Beginning a new series for the winter months, Alan Riach takes us on a slow tour of the 20th century in retrospect, beginning with what preceded and led up to and into the first decade of that century, 1900-1909.

IN the most radically modernist of all Hugh MacDiarmid’s books, Stony Limits (1934), in his poem “Lament for the Great Music”, a tragic vision of the loss of Scotland’s highest cultural traditions, such as that of the classical music of the Highland bagpipe, the pibroch (or to be accurate, piobaireachd or ceòl mòr), we have this:

To remember the great music and to look

At Scotland and the world today is to hear

An Barr Baudh again where there are none to answer

And to feel like Oisin d’ éis na Féine or like Christ

In that least homoousian hour.

The word “homoousian” is a Christian theological term, referring to the belief that Jesus, God the Son, is the same “in being” or “in essence” as God the Father. MacDiarmid is saying that Christ’s cry upon the cross, the anguish of the forsaken, is a sign of feeling at the furthest remove from the promised coherence of identity and redemption.

The Gaelic phrases relate to this. In footnotes, MacDiarmid explains that “An Barr Baudh” is “as somewhat in a state between existence and non-existence”.

And “Oisin d’ éis na Féine” is “a withered, babbling old man, ‘Oisin after the Fianna’ (i.e. when his love for Ireland made him return to it from Tir-na-nog) in that immortal phrase which has in it more than Virgilian tears”. In other words, the evocation of Ossian “after the Fianna” – after his father and family and companions of high youth, health and vigour, have all gone into the past, leaving him old and alone – delivers a permanent image of tragic and irrecoverable loss, encompassing and predating other ancient religions and civilisations. And there is no fraud or hoax involved in that.

Its permanence is also Ossian’s legacy. This is my translation of the relevant poem from The Book of the Dean of Lismore, “I Have Lived in the Household of Finn”:

I looked on them once, the household of Finn

Nothing feeble or faint was their way

I see them all in my memory’s eye

I follow the men of yesterday

I lived with them once, the household of Art

He who would love sweet song to begin

Nobody ever was better than he

He lived in the household of Finn

If you with your eyes had seen what I saw

Those men and those women, my friends and my kin

What you never have seen, you never will see

I have been in the household of Finn

May mercy this evening fall gently

Upon what is mine, every sin

May my soul be spared now from all torment

I have lived in the household of Finn

These are piercing sentiments anyone past a certain age might feel, and anyone who has literally come out of the 20th century might feel that the 21st century has left a lot behind, and not all of it bad. But we have to go back before that century began to see how we got into it, and maybe to chart more securely where we are today and even, perhaps, to find a way beyond.

The century that died when 1900 was born had been falling apart at least since 1859, when Darwin showed God the exit with his Origin of Species. In the 1800s, Nietzsche gave finesse to the ultimate absence: he sent the Titanic of the 20th century straight for the iceberg with three little words: “God is dead,” he said.

Literature knew it already. The securities of the great Victorian novels were breaking down. In Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, when young Jo, the crossing-sweeper, dies, Dickens interrupts the narrative and speaks directly to “My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen” – and even to the Queen, Her Majesty herself, protesting in outrage that the poor and the innocent are “dying thus around us every day”. But in Dickens’s later novels, the declarations of injustice and corruption are not only angry but carry a sense of frustration because no exclamation seems adequate.

George Eliot’s great novel Middlemarch was the consummate portrayal of a Victorian social world in which the hierarchy of authority, from characters to author, to readers, seemed secure. But her last novel was Daniel Deronda, where the characters move out into a larger, lonelier world, where Matthew Arnold’s prophecy from the darkling shore of Dover Beach is fulfilled: “confused alarms of struggle and flight” mark the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of “The Sea of Faith”. The whole poem is worth quoting, it has so much to say about its era (it was published in 1867) – and ours:

The sea is calm tonight.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The traditional matter of literature did not disappear overnight, of course. Love, death, loss, the seasons and the chance art offers to commemorate and console, the ways in which each one of the arts tell truths to anyone able to read them – these things stay with us. But a new darkness enters the spectrum, which deepens as the new century grows old. One of the earliest songs of Sibelius’s Opus 17, from 1891-1904, speaks of this unforgettably.

It could never have been written at an earlier period of history, but it could never have been written by someone not in command of earlier idioms. The handful of simple phrases by the poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg amount to only one brief statement. But Sibelius deepens the darkness behind it, signalling a modern world in which the tradition must find new balance.

Why is spring so fleeting

Why will summer not delay?

In former times I often wondered

And questioned many, without answer.

But since my love has left me now,

Since his warmth to cold has turned,

All his summer changed to winter,

Since then I have questioned no further.

The end of the old century was nothing if not well marked. Wordsworth had proclaimed heavenly bliss in the revolutionary dawn of the 1780s. In the 1870s, in the greatest tragedy written in the 19th century, Richard Wagner was sending his overblown, exhausted gods into the fires that consume Valhalla, to blaze away the ruins of a botched world. Nietzsche died insane in 1900. Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, has his wicked hero respond with languid disdain to Lord Henry Wotton’s tired sigh, “‘Fin de siècle’ – the end of the century – ‘Fin du globe’!

“I wish it were [the end of the world],” says Dorian. “Life is a great disappointment.” This was the impulse that led to Spengler’s Decline of the West.

But it belies the sheer linguistic energy and deeply subversive wit in Wilde’s comedy, its dearly-paid-for attack on the morals and codes of the establishment. In this, Wilde foreshadows some of the great achievements of the literary and cultural movement which, even a century later, we still call “The Modern Movement” or “Modernism”. It lasted from the 1890s till the 1930s and its greatest work appeared in the 1920s but, even in the first decade of the new century, the energies were beginning to unleash themselves.

Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life and The Interpretation of Dreams were to prompt the literary exploration of unconscious desires and their awkward forms of expression in fumbling, vulnerable characters, in the fiction of Woolf, Lawrence and Joyce. Marx’s attention to the economics of the social world was to underscore the compassionate, if pessimistic, depiction of the entire state of Costaguana in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

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When Picasso exhibited Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in 1907, the radical shock it delivered was less to do with its subject being hard-edged prostitutes in a French brothel, and more to do with their stance towards the viewer These women and the new art that presented them were no longer there merely for the delectation of the observer. They were staring out of the canvas straight back at you. The paradigm of modern art is here: who’s looking?

Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto published in Paris in 1909 set out to slap down chronology, gravity, time and space, as they’d been defined by Newton. Ever since then, people have been grumbling about the difficulties of modern art. That’s at least a partial testament to its success, as another question the later 20th and 21st centuries have failed to answer.

THE possibilities inherent in the new were immense. Roentgen’s X-rays made solid matter permeable; moving pictures on a screen transformed reality; Marconi’s radio waves, faster forms of transport, cars, planes: all these things were behind Virginia Woolf’s rather arch declaration that “in or about December 1910, human character changed”. In “religion, conduct, politics and literature ... all human relations” such as those between “masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children” – changed.

Well, they didn’t change in the course of just one month, but you see what she means. “Mankind has cast me out” is the opening line of John Davidson’s poem from 1901, “The Testament of a Man Forbid” and in “Snow”, he describes the formerly romantic, Christmassy phenomenon with a crystallographer’s coldly calculating eye.

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This was a stance to be perfected by T S Eliot, whose adoption of the role of the dispassionate artist was hugely influential. No longer a romantic individualist, the modern artist was to be as capable of calibrating and quantifying the language of emotion and meaning as the modern scientist was to be objective in his analysis of the components of other catalysts and their volatile consequences.

Perhaps the one work which speaks most clearly of the great transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Written in the 1890s, published in 1902, it comes out of the world of empire and colonial exploitation, where racism is normal and women are, as Marlow says, kept “out of it”.

And it comes forward, pointing towards a world in which Kurtz’s instruction for progress comes “like a flash of lightning in a serene sky” – it is mass genocide – “Exterminate all the brutes!” he says. Conrad prophecies the century many of us still alive came to inhabit. He, also, asks the questions the 20th and 21st centuries have failed to answer.

What is there in this of hope, of possibility? Conrad was pessimistic. He wrote to his friend, the socialist, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, in cautionary terms: “There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope.”

But there is a kind of hope, even in this darkest of recognitions, that the hearts of modern civilisation have been built at the cost of terrible barbarity. Marlow tells his story on shipboard, waiting for the tide to turn. He begins talking to the Director of Companies, the Lawyer, the Accountant and the narrator, senior members of an establishment his tale is about to damn. When he ends, the tide is flowing out again. The darkness looms in all directions.

The literature of Modernism in the next few years, like its music, art and sculpture, was to begin with the sense Conrad identifies fearfully and courageously in Heart of Darkness: that there is a common humanity binding the so-called civilised and barbaric, binding a multitude of differences – cultural, racial, sexual – that there is always more than one story to be told, more than one point of view, and that all events are interconnected, never entirely isolated. There are always questions to be asked.

This is what underlies the most remarkable early work by the American composer, Charles Ives, “The Unanswered Question” from 1906. In this piece of music, the flowing G major chords played on the strings represent a kind of eternal harmony, so self-perpetuating it is almost like an audible silence, a continuity almost unheard, behind all particular history.

But then a curving, questioning intrusion takes place as a trumpet breaks into this stream of music, and does so again and again, seven times, and each time it is answered by a series of increasingly discordant, chaotic replies, until the question is repeated for a last time and the strings slowly subside away. That “unanswered question” will be asked again and again in the literature and the arts of the new century.