The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Around 1945: Literature, Citizenship, Rights

Around 1945: Literature, Citizenship, Rights. Edited by Allan Hepburn. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016. 313 pp. $34.95 paper.

Reviewed by Eleni Coundouriotis, University of Connecticut

Allan Hepburn’s edited collection is premised on the argument that ideas of citizenship shifted around 1945 from expressions of national belonging to universal rights, leading up to the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In this new dispensation, the state is viewed with suspicion: it is at once necessary for the realization of citizenship and potentially the most powerful violator of rights. At midcentury and beyond, writers in Britain foreground the idea of a universal humanity and posit how it extends and reshapes belonging in the international community. Thus this volume is intended as an intervention in the conjuncture of literature and human rights, a field of inquiry that emerged with Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith’s Human Rights and Narrated Lives (2004), and was followed by a cluster of books and edited collections of which the most influential is Joseph R. Slaughter’s Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (2006). Life writing, in the case of Schaffer and Smith’s work and before it in the politically interventionist Latin American testimonio, draws out the connection between literature and human rights and thus enjoys a privileged place as a genre. Furthermore, attention to lived experience has opened other types of writing to literary analysis: human rights reports with their intensely narrative thrust, the work of journalists (including photojournalists and filmmakers), and the witness of NGOs who, like Médecins Sans Frontières, see reporting from the field as a key intervention.

Hepburn’s volume stays focused almost exclusively on prose texts and imaginative engagements with either emerging ideas of belonging, or critiques of regressive ideas that constrain universality. The state is frequently referenced with anxiety and suspicion for its power to deny full citizenship. The recurring references to Slaughter’s work, moreover, highlight the centrality of Anglophone world literature as the canon from which this field of inquiry draws, and place a particular focus on the correlation of the Bildungsroman with legal personhood. Its promise of a robust experience of citizenship invariably comes up short in the postcolonial sphere, as Slaugter argues. Around 1945 can be located in a different iteration of world Anglophone literature, however, one that draws the periphery into the metropolitan literary milieu. Thus, for example, Hepburn discusses the British Nationality Act of 1948 and how it marks the transition in Britain’s postwar imperial policy without referencing standard works of postcolonial critique, such as Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (1996). The distinction between nationality and citizenship, inscribed as well in the UDHR which calls only for a right to nationality and eschews the terms citizen and citizenship, foregrounds the challenge of broadening citizenship rights. The premise of this collection is that cultural expression provides a necessary impetus for broadening rights.

The volume is divided into three sections and is prefaced by Hepburn’s historical introduction, which usefully draws a picture of the political and legal struggles that shaped the postwar era. Hepburn argues that the collection demonstrates a desire to hold onto the sense of transition or long aftermath, because of the way they create a sense of possibility, opening to more capacious and robust articulations of citizenship. This is not to say that we find much optimism in the texts under examination, but rather that the types of critique they mobilize are aimed at shifting our understanding towards inclusivity. The three sections are devoted to “Citizens,” “Violations,” and “Rights.” Thus, for example, Marina MacKay, thinking of citizens, identifies a preoccupation in midcentury British novels with institutions and governance that reflects the aftermath of the war: “Residual structures of wartime feeling” shape concerns not only with “horizontal relationships” but with “vertical relationships between these people and authority” (31).  Dystopian visions that pit the state against the nation proliferate, and function against our dominant cultural memory to undercut the more robust claims of citizens’ duties to the state after the war. This conservative response tracked by MacKay is extended in Ian Whittington’s analysis of Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness as a thwarted Bildungsroman that aligns the story of the nation with family and with the arrested emergence of the new. Perhaps ironically, it is the historical novel that provides a different, and more optimistic, vision at this juncture. Melanie Micir’s reading of Sylvia Townsend Warner and her larger argument about historical fiction’s investment in progressive historical narratives help create a counternarrative that recasts the postwar moment to expose what it deems inconsequential as in fact meaningful. Such openness to becoming is stressed as well in the final essay of the section on “Citizens,” Emily Hyde’s reading of Edward Steichen’s photographic exhibit and essay, The Family of Man. Hyde understands Steichen’s effort as constructive rather than critical. Steichen’s curatorial work stages encounters in which the viewer recognizes his belonging in the same human community as the subjects in the photographs, and hence is seized by a sense of responsibility and broader belonging.

The second section on “Violations” is focused on material that fits more neatly in the conversation on human rights and literature. Of particular value is Adam Piette’s essay on Samuel Beckett’s depiction of torture in Comment c’est, which is paired with an analysis of the widely read La question by Henri Alleg, who wrote from his own experience as a victim of torture. Alleg’s text is a classic in the literature on torture and the discussion of voice developed by Piette in his comparison of Beckett and Alleg makes an important intervention on the limitations of Elaine Scarry’s Body in Pain, the study that has shaped the discussion around narrative and torture. Furthermore, Piette usefully draws Victor Hugo’s L’homme qui rit into his analysis, creating a deeper historical trajectory for the topic of torture and narration. Beckett’s experimental style and his satirical voice are disruptive of the model for realist narration of atrocity. In this regard, the essay on terrorism and “idiocy” in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent by Janice Ho extends the focus on appropriate form of human rights narration. By turning to the most widely established narrative mode of human rights, sentimentalism, Ho’s compelling and fresh analysis of the mentally disabled Stevie, who feels outraged at injustice, locates the sentimental as disruptive of modernist expectations and draws the connection between Conrad and Charles Dickens. The sentimental could also encompass a reading of Stevie as allegory of the working class more broadly, where the sentimental would have behind it the power of a collective movement. Claire Seiler’s contribution on the early fiction of Kazuo Ishiguro and the aftermath of the atomic bombs foregrounds the important work of fiction in making the human once again visible. Hepburn’s own essay in this section clarifies that one principle of selection here is the interest in developing an imagination of intervention on behalf of the humanity of the rightless.

The essays reflect an emphasis on works that express a persistent sense of falling short, of the protections of citizenship remaining out of reach or unfulfilled. Much of the scholarship on literature and human rights, however, focuses on narratives of ameliorative action and the challenges facing those who chose to intervene to correct injustice or to respond to atrocity and humanitarian emergency. However critical, the focus has been conventionally on the savior/victim dyad. This collection, especially the essays in the last section, focus on the realms that lie beyond what can be legislated and hence return us to themes of failure or impasse. Mitchell C. Brown turns to Graham Greene, who with his impeccable irony, points us to the impossible that human rights dreams up. The sphere of human action as imagined in The Third Man is steeped in corruption and ultimately Greene’s target, as Brown shows, might be humanitarianism rather than human rights. To posit action that arises out of pure instinct of compassion is to invite self-interest to align itself with illegality. Life writing, on the other hand, persists as a key narrative mode for constructing subjectivities that demand a regime of rights and the belonging of citizenship. This tack is the more optimistic thread and we find it in Nadine Attewell’s essay on the work of Han Suying, who was born in China but of mixed Chinese and European heritage. Peter Kalliney’s focus on confessional writing in postcolonial African texts is also a way of locating the self as central to the making of human rights narrative. Confession that draws individuals to each other’s intimate stories becomes a narrative model for the national truth commissions, which examine a history of conflict and repression in order to pull everyone once again into the fold of a national narrative. Finally, Matthew Hart brings us back to the focus on citizenship and the failure of the state in the work of Caryl Phillips, a writer much concerned with the borders among journalism, history, and fiction. Perhaps the seam that a human rights framing can explore most compellingly pertains to the ways in which the real needs to be unpacked through an imaginative rendering. The language of the state is violent and exclusionary, but it is the literary intervention that can expose the extent of its impact.

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