Rajesh Kumar, is a poet and prose writer. He mostly writes autobiographical poems and essays. He has presented several papers in National and International conferences. He works as Asst. Professor of English at New Horizon College, Kasturi Nagar, Bangalore (Karnataka)-560043 (India).
email: rajeshvaishnaw7@gmail.com


Modernism and Experimentation in Twentieth Century Literature

Rajesh Kumar

Literature, since its inception has gone through drastic changes in the techniques of writing and in its constant effort in making it new, not only by producing new literary works of high order, but also in its representation of life, it has always been very close to life itself. As life has evolved with a lot of changes, so literature has also been revived from time to time in its spirit of representation. It has witnessed several influences in terms of new movements and new theories flourishing from time to time. In literary history, literature was dominantly either ‘Romantic or Classical’ in its spirit, but ‘Modernism and Post Modernism ‘went beyond these two and laid the emphasis on Experimentation.
Modernism is the name given to the movement which dominated the arts and culture of the first half of the twentieth century. In all the arts touched by modernism, what had been the most fundamental elements of practice were challenged, rejected and contested with new ways. In literature, Modernism though touched all forms of literature, but it could be seen mostly in Poetry and Novel Writing. Modernism, as manifested in literature placed emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity.

Modernism also entailed a move away from the apparent objectivity of narration to Self Reflectivity or Self consciousness and stream of consciousness technique and in poetry, ambiguity and use of fragmented forms became popular. The pioneers of modernism trailed their blazers in the field of literature. Among them are T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Frantz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner , Jorge Louis Borges and many others.

These pionners were not just producers of new literatures in English , but they set the trend and were real experimentalists, who by their experimentation with the language and forms of literature enriched literature. They provided new scope for writing as they found life becoming too complex, obscure, Absurd and in some way meaningless.


As we know that the term modernism comes from the term modern and the same from mode, which means ‘a way of living’. Modernists like Ezra Pound , who brought out the ‘Imagist Manifesto’ in which he addressed the poets and writers by the phrase to ‘make it new’. This phrase of Ezra Pound became phenomenal and focal.

Modernism, as manifested in literature place emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity i.e, it was concerned with how the individual perceives , rather than what :How impressions are formed on the individidual’s mind and How the subjective self responds to these impressions. The stream of consciousness technique that was used by modernist writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and William Faulkner is a perfect illustration of the Modernist focus on subjectivity and impressionism.

Modernism also entailed a move away from the apparent objectivity of narration. A narrative is rendered objective by techniques such as an omniscient third person narrator; fixed narrative points of view, and clear-cut moral positions. Modernist literature, such as that of Faulkner experimented with multiple and plural points of view and ambiguous moral positions. In literature modernism gave way to a blurring distinction between genres. Sometime ,two or more genres or artistic categories were deliberately fused to form hybrid art or the genre imbibed the qualities of author . thus, while T.S.Eliot and E.E Cummings wrote poetry that was considered closer to prose than verse , the prose style of Virginia Woolf  and James Joyce acquires poetic qualities. Evidently, one of the key figures of modernism was its emphasis on fragmented forms. Modernist narratives disregarded the traditional focus on continuity, coherence and chronology . it also employed the technique of collage or seemingly random mix of diverse characters, , incidents, images as represented in The Wasteland .

Modernism projects the fragmentation and decente redness of contemporary works as tragic. It laments the laws of the unity and centre of life and suggests that works of art can provide the unity coherence and meaning that is lost in the modern life. Thus, Eliot Laments that the Modern world is an infertile waste land and the fragmentation, in coherence, of the world is represented in the structure of the poem.
Modernism also involved meta fictional tendencies that is, self consciousness or self reflectivity about the production of a work of art .Thus, a modernist meta- fictional novel will not pretend to represent reality. On the other hand, it will proclaim that it is a fiction, subtly pointing to some reality that exists beyond its fictional world. The very fragmentary nature of such works will serve as an aielinating device, urging the reader to think beyond the text .

Post modernism on the other hand celebrates fragmentation and decenterdness as the only possible way of existence, as we have the “Theatre of Absurd,” which talks about absurdness and meaninglessness of life.

This is where post modernism meets post structuralism – both post modernism and post structuralism recognize and accept that it is not possible to have a coherent centre. In Deredian terms, the centre is constantly moving towards the periphery and the periphery is constantly moving towards the centre. In other words, the centre which is the seat of power , is never entirely powerful. It is continually becoming powerless.

Modernism is still widely acknowledged as perhaps the most important and influential artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 20th century. Written by expert scholars from around the world and covering hundreds of different topics in a clear, incisive, and critical manner, this reference maps the complex field of modernism in a fresh and original way. Despite intense critical debate and disagreement over its very nature and scope, modernism continues to be widely acknowledged as probably as most important and influential and artistic–cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century.

Whether it is considered primarily as a movement, a period, a genre, a style or an ideology . With in literature and literary theory especially modernism looms large as an established canonical category. The name itself remains radically unstable, shifting in meaning according to who uses it, when,where and in what context to the extent that several critics now prefer to take of discrete and dispassionate modernism rather than of our overarching modernism. Whether or not this merely multiplies problems of definition is a moot point. But it certainly reflects the dynamically-conflicted and heterogeneous nature of our current understanding of modernism.

To Sum up

Literary Modernism is characterized by dazzling experimentation, perplexing narrative and poetic form and often contradictory aesthetic and ideological tendencies. The desire to ‘Make it new!’ is combined with a nostalgic yearning for a lost and at times for primitive past. But there is always an urge for modern or new ways of experimentation in literature and even in the future it will continue to prevail.

© Author
(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2015)