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anti-technological and nihilistic aspects of the works of diverse thinkers and artists

The early part of the twentieth century saw massive changes in the everyday life of people in cities. The recent inventions of the automobile, airplane, and telephone shrank distances around the world and sped up the pace of life. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and infantile sexuality radically altered the popular understanding of the mind and identity, and the late-nineteenth-century thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche in different ways undermined traditional notions of truth, certainty, and morality. Theoretical science, meanwhile, was rapidly shifting from two-hundred-year-old Newtonian models to Einstein’s theory of relativity and finally to quantum mechanics.

Elasticity, 1916, Boccioni, Umberto

At least partly in response to this acceleration of life and thought, a wave of aggressively experimental movements, sometimes collectively termed “modernist” because of their emphasis on radical innovation, swept through Europe. In Paris, the Spanish expatriate painter Pablo Picasso and the Frenchman Georges Braque developed cubism, a style of painting that abandoned realism and traditional perspective to fragment space and explode form. In Italy, the spokesperson for futurism, F. T. Marinetti, led an artistic movement that touched on everything from painting to poetry to cooking and encouraged an escape from the past into the rapid, energetic, mechanical world of the automobile, the airplane, and Marinetti’s own “aeropoetics.” Dadaists such as the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, author of the ready-made Fountain (1917), a urinal, began a guerilla campaign against established notions of sense and the boundaries of what could be called art. In music, meanwhile, composers such as the Frenchman Claude Debussy and Russian-born Igor Stravinsky were beginning experiments with rhythm and harmony that would soon culminate in the outright atonality of composers such as the Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

Red Stone Dancer, 1913-14, Gaudier-Brzeska, Henri

In England, this outbreak of modernist experiment influenced a loosely interrelated network of groups and individuals, many of them based in London. In anglophone literature, “modernism” more nearly describes an era than a unitary movement. But what connects the modernist writers—aside from a rich web of personal and professional connections—is a shared desire to break with established forms and subjects in art and literature. Influenced by European art movements, many modernist writers rejected realistic representation and traditional formal expectations. In the novel, they explored the Freudian depths of their characters’ psyches through stream of consciousness and interior monologue. In poetry, they mixed slang with elevated language, experimented with free verse, and often studded their works with difficult allusions and disconnected images. Ironically, the success of modernism’s initially radical techniques eventually transformed them into the established norms that would be resisted by later generations.