When did the Modern age begin?
There is no real precise moment that separates the Romantic or Victorian age from the Modern age and it varies from country to country, but the moment that Friedrich Nietzsche went insane and became Dionysus isn’t far off. The 1890s were a cultural turning point in European history.
The following excerpt comes from Modernism: A Guide To European Literature, 1890-1930:
“It was a situation deeply vulnerable to the new ideas of Nietzsche, the date of whose impact can be placed with considerable precision, and the subsequent spread monitored with more than usual accuracy. Despite his prolific authorship of the seventies and eighties, Nietzsche was almost unknown before May 1888, when he was made the subject of a series of lectures in Copenhagen by the Danish critic Georg Brandes. From Brandes (who read the Germans a stern lesson on their neglect of this thinker in their midst) the word spread via the Scandinavian colony of writers and critics in Berlin and through the excited advocacy of Strindberg first to Germany’s avant-garde and then to Europe at large. Nietzsche’s letters to Brandes and Strindberg in the autumn of 1888, despite the clearly megalomaniac tone, have a strangely prophetic quality. Announcing in the November the impending promulgation of his ‘reevaluation of all values’, he declared: ‘I swear that in two years time the whole world will be in convulsions. I am sheer destiny.’ The following month he wrote to Strindberg that he now felt possessed of the strength ‘to cleave the history of mankind in two’.”
What impact did Nietzsche’s philosophy have on the emergence of Modernism?
There are certainly striking similarities between Modernism and Nietzscheanism: elitism, cosmopolitanism, self expression, cultural relativism or pluralism (perspectivism), alienation from the masses, the rejection of Christianity, ethics as power relations, the transvaluation of values, art as the means to overcoming nihilism, the autonomy of aesthetics from ethics, the Dionysian affirmation of life, etc.
Nietzsche didn’t create Modernism, but Nietzscheanism certainly reflected the rising atmosphere of Modernism in the late 19th century. Nietzsche believed the creative art of the higher men was the bridge to the Übermensch who were held back by the slave morality of the masses.
The following excerpt comes from Peter Gay’s book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy:
“The advanced circles that backed art for art’s sake were small but enthusiastic and eloquent. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the phrase had become a favorite slogan among aesthetes, often as recognizable by their dress as by their opinions. Among their most conspicuous representatives, some of them, notably Gautier, Swinburne, Huysmans, Whistler – and, once again, Baudelaire and Wilde – often almost literally worse their aestheticism on their sleeve. But to take this fashionable service to self-display as defining Wilde, probably the most extravagant of them, is to trivialize his magnitude as a cultural icon. With all his lightheartedness, as we shall see, he ended up as a martyr to the religion of art, a major figure in modernism as it was reaching toward new height …
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 to well-connected Protestant middle-class parents – his father an eminent eye specialist, his mother a voluble poet and quiet as fervent an Irish patriot as her husband. He shone at Magdalen College, Oxford, sporting a rare double first, celebrated for his repartee in the common room and the exquisite china in his own rooms. He was already an aesthete, and never changed. Even his political ideology, an idiosyncratic anarchistic socialism, was an outgrowth of his aestheticism: the abolition of property and the family would create, he argued, a “true, beautiful, healthy individualism.” He enchanted (though at times also put off) attentive audiences in Britain and the United States with well-constructed lectures on the decorative arts and practical household hints. His life’s mission, he declared, was to make the world love beauty. Modernism had no campaigners more amusing in their propaganda than Oscar Wilde. …
No doubt, Wilde’s epigrams could be too slight or too strenuous to do his critical work effectively. But his quip about the death of Little Nell is not just funny; it raises in a single sentence interesting questions about the sociology and history of taste, and about the relations of a writer to both. No wonder that Shaw should have called Wilde “Nietzschean” – Nietzsche, too, could be dazzling in his sentences, and, like Wilde, skeptical about the permanence of claims to truthfulness. The philosopher and the playwright, each in his way, shared the hazards inherent in the modernist ambiance and thus, as energetic immoralists, dared to live in precarious circumstances …
By this time, cartoonists were turning Wilde into a distinctive target for thousands of newspaper and periodical readers in the United States almost as much as Britain, with his eccentric suits, extravagant neckties, and languid prose, clutching a lily or leaning against a sunflower. He spent valuable hours and exquisite care on his appearance, his speech, his instructions to his barber, his presentations of self on private and public occasions. “To become a work of art,” he once wrote, “is the object of living …”
There isn’t much distance between Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde.
Modernist intellectuals saw themselves as Nietzsche’s higher men and responded to Zarathustra’s call to arms. Nietzsche called for a declaration of war on the masses in The Will To Power.
The following excerpt comes from John Carey’s The Intellectuals & The Masses: Pride & Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939:
“We should use Nietzsche, I would suggest, as one of the earliest products of mass culture. That is to say, mass culture generated Nietzsche in opposition to itself, as its antagonist. The immense popularity of his ideas among early twentieth-century intellectuals suggest the panic that the threat of the masses aroused. W. B. Yeats recommended Nietzsche as ‘a counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity’, and George Bernard Shaw nominated Thus Spake Zarathustra as ‘the first modern book that can be set above the Psalms of David’. True, Nietzsche’s acolytes seem often to have read him selectively, in a bid to harmonize his doctrines with socialism, democracy or even feminism. …
Nietzsche’s view of the mass was shared or prefigured by most of the founders of modern European culture. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People of 1882 showed the isolated, righteous individual as the victim of the corrupt mass. Flaubert wrote in 1871 – a decade before Nietzsche published Thus Spake Zarathustra – ‘I believe that the mob, the mass, the herd will always be despicable’. One could not, Flaubert asserts, elevate the masses even if one tried. …
The transition from Hardy nervously watching the populated darkness from his upstairs window to Hardy feeling superior in the British Museum could serve as a paradigm of the modern intellectual’s effort to limit and dominate the mass. Creating images that could effect this domination was a major preoccupation of Nietzsche, for whom reimagining the mass seems to have been a vital component of mental stability. Nietzsche’s most common image of the mass is as a herd of animals. But he also figures it as a swarm of poisonous flies, or as raindrops and weeds, ruining proud structures.
The essential function of these images is to deprive the mass of human status. Humanity is to be found elsewhere – in the exceptional individuals Nietzsche celebrates. Denial of humanity to the masses became, in the early twentieth century, an important linguistic project among intellectuals. T.S. Eliot, attacking community singing in the Criterion in June 1927, fears that if it is permitted to spread it will transform the English individualist into ‘the microscopic cheese-mite of the great cheese of the future’. William Inge tells Evening Standard readers in 1928, ‘The democratic man is a species of ape.’ Trying to imagine what she calls ‘that anonymous monster the Man in the Street’, Virginia Woolf finds herself visualizing ‘a vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff … occasionally wobbling this way or that as some instinct of hate, revenge, or admiration bubbles up beneath it’. For Ezra Pound, humanity, apart from artists, is merely a ‘mass of dolts’, a ‘rabble’, representing ‘the waste and manure’ from which grows ‘the tree of the arts’. In Pound’s Cantos the ‘multitudes’ and their leaders transmogrify into a torrent of human excrement – ‘Democracies electing their sewage’. This vision of ‘the great arsehole’ was meant, Pound explained, as a portrait of contemporary England.”
Edvard Munch painted Nietzsche in 1906:
What is missing in this?
The overall trend of Modernism is toward elitism, cosmopolitanism, extreme individualism, narcissism, subjectivity, aestheticism, nihilism, self absorption, self expression, inward exploration of the self, rejection of the masses, etc. Modern art ceases to depict God and Nature. It ceases to have didactic purpose, which is to say, it doesn’t teach a moral lesson. It gives up on the masses in favor of the artist. It goes down into the inner world of the artist, not upward toward transcendence or outward toward the people.
Zarathustra goes down:
“When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed,—and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it:
Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!
For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.
But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.
Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.
I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.
Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star!
Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.
Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold even the greatest happiness without envy!
Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss!
Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.
Thus began Zarathustra’s down-going. …”
Zarathustra is a psychologist.
From Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo:
“Zarathustra, the first psychologist of the good, is—consequently—a friend of the evil. when a decadent type of man ascended to the rank of the highest type, this could only happen at the expense if its countertype, the type of man that is strong and sure of life. When the herd animal is irradiated by the glory of the purest virtue, the exceptional man must have been devaluated into evil. When the mendaciousness at any price monopolizes the word “truth” for its perspective, the really truthful man is bound to be branded with the worst names. Zarathustra leaves no doubt at this point: he says that it was his insight precisely into the good, the “best,” that made him shudder at man in general; that it was from this aversion that he grew wings “to soar off into distant futures”; he does not conceal the fact that his type of man, a relatively superhuman type, is superhuman precisely in its relation to the good—that the good and the just would call his overman devil.
“There is yet another sense, however, in which I have chosen the word immoralist as a symbol and badge of honor for myself; I am proud of having this word which distinguishes me from the whole of humanity. Nobody yet has felt Christian morality to be beneath him: that requires a height, a view of distances, a hitherto altogether unheard-of psychological depth and profundity. Christian morality has been the Circe of all thinkers so far—they stood in her service.— Who before me climbed into the caverns from which the poisonous fumes of this type of ideal—slander of the world—are rising? Who even dared to suspect that they are caverns? Who among philosophers was a psychologist at all before me, and not rather the opposite, a “higher swindler” and “idealist”? There was no psychology at all before me.— To be the first here may be a curse; it is at any rate a destiny: for one is also the first to despise.— Nausea at man is my danger.”
He would not be the last.
Sigmund Freud, William James and Henri Bergson also had a massive impact on Modernism. The Modern age is obsessed with inner psychological states. Modern man is always on Freud’s psychoanalytic couch torturing himself about things lurking in the recesses of his psyche.
Note: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is an interesting reflection on Modernism.