The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought

The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought

by William R. Everdell

A lively and accessible history of Modernism, The First Moderns is filled with portraits of genius, and intellectual breakthroughs, that richly evoke the fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Paris, Vienna, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg. William Everdell offers readers an invigorating look at the unfolding of an age.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.22
  • Pages: 509
  • Publish Date: July 15th 1998 by University of Chicago Press
  • Isbn10: 0226224813
  • Isbn13: 9780226224817

What People Think about "The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought"

He is especially strong on science, math, music -- which he sees as key instances of the Modernist ethic of fragmentation and the ontological discrete (rejection of continua). And when modernism says "man", it means the nerves'. A relative, provisional, fleeting unity, a unity which doesn't pretend to be smooth and absolute, or even absolutely singular, which is built around an imagination, a fiction, a writing instrument -- this was the unity that Pessoa was betting on...The Book of Disquiet whose ultimate ambition was to reflect the jagged thoughts and fractured emotions that can inhabit one man..." Thomas Bernhard on Fragments... Only when we are fortunate enough to turn something whole, something complete or indeed perfect into a fragment, when we get down to reading it, only then do we experience a high degree, at times indeed a supreme degree, of pleasure in it. In order to be able to bear them I search for a so-called massive mistake in and about every single one of them, a procedure which so far has always attained its objective of turning that so-called perfect work of art into a fragment, he said. I proceed from the assumption that there is no such thing as the perfect or the whole, and each time I have made a fragment of one for the so-called perfect works of art hanging here on the walls by searching for a massive mistake in and about that work of art, for the crucial point of failure by the artist who made that work of art, searching for it until I found it, I have got one step further..." (Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters, A Comedy) (For a general bibliography of Modernism, see 363n.25; ch. 9f.) believed all change was smooth (continuous; legato, rather than staccato in tempo) -- like the forbiddingly complex, but entirely harmonic development of a Brahms symphony -- Modernism introduced the idea of discontinuous change, leading to the conclusion in all fields that statistical and probabilistic descriptions of reality were truer than the old deterministic dynamics. Modern thought then gave up the stubborn belief that things could best be seen as "steadily and whole" from some privileged viewpoint; the belief in objectivity so crumbled that phenomenology and solipsism took over in every field and area. These things, then: statistics, multiple perspective, subjectivity, and self-reference...all devolved from the collapse of the ontological continuity assumed by the 19th cen., and led to the non-logical, non-objective, non-linear and essentially causeless mental universe we inhabit today. Modernism, then, was a culture of analysis, at home with the bits and pieces and contradictions, the social and cultural and psychological and ontological fragmentation of modern science and society. After this attack on the continuums of the calculus, and this focus on set theory -- which is (atomic), we enter a new era: the atomistic thermodynamics of Boltzmann, stop-motion photography, colorplane 'Cloisonnism' of Gauguin, the "divisionism" of Seurat; the continuities of the old calculus were banished, along with fields in physics, fluidity of motion, the transitional browns of chiaroscuro in art. Ch. 4: In Physics, the 20th century began with three transformations: (1) the digitizing of matter and energy into atoms and quanta Planck; (2) dealing with particles statistically and stochastically (probabilities and averages) Boltzmann; (3) the restructuring of space Einstein. (The idea of continuous fields in physics had been "proven" by Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.) The real consequence of Boltzmann's probabilistic physics is that the universe was no longer strictly deterministic, for the state of the system was no longer simply a function of the state of the parts. But it was only with Les Illuminations (1875), the manuscript Rimbaud handed to Verlaine at their final parting in Stuttgart, and which was not printed until 1885 (when everyone assumed, wrongly, that Rimbaud was already dead), that was the REAL breakthrough into Modernism came -- extravagant, discontinuous, incoherent, barely metrical... For the idea of Modernism as a mixing and splicing of fragments of character, of scenes, for character as theme and variation (rather than substance), see pp. "As he explained it in the play's Miss Julie preface, he had deliberately broken the personalities and motivations of his characters to pieces so he could put them back together again in a way that would seem more real: ' souls (characters) are conglomerations...of past cultures as well as present wants, Scraps from both books and newspapers, fragments of mankind, torn-off samples of Sunday best clothing that have become rags, just as though soul is patched modern characters, living in an age of transition, an age more restless and hysterical at any rate than the preceding one, I have portrayed them as unstable and split...The dialogue therefore meanders around supplying themes in the first scenes, which are then developed, taken up, repeated, expanded, repeated like the themes in a musical composition.' "....he was right about this mixing and matching of slices of life. Eventually Strindberg would figure out that he could do this kind of mixing and matching with scenes, and thereafter it would be only a matter of time before he would discover how to mix in slices of what happens only in memory or imagination -- the discovery we now call theatrical expressionism...fragmented characters and disjunctive dialogue of Miss Julie..., the Ghost Sonata broke through in to a new theatrical space, discontinuous in all its parts,whether spatial, temporal, internal or external... According to Schoenberg, his atonality involved two things -- "first, to formulate ides in an aphoristic manner, which did not require continuations out of formal reasons; secondly, to link ideas together without the use of formal connectives, merely by juxtaposition" (i.e, fragmentation and parataxis). Modernism has, as ingredients, five major interrelated ideas: (A) There is embedded in every system at arriving at truth a recursiveness or self-reference that automatically undermines the consistency of the system. Positivism (for whom the observer was separate from the material reality that he 'observes') gave way to a revived subjectivity of the Romantics (Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Husserl), into stream-of -consciousness in literature (Woolf, Proust, Joyce), the dream in theater (Strindberg), and subjectivism in art. (E) And finally, most importantly of all, the premise from which they all drive, the assumption of ontological discontinuity -- which Everdell calls "the heart of Modernism" (p. 351) -- that is, fragmentation and atomism, digital rather than analog, a denial of the evolution, fields, seamlessness, and Entwicklng (of the 19th cen., and of Leibniz' Principle of Continuity). For Rimbaud, poetry is a juxtaposition of discrete fragments or remembered details, or simply of words shaken loose of their meaning...non-representational poetry. Fragmentation and analysis, asynchronous, atonal...the very failure of the integrity of modern life, and modern lives, fragmented, unharmonious, divided against themselves..., the derangement of the senses and of reason, bemoaned by Modernist, but celebrated as the ultimate virtue by Postmodernists...a long-term objective consequence, presumably, of industrial modernity (p.

William Everdell firmly places it in the period in and around the fin-de-siècle of the nineteenth century: commencing circa 1872 with the discovery of the proto-binary Dedekind Cut by the German mathematician Richard Dedekind and continuing to unfold and develop through the final quarter of the nineteenth century and those early years of the twentieth prior to the opening of the First World War. Everdell discusses this during the opening sections of his first-rate, rapid-fire, and occasionally overwhelming sojourn through a variety of disciplines that, sooner or later, became caught in the modernist flow and and shed whatever remained of the restraints that kept them tethered within the systems and memes of the Victorian Era; and, according the the learned author, the common theme running through these nineteenth-century ballasts was a firm belief in the continuity of the material world and the universe in which it was located; a smooth continuum thatwhether implicit within a geometric line, the hue of a painting, the wave-form of energy, fluid whorls of the ether, the inherent solidity of matter, the networked nervous system of the body, precisely-metered lines of French verse, the evolutionary progression of life upon earthtold of a connectedness, a progression or movement without pause or break, a time-directed, deterministic march into a future in which everything seemed to be leading towards the best of all worlds. Almost madcap when the energy is crackling on full, these urban tours, with their glimpses at how important such centres were in the development of Modernism and the appetites they whet for names and stories still to comeor the further elaborations they provide on figures whose puzzle-solving tale has already been unfoldedfeature some of the most brilliant moments, and most inspired writing, in the entire work. Everdell makes the point of emphasizing how certain key discoveries made by thinkers earlier in the eighteenth century couldn't be exploited until a certain cultural mindset had been achieved; and, when such had come into bloom, that the discoveries often mushroomed, one following upon another in rapid succession and from minds that were separated from each other by hundreds or thousands of miles. Although Mendel's work was completed by 1865, it was not until 1900 that its revelatory results were fully comprehended and used as the basis for further elaboration by three biologiststhe Dutchman Hugo de Vries, the German Carl Correns, and the Englishman William Batesonwho all submitted similar papers announcing their newly formulated laws on the discontinuous nature of evolutionary genetics, including hybridization and stochastic mutations in genes, within a span of several weeks.

The First Moderns is good not only for what it covers just as well as other related books of intellectual history, but also because it covers a lot of relatively new territory. Everdell also widens the scope of the book by covering not only names, but topics that usually dont get mentioned. Everdell details the ways in which Boltzmann invented new mathematical tools to think about energy and entropy as statistical averages of extremely complex states. The work of Boltzmann and the people after him showed how, when multiplied by trillions and trillions, tiny, individual discrete atoms can have physical properties en masse like temperature, energy, or entropy (which are all, in fact, related to one another). And even when we get lessons from art history, or music, or poetry with which we are perhaps almost familiar, Everdell adds new contexts, new names, and new layers that enable each chapter in the book to potentially morph into a book of its very own. I read this sort of stuff to learn about new connections between ideas they already knew of, and I can handle the narrative jumpiness if the information is presented in an intelligent way, and Everdell is certainly the kind of intellectual cicerone who is going to teach you something fascinating.

Everdell paints for us a wonderfully enchanting history of modernism.

Many so-called modern ideas began in the 19th-century instead of the 20th.

One thing missing from learning history in school was connections.