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Modernity and Alienation

W.H. Auden wrote The Unknown Citizen in the year 1939, at the peak and in the epi-centre of modernist writing, just after he had recently moved from England to the United States. This was a fascinating transition for him that was coupled with a desire to escape England and the temptations of fame and national glory. Looking at the poem closely, an obvious relationship between modernity and the ever-growing alienation of an individual from themselves and from those around them seems to emerge.  

In what is considered as one of his most notable works, Nighthawks (1942), Edward Hopper suffuses colour in a striking realist fashion, and creates the image of modern American subjects as they existed in the first half of the 20th century. Their isolation is accompanied by severed human connections, which is a common theme prevalent in his work. He often presents his subjects in social spaces like a movie theatre, a restaurant, a café, or the beach. However, his focus lies in exploring the individual’s intimate space, where he juxtaposes their loneliness against the seemingly busy atmosphere of the social setting they are placed in. Olivia Laing wrote of the aforementioned painting in her book The Lonely City (2016), as she understood and explored the condition of urban loneliness in modern cities; she wrote, “Take Nighthawks, which the novelist Joyce Carol Oates once described as ‘our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness’… No one is talking. No one is looking at anyone else. Is the diner a refuge for the isolated, a place of succour, or does it serve to illustrate the disconnection that proliferates in cities?” 

A lot of modernist writers have written about the mundane loneliness of urban life – the crushing race against a fast-growing economy and an even faster growth in population that has ripped off individuals of contentment and satisfaction. The modern capitalist is not allowed to thrive on satisfaction because satiety will be the end of all production. The unfathomable desire to produce, which leads to an endless consumption haunts the modern subject. The individual is constantly plagued by the insatiable desire to keep consuming. Therefore, in such a society, success is almost absolutely defined by one’s avarice for material possessions.  

Georg Simmel, a German sociologist, in an essay titled The Metropolis and Mental Life, writes, “The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage, and the external culture and technique of life.”  

Baudelaire famously remarked that ‘every age had its own gait, glance, and gesture’, so the concept of an alienated individual, both from their society as from themselves, became the hallmark of the modern age. Through conditions which constantly shaped modern life and its participant citizenry, the metropolis fast became the very site of early 20th century modernism, and under the guise of individual liberation and revolution, modern citizens succumbed to the creation of their own alienated reality. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, it is perhaps this faceless identity that T.S. Eliot speaks of, when he writes that “there will be time, to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. Although not an entirely novel conception, since The Doom of the City or City of Dreadful Night by James Thompson written in the years 1857 and 1870 respectively deal with early forms of a similar theme of an alienated identity within the city, the social and psychological fragmentation amidst communities and individuals thus became motifs which were still used to define the aesthetics of modernity.  

While modernity can be studied as a reaction to the two World Wars and the revolutions that dominated the first few decades of the 20th century, modernist poetry, art, and literature were a consequence of the reactions of the people who lived and experienced the disintegrations of modern life. In a time that witnessed the world’s most inhumane and destructive events, the concept of modernism stemmed from the Cold War and the American legacy of becoming the ‘one true hegemonic power’ and thereby from the increasing obsession of consumerism and capitalism. The breeding grounds for this endless chain of demand and supply were the metropolitan cities, growing in the advent of rapid industrial and technological advancements.  

In the poem, Unknown Citizen, throughout the poem, the protagonist remains unknown and unnamed, thereby ripping him of all personal identity from the beginning; he is an individual who has been known to be ‘normal’, ‘sensible’, even ‘popular’ and in fact ‘a saint’ amongst the people of the town. There has never been any official complaint made against him and he has served the community and his country through a myriad of duties. He is said to own ‘everything necessary to the Modern Man – a phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire’ and is known to hold opinions that are considered rightfully just with the times. In short, he is the perfect product of a modern city, who constantly meets all the parameters of a well-organized and sustained metropolitan environment.  

The overarching image in the poem is that of an unnamed individual living amidst a crowd of other unnamed individuals, who serve as singular units of measures, being studied to look at the cumulative whole – the city. The defenceless individual within the crowd has not even the ability or liberty to attach a voice to his own life’s narrative. While there exists a sense of accomplishment within the community or the town (more specifically, the Bureau of Statistics) upon the various dutiful characteristics with which they have described the said citizen, there is a looming lack of anything resembling vitality, passion, or joy in the life of the unknown citizen, a complete absence of his perception.  

In a similar fashion, Ezra Pound’s poem, In a Station of the Metro, elucidates upon the very random act of simply observing people come and go in a metro station;  

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd: 

Petals on a wet, black bough.” 

Pound’s portrayal of people being compared to petals that are stuck on a dark, wet branch of a tree or as ghostlike figures who just move around in a crowd-like fashion is a both a superficial and simultaneously profound representation of life in a ‘metro city’. The speed of everyday life drives the modern subject to do all that is necessary and the paucity of time in relation to the ambition and competition of a metropolitan life never allows the unknown citizen to pause and reflect on the Absurd with questions like ‘Am I happy?’. 

Modernist literature reeks of an inherent scepticism regarding the existence of an ‘I’, a single meaningful entity (which remains absent even in the poem), as well as a sustained enquiry into the uncertainty of reality. This scepticism is fueled by the cramped spatial reality of living within a city. Being part of a crowd, and its conforming nature, estranges people from each other as well as from themselves. While there is a growing sense of individual space and independence for a modern subject, there is a diminishing sense of community and communication.  

The alienation and isolation from and within a society have led to some interesting developments in the aesthetics of Modernist poetry, the concepts of self-reflection and resolution, as well as the creative reactions to the conditions of solitude, are all themes related to modern literature. By separating the modern subject from themselves and placing them within a faceless crowd, modernist poetry situates the modern subject in an isolated space of pure observation and inquiry, without autonomy.  

Michael Levenson, in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, writes, “To live within our own modernity is to be anxious about our place in time.” Questioning our own existence or our place within a conforming set of individuals may alienate an anonymous individual within the modern city. In an environment that does not allow closure to an individual, since the basic principle of a capitalist economy promotes endless production and consumption, the alienation of the modern subject in a metropolitan city seems to me, an inevitability.

Currently working as a freelance writer, Vedika Kaushal harbours a profound interest in research practices and cultural studies. She loves to read and study narratives, exploring the interdisciplinary connections of Literature with multiple fields of arts. 


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