Optional assignment: The Modern and the Postmodern {Coursera / Wesleyan}

Optional assignment: Compare at least two of our thinkers on the possibility of “coming to terms with the past.”  How do they understand the importance of understanding history or memory?


Defiance of memory against time in art


Coming to terms with our past denotes huge emotional strength, which at times humans fail to exhibit; letting go is a hard thing. Nostalgia according to a popular universal law is one of the most powerful aspects of life. It is in our history and memory where we find things were much better, more proper.  However, reminiscing the old hides the danger of failing to accept what’s innovative and new. How are we to attain progress if we insist on inhabiting the past? Prominent literature figures like Virginia Wolf and Charles Baudelaire have spent extensive amount of their work exploring issues arisen as regards memory and history.

It is hard for the average fiction reader to follow Virginia Wolf’s “stream of consciousness”. It is like we are sucked in the very minds of the protagonists, trying to follow their chain of thought and their inner preoccupations; at the same time a plot, perhaps insignificantly so, unfolds.

In “The Lighthouse” [3] we witness the symbolic depiction of the sea as a figurative metaphor of time. The beautiful calm sea turns violent and waves come crushing to the shores, much like time abruptly brings about change.  Woolf is talented in visual description: what we see is also what we should try to perceive.  The second chapter exhibits strongly the devastating alterations that come to pass within a ten year bracket.  Recounting the deaths of Prue and Andrew Ramsay, Woolf’s sentences become few and short. Symbolism again dictates that their deaths were either violent (war victim) or unjust (during childbirth); either way time causes premature loss. Mrs. Ramsey’s death is also indicative of untimely departure, leaving Mr. Ramsey almost helpless and unable to continue his philosophical research.

Near the novel’s conclusion Lily finally gets to finish up the painting she started ten years ago (again the past is echoed). Can art be our only consolation of stability in an ever-changing world? Lily contemplates: “nothing stays, all changes; but not words, not paint.” The forces of time may be unrelenting; neither Mr. Ramsay’s philosophy nor Mrs. Ramsay’s social gatherings were able to preserve memory. However art seems, according to Woolf, to be able to attain our experiences, meaningful moments of our lives.

Charles Baudelaire was also a man, whose art was meant to capture the fleeting little precious moments of life “for art is long and time is brief «as he suggested.  In his prose – like poetry he deploys symbolism and images taken from the “modern” urban boulevards of 19th century Paris. Again visual imagery – much like in Woolf’s writings – plays a crucial role in evoking nostalgia and intimacy for the past, as a true Romanticist would attempt.

Two of the poems in Baudelaire’s “Paris Spleen” [1] are mainly focused on the poet’s views concerning the passing of time. ‘Enivrez-Vous’ (“Get drunk”) calls for intoxication and indulging in life’s sinful pleasures. Time flees quickly and change comes in the form of death. So in turn men must seek ways to “Get drunk! Stay drunk! On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever!” if they do not wish to end up “martyred slaves of Time”. Art and pleasures again can save the day and push back time’s decaying omens. The poem “Already” – in French “Deja” – poses a puzzling riddle for the poet. How is it that in all its power, nature cannot save the humans from mortality?

Time seems indeed devastating and unbeatable. Yet memories of the past and even the sweetness of the present can be preserved through the medium that these two predominant artists know all too well. Literatures, poetry, paintings or whatever the ancient Muses inspire keep the past intact as time runs with incredible speed, stampeding everything in its wake.

Shakespeare once wrote a sonnet [2] explaining that yet another force is able to stand against the menacing Time: true love. The beauty of art and love transcend time, providing mortals with immortal values. As the years pass, rest assured we will still enjoy the writings of Baudelaire, Woolf and Shakespeare. Such is the power of memory in the arts.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. 

(Sonnet 116)




  1. Baudelaire, Charles: Le Spleen de Paris. 1869. Web. Retrieved 6th May 2013 from http://baudelaire.litteratura.com/le_spleen_de_paris.php#.UYeb-LWeOSo
  2. Shakespeare, William: Sonnets.1609. Web. Retrieved 6th May 2013 from http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/116.html
  3. Woolf, Virginia: To the Lighthouse. 1927. Web. Retrieved 6th May 2013 from http://www.polyglotproject.com/books/English/to_the_lighthouse











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