The Modernist Vision

The Modernist Vision

Implications for Today of a 20th Century World View

by Richard A. Schwartz,
Professor Emeritus Department of English
Florida International University


For me, the dominant question of twentieth-century studies asks how a person can live an authentic, moral, self-actualized life centered around some notion of proper action in a secular, technology-dominated, incompletely knowable, indeterminate world, where most social and political relationships are recognized as centering around power and wealth instead of virtue or truth. I see this dilemma as an overriding issue in modern arts and letters, as well as in the conduct of everyday life and international politics.

Over the years, scholars have drawn upon work from many disciplines to develop a modernist world view that pictures reality as inherently subjective and determined in part by the circumstances of observation. In this view, reality is incompletely knowable, paradoxical, relativistic, and governed by rules of probability rather than logic or causation. The modernist world view is rooted in contemporary understandings of physical reality, which is conceptually important because physical reality is literally fundamental. By definition, we cannot become any more concrete or any less abstract than when we describe physical reality. Thus, when modernist writers, artists, and other creative thinkers depict reality to be paradoxical, relativistic, incompletely knowable, less-than-completely rational, fragmented, and dependent upon the observer for its completion, they are not acting arbitrarily, metaphorically, or capriciously. Quite the opposite, they embody a vision that applies to the most objective aspect of experience that we can identify: the physical world.

When the modernist lens turns to physics, it sees the world in a way that yields the quantum and relativity theories and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, in which, for the first time since the Renaissance, Western thought acknowledges that empiricism has real boundaries, that theoretical limits exist on human knowledge. There are few, if any absolutes; even characteristics of space and time are shaped by the circumstances of the observer. Modernist mathematics describes domains of space and time that are discontiguous and fragmented, in which parallel lines intersect, in which order systematically degenerates into chaos, and in which chaos conversely regenerates into order. It is a mathematics keenly aware of its paradoxes and limitations, yet extremely adept at exploiting those limitations and paradoxes for all they are worth.

Socrates, one of the earliest and most influential Western philosophers, promoted logic as a means for discovering, or revealing, Truth; moreover, logic lies at the heart of mathematics, of science (formerly known as natural philosophy) and of human reason itself. But in the modernist world view, the classical and neo-classical notion of a uniform, contiguous, rational, orderly universe gives way to a less straightforward—if not altogether irrational—vision in which space and time become fragmented and warped, and logic ultimately reduces to probabilities, sometimes even turning on itself to create paradoxes and contradictions. In the late 1920s, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and their colleagues completed their formulation of quantum mechanics, in which matter and energy—the seemingly mutually exclusive, fundamental elements of physical reality—were shown to be different states of the same phenomenon. By that time, Sigmund Freud had already declared that humans are fundamentally irrational beings who are ruled primarily by powerful, primal, often contradictory impulses from the unconscious, including simultaneous impulses toward creation and destruction, and the ability to simultaneously love and hate. Thus, in the modernist world view, dualistic, either-or conceptions give way to the recognition that aspects of reality can be both-and-neither at the same time.

Moreover, in the modernist vision we cannot separate the event from how we know about it. In the 17th century, René Descartes argued that the human intellect exists separately from the physical reality in which it manifests, and he posited that the intellect could stand apart as a detached, objective observer of physical reality. Modernist thinkers, on the other hand, realize that all thought, perception, and observation take place within specific contexts, and the end results of all thought, perception, and observation are shaped by and ultimately inseparable from the particular contexts that give rise to them. How can we, for example, completely detach the images we see with our eyes from the electro-chemical activity that creates those images in our brains? And where does the image reside: in the three dimensional-space beyond our bodies, or within our brains?

Analogously, the study of the relationships between perceptions and their socio/political/cultural contexts stands at the heart of the critical approach called deconstruction, in which the practitioner reveals the workings of underlying ideologies, cultural predispositions, gender biases, and other social constructs that, sometimes arbitrarily, confer meaning and a system of values upon a story or a text of any kind. In the practice of deconstruction, as in quantum physics, ontology melts into epistemology: we cannot separate what reality is from how we apprehend it. Nor can we separate words and sentences from the cultural contexts that give them meaning.

Whereas Isaac Newton believed that a physical event is the same, no matter how it is observed, or if it is observed, modernist scientists demonstrate that the nature of the observation shapes the experience of the event itself. According to Werner Heisenberg, in one of his thought experiments, “The observation plays a decisive role in the event and … the reality varies, depending upon whether we observe it or not” (Heisenberg, p. 52, italics mine). This has since been verified in the famous two-slit experiment in which the photons appear to be either waves (energy) or particles (matter) depending upon how they are observed. We see this relationship between the observation and the event in other ways too. It stands behind the enigmatic puzzle, if a tree falls in the forest but no one is there to hear, does it make a sound? In fact, the tree will generate sound waves. But the sound is not completed, noise is not produced, unless those waves strike an eardrum. The crescendo takes place only inside each listener’s head; it is not an independent part of nature.

Furthermore, the quality of eardrums varies from listener to listener, and the intensity and exact frequency of the sound waves as they strike an eardrum varies according to their distance from their source and the medium through which they must pass. Therefore, the nature of the crescendo also differs from listener to listener. Thus noise is only produced if and when the sound waves strike an eardrum, and the noise is not the same for everyone. Moreover, since there is no authoritative eardrum whose perception is inherently superior to or more correct than any other, there is no authoritative version of the noise. As in Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, no absolute or privileged point of view exists.

In the Doppler effect we see how the circumstances of observation can even create contradictory experiences of the identical physical event. A person standing on the sidewalk, listening to an approaching car blaring its horn, will hear the horn wail: its pitch rises as the car comes closer and then lowers as the car passes by. Measurements taken at the sidewalk would confirm that the frequency of the sound waves increased as the horn approached and diminished as it drove away. But measurements taken inside the car, where the horn is stationary relative to the driver, would show no variation in frequency. The driver would hear the horn blare at a steady pitch. Thus, even a question of basic, physical, measurable, objective fact: did the horn wail or not, depends upon the circumstances of the observation. In fact, the car’s horn simultaneously both wails and does not wail.

Imagine riding astride an electron as it jumps among energy states. Not coincidentally, the experience would be Kafkaesque: filled with abrupt and unexpected changes and contradictory views of the same event. This modernist vision informs much of the twentieth century’s literature, music, art, and other forms of human response to human experience. The modernist artists, writers, and creative thinkers were not necessarily even aware of the developments in modern science – some even preceded their scientific counterparts. But they were understanding the realities of human politics, society, psychological development, and interpersonal interactions in analogous ways.

For instance, in many cubist works, even the painter’s individual viewpoint loses absolute authority. By superimposing several views of the same model atop one another, about the same time that Einstein was developing Relativity Theory, Pablo Picasso would paint the same subject through a vision that simultaneously acknowledges all of the possible perspectives by which the model can be seen. In Nude Descending a Staircase (1911), Marcel Duchamp “unfreezes” his subject in time, showing multiple images of the naked woman walking down the stairs. From his perspective, people, objects, and events occur in ever-changing space-time, not simply in fixed space. So there is no one definitive image that represents the subject; the multiple nudes incorporate time into the fabric of the space-bound canvas and complete Duchamp’s vision of the subject. This viewpoint contradicts the more traditional one John Keats celebrates in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819), where the poet praises art for being static, unchanging, outside of time, and insulated from temporal events.

Moreover, conceptual and interactive art of the 1960s and beyond requires viewers to complete the artwork in their minds or through their actions, thereby making the observers inseparable from the event – and often making the event unique for each observer. We see this, for instance, in Alexander Calder’s mobiles, which provide a different experience every time a “viewer” pushes or spins them. In a very literal sense, Picasso, Duchamp, and others who rendered the modernist vision in artistic representations were the realists of the twentieth century, even as Rembrandt was a consummate realist of the late Renaissance. Each artist embodied the paradigm of his or her time.

In “Pierre Menard, The Man Who Wrote the Quixote,” (1941) Jorge Luis Borges examines how language and meaning also exist in space-time and are affected by it – something John Barth points out in his influential essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Borges’ character, Menard, is a nineteenth-century French symbolist who creates — not by copying but through acts of original imagination — passages that are word-for-word identical to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. However, according to Borges’ narrator, Menard’s novel is superior because, when read as products of a late nineteenth-century mind, the identical words acquire new and richer meanings. Thus, for example, when, in the 16th century, Cervantes calls History “the Mother of Truth,” he offers mere rhetorical praise; but when Menard composes these same words:

… the idea is astounding. Menard a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened” (Borges, p. 43).

In modernist music traditional ideas of harmony and tonality lose their authority, giving rise not only to new musical forms, but to new understandings of what music is. Seemingly obvious distinctions, such as that between music and noise, suddenly become richly problematic. Like Georg Cantor investigating the foundations of mathematics, like physicists concerned with the characteristics of subatomic particles, and like artists concerned with color, texture, and basic geometric shapes, many twentieth-century composers, such as John Cage and his successors, have turned to the fundamental components of their art form, exploring basic properties of sound and silence instead of writing melodies or developing harmonies and themes.

In similar ways many modernist writers explored fundamental properties of language itself, sometimes at the expense of plot, character development, and even denotative meaning. For example, James Joyce dismantles and reassembles language in his most Dada-like work, Finnegan’s Wake (1939); Virginia Woolf seeks to create meaning by transmitting through her prose the rhythm of waves in The Waves; and William Faulkner layers his sentences over each other like a painter applying impasto in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), a book in which he presents history not as a sequence of objectively knowable, chronological events but as the product of layers upon layers of subjective experiences and impressions. Although not as extreme as the World War I-era Dadaists, who completely subordinated concepts and meaning to language’s more visceral properties of sound and rhythm, these writers nonetheless explored the basic properties of language and brought them to the forefront of their work.

Freud recognized that the human unconscious works associatively instead of logically and that our various neuroses shape how we experience reality. Consistent with the modernist viewpoint, Freud’s work implies that all human experiences of reality are interpreted through the framework of our desires and fears; no one experiences reality in a totally objective fashion. It also shows that as simultaneous participants in and observers of our own lives, we complete the event, at least in our own experience of it. Freud’s work also treats time non-linearly, showing that long-forgotten events from the past can impinge directly on present events: thus in a very real sense, the past and present paradoxically co-exist within the present. As Faulkner also suggests, for Freud, the past does not cease to be real once it has lapsed in time.

When turned on narrative fiction, the modernist lens reveals stories that abandon traditional cause-effect plot structures, reject linear chronologies in their plot development, experiment with point-of-view, and frequently eliminate or undermine the authoritative third person, objective and/or omniscient narrator (a privileged viewpoint that does not exist in the world of Relativity Theory). Such novels and films blur distinctions between facts and fictions, creating worlds where characters and readers alike operate in a state of ongoing uncertainty; they rely on readers and viewers to piece things together for themselves, or to make no connections at all, thereby making the audience, like all observers, play an integral role in creating the reality of the story. These storytellers–authors like Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner, Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon, and film makers like Orson Welles, Jean Cocteau, Jean Luc-Godard, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Woody Allen, and Quentin Tarantino, to name a few – describe the world through a modernist lens, one that refracts space, time, causation, knowledge, and communication differently from the objectivist lens. Unlike their “realist” predecessors, the modernist storytellers recognize that everyone perceives existence through lenses of some kind and that all lenses refract and distort, as well as sharpen and clarify. They understand, therefore, that a purely objective and direct experience of external events is unavailable to human beings, if such an experience can even be said to exist at all, and they reflect this understanding in the forms, structures, and techniques they devise to “get their stories out.”

Although scientists, mathematicians, artists, writers, and other creative thinkers have been expressing the modernist vision for over 100 years now, only recently has it begun to take root in the mass media and general discourse. Challenges posed by an indeterminate reality, of course, have occurred throughout history. Plato, for instance, places it at the heart of his “Allegory of the Cave,” where he imagines humans as cave dwellers who mistake the shadows of external reality for the reality itself. Even crucial moments from our own living memories are shrouded in shadows and fog. Did Lee Harvey Oswald truly act alone when he assassinated President Kennedy, and did the Warren Commission act fully in good faith when it investigated the murder? Did North Vietnamese patrol boats actually attack a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 –the alleged justification for the Congressional resolution that authorized President Johnson to send U.S. combat troops to Vietnam? Did Richard Nixon subvert the peace talks prior to the 1968 presidential election, as Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan have argued? How deeply “in the loop” were President Reagan and Vice-President George Herbert Bush in the Iran-Contra scandal? Did Clarence Thomas sexually harass Anita Hill? Did O.J. Simpson murder his wife and her friend, Ronald Goldman? Did Bill Clinton have sex with “that woman”?

Are there even unambiguous yes or no answers to all of these questions? What defines an attack on a ship? At what specific moment is an act of sex, and/or sexual harassment, indisputably committed? The ways by which we attempt to answer these questions – and the answers we find when we employ specific methods – are all shaped by who we are, what we believe, what we want to believe, and what we have each personally experienced in the past.

But what does this mean for our democracy when those in power and those who would assume power recognize not only that reality is paradoxical, subjective, and incompletely determinate, but that they can exploit the this condition for political gain? To what extent are facts and logic used to create a credible picture of reality that the citizenry can respond to through the democratic process, and to what extent have we tacitly agreed that representations of truth are simply expendable foot soldiers available for sacrifice in partisan grabs for power? What does it mean for democracy when reality is understood to be indistinguishable from spin, and where power can be more readily acquired and retained through obfuscation and ambiguity than through clarity and forthrightness?

Events of the recent years, in particular, have brought these matters to the forefront of public consciousness. “What is the meaning of is?” President Clinton asked during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Clearly, exploration of the fundamental components of language and meaning is not just for Dadaists anymore. If John Cage showed that one person’s noise might be another’s music, the President forced us all to recognize that one person’s friendly fondling might be another’s full-fledged sex. So, in this matter of alleged perjury, where does the truth really lie? To many of us, oral sex would seem to fall safely within the category of a sexual act, but consider the following observation by Salman Rushdie in his novel, Fury (2001):

“In England … the heterosexual b.j. is almost never offered or received before full, penetrative coitus has taken place, and sometimes not even then. It’s considered a sign of deep intimacy … It’s rare. Whereas in America, with your well-established tradition of teenage, ah, ‘makeouts’ in the backs of various iconic automobiles, ‘giving head,’ to use the technical term, precedes ‘full’ missionary-position sex more often than not; indeed, it’s the most common way for young girls to preserve their virginity while keeping their sweethearts satisfied…

Thus, when Clinton affirms that he had never had sex with that woman … everyone in England thinks he’s a pink-faced liar, whereas the whole of teen (and much of pre- and post-teen) America understands that he’s telling the truth, as culturally defined in these United States. Oral sex is precisely not sex. It’s what enables young girls to come home and with their hands on their hearts tell their parents … that you hadn’t ‘done it.’ (Rushdie, p. 137)

If the Lewinsky affair provoked voters and their elected representatives to grapple with the slippery nature of the basic meanings of words, and to do so within a politically charged environment replete with plausible but incompletely proven accusations of a vaguely defined right-wing conspiracy, then the presidential election of 2000 brought home the tenuous nature of truth even more. When is a vote not a vote? When is a dimple on a punch card sufficiently deep to count as an expression of a voter’s intention? Whose votes are entitled to be counted? What was the exact final vote count, when all was said and done? Seemingly simple matters of basic, empirical fact, these questions prove not to admit of clear, unambiguous answers.

Moreover, the process that determines the reality of the final vote count inherently influences the nature of that reality. If the Supreme Court had ruled differently, different procedures would certainly have rendered a different numerical result – and possibly, although not necessarily, a different victor. As in quantum physics, the ontology of the vote count became inseparable from its epistemology. The process employed for counting the votes necessarily shaped the final tally, and there was no absolute, empirically neutral epistemology – or political process –available. The Constitutional process and the authority of the Supreme Court ultimately emerged as final absolutes, but only by convention – and because the military and electorate accepted that convention — and not because the process had any special claim to epistemological superiority.

Even more recently, the ontology of the Iraqi war remains as indecipherable as a dream sequence in a Fellini film. Where does reality end and fabrication, imagination, confusion, and delusion begin? And how will we ever know? Where did the genuine threat to our national security end and the political expediency resulting from the possibility of a threat begin? Did the Bush administration really believe that Saddam’s Iraq posed a substantial and imminent danger to U.S. national security? And if so, how much of that belief was rooted in credible analysis, and how much in an overwhelming desire – spawned by various emotional and political motivations – to find a suitable enemy to strike back at after September 11?

When is a war not a war? When is it over and when is it not? Were we liberators or occupiers in Iraq, or both or neither? Did we fight a guerilla war after our initial victory over the Iraqi armed forces, and if so, was it a continuation of the war President Bush so dramatically declared ended, or was it a new one? Or both or neither? Is the war on terror a literal war or a metaphor that unites otherwise limited and disparate military actions? Can a war on terror ever have a determinate ending, and if not, what are the implications for civil liberties, open government, and democracy, itself, of a never-ending, or ambiguously enduring, state of emergency?

It is within this context that I return to my initial statement. For me, the dominate question of twentieth-century studies asks how a person can live an authentic, moral, self-actualized life centered around some notion of proper action in an indeterminate, or incompletely determinate, world. If this question once seemed the remote concern of artists, authors, and intellectuals, clearly it now stands at the forefront of our democracy. We must vote for one candidate or another, adopt one course of action or another, but never with a complete or objective picture of the reality we are responding to. We must behave in an either-or fashion, even though we live in a both-and-neither world. In this respect, we are all like K in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), or Kleinman in Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992), who are expected to act and are held accountable for their actions, but no one will tell them what is going on and what they are supposed to do.

So how does one, as an individual or a member of society, formulate notions of proper action in such an ambiguous, shape-shifting world? What does it mean to be honest or ethical? What does it even mean to have a sense of coherent, ongoing personal identity? Or do these concepts even remain relevant in the modernist world view or the postmodern world of the 21st Century? I cannot pretend to answer those questions here, other than to reaffirm that as scholars we must remain committed to the investigation of truth, even if truth proves more elusive, multifaceted, and indeterminate than we once thought. To be scholars in the modern era, we must seek deeper insights into and appreciations of the many faces of truth and, perhaps, formulate ways to integrate them that are consistent with our personal values – while never losing sight of, or failing to acknowledge, that these are formulations and not absolutes.

We must remain aware of the limitations on our access to truth, but with that awareness, we can nonetheless provide productive new insights. For, if all lenses necessarily distort, they can also sharpen and clarify. The trick, as the quantum scientists have learned, is to acknowledge the limitations and work creatively within their parameters, instead of pretending that the limitations do not exist. As scholars, we can still recognize egregious, self-serving distortions; we can point out whom they serve and how; and we can prize good-faith inquiry over cynical manipulation –even if we may not always agree about which is which. Perhaps it is the dialogue about the distinction that ultimately matters more than the final determination –although the determination will often have distinct consequences.

As scholar/teachers and as citizens in a democracy we can make our students and fellow citizens aware that most reality lies somewhere between the ones and zeroes, good and bad, winner and loser, and we can encourage them to respect multiple viewpoints in their personal and political dealings with others, without repudiating the validity of their own viewpoints. In short, by cultivating awareness in ourselves and others that many aspects of existence are not black or white, but sometimes both black and white, or neither, we can seek to devise creative ways to circumvent the pitfalls of an outmoded, either-or paradigm and to engage fully in the vital, if ambiguous and indeterminate, process of living productive, moral, fulfilling lives.



Works Cited
Barth, John. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Atlantic, 220 (August 1967), pp. 29-4.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Transl. James E. Irby. 1941; rpt. in Labyrinths. New York: New Directions, 1962.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. rpt. New York: Random House, 1986.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.

Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake. 1939; rpt. New York: Viking Press, 1959.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. 1925; rpt. New York: Schocken Publishing, 1999.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” 1819; rpt. in The Complete Works of John Keats. New York: Modern Library, 1994.

Plato. “Allegory of the Cave,” The Republic. ca. 380 B.C. rpt. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1992.

Rushdie, Salman. Fury. 2001; rpt. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Shadows and Fog. Dir. Woody Allen. Perfs. Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusak, Madonna. Orion, 1992.

Summers, Anthony and Robbyn Swan. “Nixon’s Ultimate Betrayal.” Vanity Fair (September 2000), pp. 266-291.

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. 1931; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1964.


About the author

Richard A. Schwartz: Richard A. Schwartz is Professor Emeritus at Florida International University (FIU), where he taught literature for over 30 years. Much of his scholarship and fiction asks how people can act morally, and in a spiritually-fulfilling manner, within an uncertain, relativistic, self-contradictory universe, where nothing is ever exactly as it seems. In addition to his seven academic books, ranging from Cold War Culture and The 1950s and 1990s to a study of Woody Allen’s creative work, he has also published some short fiction and self-published a semi-absurdist novel, The Conflicted Liberal, about a professor who takes up pie-throwing as a form of political protest. He is currently circulating several plays and screenplays, including Collaborators, which presents the complex personal, political, and artistic relationships among director Elia Kazan, playwright Arthur Miller, and actress Marilyn Monroe during the period of the 1950s blacklisting.


Leave a Reply