Sunday, September 16, 2007
Matthew Arnold, "On the Modern Element in Literature"
Matthew Arnold, English poet and critic, writes in “On the Modern Element in Literature” regarding the phenomenon known as the modern. According to Arnold, this idea of the modern could be described as “intellectual deliverance,” or the desire to obtain such deliverance, satisfy demand for it, and to weigh everything on a utilitarian scale, asking “How far can [it] contribute to this deliverance?” Arnold’s notion of such deliverance arises from “man’s comprehension of  present and past,” which are closely intertwined:
“The spectacle, the facts, presented for the comprehension of the present age, are indeed immense. The facts consist of the events, the institutions, the sciences, the arts, the literatures, in which human life has manifested itself up to the present time: the spectacle is the collective life of humanity.”
According to Arnold, the past literatures which are most interesting to our present age, that transcend their own epoch, are those which “have most adequately comprehended, have adequately represented, the spectacle before them.” The “coexistence…of a great epoch and a great literature” is what will lead us to intellectual deliverance, and helps define a period as modern. Arnold furthermore describes the “modern epoch” as “banish[ing] the ensigns of war and bloodshed from the intercourse of civil life,” and allowing for the “develop[ment] of the arts of peace uninterruptedly.” Arnold’s ultimate goal is what he sees as “the supreme characteristic of all: the intellectual maturity of man himself.”
• Do you agree with Arnold that the most “modern” nations are those “in which the demand for [intellectual] deliverance has been made with most zeal…”?
• How does Arnold’s understanding of the modern relate to the past and the present?
• Is there such a thing as a “true point of view”?
• “No single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures…” Do you agree with this claim of interconnectivity?
• What pieces of literature could be said to have “adequately comprehended [and] adequately represented, the spectacle before them,” thus surviving their age and still bearing weight in ours? What past culture is perhaps the most “modern” to Arnold?
• How does Arnold's conception of what it means for a civilization to be modern relate to Marinetti's dynamism? Can these two interpretations co-exist?
Posted by Jared at 2:30 PM