2/17/09 - the new century

In today's excerpt - as the twentieth century unfolded Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and other artists reacted to the unprecedented and accelerating pace of change by repudiating the past and grasping for something new:

"The heroic daring of [the new] century lay in its conviction of absolute, unprecedented novelty. This is what the exhilarating notion of modernity meant: canceling all the accumulated wisdom of our forebears. ... Valiantly eager for the future, the Bauhaus instructor Oskar Schlemmer decreed in 1929 that 'One should act as if the world had just been created.'

"A new-born universe called for fresh tenants. Virginia Woolf accordingly reported as if she were pinpointing an actual verifiable event that 'on or about December 1910 human character changed.' Rites of passage made this enigmatic transformation visible. How do human beings usually announce an altered identity? By changing the way they wear their hair. Men who wanted to be ruthlessly modern shaved their skulls, like the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky or Johannes Itten, an instructor at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In the hirsute, nineteenth century, sages—aspiring to the shagginess of Old Testament prophets—grew beards. For the glowering, bullet-headed Mayakovsky, the cranium was a projectile, made more aerodynamic by being rid of hair. For Itten, shaving announced his priestly dedication to the new world which the designers at the Bauhaus intended to build. ...

"Women had their own equivalent to those drastic masculine acts of self-mutilation. In 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story, 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair' about a timid provincial girl for whom bobbing is a transition between two periods of life and two historical epochs. The new style ejects her from Madonna-like girlhood, when she was protectively cocooned in tresses, and announces her sexual maturity. Bernice fearfully acknowledges the revolutionary antecedents of the process. Driving downtown to the mens' barber-shop where the operation will be performed, she suffers 'all the sensations of Marie Antoinette bound for the guillotine in a tumbril;' the barber with his shears is an executioner. The French revolutionaries sliced off the heads of bewigged aristocrats in order to destroy an old world. Bernice however has her own hair chopped to fit her for membership of a new society: bobbing conferred erotic allure on girls who were previously dismissed as wallflowers. ...

"James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 testified to the change in human character announced by Virginia Woolf. Bodies now did things which, at least according to literature, they had never done before. A man ponders his own bowel movement, relishing its sweet smell. Later in the day he surreptitiously masturbates in a public place and takes part in a pissing contest, proud of the arc his urine describes. A woman has a noisily affirmative orgasm, or perhaps more than one. The same people did not think in paragraphs or logical, completed sentences, like characters in nineteenth-century novels. Their mental life proceeded in associative jerks and spasms; they mixed up shopping lists with sexual fantasies, often forgot verbs and (in the woman's case) scandalously abandoned all punctuation. The modern mind was not a quiet, tidy cubicle for cogitation. It thronged with as many random happenings as a city street; it contained scraps and fragments, dots and dashes, like the incoherent blizzard of marks on a modern canvas which could only be called an 'impression' because it represented nothing recognizable."


Peter Conrad


Modern Times Modern Places


Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


Copyright 1998 by Peter Conrad


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