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History in Modernist Writing

What is the significance of the representation of history in modernist writing and/or visual arts?
Literature Essay

  • Assessment: essay
  • Mark: A
  • Year: 2006
  • Wordcount: 3274

Excerpt:
In 1937, Pablo Picasso produced his famous Guernica. This cubist work is a response to the bombing of the Luftwaffe of the Basque town Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso embodies the brutality of war and emphasizes in various facets that civilians have become targets. (Goldman 2004: 221-222). Another clear response to history can be found in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts. In these texts, Woolf analyses the “meaning and value of history for the present” (Moody 1963: 115) and attempts to portray the spirit of a time “poised unhappily between a past which has lost its significance and a future whose only hope is that ‘a new life might be born’” (Basham 1970: 114).

These forms of representation of historical events in art evolved over the course of time and requested a serious analysis of the idea of history itself. The theory of history as a cyclic pattern, Bergson’s reflections on time as flux and unstable, and the understanding of transience and speed replaced the Edwardian concept of history as progressive and linear (Williams 2002: 2). Such revaluations have been inspired by the urgency of the political and historical events during the first half of the 20th Century and find an expression in the techniques, forms and contents of modernist writing.

This paper attempts to examine the significance of historical theories and events in Virginia Woolf’s and Franz Kafka’s work. In analysing Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts, this essay will demonstrate Woolf’s perceptions of history and her representation of World War I and World War II. Woolf’s texts will then be contrasted by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which critics read either as an escapist text or as a radical rejection of any form of history (David 1978: 66-80).

According to De Man (1996: 478) modernism and modernity challenge history in a fundamental way. Nietzsche (cited in De Man 1996: 478), for example, focuses in his Unzeitgemässe Betrachtung on modernity and life as opposed to history and tradition. Many modernists perceive that “modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a true present” (De Man 1996: 480). In Mrs. Dalloway…

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