Modernism and metaphysics

Instructor: Professor Jørgen Veisland

Live seminar

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Modernist literary works coincide with paradigmatic changes in humanistic and scientific orientations. Multiple fields as diverse as philosophy, physics, music, painting, literature and history exhibit a marked renewal as far as the pursuit of cognitive goals is concerned. Religion and theology are replaced by a radical search for meaning and unity in the midst of apparent civilizational disunity and chaos. Through stylistic and structural experiments the modernist literary texts reflects the modern – late 19th and 20 & 21st century – experience of disorientation and meaninglessness while engaging in a cognitive effort to gain unity. This effort results in a metaphysical pursuit which in some cases is conducive to an intense transcendental vision and in other cases leads to ironic disparagement.


This course will be held online on Saturdays in October and November, starting at 12 o'clock CET.


First meeting: Saturday October 14 at 12h00 CET.

A series of short stories by modernist authors have been selected in order to illustrate and highlight the metaphysical tendencies in modern art. The course which consists of six meetings of one hour and a half. A few critical articles on the individual texts will be suggested for reading, at the most one critical article to complement each text.

There are no formal requirements such as exams etc. Everyone is encouraged to read the texts, all of which are short, and to participate in the discussion which will take up approx. half an hour after the one hour lecture/reading.

The target audience is university students, at bachelor, master and doctoral levels, as well as professionals from various fields and employments outside academia.



The first meeting will introduce the course with an analysis of Camille Pissaro's impressionist painting from the 1890's, “Rue St. Honore in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain”; the painting uses broad brush strokes to dissolve the surface of streets and building, penetrating to an otherwise inaccesible depth; with an interpretation of Wallace Stevens' poem “The Snow Man”, dated 1920, where the sound of the land in winter posits an absolute; and a reading of Stephen Crane's novella Maggie. A Girl of the Streets. (1895). The female protagonist meets disappointment and death as her romantic love for a young man encounters rejection.

The second meeting is taken up by a reading and discussion of Bruno Schulz' short story “Cinnamon Shops”, a story culminating in a visionary experience. (1934)

The third meeting will consist of a reading and discussion of Franz Kafka's short story “A Hunger Artist”. (1920's) Hunger is seen as an experiment with body and spirit.

The fourth meeting concerns Sherwood Anderson's short story “Godliness, I-IV”, 1919. An ambitious, fanatical farmer in Ohio casts himself in the role of an Old Testament character confronting God.

Meeting number five is devoted to a discussion of Ernest Hemingway's short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, 1930's. Illness and death are overcome as the protagonist approaches the eternal snow of the mountain Kilimanjaro.

The sixth and final meeting is going to be an examination of Kazuo Ishiguro's short story “A Village After Dark”, 1990. The story plays down the importance of a spiritual and intellectual leader, a former avant garde figure exposed to the criticism of childhood friends. A brief summing up will also take place during the last meeting.