Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2016

Modernism, a Very Short Introduction (2010), by Christopher Butler … and Christina Stead


Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20, 2016

#Christina Stead Week is a very good week to explore modernism, and so you can just imagine how pleased I was when The Spouse staggered home from the post office with a great big box full of Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press.  LOL I am hoping to develop a whole new level of expertise here at ANZ LitLovers now that I have this mini library of Very Short Introductions to

  • Modernism
  • Postmodernism
  • Existentialism
  • Contemporary Fiction
  • Literature: Chinese; Spanish; German; French; Russian and Italian;
  • Goethe
  • the New Testament; and
  • Film.

modernism-a-very-short-introductionSo, to Modernism, A Very Short Introduction first of all, because Christina Stead is a great modernist and most of us could use a little help in understanding her work.  Alas, she does not get a mention in this little book of only 102 pages, so you will have to make do with my interpretations and extrapolations…

Nevertheless, Christopher Butler endeared himself to me immediately by choosing James Joyce’s Ulysses (1918) as the text to exemplify modernism in literature.  (To fit with his unifying motif of the city, he chose Fernand Leger’s  La Ville (1919) to exemplify modernist painting; and The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht to exemplify a musical example).  He begins by telling us that modernism is not just about modernity, that is, in the period 1909 to 1939 –

… stresses and strains brought about within this period by the loss of belief in religion, the rise of our dependence on science and technology, the expansion of markets and the commodification brought about by capitalism, the growth of mass culture and its influence, the invasion of bureaucracy into private life, and changing beliefs about relationships between the sexes… (p.2)

– it is about the challenge to our understanding of individual works of art.

Ain’t that the truth?  I know from readers’ comments, and from my own reading, that readers can find the modernism of Christina Stead a bit of a struggle to read. As Butler says,

novels like Middlemarch and Anna Karenina (even though they are focused on the tensions brought about by new claims for the status of women) seem now to come from a relatively stable intellectual framework, presented to us by a more or less friendly, perspicuous, and morally authoritative narrator, who creates for us a world which we are expected to recognise, and which belongs to the past.  But modernist art is far more direct – it can make the world seem unfamiliar to us, as  rearranged by the conventions of art. (p.2)

As we can see from the very first page of Ulysses, modernism involves allusions which invoke the presence of conceptual or formal structures.  We may not notice all of them, but may sense their echoes.  These allusions provoke new ideas, and original techniques.  And as can also be seen in Brecht’s opera, parody distances itself from the past.

Butler warns against trying to define modernism or place it within boundaries (even though critics of the era tried to do it.)  It’s easy to see the futility of it when applied to art because there were so many movements, from Fauvists to Cubists to Abstract art and so on.  Ulysses itself confounds definition because each episode experiments with text in a different way:

using all the figures of the rhetoric books in ‘Aeolus’, a musical deformation of morpheme and syntax in ‘Sirens’, parodies of the prose styles from Anglo-Saxon to modern American in ‘Oxen’, of popular fiction in ‘Nausicaa’, and pretty well every form of Dadaist, expressionist, and surreal fantasy in ‘Circe’, and much more.  (p.10-11)

But the reader may well ask: what for? What’s the point? Butler says that these developments nearly always arise out of profound shifts in the intellectual assumptions of artists.  These derive from ideas from the architects of cultural revolutions… people like Nietzsche, Jung, Freud, Einstein and others.  And these ideas beget others: Butler tells us that Virginia Woolf didn’t like Ulysses much but she used its stream-of-consciousness technique in Mrs Dalloway, [as have hundreds of other authors since.  There is a fascinating entire section in Chapter 3 on stream-of-consciousness, too long to discuss here.  You need to read the book yourself].  But what’s crucial to understanding a modernist text is an understanding of the intellectual model that underlies it.  If you look back at my post about the literary influences on Christina Stead, you will find her sources of ideas that were new to the 20th century…

In Chapter 2, Butler moves on to discussing the way Modernists cooperated with each other.  As Bill from The Australian Legend has pointed out in a comment Stead and Blake (Blech) were in the circle around Sylvia Beach’s bookshop (Joyce’s publisher). They read each other’s work and influenced each other.  It sounds banal to describe it as writing group, but that’s what it was, albeit in the sophisticated café society of Paris rather than a suburban community centre or a university tute room somewhere.  It must have been so exciting!

Butler also goes on to explain how modernism isn’t easy.  Discussing T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, he talks about:

the unprecedented work that it still makes us do, across its many white spaces, which are also conceptual gaps, between paragraphs which follow an associative order rather than a narrative logic and don’t even have a psychologically coherent order….[…]… it is the reader …[…]… who has to work out the relevance of one fragment to the next and then to its successors, in the process tracing and learning a logic which is very different indeed from that of the art which came before, and which remains challenging after a hundred years.  (p.22)

So if you come across passages in Stead’s fiction which seem to have nothing to do with anything, it’s not you, it’s how it’s meant to be, but if you persist, re-read, make notes, talk about it with other people and let it percolate in the brain for a while, that underlying intellectual assumption of the author may make itself known.  And if not, eventually you will read other texts which will make the light globe flash, but you need to be well read in the European canon for that to happen, because the great modernists (Pound, Eliot and Joyce) were self-consciously European although not European themselves. This is because the avant-garde were keen to make a complex point about the relationship of cultures across time, making something new out of traditions of the past.

Modernists of the 20th century were consciously reflective about the relationship and contrast of their work to that of the past, with which they competed.  It is soaked in history, and it works by repetition of themes (which gives it universalism) and a simultaneous contrast to the past (which very often imparts a relativist irony).  (p.37)

Almost all of the major modernists, however, were also inspired by non-European cultures (even if they, like D.H. Lawrence, thought that they were ‘primitive’ cultures).  E.M. Forster, however, in his most modernist novel A Passage to India, contrasts English imperialist world views and those of Muslims and Hindus with an awareness of the relationships between realism, symbolism and religious myth.  And writers who rejected this European dominance (e.g. the American William Faulkner) soon transcended it in overtly experimental novels…

Although *sigh* Stead isn’t discussed in Modernism, a Very Short Introduction, I thought of her immediately when I read the section about modernists as cultural critics.  Like those mentioned (Pound, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann and André Gide (yes, all blokes though Woolf gets some pages to herself later on) Stead was marginal to the society in which she lived, following the 19th century dissenting anti-bourgeois tradition of Flaubert, Ibsen, Wilde and Freud and divorced from conventional political and religious constraints.  (p.42)  In both the novels I have most recently read Seven Poor Men of Sydney (see my review) and The Beauties and Furies (see my review) there is a clear critique of the economic system and the people who run it.  In Chapter 4, ‘Modernism and Politics’ Butler shows how political critiques within modernism soon ran foul of totalitarian regimes, with tragic results.

This is a really interesting little book: I thought I knew a bit about modernism but I realise now that I had not understood its intellectual underpinnings.  I have confined myself in this post to modernist literature, but Butler writes some really interesting stuff about modernism in the visual arts, and – together with the B&W images of the paintings he discusses and his descriptions of modernism in music (which I confess to mostly disliking) – these all come together to put me on the right track.  I will in due course read his Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction too.

Author: Sean Butler (Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford)
Title: Modernism, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2010
ISBN: 9780192804419
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Modernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), (This series is incredibly cheap at only $12.47 here in Australia, with free delivery.  Probably equally cheap from the online behemoth too).



  1. I will have to look for Modernism and Postmodernism. I actually recently picked up Existentialism. Even though I have a degree in Philosophy and many essential texts, I’m long out of university and there is something very nice about the way these little introductions condense the essentials and even serve as an ideal refresher.


    • Yes, I agree: they seem to be pitched just right, both for people without an academic background in the topic, and as refreshers for those with expertise.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In Stead’s Cotters’ England, which I have been working on, Stead doesn’t use stream of consciousness but seems to aim for a similar effect with the principal character, Nellie’s non-stop talk. Modernism is a great idea for a post – gives our musings some theoretical underpinning, and Australians have been very tentative in moving beyond it to postmodernism.


    • There’s that non-stop extravagant talk in The Man Who Loved Children too, and maybe Stead was aiming for the same kind of effect i.e. getting to the essence of a person? Not as seen by others, from the outside, so to say, but the inner being….


  3. A very short introduction to Film? To Contemporary Fiction? Wow, they seem like big asks. I can imagine something like Modernism or Goethe but these topics seem too huge to offer anything really meaningful, but I suppose they do.


    • Well, if Modernism is anything to go by, it’s a good intro without dumbing down. If I get time I’m going to read the VSI to German Lit as a further contribution to German Lit Month…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] with Christopher Butler’s VSI (because I’ve read his Modernism before and found it illuminating) I see that the chapters […]


  5. […] “So, to Modernism, A Very Short Introduction first of all, because Christina Stead is a great modernist and most of us could use a little help in understanding her work.  Alas, she does not get a mention in this little book of only 102 pages, so you will have to make do with my interpretations and extrapolations…” Read on … […]


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