There is a book by Juliet Dusinberre called Alice to the Lighthouse that I find very interesting. She talks about the idea of the ‘irreverent generation’ that is first glimpsed in 19th century writing and then honed up by authors like Virginia Woolf. In my opinion, the ‘irreverent generation’ that is revealed during Modernism occurs mainly in the form of questioning authority; authority existing in the forms of God, culture, society, ideology, but most importantly, in convention. Modernist writers view convention as something distracting and inadequate, perhaps even destructive or false. They thus seek to explode (or at least question) existing ideas of art and the history of representation (in terms of form, plot, and other literary conventions).
Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” therefore rings true in the sense that Modernist writers appear to search for meaning beneath, and in spite of, everything that has come before in art, culture and any form of representation. Since Modernism is a post-war phenomenon, the fragmentation of the self and the multiplicity of identity arise from the disillusionment of WWI (questioning the cause of war à questioning the nation à questioning the self). This very idea of a doubting, struggling and suffering self can be seen in the writings of Woolf and Beckett. The bildungsroman of the 19th Century end in neat resolutions where “I married him” (Jane Eyre) suffices as a happy ending, yet in Modernism, writers signal to us that there is never an end to the search for identity, because of the fact that identity is never stable, and undergoes constant and painful metamorphosis. For a writer like Beckett, perhaps the end (and possibly the end of discomfort) starts only in death.