23 January 2010

Reading Modernism


To Meenakshi Bhattacharya


“Hi! What’re you reading?”

“Hunh? Oh, hi…hullo…this? Oh, nothing…Lord Jim…”

“Okay…who’s it by?”

“Oh, the same as this one…Conrad…it’s horrible, quite, quite horrible…”

“Yeah, I know! I mean, he’s like so over my head! I don’t even get most of it!”


Modernism has that particular tinge, that quintessentially peculiar air which makes most of the texts belonging to the genre distinct. I mean, other canons too have something peculiar which makes them what they are, but with Modernism it’s something so very local and yet so universal that it’s hard to miss out. You cannot and yet can relate to these works and that’s the problem.

Take Conrad for example. The fellow’s so obscure and vague, so confoundedly uncertain about his language that you can easily read through Heart of Darkness and still not get what it’s about. The narrative seems specially constructed to confuse and bamboozle, to make the reader introspect, see within and yet be without. It’s a dialectic of dualities, light and darkness, man and beast, a spiralling tug-of-war where the forces of darkness seem destined to win…

‘Forces of darkness’. That’s another typically Modernist concern. At the heart of man lies impenetrable darkness, a central core of primeval brutality which remains unaffected by the paraphernalia of civilisation. Honour, fidelity, mercy, duty, all these morph into instinctive self-preservation and brutal self-gratification at the slightest sign of danger so that all we hold dear get reduced to fanciful chimeras. The world seems a hopeless place and man the most hopeless of hopeful animals in it. In this way Modernists seem incapable of dealing with disillusionment and transfer their own disappointments to humanity at large.

Indeed, traps abound, if not in the public world of politics then in the intensely private one of emotions. Whether or not class tensions of repressed Victorianism lead to it, it’s nonetheless remarkable that Modern man should suddenly discover at this time an incestuous desire for his mother. As if the world was not enough, one’s personal life too begins to dissolve into animality, a frustratingly debilitating sense of incompletion which threatens the very core of ‘civilised’ familial existence. Try as one might, one cannot get out of it and so must live doomed for no fault of one’s own a fallen angel.

Humanity faces, therefore, challenges from all quarters and it stands, in spite of itself, horribly alone in the confrontation. In and out, home and abroad, all around is such a net of drawbacks as will set all possible enterprise to a naught. The sanctity of the inner life, of faith and those personal beliefs which sustain the illusion of purpose, all these give way to a repetitive circle of self-defeating futility. In the ultimate analysis Modernism leaves one with a burning sense of despair, a desperation which soon transforms into impotent purposelessness in face of overwhelming change. Change itself becomes impossible so that all hope, in the present, for the future, all dissolves into nothingness. A despair beyond despair, a torture beyond torture.

The problem is not not getting it; no, instead it is in getting it.


Anonymous said...

lage raho

AP said...

Hmmm? Lage hi hue hain...