Blog Post

The Shock of the Modern

The house of the Inca Garcilaso in Cuzco. Photograph courtesy of Jessica Cornwell.

The discovery of being culturally late is a profound human experience. This feeling of tardiness often compels us to leave home in search of better schooling and of social advancement. It changes us completely and distances us from our home.

I have written here about my own entry into modernity as a young immigrant to Canada, where I had to confront the metronome efficiency of Anglo-Saxon society.

I discovered a similar experience in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s bildungsroman, Nervous Conditions. Set in Zimbabwe, the novel chronicles the attempts of Tambudzai to gain an education. It begins with a stunning sentence: “I was not sorry that my brother died.” She is not apologetic because her brother’s death enables her “escape” from the drudgery and patriarchy of village life. Seeing her mother’s “entrapment” and the poverty of her home, she longs for social, cultural and material improvement. Now with her brother’s passing, she can take his place in the mission school run by her uncle.

Having performed brilliantly in that school, she then gets a place in the convent run by and intended for whites. But this move too is another step “away from the flies, the smells, the fields, and the rags.” Her mother warns her about the dangers and seductions of “Englishness” and the potential forfeiture of her communal ties. Tambudzai reflects on her mother’s admonition, but her mind runs to the promises of the convent: “The books, the games, the films, the debates—all these things were things that I wanted.”

This personal experience of belatedness has played itself out in global history, motivating projects of modernization and of nationalism. Having come upon this phenomenon in Greek history, I discovered, for instance, that early modernizers were driven by the sense that their society, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire, was backward. Arriving in the European cities like Amsterdam, London, Paris, Munich, or Marseilles to study or trade, these young men entered the modern age for the first time.

In these cities they discovered that Europeans had transformed their economies, politics, bureaucracy, and culture to such an extent that they abandoned the rest of the world to the sluggishness of tradition. In other words, these Greeks came to terms with the sense of being late.

Greek intellectuals came to discover what many postcolonial intellectuals would later, namely that their society had to catch up with developments already started in places like England, Holland, and then France, and Germany. They had no choice but to enter the race in which, as the observers of the current Greek economic crisis could tell you, they are still running, always comparing the successes on the other side of the border with failures at home. In short, these modernizers interpreted for their community the vast disparity they had faced in technological, political, military, and cultural development between home and abroad, and as a result of their discovery, goaded their community to change according to new models.

Perhaps the earliest individual to experience the tremor of modernity is the first American intellectual: the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, whom I discovered in Roland Greene’s new book Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Born in Cuzco in 1539 to an Inca princess and a conquistador of noble lineage, de la Vega witnessed the destructive power and overwhelming advance of the Spanish invaders. His mixed ancestry allowed him access to both worlds—indigenous and colonial. And growing up in Cuzco he learned from his mother’s relatives about the myths, traditions, customs, and history of the Incas.

When still a young man de la Vega left Peru and settled permanently in Spain where he wrote, amongst other things, two volumes of his epic work, The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, published in 1609 and 1616. The first volume dealt with the history of the Incas while the second was devoted to the period of conquest. Unlike later postcolonial intellectuals who interpreted modern society to their own populations, de la Vega tried to explain Andean culture sympathetically to the Spaniards, preserving in this way first-hand accounts of a rapidly changing society. His impetus was less to change than to preserve what had been wrecked.

About 75 years after the publication of de la Vega’s second volume and across to the north, the young Peter the Great witnessed the destructive powers of the new. Rambling through the European district of Moscow, he encountered the technological advances of Europeans. His shock was so visceral that he decided to gain first-hand experience of western progress by traveling incognito in 1797 to Amsterdam, the richest and most modern city of the time. Wandering through the streets as a carpenter, Peter discovered that Moscow seemed eons behind the Dutch city. Upon his return to Russia, he undertook what seemed the impossible, to build a new city, St. Petersburg, on the model of Amsterdam but ultimately to rival that city in glory. He achieved this goal  in part through the ruthless exploitation of labor. 

This is also the case of Dubai today. People may scoff at Dubai’s artificiality, its Disneyland quality with ski slopes in malls dug out of the desert and islands floating on the sea. But, as Daniel Brook has shown in A History of Future Cities, its impulse is, like Peter’s, to catch up and surpass the west. Brook cites an urban planner who was hired by Sheikh Rashid in the 1970’s and was told to bring Dubai “into the first world in fifteen years” and to make it the center of the Middle East. His ultimate directive was to roam the world in search of models.

It seems that we all find ourselves in the race to be modern. This desire joins Tambudzai, Peter the Great, and the Inca Garcilaso on a path that leads to as many gains as losses.

Gregory Jusdanis's picture
Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010), A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet (2014). He is currently working on a biography of C. P. Cavafy.