Do the interests, concerns and experiences of writers in the Twentieth Century still have relevance to human needs in the Twenty-First century?
To answer this question in a word; absolutely! The lessons these writers are trying to teach are just as important to human lives today as they were when they were written. Sadly today, just as when they were written, most of these texts are ignored, misunderstood or underappreciated and people continue to live their lives in a kind of robotic and reactionary way.
Joseph Conrad revealed the arrogance and cruelty of European colonisation in the late 1800s. The plunder of other nation’s natural resources and the brutality to and contempt of the native peoples of these lands was extremely disturbing. Tragically, this continues in our own time all over the world. Rich and powerful nations continue to rape and pillage weaker nations that possess profitable natural resources; oil is a prime example in our day.
Next we met a bunch of German soldiers fighting in World War One in “All Quiet on The Western Front”. We quickly understood that these supposed enemies (form an Australian WW1 perspective) were just like us. They were fooled by fascist propaganda into believing they had an obligation to go off and kill total strangers. Once on the battlefield they quickly understood the absurdity, horror and pointlessness of war.
Through this novel and the poetry of many other World War One poets we were given a poignant and heartbreaking reminder of the preciousness and beauty of being alive. These men urged us to cherish the little moments in life and understand that this treasure that is life could be cruelly snatched away at any moment.
We also read the cunningly convincing poems of the bastards who anointed themselves champions of the war effort. They used their eloquent words to con young men into joining the armed forces. Of course most of these poseur poets usually never risked their own lives on the field of battle. Young men and women still go off to fight and die in wars without full understanding of what they are actually fighting for. The people urging them to fight are still sitting back in safety counting their profits.
Carol Anne Duffy’s update of a 15th Century morality play hammered home the pleas of the World War 1 writers; we must all appreciate and adore the limited time we have to be alive. This update is a prime example of how good writing can be timeless. The original play was written in the 1500s but the message is still crucial today. Even though the technology and material possessions were updated, the underlying selfish and materialistic desires of the protagonist remained the same; as did the underlying assertion that life itself is the greatest thing one can possess. This still remains acutely relevant. In this day and age we are constantly bombarded by ingenious advertisements insisting that we must purchase this or that in order to be happy and fulfilled. Our mindless consumption and pursuit of ego fulfilment threatens to rot our inner joy for the sake of fleeting and hollow pleasures.
George Orwell alerted us to the perils of the decay of the English language. Our language is the very essence of our thoughts and if we allow it to wither we will eventually be robbed of our ability to think and express ourselves. The clever use of language can allow governments to convince populations that atrocities are mere transgressions. Unjust invasions can be magically transformed into essential defensive manoeuvres with the cunning use of rhetoric. This kind of Machiavellian manipulation of the masses seems more rampant today than ever.
Finally we met the modernists who smashed the old forms and structures of writing (and visual art). They challenged the set patterns and strict rules of English literature in a quest to free the artist and introduce the reader to an exciting new world of experiences. We also got to meet English writers from many different races and cultural backgrounds, again adding a richness and vibrancy to our reading.
Personally I learned that life can be a fantastic journey if one has the courage to take it on with his eyes and heart wide open. That does not mean it will be all good; oh no. The world can be a cruel and intensely sad place and we must understand that hurt people will hurt people. However this is all the more reason to guard and nurture the beauty and kindness we find in ourselves and others. Ultimately we must cherish the precious little time we are given on this amazing planet and the great writers of the past and present can help us find a way to enhance our reality.