Empire > Modernism?

Auerbach holds Modernism to be the solution for unity, for solving the problems of difference. He links the advent of Modernism with the important historical changes that happened from the end of the C18th to the beginning of the C19th.

Yet I think that an important implication here is that it suggests that the movement is a result of historical forces, not allowing for a more complex cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

This has significance in our consideration of imperialism, because when he mentions that ‘the crowding of mankind on a shrinking globe sharpened awareness of the differences in ways of life…’ (p.550), it fails to acknowledge the extent to which Modernism in art and literature (and elsewhere) might have contributed to and aided imperialism and colonisation, mostly importantly it the representation of ‘natives’.

Modernism grew out of Romanticism and Realism; it is thus influenced by these 2 modes and their tendency to allow exoticisation and claims to absolute truth (of the imperial powers, of course).

Auerbach’s claim that ‘The strata of societies and their different ways of life have become inextricably mingled. There are no longer even exotic peoples.’ (p.552) becomes a little disturbing — his praise of Modernism in this piece actually re-enacts imperial Western claims, along the lines of how ‘the whole world is discovered (itself a loaded word)’, ‘everyone is equal’ (equal for whom? Males? Whites? Europeans? Jews? Muslims?). In fact, now that I think of it, it sounds downright neo-colonialist as well!

Modernism: Centre and Peripheries

The notion of the centre and the periphery in terms of the division of the British empire is an interesting way to look at a modernist text. The modernist text highlights the periphery aspects of a narrative, at a time when the peripheries of empire was acknowledged. In the excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the centre of the narrative is the actual event occurring at the moment, the measuring of the stocking; and the thought processes which seem to take up more time without disrupting linear narrative is the periphery of the narrative. What is interesting is the fact that these peripheries, the perspective on the surrounding furniture, perspective of “them” and Mr Bankes’s perspective, serve to explain the “sadness” in Mrs. Ramsay. While the centre is obviously stated, it is only through the study of the peripheries that one can fully recognize this centre. Thus, while modernist texts seek to represent an obvious subject, it is done through a reassessment through different perspectives.

Similarly, in the British empire, by highlighting the peripheries, the unimportant actors of the empire, the natives, the British society is attempting to regain a fragmented identity as a result of amassing a large empire. Thus, by drawing attention to these “peripheric” characters, which would have otherwise been neglected, it was a means to calm the anxieties of a decaying identity, for in contrast to the “uncivilized natives”, the British still represented civility and culture.

Even though modernist writing seem to break away from traditional structures of narratives by representing different perspectives and peripheries instead of wholly focusing on linear narrative, it still retains elements of traditional narratives in terms of explaining a centre – in most cases the development of a character.