The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Ritual and the Idea of Europe in Interwar Writing

Ritual and the Idea of Europe in Interwar Writing. By Patrick R. Query. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. 257 pp. $124.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Charles Andrews, Whitworth University

A particularly fruitful development in the new modernist studies at the turn of the twenty-first century was the attention given to issues of nationalism and national identity. Generative works like Pericles Lewis’s Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel (2000), Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (2003), and Paul Peppis’s  Literature, Politics, and the English Avant-Garde: Nation and Empire, 1901-1918 (2000) helped revise earlier conceptions of a largely formalist, psychological and “introverted” modernism (e.g., Bradbury and Macfarlane’s Modernism [1978]). These studies saw modernist writers as motivated by nationalism and even at times self-consciously promoting the nation as a salvific force in the absence of shared religious narratives that once facilitated communal bonds. 

Appearing roughly a decade after this turn, Patrick R. Query’s Ritual and the Idea of Europe in Interwar Writing, responds by returning to even more ancient concepts and traditions than nationalism. The “idea of Europe,” as Query’s lucid overview demonstrates, was a stimulating concept for interwar writers, who “conceive[d] of ‘Europe’ as a way instead of an object” (9-10), and their various conceptions of this “way” of being European produced an “internationalism that contain[ed] nationalism without erasing it” (13-14). If the “idea of Europe” often emerges with a distinctly conservative character—most obviously in the “Eurocentrism” inimical to cultural studies and globalization theory—it can also be a more pliable concept suitable for broad-ranging liberal views of international collaboration. 

Query’s fresh contribution to this thinking about a European ideal comes from his assertion that literary writers thought about and enacted European identification through “making, watching, and using” ritual (23). Most unique in this argument is Query’s focus on three seemingly unrelated rituals that he shows were vital for the period: verse drama, the bullfight, and the Roman Catholic Mass. Should the association of these three forms strain credulity, one needs only consider Query’s opening gambit where he points out that Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon begins, remarkably, by employing all three of these tropes as ways to imagine European identity. In three sub-sections, each analyzing one of these ritual forms, Query’s argument traces the multivalent use of rituals in chapters on verse drama by T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and W. H. Auden, bullfighting in D. H. Lawrence and writers of the Spanish Civil War, and Eucharistic practices in Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and David Jones. This collection of canonical writers receives an unusual context and often enlightening readings throughout the study.  

The first section of the book situates Eliot as the clearest case of a writer whose aesthetic practices were invested in developing an “idea of Europe,” and while the focus in Query’s argument is verse drama, a nearly comprehensive range of Eliot’s other poetry, essays, and Criterion commentaries are marshaled in evidence of the thoroughness of his attention to the European ideal. Yeats provides a more perplexing case, given that his efforts toward a distinctly Irish dramatic form traded so heavily in Japanese styles like Noh and expressed some of Yeats’s most unredeemable fascist tendencies. Query provocatively suggests that those fascist elements—the relishing of violence and state-directed eugenics—were alluring to Yeats because they enabled a “European pattern of ritualizing life” (67). With Auden (and company), verse drama tacks much further to the left politically, and Query argues that Auden’s dramatic collaborations with Isherwood and others weds their aesthetic practice to the politics of collective action. Overall, this first section offers engaging readings of these writers’ attempts at verse drama, concluding that a sense of failure stalks through each as an ancient dramatic form transposed into modernity proved incapable of revitalizing socio-cultural conditions, much less steering Europe away from another devastating conflict.

Bullfighting is the focus of second section which, it seems to me, is the real heart of the book. Along with the literary analyses, we are treated to an introductory course in corrida de toros, the full ritual whose name resists English translation. The bullfight is an essential European ritual that has received short shrift in previous scholarship, and by attending to its role as both origin story (i.e., the myth of Europa) and blood rite with deeply religious and sexual resonances, Query finds new value in Lawrence’s chaotic novel The Plumed Serpent. Query shows that when Irish and English characters join a nationalistic religious cult in Mexico, Lawrence creates a surprising situation where “Europe is implicated in those parts of Mexico supposedly representative of indigenous life…[and] ‘native’ Mexico inheres in the supposedly alien European forms” (119). This reading challenges the accusation that Lawrence indulges in fascist fantasies by showing how Mexico becomes a testing ground for all kinds of political values circulating around and through the bullfight. Similarly, Query depicts the Spanish Civil War as “the political workshop for Europe, the arena in which the increasingly urgent questions of tradition and modernity, continuity and difference, order and freedom were contested on the ground, as well as in literature” (139). With attention to Auden, George Orwell, and Cecil Day Lewis, along with many lesser known writers of the war, Query shows how the violence of that conflict maps onto the bloodletting of the bullfight. Combining bloody ritual with Eurocentric idealism may not persuade anyone that the politics of Lawrence and the Spanish War writers are less unsavory, but it does show they are far from straightforward.

The final section considers the Mass as appropriated by three Roman Catholic converts who occupy markedly different positions from each other politically and theologically.  A surprising common ground is shared among them, however: “Waugh’s classical, Jones’s cultish, and Greene’s revolutionary Church squeeze out nearly all that might be called liberal, bourgeois, or secular” (167). First, Query shows that Waugh’s and Greene’s Mexican writings were in fact commentary on the Spanish Civil War. Rather than merely being ignorant of Mexican history and politics, as has often been claimed, these writers projected onto Mexico their thought experiments about Europe. Though this claim may be unsatisfying for readers skeptical about any kind of Anglo-European projection onto non-white cultures, it does sustain Query’s contention that the “idea of Europe” was adaptable for many political and religious purposes. For Greene and Waugh, and also in Jones’s Welsh-influenced Celticism, the outer edges of European identity were imagined through participation in supra-national Catholicism. Query clearly shows how Catholic ritual carried dense cultural meanings, but this section may be his most contentious, urging readers to accept a view that complicates Eurocentrism while also being anti-liberal. Some closer attention here to the theological and ecclesial contexts of his writers (rather than just their idiosyncratic appropriations of religious ritual) might have strengthened the sense of their relation to the transnational Church.         

In a book that juggles so many large topics, it may be unfair to call out omissions of additional lines of inquiry. But I do wonder, given the positioning of Query’s study as a rethinking of national and international identities, what he would make of the other related concept with longstanding purchase in modernist studies: cosmopolitanism. In his introduction, Query registers his difference from critics like Seamus Deane, who have worked to establish distinctly Irish understandings of writers like Joyce and Yeats who were once captured by an often under-theorized “international” modernism. For Deane, any expansion of Joyce’s Irish context threatens to quash the distinctly political, anti-colonial, and dissident purview of his literature. Query demonstrates that a turn toward Europeanness, the “idea of Europe,” not only restores a concept writers themselves proffered, but it also need not diminish the particularity of a writer’s national identity to comprehend this locality within a matrix of transnational and continental networks. However, I was left wondering how this concept of a particular national identity ostending toward an international “idea” squares with something like Anthony Appiah’s notion of a “rooted cosmopolitanism,” wherein patriotic values are enriched and framed by a simultaneous sense of global citizenship. Just as the works mentioned above by Peppis, Lewis, and Esty urge us to see modernism in new political lights, studies such as Jessica Berman’s Modernist Fiction, Cosmopolitanism and the Politics of Community (2001) and Rebecca Walkowitz’s Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism beyond the Nation (2006) draw upon Appiah and theorists like Bruce Robbins to understand the ways we might “think and feel” beyond the nation. Whether the “idea of Europe” is similarly cosmopolitan or whether it roots someone more deeply and locally within national identity is a question left open in Query’s book.    

Overall, Ritual and the Idea of Europe lays groundwork for several new avenues of research. Query makes clear that his three chosen rituals are by no means exhaustive, and he leaves open the possibility that other ritual forms proved equally durable and mutable in interwar writing. Failure is also a refrain in the book—not one of these rituals was proven altogether successful at binding European identities or ensuring peaceable coexistence—and the reasons for and consequences of these failures might lend themselves to further study. Provocative and engaging even when leaving certain threads hanging, this is a book from which there is much to learn. 

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