The Truth for Modernists

In reading Erich Auerbach’s analysis of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Modernist attitude towards truth arises. This for me can be more simply described through a series of binaries.

Auerbach quickly notes that “inner processes” (529) dominate Woolf’s prose. This perhaps suggests that truth is not apparent, found in superficial observations, but resides in unseen, interior cogitations.

Woolf presents a mishmash of perspectives, seemingly from Mrs Ramsay, Mr Bankes, even Woolf herself. This recalls the painting which was shown in class, Woman with a Guitar by Georges Braque. As represented by Cubism, Woolf seems also to subscribe to the idea that truth is never a single perspective.

Statements made are indefinite, suggesting that truth is not clear-cut, nor fixed. Rather than finding answers, Woolf poses questions; questions themselves may be considered truth, without the need or the finality of answers. Also, feelings are prized over facts. Woolf suggests the reliability of feelings and personal thought, and throws suspicion upon hard, objective facts.

Crisis of representation: the model of modernist art and fiction

In “The Brown Stocking” Auerbach elaborates in detail the insignificance of exterior occurrences to interior processes as established in the narrative form of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In the passage Auerbach quotes from the novel, Woolf presents a discrepancy between physical and subjective dimensions – characterizing Mrs Ramsay by a mode of multiplicity (performing various tasks enabling the exterior events without neglecting the more significant inner events represented by her thoughts, Woolf creates synchronic dimensions in a diachronic narrative, a “multipersonal representation of consciousness” that is evident also in the art of the modernist period. Monet’s “Water Garden and Japanese Footbridge”, for example, portrays a similar multiplicity of reality in that the emphasis on light and how it changes our emotions and perceptions is more significant than the external image itself. Rejecting the idea of one fixed reality, a characteristic of modern art is it prompts for an investigation of objective reality by means of subjective impressions received by various individuals and at various times. This multiplicity that characterizes the modernist crisis of representation seems to registers the breakdown of traditional certainties and the attempt to construct alternative meaning and order.

On modernism

In general, the works that emerged out of the period reflect a radical breakaway from traditional methods of representation. There is no longer a fixed center, perspective or meaning to be found, let alone a proper solution or closure to the proposed issues, hence Auerbach’s suggestion that “there is often something confusing…hazy about them, something hostile to the reality which they represent” (p.551, “The Brown Stocking”). From Pablo Picasso to Virginia Woolf, the modernist artists seem intent to demonstrate an inherent sense of disorder and disunity in their works.
I find Gikandi’s interpretation of Picasso’s works and his use of the Black body to be particularly disturbing. ‘Picasso adopted African forms as a way of thinking through the limitations of the forms of representation favoured by the art academy, namely a sense of order, proportionality, and idealization. The African body formed the embodiment of disorder’ (P.462) In other words, underlying the great master’s artistic visions, were seemingly ethnocentric perspectives and a deeply ingrained European mentality that the Africans represent a state of being which was far from being rational or ideal. Their ‘otherness’ was being idenified and valorised in Picasso’s paintings as an antithesis to the Europeans’ understanding of themselves and the idea of civilization. In this sense, modernism operated as an high aesthetic art that continued to silence the African subjects, denying them their personal and authentic voice, and this further solidates their position and function as the ‘Other’ in the eyes of the Europeans.