WWI: The Shock of the New

Out of the mire and death of World War One, even before the shooting stops, comes the strangest thing: the novel of the century.  It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, transposing the wily warrior of Greek myth into the buried consciousness of a single day in Dublin in 1904. The global war was only part of the nightmare from which Joyce was trying to awake. From his teens, he’d set himself against every orthodoxy of provincial Ireland, against the pieties of family, church and Empire. Even before pre-publication, Ulysses became the fighting flag of Modernism: a sort of cracked “true realism,” an anti-violent anarchism in prose, poetry and painting, too. Do you still hear the rebellious voice in the modernist masterpieces: Mrs. DallowayThe Waste-Land? Have you made it through Ulysses? Is history a nightmare we’re still sleeping through?

Guest List
Howard Eiland
Modernist scholar, editor of the modernist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, and author of the biography Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life.
Eve Sorun
Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, currently writing a book on empathy and elegy in British modernism.
Reading List
In a Station of the Metro
Ezra Pound
The first stop in exploring the development of modernist sensibility is Ezra Pound's early poem "In a Station of the Metro": "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough." For additional reading we've included his solicitation letter to H. L. Mencken, republished by The American Reader, which reads: "At any rate, if there is impractical stuff, I want it."
Three Essays
Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf helped shape the aesthetic of modernism in three classic essays. Here's her call to higher realism out of the essay "Modern Fiction": "Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall..."
This Is What It Was Like to Go to James Joyce's Birthday Party
Padraic Colum
For a turn away from the theoretical, take a glimpse into the lives of Joyce and his dinner guests as he expounds his views on the shape of literature to come: "What goes on in an ordinary house like this house in an ordinary day or night - that is what should be written about... eating, sleeping, all that we take for granted, not leaving out the digestive processes."
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
Kevin Birmingham
Aside from their books, the modernists' lives tell their own stories filled with fun, desperation, originality - "What a lark! what a plunge!" To get a closer look at the circumstances surrounding modernism, we recommend Kevin Birmingham's terrific group biography, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses.

Related Content

  • hurley

    I used to contribute on the comments thread here but now I can’t fight through the registration requirements. Why make things so difficult? Or am I just showing my age? I’ll try again. What I wanted to say was that it’s important to bear in mind just how reactionary some of the most brilliant modernists — Pound, Eliot, Lewis — were. Joyce was an exception.See Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era. Declan Kiberd makes the case for Ulysses as the great pacifist statement of it’s time, and for literature as “the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man.” One can quibble with that, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

    • Pete Crangle

      Great to see your words here again hurley.

      • hurley

        Kind of you to say so. I’ve been quiet but listening, and always enjoying your comments. Best.

  • JoshuaHendrickson

    Hurley, it’s so true about those reactionary modernists. I skimmed a bit of Adam Bellow’s recent call for conservative fiction writers, and all I could think of was, aren’t there already enough of them out there? In history, at least, if not at the present moment (all the great conservative fiction writers of today all work in talk radio and on Fox news). Whether someone is conservative or liberal hardly matters so far as their talent is concerned; for instance, my favorite SF writer is Gene Wolfe, an absolutely exquisite writer and a first-rate imagination, but also a conservative Catholic with whose views I wholly disagree, but no matter, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read his 12-volume SUN series.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Art, Politics, Pathologization as a “Triple Helix” with WWI Roots

    I. The 1970 movie, “The Conformist” by Bernardo Bertolucci, based on the Alberto Moravia novel, shows WWI and fascism, art, and the pathologization of society as a kind of “triple helix.”
    This story opens in 1938 in Rome, where Marcello Clerici, played by Trintignant, has just taken a job working for Mussolini and is courting a beautiful young woman who will make him even more of a conformist. Marcello is going to Paris on his honeymoon and his bosses have an assignment for him there. Look up an old professor who fled Italy when the fascists came into power and organize his murder. At the border of Italy and France, where Marcello and his bride have to change trains, his bosses give him a gun with a silencer. In a flashback to 1917, we learn why sex and violence are linked in Marcello’s mind.

    In the movie, Trintignant the would-be assassin or “assassination manager” rides a train and a poem by Gabriele D’Annunzio, “The Rain in the Pinewood” wells up in him. What gives? How does D’Annunzio straddle these ROS discussions of WWI?

    “Gabriele D’Annunzio (12 March 1863 – 1 March 1938), Prince of Montenevoso, sometimes spelled d’Annunzio, was an Italian writer, poet, journalist, playwright and soldier during World War I. He occupied a prominent place in Italian literature from 1889 to 1910 and after that political life from 1914 to 1924. He was often referred to under the epithets Il Vate (“the Poet”) or Il Profeta (“the Prophet”).

    D’Annunzio was associated with the Decadent movement in his literary works, which interplayed closely with French Symbolism and British Aestheticism.
    Such works represented a turn against the naturalism of the preceding romantics and was both sensuous and mystical. He came under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche which would find outlets in his literary and later political contributions. His affairs with several women, including Eleonora Duse and Luisa Casati, received public attention.

    During the First World War, perception of D’Annunzio in Italy
    would be transformed from literary figure into a national war hero. He
    was associated with the elite Arditi storm troops of the Italian Army and took part in actions such as the Flight over Vienna. As part of an Italian nationalist reaction against the Paris Peace Conference, he set up the short-lived Italian Regency of Carnaro in Fiume with himself as Duce. The constitution made “music” the fundamental principle of the state and was corporatist
    in nature. Some of the ideas and aesthetics influenced Italian fascism and the
    style of Benito Mussolini.”

    See; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriele_D%27Annunzio

    II. Bernardo Bertolucci Movie, “The Conformist”:

    The protagonist of this movie, the philosophical assassin play by Trintignant, is discussed this way, linking WWI and the fascist 1930’s:

    “In one of these flashbacks we see him as a boy during World War I, who finds himself isolated from society by his family’s wealth. He is socially humiliated by his schoolmates until he is rescued by chauffeur Lino (Pierre Clémenti). Lino offers to show him a pistol and then makes sexual advances towards Marcello, which he partially responds to before grabbing the pistol and shooting wildly into the walls and into Lino, then flees from the scene of what he assumes is a murder.

    In another flashback Marcello and his fiancee Giulia discuss the necessity of his going to confession in order for her parents to allow them to marry, even though he is an atheist. He agrees, and in confession admits to the priest to having committed many sins, including his homosexual experience with Lino, the consequent murder, premarital sex, and his absence of guilt for these sins. Marcello admits he thinks little of his new wife but craves the normality that a traditional marriage with children will bring. The priest is shocked — apparently more by Marcello’s homosexuality than the murder — but quickly absolves Marcello once he hears that he is currently working for the Fascist secret police.

    Now married, Marcello finds himself ordered to assassinate his old friend and teacher, Professor Quadri, an outspoken anti-Fascist intellectual now living in exile in France. Using his marriage as a convenient cover he takes Giulia on their honeymoon to Paris where he can carry out the mission.”

    On the train, a D’Annunzio poem (“The Rain in the Pinewood”) wells up in him ( that is, Marcello Clerici the assassin).
    Thus art and WWI (as the poisonous backdrop to everything) and the pathologization of Europe are a “triple helix.”

    See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conformist_%28film%29

    Richard Melson

  • gracebear

    Does anyone read any of these works for pleasure? Did anyone ever?

    • nobloodforhubris


    • Don Naggie

      Joyce is a lot of fun but can be a tough nut to crack. Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce is a great place to start.

  • Margaret Cezair-Thompson

    “The pity of war, the pity war distilled…” from “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen, WWI soldier & poet. This is one of my favorite poems, and one that I’ve often taught in classes on modernism.

    • Max Larkin

      Thank you, Margaret! I always think of the nightmare from “Dulce et Decorum Est” these days: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”

      Will you consider speaking up for W. Owen on our voicemail box here? We’re looking for sound to use on the show: http://www.speakpipe.com/radioopensource

  • Interesting show.

    Re artists:
    Artists are good at making things and not so good at running things – a life, an organization, a country.

    And Willem de Kooning wasn’t too far off the mark when he said: “Don’t ask an artist about ideas – artists aren’t good with ideas.”

  • Cambridge Forecast

    “Ulysses”, Nightmares, History WWI:
    Shock of the New and the Aftershock of the Old

    The excellent ROS discussion show ponders “Ulysses” and highlights the comment about history as a nightmare from which one would like to wake up.
    A fertile way to understand this is to ponder the centrality of the modern 1914 Battle of Tannenberg, which is central to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “August, 1914” work of historical fiction and recreation.
    The Battle of Tannenberg was an engagement between the Russian and the German Empires in the first days of World War
    I. It was fought by the Russian Second Army against the German Eighth Army between 26 August and 30 August 1914.
    The battle resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Russian Second
    Army, and the suicide of its commanding general, Alexander Samsonov. A series of follow-up battles (the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes) destroyed the majority of the First Army as well, and kept the Russians off-balance until the spring of 1915. The battle is notable particularly for a number of rapid movements of complete German corps by train, allowing a single German army to concentrate its forces against each Russian army in turn.
    Although the battle actually took place close to Allenstein (Olsztyn), General Erich Ludendorff’s aide, Colonel Max Hoffmann, suggested naming it after Tannenberg, in the interest of German nationalist ideology, to counter the defeat of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) in 1410 by Poles and Lithuanians.
    As pointed out by the Australian historian Christopher Clark, (whose “Sleepwalkers” was mentioned on the ROS show) the actual Tannenberg is some 30 km (19 mi) to the west, and there was no intrinsic reason—other than the historical battle and its emotive resonance in the narrative of German, Polish and Lithuanian nationalism—to give its name to the 1914 battle.
    Clark, Christopher (2006), Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of Prussia, 1600—1947, Cambridge, ISBN 978-0-674-02385-7
    The Battle of Grunwald, First Battle of Tannenberg or Battle of Žalgiris, was fought on 15 July 1410, during the Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War. The
    alliance of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, led respectively by King Władysław Jagiełło (Jogaila) and Grand Duke Vytautas
    (Witold; Vitaŭt), decisively defeated the German–Prussian Teutonic
    Knights, led by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen. Most of the Teutonic
    Knights’ leadership were killed or taken prisoner. Although defeated, the
    Teutonic Knights withstood the siege of their fortress in Marienburg (Malbork)
    and suffered minimal territorial losses at the Peace of Thorn (1411) (Toruń).
    Territorial disputes continued until the Peace of Melno was concluded in 1422. The knights never recovered their former power, and the financial burden of war reparations caused internal conflicts and an economic downturn in their
    lands. The battle shifted the balance of power in Eastern Europe and marked the rise of the Polish–Lithuanian union as the dominant
    political and military force in the region.

    The battle was one of the largest battles in Medieval Europe and is regarded as the most important victory in the histories of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania.[
    It was surrounded by romantic legends and was a source of national pride, becoming a larger symbol of struggle against invaders.
    During the 20th century, the battle was used in Nazi and Soviet propaganda campaigns. Only in recent decades have historians made progress towards a dispassionate, scholarly assessment of the battle, reconciling the previous narratives, which differed widely by nation.

    The competing and totally mythologized narratives surrounding Tannenberg
    are pinned to the different appellations:
    There are multiple commonly used names for the battle: German: Schlacht
    bei Tannenberg, Polish: Bitwa pod Grunwaldem, Lithuanian: Žalgirio mūšis. Its names in the languages of other involved peoples include Belarusian: Бітва пад Грунвальдам, Ukrainian: Грюнвальдська битва, Russian: Грюнвальдская битва, Czech: Bitva u Grunvaldu, Romanian:
    Bătălia de la Grünwald.
    Tannenberg/Gruenewald haunts the imagination in fiction and cinema in the most bizarre ways. Think of movies:
    Landscape After the Battle (Polish: Krajobraz po bitwie) is a 1970 drama film
    directed by Andrzej Wajda and starring Daniel Olbrychski; telling a story of a Nazi German concentration camp survivor soon after liberation, residing in a DP camp somewhere in Germany. It is based on the writings of Holocaust survivor and Polish author Tadeusz Borowski. For the most part, the plot revolves around the events depicted in Borowski’s short story called “Bitwa pod Grunwaldem” (“The Battle of Grunwald”) from his collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. The film was entered into the 1970 Cannes Film Festival.
    History’s ultimate man-made nightmare, The Holocaust, is here connected to the Polish-German struggle over the narrative significance of Tannenberg (1410 versus 1914) and we are hit pointblank by the “Ulysses” comment on history as a nightmare from which one might labor to wake up from.
    Notice finally that Solzhenitsyn keeps subtitling and entitling his war and revolution novels in terms of wheels and knots and this gets at the same phenomenon using a different “engineering” vocabulary.

    footnote: Godard’s movie, “Notre Musique” is trying to get a grip on this complex of problems and phenomena of memory.
    Richard Melson

    • Yes, memory and also the problem of language.

      Godard provides an example in Notre Musique of how the language of the imaginary subverts reality: 00:47:31 –>00:48:28
      In 1938…Heisenberg and Bohr were walking through
      Denmark´s countryside. They pass by the castle of Elsinore. The German savant says, ´´That castle has nothing extraordinary about it.´´
      The Danish physic replies, ´´Yes, but… if you say, ´Hamlet´s castle, then it becomes extraordinary.´´

      Elsinore: the real.
      Hamlet: the imaginary.

      Shot and reverse.

      Imaginary: certainty
      Real: uncertainty

  • Jay Sames

    Let me echo Hurley. This incessant registering is exhausting. I’m writing as a guest.

    About the show, this was the high calibre show I’ve come to expect of Chris. Truly excellent. More shows about classic literature. please!

  • Potter

    My copy of Ulysses from the back of my bookshelf (two books deep) came out with a puff of dust, the pages are yellow to about 1 inch all around, the glue is coming undone, evidence of my intentions from way back when.

    This topic is so big and interesting that there was no way to do it in an hour. Modernism began before the war, maybe well before it. I think of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending the Staircase”, Kandinsky’s abstractions, Russian Constructivism, as well as the Italian Futurism, and then Dadaism. The Dada movement I associate with World War 1…as an expression that came directly from the war.

    Wikipedia has a good entry on Modernism. Also there is this on Dada


    I love the Eric Satie piece you played. Thanks!

  • Look at him!

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Here’s an offbeat question: can the shock of the new derived from WWI be applied to financial rhythms in addition to musical ones?

    Did WWI redirect or reshape financial phenomena?

    Consider this description of European financial speculation circa 1873:

    “Before long the boom in Germany and Austria-Hungary degenerated into a
    wild orgy of speculation. Treitschke observed that ‘during the speculation
    mania it really seemed as if the limits of human folly had been immeasurably

    There was a frantic rush to buy shares, land and houses, in the hope of making of quick profits from the rise in price. Gambling on the stock exchange and the property market became a national pastime. Bankers, who should have known better, stoked the fires of speculation.”
    (The Rise of German Industrial Power, 1834-1914, W. O. Henderson, 1975 paperback, page 164, “The Speculation Mania of 1872-1873”.)

    This sounds like a world we are familiar with and not discontinuous. This sounds very familiar in the light of the house flipping and day trading leading up to the Great Recession in recent years and perhaps returning now as we come full circle.
    Remember the opening line of Booth Tarkington’s classic novel, “The Magnificent Ambersons” describing how the Amberson family fortune was made in the 1873 financial crisis when others were losing their own fortunes.
    Did WWI modify these rhythms along with music? If not, why would these financial disequilibria be so resilient and repetitive?
    Are there deep historical rhythms outside of music?

    Richard Melson

  • Don Naggie

    I would love to see this discussion of modernism continued with an interview with British novelist Will Self. For anyone considering a revival of modernism Will is required reading. His latest book Shark, a sequel to last year’s Umbrella, is, amongst other things, an homage to Joyce and Woolf, and an argument for the continued relevance of their techniques and concerns for our times.