Like many artists who were inspired by his work, Paul Cézanne was contaminated with the malady of the modern condition – indeterminacy, which can be seen in his art. He agonized over his paintings, and revised many of his canvasses over a number of years, while others remained incomplete with blank spots. Even with scrupulous observation, Cézanne realized that he could never be certain about the details of what he was seeing and so he was unable to complete a decisive, definitive representation.
Under the analysis of modern research, the supernatural in human affairs had all but been abandoned and other revered frames of reference shattered as well, revealing more ambiguity and uncertainty.
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity successfully subverted temporal and spatial absolutes. Elsewhere, scientists confronted bewildering paradoxes that appeared to thwart further progress. Werner Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle confirmed the latent, impassable flaws of empirical scientific knowledge. Not only were space and time represented problematic, but science itself faced its own limitations, and scientists were obliged to concoct theories to explain why they couldn’t explain.
After two centuries of original analysis and triumphs, attempts to fathom the world and our place in it had led only to a stalemate. 200 years earlier, Pascal remarked that “too much clarity darkens,” and, ironically, the massive body of knowledge compiled by the 20th century tended only to complicate many of the problems it was supposed to solve.
The very presence of and requirement for an “Indeterminacy Principle” demonstrated the growing awareness of ambiguity, alienation, and disconcerting relativism that distinguished the Modern condition.
The anxieties of the Modernist period were exacerbated by the excessive numbers of people butchered in wars and various purges, numbers unparalleled in history. The monstrous slaughter of the first World War, streamlined and magnified by the unprecedented innovations of technology, eroded confidence in the continued existence of Western civilization.
T. S. Eliot cynically disdained the “Great War” as merely another episode in the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy.” Eliot’s bleak poem The Waste Land has come to represent a Modernist manifesto, articulating the themes of sorrow, ennui, and decay. Who could have guessed that the Great War, the war to end all wars, would fade to triviality just twenty-three years later when World War II detonated?
Once more, scientists and technicians obeyed the call to arms, allowing the second World War to far exceed all previous records for mass slaughter. No doubt the Nazis’s policy of genocide as well as the advent of nuclear weapons appalled even the most blase cynics. This world war cracked the social foundation, and the effect on world spirit was catastrophic. It was from the somber postwar environment, specifically, from the wreckage of Europe that 20th century existentialism was born.
Influenced by Nietzschean nihilism, Heidegger’s dread, and having lived through four years of “total war,” the existentialists were an disaffected and dejected crowd who saw man’s condition as one of alarming ignorance. Jean-Paul Sartre, disgusted by the emptiness of it all, wrote of the agonizing nausea one experiences when the truth of the human condition is uncovered. Existentialists tried heroically and desperately to find a solution for making life tolerable, but they failed.
The Beats Generation, acutely aware of ambiguity and living under the constant peril of nuclear annihilation, Americanized existentialist dread and chose to cultivate a primitive and nonconformist lifestyle. The Beats writer William Burroughs went further; forsaking reality altogether, he approved the demented and self-destructive world he depicted in his writings. His philosophy would influence an entire generation.
The representation of man that emerges from the modern condition – a botched creature lost in the wrong world – is disseminated by painters, philosophers, and writers. There were basically two attitudes to this ominous vision: struggle desperately to restore life with a shred of significance or, more frequently, accede to its meaninglessness.
The second attitude is represented by the plentiful debilitated protagonists of Modernist literature. The Joseph Ks & Willy Lomans are Modernist heroes – trivial, incompetent victims drawn helplessly and inescapably into the vortex of the Void.