Wednesday, February 24, 2010 2/24/10 - the new century

In today's encore excerpt - as the
twentieth century unfolded, Virginia Woolf,
F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and other
artists reacted to the unprecedented and
accelerating pace of change by repudiating
the past and grasping for something new:

"The heroic daring of [the new] century lay
in its conviction of absolute, unprecedented
novelty. This is what the exhilarating notion
of modernity meant: canceling all the
accumulated wisdom of our forebears. ...
Valiantly eager for the future, the Bauhaus
instructor Oskar Schlemmer decreed in 1929
that 'One should act as if the world had just
been created.'

"A new-born universe called for fresh
tenants. Virginia Woolf accordingly reported,
as if she were pinpointing an actual,
verifiable event, that 'on or about December
1910 human character changed.' Rites of
passage made this enigmatic transformation
visible. How do human beings usually announce
an altered identity? By changing the way they
wear their hair. Men who wanted to be
ruthlessly modern shaved their skulls, like
the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir
Mayakovsky or Johannes Itten, an instructor
at the Bauhaus in Weimar. In the hirsute
nineteenth century, sages - aspiring to the
shagginess of Old Testament prophets - grew
beards. For the glowering,
bullet-headed Mayakovsky, the cranium was a
projectile, made more aerodynamic by being
rid of hair. For Itten, shaving announced his
priestly dedication to the new world which
the designers at the Bauhaus intended to
build. ...

"Women had their own equivalent to those
drastic masculine acts of self-mutilation. In
1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story,
'Bernice Bobs Her Hair,' about a timid
provincial girl for whom bobbing is a
transition between two periods of life and
two historical epochs. The new style ejects
her from Madonna-like girlhood, when she was
protectively cocooned in tresses, and
announces her sexual maturity. Bernice
fearfully acknowledges the revolutionary
antecedents of the process. Driving downtown
to the mens' barber-shop where the operation
will be performed, she suffers 'all the
sensations of Marie Antoinette bound for the
guillotine in a tumbril;' the barber with his
shears is an executioner. The French
revolutionaries sliced off the heads of
bewigged aristocrats in order to destroy an
old world. Bernice, however, has her own hair
chopped to fit her for membership of a new
society: bobbing conferred erotic allure on
girls who were previously dismissed as
wallflowers. ...

"James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922 testified to
the change in human character announced by
Virginia Woolf. Bodies now did things which,
at least according to literature, they had
never done before. A man ponders his own
bowel movement, relishing its sweet smell.
Later in the day he surreptitiously
masturbates in a public place and takes part
in a pissing contest, proud of the arc his
urine describes. A woman has a noisily
affirmative orgasm, or perhaps more than one.
The same people did not think in paragraphs
or logical, completed sentences, like
characters in
nineteenth-century novels. Their mental life
proceeded in associative jerks and spasms;
they mixed up shopping lists with sexual
fantasies, often forgot verbs and (in the
woman's case) scandalously abandoned all
punctuation. The modern mind was not a quiet,
tidy cubicle for cogitation. It thronged with
as many random happenings as a city street;
it contained scraps and fragments, dots and
dashes, like the incoherent blizzard of marks
on a modern canvas which could only be called
an 'impression' because it represented
nothing recognizable."

Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern
Places, Knopf, Copyright 1998 by Peter
Conrad, pp. 14-15.


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