The turn of the 20th century conveyed revolution in psychological, social, and philosophical thought. It was time for something neoteric. It was time to break out of the mundane tradition. This time of revolution conceded men, such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud, to rise to fame with their radical and cutting edge theories. Also, women were exasperated of their modeled roles in society. They sought to be independent, they longed to have the ability to vote, and most of all, they wanted legal equality. This time period also brought the renewal of European expansion. With new motivations, such as economic motivations, social imperialism, and the new theories of racial superiority, the British empire began concentrating on the colonization of Asia and Africa.
All change is not necessarily good, however. New thought processes led to the belief of superior races and people groups, which in part, caused World War I. People became cynical, people became evil, and people became destructive. Through the work of writers such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Joseph Conrad, modernism in literature shed light on the true nature of the heart of humanity.
With this newly incorporated view of humanity, a new theory emerged involving psychology and the behaviors of men and women. Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who founded the discipline of psychoanalysis. (“Sigmund Freud”) Around the turn of the 20th century, Freud boldly claimed that humans entered the world as pleasure-seeking creatures. Through this claim, Freud ventured into the world of psychosexual development and eventually developed the theory of humans being irrational creatures. He believed that humans had the potential to do horrific things.
Man was corrupt. Man wanted to be uncivilized. This was illustrated perfectly in World War I by trench warfare. In trench warfare, the front line directly faced the enemy, who would usually be about 200 yards away. The space in between the front lines of the defenders and the attackers was known as “No Man’s Land”. (“Trench Warfare”) Thousands of battle hardened soldiers would put their lives on the line by running into this “no man’s land”, just to win a few feet in the battle of the frontline. This led to hundreds of thousands of casualties just to gain two or three feet on the battlefield.
There is no better picture of this theory of irrational creatures than in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was published in 1902. (“Heart of Darkness”) This novella is the story of a man, Marlow, who gathers a crew of sailors to journey down to the Congo, in British controlled Africa. As Marlow and his men begin the adventure down the river, they are soon given a mission to capture Mr. Kurtz, the best ivory extractor in all of Africa. The problem is, Kurtz has gone crazy, and his methods have gone tribal. The corporation believes he has gone insane. It’s not until Marlow finally gets to Kurtz through a very trying journey, that he realizes Kurtz’s actions are like the rest of ours, except Kurtz was tired of hiding behind civilization. Marlow realizes that we are all evil and we are all corrupt, but we attempt to hide it with civilization.
“The horror, the horror” (Conrad) are Kurtz last words he utters to Marlow before he dies. Kurtz realizes the life of evil he has lived, the inhuman acts he committed, and the regrets he has. The words ring true for society in the real world, expressed by Freud. We are inconsistent with rationality. (“irrational”) When Marlow returns home, he must inform Kurtz’s intended of his death. When she asks what the last thing Kurtz said was, Marlow lied to her, and said that Kurtz uttered her name with his dying breath. Why did Marlow lie? Was it to protect Kurtz’s intended? Was it to keep her in the innocent, civilized world she was living in? A world far from the “heart of darkness” that Marlow and Kurtz were a part of.
Along with the revolution in psychology and the beliefs that humans are irrational creatures, Europe was starting to part ties with religion. Society was becoming more secular and it was becoming evident that a philosophical revolution was at hand. New theories dealing with humans and how we came into existence were becoming more popular with Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.(“Charles Darwin”) This book challenged creation by a divine being. Instead, we have evolved from simple celled beings by a process called natural selection.
As if this theory of evolution didn’t challenge the church and religion enough, an excerpt from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche sure did finish the job.:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” (“God is Dead”)
The turn of the 20th century was marked by change. Equality for women and men. Women suffrage begin to move into a realistic goal. Also, literature began to take a different form. In, T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, we see a different style of writing than in the Victorian era. “Let us go then, you and I,” (Eliot) is different than the Victorian era because the “you” is referring to the reader. With this perspective, Eliot is breaking away from Victorian literature, and revolutionizing a new literature.
The next area of revolution in the 20th century is a bit more violent. The social structure in Europe was about to take undergo a major upheaval, especially in Russia. Years of discontent had finally reached a breaking point. Pertaining to the population, the poverty of the majority, and the extreme wealth of the tiny minority was creating social tension. The lack of political rights and the strict autocratic rule was creating political tension. In addition to political and social tension, there were a growing number of revolutionary movements.
Not only was Europe dealing with these long-term causes that had been building up in the past 200 years, but there were also the effects of World War I. Scarcities of necessities, mass inflation, strikes, protests, and the loss of confidence in the form of government that was ruling over them combined with these long-term causes to make for an interesting breaking point.
The Russian Revolution is the most popular, and most significant revolution of this time period. The 300 year Romanv rule was overthrown, and Vladmir Lenin soon took control of the government in Russia. One thing led to another, and then before the rest of Europe knows it, Russia has established the nation ruled by Communism.
This was displayed in W.B. Yeats The Second Coming. In this poem, Yeats envisions the 2000 year cycle of the Christian age as spiraling toward its end and the next historical cycle as beginning after a violent reversal. Yeats uses the term “gyre” for a spiraling motion in the shape of a cone. (Yeats)
“The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” (Yeats)
“The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction.” (Yeats) The turn of the 20th century was the beginning of a new thought process, and the beginning of a new social structure. Modernism was born and literature began to change, along with society.
In conclusion, literature has a big part in society. During the psychological, philosophical, and social revolutions of the 20th century, literature was shaped and mended into a product of the revolutions it went through. Through the work of writers such as T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Joseph Conrad, modernism in literature shed light on the true nature of the heart of humanity.
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Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature the Major Authors. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 2610-613. Print.
“God Is Dead.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 05 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. .
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“Irrational.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com. Web. 15 May 2012. .
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Yeats, William B. “The Second Coming.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2006. 2402-403. Print.