Early twentieth century modernism and the absence of God

Baxter, Katherine Isobel (2003) Early twentieth century modernism and the absence of God. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

At the beginning of the twentieth century we find novelists using their medium
to express doubt in both the Judeo-Christian narrative as archetype and the possibility
of purposive narrative in their own work. Often these writers took well-recognized
paradigms of purposive narratives, such as 'the quest', or 'historical narrative' and
adapted them to show them failing to reach their purposed denouement.
The work of these novelists was paralleled by that of contemporary poets.
Although the poets' concerns were less immediately affected by the specific
challenges to Judeo-Christian narratives, their concern for the efficacy of language
was motivated by a similar sense that language no longer possessed the edenic quality
of reaching the thing it aimed at. Furthermore the frameworks of art themselves
(perspective, rhyme, formal representation, and so on) were found to be unstable.
Literary responses to the failure of language and narrative were varied. In a
radically simplified form they may be located on a continuum between two points: at
one end a desire to fill the void left by an absent God; at the other a fascination with
the possibilities of the void. My thesis situates the work of Conrad in particular, as
well as Forster, Eliot, Woolf, Imagism and Dada, on this continuum, during the period
of, roughly, 1899-1925. The works of these individuals and groups are considered
individually and comparatively through detailed readings of texts and images.
Through such consideration it becomes apparent that the fascination of the void,
which attracted all these writers to varying extents, also brought them to realize new
aesthetic possibilities that seemed to fill the void.
In particular, the modernist texts under consideration developed an aesthetic of
aperture, that is to say an aesthetic of the momentary, more specifically, the moment
prior to comprehension, the moment of experience. In fiction this aesthetic grew out
of a deconstruction of purposive narrative in favour of imagistic presentation; in
poetry and the visual arts the poem or picture abstracted its object from reality and yet
equivalenced reality by presenting an inherent internal logic. That logic apparent in
the poem or picture was often placed beyond the grasp of the reader or viewers'
understanding, representing the sense that the logical operations of the world or the
divine machinations of God, were either beyond comprehension,if not non-existent
altogether. This aesthetic of aperture is once again illustrated through detailed
examination of particular texts and images. In the works considered this reinstatement
of the possibility of purposive narrative and language through an aesthetic of aperture
is figured mystically, presented in negative-theological terms of absence, silence and
the unknowable. The mysticism identified appears at odds with the predominantly
practical theological debates in Europe at the time and yet finds philosophical
parallels in Wittgenstein's Tractatus.
The thesis concludes that the return, in modernist works, of attempts to fill the
void is the result not only of aesthetic, but also of social and personal (in particular the
repercussions of world war), desires for at least the possibility of purposive narrative
and language.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BT Doctrinal Theology
P Language and Literature > PE English
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies
Supervisor's Name: Grant, Bobby and Jasper, David
Date of Award: 2003
Depositing User: Ms Anikó Szilágyi
Unique ID: glathesis:2003-6334
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 11 May 2015 08:48
Last Modified: 11 May 2015 08:50
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/6334

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