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HopperGasThe British writer, C.E. Montague (1867–1929) poignantly describes this debasing process in an acclaimed book that appeared in 1922, Disenchantment. To read Montague’s text regarding his own personal experiences in the war and how “handsome and boundless illusions” transformed into cynicism, dejection, disappointment returns us to Ezra Pound’s earlier famous words in his poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), describing how “The Men of 1914” had “walked eye-deep in hell / believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving / came home, home to old lies, and new infamy.” Montague astonishingly replicates Pound’s feelings about the magnitude of losses and the spirit of lostness, and underlines an equivalent tone of dismay and despair in these words: “The lost years, the broken youth, the dead friends, the women’s overshadowed lives at home, the agony and bloody sweat—all had gone to darken the stains which most of us had thought to scour out of the world that our children would live in.”[1]

Montague’s words help to gauge the temper of the modern world as it would be rendered in remarkable poems and fiction written in the English language during the early decades of the twentieth century. A novel that communicates this temper in general and the feelings of disenchantment in particular, in personal and sociological and one could even say epochal contexts, is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). This novel also tells us much about the war and the postwar years, about human feelings and relationships, and about the malaise that would afflict individual and collective life in the era between the two world wars.[2] In this novel, the reader is able to gauge the mood of the times, in terms of both the human personality and the historical situation, as these were inevitably intertwined. What we recognize above all is a broken world and broken sensibilities impelled by the annihilative effects of war on both the human consciousness and the human soul. And, too, we witness the human condition in crisis in an epochal context of debasement and deterioration.

How inner human emotions, and particularly how love and death evince the consequentiality of a murder—war, is clearly a heart-word in the literature of disenchantment that Woolf registers in her novel, in which feelings of forlornness, desperation, deprivation are prevalent, and in which, to employ a Dickens phrase, we see how “a crestfallen, disenchanted man” emerges to characterize the modern age in transition. Romanticism itself, it can be said, comes of age in a world now abruptly shorn of illusions, dreams, promises of greatness. Human destiny, it seems, is arrested as men and women now confront their own souls—and their innermost angst.

History in life and life in history are irreducible phenomena in these years of crisis. The English novelist focused on in this essay ultimately provides a tragic vision of a society and culture not only under violent physical attack but also in moral disarray and dissolution. The men and women we meet in Mrs. Dalloway are casualties of their time, physically and emotionally wounded, and badly paralyzed by the power of might that is beyond comprehension. Disillusionment is akin to a sentence of death that has no surcease and that pervades their thoughts and actions, from “sickness unto death.” Their demons of fate roam in the dissimulative shape of those invidious forms of disenchantment that T.S. Eliot, in 1914, had prophesied in his poem on J. Alfred Prufrock, who is constitutionally incapable of overcoming hopelessness and lovelessness, and whose internal monologue embodies what Russell Kirk speaks of as “the intellectual and moral struggles of our time.” This is the Prufrock (“pinned and wriggling on the wall”) who lies transfixed in a modern hell, who knows the full pain of “voices dying with a dying fall,” and who lacks “the strength to force the moment to its crisis.”

Prufrock’s agonizing dilemma helps objectify the experience of the hollow men and women in the early decades of the twentieth century destined to suffer the madness of the Great War, and also to enact the feelings of laceration and derangement in post-war society. The raging battles of the war were to extend far beyond trench warfare and to become a battleground for the minds and souls of those who were to find themselves trapped in a situation over which they lacked the capacity to exert control. The tendency to play down the larger spiritual dimension of the human spectacle and instead to choose to concentrate on human patterns of behavior, sometimes to an extreme clinical degree, is bound to be one-dimensional. Eros, for example, is counted as an exclusive expression of physis in critical assessments, for instance, of Ernest Hemingway’s “inward terrain” and “the violence of our own inner nature.”[3]

Secular tendencies and habits that ignore the spiritual nature of ourselves, even when the spiritual substance is itself indiscernible or indefinable, fail to gauge the full force and effects of interior, invisible warfare as these encompass the human psyche and condition. As a result, the total picture of the human drama that evolved during and after the Great War is never fully comprehended when spiritual essences, both seen and unseen, are barely invoked or examined. Critical imbalance tends, as a result, to characterize literary discourse as a whole because of hostility to spiritual truths within a secular milieu. Indeed, the secular and secularizing view that pervades the intellectual realm in our time—and it is a view that promotes itself zealously—is ultimately advanced by zealous ideologues who rule over the cultural scene at large. This selfsame view, widely held and imperiously espoused, simply refuses to consider the origins and spread of the pervasive disenchantment in those early decades of the twentieth century.

mrs dollowayTo correct this critical imbalance is a central task here if the disenchantment that seemed to spread like a cancer in modern society after the war is to be perceived in its full power and complexity. “Enemies of the permanent things” should not be allowed to have the last word in twentieth-century life, literature, and thought, and in effect to denude the life of the soul in direct relation to the depth and magnitude of disenchantment as a symptom and portent of the spiritual malaise that deepened and accelerated after 1914–1918. The disenchantment that novelists like a Virginia Woolf, an Ernest Hemingway, and an F. Scott Fitzgerald elicit in their fiction has an immediacy that, in the course of time, underscores the prophetic element and ramifications.

The modern age, it can even be said, begins on a note of disenchantment that great imaginative novelists and poets portray in its specificities—a process that history amply confirms in the continuity of false beliefs. In a sense, it can be said, disenchantment emblematizes the deaths of belief that now define postmodern attitudes and habits, in those advanced forms of nihilism and anarchy that bring the Enlightenment to its final dismal hours of agony. Today, great humanistic artists (and critics) are thus being steadily replaced by “talents and technicians” who infect the literary scene with their dissonant sensibility. “We have suffered a paralysis or eclipse of imagination before the nightmare of history in this age,” the American critic John W. Aldridge notes in words that have a sad and harsh relevance.[4]

Virginia Woolf reminds us dramatically how great imaginative fiction unites social history and the truths of reality in memorable, enduring ways, conjoining moral intensity and civilized sensibility. To read the text of Mrs. Dalloway is to re-experience the full violence of war inflicted on body and soul and mind; to comprehend the ravages of cruel history; and, above all, to rediscover how disenchantment swept over the human personality and the state of humanity in a time of un-alleviating tragedy. That we are, it appears, at the beginning of a new age, a new social order, underlies the prophetic truths that great imaginative literature reveals to us in pensive words and voices that do not necessarily seek to define the phenomenon of disenchantment, but instead to render the experience in prose and in poetry, and in effect to reflect, in the more subtle tones of a growing awareness, the jarring rhythm of disintegration in modern existence.

A humane literary genius is actively at work in a novelist like Woolf as a moral realist who communicates her version of “the fate of man in the modern world,” unto “the end of our time,” what the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev in the thirties spoke of as “the internal apocalypse of history.” Contemporary critics, furiously “at war with the word,” generally choose to play down or to reject out-rightly intricate connections and interconnections that render issues and concerns that are the stuff of the imagination and of that shaping spirit of modern fiction, in form, in composition, in values, identified and interpreted in this essay.[5] Readers are today prone to assuming and accepting the death of great literature as it has been dictated by postmodern literary theorists and deconstructors. The theme of disenchantment, the text chosen to illustrate it, and the moral interpretation of both theme and text in the ensuing discussion, revolve around what one young critic, Mark C. Henrie, writes in an admirable essay entitled “The Refreshment of the Humanities”: “The best defense of the humanities is the activity itself…. The way for humanists to recover their cultural authority [and patrimony] is by doing what they do best: reading and explaining and criticizing the old books.”[6]

This is the first essay in a three-part series. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 2004).


[1] New York, 230.

[2] For a thorough examination of the conflict’s impact on Woolf’s war consciousness, see Karen Levenback, Virginia Woolf and the Great War, 1st ed. (Syracuse, N.Y., 1999).

[3] See Richard B. Hovey, Hemingway: The Inward Terrain (Seattle and London, 1968).

[4] See his Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the Assembly-Line Fiction (New York, 1992); and also his The American Novel and the Way We Live Now (New York and Oxford, 1983).

[5] See R.V. Young, At War with the Word: Literary Theory and the Liberal Imagination (Wilmington, Del., 1999).

[6] Modern Age: A Quarterly Review (Spring 2003), 178.

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