6 June 2005 - Monday

What is modern literature?

The most important characteristic of modern world literature may be its struggle with the failure of traditional sources of moral authority. Modern literature has inherited skepticism not only of revelation and traditional religious standards but also of reason and community consensus as sources of meaning.

The typical modern writer describes a state of disconnectedness in which the individual lacks real belonging, has no ultimate purpose, and is paralyzed or controlled rather than guided and fulfilled by external expectations. The globalization of modern literature, in expanding the number of competing authorities and exposing readers to a baffling array of alien perspectives, has reinforced the idea that no particular tradition can be accepted as definitive.

One of the earliest writers to be identified as modern was the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whose writing challenged conventional morality and described a state of individual alienation from society.

His prose poem "One o'Clock in the Morning" (1862) is written from the perspective of an individual who loathes "the tyranny of the human face" and who prays to those few people he cares about to "keep me from the vanities of the world and its contaminating fumes [...]," fearing that otherwise he will not be able "to prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men [...]" (Norton E 1395-1396). This speaker finds his community repugnant but, in his isolated state, finds himself just as undesirable as the people he hates.

Taking a slightly different approach, Baudelaire's "Anywhere out of the World" expresses an inability to find satisfaction in any known location: "It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am [...]" (1397). The latter poem hints at the relationship between modern writing's global perspective and its sense of disconnectedness. The more options available to the modern individual, the more difficult it is for him to embrace any one of them as a source of meaning.

In Indian literature, the writing of Mahasweta Devi (b. 1926) shows a similar loss of confidence in local traditions. Stories like "Breast-Giver" (1980) take place within Indian culture but betray an awareness of outside customs that call its values into question.

Mahasweta can satirize her own heritage:

Jashoda is fully an Indian woman, whose unreasonable, unreasoning, and unintelligent devotion to her husband and love for her children, whose unnatural renunciation and forgiveness have been kept alive in the popular consciousness by all Indian women from Sati-Savitri-Sita through Nirupa Roy and Chand Osmani. (Norton F 2830)
This ability to criticize the values of an entire nation may be liberating, but it can also be highly disorienting. Mahasweta's writing follows the pattern set by many other modern writers in expressing disillusionment with the community, which should provide moral and spiritual guidance but instead must be attacked for its evils. When an Indian individual must reject some of the most prominent values in Indian culture, where can that individual look for an alternative authority? The writer feels abandoned, stripped of protection; she has become her own source of purpose and thus has lost any sense of common purpose with others. When Mahasweta depicts the universal abandonment of the character Jashoda in "Breast-Giver," she is mirroring what happens to all independent individuals: "Jashoda’s death was the death of God. When a mortal masquerades as God here below, she is forsaken by all and she must always die alone" (2845).

This conflict between the values of the individual and the values of society is also seen often in the work of Albert Camus (1913-1960), who advocated the assertion of individual moral will in the face of an absurd environment and hostility from the community.

Camus' story "The Guest" (1957) emphasizes the mental isolation of the individual by placing the protagonist, Daru, in a physical desert, far away from the government officials who try to control his life. This desert is a difficult place to live, Camus writes, "But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled" (Norton F 2575). This character, in other words, is used to living alone, without much imposition from others.

Perhaps this makes it easier for Daru to object to the orders given by the colonial rulers, orders that violate his moral sensibilities. It should be noted, however, that Daru's choice in the story puts him at odds not only with the government but also with friends of the man he tries to save. Thus, Camus declares that the modern individual is at odds with the will of his peers as well as the will of his superiors. The alienation is complete. "In this vast landscape he had loved so much," the story ends, "he was alone" (2582).

Some modern writers have reacted to the breakdown in community consensus not by embracing it but by challenging it. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918), for example, is known for stories that recommend a return to traditional morality. Even these writers, however, are affected by the general disconnectedness. They must prove the legitimacy of any authority to which they wish to appeal; no authority may be taken for granted.

Solzhenitsyn cannot tell his readers to serve the needs of their neighbors without exploring the social difficulties this will involve. In "Matryona’s Home" (1963), for example, Solzhenitsyn portrays the altruistic title character as being very lonely; she too is alienated from her community, even though she treats it as a source of meaning.

Solzhenitsyn's argument is not that the community may be trusted, but that the individual has no choice but to live selflessly if life is to have any purpose at all. External authority is necessary even if it is not entirely satisfying, and selfless individuals are necessary if the community is to survive. Solzhenitsyn tells the reader that Matryona "was the righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand" (Norton F 2722).

Each of these authors shows the effects of modernity's skepticism of authority. In the selections mentioned here, Baudelaire and Mahasweta seem unable to identify any definitive source of purpose; Camus advocates individual sensibilities rather than external commands as the arbiter of value; and Solzhenitsyn recommends that the individual sacrifice his own desires for the good of others even if the community proves destructive to him. None of these authors seems to recommend that the individual trust the people around him. Each of these authors describes a condition of irreversible loneliness. This guardedness is a defining characteristic of modern literature.

Works Cited

Lawall, Sarah, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, second ed. Vols. E-F. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

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| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk