THE CHRONOLOGY OF MODERNITY: A SURFEIT

[Last entry: 19 February – um, yes, it’s the beginning of the semester, a mad time until the subjects get themselves running and students find their places… Difficult to put aside 60 minutes for a blog entry… yet sanity calls!!]

Last week I produced a chronology of the first four decades of the 20th century for my own benefit and that of my first-year students (if they find a use for so much raw data). I have mixed a list of works (literary and commercial fiction), history and society facts and, here’s the novelty for me, a juicy list of inventions. For the curious, my very visibly acknowledged sources were the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/timeline/worldwars_timeline_noflash.shtml), Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20th_century_in_literature), and, for the inventions, About.com (https://inventors.about.com/od/timelines/a/ModernInvention.htm) and the amazingly chauvinistic but great fun Brits at their Best, (www.britsattheirbest.com/ingenious/ii_20th_century_1900-1930.htm). Call me stupid, but although I did know that literary and artistic Modernism was to a great extent a reaction against the radical changes brought about by technology applied to mass consumerism (and to mass destruction in WWI), I hadn’t realised how dense the list of innovations was for the first decades of the 20th century. Really mind-blowing.

To begin with, we seem to have quite a fuzzy idea of everyday reality at the turn of the century (I mean 19th to 20th) perhaps because the ladies took their time to update their bulky fashions to the demands of fast moving around (they waited until the 1920s to take up bras and raise hemlines even above the knee). Among the inventions already available by 1900 we count much of what makes everyday life still today: photography, cinema, the car, bikes, public and domestic electric lights, the telephone, the underground railway, machine guns, dishwashers, Coca-cola, the radar, the gramophone (now i-pod…), the escalator (first seen in 2011 in Uzbekistan)… And it’s not just that.

Take, for instance, the year 1915. The list of great eminent books published in Britain is quite rich: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (a great favourite of mine); The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence; Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham; Victory by Joseph Conrad; The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf; even the popular thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. But if you think this is meaningful for 20th century civilisation, what about what happened in that April 1915 of the WWI (the Gallipoli peninsula disaster for the Allies), or in September, with the first British use of poison gas at Loos (France)? Yet, maybe, in the end, the real sign of modernity was the invention that same year by US citizens Eugene Sullivan and William Taylor of the ever useful Pyrex glass. Or if you look at the British side, the Nobel Prize for Physics won by William Bragg and his son William Lawrence Bragg for essential work on crystal structure.

Here’s the thought for today: I guess chemistry students can very well learn the history of crystallography without reference to the list of 1915 eminent books (or even to WWI), yet I’m less and less sure that we can study 20th century English Literature without looking at what was going on in science and technology at the time. History and society are commonly accepted as part of the context relevant to (literary) texts, but we’re still a long way from connecting technology and literature, arguably even in science fiction. Or maybe that’s a thought brought on by our internet and mobile phone era, in which it seems simply impossible to write without thinking of how we do it (using a laptop) and how our texts are shaped by technology (um, yes, I’m writing a blog).

I realise that knowing about Pyrex will not help me read The Rainbow better but I also see that ‘Modernism’ was an ironic label, for we are the real modernists in love with ever-changing modernity.

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