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A Not-So Distant Mirror : The Modern Predicament in the Early Twentieth Century

Jean-Paul Rosaye

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1This paper aims to show that the early twentieth century exemplified and revealed the nature of the modern predicament. And this predicament, for reasons that will appear later, can first be defined as a constant and deeply set tension, forcing European minds to waver between a tendency towards nihilism and the utopian expectation of perfecting society into an earthly paradise. The First World War did in fact provide a clear demonstration of the Western propensity for mass destruction, and D. H. Lawrence's contemporaries, as they deplored this drive, found themselves forced to find an idealistic way out.

2I also wish to show that the terms and conditions of their endeavour disclose how deep the story of this ambivalence goes, and this is the reason why the title suggests that the early twentieth century can be viewed as an anticipation of our present situation as well as the echo of a very profound dilemma entrenched in our European collective unconscious.

  • 1 Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror : The Calamitous 14th Century, (New York: Ballantine Books, 19 (...)

3The title of this paper is in fact a reference to Barbara Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror : The Calamitous 14th Century, which was published at the end of the 1970’s.1In this book Tuchman wrote that there were “phenomenal parallels” between the situation of the world after the Second World War and the fourteenth century. She actually found some relief in the fact that mankind had eventually overcome the calamities of the age of the Plague, and that it would be a good thing if we could learn the message the people of those times had left to the future generations. Incidentally, she also remarked in her introduction that such a parallel had already been drawn between the years following the First World War and the time of the Black Death :

  • 2 Ibid., p. XIII-XIV.

Comparing the aftermaths of the Black Death and of World War I, James Westfall Thompson found all the same complaints: economic chaos, social unrest, high prices, profiteering, depraved morals, lack of production, industrial indolence, frenetic gaiety, wild expenditure, luxury, debauchery, social and religious hysteria, greed avarice, maladministration, decay of manners. “History never repeats itself” said Voltaire; “man always does.” Thucydides, of course, made that principle the justification of his work.2

  • 3 Renaud Camus, Décivilisation (Paris: Fayard, 2011).

4As most of the terms used in this quotation ring a bell in the present day situation, I would like to be able to find some comfort in the fact that in the period after the First World War, which is not so distant from ours, people did find the means to overcome the plight of what a recent French writer, Renaud Camus, has called “la déciviliation.”3 It might be contended that our early twenty-first century could look at itself in the mirror of the early twentieth century and also in that of the calamitous fourteenth century: a proper answer then, as to whether we can truly learn from the past will thus be ventured at the end of the present paper.

5To say that D. H. Lawrence and his contemporaries reacted to the First World War would be an understatement. But it was not so much against the war as against the whole situation of the Western world that they formulated their response. As Yeats had already declared thirty years before the end of the War:

  • 4 W. B. Yeats, Crossways, “The Song of the Happy Shepheard,” 1889, in The Collected Poems of W. B Yea (...)

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy

  • 5 John Ruskin, A Joy for Ever (and its price on the market) [1857] (London: George Allen, 1897) 20.

6This attitude can be explained by referring to a general, pervasive form of cultural pessimism. From Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach” (1867) to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), most artists seem to have followed John Ruskin's resistance to the technical, financial and industrial forms of capitalism. For him, “the 'Let-alone' principle is, in all things which man has to do with, the principle of death.”5 Such a condemnation of the modern, industrial, “mechanical world,” is unmistakable in a large literary production, and it would be preposterous to summarize it under one single interpretation. Nevertheless, they can be said to converge in their picture of the desolation of the Western mindscape, especially after the Great War. On that point, and because Eliot's Waste Land has often been presented as the poem of a generation, I think that it can offer an interesting perspective on how the literary people who had survived the First World War could have felt about the situation.

  • 6 T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber) 80.
  • 7 Mircea Eliade, Aspects du mythe, “Le rôle des mythes dans les guérisons,” (Paris: Gallimard “Folio- (...)

7In the notes appended to The Waste Land, Eliot provided two important sets of information. The first of these deals with the structure of the poem, the second with its unifying principle. The symbolical structure of The Waste Land is framed on the myth of the Holy Grail and on conceptions of eternal recurrence founded on age-old fertility rites.6 Eliot was interested in myths which evoked a renewal of the world to be raised upon the ruins of the former one and, more generally speaking, in myths which fulfilled some expectation of saving the world from chaos and which could function as a palliative to suffering. Mircea Eliade remarked that myths, while they were meant to operate a magical re-creation of the world, also contained a soteriological objective insofar as the knowledge of the origins of things opened up the possibility of detecting an illness, of mastering it and eventually curing it.7

8In that respect, The Waste Land can be interpreted as a mandala that, accordingly, provides some curative design. This is mainly suggested in the conclusion of the poem, as the disease, symbolised by the ruined world, must be cured in order to make regeneration possible:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order ?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon - O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

  • 8 “What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem,” Collected Poems: 1909-1962, op. cit., (...)
  • 9 'Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina' : 'Then dived he back into that fire which refines them', tr (...)

9The second element is the unity of purpose through Tiresias, who sees, warned Eliot, “the substance of the poem.”8 The poem, in other words, is a prophecy and it contains a prediction. Again this is intimately connected to the question of myths. The prophecy associated with the myth of the Fisher King suggests that the destruction of the world only results in a temporary chaos, because rebirth is automatic: the human condition is wholly dependent on some mysterious mechanism that is above human understanding. The function of Tiresias is to impart some a-historical dimension, beyond time and above all material considerations, to human suffering. We may again note that the conclusion of The Waste Land both diagnoses a disease and suggests a remedy to alleviate it, and that the poem as a whole performs a spiritual quest across a wasted civilisation: Eliot alludes to the refining fire in Dante's Hell,9 where the destroyed tradition (Gérard de Nerval's “tour abolie” in the poem) is avenged, as the reference to Thomas Kyd's play The Spanish Tragedy indicates. Eliot's picture of a desolate world is therefore exacerbated in order to make the transfiguration of this world more than a necessity, and the use of the mythical method implies that the correct response must be a spiritual one, because the problem, after all, is fundamentally a spiritual one. In other terms, Eliot dramatized the decline and death of a civilisation so as to question the possibility of its renaissance.

10One of the most interesting features of this mythical method is that it was common to many other artists in the period. As such, it was conspicuously used by Joyce in order to structure Ulysses, where Bloom's life recapitulates the Homeric hero's adventures in modern Dublin. If by mythical method we mean that the old wisdom and knowledge of a forgotten age is used to set the pattern of modern life, we come to a paradox, as it implies that it is the traditional world which has to speak the truth of the modern world. Beyond the precise utility of myth as a means through which to restore order in the world, in the case of Eliot's poem, the idea that the ancient world possessed wisdom was widespread in the period. And it was based on a “principle of life,” opposed to the “principle of death” deplored by John Ruskin. It was in this “principle of life” that Lawrence sought the vital knowledge of man's true nature, and it was there also that Yeats discovered the main magical inspiration of his alter-ego, Michael Robartes.

11One rather intriguing detail is that these authors had exposed their personal commitment to traditional forms of wisdom in books which were all released in 1921-22: Yeats's collection of poems Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921, Lawrence's Fantasia of the Unconscious, Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's The Waste Land in 1922.

  • 10 See for instance Carl Krockel, War Trauma and English Modernisms : T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence ( (...)

12Of course, they did not all agree on the way these myths were to be used. For instance, both Lawrence and Eliot had read and admired Frazer's Golden Bough, but their paths had somewhat diverged from there. Eliot completed Frazer's ethnological insights in ancient Pagan rites with Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance. In this latter book, the continuity between the Pagan world and Christianity was extended to the medieval legends of the Holy Grail: the main idea being that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ continued and perfected the previous myths, ensuring the final and complete redemption of the whole of mankind. The extent to which Lawrence and Eliot diverged in their diagnosis of the situation of the world, and regarding the solution they offered, is a question which has given scholars endless opportunities to study their conflicting attitudes to modernity.10 But the key to their differences was stated by Eliot himself, when he said in his Page-Barbour Lectures in the mid 1930's that Lawrence, because he did not fully embrace the principles of Christian orthodoxy, was therefore a heretic, and that as such he possessed a great deal of truth, but of course not the whole truth. This interpretation, of course, is controversial, but it not so much a condemnation of Lawrence's beliefs as the acknowledgement of the appeal of an enquiring man in what were difficult times.

13D. H. Lawrence and his contemporaries were at the least unanimous in depicting this modern world as being doomed, and in conveying the idea that regeneration was possible, if only people would credit the traditional interpretations of the human condition. And there is also one common denominator to their solution to save the modern world. All of them implied two correlated ideas, which went right to the heart of the modern predicament, and were not just a corporatist reaction: first, that the poet - or the artist - is the cradle where the rejuvenation of the world can be carried out and, secondly, that the “principle of life” which they advocated was beyond all possible valuation.

  • 11 “ […] la modernité est cette époque où ‘être moderne' devient une valeur, disons même la valeur à l (...)
  • 12 Ibid., 102.

14According to Gianni Vattimo, modernity is the period in time when the only real value is “to be modern.”11 Faith in the secular world has redirected value from transcendence into the world: such separation is the true meaning of the term crisis. Hence the Nietzschean idea that the world is like a work of art, and its Heideggerian corollary, that the mind of the artist is the place where the essence of the world is conceived12.

15Nietzsche had emphasized the idea that the modern crisis stemmed from the removal of the highest values (such is the meaning of his famous phrase “God is dead”). As a consequence, the other values deployed themselves and came to be judged according to criteria introduced by the notion of progress. This explains the formidable impact of science and technology, as they were considered the only positive - that is to say, useful - values. Yet, as there is very little hierarchy or differentiation between these various values, truth is no longer a stable concept: it becomes a relative concept. But this needs some further philosophical and contextual clarification.

16As the conception of value as use-value or exchange-value already indicates its fundamental relativity, it is possible to say, with Heidegger, that even the notion of essence has been reduced to mere value, and as God is the supreme essence, an on-going nihilism, involving the systematic debasement of religious dogma, is the logical consequence of such a reduction. Since the highest value has been discarded, values can no longer be fertilized by any theological source, and it is thus possible to imagine that the fluidity and transience of the world permeates the mind of the artist and also the work of art. And therefore man, or the artist more particularly, remains the only place that is left for the unveiling of true reality. The artist is the only residence where truth is allowed to stay and to develop, in the infinite and hazy reconstitutions offered by artistic creation, because the mind of the artist is perfectly adequate to the ever-changing dispositions of the world.

17It was mainly in the 19th century that this shift emerged as an obvious dilemma. The famous “Victorian crisis of faith” revealed that the former source of faith in a stable transcendence had dissolved, and that the corresponding feeling that the world itself was stable had been dislocated. Hence the naturalistic pattern characterised by the accumulation of information and diverse elements of knowledge about the world, without any assurance of certainty. Of course this relativist conception and the crisis which it provoked was widely debated among philosophers well into the 20th century, notwithstanding the fact that the shortcomings in the idea of progress were pointed out with a vengeance after the First World War.

18In his work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, written during the 1930's, Edmund Husserl explained that real knowledge was founded in intuition, in the Lebenswelt, that is to say in the world of life and not in science. In other words, in modern times the “principle of life” was therefore the only remedy to the “principle of death” that was destroying the world.

19To criticise the “principle of death” and to return to tradition, whatever form this tradition may take, whether a pagan or a Christian one, is also legitimate, from an epistemological point of view. Insofar as modernity is founded on progress and on the constant overtaking of new values, one possibility, in order to make sense of the world, is to invoke values which have stood the test of time and to adopt a very exalted standpoint, suggesting that these values had in the past been the foundation of a harmonious way of life. Making sense of the world may also mean providing a direction and a purpose, ordering things, so as to supply some significance to people's lives, something people really needed after the chaos of the First World War. And this direction, this purpose and this ordering in life is generally called a tradition, a culture, or a wisdom, deposited by the ages through a long refining process.

  • 13 T. S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics”, in To Criticize the Critic and other writings [1965] (Lo (...)

20The aesthetic response of D. H. Lawrence and his contemporaries to the modern dilemma might be judged to be idealistic, if not totally utopian, insofar as their main tenets, even though they were grounded in a perfectly matched philosophical content, seem to favour a traditional world that has been pitilessly cast off into the past. Such tenets were widely considered as either outlandish or set in such obsolete and reactionary terms that they could only meet with general disapproval. At best, their attitude could be welcomed as a kind of Philosophia Perennis (perennial philosophy), a wisdom devoid of any reference to either space or time, detached from people's real and concrete everyday occupations. This is perhaps what Eliot referred to as the “pre-political area,”13the zone where artists are dealing with words and meanings: but of course, this precedence underlined its priority, at least in Eliot's mind. It would however be a mistake to ascribe to Eliot, Lawrence, Yeats, to Joyce or the other artists of the period the singularity of such an opinion, as the criticism which they addressed to modernity went far beyond the context of the First World War and the limits of their lives.

  • 14 “[...] no political and economic organisation, however much goodwill it commands, can supply what t (...)
  • 15 Robert Schuman, Pour l'Europe (Nagel, 1963).

21In an essay published in 1948 and entitled Notes towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot had claimed that only culture could provide the fundamental basis for a genuine reconstruction of Europe after the War.14 This point of view was shared by the “founding fathers” of the European construction after the war. It is often reported that Jean Monnet, one of the men who set up the ECSC in the early 1950’s, had exclaimed that if Europe had to be rebuilt again, he would first start with culture instead of relying on economic and political objectives. Even if the authenticity of this remark remains doubtful, it is in line with the opinion voiced by Robert Schuman, another of the “founding fathers” of the European Community, that Europe had to be a cultural community first, before being a military alliance or an economic entity.15 In other words, there seems to be some agreement now on the idea that culture is the key to a preservation of a mutual understanding and friendship between European countries.

  • 16 Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, Le nouvel âge du capitalisme, Paris : Gallimard, 1999 (see 84 for a (...)

22In reality, this cultural standpoint and the critical attitude towards the agents of modernization, is often presented as the option of last resort before the final collapse of civilisation. It articulates what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called “la critique artiste” (artist criticism), a form of artistic, literary and philosophical criticism, distinct from the “social criticism” inspired by socialist or Marxist ideologies. It is based on two main sources of exasperation16: first the disenchantment of the world, people's lack of authenticity, a waning interest in things and ways of life more generally; secondly, the feeling of a widespread violation of people’s sense of autonomy and creativity. As a major form of resistance against the capitalist trend in Europe, “artist criticism” has remained constant since the Romantic movement. The main spirit behind this has been the sense of a distortion of sensus communis (the Aristotelian κοινὴ αἲσθησις), of the demise of the Beautiful and the Good through standardization and materialism, that is to say the famous “principle of death” which Ruskin was alluding to. But beyond Kulturkritik or the forms of Cultural Pessimism, “artist criticism” is in fact more likely to be a component of modernity than a reaction to it.

23Hegel once remarked that the only lesson taught by history is that nobody ever learns anything from it. If it were the case, we would have adopted other ways and means, especially in our modern and democratic age. The modern predicament involves an ingenuous interplay between the “principle of life” and the “principle of death.” We are the prisoners of a modern matrix whose main feature is to restructure the world constantly, to aim at its constant optimisation, whether this optimisation be scientific, political, or simply obtained through the powers of the imagination. At least, we might give some credit to the position held by Francis Herbert Bradley in his Ethical Studies, published in 1876. In this book, Bradley suggested that “self-realisation” in our world meant first of all the careful observation of our station and our duties in our everyday lives, and that this is not mere social conformity, as the conflict of duties we are confronted to everyday dispels any lazy attitude.

  • 17 F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, p. 223. It comes close to the sensus communis I dealt with previous (...)

24But it is also crucial to go beyond this, and to aim at some ideal morality, a careful intimate and personal search for truths that transcend our casual existence. As Bradley wrote: “Man is not man unless social, but man is not much above the beasts unless more than social”17. In the Age of Lawrence, this meant opposing the materialism of positivists, naturalists, or utilitarians, criticizing all development of “laissez-faire” tactics. This opposition and criticism belongs to the modern predicament, but this is perhaps the only real choice left, before we can find another solution.

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1 Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror : The Calamitous 14th Century, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979).

2 Ibid., p. XIII-XIV.

3 Renaud Camus, Décivilisation (Paris: Fayard, 2011).

4 W. B. Yeats, Crossways, “The Song of the Happy Shepheard,” 1889, in The Collected Poems of W. B Yeats (London: Papermac, 1982) 7.

5 John Ruskin, A Joy for Ever (and its price on the market) [1857] (London: George Allen, 1897) 20.

6 T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber) 80.

7 Mircea Eliade, Aspects du mythe, “Le rôle des mythes dans les guérisons,” (Paris: Gallimard “Folio-essais”, 1988) 39 passim.

8 “What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem,” Collected Poems: 1909-1962, op. cit., 82.

9 'Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina' : 'Then dived he back into that fire which refines them', translation provided by Eliot in his 1929 essay on Dante.

10 See for instance Carl Krockel, War Trauma and English Modernisms : T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence (Palgrave, 2011).

11 “ […] la modernité est cette époque où ‘être moderne' devient une valeur, disons même la valeur à laquelle toutes les autres sont renvoyées”, Gianni Vattimo, La fin de la modernité: Nihilisme et herméneutique dans la culture post-moderne (Paris: Seuil, 1985) 105.

12 Ibid., 102.

13 T. S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics”, in To Criticize the Critic and other writings [1965] (London: Faber & Faber, 1978) 144.

14 “[...] no political and economic organisation, however much goodwill it commands, can supply what this unity of culture gives” T. S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture [1948] (London: Faber & Faber, 1962) 123.

15 Robert Schuman, Pour l'Europe (Nagel, 1963).

16 Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, Le nouvel âge du capitalisme, Paris : Gallimard, 1999 (see 84 for a definition and a contextualization of the term).

17 F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, p. 223. It comes close to the sensus communis I dealt with previously, and which Gadamer defined in Truth and Method as this combination of social feeling and humanist idealism, totally antagonistic to sophistry (Cf. Hans G. Gadamer, Vérité et méthode : les grandes lignes d'une herméneutique philosophique, Paris, Seuil, 1996, p. 35 passim).

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Jean-Paul Rosaye, « A Not-So Distant Mirror : The Modern Predicament in the Early Twentieth Century »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2015, consulté le 02 décembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Jean-Paul Rosaye

Université d'Artois

Jean-Paul Rosaye is Professor at the Université d'Artois. His fields of research are the history of ideas in Britain and cultural history. He has notably published a book on T.S.Eliot (T.S. Eliot, poète-philosophe: essai de typologie génétique, Lille, Presses du Septentrion collection « Racines et Modèles », 2000) and another book on F.H. Bradley (F. H. Bradley et l’idéalisme britannique.Les années de Formation (1865-1876),Presses Universitaire d’Artois, Arras, 2012).

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