Is There Modernism?

An essay by ME Richardson


ELEANOR DARK’S Prelude to Christopher (1934) was described recently as “Australia’s first modernist novel”.[1] Perhaps some readers value this confident reaffirmation as a critical assessment. In fact though, it is nothing more than parroted repetition of publisher’s hyperbole.[2]

Thinking about whether or not the claim is true, I’ve read some more thoughtful examinations of the question[3] and asked readers which of the book’s qualities strike them as characteristic of modernist fiction. I hope to work out where some of the attributes peculiar to modernism come from.

The claim about Eleanor Dark must have originated in the dating. According to conventional analysis, Australian readers of narrative literature were introduced to modernism after World War I by such writers as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Regarding Australia as an outpost on the periphery of Europeanculture, conventional critics then find, as they’d expect, a brief period during which Australian fiction still fitted within outmoded tradition, until in the thirties or twenties writers such as Eleanor Dark began our process of catching up with the world.[4]

Three of the characteristics of modernist narrative are most generally recognised in Eleanor Dark’s book:

  • First the psychological emphasis which leads to copious introspections into the minds of the characters—several different characters in the case of Prelude to Christopher.
  • Second, rejection of a conventional goodies and baddies way of engaging the reader. I mean that modernist fiction does not direct our sympathies to the morally or heroically good character and our animosity to the character who thwarts him. Readers of some texts can often choose whom they identify with. In Prelude to Christopher the two main characters thwart each other so comprehensively that a goodies and baddies reading can only be forced on to it by individual choice.
  • Third, there is the conspicuous way of manipulating time into the architecture of the work. More than any other technique, this is regarded as the hallmark of Eleanor Dark’s modernism. The story of Prelude to Christopher is compressed into four days, with copious use of flashbacks, edifying dialogue and interior monologue to fill in the background. Kindred innovations can be found in many works of modern writers who reject extended linear time and compress their narratives, dissect them, or repeat them from multiple perspectives.

But those who speak of anything distinctly modern in this will have to limit their conception to prose fiction, because dramatists have been at it for thousands of years. Dissection was forced on them when they parcelled their action into acts and scenes. But they have also an ancient propensity to use elective imaginative treatments that have since been embraced in fiction. Sophocles’s Antigone (440 B.C.) for instance, represents the action of a single day. So does his Oedipus Rex, but the significant antecedents of previous decades are economically introduced in its dialogue.

Since writers of fiction in the Western tradition have undoubtedly been influenced by the dramatists, we should really be looking for the first transmission of the stage techniques to non-performance literature. This ought to show us the beginnings of modernism, in the matter of temporal architecture, and the engineering methods that make it possible.

It may seem incongruous to hunt down a hallmark of modernist literature by identifying it with an ancient faculty. After all, we have so often been reminded that the new culture of the 20th century embodied a cataclysmic renunciation of the old ways “not so much a revolution … but rather a break-up, a devolution, some would say a dissolution”.[5] Without their context, these words of Herbert Read sound extreme, but they come close to encapsulating the dominant critical view of the matter — the idea of “a certain magnificent disaster” for the arts (as Bradley and McFarlane summarised it[6]). Such is the perspective of modernism’s believers, protected from discovering anything to the contrary by a flat refusal to look for ancient traditions in modern writing.

Between believers and the most eminent creators lies a great gulf. In the creative perspective, James Joyce, for instance, and Virginia Woolf could see their antecedents stretching back to Homer, with a clarity unfogged by scholastic interpretation. To discount the antique origins of a modern trait, out of deference to critics, is simple myopia. But the effort to pinpoint the rise of modernist technique with its transference from drama fails us for an entirely different reason: the “dramatic” approach is already fully evident in ancient Greek literature designed for reading rather than enacting.

The “Mimes” of Herodas (3rd Century B.C.) furnish an illustration. Each encapsulates just a few minutes in the lives of normal people as they tackle their very ordinary concerns. A Shoe Shop, for example, records a shoe salesman’s sales pitch and a customer’s reaction.

Their brevity and simplicity leave little scope for the repertoire of time management techniques which are characteristic of 20th century novels. But precisely those techniques are commonplace in longer Greek works. Heliodorus in Aethiopica—a novel of the 3rd century A.D.—relies on sophisticated variants on the flashback for instance. Aethiopica opens at an Egyptian beach, with a gang of hoods discovering the aftermath of a fight. A narrator picks up the story there, but another narrator goes back to the chronological start of the plot, and his second story line progresses in a different time frame, until they converge to initiate a unified narrative.

The most confident and sophisticated manipulation of time comes at the dawning of Greek literature—hundreds of years before Greek drama was even invented. Homer in the Iliad(perhaps 9th century B.C.) presents the account of a ten years’ war and its complicated antecedents, by narrating the action of a few consecutive days—never losing his focus of Achilles’s wrath, while digesting a stack of more challenging themes. Homer’s mastery of edifying dialogue, flashbacks, asides introducing new characters, shifts in perspective, significant clichés and labels, and a range of other techniques, can leave one wondering whether any narrative tool remained then for literary evolution to develop.

Another aspect of the Iliad which seems to echo Prelude to Christopher and kindred 20th century texts is the development of the principle characters so that the poet directs our sympathies to all, requiring readers to participate in selection of favourites reflecting their individual temperaments. This is the renunciation of goodies and baddies spoken of earlier, which Homer sharpens by telling the story with equal warmth from both the Greek and Trojan sides, and by setting his heroes up on multiple planes. On the shallowest is Achilles—the strongest warrior and the fastest, invincible and ever-victorious, endowed with the simplest emotions, like a comic book superhero more than a human being. On another level Hector: vulnerable, a family man, a civilian by nature, fighting to save his homeland, possessed of great courage (something Achilles doesn’t need), and of fear, which it almost holds in check—a paragon in every respect, but human like the reader.

On another level again we find Agamemnon: charismatic, a gifted leader, but flawed—like great leaders in real life—by personal foibles: pettiness, arrogance, failures in acumen, reluctance to admit being mistaken and a multitude of others for which the demands of office are often referred to in apology.

Because authors like Homer and Dark do not instil villainy, they have no characters to blame for the disasters they narrate. These simply flow from the characters being themselves. “Does one ask a half-drowned man why he clutched at the spar that saved him?” Eleanor Dark’s Nigel asks himself, about the manoeuvres of Linda that have undermined his dreams (p.44).

So writers of this type usually find themselves chronicling the machinations of malign destiny. The workings of fate, and the author’s role in imitating them, often intrude into the text, directly or between the lines.

The oldest surviving novel of this type is probably Chariton’s Callirhoe (c.100 B.C.) —a tale of thwarted lovers, whose dilemma is due more to miscalculations than anyone’s ill will. Like Prelude to Christopher it surveys cause and effect, and presents us with motives rather than characters. In both novels, however extreme the actions are, however good or evil, the motives are always appropriate to people in the situation of those who act on them. The degradations that Chariton visits on Callirhoe do not make her untrue to the pure heroine character he has contrived for her—because they proceed from consistent motives.

Greek authors were conscious of the distinction between such approaches and what we might call the normal or traditional style of narrative—with conventions like the beauty and the chastity of the heroine, the nobility of the hero, the selfish malice of the villain, all closely allied with reader expectations, in a plot that moves sequentially to a denouement. Some ancient novelists play games with the reader, sporting with such conventional expectations in the same way as the more lighthearted 20th century modernists. Heliodorus does it with characterisation. In Aethiopica, his Calasiris is sustained through the early chapters as an admirable paragon—morally upright, dependable and beneficent. As the story rolls on, the reader first begins to find the saintliness cloying and by the latter part of the book has grown to loath Calasiris. How quickly the reader realises that the novelist does not mean him to sympathise with Calasiris is a measure of the reader’s perspicacity.

In True Story(2nd century A.D.), Lucian plays blatantly with the issue of truth, fiction and suspended disbelief. His novel then ends in an attack on conventional denouement: “What happened in the other world I shall tell you in succeeding books.”

A critic who believes in 20th century modernism might dismiss all these observations of Classical literature, on the ground that they disclose mere coincidental resemblances between two distinct literary cultures, which do not owe their inspiration to one another. To deny the original creative role of modernism it is not enough for me to show that these ancient texts were widely read in later centuries: it will be necessary to discover that the ideas and techniques which characterise modernist literature were inspired by the earlier works.

The Western Classical tradition was pretty well snuffed out in the Dark Ages. When Renaissance European writers began to steep themselves in Classical works, they couldn’t always recapture the genius and character of their models. For instance, one of England’s first novelists, Sir Philip Sidney, praises and emulates Heliodorus’s narratorial virtuousity. But unlike Aethiopica, Sidney’s Arcadia(1590) seems outmoded today. The copious expression and multifarious plot lose many readers.

Later, critics who should have been able to discern advanced approaches and techniques were often prevented by prejudice. The smugness a culture learns in fancying its ascendancy blinds it to the profounder virtues of other cultures. So ancient literature has come to be treated as the product of a simpler, less advanced culture, in which one doesn’t expect the sophistication our own literature was thought to have achieved only recently.

Thus in many cases have the ideas and methods of the ancients spilt like doomed seeds on barren ground.

Happily—for Western literature and for my argument—they were also received by writers with profounder understandings than Sidney’s and such later critics’, who could exploit their richness and felt unconstrained by the conventions of “normal” narrative—writers such as Rabelais and Cervantes.

Rabelais is a transmitter in the succession beginning with Homer that brought approaches and methods to the doorsteps of 20th century modernists. His avid reading took in most of the ancient texts I’ve mentioned, but to be truthful, it isn’t easy to see them being reflected in the unusual style and substance of his Gargantua and Pantagruel(1532–64). The search for Rabelais’s ancient models leads instead to two works that I wouldn’t otherwise have mentioned, because problems attach to them in this context.

One is Deipnosophistae(Dinner Sophists (3rd century A.D.)).Its author Athenaeus, like Rabelais, paraded a diverse sequence of lists, digressions, treatises embedded in the main text and reminiscences in dialogue. With Athenaeus we had the high water mark in time compression. In a text several times as long as the Iliad or Ulysses, he covers a single dinner. Unfortunately, as much as he eclipses Homer and James Joyce in bulk, he falls short in literary merit. The reader who decides to make do with Rabelais will miss out on very little except congealed information by ignoring Dinner Sophists.

The other Rabelaisian precedent is one of very few ancient novels that is still popular. Petronius’s Satyricon (c.60 A.D.) derives its modern appearance partly from its amorality, which is authentically Classical. Less authentic perhaps is its seemingly avant garde structure, which as a reading experience makes it resemble a fragmented modernist narrative stream. Because it reached Rabelais’s time and ours badly mangled, stripped of its beginning and end, we can’t know how far Petronius had broken away from conventions of normal structure which modernists reject.

The baton which Rabelais carried forward was taken up in the 1750s by Lawrence Sterne. If it were avant garde technique that we seek, we could find nothing published before or since that outdoes The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy: wordless chapters, asterisks and wiggly lines taking over from sentences, black pages and endpapers in the middle, are extreme examples of a bizarre range of experiments which leaves almost no variant on normal text untried.

In our enquiry however the important issue is Stern’s exploration of narrative time. Tristram Shandy sets out to chronicle his story, beginning at his conception when his mother asks his father “have you not forgot to wind up the clock?” [I, i]. In the twelve months spent completing the first ninety nine chapters, Tristram discovers fundamental problems:

Having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day’s life—’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary I am just thrown so many volumes back. [IV, xiii].

His problems as a narrator are largely due to the clashes of his stream of consciousness with regular time.

“Stream of consciousness” was not a literary phrase, until, it seems, Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs (1915)—but Sterne identifies the phenomenon under the label “association of ideas”[7], popularised in Britain by John Locke (1632–1704). Sterne identifies some of his other conscious influences for us clearly in an imprecation of Tristram Shandy’s:

By the tomb stone of Lucian —if it is in being,—if not, why then, by his ashes! by the ashes of my dear Rabelais, and dearer Cervantes,—my father and my uncle Toby’s discourse upon Time and Eternity,—was a discourse devoutly to be wished for! [III, xix]

Their influence is apparent also in his Sentimental Journey(1768) —for instance in its termination mid-journey like True Story’s.

In Sterne’s Britain the “normal traditional narrative”—which was later to have its dominance broken by 20th century modernists—was not dominant at all. Writers who spurned its conventions, like Swift and Sterne, were no less popular than Goldsmith, Samuel Richardson, and its other adherents. But the next generation followed Richardson’s lead, and established an orthodoxy for the English novel, which for a century or so was rarely challenged.

In the 1890s Joseph Furphy grasped Sterne’s baton. Such is Life (1903) bluntly rejects the conventional structure of previous prose fiction, and displays some of Furphy’s scorn for 19th century novels in English. His tastes in fiction were more for the 18th century, and the presence of “association of ideas” recalls Sterne—but his narrative system much more strongly resembles that of the dramatists about whom he was so enthusiastic—the Greek tragedians and Shakespeare.[8]At the beginning of Chapter II Tom Collins abandons his plan to narrate a single week from his old diary. “After this, I shall pick out of each consecutive month the 9th day”. The unseeing narrator goes on to misunderstand the effect of this change:

The thread of narrative thus being purposely broken, no one of these short and simple analyses can have any connection with another—a point on which I congratulate the judicious reader and the no less judicious writer; for the former is tacitly warned against any expectation of plot or denouement… [p.52]

The actual effect is an epic in seven acts, the dramatis personae going on and off stage to enact cumulatively a plot which is Homeric in its diffusion and integrity. Homeric also is Furphy’s masterly architecture of time and the author’s intrusive observations of destiny—Furphy’s metaphor is a railway network instead of Homer’s spinning fates (though he gives Atropos a look in—p.4).

Thus was a potent, vital and ancient tradition of Western literature laid before innovative writers in the present century. That they studied and absorbed it we can confirm by reading—for instance Homer, Sterne and, it seems, Furphy are alluded to perceptively in Joyce’s works.[9]

I have hinted that myopia is involved in the belief that 20th century writing discarded literary tradition. Some critics were able to place the break with the past slightly earlier, by discerning developments in Europe which were delayed in their impact on English literature.

“Around 1850 … classical writing therefore disintergrated, and the whole of literature, from Flaubert to the present day, became the problematics of language” wrote Barthes in 1964.[10] But what if we say that the most innovative work of the first half of the 20th century resembles “classical writing” while that of a century earlier was not classical at all?

That observation must seem absurd to critics who accept the claim of modernism’s radical newness; who assume that its methods and aspirations only became possible for recent generations. The proposition that modernist fiction is a new flourishing of an ancient tradition will be untenable for them.

Most of them have done no more to explore the relationship of 20th century writing with that of the distant past than believers in a flat earth did to seek land on the other side. Some who have probed earlier than 1800 draw false distinctions to rule out the role of tradition. In “The Introverted Novel” Fletcher and Bradbury recognise in earlier fiction “a self-awareness” which culminated in Tristram Shandy.[11] They proceed to list the modernist salients which are lacking in this earlier self-awareness. Yet every item but one on their list could describe Sterne’s fiction as aptly as it describes the most exemplary modernists’.

The one exception follows their observation that the self consciousness of earlier works functioned for humorous effect. Later works to them are serious and “literary”, in a way that earlier ones couldn’t be. This unsubstantiated gross underestimate of the literary aims and accomplishments of Sterne and his contemporaries supports no distinction at all.

Prelude to Christopher is not an allusive work, so only a consideration of the author’s reading background might reveal which of our earlier writers guided her and what was entirely original. And before we could agree that it is Australia’s first modernist novel, we would still have to explain why Such is Life does not take that title. In the absence of a comprehensive satisfactory explanation on this point we should have to dismiss the generally endorsed notion that Australia was on the cultural periphery, moving in the wake of developments in Britain and America. Instead we would find Australia in closer touch with Western literary tradition than were the other divisions of the English speaking world—countries that did not essay until the 20th century what was done by an Australian writer in the 1890s.

Although I now claim to have demonstrated the high antiquity of modernist tradition in working with time, and in recruiting destiny to supersede goodies and baddies, none of the earlier authors that I’ve cited employs interior monologue in anything like the service Eleanor Dark uses it for in Prelude to Christopher. Intensely introspective delineation of mental states was the first of its modernist hallmarks that I listed on p.1, and the interior monologue is her favourite means of delivering it.

It is a feature of some Greek novels,[12] and its stage counterpart, the soliloquy, has a long pedigree, but in successful drama and ancient fiction it isn’t easy to find soliloquies even approaching the depth and psychological subtlety we can find in modern fiction. Between the ancient corpus I have reviewed, and Prelude to Christopher, there has been, then, a significant innovation. Whether we have to father this on an international literary movement—rather than on Dark’s creative originality—is an unresolved issue. There is presumably some overseas influence at work, but she could have arrived independently at part of the technique she shares with novelists of Europe and America.

In any event, the international influence being credited should not be 20th century modernism, but 19th century Russian fiction. Tolstoy is an enthusiastic pioneer of the introspective method and some of Gorky’s, Dostoevsky’s and Chekov’s characters literally seethe with complex, often pathological, mentalities. This is why Prelude to Christopher was billed in 1934 as “a novel in the Russian manner”[13]. The striking correspondences between Prelude to Christopherand Anna Karenina make it easy to believe that Tolstoy’s work was amongst Eleanor Dark’s Russian influences.[14]

All the foregoing is an argument for the hypothesis that modernism contributed nothing to narrative literature. When we look for it, all we discover is a vogue for various long standing practices which happily enthused certain powerfully creative writers, including Eleanor Dark and James Joyce. My argument surveys only a manageable and limited field of activity, and therefore cannot prove the hypothesis. But the argument challenges believers in modernism to pinpoint it elsewhere; and by narrowing modernism’s range of operation, proves it less important than they thought, even if they can establish that it had any creative role at all.

Principal Texts

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, c.200A.D., tr. C. B. Gulick, Athenaeus, Loeb Classical Library, London.

Chariton, Callirhoe, c.100B.C. tr. B.P. Reardon, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989, p.21ff.

Dark, Eleanor, Prelude to Christopher, Sydney 1934; Halstead Classics edn., Sydney, 1999.

Furphy, Joseph, Such is Life, Sydney, 1903; in The Annotated Such is Life, Halstead Classics, Sydney, 1999.

Heliodorus, Aethiopica, Emesa, c.300A.D., tr J. R. Morgan and B. P. Reardon, op. cit., p.353ff.

Herodas, Mimes, Cos, 3rd century B.C., tr. Headland and Knox, Theophrastus: Characters; Herodas, Loeb Classical Library, London, 1929.

Homer, Iliad, c.800B.C.[?], tr. R. Fitzgerald, Oxford World’s Classics edn., Oxford, 1984.

Lucian, True Story, 2nd century A.D., tr. A. M. Harmon, Lucian, Loeb Classical Library, London, 1913, vol. I.

Petronius, Satyricon, Rome, c.60A.D., tr. J. P. Sullivan, 1965, Penguin Classics edn., London, 1986.

Rabelias, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Lyons and Paris, 1532-64, tr. J. M. Cohen, Penguin, London, 1954.

Sterne, Lawrence, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, York and London, 1759-67, Oxford World’s Classics edn., Oxford, 1983.

Tolstoy, Leo, Anna Karenina, St Petersburg, 1876, tr. R. Edmonds, Penguin, London, 1978.

[1]Notes and Furphies, 1999.

[2]As I can fairly allege, having myself written the item referred to, so careless of the claim’s veracity that I can no longer identify my source.

[3]Such as J. Croft, “Responses to Modernism, 1915-1965” in L. Hergenhan (ed.),

The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988. p.409; D. Modjeska, Southerly; her implicit denial of the claim is based on an assessment which finds Prelude to Christopher insufficiently modernist to earn the title, rather than on the historical issues which concern me.

[4]“The ‘stream of consciousness’ trickled”,wrote G.A. Wilkes, “into Australian fiction in Mr. Moffat (1925) and Days of Disillusion (1926)”—Australian Literature: A Conspectus, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1969, p. 65.

[5]Herbert Read, Art Now,London, 1933.

[6]In “The Name and Nature of Modernism” in M. Bradburyand J. McFarlane (eds), Modernism 1890-1930, Penguin, London, 1986, p.26.

[7] E.g. at I, iv and III, xviii.

[8]Though Furphy’s devotion to Shakespeare and thoughts on 19th century novelists are apparent throughout Such is Life, it is his letters that most reveal esteem for Greek drama and 18th century fiction. As to the drama, see letters to W. Cathels of 4.1.[1893?], 6.6.1893 and another [1895?], pp.12, 17 and 24 in J. Barnes and L. Hoffman, ed. Bushman and Bookworm: Letters of Joseph Furphy, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995; the fiction, letters to Cathels of 12.1.1894 praising Fielding, and to Miles Franklin 28.6.05 praising De Foe and Swift, ibid. pp.20 and 207.

[9] There is a Furphy in Finnegan’s Wake (p.65 in all standard edns) and the chapter context assists the view that he is the author of Such is Life. In writing “alluded to perceptively” I don’t mean to convey the impression that I understand what Joyce is up to.

[10]Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, Paris, 1953, tr. A. Lavers and C. Smith, Jonathon Cape, London, 1967, p.9.

[11]John Fletcher and Malcolm Bradbury in Bradbury and Fletcher, op. cit., p.395.

[12]E.g. Leucippe and Cleitophon (2nd century A.D.) by Achilles Tatius, Book III, ch. 10.

[13]Stephenson’s Circular, Sydney, March, 1934, p.3.

[14]The resemblance of the two books was discovered to me by Margaret Symons, who points for example to their agrarian social reform programmes, and the finale in each. Personal communication December 1999. The similarity of introspective approach and psychology will strike most readers.