The Alienation of the Modernist Man

Sticking it to The Man. Student riots at Millbank recently.

Following months of recession, with promises from ministers that it will get worse later in the year, figures suggesting that up to half of the under-twenty-fives are either working part time or flat out unemployed, is it any wonder that there is despair and apathy among young people in Britain today? Despite educations (with all their overshadowing debts and subsequent public displays of catharsis) that seemed to promise us something more than positions at checkouts or dole queues, putting our faith in a system we could not fully comprehend, hoping for that outcome that we dreamed of, that we worked for for free, that seemed so tantalisingly close, yet remains illusive, despite all this, half of us can only afford to leave the house to stand in line at the Post Office.

Of course, it is easy to become bitter about this (as well as to generalize!), about the bankers and the politicians and all the fiscal complications that mean a select few still receive Christmas bonuses bigger than the entire collected revenue from our life’s employment, or, as I have chosen to do here, we could turn to some great ideas on the subject to find some small sense of solace. As I too am only working part time at the moment, I have a lot of time to read, somewhat irrevocably being drawn to novels, essays and poems that predominantly feature young men in unfair situations or else feel they are on a precipice, deciding whether or not to jump, perhaps just wandering back to their flat or office to carry on as before. These have quickly become my favorite pieces of writing. Most of them, as I’m sure you are anticipating from the title of this post, are writers who, when clustered together in the retrospect of history, could be described as the Modernists.

These are the writers and thinkers of the early part of the twentieth century, the ones who, without knowing it, we quote and reference continually, as well as following their lines of thought. Freud, for example, and his psychoanalytical neologisms, like Oral Fixation and Anal Retentiveness, are referenced in everything from high brow art right through to jovial conversation and pop culture.

For more great Penguin covers of
Kafka books, check out this.

But, no one else so ostentatiously felt this alienation, this detachment from society, as writers such as Sartre, Camus, Kafka and Nietzsche. The latter, in my opinion, was clearly a depressive who resented human life to the point where he is even credited with the invention of the word Nihilistic. Albert Camus and Franz Kafka, on the other hand, I believe, not only understood the ubiquitous sensations of alienation, of disappointment, of feeling lost inside the vast and unknowable system, but were able to render it in a fable-like way that makes them just as applicable now as when they were written. (I know we hear this all the time, ‘the vivid quality of the prose is just as relevant to the modern reader as it was when first published.’ But in this case, true – so indulge me.).

Albert Camus’ The Outsider (also translated as The Stranger), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, chronicles the fall of Meursault, a young clerk who refuses to pretend he feels emotions (specifically, sympathy and empathy) when he does not, ending up in prison and – we are lead to believe, his narration finishing just before we discover completely – being put to death for not conforming to the expected aesthetic morals of the time. Although, as I just mentioned, these are also the morals of our time.

Likewise, K. in Kafka’s The Castle, searches unrelentingly through a labyrinthine bureaucratic system to find justification for his supposed position as the Castle’s land surveyor. Kafka died before completing it, but from notes we are lead to believe that K. (also) dies and is buried, his wife receiving on the day of the funeral a note from the Castle that finally explains his confusing term of ambiguous employment with them. Only in death, it seems, does the tale’s protagonist discover resolution. This is the same fable adapted by Kafka in The Trial, where Josef K. actively seeks the crime he had allegedly committed, yet, is never told by the court what the offense actually is. Thus, he has guilt thrust upon him and, failing to find a logical conclusion, analyses his life in search of the crime. This kind of paranoia was to become terrifyingly real with the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe, but, in a not too dissimilar if less-extreme, less-political, more-metaphysical (and economic) way, we might find ourselves experiencing something akin to Josef K.’s unfortunate predicament.

Great first edition cover of The Trial.
Great. Love it.

While failing to get any job, one automatically assumes fault lies with himself; he is not qualified enough, he is not experienced or articulate enough. Yet, the fault lies truly with the imperfect economic situation, rather than with specific employer or prospective employee (unless you are a lazy bum, in which case the fault does indeed lie with you). In this way a great number of us are lost in the labyrinthine system, stuck between dole queue and unrelenting shifts in jobs we despise.

While the economy may persist like this for a while, it means that we must raise our game, think laterally, try to outwit the system that wants us to be found guilty. Perhaps, in some strange way, these Modernist novels tell us not of Failure but of Understanding. If Meursault had been questioned by Freud rather than a priest and a judge, then he might not have been put to death, but might have performed penance for his crime (maybe even counseling??), and been rehabilitated through the act of understanding himself better. Like these modern fables, perhaps this is how we should view our cultural situation now – not through the jaded eyes of disenfranchised teens and graduates, but through those still willing to see another point of view, another way to find the potential conclusion.

However, if you have to pay the bills tomorrow, this might not be how you’re thinking today. Yet, in between shifts or filling out endless identical details in application forms, why not stop by the library (it is free after all!) and rent a copy of one of the books I have filed into a list that might make you believe we are not alone in the cold, hopeless maze of history. Some of them might even make you smile.

Only marginally relevant picture of
Marlon Brando on a bike. Just because.

Rebel Without A Job – A list of Outsiders

1. The Outsider – Albert Camus

2. The Castle – Franz Kafka

3. The Trial – Franz Kafka

4. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

5. Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan

6. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

7. Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

8. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

9. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

If you have any additions or amendments to the List, please comment below! I love to chat books.

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