Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.
Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But the truth is that when we write of a woman …
the accent never falls where it does with a man.
Virginia Woolf in Orlando

If I had to imagine a new Robinson Crusoe, I would not place him
on a desert island but in a city of twelve million people.
Roland Barthes in The Rustle of Language

To enter the gates of modernism is to tremble, for the landscape that stretches out is vast and various. To begin to describe it is to become immediately aware of another perspective, another contrast, another exception. Yet, acknowledging the complexity, it is still possible to catch some of the salient images and concepts, some of the formative assumptions about the nature of life, and gauge their significance for the story of the self.


In a series of lectures given in Geneva between 1907 and 1911, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure formulated the principles of a paradigm-shift destined to transform the understanding, even the sensibility, of the twentieth century. The influence of Saussure on language was to be almost as great as that of Marx in economics, Nietzsche in philosophy, or Freud in psychology. His lectures changed the course of thinking in the humanities and had a profound effect on the way the self came to be interpreted. Seldom in intellectual history had so many dry propositions put forward by an academic who had studied the genitive construction in Sanskrit for his doctorate and who was an authority on Phrygian inscriptions and Lithuanian dialects had so subversive an outcome. Even the title of the book, put together by a group of devoted students after his death in 1913 was dramatically dismal: Cours de linguistique générale. Yet the book, with its crude text-book illustrations and its lecture-hall odour, had unparalled influence shaping directly or indirectly many of the central assumptions of modernism and, even, postmodernism.

Decades later, it revolutionised anthropology through the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, psychoanalysis through Jacques Lacan and cultural studies through Roland Barthes. It spawned Semiotics and Structuralism. And, more diffusely, it contributed to a new instability and relativity which began to permeate the Zeitgeist from the time of the First World War. The war marked a disintegration on a massive scale and within its dates we can place the work of the mature Freud and the youthful Jung exploring the unconscious, Einstein’s theory of relativity (1916), Spengler’s ominous The Decline of the West (1918), as well as Saussure’s founding of a new linguistics; his lectures were published in 1915. Around the same critical period in the arts we find in 1913 Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and, in the very first year of the war, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Kafka’s Trial and Stein’s Tender Buttons. Perhaps modernism, defying all definitive explanations, can be best dated from this cataclysmic moment of social destruction and cultural innovation.

What did Saussure’s course of lectures propound that was, at once, so inspiring and so disruptive? Near the beginning – and somewhat out of character – Saussure announced his intrepid intention: A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology. He went on to unravel the nature of an innovative linguistic science: Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since the science does not yet exist, no one can say what it would be; but it has the right to existence. This is the voice not of the scholar, but (for one striking moment) of the conquistador and intellectual visionary.

The lectures advocated looking at language under another lens, seeing it at any given moment of time as a self-contained system, requiring no reference to the outside world. Language is form, not substance, Saussure declared. To sharpen the analysis, he formulated a distinction between parole, the particular act of speech, and langue, the grammar determining the manner of its utterance. Saussure gave the masterly example of a game of chess. Any particular movement in chess – the black pawn to square three – would form the parole, while the underlying laws of the game – making the move valid or invalid – would be the langue. With this distinction it became theoretically possible to detach language from history and the traditional approach of nineteenth-century philology, as also from reference to the outer world which it was traditionally seen as representing, somewhat in the manner of a mirror reflection. In the lectures, language was treated as a complex code, often operating through the inner logic of binaries: light gaining its meaning from dark, male from female, good from evil. The value of any linguistic term was determined by the simultaneous presence of all the other terms in the system, while the relationship between the sound (signifier) and the meaning (signified) was deemed arbitrary: neither intrinsic nor natural. A sign was not a link between a name and a thing, but between a concept and a sound pattern.

And if Saussure was right, the implications for culture and human identity were huge and hugely unsettling. From the outset of the lectures, the nomenclature approach to language, as ancient as the Book of Genesis and deeply embedded in western essentialist thinking from, at least, the time of Plato, was discarded. From this point, could there be an essential self, integral, true to itself? If there was no logical or natural correspondence between the reality and the sign, analysis must turn to consider the internal relation between the signs, to classify the unseen rules determining the movements of the game. This was the razor-sharp insight, however partial, calling for a new radical enquiry.

It was Nietzsche who had come closest to the Saussurian revolution and who could see, only too clearly, the outcome for traditional concepts of God and the soul. In The Will to Power he wrote with an unsettling perspicuity: The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is … The subject is the fiction that many similar states in us are the effect of one substratum: but it is we who first created the similarity of these states … ‘subject’, ‘object’, ‘attribute’ – these distinctions are fabricated and are now imposed as a schematism upon all the apparent facts. Later, turning his attention to theology, he thundered: I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar. Here Nietzsche was striding – in his brilliant impetuous manner – into the then uncharted ocean of semiology. Many of our most cherished beliefs were, he pronounced, the subtle inventions of language. The self enquiring into the self had suddenly fallen, not into the reservoir of being, but into the labyrinth of language. It had become a fiction of the symbolising mind. Thus the death of the subject followed fast upon the death of God. Or so it seemed. Some of Nietzsche’s late aphoristic writing marks the very beginning of what was later to be named ‘the language turn’: that shift to linguistics which played so decisive a role in inaugurating our intricate, plural modern and postmodern worlds.

If some of Saussure’s postulates threw a beam of light on the earlier polemical assertions of Nietzsche, they also pointed forward to the philosophy of the mature Wittgenstein, who after the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) began to insist that it was confusing to think words were connected to reality by semantic links, or that abstract concepts like Beauty, Truth, Goodness or, even, soul and self, denoted stable underlying essences. Although there is no evidence that Wittgenstein ever read the late lectures of Saussure, the two men had much in common. During their lives, they published very little, and their most influential work was published posthumously. Like Saussure (and Nietzsche before him), Wittgenstein argued that the apparent harmony between language and reality was merely a shadow cast over the world by the deception of grammar. One task of the thinker was to illuminate the intragrammatical connections that operated within language: however, therefore, later, and, but. Language had multiple uses in multiple contexts and there was no one underlying system on which it rested. Like Saussure, with his example of chess, Wittgenstein developed further the concept of a set of ‘language games’ governed by different rules. The philosopher’s role was no longer to answer the big questions but to unpick the linguistic knots, to undo rather than systematize, to dissolve rather than resolve, to proffer sudden moments of illumination. The acute form of the aphorism returned to the writer’s repertoire; not architectonic systems, but the sudden flashes of pure insight, though this shift was somewhat counter to the historical and ideological accents of the dominant modernist spirit.

By the middle of the twentieth century an acute linguistic self-consciousness had materialized. Something of its spirit is caught as early as 1925 in a casual letter of James Joyce to Harriet Weaver. Writing about the composition of part of Finnegans Wake Joyce wrote: I composed some wondrous devices during the night and wrote them out in the dark only to discover that I had made a mosaic on top of other notes so I am now going to bring my astronomical telescope into play. The perplexed author delights in using ‘wondrous devices’, in writing upon writing as if literature was a palimpsest, and in the deciphering of unknown symbolic constellations. The orientation is inward, intertextual, self-consciously semiological. It is modernist (and postmodernist) to the core.

Significantly, at some elusive moment, the capital letters traditionally conferred on abstract nouns of value were deemed to be both grandiose and false. The perception ushered in the epoch of the lower case. To the reflexive eye the capitals seemed authoritarian and unconvincing. Such abstractions even called for self-conscious quotation marks: ‘justice’, ‘self’, ‘soul’ – as if the grand encompassing nouns tottered on the edge of collapse, crumbling towers built on epistemological sand. The terms were no longer seen as referring to universal essences or abiding realities, but as ‘signifiers’ working in the field of language, resonating from previous uses and operating in a variety of different contexts: ‘justice’as Plato declares, ‘beauty’ as Keats avows, ‘love’, as Barbara Cartland says. Underlying these small shifts in grammatical convention lurked a number of seminal questions about language, culture and identity. Through the agency of signs did the mind create a human world? Did each language – of which there are well over six thousand – construe ‘reality’ differently? Did the means and manner of formulation shape what was deemed to be descriptively ‘true’? Were even the most objective ‘data’ already in some way coded? Under the dissolving acid of these questions, history could be recast as faction, science as paradigm and art as fabrication (made up of ‘wondrous devices.’)

One of the more extreme propositions of Jacques Derrida flagged the inexorable direction of the linguistic turn: Il n’y a pas de hors-texte: there is nothing outside the text or, perhaps, more accurately, there is nothing non-textual. In a similar vein, Roland Barthes, pronouncing the death of the author in 1968 claimed: Language has no truth except to acknowledge itself as language. Under the intoxication of Saussurian theory, all notions of an objectivity within a common realm were often absurdly jettisoned as bourgeois fabrications. World and word were falling apart; the falcon could not hear the falconer.

And these unsettling questions and polemical propositions had consequences for the representation and narration of individual lives, for the writing of autobiography, the art of eudaimonia. For what, actually, did the tiny pronoun ‘I’ refer to and what did the noun ‘self’ denote? Could it be true that the experience of a continuous single identity was, as Nietzsche suggested, a trick of language? In one phase of his life, Roland Barthes certainly thought so and experimented with an anti-autobiography to crown the recognition: a new genre to meet the historic moment of a ‘self’ which appeared to flounder in the tangled mesh of words and their endless regression into other words. Wittgenstein, too, was uneasy with any concept of a private self, a hidden being with depth, open to introspection or direct analysis. The emphasis, in contrast to the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, fell not on the pang of existence, but on language performing in certain contexts under certain rules. On all sides, a formidable deconstruction was under way. For a time, nothing seemed to have metaphysical or ontological foundations or even, under Einstein’s law of relativity, physical solidity.

If the word ‘autobiography’ was coined by the poet Southey in 1809, at the heights of Romanticism, then a hundred years later, as Saussure was in the very middle of his course of lectures on semiotics, the integrity of the confessional genre was beginning to be doubted. The ethical self was giving way to an ironic self; the singular self was yielding to the notion of multiple roles invented for changing occasions. An individual life was to be read as a slippery polyphonic text open to a multitude of perspectival readings. To talk about ‘searching for the self’, as if the self were a continuous entity with a unique destiny, was like talking about the sun ‘coming up’ or ‘going down’ a hundred years after Galileo. The two thousand year tradition of intimate autobiography, from Augustine to Montaigne to Rousseau, had reached a sudden terminus. Or so it seemed.


Implicit in Saussure’s semiology was a further angle to ‘the linguistic turn’ which became equally subversive. If language was not a private, but a collective creation, words could overtake and betray the individual. In each accomodating sentence slumbered a stereotype. Kierkegaard had pinpointed the dilemma in the nineteenth century. In Fear and Trembling (1843), he wrote: Once I speak, I express generality, and if I refrain from speaking no one can understand me. To speak was to risk becoming a cliché. Without language one was an isolate; but with language one was an aggregate. This posed a real dilemma for the existential writing of autobiography, but there was another aspect to the problem. The inherited freight of language partly concerned ideology.

Political and ethical assumptions were at work in the very act of speaking or writing. To use Nietzsche’s terminology, language embodied the will to power. In English, for example, ‘mankind’ ostensibly referring to humanity as a whole, broadcast one half of the human race, while silencing the other. The word was not a neutral counter in a free act of communication, but an assertion of male domination, not immediately apparent. The selective pronoun ‘he’ to cover both genders reveals the same pattern. In the Oxford English Dictionary the first reflexive meaning of ‘self’ emerging around 1674, is given as: That which in a person is really and intrinsically he. ‘She’ has no real existence. Language was rarely a transparent medium of equal communication, but more an engine of control, dictating patterns: favouring him, permitting him, and annihilating her. But such discriminations, of course, were not confined to gender. The working class in the nineteenth century was often referred to as ‘hands’: factory hands, farm hands. The metaphor carried an assumption, a brutal reduction: those who laboured were no more than manual functions, mere instruments of labour. Similar dehumanising language applied to minority groups, from homosexuals and lesbians, to gypsies, to psychotics, to heretics and visionaries; to any other group whose recognition might threaten the established order.

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, Roland Barthes, who had extended Saussure’s thinking across the whole of popular culture, from striptease to advertising, from wrestling to steak and chips, called language ‘fascist’: The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language. For Barthes speech was classification, and all classification was oppression. Even if his propositions were somewhat hyperbolic – could all language only express power relations? Was not language also poetic and mysterious? And equally capable of love and compassion? – they flagged another critical task that had become a mark of late modernism: the relentless exposing of patterns of domination relating, especially, to class, race and gender. The Sixties gave birth to civil-rights movements, to student riots and sit-ins, to a militant environmentalism, to a whole counterculture of youthful protest across Europe and America. It was the time of the rebel, the outsider, the revolutionary. For many, western culture began to stink; it was viewed as a stinking corpse in need of two things: a handful of quicklime and an instant burial. A hermeneutics of suspicion; a deconstruction of language; an ideological re-reading of western civilisation: these became a crucial part of the Zeitgeist, and have continued into our own time, becoming at times blinding orthodoxies.

Nowhere was the sense of outrage and rebellion more evident than in feminism. After the political triumph of the suffragettes, coinciding with the rise of modernism, this many-stranded movement erupted from all sides: in theology and anthropology, in law and literary criticism, in science and ecology. Often employing the tools of semiology and the insights of psychoanalysis, feminism’s searing critique of western culture electrified the impulse to deconstruct and recast, to overthow the dominant patriarchal and capitalist defences, to rebuild the city – sometimes at the expense of aesthetic and spiritual values, sometimes with little regard for the reflexive individual.

Feminist scholars (Simone de Beauvoir, Mary Daly, Elaine Pagels, Marija Gimbutas, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous among many others) exposed the hegemony of the male from Homer onwards. They could explain why in the story of the self there had been such a long silence between the poetry of Sappho and Emily Dickinson; why Plato’s philosopher king had no counterpart in a philosopher queen; why there were so many church fathers, but not a single church mother; and why there was such ignorant misogyny in the autobiographical tradition of Paul, Augustine, Dante, Petrarch, Rousseau and Nietzsche. They shed new light on why dualism, based on a rigid system of exclusive binaries beginning with male/female, wasso entrenched in both classical and Christian thinking.

Once again, the discrimination was registered most dramatically in the ‘fascist’ formations of speech. Not only in English, but in all the dominant languages of the western hemisphere, the human species had been given an exclusively masculine gender: Greek anthropos, Latin homo, Italian uomo, French homme, Spanish hombre, German Mensch. The pattern of language predetermined the position of women as subsumed, invisible, underneath, there by implication, without a name. In early Greek patriarchal society, Pericles had declared: The chief glory of a woman is not to be talked of. As late as the nineteenth century, brilliant women novelists felt they had no choice but to crouch under the powerful mantle of the masculine or indeterminate name: George Eliot, Currer Bell, Georges Sand. The feminists, at their best, revealed how deep and systemic the tyranny had been and the exposure released a torrent of passionate autobiographical writing, from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), to Ann Oakley’s Taking it Like a Woman (1984), to Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work (1995). A two thousand year silence was, finally, broken.

One of the most dazzling literary figures in the early feminist movement was Virginia Woolf. Writing not only experimental novels, but also memoirs, diaries, journals, sketches and letters, she was the intimate reflexive writer par excellence – at once modernist in her literary innovations and postmodernist in her recognition of plurality and indeterminacy, but also ranging well beyond such clumsy tagging. All her life she was engaged with the nature of feminine consciousness. At the end of her novel, Orlando (1928) she wrote: When we write of a womanthe accent never falls where it does with a man. She was one of the first to recognise the innovative work of Dorothy Richardson, saying of her experimental novel Pointed Roofs (1915) that she had invented a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender.

Mocking the mimetic male structures of traditional narratives with their formal railway-line sentences, Woolf aspired to create a genre which might catch the difference of her own acute sensibility. She surveyed the Edwardian male novelists around her – Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells – to judge their work as plodding and literal, moving from a to b to c in a predictable manner lazily inherited from the nineteenth century. They were drab materialists who missed the infinite variety of life, its depth and plenitude. In a new era of relativity, of the unconscious and of semiology, such writing had to be out of date; not modern; not of the historic moment. In defiance, she sought a fluid syntax which rhythmically enacted the loose drift of daily life, moving at many levels: which flowed like a river, not an urban canal. Like Dorothy Richardson, she wanted her style to be encompassing and polyphonic: elastic enough, she said, to embrace any thing, whether it was solemn, slight or beautiful: thinking in its elementary stage before the rule of logical connectives and semantic stereotypes. The phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, coined by William James in 1890, anticipated the style beautifully.

NPG x19536, Herbert Read
by Howard Coster
half-plate film negative, 1934
NPG Ax141319, Virginia Woolf (née Stephen)
by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, circa 1917

Woolf’s ideology was as subtle as her style, and her work prefigured much that was to follow in the various feminist movements. Eloquently, she turned the tables over. Like Nietzsche, she recognised that what was proclaimed as history was a testament of power, a tale told by a winner full of sound and glory signifying the male ego. When did the decapitated ever give her version of events? One of Woolf’s tactics to secure equality for women was to take obscure female lives out of the official male dictionaries of biography (her father was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography) and give them back their lost stories, not as monumental and fossilised figures for the record of high achievers, but as ordinary people in touch with the oscillating rhythms of daily life. In A Room of One’s Own – a work based on two talks given in 1928, the year when the vote was extended in Britain to all women – she employed another strategy. She brought the art of fiction to bear on the faction of history. Having demonstrated that, although women pervaded western poetry from cover to cover in the stereotypical role of muse, they could hardly read, scarcely spell, and were the property of their husbands, she went on to offer a fictional account of the life and death of Judith Shakespeare, the bard’s sister.

Judith Shakespeare had the same encompassing genius as her brother, but was not sent to school and, therefore, had no chance of learning grammar or reading the classical authors. If she wrote anything, it had to be hidden or burnt. She was expected to marry a local woolstapler and when, disdaining marriage, she declined, the spirited girl was severely beaten by her father. At sixteen she ran away from home wanting, like her famous brother, to write and act, but when she reached the playhouse in London she was only ridiculed. Finally, the manager of the theatre seduced her and finding herself pregnant, Judith committed suicide, obscure and unseen. Woolf concluded the tragic biography with a memorable detail. Shakespeare’s sister was buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.

Judith is the archetype of the female genius, repressed for centuries, but able to be born again through the labour of women who (in the twentieth century), retiring to a room of their own, might create, as Woolf did, a new symbolic universe of Shakespearean dimensions. The succinct feminist sketch was worth a thousand broadsides of bitter polemic.

Woolf’s novels also feature what might be called a postmodern self: elusive, always changing, multiple and without clear foundations. In The Waves (1931) Susan expresses this sense of disorientating inner flux: For there is nothing to lay hold of. I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me. Language and identity enmesh but in a diffuse way, not integrating into a single coherent character, but disintegrating into fragmentary parts.

Similar lines of fracture are discovered in Woolf’s autobiographical sketches. Her memory struggles to knit together the broken parts, while moments of inner trauma recur to destroy any sense of ultimate unity, any final overarching narrative. The traumatic moments enter unannounced, and leave her in a state of paralysis: I stood there … in a trance of horror. I seemed to be dragged down, hopelessly into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape. My body seemed paralysed. Although she saw the process of writing as similar to that of psychoanalysis – on 2nd December 1939 she confided to her diary: Began reading Freud last night; to enlarge the circumference – she, assiduously, avoided applying its concepts. Her intuitive intelligence was too fine to be corrupted by the abstractions of theory. She always asked a further question and quietly whispered that reality invariably eluded her. A sensitive diffidence is forever in play: I could not explain it … I cannot be sure … This note is made provisionally … I have forgotten. Being pours into non-being; the numinous moment is followed by an annihilating darkness. For each epiphanic memory there is a void of amnesia. As with Dorothy Richardson, there is no grand narrative, only nuanced questions and occasional glimpses of another dimension. But this subtle spirituality was characteristic neither of the Bloomsbury milieu to which she belonged, nor to the modernist movement as a whole.

While Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical accounts are profoundly personal and her life, like that of Judith Shakespeare before her, ultimately tragic, they seem to anticipate a new kind of sensibility: polyphonic rather than singular, provisional rather than doctrinal, feminine rather than masculine; subtle, and dispersed. Neither Jungian individuation, nor Freudian realization of the ego, fit the asymmetrical pattern. With one tenacious root in gender, Woolf’s work is more mysterious and open-ended. Like Montaigne’s Essays, which she greatly admired, they incarnate a veritable poetics of consciousness. A linguistic reflexivity, a sharp feminist perspective and the power of genius had fused to create a complex vision of personal life: the self as the location of a bewildering, but creative disequilibrium.Woolf’s work may finally transcend the conditions of its genesis, but it yet stands firm on the ideological premises of feminism and draws on an innovative culture affirming the supreme value of linguistic reflexivity. It belongs to its period, even as it points towards the postmodern, and beyond.


The modernist spirit also has something to do with a peculiar sensitivity to historical time and urban space, with an acute awareness of living in an unprecedented age.

As Saussure was giving his lectures on the new science of semiotics, a revolutionary movement in the arts was proclaimed in the city of Bologna: Futurism. In his 1907 manifesto, the Italian artist, Marinetti, called for an art wedded to the machine: a new aesthetics for the machine age. A racing car, he claimed, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. However bizarre the analogy, the thrust of the thought is unambiguous; the art-maker has to embrace modern technology: to look forwards, not backwards. Marinetti wanted archives, museums and libraries torched: What is the use of looking behind – Time and Space died yesterday – we are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal omnipresent speed. The art of the new century had to express the power of the machine, paint the violent vibrations of the city, capture the furious pace of industrial life. In 1913 a similar movement erupted in London. Ezra Pound, whose modernist slogan was make it new, christened it Vorticism. Like Futurism, its purpose was to break ranks with nineteenth century mimetic art by affirming the abstract dynamic of relentless energy. In one of his final meditations in Ulysses Joyce had Bloom contemplate a poster novelty … reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and congruous with the velocity of modern life.

The very word ‘modernism’ derives from the Latin modo: just now. The etymology testifies to the principle of temporality, of living in the immediate historic moment. In 1910 another concept was coined to capture this commitment to contemporaneity: the avant-garde. The French word denoting the military vanguard transferred to the arts, now characterised artists and writers as agents of historical change, creative individuals who, militantly occupying the front line, drove events aggressively forward.

Describing the state of art across Europe in 1925 the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, wrote: For about twenty years the most alert young people in Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Rome, Madrid have found themselves faced with an undeniable fact that they have no use for traditional art; moreover that they detest it. To look back for exemplars was ‘reactionary’; to look forward ‘revolutionary’. And, clearly, the arena for this revolution in self-consciousness was the city. Marinetti composed his manifesto in Bologna; the young Ezra Pound settled in London; the young Picasso divided his time between Barcelona and Paris. Finishing Ulysses, Joyce proudly added the names of the European centres in which it had been composed: Trieste-Zurich-Paris and, self-consciously, then dated the work: 1914-1921. The dates, spanning the cataclysm of the First World War, bore a special historical significance, while the naming of three cities in three different countries registered the international esprit of the modernist. Taken together, they recorded a trans-national space-time that, by the end of the century, had become electronic and global.

The spirit directing the artistic avant gardes – and there were many – was iconoclastic. For two or three decades there was a cultural efflorescence. It was the aim of the individual to self-consciously embrace historical change; to experiment, to look forward, to leap into an unprecedented vortex of impersonal energies. Addressing an audience of Communists in 1935, the art-critic, Herbert Read, claimed: Everywhere the greatest obstacle to the new social reality is the existence of the cultural heritage of the past – the religion, the philosophy, the literature and the art which makes up the whole complex ideology of the bourgeois mind. He ended with three slogans:


The capitalist ideology of the bourgeois mind had to be erased. At first, the art makers thrived on the opposition their work encountered, work such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913), T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). In America the experimental impulse was given a distinctive voice in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and the novels of William Faulkner. Making it new for them meant working with the beat and idiom of American speech, free from the domination of a senescent European culture.

Movement followed movement, especially in the visual arts, with a dizzy rapidity. But a radical aesthetic based on continuous experimentation and a refusal to inherit was destined to become bankrupt. Perpetual revolution can only end in exhaustion, a staring into the void, all resources discarded, all styles spent. What could possibly follow Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or Duchamp’s Urinal or Malevich’s Black Square or, later, John Cage’s 4’33’? Perhaps, as Nietzsche predicted, the culture of the west had to end with a nihilistic implosion, leaving the self, with no wider sense of belonging or connection, a speck of dust whirling inside the vortex. As always, the existential predicament was best recorded in the more intimate testimonies left by journals and autobiographies.

In his memorable autobiography, The Innocent Eye, Herbert Read returned to crystalline memories of childhood in Yorkshire and, significantly, for his epigraph quoted, not Marx nor Bakunin, but Wordsworth: fostered alike by beauty and by fear. Once the eloquent champion of modernism, Read, greatly influenced by the work of Carl Jung, felt that his life had been largely wasted by his zestful embracing of a multitude of avant-garde movements. If the creative self was to flourish, it demanded a larger cultural space and a broader arch of time, something more encompassing than the span of casual vision and the velocity of modern life. The past was so much bigger and more versatile than the present. Each section of the autobiography named an objective place in his father’s farm: the vale, the green, the orchard, the church, the mill, as if to fix his memory outside the vortex of theory and intellectual fashion. The work is an affirmation of the ‘thereness’ and ‘thatness’ of the child’s vision, far from ideology, remote from historicism.

In a preface written for the 1962 edition, Read confessed that he regarded the no-man’s-land between the two world wars as futile: spent unprofitably by me and my kind. The brief, poignant, introduction concluded: The death wish that was once an intellectual fiction has now become a hideous reality and mankind drifts indifferently to self-destruction. To arrest that drift is beyond our individual capacities: to establish one’s individuality is perhaps the only protest. It was a dramatic act of revision. Herbert Read was urging the individual to take stock; to turn inwards; to reflect backwards. His autobiography can be seen as a modest return to the earlier traditions of autobiographical recreation and the practice of eudaimonia. His ‘modo’ of time had become spiritual and Zen-like, no longer the steel arrow of linear time. Edwin Muir in his autobiography – one of the seminal autobiographies of the twentieth century – likewise expressed a desire to transcend the modernist moment. In the recreation of his life he describes many dreams, and also a sense that his life was a fable; but the time of the dreams and the time of the personal fable, are not fused with historic time. Muir is suggesting that we live, simultaneously, in a number of different times: mythic and chronological, the time of history, the time of the worm and the time of angels. We are the unwitting confluence of a number of different streams of time. The question was not that of simply living in the ‘now’, but of identifying the stream in which one was immersed. Autobiography with its web of tenses – past, present, future – is particularly equipped to draw attention to the temporal complexity. This is particularly true of Edwin Muir’s masterpiece of recall. With this poetic recognition of the self as the focal point of diverging threads of time, the modishness of modernism dissolved into an infinitely larger matrix. And so did the concept of the self.

Perhaps, for all its courage, conviction and explosive creativity, the main problem with much of modernism lay in its uncritical alliance with a progressive view of history and the denial of the past tense. Each artist a futurist. The individual became subordinate to the (hypothetical) notion that time was advancing to a grand summation, the apotheosis of the world-spirit or the withering of the state with the triumph of the proletariat. This secular and messianic reading of history derived, of course, from Hegel and Marx, though, in many ways, it was a secular transformation of Christian eschatology. It was a grand narrative saturated with ideology; and was connected to the rise of science and technology after the Renaissance.

From the time of the Enlightenment, these became the dominant paradigm for all knowledge and advance. This was why Freud erroneously considered psychoanalysis to be a science, why Saussure viewed linguistics in the same manner as physics or chemistry and why Jung struggled to hide the occult sources of his thought behind the respectable persona of the empiricist. It was why the Futurists and Vorticists felt compelled to embrace the machine. It was why the individual was often viewed as a passing aberration, a phantom created by the class struggle, which would evaporate as history entered its final stages.

Much of modernism (with a number of great exceptions) was militantly hostile to the spiritual, aesthetic and ethical realm of human life. In this, it represented a flight from the fragility of being and the exacting tasks of eudaimonia. The prevailing categories were not ontological, nor metaphysical nor, even, aesthetic; but linguistic, ideological and historicist. In his anti-autobiography, Roland Barthes claimed he would accept any theory showing the self to be ‘merely’ the effect of language or class.

But Barthes’s autobiographical writings never settle; they develop dialectically; they take divergent leaps. Some have regarded him, therefore, as inconsistent, as an unreliable mercurial thinker, even a hypocrite. Alternatively, one can see him as a modern Socrates practicing the elenchus, always resisting the comforts of orthodoxy, always turning critically on himself to reach deeper ground: a gadfly for ever changing direction, in search of something more. Strangely, through opening himself to the appalling grief he felt at the death of his mother in 1977, Barthes followed Herbert Read’s climactic path moving, at the end of his life, beyond former ideological selves to inhabit a different dimension of existence. In his late work, as we must now see, a reflexive self emerges with a new depth, grace and pervasive melancholy.

Barthes’s autobiographical work discloses a dramatic movement from a modernist to a postmodernist stance, to a position (in his very last writings before his tragic death in 1980) that opens up a subjective landscape illuminated by what may be interpreted as spiritual light. Ideology would seem, at moments, to give way to ontology. It is as subtle as it is unexpected: a return to a lost dimension of inner life and a broader concept of time. In the story of the self, his work intimates a dramatic philosophical journey through and beyond the modernist (and postmodernist) Zeitgeist.

In his next essay Peter Abbs will examine the autobiographical writing of Roland Barthes. For further details of the story of the self see: www.peterabbs.org

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