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?

11 comments:

Megan Putney said...

I really agree with Arnold when he says that “No single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures…” It is inevitable that we will be influenced by the ideas that came before us and were transcendent enough to survive. This influence from the past would not stop even if the Futurists succeeded in their goal of burning down the museums and libraries; there is no way that they can destroy oral history. While it’s interesting to think like the futurists of a world where we are able to erase everything in the past and start over again, that idea is not feasible. T.S. Eliot is in agreement with Arnold on this topic, and I like how he sums it up in this way: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did. Precisely, and they are that which we know.” No work of art, no matter how futurist or modern it is can escape a relationship with the past. Without the knowledge of what came before us, we would be starting over with every generation and I disagree with the futurists that this would improve our society.

Kristina Coriaty said...

I agree with Megan’s comments about the relation between past literature and the present. Without the knowledge presented to us by past authors, we would not be able to move forward as a society. Although the Futurists believe that starting over with each generation would be a good thing for our society, I disagree. We must have some knowledge of what came before us to fully understand how to achieve a better future. When we look back to past events, we are able to see where, as a society, we have gone wrong in the past and we are able to build off of this knowledge by correcting our mistakes for the future. Similarly, we are able to look back at our strengths and build off of them to achieve even more successes in the future. Using the knowledge presented to us by past authors, painters, explorers, and so on is a great strength that I believe the Futurists overlook. Arnold then writes about ancient Greek literature and literature from the Christian Middle Ages and states that if each subject were regarded as two isolated literatures, we would not be able to adequately comprehend their concepts. Adequate comprehension is that which society in the present age most desires. We are not able to adequately comprehend the meaning of literature when it is presented to us by itself. We must look at the relationships it has with certain time periods and other types of literature to fully understand the true meaning of that literature. Therefore, if the ultimate goal of the modern society is adequate comprehension, we must look at our present literature in relation to the past in order to fully understand it. Throughout his piece, he talks about the intellectual deliverance that the modern society demands. I believe that we are only able to achieve such an intellectual deliverance if we are able to look back to past works and build off of them. Only then will society be more modern and continue to grow.

Larry Bohan said...

It almost seems to be human nature to relate new things that we encounter to past experiences. Every time a person uses a phrase such as, "That reminds me of when," that person is relating something current to past events. Like Megan said, even if the futurists succeeded in destroying history in its physical form, they would not be able to erase the events and ideas from people's minds. Anything that generation taught to the next generation would still be tainted with ideas from the past. History would continue to be passed on orally, whether it is intentional or not.

Jennifer Zupicich said...

I think Larry's comment "It almost seems to be human nature to relate new things that we encounter to past experiences" is very true and really resonates with what we were talking about in class today. We discussed in class how we are always changing, and that even looking at a single, inanimate object from different points of view will affect the way we look at it because of the fact that we just viewed it from different angles and have established a new, more informed point of view from our past experiences. I believe this is very true, and so, as a result, I also believe that “No single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures…” The literature of today, as well as the events that take place today, are all "influenced by the ideas that came before us," which Megan wrote. The way in which we view the world is influenced by many different aspects- parents, friends, school, peers, knowledge of what has been done in the past, etc. If we know something has worked in the past, and we are successful at it, we will do it again. Why reinvent the wheel? However, if we know that something in the past has not worked, then we will not repeat the failed action. We learn from the past, which, in turn, not only allows us, but helps us to grow as people.

Catherine Himberg said...

I believe Arnold’s claim that “No single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures…” is an important observation. If anything is isolated completely the relevance and complexity of it are lost with the context. The relationship to the past is also important because it helps us move forward, without it we would have no gauge of progress. I like Larry’s idea that it is “human nature to relate new things that we encounter to past experiences.” It reminds me of the saying “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Futurists that are so intent on destroying the work of the past may actually be heading the possible growth of the future by wasting time remaking mistakes and as Jennifer says “reinvent[ing] the wheel.”

Bailey said...

I agree with everything that's been said thus far, and I also think that the past is important for us to learn from. Furthermore, I think it would be impossible to erase society's past and start anew.
But to create some type of argument, another important perspective could say that 'good' art should be able to stand alone. Speaking in terms of literature, a poem or novel should have the ability to be read alone without ties to the past; or at least be read without the need for historical knowledge. This isn't to say that the writing itself is no longer influenced by the past, but that maybe the reader isn't always required to read the text and relate it to its historical context. You see the word 'timeless' associated with good literature or popular literature constantly, and I think this idea of 'timelessness' should be taken into consideration. I think many pieces of writing can be read without being generalized into one section of history. And I don't always find it necessary to use history to critique or dissect the writing.
To summarize, although I think the past always has some effect on literature, I don't think that it is always necessary to associate the literature with the past that inspired it.

Andrew Vives said...

I, agree that Arnold's definition of what it means to be modern is a god one, but for a second let’s look at Arnold's concept of the modern and apply it to today. Is our current society even a modern one? Most people would probably say that it is. However current day society isn't much like what Arnold had in mind.

Arnold suggests that the modern is a trend that always appears in history, in some form or another and points out what he feels are the modern ages of man; historically however let’s not forget that the idea of the modern was a negative one. War is everywhere, most people are rather close minded, and in my opinion very few people have an actual desire, or any bit of "Zeal" to pursue learning, education is simply a means to an end. so are we living in a modern age, not according to Arnold.

I feel that Arnold struggles to create a concept of what it means to be modern, not through any lack of his but through his unwillingness to disregard the past, in his unwillingness to disregard the past I feel that Arnold loses the ability to ever truly create something new. And maybe the modern movement was simply the inevitable decline of the west?

I guess I don't really agree with Arnold, I think it's better to make something new then hold onto the outdated traditions of antiquity.

mike ryan said...

So. Arnold's conception of the modern is quite different from the other thinkers we have read. His does not seem like an essay that would have outraged moral leaders, wracked the conscience of the bourgeois, or smashed existing paradigms of self and society. On the contrary, his modernity is conventional, classical -— a paleo-modernity rooted as much in tradition and precedence as the now, the contemporary. Is this the same as Baudelaire’s amalgam of the eternal and the contemporary? If so, it lacks the élan of his construction, perhaps because lacking the dazzle of Baudelaire’s fashions and arcades.

Like Spengler, who posits the presence of “certain grand traits” seen “again and again” throughout history, Arnold suggests that modern ages are a recurrent element of civilizations (89). The difference between the two is that Spengler builds the case for a hemispherical social infirmity, while Arnold places a challenge before the reader, to fulfill the criteria of greatness as exhibited by past moderns like the Greeks. His confidence in the present is reminiscent of Baudelaire and Marinetti, though the former was somewhat less sober (pun intended) and the latter operated by the opposite method, the erasure and overwriting of the past.

At this point, I am still puzzled by what exactly Arnold means by deliverance. He writes that “the deliverance consists in man’s comprehension of this present and past” (99). But this doesn’t clarify the point for me. Does he mean “deliverance” in the sense of being set free or the sense of an authoritative utterance. If he means the first definition, then free from what? If the second, then an utterance of what?

Also, if I remember correctly, Arnold rather abruptly ended his poetic career, dissatisfied, and wrote this his present age was an age of criticism, a time to leave the literary fields fallow in order to recover. If my memory is at all correct on this point, then it seems the “great epoch” and the “great literature” are unlikely to coexist.

KevinB said...

• Is there such a thing as a “true point of view”?

I do not think that there is a true point of view after our lengthy discussions in class. If i say something in English that seems absolutely true to me, but that truth cannot be translated into another language, then how can that be viewed as the truth. It is definitely a scary proposition to think that there is no true point of view, but it is something that must be accepted to help better understand the world.

andrew wirzburger said...

I share Mike's confusion about what Arnold means by "intellectual deliverance," and I have to say that of the two options that Mike proposes it seems to me that Arnold would agree with the first one in a way, the "sense of being set free." However, I think it's more than just being released from some state of bondage; Arnold's use of the term also seems to imply a destination. The intellectual deliverance is the transition from one stage to the next in a very progressive way, a theme that we've seen in many of our other readings: things are better than they used to be, or if they aren't yet, they could and should be. The destination of the deliverance is being a modern society, or so it seems, and we could assume that the origin is therefore being....not-modern? Pre-modern? Whatever the modern is, everything that came before it is not.

So we have where society is delivered from and where it is delivered to, but still no firm grasp on what this essence of this deliverance actually is. To me, it seems like Arnold is describing something close to an epiphany, a realization, or even a society's recognition of itself -- perhaps the child recognizing itself in the mirror (to get Lacanian) -- based on where it's come from. From this, the society assumes (falsely?) that it has progressed; it is modern. Then again, maybe I'm completely wrong.

But I also think Mike brings up an interesting point about Arnold's career. I knew that Arnold switched to criticism, and I wonder how this affected his beliefs considering this excerpt was written midway through his poetic career, not his critical one.

Andy murphy said...

It is true that most modern nations rely on development of ideas from the past to construct modern principles and societal norms. For example, modern building codes and strucural designs may be state-of-the-art and have a contemporary style, but the inspiration for the design of that building stems from years of research, trial, and error in the form of older buildings, that were all considered "modern" when they were constructed.
According to Arnold, in order to consider ourselves living in the modern we acknowledge that we have a past, a past that we leanered from and improved upon to reach the contemporary state of being which we currently live in. Without the experiences of the past we could not achieve the marvels we consider to be "modern."
I agree with Arnold on hsi stance that all modern events and literature are interconnected to the past to the effect that all events are the result of an action that took place some time in history, and all literature is comprised of meticulously refined gramatical rules, spelling changes, and strutural design over hundreds of years.