Omila Thounaojam Ph.D Research Scholar Assam University, Silchar
With the horizon of literary studies expanding continuously, the familiar concepts pertaining to the relationship between man and his society; the question of individual space and freedom of choice; the role of a writer in assessing the collage of voices in conflict and negotiation and many more, require to undergo rigorous scrutiny. This paper begins by taking into consideration modernist literary criticism’s engagement with the idea of the ‘modern man’. The opening section concludes with an invitation to consider in more depth, the paradoxes inherent in the term ‘modern man.’ The second section observes the correlation between the definition of ‘modern man’ and ‘modernism’ with particular reference to the critical works on modernism by Georg Simmel and Peter Childs. This part of the paper attempts to highlight a microscopic vision about the constraints and determinations of established systems of thinking that have a deductive role to play when it comes to questions related to individual space. The next segment surveys the crucial ways in which W.H. Auden’s artistic vision about the 20th Century world challenges the comforting idea about the role of a modernist writer as that of only a critical insider. The final section engages with the notion of ‘the Underground Man,’ a concept taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky short novel ‘Notes From the Underground’ (1864) to illustrate ‘how’ this idea can be further generated to discuss W.H. Auden’s take on the idea of modern,
modernity, modernism and the modern individual in the modern spatial context.
Society is dynamic and it keeps on undergoing levels of metamorphosis with the passage of time. The turbulent waves of social change inform and at the same time, transform every aspects of human experience particularly, individual space and the process of social interaction. When it comes to the notion of a ‘modern society’ or ‘modern man,’ it becomes an important task to firstly understand the significance of the politics of ‘space’ in shaping the relationship between an individual and the society he belongs to. For Georg Simmel, space is considered to be one of the most fundamental elements in human experience because social activities and interactions are and must be spatially contextualized. Space becomes both a determining aspect of interactions, but which is also simultaneously socially constructed by such interactions. This is ‘how’ a new reading of the ‘spatial’ aspect to ‘what’ is implicitly understood to be ‘modern’ could be done
and at the same time, an enhanced idea of the 20th century ‘modern man’ could be reached.
Throughout history mankind has always fought a series of battle against any social, political and cultural elements that have appeared to hinder the welfare of individual and his society. Every patterns of paralytic thinking that transmute itself as a compulsory ideology to be followed as a tradition by mankind at any point of time, have been questioned and interrogated. So does the various trends of custom that were once thought to be integral part of mankind and his community to live on and survive, have been discarded and to be substituted by a better one. Even though mankind has won such a fight against ‘deadening’ traditions and succeeded in building up a society that is considered to be ‘modern’ and has features ‘off’ the line of what was considered to be ‘traditional,’ still one needs to look critically upon the ‘fate’ of the ‘mental’ state of the modern man who has a paradoxical sort of relationship with the idea of the modern.
Was the battle against ‘tradition’ an exclusively physical or intellectual process? ; Wasn’t change meant for a better social order? ; How does the ‘mental’ get affected by the 20th century mechanical ache of modern life? —these sorts of elemental questions need to be discussed if one has to understand the voice of the modern man that is talking ‘modern.’ It is true that every sense of being modern has provided a liberated feeling of being in an era of something ‘new’ and ‘progressive’; of a sense that this world would allow the flowering of the individual in the newer space; of the grandeur belief that modern space would allow the individual to grow and expand his mind to establish a sense of ‘self’ and much more. What seems paradoxical is that mankind in his new social location and space, has developed an antagonistic relationship between oneself and those elements of modernity upon which he depends for his existence and has a
In Georg Simmel’s essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, (1903), he sums up Modernism as-
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life (p.103).
To him, this antagonism represents the most modern form of conflict. Simmel applies his theory of space to practically analyze the adaptations made by the personality in its adjustment to the ‘forces’ that lie outside of it and the psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected. By taking up the ‘metropolitan’ space of the early 20th century, Simmel explores the ‘dual’ nature of the relevance of social change where on the one side, it allows the metropolitan individual to develop an ‘intellectualistic’ quality and on the other side, what is to be witnessed is a tremendous richness of crystallizing, depersonalized cultural accomplishments that the personality can scarcely maintain itself in the fact of it (Simmel, 1903:111). What does the individual derive from this spatial ‘form’ of the metropolis is the mental life that is characterized by a ‘blasé attitude.’ Taking up the city as the spatial form of modernity in and through which modern life is experienced and characterized, Simmel highlights the development of the ‘blasé personality’ from a fundamentally urban spatial context. In a similar light, the notion of ‘the underground man’ as a tragic product of a mechanical and objective world of the late 19th century comes with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Written in the year 1864, Dostoevsky’s short novel explored human psychology in the troubled social, political and spiritual context of 19th-century Russian society. The narrator of Notes From the Underground (“the underground man”) is not a modernist particularly but his position which provides us with a glimpse of the paradoxical and absurd grounds of modern life and thought. Some of the more evident references and allusions in the novel deal with the following issues: Newtonian Science translated into the world of social relations; Utilitarian moral philosophy; Utopian definitions of modern civilization; uses of excessive reason intended to cut down the vagaries of the human freedom of choice or decision. In additional words ‘the underground man’ has come to realize that rationalism and science have promised to discover a law for everything and in the world he lives in, his capacity for choice, for individual responsibility, is rendered absurd and pointless. Such a situation reminds one of the rationalist philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who said “Nothing is without reason” (also known as the law of sufficient reason). Even though the opposition between “law” and “freedom” is as old as human thought itself, Dostoevsky’s novel gives us an excellent paradoxical narrative of the shape this opposition
takes in the advanced stages of modernity. A number of similarly powerful responses to modernity from within its very system yet putting that system under great strain can be identified in a number of movements, events and texts that, strictly speaking, precede or predate the conventional notions of modernism. What this means is that a number of arguments and interventions made ‘against’ certain aspects of modernity can be said to constitute an attitude we call modernism. Peter Childs, in his, Modernism ( Ed. 2008) puts it like this:
The counter argument runs, while the dominance of reason and science has led to material benefit, modernity has not fostered individual autonomy or profitable self-knowledge. It has not provided meaning to the world or to spiritual life, religious or otherwise, perhaps reducing humans to rational(izing) animals who are increasingly perceived as more complex and consequently more emotionally, psychologically and technologically dependent. Humanity arguably appears without purpose and is instead merely striving for change and transformation, which produces only momentary satisfaction or meaning. (17)
Our encounter, on this course, with an argument of this kind as evident in Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental life (1903) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864), provide us an opportunity to deal with W.H. Auden’s artistic vision about the state of 20th century ‘modern man’ and advance our study on ‘how’ Auden further develops the idea of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘the underground man’ in his selected works. Remembering the brutal
spatial reality of the ‘war-inflicted’ spatial world Auden belongs to, where never before, mankind had witnessed such a destructive brutal scene of massive killings and bloodsheds in the two World Wars, it becomes all the more difficult task for a writer to write out his artistic vision about his social space which contains conflicting, intersecting, interacting, negotiating and negating voices of his time. In Psychology and Art Today (1935), Auden wrote:
You cannot tell people what to do; you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each according to his immediate needs may draw his own conclusion.
The consequences of the increasingly transitory and fragmented tempo of the post-war existence and social relations in modernity are manifold. One of the most crucial fallouts in the development of modern culture is characterized by the predominance of what one can call the ‘objective spirit’ over the ‘subjective.’ Such an objective spirit demands from the individual an ever more one sided type of achievement which, at its highest point often permits his personality as a whole to fall into neglect (Simmel, 1903:110). The investigation of the relationship of the individual aspects of life and those which transcend the existence of single individual in such a social structure would become more meaningful if one takes up W.H. Auden’s artistic perceptions as a clue to understand his idea of modernist literature as that of expressing the resistance of the individual to being leveled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism of the time. Further if one considers the inhuman mentality of the politics of the early 20th century that had materialized all the theories which talked of the threatening of the existence of mankind by the emerging popularity of the role of the mechanics of machine in a society, it is possible to see ‘how’ such a pattern promotes the creation of a space that marks the dawn of a mechanical social world order. Such a location even burdens the artistic mind and threatens him in his artistic attempt to redeem the individual who is denied every possibility to fight against the
external frightful mechanical forces that deform the individual to the core and hollow him out beyond repair. Considering the post-war social space that has challenged the notion of ‘the irreplaceable nature’ of mankind by others and has elevated the thought of the preservation of the boundaries of welfare nation-state even at the expense of million lives, it is therefore, possible to analyze the modernist artistic representation of the mechanical ‘the underground man’ of the time in a far crucial way by taking up specifically W.H. Audens and Christopher Isherwood’s The Ascent of F6 (1936) and the poem The Unknown Citizen (From the Vol. Another Time,(1940).
The bleak view of the world lying in social and spiritual ruins in the decades following the First World War challenged many assumptions that were previously taken for granted in middleclass democratic Europe. The growing unemployment among the workers, hunger marches, dole queues, street fighting between Fascists and Communist and such other political events which were witnessed in the Thirties found its way of expression in the literary works of a group of young visionary writers and intellectuals who decided to take up writing as a political tool to stir up the paralyzed conscience of the time. Literary historians have often described the Thirties as a literary movement with W.H. Auden as its leader. To Francois Duchene, Auden seemed to be the one poet in whom the phenomena of the age were mirrored in anything like their daily habit and diversity (1972, p.61). Bearing in mind the period Auden was writing in – inter-war period, gradual decline of the Empire, rise of the US, and moreover, there was a general search for meaning at the time, about the role of a writer as a critical insider as well as outsider. Auden states that art becomes decadent if there were no live connection between it and the structure of social life (Mirko Jurak,1973; p.85). It is therefore through a microscopic study of Auden’s artistic reaction to the changing social relations of the post war modern spatial context that the notion of the evolution of the Underground man would be illustrated.
In the play The Ascent of F6 (1937), written with Christopher Isherwood, Auden projects the alarming political order of the day that has invented powerful machinery and mechanism to maintain a controlled working of the system. This is evident right from the beginning of the play when one of the most important characters, Michael Forsyth Ransom is introduced as a frustrated intellectual of the time who is questioning the importance of ‘virtue’ and ‘knowledge’ when reason declares ‘power’ to be equated with the ideal meaning of them and what remains of education is nothing but a few grammatical tags and certain gestures of the head (Act I, Scene I). Pitted against such a state of an intellectual is the everyday lives of ‘Mr. and Mrs. A.,’ an ordinary British couple who live from one paycheck to the next and represents everyman in the spatial reality of England where Nothing that matters will ever happen (Act I, Scene I). The so-called F6 is a mountain dividing two regions in Sudoland, a fictional land in the play which stands for a ‘contested space’ over which Great Britain and a rival nation Ostnia have to make a political statement. Both countries aim to scale F6, a rock face thought insurmountable. Local legend has the mountain occupied by a demon that makes it impossible for any person to climb. Using this tale to their advantage, the Ostnians tell the natives that the first White man to climb F6 will rule all of Sudoland for a thousand of years. The power dynamics highlighted in the play, direct desperate attempts to maintain the status quo – royalty, the government, the military, and the upper classes – and call upon intellectuals like Michael Forsyth Ransom and his team to reach the summit. The individual is made to carry the burden of the hollow politics of the time that condition the individual to negate his personal choices in fulfilling the objective cause. Ransom
is torn between the desire for a quiet life of reflection (as shown by his talk with a monastery abbot) and the feeling of obligation to his homeland, colleagues, and family. He is repelled by the false sense of national conquest and the use of heroism for political gain and this is evident when Ransom says:
And you are all anxious to play their game: the race to the summit? This won’t be mountaineering. It’ll be a steeplechase. Are you so sure the prize is worth it? (Act II, Scene I)
It is observed here that in such a politically contextualized spatial form of modernity, even the meaning of ‘adventure’ loses its significance and what remains at last, is a series of unfortunate events that account us the tale of lives lost for a meaningless cause and in Mrs. A’s words: they have died to satisfy our smug suburban pride…. (Act II, Scene I). This play is an authentic microscopic tapestry of social, political and economic forces in the British Empire’s waning days that simultaneously subsume every personal space of the individual in the name of modernity and what remains at last are little Mr. and Mrs. A in their poky flat waiting for something meaningful to happen. Unfortunately the ‘descent’ of the intellectual type in the figure of Michael F. Ransom into an objective man of the system seems to suggest that it is ultimately ‘power’ that dictates lives in such a political space that cannot provide room to freedom and peculiarities of inner and external development of the individual (Simmel,1903;p.107). In the words of Mr. and Mrs. A. such a space has:
Nothing to make us proud of our race.
Nothing to take us out of ourselves, Out of the oppression of this city.
This abstract civil space…. (Act I, Scene I)
Such a dehumanizing external culture and technique of life leave no better choice for human individuality to flower but instead make him adapt into the schemes of this mechanical society to be ‘the underground man.’ The working up of the public opinion through broadcasting as shown in the play also speeds up the process of the substitution of subjective element of the personality by a mechanically enforced objectivity of the time. Ironically the only form of meaningful social interaction that happens throughout the play is through the medium of the broadcasting that allows a mechanical sort of indirect interaction between different conflicting and intersecting voices of people in the play, who represent different strata of the social space. This aspect is illustrated when further, little Mr. and Mrs. A (Everyman) are caught by F-6 propaganda and they listen spellbound to the important personages who come to the microphone; as they hear about the terrible mountain and the glorious young man, their own life become less monotonous and boring, and they actually rush off and have a week-end at Hove, though they can ill afford it, as they realize on their return. He belongs to us now (Act II, Scene V), they cry, as they gaze at the obelisk erected to Ransom, after his death, by big business. The role of the mechanical broadcasting system in the play is of immense value for, it finally succeeds in defining the notion of ‘the underground man’ as-
the individual who has no real existence or importance apart from the greater whole; that he is here indeed but to serve for his brief moment his community, his race… then passing on the torch of life undiminished to others, his little task accomplished, to die and be forgotten (Act II, Scene V).
‘The underground man’ is the newly developed product of urban spatial reality in the post- war political context where it serves the political purpose of injecting the objective propaganda of the time, a function that can be equated to that of the ‘broadcasting machine’. In enumerating the state of ‘the underground man’ as someone who has become a common denominator and frightful leveler of all subjective values and their uniqueness just like a machine, Auden portrays the disturbing machinated social space of his time. This play also included the first version of “Funeral Blues” Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone (Act II, Scene V), written as a satiric eulogy for the (character of a) blasé modern individual. By including this in the play, Auden projects a macroscopic artistic vision of the growing calculating political space in the 20th century world that fails to give room for the development of individual personality, un- schematized individual expression and as well denies self-preservation. This satiric depiction of the modern life in the 20th century with ‘the underground man’ in the making is further sharply
done by Auden in his poem The Unknown Citizen (from the vol. Another Time 1940).
If one observes the development of ‘the underground man’ in the character of Michael F. Ransom in the play The Ascent of F6 (1936) who ultimately becomes the role model for an ideal citizen to be followed by little Mr. and Mrs. A (representing Everyman), Auden further develops this issue in his poem The Unknown Citizen (1940). Considering the fact that Auden migrated to America in the eve of the Second World War and this poem was written at a time when the world was struck again by the horrific experience of yet another war that witnessed an unaccountable destructive sight of massive killings, one could understand the objective critical perspective with which the modern artist resists the faceless impersonality of the machine and condemns such products of the specifically modern aspects of contemporary life (Simmel, 1903;p.103) that allow the operation of bureaucracy to the excess where it dehumanizes individuals, its subjects, in the absolute. Auden adopts the role of an impersonal critical outsider to objectively choose the speaker who is representative of the government or welfare state to broadcast the detailed features of ‘the underground man’ in the poem The Unknown Citizen (1940). “The Unknown Citizen” who is synonymous to ‘the underground man’ is a government’s vision of the perfect modern man. JS/07 M 378 is externally analyzed not just by his Union, but also by the Social Psychology workers (line 13), the Press (line 15), Producers Research and High-Grade Living (line 19), and researchers into Public Opinion (line 23). These experts all agree that JS/07 M 378 was normal in every way (16) and always held the proper opinions for the time of year (line 24). Unfortunately one could see that “The Unknown Citizen” is the extended translation of ‘the underground man’ whose human intelligence has been manipulated to the point that the manipulators have viewed the individual as nothing but statistics, figures, numbers and data.
Auden in a subtle sense proclaims the role of a poet (writer) as not only a critical insider but also that of an outsider who denounces the comforting political role of a writer in providing solution to the incomprehensible human problems of the time. This is evident in the way he ends the poem with the pathetic note:
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard (lines 31-32).
Auden sarcastically ends the poem by raising questions that can appeal only to human emotion. At the time when he was writing the poem, the conception of social security became an effective tool to divorce mankind from anything emotional and at the same time it came to be used to generate conforming ‘underground man’. The process greatly diminished the individual into numbers that can be tracked down. Auden is criticizing the techno-centric state of the bureaucracy that revolves around technology and could not ‘live’ without it because it is technology that has allowed the government to become so powerful and almighty. Thus, technology has taken over the lives of individuals; reducing them to mere numbers that is part of the Machine, or the bureaucracy. Moreover, the “unknown” citizen or rather the ‘underground’ citizen is praised and used as an example in both the works to construct a political myth of the 20th century modern man– a tale to convince people to cease to be individuals with their originality in actions and thought, their pride for their work, and become a unit in the Greater
Community, or the bureaucracy devoid of any human emotion.
One observes that the 20th Century modern urban England, a place becomes a machinated space that consumes every subjective sense of the individual and according to W.H. Auden, it drives the individual to adapt oneself to the neurotic ways of such a neurotic space, converting him finally to be ‘the underground man.’ Through an understanding of the notion of ‘The Underground Man’ in the selected works of W.H. Auden, this paper therefore, offered some of
the major facets of the deepest problems of 20th Century modern life and related issues pertaining to modernity like the spatial politics of modern time and its relevance in the life of an individual which exert a profound influence on the way we all think and experience our world today.
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