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Thread: Is literary modernism defined by form exclusively or content as well?

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    Is literary modernism defined by form exclusively or content as well?

    Am I mistaken in thinking of literary modernism as being defined exclusively by experimentation with form? Does modernism also feature a specific kind of content?

    For example, Kafka is described on Wikipedia as a modernist writer, but, as far as I'm familiar with Kafka (which is not very much) he doesn't experiment with form. In terms of form, he is no different than a realist writer.

    Is the non-realist content of his novels sufficient to class him as a modernist, even if formally his novels are no different than realist novels?

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    Registered User EmptySeraph's Avatar
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    The safest way in which one could define modernism in literature is by highlighting its proclivity to ignorance insofar as content is concerned. Mallarmé is a precursor of the modernists, and the influence of his methods was keenly felt by writers that saw in him a master, as by Valéry, who asserted that ''all day long I'm searching some ideas for my words.'' And the master also said this, '' Ce n'est point avec des idées, mon cher Degas, que l'on fair des vers. C'est avec des mots.''

    Beckett was also flabbergasted by Kafka's apparent inability or unwillingness to break away from a certain rigidity of the form. But the reasons for Kafka's charms are also to be found in this formalization of sentiments rather at odds with the conventional structure of a sentence. Then again, he was a strange little boy.
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    Quote Originally Posted by EmptySeraph View Post
    The safest way in which one could define modernism in literature is by highlighting its proclivity to ignorance insofar as content is concerned. Mallarmé is a precursor of the modernists, and the influence of his methods was keenly felt by writers that saw in him a master, as by Valéry, who asserted that ''all day long I'm searching some ideas for my words.'' And the master also said this, '' Ce n'est point avec des idées, mon cher Degas, que l'on fair des vers. C'est avec des mots.''

    Beckett was also flabbergasted by Kafka's apparent inability or unwillingness to break away from a certain rigidity of the form. But the reasons for Kafka's charms are also to be found in this formalization of sentiments rather at odds with the conventional structure of a sentence. Then again, he was a strange little boy.
    I don't understand this part, could you explain what you mean?

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    To those who are interested I recommend the Yale Open Courses. There are four in English Lit: Milton, Modern Poetry, Literary Theory, and the Novel since 1945. Here's a link: https://oyc.yale.edu/english/engl-310

    Although you can listen to the lectures, you can also read the transcript (which is what I did, in part because I was goofing off at work at the time, and in part because I prefer reading to listening). I tried to do the Literary Theory course, but abandoned it. I stuck with the Modern Poetry course and I thought it was excellent. The course doesn't really answer your question in a direct way, Alfred, but it provides an opportunity to read some excellent modern poetry (100 years old now) and provides some interesting input about analyzing it.

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    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    "Alfredo-Am I mistaken in thinking of literary modernism as being defined exclusively by experimentation with form? Does modernism also feature a specific kind of content?

    For example, Kafka is described on Wikipedia as a modernist writer, but, as far as I'm familiar with Kafka (which is not very much) he doesn't experiment with form. In terms of form, he is no different than a realist writer.

    Is the non-realist content of his novels sufficient to class him as a modernist, even if formally his novels are no different than realist novels? "

    That´s an interesting question, Alfredo. In my opinion good literature, whether experimental or not, is never gratuitous. It is always a dense and condensed expression of a certain Zeitgeist (the spirit of a time). So it doesn´t affect only the form but certainly the content too. For example, if you think of the importance of ethical values and social climbing in the 19 C novel, which changes so greatly in the 20 C. Or if you think of the sombre phantasmagorical atmosphere of the German Expressionism as a foreboding of the horrors of World War II.

    Kafkas fiction is often included in the German Expressionism, but he was an expressionist in his own special way. The atmosphere of his stories is often weird and nightmarish, but the descriptions tend from the realistic to the grotesc.

    A good example is the tale "The Methamorphosis", where the weird element is stated in the opening sentence: a man wakes up and discovers himself transformed in a gigantic insect. All that follows is pure realism: the protagonist and his small environment are forced to adapt to the new circumstances.

    As for his formal language, I think there are numerous studies about it. One can´t forget that Kafka was bilingual and not a native of Germany which might explain some of the peculiarities of his written German. Just some thoughts about it:
    https://blog.oup.com/2015/07/language-franz-kafka-vsi/
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    Kafka is complicated, since his fragmentary work is hard to be seen as whole, but we have other example of formalists who were modernists, such as Borges (his more radical works are more a matter of manipulation of context than form). His mentor, Macedonio, was the real deal reggarding experimentation. In Brazilian modernism, content was relevant, since it was all about building a national identidy and you have some names that more radical in the ideas they express than the form (such as Nelson Rodrigues).

    But it is very unfair redude modernism to a game with forms and no content. Neruda politically charged poetry has content, no? Oswald de Andrade has content. Eliot has content. Gorki has content. Joyce seems to have all the contents ever worked at once. And there goes. It is not like Romanticism didnt had experimental writers, or neoclassical writers like Voltaire weren stuck in their formalism. In a way, style is substance.
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