Nell Tells All: After 100 Years, Are We Modern Yet?

The world is changing. Sensibilities, thoughts, and the constructions on which people once relied are now in question. In the past year, each has been confronted and inspected. And yet, has society progressed? In these moments of turbulence, the past is reflected. Nell Wasserstrom, a member of Boston College’s doctoral program in English who received her M.A. in English from BC, lists one of her research interests as “European Modernism,” and taught a class in the fall titled “Apocalyptic Modernism.”

A course title that has the word “apocalyptic” in it is bound to catch the attention of any student browsing course listings hopelessly before registration, but it’s the “modernism” part that this piece is focused on.

“I thought it was awesome because you get to see how the shift between pre- and post- apocalypse mentalities preceding and following wars affects modernism, in what ways it might shift to postmodernism or some facet like cubism or the avant-garde,” Kristina Zamrowski, MCAS ’20, said.

Wasserstrom’s enthusiasm for the topic and for spreading it to others is immediately apparent. In class, her teaching is centered around the development of the student’s ideas, engaging everyone and stimulating thought.

“I think Professor Wasserstrom was a really engaging professor,” said Michael Hanley, MCAS ’20. “Her own passion for the subject matter made it an exciting class and the reliance on class discussion made it feel like a learning community as opposed to a bland lecture.”

Upon sitting down for an interview, Wasserstrom energetically jumped into Modernism, all the while humbly saying she might not be the most suited person for the task (I disagree). She sums up the complicated topic of Modernism succinctly: “A tradition of anti-tradition.”

Modernism is a reaction to the notion that humans progress by further developing their societal institutions. Governments, religions, and corporations all operate on the promise of improvement, and Modernism questions the legitimacy of these improvements.   

As stated in Wasserstrom’s course syllabus, “The concept of apocalypse signifies both a thinking of ‘the end’ and an uncovering, unveiling, or revelation.”

The catastrophe of World War I brought about this kind of thinking. It exposed to the world the human appetite for destruction and the gut-wrenching capabilities of new technology. Modernism wondered what will replace establishments that,allowed war, but had never before allowed such unprecedented human destruction.

“[It’s a] reaction to discontent with notions of progress,” Wasserstrom said.

Modernism exists in two loose categories. The first is known as “Modernism Proper,” associated with the literary giants of the movement—James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Marcel Proust. According to Wasserstrom, this side of the movement is distinct in that it purposefully generated a dissociation between itself and society.

Wasserstrom thinks that the goal of the “proper” Modernists was to criticize the world at large using the artificial span they created. While they sought to criticize the traditions and constructs of society, the proper Modernists never completely rejected the past.  

“[They manipulated] the conventions of the past,” Wasserstrom said.

Modern society utilizes the structures of past conventions: our system of government remains unchanged and the novel remains a mode of literary expression. Society maintains the same form, but our underlying impulses have radically changed. America has been moving to reject the beliefs of the Cold War. Good versus evil, capitalism versus communism, black versus white are no longer explanations of society. In that way, the state of society reflects the second movement within Modernism: the avant-garde.

To Wasserstrom, the avant-garde is a radical form of Modernism that entirely rejected the past. Instead of exploiting the conventions like the Modernists proper, it sought to eradicate the precepts that had been traditionally employed by artists. The past was renounced to create a new future. And yet, the avant-garde was not an external movement. It was generated from within the rot of a post-war society.

“[The avant-garde] emerged from the decay of institutions that everybody relied on,” Wasserstrom said.

Modern political discourse and rhetoric exhibits this decay. While maintaining the veneer of the formal institutions, the underlying attitude has changed. The days of the black and white, clear cut, good versus evil have dissolved. Capitalism, assumed dominant since World War II, has been questioned. A new wave of populism, both liberal and conservative, has consumed the country. The forgotten, the subaltern, the Other, is beginning to speak, and this emergence of previously voiceless groups challenges a conventional, phallogocentric manner of thought.

“In the absence of traditional ways, some solid ground, Modernists had to find a different truth,” said Wasserstrom

Instead of seeking the new Truth in general society, the avant-garde finds it introspectively. There are consequences with this method, though. By defining reality around internal projections, the characteristics of the self delineate people. Expressions of this internalization of Truth are seen in identity politics and the boom of the personal essay—each valuing the personal over the collective.

Wasserstrom emphasizes that in the avantgarde, the only truth is a person’s subjective perspective on the world. The collection of individual experiences has replaced the experience of the collective. Such change is seen in speeches and debates today, as they rely on anecdotes, created facsimiles of sympathetic stories. In the modern world, the subjective narrative is our cultural ethos.

However the state of times is defined, the question remains whether or not society has really progressed. A subset of the avant-garde movement was the Futurists. They absolutely rejected the past, not only in an aesthetic sense but a historical one too. Wasserstrom described their view of the past as a sort of nostalgic image that detracted from the march of progress. They were obsessed with the present and the future.

“[They] embraced the future, technology, speed, machinery,” Wasserstrom said.

These facets, these perceived beautiful pieces of speed and momentum, she explained, were symbols of masculinity, of the strength of society.  They demanded things in the immediate.

“[The Futurists] raced off to war, to encounter their fate,” Wasserstrom said.

According to Wasserstrom, the Futurists see machinery as the embodiment of the perfectibility of humanity. Yet the movement is not material. The objects and symbols themselves do not matter. Instead, it is what they’re indicative of.

“[The Futurists] see the best of ourselves in machine,” Wasserstrom said.

The Futurists, she said, saw the melding of man and machine as evidence of our progression. In spite of this futurist infatuation with transitory progress, there are true moments of advancement.

“[Our] ‘salvation’ is through the past,” Wasserstrom said.

This salvation is not a religious or spiritual concept—it’s a redemption. Wasserstrom explains that we achieve this through the reclamation of groups that have been traditionally and repeatedly marginalized. There is only one method of achieving deliverance, according to Wasserstrom. The past and the present exist in a singular relationship—Wasserstrom specified that the two times are brought together by violent moments, radical shifts.

“[The moments are] not in continuity, not in empathy, [but are] revolutionary,” Wasserstrom said.

And yet, these moments are not unique.

“[They are] another point in the chain,” she said.

They are repeated again and again as history achieves these violent outgrowths. The struggle is never over—the fight continues. The moments are repeated and are in reference to the past. They are expressed in sudden social movements.

Modernism can be a tough subject to grasp, based on historical analysis and not entirely subjective. But, the way Wasserstrom approaches the subject is marked by thoughtful consideration for the analysis of her students.

“I’m still not sure I understand [Modernism]. But I think that’s the point,” Zamrowski said.

In our day and age, we see the past redeemed in the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, the advancement of the LGBTQ community. They rupture our plane. They have been generated in sudden moments, in which the only option is their genesis—there is opposition, change is resisted, but moments of potent instability give a chance for the marginalized to speak. The rupturing of the status quo presents an opportunity. The past is at least partly redeemed, the subaltern given a chance. We may never converge to perfection, but we may still shatter the conventional constructs.

The main difference between our present-day thinkers and the Modernists is this attitude. Wasserstrom framed this difference with a question:

“How do we give ourselves meaning in the place of nonbelief?”

The Modernists supposed that our salvation and redemption can never be truly fulfilled.

“Moments of heightened life come with the recognition that they are finite,” Wasserstrom said.

In the eyes of Modernism, no one can achieve liberation, for our knowledge of salvation can only be succeeded by our loss of what we desire. Modernist writer Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator eats a madeleine and changes: “I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

“You don’t want your existence to feel accidental,” Wasserstrom said.