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Modernism'S Lamentation And Postmodernism'S Celebration

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Sam Nelson

Fr. Fitzgibbons

English 190

12/16/04

Modernism's Lamentation and Postmodernism's Celebration

While each movement claims its own name and set of authors, the characteristics of the literary postmodernist period are quite similar to those of the literary modernist movement, and their differences are more those of attitude than of form. Modernism and postmodernism strongly emphasize a new standard which distances and rejects the romantic period's ideas of how art should be created and how one should perceive art. Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm and Virginia Woolf's "An Unwritten Novel" are both excellent examples of the modern and postmodern literary movements, and can be used to illustrate their general similarities and subtle differences.

In order to examine how Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm and Virginia Woolf's "An Unwritten Novel" represent modernistic and post modernistic writing, one must understand the characteristics of these literary movements. Contrary to one of the romantic period's typical characteristics, modernism and postmodernism both place an emphasis on how the process of perception occurs, rather than what is being perceived. In addition, rather than focus on the physical sense of what is being perceived, modernism and postmodernism focus on the individual thought process and mental impressions of the writer. Typically, modernism and postmodernism stray away from objectivity and fixed narratives. Modernist and postmodernist literary works are fragmented, almost discontinuous. They contain collages of seemingly random and spontaneous content, but hold much deeper meaning. One of the most distinct and unique qualities of modernism and postmodernism is how they allow the genres to meld together, blurring the lines between prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction.

Virginia Woolf's "An Unwritten Novel" is very distinctly a modernistic piece of literature. "An Unwritten Novel" is written in a manner that leaves the reader wondering if what he or she just read made any sense at all. "An Unwritten Novel" presents a sense of spontaneity and randomness, as if one is reading the thoughts of a person with attention deficit disorder. For example, in "An Unwritten Novel," Virginia Woolf writes:

Have I read you right? But the human face - the human face at the top of the fullest sheet of print holds more, withholds more. Now, eyes open. She looks out; and in the human eye - how'd you define it? - there's a break - a division - so that when you've grasped the stem the butterfly's off - the moth that hangs in the evening over the yellow flower - move, raise your hand, off, high, away. I won't raise my hand. Hang still, then, quiver, life, soul, spirit, whatever you are of Minnie Marsh - I, too, on my flower - the hawk over the down - alone, or what were the worth of life? (2742-43)

Virginia Woolf starts to write about the human face, but soon switches to speaking of butterflies, then moths. With no transition, she then talks about the reality of Minnie Marsh. This topic-hopping reflects the spontaneity and collage of thoughts in modernistic writing.

"An Unwritten Novel" challenges ideas of objectivity and truth as well. While reading "An Unwritten Novel," the reader is forced to question what is real in the story. Modernism itself asks, "What is real?" Coupled with the fact that there is no clear narrative, but rather a veritable mess of ideas, the reader is led to ask whether certain aspects in "An Unwritten Novel" are real or not. Virginia Woolf's "An Unwritten Novel" is a look into the complexity of the human mind. As is usually the case in modernistic literary works, there is no underlying moral lesson. In this work, Virginia Woolf instead attempts to reveal the process of creative thought through which the mind travels when beginning to write a novel. Virginia Woolf has a "fascination with the workings of memory, as well as the construction of a personal sense of selfhood, one which develops from an amalgam of 'fact' and 'fiction,' 'actuality' and a sense of a personal 'truth' " (Scott 1). Virginia Woolf mixes human experience with this disconnected collage of fact and fiction to make the thought process relatable, and she adds an almost tangible quality to it.

Annie Dillard's postmodern work, Holy the Firm, displays a quality unique to both modernist and post modernist works. In her writing she easily manages to blur the lines between genres. Annie Dillard writes in an elegant fashion, mixing beautiful metaphors and descriptions into simple actions and events. This is apparent in the following passage:

Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of the darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of a pine. At once the light contracted again and the moth's wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. (Dillard 16)

Annie Dillard seamlessly fuses poetic language into her prose. The simple act of a moth burning is turned into an almost poetic tragedy.

Abandoning a clear narrative and logical reasoning, the spontaneity of Annie Dillard's writing is exhibited in her almost haphazard subject hopping:

'We do need reminding,' Dillard observes ruefully, 'not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel's worth of sense into our days.' Dillard leaves the reader with a kind of 'Say what?' response- which seems to be exactly what she intends. (Smith 18)

Annie Dillard emphasizes the randomness and fragmentation of life itself. As most modern and post modern works display a random collage of material, she does so with her writing. She presents a small event and makes

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