I’m traveling for the next few days and won’t be able to post much, but to tide y’all over here’s an interesting report by Sam Jordison on a new year-long investigation of modernism at London’s Southbank Centre. Here’s the part that caught my attention:
So long as we take 1899 as the beginning of the 20th Century it’s possible to see one of the great flowerings in thought, taste and literary style. In that year, Sigmund Freud first published The Interpretation of Dreams and Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness. One is a descent into the nightmare of the unconscious; the hidden lusts, and brutality lying under the veneer of civilisation. The other – well, the same, only written in German and much, much longer.
Both books were scarcely read when first released, which seems incredible now, when we regard them as such keystones in the century of psychoanalysis, and in the great sweeping away of the old Victorian certainties. It also seems strange because they remain such vital, fascinating works. They are still read for their inherent interest as much as their historical value, and because they mark the start of a remarkable roll of literary production. Conrad, in particular, was only getting going with Heart of Darkness. In the next 10 years he would also write Lord Jim, Youth, Nostromo, The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. That’s almost as many stone-cold classics from one man as all the writers now living have put out since the turn of the millennium. One man who wasn’t even writing in his first language.
Or at least, that’s the way it seems now. There’s every chance we might be missing the masterworks under own noses, just as most of Conrad’s contemporaries failed to realise how well his novels would endure. He was someone who shone the way to the future – and you can hardly blame most people for missing him when the lights of the previous age were still so dazzling. In those early years of the 20th century, Victorians such as Thomas Hardy, HG Wells, Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle still dominated.
First of all, let me second the high commendation of Conrad. But second, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it, about what masterpieces of our own time we’re neglecting — what future books and writers seem minor or peripheral now, but to our descendants will seem full of genius.
And of course, reputations don’t just move in one direction: in 1899 Freud was a relatively insignificant figure; fifty years later he was universally seen as a titan of the modern world; now, while still recognized as a figure who had great influence, he appears to many as a mere charlatan whose influence was almost wholly pernicious. He’ll never be forgotten because of the importance he once had; but it’s hard to believe that many people will ever again take his theories of the psyche seriously.