Critical Modernism

Recently, a student with whom I frequently discuss books and ideas mentioned in an e-mail — God forbid that two humans should meet in the same room these days — that she had just read Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (a book that is extremely popular here in Korea), and was keen to discuss it with me. As I have been a sort of literary mentor to her, she was genuinely surprised to learn that I had never read it.

Specifically, I told her:

“I once tried to listen to an audiobook recording of it, but the reader’s voice was so nice that I fell asleep.

“I think I was always hesitant to read it for a few reasons. First, it’s from the twentieth century, and I don’t like most twentieth century literature. Second, it’s a ‘children’s book,’ and I usually don’t like modern children’s books. Third, it’s French, and I rarely like modern French literature or art.” 

That reply led to a follow-up inquiry from my interlocutor, one which ended up, like many of our conversations, taking the form of an interview, or perhaps an interrogation. I reproduce the meat of the exchange here.

Why do you not like twentieth century literature, modern children’s books, and modern French literature or art?  

I believe all art and literature tends to be guided – usually without realizing it – by the leading philosophical ideas of its time. Modern art and literature, therefore, is guided by the leading philosophical theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And these theories are mostly unattractive to me. (I say “unattractive,” but I mean several stronger things.) So the art that borrows its perspective from those theories is unimpressive or unlikeable to me. That’s the simple answer. 

I don’t think you dislike everything in modern times, and therefore I think you dislike some features of modern times. Could you expand on that more, please?  

The art and literature (or philosophy) of modern times that I usually prefer is the kind that is critical of modern times. And when I say “critical of modern times,” I don’t mean the fashionable types of criticism, such as “Capitalism is bad,” or “Sexism is bad,” or “Religion is bad,” or “Americans are racist,” and so on. That is just mouthing the trendy assumptions of our time without thinking. It is only criticizing what we are “supposed to” dislike, which means “what we have been told to dislike.” That kind of fashionable, obedient “criticism” is in itself one of the modern ways of thinking that I reject. 

I like art and literature that questions those modern ideas, that challenges the assumptions of modern thought, that makes people think with a new, non-modern perspective. In other words, one of the biggest problems of modern thinking is that it is “closed,” meaning it doesn’t allow for outside or earlier points of view. I believe the best modern art stabs at that easy pride of modern thinking (“We’re wiser, smarter, more just, more moral than people in the past”), and makes us doubt and question ourselves.

In summary, there are basically two kinds of modern literature: the kind that loves “modern ideas” and promotes them, and the kind that questions modern ideas and challenges them. I like the second kind. 

What are the distinct features of modern times that you are not in favor of?  

If by “modern times,” you mean the past 150 years, then I could answer “Almost all the features.” Except for the independent thinking of the modern critics of modernity. Or maybe I should say “skeptics of modernity.” They are my spiritual brothers and sisters.

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