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[End Page 321]
Modernist art is a child of the city. It was raised on the breath of a drunken Goliath. Not nymphs but wandering musicians sang lullabies over its crib. Nature did not offer it her breast to feed on. It was raised on the mist and flickering gaslight of the black city. From the very outset, therefore, it was accompanied by the sorrowful memory of a primitive, carefree life. By the light of the city’s electric lamps it could glimpse the longed-for past. Faith is dead, but without it life is impossible. So begins the creation of myth: its creators appear at the looted altar of sacrifice.
The old patriarchal structure is disintegrating. The Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren in his book Les Villages Illusoires mourned the death of the old world.2 The city rules. In the terminology of the new futurists, contemporary culture is an enormous city: London, New York, Hamburg, where smokestacks are taller than temples, where automobiles rush rabidly around, and rows of zeppelins gather for flight. There is no time now to look back: the cult of the minute is now king. The consciousness of the poet, weighed down by the steel-gray city, has erupted into a new, unknown song. Paul Verlaine’s “Sonnet Boîteux” and Aleksandr Blok’s Balaganchik (The Puppet Show) are representations of this new consciousness.3 Thus, gradually, a new set of faces emerges, the faces of visionaries.
Modernism is the song of these visionaries.
“Sad images arise before my eyes,” writes the English writer William Morris. “The dirty bourgeois culture of today permeates everything, destroying everything good in its path that has remained from a bygone age. It smothers the whole world in its embrace. Life has become a gigantic office. The place of Homer has been taken by Huxley, and the fiery poems of Byron and Shelley are gradually being exiled by studiously kept clerical ledgers.”4
Clerical ledgers could not, in truth, obscure poetry. The poems of Byron and Shelley were followed by Stéphane Mallarmé’s Hérodiade, Paul Verlaine’s Poèmes Saturniens, and Aleksandr Blok’s “Snezhnaia Deva” (The Snow Maiden).5
But what is now clear is that the artist and nature have parted ways. These two poles shall never again be reconciled. An example from literature can help us to see this more clearly. On the one hand we have Vazha Pshavela,6 the divine seer of Pan, immersed by the Muses in their creative torrent, for whom nature was all at once a font, a nuptial bed, and a coffin. There is no stylization of nature in Vazha, as in the work of the French poet Dujardin,7 who revives the bucolic. Vazha is untouched nature. On the other hand we have Oscar Wilde, who assigned nature the role of art’s handmaiden.8 It is true that Wilde, who matured in jail, was known to say that nature would cleanse him in its splendid waters and restore him with her bitter herbs. But nature could not have heard Wilde, who had risen ready for a new life. Nature had served him as decoration for so long that he could not muster enough sorcery to bring it back to life.
The city has created new forms. It was here that the foundation was laid for the new literary school known as symbolism. However ripe its appearance may seem, symbolism [End Page 322] has become a classical school and is already eyeing its grave. The French writer Remy de Gourmont provides an interesting explanation of symbolism:
“What is symbolism?” asks Gourmont. “If we rely on the correct grammatical meaning of the word, almost nothing. If we approach the question from another angle, then it can denote a whole multiplicity of ideas: individualism in literature, freedom of creation, the rejection of rote formulas, an aspiration toward everything extraordinary, even the bizarre. It also...