Posted by: gdevi | April 18, 2016

English 220 Literary Modernism (1890-1930)

Though the period spanning 1890-1930 is generally accepted as the interval for Modernism in the western and the non-western world, the intellectual and literary pedigree of modernist writers and artists may be traced as far back as Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (1857), the stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the philosophical writings of Gabriel Marcel and Soren Kierkegaard. The end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century saw radical questioning of traditional beliefs, faith, and optimism in progress in almost all parts of the world. We might attribute the radical switch in the ethos of the world during this period to the rise of industrialized cities, rise of weaponry and war, imperialism, colonialism, and later nationalist uprisings in almost all colonized parts of the world. As one of the bloodiest centuries in human history, the twentieth century saw two world wars that destroyed western Europe down to its core and altered the social and political history of the world irreversibly. Twentieth century also saw the brutality and violence of imperialism and colonialism by European powers in the rest of the world, particularly, the geopolitical Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Literary modernism is the artistic and intellectual response to this fragmented world. The intellectual framework for modernist thought is scaffolded in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche who challenged received faith, Charles Darwin who postulated the animal origins of the human species, Sigmund Freud who gave us a vocabulary to speak about the workings of the human mind–mind as a process, and Karl Marx who read all of human history as a narrative of the conflict between masters and slaves, the powerful and the powerless.  The writers and artists of the modernist movement represented this destroyed world favoring fragments over objective narration, stream of consciousness narrations, inner impressions over objective reality, intensely abstract yet powerfully expressive, viscerally real, the existence of chaos over the manufactured imposition of order. Modernist writers experimented with language and narrative to represent the inner truth of the fragmented modern consciousness. Modernism comprised many different schools of writers and artists: symbolism, imagism, stream of consciousness, the absurd, the theatre of the absurd, epic theatre, existentialism, surrealism, dadaism, futurism, and other movements collectively known as the avant garde, including experimental works in sound, music, painting and sculpture. Modernist literature thus often is about literature, particularly, about the fictionality of literature, and the literariness of non-literature–the process of narration, and the referentiality and representational potential of language itself.

In Rousseau’s and Dali’s paintings below we can see the modernist sensibility at work: anti-representational, ironic, symbolic, humorous, dream-like, experience and interpretation, inner truth vs outer reality.

Henri Rousseau, The Sleeping Gypsy (1897)

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, In a Bamboo Grove (1921), Akira Kurasawa, Rashomon (1954)

Japan’s highest literary prize is named after Ryunosuke–the Akutagawa Prize. Ryunosuke had a brief but brilliant life; he committed suicide in his early thirties. Deeply influenced by traditional stories from 11th and 12th century Japan, and western writers, in particular, Flaubert, Maupassant, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Ryunosuke wrote short stories that were set in the 11th and 12th century Japan of violent shogunates, errant samurais, and supernatural events in narratives that constantly threw themselves up for questioning the certainty of literature.

The great Japanese director Akira Kurasawa based Rashomon on two short stories by Ryunosuke: the plot from In a Bamboo Grove, and the setting from Rashomon. Rashomon is the name of the old ruined southern gate of Kyoto.

As you read the story, and reflect on the movie’s treatment of the short story, keep the following points in mind:

How do you understand the decision to tell the story of the murder from seven different perspectives?

How do the different versions assist in the self-presentation of the various characters?

What are the inconsistencies in the various versions of the murder story?

Why does Tajomaru confess to the killing?

How is the samurai presented?

How is the wife presented?

How is the woodcutter presented?

How do you understand the developed character of the priest in Kurasawa’s adaptation of the story for the film?

How does the addition of the abandoned child change the story for the film?



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