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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-12-17 15:04:27
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Expressionism was a German movement that found its most congenial media in painting and drama. The artist’s aim was to express, or convey the essence of, a particular theme, to the exclusion of such secondary considerations as fidelity to real life. The typical Expressionist play, by Bertolt Brecht, for example, concerns itself with a social or political idea that is hurled at the audience through every possible stage device—symbols, music, cinematic insertions, choral speech, dance. Human character is less important than the idea of humanity, and probability of action in the old realist sense is the least of the dramatist’s concerns. The emotional atmosphere is high-pitched, even ecstatic, and the tone is more appropriate to propaganda than to art. Expressionistic technique, as the plays of Brecht prove, was an admirable means of conveying a Communist program, and it was in the service of such a program that John Dos Passos, in the trilogy of novels U.S.A. (1937), used literary devices analogous to the dramatic ones of Brecht—headlines, tabloid biographies, popular songs, lyric soliloquies, and the like.

The German novelists Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, moving from the realist tradition, which concentrated on closely notated detail in the exterior world, sought the lightness and clarity of a more elliptical style, and were proclaimed Impressionists. But in England Ford Madox Ford went much further in breaking down the imagined rigidities of the space–time continuum, liquidating step-by-step temporal progression and making the visual world shimmer, dissolve, reconstitute itself. In Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End (1924–28), the reader moves freely within the time continuum, as if it were spatial, and the total picture is perceived through an accumulation of fragmentary impressions. Ford’s masterpiece, The Good Soldier, pushes the technique to its limit: the narrator tells his story with no special dispensation to see or understand more than a fallible being can, and, in his reminiscences, he fragments whole sequences of events as he ranges freely through time (such freedom had traditionally been regarded as a weakness, a symptom of the disease of inattention).

Myth, symbolism, significance

Creator of life-style and arbiter of taste

But the Austro–Czech Franz Kafka, the greatest of the Expressionist novelists, sought to convey what may crudely be termed man’s alienation from his world in terms that admit of no political interpretation. Joseph K., the hero of Kafka’s novel The Trial (1925), is accused of a nameless crime, he seeks to arm himself with the apparatus of a defense, and he is finally executed—stabbed with the utmost courtesy by two men in a lonely place. The hallucinatory atmosphere of that novel, as also of his novel The Castle (1926), is appropriate to nightmare, and indeed Kafka’s work has been taken by many as an imaginative forecast of the nightmare through which Europe was compelled to live during the Hitler regime. But its significance is more subtle and universal; one of the elements is original sin and another filial guilt. In the story The Metamorphosis (1915) a young man changes into an enormous insect, and the nightmare of alienation can go no further.

The novel can certainly be used as a tool for the better understanding of a departed age. The period following World War I had been caught forever in Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises (1926; called Fiesta in England), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories about the so-called Jazz Age, the Antic Hay (1923) and Point Counter Point (1928) of Aldous Huxley, and D.H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod (1922) and Kangaroo (1923). The spirit of the English 18th century, during which social, political, and religious ideas associated with rising middle classes conflicted with the old Anglican Tory rigidities, is better understood through reading Smollett and Fielding than by taking the cerebral elegance of Pope and his followers as the typical expression of the period.


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