Three Cheers for Modernism

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Boy, do I love those Modernists! Try to top Kafka, Walser, Benjamin, or Babel (yes, I’m counting him), and most authors from that crowd, and you’ve got a huge challenge on your hands. The latest evidence of my enthusiasm comes from the fact that, in tackling a collection of Robert Musil’s stories, I’m rereading* Young Törless, the first selection to feature in said volume.

I have a hard time describing just what it is that makes the greats from the early 20th century stand out so much; the best I can offer is the sense that these writers are just plain solid. They pull off an intellectual sophistication that engages unashamedly in disciplined soul-searching and social criticism without turning florid, sappy, dogmatic, or cynical. And even though the worlds they describe are in reality even further removed from my own existence than is the poetic universe created by Frost (as discussed here yesterday), something about them never feels alien. That last observation could have something to do with the fact that I was much more immersed early on with European literature than with American, but that personal-historical item doesn’t quite serve to explain things.

Might it all come down to a sort of nostalgic yearning for an intellectual golden era that never really existed? Doubtful. As much as I love the literature and the thought of regularly writing and receiving handwritten correspondence (with a fountain pen, no less!), you couldn’t pay me enough to live according to pre-World-War mores, no matter what sort of great conversations and inspiration could be found within that world, and that’s assuming I’d be lucky enough to befriend even one of those luminaries.

What I’d like to say, at the risk of sounding like a New Age romantic, is that there’s some intellectual-emotional connection, or some shared genetic sensibility between at least this reader and those authors of old that’s survived more or less unbroken. That may be what good literature is supposed to keep alive: the ability to go and live beyond an informational transaction, and institute an impossible conjuction within and throughout time. But before I turn flowery, I’ll just leave you with a link to what for me is the hands-down best example of that shared wavelength: Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.” Dig in.

* I very rarely reread a book.


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