Cubism was principally a movement in the visual arts in the early 20th century spearheaded by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. These painters explored new forms of expression by emphasizing subjective mental experience over objective sensible experience, fragmentation over linear plotting, and multiple perspectives over singular perspective. The movement influenced modernist novelists and poets of the same time period, such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner, who used cubist elements in their writing to push the boundaries of literary portraiture.
Coming off groundbreaking advances in the social sciences, particularly the theories of Sigmund Freud, cubists were more concerned with the internal landscape of the individual than the external landscape of the objective world. Likewise, the psyche, the subconscious, the conscious intellect and creative abstraction itself all became more important in modernist literature than the more objective, one-dimensional portraiture of the Victorian period that preceded it. In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” James Joyce plumbed the internal depths of his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, discovering a vivid and varied inner life that would come to characterize his later, more experimental novels: “His soul was swooning into some new world, fantastic, dim, uncertain as under sea, traversed by cloudy shapes and beings."
Stream of Consciousness
The cubists’ exploration of the mind through visual arts led many writers to do the same through words and sentence structure. Whereas previous modes of writing had relied on logic and clarity to convey information, modernist writers tried to portray thought as it happened, randomly and illogically. This method became known as “stream of consciousness.” One of the great pioneers of this method was Virginia Woolf. In her groundbreaking novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” she captured the streaming thoughts of multiple characters. For example, early in the novel, Woolf traces the random and erratic thoughts of Septimus, a war-scarred visionary on the verge of complete madness: “Men must not cut down trees. There is a God. (He noted such revelations on the backs of envelopes.) Change the world. No one kills from hatred. Make it known (He wrote it down).”
Anyone familiar with Picasso knows his paintings contained various planes and angles of perception. Modernist writers used this technique to great effect to show how narrative realities change through the subjective perspectives of different characters. A master of this technique was William Faulkner. In his novel “As I Lay Dying,” the death and burial of rural matriarch Addie Bundren is portrayed through the interlinking perspectives of more than a dozen characters. Each character has his own voice, tone and vocabulary, and relays the events of the narrative in a distinct way. Like Picasso, Faulkner created a stark collage of images revealing the subjectivity, and relativity, at the heart of human experience.
Fragmentation of the Individual
Added together, cubist techniques presented something rather frightening: the individual as an assemblage of broken images. With the same techniques, modernist writers explored the implications of movements like cubism. If subjectivity trumped all, then how could the individual retain a rational purpose in society? How could the individual avoid alienation, loneliness and despair, or worse, the fragmentation of insanity? In “As I Lay Dying,” Faulkner famously used a child character to show how identity is irrationally predicated on discrete, subjective percepts. Because his mother dies after he kills a fish, young Vardaman projects the identity of the former onto the latter. One chapter is composed of a single sentence: “My mother is a fish.”