This Modernist Life

Rainbow over the magic valleyThe work of the Modernists and Post-Modernists is not for everybody. Literature from this period can be dense, esoteric, and difficult for the casual reader to access. However, if you don’t mind playing the occasional mind game while you read a book, you might try a work from one of the greats like T.S. Elliot or Jennifer Egan. By reading these works and studying the scholarship around them, you can develop a new understanding of and appreciation for he use of the English language in art.

The representational nature of language in art is one of the big concerns of Modern and Post-Modern writers. In order to function, art must represent something – or must it? The act of representation has such a profoundly disruptive effect on a thing or concept that, in the eyes of many modernists, the thing represented is rendered completely pointless. Rather, it is the representational act that should stand at the center of the artistic work, and the artist should feel free to call the audience’s attention to the fact that representation is happening.

This emphasis on ‘the person behind the curtain’ is conveyed to the audience through a variety of techniques. Some writers use elaborate, inaccessible language to make the reader work for any meaning found in the text. Others use a kaleidoscopic timeline to force the audience to recreate the process of making a narrative out of real events. In almost all cases, the reader is challenged to find meaning rather than handed meaning on a silver platter.

Of course, if you want to be a commercial writer, you’re typically better off indulging your readers’ laziness than you are challenging them to a battle of wits. This doesn’t mean that the modernists don’t have some interesting philosophical ideas to offer the writer. We are, after all, in the business of representation, and learning a little about the ramifications of that act behooves us all.