Modernism’s Dilemma

From “The Genesis of a Mood,” introduction to The Modern Temper, by Joseph Wood Krutch (1929); emphases mine:

The structures which are variously known as mythology, religion, and philosophy, and which are alike in that each has as its function the interpretation of experience in terms which have human values, have collapsed under the force of successive attacks and shown themselves utterly incapable of assimilating the new stores of experience which have been dumped upon the world. With increasing completeness science maps out the pattern of nature, but the latter has no relation to the pattern of human needs and feelings.

Whole realms of human feeling, like the realm of ethics, find no place for themselves in the pattern of nature and generate needs for which no satisfaction is supplied. What man knows is everywhere at war with what he wants.

The world which his reason and his investigation reveal is a world which his emotions cannot comprehend…Casually he accepts the spiritual iconoclasm of science, and in the detachment of everyday life he learns to play with the cynical wisdom of biology and psychology, which explain away the awe of emotional experience just as earlier science explained away the awe of conventional piety

Try as he may, the two halves of his soul can hardly be made to coalesce, and he cannot either feel as his intelligence tells him that he should feel or think as his emotions would have him think, and thus he is reduced to mocking his torn and divided soul…Man qua thinker may delight in the intricacies of psychology, but man qua lover has not learned to feel in its terms; so that, though complexes and ductless glands may serve to explain the feelings of another, one’s own still demand all these symbols of the ineffable in which one has long ceased to believe.




  1. Damn fine analysis, beautiful style. By now, decades on, the old categories of intellect and emotion have been shredded entirely, we are left with loosely-defined correlations and processes. Also this from Wikipedia: “He travelled in Europe for a year with friend Mark Van Doren.”

    • Isn’t it though? I can’t recommend his book highly enough. He’s got an Arnoldian soul, to be sure. Compare his tone to that of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”:

      The Sea of Faith
      Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
      Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
      But now I only hear
      Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
      Retreating, to the breath
      Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
      And naked shingles of the world.

      And “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse”:

      Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
      The other powerless to be born,
      With nowhere yet to rest my head,
      Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.
      Their faith, my tears, the world deride—
      I come to shed them at their side.

      Yes, definitely read The Modern Temper. I have a copy which you’re welcome to borrow.

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