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What Is The Significance Of Memory For And In Literary Modernism


According to Poplawski (2003, p vii), modernism continues to be widely acknowledged as probably the most important and influential artistic-cultural phenomenon of the twentieth century. Poplawski further notes, that modernism is characterised by an avant-garde experimentalism and its concern for radical innovation in artistic form, style, content and method. Intellectual and artistic movements within the 19th century, such as impressionism, imagism, symbolism, futurism, and expressionism, paved the way for the emergence of literary modernism. Indeed, this influential paradigm demonstrated a profound concern with themes of alienation, fragmentation, and the loss of shared values and meanings Poplawski (2003, ix).

As an example of impressionistic fiction, Ford Madox Ford's seminal work The Good Soldier (1914), emphasises the role of memory and association, Poplawski (2003 p. 196), rather than the previously accepted reliance upon external reality, to mediate human experience. Ford's text places individual human consciousness, at the centre of being and existence. Since literary modernism acknowledges the dynamic and fluid nature of human perception, the human memory plays a critical role in the quest for personal and social identity. In the case of The Good Soldier, the reader is confronted with the social fissures of pre-World War 1 Europe. This is done through the fractured narrative viewpoint of John Dowell, a seasoned American expatriate, living abroad, spending numerous summers in Germany with his cuckolding wife Florence; and ostensibly their friends, Edward Ashburnham, (the good soldier) and his wife Leonora.

Poplawski observes, (2003, p 196) that in literary modernism, disjunct moments flow together, displaying a mind in the process of choosing or evaluating its acts. Impressionist techniques break up outlines of story and character, with juxtaposed fragments creating a more suggestive impression than fully constructed units would. This characteristic is clearly evident through the confused, cynical, socially oblivious retrospective narration of John Dowell. Dowell all too late realises how misguided he has been in relation to his wife's philandering ways and rues the deaths of the two clandestine lovers. Dowell's voice clearly echoes Ford's restlessness, with respect to the rapidity of cultural fragmentation Ford witnessed, and his consequent anxieties about his social milieu at the time of the outbreak of the First World War. Modernist writers constructed central characters in texts that were unreliable; poor in their own judgement; or marked by shortcomings in moral sensitivity. This common dimension of modernist texts regularly disarmed readers, leaving an abiding sense of unease about the protagonist's fate, or the direction of modern European society.

Ford's man attempts to exercise the power of hindsight, in his appraisal of the moral and emotional failings of his core relationships, with the benefit of 13 years experience. However, ironically, Dowell's sense of self, is highly fragmented, evident through the distorted moral assessments he makes, even when he is in possession of the facts about his wife's unfaithfulness. The pathos of Dowell's resignation to accept the adulterous affair between Edward and Florence, rather than rage against it, reflects the moral turpitude and loss of social confidence that characterised modern Europe on the verge of war. The fact that Dowell says, If I had had the courage and the virility to and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham, I should, I fancy, have done much what he did, underscores the extent of Dowell's romantic self delusions.

Indeed, Ford gains great leverage by paralleling characters with physical and moral 'heart conditions' in this fractured narrative. While Maisie Maidan, suffers from a genuine heart complaint, Florence and Edward are presented as carrying another kind of heart condition, that of deceit, indulgence and secrecy. Moreover, Florence and Edward, as displaced westerners spending indulgent summers in Germany, epitomise the abandonment of moral boundaries, which typified the rejection of the Victorian age.

Witkowski (1998, p 1), notes that when Dowell is attempting to reinvent Stamford in the guise of Cranford, Dowell is indulging in a fantasy quite consistent with what we already know of him. For him, it serves as a symbol of the romantic yearning for which he is notorious. Yet, at a more subtle level of reading, it is evident Ford not only uses this segment of the text to underscore Dowell's self delusion, but also to indulge in parodying aspects of Mary Gaskell's acclaimed 1853 novel 'Cranford', to signify the extent of social shift since that time.

As Ford appropriates and then subverts a number of Gaskell's scenes, distorted collective memories bluntly show that Victorian sentimentality is dead. Witkowsky contends by 1915, at a time when Cranford was enjoying a renewed popularity, Ford's subtle rehandling of both character and incident, affords what is at best a hollow replica of Gaskell’s community. Beneath the surface, it is as empty as the flask, “apparently of nitrate of amyl, but actually of prussic acid,” that the dead Florence clutches – indeed, as “empty” as Florence herself must have been during all those years that she lied about her condition (117). Witkowski's point is if we are to appreciate fully Ford’s novel, we can neither ignore this emptiness nor fail to sound its depths. He contends that the Stamford/Cranford episodes serve in The Good Soldier both as positive proof of Dowell’s romantic delusion (and, hence, his unreliability) and as one of the most reliable measures of Ford’s own deep anxiety about the status of Western culture on the eve of the First World War. (1998, p1).

Virginia Woolf's Joycean post-World War 1 depiction of Clarissa Dalloway, in the novel titled Mrs Dalloway, (1925) manifests a second wave of literary modernism. Featuring a single day in post Great War England, stream of consciousness style narration is fully utilised, allowing the central character to move effortlessly, using the recesses of her memory, between past and present. The inter-war social structure is captured, not through chronological and conventional narration, but by accessing the consciousness of several characters. In the process, issues of sexual and economic repression are highlighted, as Clarissa's vivid recollections of her adolescence and of Peter Walsh, surface.
Bloom asserts (1990, p 24) moreover, that time and place are circumscribed, the story covering one day though recapturing a whole lifetime in memory, and the movement in space is limited to London. The integrating principle here becomes Mrs. Dalloway’s personality. Bloom also notes (1990 p 38) that, Virginia Woolf realised how, in the “perfect rag-bag of odds and ends” of which our memory is the seamstress, “the most ordinary movement in the world … may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments”.

Thus Clarissa, by performing such a commonplace act as doing her hair, experiences sensations similar to the ones she had felt many years before, and these sensations lead to a complete recapture of the past. It is not only the manner of recapture that is Proustian; so is the use to which the recapture is put, for it starts a flashback that provides us with some very important facts about Clarissa’s life.
Furthermore, Bloom (1990 p 39) indicates that Clarissa’s fears of old age and her “horror of death,” cause her to develop a transcendental theory. This allows her to believe that, once having had contact with people or things, we may survive after death in the memories of this or that person, or even haunt certain places.

Bloom further notes that (1990 p 58) when she returns home to discover that her husband, Richard, has been invited to lunch without her, Clarissa feels empty and lost: her identity once more drains away, because she has not been included. To regain her sense of identity she detaches herself from the present and dips into the past, into her memories. As the sense of a rich relationship (with Sally Seton) and a moment of vision returns to her, the emptiness occasioned by her exclusion fills. She abruptly returns to the present, and “plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, therethe moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings.” This circling of the moment with all the other moments of life gives her identity point and continuity.

Therefore, it is evident that memory thus plays a double role, both disturbing and restoring the individual’s sense of identity. Littleton (1995 p 1) states while in most respects Woolf does show memory as spontaneous, she too deals with intermittencies. There are instances of profound lapses of memory, as when Lady Bruton remembers Hugh’s kindness, but not the occasion for it (Mrs. Dalloway p 104). Insofar as metaphysical Being exists in human minds and not in the objective world, losing awareness of Being is tantamount to losing Being. For Clarissa, forgetfulness is not simply a prefiguration of death; it is itself a very real death. The procession of time leads to death, and time’s passage leads also to the oblivion of forgetfulness. This condition of oblivion is inherent in the fractured, isolated conditions of life, in which people drift toward experiential isolation.

To conclude with Littleton (1995 p 1), Clarissa’s isolation, the fact of death in her life, is caused by a social order which requires the subjugation of the private self, for Clarissa the real self, to the individual’s social position. Woolf writes, “She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen . . . this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway”. “Mrs. Dalloway” is that part of her fixed in a social position: her femininity, in a patrilineal culture, subsumed by her identity as Richard’s wife. The novel begins with the words “Mrs. Dalloway.”

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