie Booth Tarkington and O. Henry and the American Winston Churchill, and also, we should not forget, Henry James. Clearly on our side lie Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Stearns Eliot, and also the writers of television advertising. At some point, if not an instantaneous upheaval, there must have been a notable quickening of the pace of change, a period when things began to move so fast that the past, from then on, looked static. …
Some of these paradoxes are, of course, more apparent than real. We do not have to choose between the two pictures of prewar America: the end of Victorian calm and the beginning of cultural revolution. Both of these pictures are true. In the years we are going to examine, the few years just before the impact of war on America, we are uniquely able to look at both pictures at once. We can see the massive walls of nineteenth-century America still apparently intact, and then turn our spotlight on the many different kinds of people cheerfully laying dynamite in the hidden cracks. It is my hope that a concentrated but fairly wide-ranging study of this short period, of its thought and literature and politics, may tell us something about the old America and something about the beginnings of our own times. …
In college the Young Intellectuals had been exposed to nineteenth-century materialism and also to nineteenth century refutations of it. The result was that most of them regarded Spencer and Haeckel and Marx, and even the more modern materialists, as old fashioned. At the same time they had ceased to accept, or even to discuss, traditional Christianity. Yet most of them retained a religious habit of mind learned in childhood and were eager for new kinds of faith.
These young men had been deeply affected by pragmatism, and often combined James’ wide-openness to emotion and innovation with Dewey’s bold belief in social and intellectual reconstruction. They welcomed the more biting dicta of the social scientists; some of them had encountered Veblen’s astringent skepticism. Yet Wells, with his optimism and his recent semimysticism was for many of them the most important social prophet. Bergson had given new and welcome support to their confidence in their own intuitions. From Nietzsche and Ibsen and Shaw – for that matter from nearly all the literature they read – they had learned a fierce contempt for nineteenth-century bourgeois morality. Dostoevsky had revived their religious instincts, and Freud had convinced them of the necessity of sexual self-expression. All these influences had combined to produce a new kind of radicalism, passionate yet somewhat imprecise. The Young Intellectuals agreed on at least one point: they were uninterested in any plan for social improvement which was not also a program for spiritual and artistic liberation. …
Anarchism, the noblest of radical dreams, attracted many of the Young Intellectuals and their older friends. They did not know much about the older American anarchism, the movement of Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker. But anarchism in a general sense was deep in the heritage of the Young Intellectuals. Some of them knew that Thoreau had said that government governs best which governs not at all. Many more knew that their favorite American older writer Walt Whitman had said he had nothing to do with institutions.
Moreover anarchism had a worldwide literature of great power. Tolstoy’s road of renunciation. Kroptokin’s distribution according to need, Max Stirner’s extreme individualism were specifically anarchist. The anarchist movement, with its drama of bombs and spies, outrage and espionage and persecution, had furnished subjects for Dostoevsky, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad …”
America became majority urban in the 1920s.
In America’s biggest cities north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi, Modernism was arriving from Western Europe in New York City and Chicago. The old establishment which clung to the Victorian culture of 19th century America was coming under assault by Modernist radicals. A century later, the Modernist insurgents of the 1920s have become the exhausted American establishment. New ideas are once again drifting across the Atlantic. The old ideas are plunging the West toward a new Crisis.
Note: The Rolling Stones are the embodiment of Modernism. See also John Lennon.