Modernity: a brief history


Last summer it occurred to me that—despite having delivered 2 series of talks on modern literature—I’ve never adequately defined what I mean by the modern or by modernity. So this brief series of talks is meant to fill that gap. My starting point is that the modern or modernity doesn’t primarily designate a particular historical period. Instead, I would argue, it’s a concept that itself has a history, for which the French Revolution (as with so much else) marks a beginning.

All 3 Modernity talks were held at Beijing University in October 2018. I’m grateful to Mao Liang for the invitation to deliver these, and to those who mediated at the individual talks: Mao Liang, Na Hai, and Wang Wanlin. Much of the prep work that made it all possible was done by Brook Liu (Liu Shui), whose constant helpfulness in all kinds of ways during my visits to Beijing University over the years I now sorely miss. Sophie Suo rendered much assistance as well. All the PowerPoint material was prepared by Zhang Bo, to whom I’m grateful for this + much else. Zhao Meiyuan was my very capable tech assistant at the talks—to her, my thanks as well. On Heine (an author relatively new to me) I got much valuable help from Jeffrey Sammons. For the website presentation, Tina Stenger, as always, was indispensable. And Cara Ryan made everything both here & in China much, much easier.

References to works cited in the text:


Schillers Werke, ed. Julius Petersen et al. (Weimar: Böhlau, 1943ff.)

Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, ed. Ernst Behler et al. (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1958ff.)

Lyrical Ballads, and Other Poems 1797-1800, ed. James Butler & Karen Green (Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1992)


Matthew Arnold. Lectures & Essays in Criticism, ed. R.H. Super (Ann Arbor: U. of
Michigan Pr., 1962)

Heinrich Heine. Sämtliche Werke, ed. Manfred Windfuhr et al. (Düsseldorf: Hoffmann
& Campe, 1975ff.)

Charles Baudelaire. Oeuvres complètes, ed. Claude Pichois. Paris: Gallimard, 1975-76.


Alfred Döblin. Berlin Alexanderplatz, tr. Michael Hofmann (NY: New York Review of
Books, 2018)

Complete Poems of Hart Crane, ed. Marc Simon (NY: Liveright, 1986)

Mark Rothko. Writings on Art, ed. Miguel Lopez-Remiro (New Haven: Yale UP, 2006)




Schiller Gartenhaus: Wikimedia Commons

Jena battlefield: Hiveminer

Tintern Abbey Wye River + ¼ mi. above:


Napoleon funeral procession:

Place du Carrousel 1850: Wikimedia Commons

Constantin Guys: WikiArt

Wall St.: Pinterest


Alexanderplatz 1929: Dima Ayyash

Alexanderplatz Umgestaltung: Bilderbuch Berlin

Brooklyn Bridge by Walker Evans: Art History News

Rothko 1957 #20: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra