Modernism was an artistic movement which sparked during the late nineteenth century but didn’t truly catch fire till the years following World War I. With a new age founded in rapid changes in industrialization, society and new scientific discoveries, the modernists felt alienated from the optimism and morality of the Victorian age. After World War I, empires fell, and a new, deadly side of science and technology was shown through military weaponry. People began to lose faith in religion. They began to use their new-found ways of expressing themselves in the new changes and ideas in philosophy, art, and political theory. This was the beginning of Modern art. Painters, in an attempt to make sense in the chaos that followed World War I, began to use art as an escape from reality. Like Wyndham Lewis and Edward Wadsworth, some artists began to paint the wonders of the new industrial world in a way of praising the new age. Others, like the Dadaists, were more interested showing the absurdity of the post war, industrial era through the nonsense, irrationality and anti-bourgeois protests in their work. One artist’s work in particular, used this technique of obscurity and fragmentation to shine light on culture to his advantage. But he was not an artist with a brush and paint, but with a pen and words. He was none other than T. S. Eliot.
Although there were a few modernist writers before the war like Joseph Conrad, and Henry James, modernism as a literary movement is typically associated during the period after the war. T. S. Eliot became one of the most well-known Modernists of his time with his work The Waste Land. In the poem, Eliot paints the image of a shattered world that was the early 20th century by jumbling references from classical literature, giving the feeling of alienation to the audience. The poem’s references span across various cultures and languages, giving a voice to nations across the world in crises. In the poem he expresses his frustration with the culture. The first stanza begins with a contradiction with the speaker’s ideas. The first line is about April (usually associated with spring, the idea of new life and new beginnings) as the cruelest month of them all. This gives the idea that the speaker would much prefer death as a sort of sleep from the pain brought by remembering the past to no end. The poem even uses religious references from Christianity to Buddhism in a mocking way, referencing Nietzsche’s idea that “god is dead”. The poem uses various metaphors to describe the moral degradation taking place in the world. Eliot uses his acquaintance with the literary canon to showcase the downfall of humanity due to our greed and lust for instant satisfaction. But the ashes from the fire of Modernist thinking sparked a new flame.
A reaction to the chaotic thinking began to bloom: Postmodernism. Art and literature fell from their revered throne, with the use of computers, “knowledge” became more widespread and people began to question everything, including truth. Reality itself was questioned; the belief that reality was what you made it and was not an objective realm outside your perception became wide-spread. Everything became subjective. Art was no longer focused on the artist but on the viewer. Science and logic were seen as tools for evil and corruption as they were used before by bad people. History was tossed out and made worthless until specific instances were needed to prove an opinion. Progress was the only way we as a culture could fix what happened in the past. People broke away from the idea of alienating themselves by flocking to groups of similar thinkers, but at the same time emphasizing the idea of individualism. Express yourself by whatever means necessary to make you happy. Be yourself, be happy, however you can and want, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong because truth, right, wrong, good, evil are all subjective. Family is no longer important. Family is what you make it. Urbanization flourishes. With no one wanting to be involved in societies and in their families, they tear away from small towns where they can be held accountable by family members and close friends, in search for an individual’s lifestyle in the big cities, off to be their own gods.
With Modernism and Post-modernism, the western culture began to rely on the individual, we lost our foundation. Giving up on religion, we replaced God with ourselves as our own gods. We seek desperately for guidance and ultimate happiness, so we turn to the media to express ourselves and our subjective reality. Despite our desperate attempts to achieve joy, it ultimately leaves us empty. We, by nature, desire to be led, whether it be by ourselves or by God. But with God and truth out of the picture, we have lost our foundation and quickly try to fill it with sand that blows away the next moment only to try and replace it with the new fad in ideology. Without our loving Shepherd to guide us, we blindly follow our feelings as if we know what’s good for us. If we as a people continue to believe we can know everything though our power alone while simultaneously not knowing anything because truth is subjective, then we will continue to run in our self-destructive circles of ideologies as individual kings of sand castles.