Modernism: Creative Destruction in David Harvey, Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad

There are many accounts of Modernism and many more critiques of it. David Harvey manages to wrestles down these different accounts and put them in their proper place in his second chapter of The Condition of Postmodernity. In his account of the enlightenment influence on modernity, writers like Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad seem to be in agreement with him about the fragmentariness that accompanies modernism’s break from the past. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.Dalloway and Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent describe this fragmentariness of narrative with individual characters amidst a process of unification with an imposed objective time. Their description agrees with Harvey’s proposed tension of these opposing experiences. These writers also agree with Harvey’s concept of Creative Destruction, which is there needs to be a wiping away of what came before in order to establish what will come next

There is an internal tension within modernism Harvey quotes Berman in saying that

Modern environments and experiences cut across all boundaries of geography and ethnicity, of class and nationality, of religion and ideology; in this sense, modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity; it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. (Harvey, 10-11)

There is an internal unity disunity relationship in modernism. The goal of modernism is on the one hand synonymous with the objectives of Enlightenment thinkers which is to “develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art” (Harvey, 12). To create a unified experience for all people. This accordingly is a “secular movement that sought the demystification and desacralization of knowledge and social organization in order to liberate human beings from their chains. “ (Harvey, 13) this was supposed to be a liberating movement where all things were given an account to a systematized human rationality. The experience though is something very different.

Rather than a singular unified experience that is governed by an objective time developed by this universal, the experience rather pointed out by modernist writers is that of “insecurity, its penchant for totalizing chaos.” (Harvey, 11). Harvey quotes historian Carl Schorske in saying that

High culture entered a whirl of infinite innovation, which each field proclaiming independence of the whole, each part in turn falling into parts. Into the ruthless centrifuge of change were drawn the very concepts by which cultural phenomena, but also its analysts and critics fell victim to the fragmentation. (Harvey, 11)

The experience was this “fragmentation” from the “infinite innovation, which each field proclaiming independence of the whole”. Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf both articulate this fragmentation within the narratives of their novels. Joseph Conrad brings in fragmentation in the novel Secret Agent around the event of the bomb plot in the novel. Conrad seems to be suggesting how this explosion disrupts a tradition linear plot and how the disruption caused by this particular phenomena produces a chaos and insecurity that makes it hard to understand the events in a linear whole.  Chapters four through seven are before the explosion, whereas chapters ten through thirteen are after the explosion. Chapters one through three as well as chapters eight and nine are caught up in a confusion of chronology. This is to reflect the confusion that follows the bomb plot, someone who is experiencing the trauma as it unfolds, rather than someone who has had time to think and place the events in their proper place. In chapter seven we the explanation of the bomb plot, the assistant commissioner is getting information about the “Greenwich affair” (Conrad, 107) which he is being informed about. Chapter eight is the break in the chronology. Immediately we learn of the death of Mr.Verloc, one of the planers of the bomb plot,

Having infused by persistent importunities some sort of heat into the chilly interest of several licensed victuallers (the acquaintances of her late unlucky husband) (Conrad, 120)

We have yet to learn anything in the previous chapters regarding the death of Mr.Verloc. This is a rather sudden introduction to event that has previously had no allusion to. Then in chapter ten of all places we find Mr. Verloc still alive.

In that Mr.Verloc whom heat wished so much wished to screen I’ve found a man in that particular psychological state. The man, figuratively speaking, flung himself on my breast. (Conrad, 172)

This sort of fragmented narrative continues through the novel.

Virginia Woolf on the other hand expresses this fragmentation in another way. Rather than a few misplaced chapters in the chronology of the events, she introduces a range of perspectives in one given chapter on the event. The effect created is of dizzying fragmentation that the author forgoes to attempt to make sense of, but leaves to the reader to compile the given perspectives into a whole. The work of understanding the event is placed solely on the reader. A prime example of this happening is the event of everyone looking upon the airplane that is passing by.

Suddenly Mrs. Coates looked up into the sky. The sound of an aeroplane bored ominously into the ears of the crowd. There it was coming over the trees, letting out white smoke from behind, which curled and twisted, actually writing something! Making letters in the sky! Every one looked up. (Woolf, 20)

Virigina Woolf then has a host of characters comment on the passing plane. “Glaxo’, said Mrs. Coates” (Woolf, 20), “Kreemo,’ murmured Mrs. Bletchley” (Woolf, 20) and “It’s toffee,’ murmured Mr. Bowley” (Woolf, 21). Then from the observations of all these characters the reader finds out that it’s a toffee advertisement. A different kind of fragmentation than Conrad, but a kind that’s in agreement with Harvey’s estimation of the effects of modernity.

These effects are implicated into another concept articulated by Harvey called “Creative Destruction”.

The image of ‘creative destruction is very important to understanding modernity precisely because it derived from the practical dilemmas that faced the implementation of the modernist project. How could a new world be created, after all, without destroying much that gone before? (Harvey, 16)

How Woolf and Conrad figure into this idea is how their fiction breaks away from what has come before in a sense destroying the former notions of how narrative plots work in the novel. The broken chronology of Conrad reflects this notion as well as well as Woolf’s multi-perspective approach, which breaks away from the omniscient narrators who give the event and correct interpretation of the event. These authors rather leave the interpretative work for the reader to figure out.

The account of modernism that Harvey sets out is in agreement how it is worked out in the fictions of modernist writers Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad. The fragmentation that is inherent in modernism is worked throughout their novels especially in Secret Agent and Mrs.Dalloway. The breakaway with the past is implied in their construction of their own narratives. Their non-traditional approaches to chronological order of events, a non-linear plotline and multi-perspectives is indicative of this particular mood of non-unity that comes with the attempts of modernism’s attempt to universalize everything within man’s own rationality.


Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent: Joseph Conrad. London: Routledge/Thoemmes, 1995. Print.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. Print.


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