Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 November 2022
It is one of the cleverest devices of the Modernists […] to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement, in a scattered and disjointed manner, so as to make it appear as if their minds were in doubt or hesitation, whereas in reality they are quite fixed and steadfast. For this reason it will be of advantage, Venerable Brethren, to bring their teachings together here into one group, and to point out their interconnection, and thus to pass to an examination of the sources of the errors, and to prescribe remedies for averting the evil results.
Thus cautioned Pope Pius X, in ‘On the Doctrine of the Modernists’, his 1907 Encyclical aimed at exposing the errors of ‘modernist’ interpretations of Catholic dogma. An ‘Oath Against Modernism’ followed in September 1910, two months before the time when, as Virginia Woolf claimed, ‘human character changed’. Extending to fifty-seven paragraphs, this pious pronouncement cannot be faulted for its polemical rigour: in what must be one of the earliest attempts to define ‘modernism’ as a project, aligned with rationalism, secularism and modern philosophical theories such as BERGSONISM, Pius X shows himself keener to attribute a coherent and literally un-canonical agency to it than many contemporary scholars. Such definitional reluctance is understandable as the term in literary and art-historical contexts has been imposed retrospectively since its inception in the 1950s, as Raymond Williams has pointed out (Williams 1989: 48). In fact, it may be more appropriate to define modernism as what it is not: for Theodor W. Adorno, ‘modernism is not a positive slogan’; it is a ‘privative [concept], indicating firmly that something ought to be negated and what it is that ought to be negated’ (Adorno 2004: 30). In that sense, modernism can be said to be consistently oppositional, including in its own self-definition. Even when one insists on the fact of modernisms, that plurality cannot be said to cohere into an easily unifiable position. Modernism, then, is not a movement, or the sum total of its AVANT-GARDES, their museum, archive or canon. Although it cannot be thought (or taught) without referenceor fidelity to the singular, combative challenges issued at their moment, innovative energies and EXPERIMENTS, their heroic failures and ongoing legacies, modernism is equally unthinkable without its ARRIÉRE-GARDE, the resistance to the charge of the ‘new’ and the recourse to tradition as the literary superego or enduring pantheon within which true ‘individual talent’ would find its place.
- The Edinburgh Dictionary of Modernism , pp. 1 - 4Publisher: Edinburgh University PressPrint publication year: 2018