The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review Essay | Memory and Prophecy in the Space Between

Alex Belsey
King’s College London

Books Reviewed

Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire. By Marjorie Perloff.  University of Chicago Press, 2016.  224pp. + 8 color plates, 26 halftones.  $30.00 (cloth); $24.00 (paper); $10.00 to $30.00 (ebook)

Poetry, Modernism, and an Imperfect World. By Sean Pryor. Cambridge University Press, 2017.  226pp.  $99.99 (cloth).

Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form. By Paul Saint-Amour. Oxford University Press, 2015.  368pp. + 8 illus.  $31.95 (paper).

Prescience and prophetic accuracy are powerful phenomena that have lost none of their power to intrigue. There’s an enduring fascination with which we regard those who seem to have foreseen events or shifts in the course of history. Of course, as we know from the late-nineties furore over the so-called Millennium Bug and the (rather more light-heartedly regarded) apocalypse that was due to take place in 2012, there is a very high risk that bold predictions will be proved wrong and even met with ridicule. Nevertheless, prophetic pronouncements continue to abound in the twenty-first century, particularly when related to the contemporary socio-political situations in Europe and North America. Perhaps this is because the very act of auguring a future situation, all too often one that bodes ill, is a way of demonstrating that the prophet in question, or the particular school of thought they may represent, is able to see the signs in the present because of their understanding of the past. Whereas the religious prophets of old made claims to having been shown the future in visions or divinations, the modern prophet is likely to put the emphasis on how the future can be seen only by looking back to see what has already happened. To attempt prophecy is almost always to offer a warning; since the age of Greek tragic theatre, Western culture has been suffused with the fear of repeating the mistakes of the past. This is the fear of forgetting.

It should not be surprising that the aforementioned socio-political situations in Europe and North America—that is, the rise of populist politics stoked by economic underperformance, widening inequality, and antagonism towards immigration—have resulted in many commentators looking back to find highly provocative and emotive parallels to the 1930s in order to warn their readers as to which direction these situations could be heading. Jacek Rostowski may have argued in the Financial Times back in July 2016 as to "Why today’s politics do not mirror those of the 1930s," but the comparisons and their attendant portents of doom have only swollen in number since. In an interview largely devoted to surveying the aftermath of the Brexit vote in Britain, the unabashedly devastated Remain campaigner and former Liberal Democrat party leader Lord Paddy Ashdown laments, "Our age reminds me of the 1930s," citing many factors, albeit with the exception of the leadership of "mad militarists who want to go to war" (a caveat that he may, a year later, be of a mind to rescind). Writing in The Guardian in August 2017, Harry Leslie Smith warns of impending war in vague and terrifying terms—citing in quick succession, and with little elaboration, current instabilities in the Middle East and South America—by claiming to recognize the atmosphere of 1939 in the present climate, employing the emotive example of looking at the faces of the young and seeing the same lack of preparedness. The nonagenarian war veteran’s new book is ominously titled Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future (2017). Elsewhere, the continual reassessment of the 1930s has become a kind of ideological tetherball, with the similarly aged British politician Norman Tebbit, a staunchly traditional member of the Conservative party, penning a recent piece for The Telegraph titled, "Today as in the 1930s, real fascism comes from the Left." Again, the warning is stark: take heed of the past or lose the future.

There is something grippingly urgent and saddening about reading the literature of the 1930s from our position in a culture so shaped by the Second World War and so shadowed by the Holocaust and Hiroshima. In letters and diaries from the period, brief acknowledgements or even throwaway allusions to situations and agendas that would soon develop into catastrophe can create the effect for the present-day reader of an endlessly repeating series of events and an illusion of preventability. Somewhat inevitably, when reading such texts we look for indications that the writer could place themselves in a present moment, informed by memories of the recent past, and conceive in any way of the future that was to come. Simone de Beauvoir’s posthumously published Journal de guerre, commenced on 1 September 1939 and maintained (albeit sporadically) until 1941, gives a powerful impression of a static and eerily elongated moment for the city of Paris as its people waited for the final plunge into war. This wartime diary recounts Beauvoir’s quotidian movements and social engagements, a daily confirmation of some semblance of life whilst her partner Jean-Paul Sartre and her lover Jacques Bost had been sent to the front. The cumulative effect of even the smallest details being captured as Beauvoir traversed the city is the evocation of a spell of waiting in which the past was backwardly glanced at fearfully and the future seemed to lurk somewhere behind a crack in the door. Looking for some kind of precedence, Beauvoir revisits Gide’s Journal of 1914, remarking "many things similar to the situation now" (Beauvoir 50). Meanwhile, she punctures the accounts of her daily routine with statements predicting the violence to come, the hounding of anyone deemed a foreigner, and ultimately the world being "destroyed once and for all" (55). Seeking any prophecy that could be authoritative, she visits Sartre where he is stationed in Brumath and hears his assertion that this will be "a modern war, without massacres" (129).

Away from assessing the relative merits of Beauvoir and Sartre’s predictions, what is most compelling about the former’s wartime diary is its depiction of a present moment characterized by the agony of waiting; it is precarious, this feeling of life teetering on the brink before it truly plunges. In her very first diary entry, Beauvoir perceives "before me, an incomprehensible horror" (39). She refers to losing her sense of a "personal life" (43), to living "in a kind of stupor" (116), and to the eradication of such distinctions as "happiness" or "unhappiness" (45). She writes, "If only there was more going on and more danger," then she could be more focused through a commitment to self-preservation, as opposed to being left to endlessly speculate as to what will unfold (47). When so acutely aware that one is living in that fearful before moment, there exists a desire to bring on whatever catastrophe may await, if only because it will more easily allow for the conception of an afterwards. Accordingly, in June 1940, Beauvoir writes of "that very tragic interest" in wanting to live to see the war’s outcome, however terrible (271). Beauvoir’s wartime diary conveys the psychic toll of attempting to imagine something beyond the present, especially when that immediate situation is defined by precarity and the sense of oneself and one’s culture being subsumed. This struggle to imagine a future or something beyond in the context of a highly pressured present and the memory of recent history is variously considered in three recent monographs which place a particular emphasis on formal experimentation.

Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony, an exploration of the irony and deep skepticism of an Austro-Modernism arising from the breakup of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, is foregrounded by the prescience and prophetic accuracy of the writers whose work it elucidates. Perloff argues that post-1918 Austria was the crucible of the future—or, as Karl Kraus called it following the Great War, “the research laboratory for world destruction” (Perloff, 4)—and was therefore the most suitable place for thinkers and writers to be predicting where the young century would lead. These literary prophets were what Robert Musil referred to as the Möglichkeitsmenschen: those who engage in creative speculation (3). Having laid out the context of a situation in which Austrians were living with the dissolution of a formerly multi-ethnic, polyglot society, Perloff considers in dedicated chapters a range of writers working in various forms and genres who were doing so from the titular "edge"—a precipice defined not only historically, but geographically and socially. Given the precarity of post-imperial life, Austro-Modernism was less ideologically charged than its European counterparts, due to the breakdown of traditional power structures and centers (4-5) and more individualistic and jaded; paying attention to this fractured aspect, Perloff distinguishes her scholarship on the period from prior strains of Vienna-centrism (2-3). She also presents Austro-Modernism as not being especially avant-garde or formally experimental, but instead infused with a particular sense (6-7), later summarised as "a deep irony, an irony bordering on cynicism that accompanied extreme disillusion coupled with nostalgia or a loved and lost culture" (143). Each chapter employs detailed readings to expand upon the ironic (and often satirical) intentions and effects of a particular writer’s work. The resulting monograph is loosely structured rather like a series of vignettes or stand-alone lectures; the closing part of Perloff’s Introduction elaborates on the tragic life stories of many of her literary protagonists, but does little to outline the remit of the following chapters or signpost the stages of an argument. This approach is effective in its own way, peppered with fleeting allusions to forthcoming readings and in particular to the works and thought of Wittgenstein, to whom the book’s coda is dedicated. There is a persistent sense that Perloff’s book is haunted by the future, its early reference to "an anti-Semitic crusade" in post-1918 Vienna (10), and continual reminders of the period’s anti-Jewish attitudes casting the shadow of the so-called final solution, a devastating apotheosis of the very monomania that these writers, raised in a diverse and multi-ethnic society, railed against yet bitterly foresaw.

Karl Kraus, for one, identified the dangers of what would come to be considered as "total war." His "documentary art made entirely of cited passages" (12) sought, in his words, “to pin down the Age between quotation marks” (19), yet this should not be misunderstood as a belief that the present could be fixed and knowable, but instead appreciated as Kraus’s sardonic dismissal of that very notion, given that the very act of quotation necessities a future speaker or authority. Perloff opens the first chapter of her book by considering Kraus’s obtuse drama Last Days of Mankind (completed 1922) and remarks upon the prescience of his anti-propagandist critique of mass media and particularly journalism, citing such contemporary examples as CNN and more broadly the relentless twenty-first century news cycle (21, 25). (She asserts that this prescience has been overlooked by critics, as exemplified by the short shrift afforded to Kraus’s text by Stanley Corngold.) In 1915, preceding the interwar period upon which Perloff primarily concentrates, Kraus predicted the impact of the current war’s aftermath by describing the soldier’s return from the fray: “He will break through into the home front and start the real war there. He will grab for himself the successes that have been denied him…” (25). Kraus was coming to see war less as a matter of conventional weaponry and more of an oppression through advancements in technology and bureaucracy, gesturing towards later conceptions of total war (26). In Last Days, rumor and hearsay, even when being denied, overshadow or even create reality, its omnivorous appropriation of other texts both imitating this glut yet resisting fixedness or the kind of unity that characterizes a political agenda (35-36). The resistance of totality is a recurring theme in Perloff’s readings, particularly in the third chapter which addresses Musil’s great unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities (published 1930-43) and its conceptualization of the novel form as essayistic and digressive, a text that is often seeing double and that always proliferates (rather than consolidates or closes) meanings (76). The novel’s "essayistic meditations and speculations" resist totality (77), for, as Musil himself argues in his other writings, the essay form offers “no total solution, but only a series of particular ones” (78). This formal preference amongst Austrian writers for variation over unity, fueled by an acute pessimism as to where such closure or totality of thought could lead, returns as a dominant theme in Perloff’s coda on Wittgenstein, which considers his appreciation of the Gospels and their networks of familial relation and difference as opposed to the singularity and didacticism of the Pauline texts (160-61).

Paul Saint-Amour’s Tense Future, a major work on conceptions of total war and literary responses by modernist writers, puts questions of form to the forefront as it considers how the individual and collective ability to imagine a future can be oppressed by the expectation of violence. The book’s chief concern is "the relationship between warfare and futurity...turning cities and towns into spaces of rending anticipation (7). This anticipation, the tension alluded to in Saint-Amour’s titular play on words, results in a "(mis)recognition" by metropolitan subjects of "the future as foreclosed" (13). In light of the vast array of texts that Saint-Amour reads and references in Tense Future, the book’s most pronounced call to action is for further study of "critical futurities," defined as "scholarship that takes as its object past and present conscriptions of 'the future'" (24). Saint-Amour pays attention to futurity as a mode of thought in the book’s Introduction, identifying the various influences of Freud, Benjamin and Derrida; the latter is of particular relevance to his sprawling, slowly unfolding argument, with his opening of the term "nuclear" beyond a strictly post-war context to include the fears of archival eradication that have so haunted and influenced European literature since the seventeenth century (26). It’s this expansion of terms usually constrained to certain periods, for example the Cold War, that makes Tense Future so distinctive. Saint-Amour argues that "the coercive psychodynamics of mass dread" associated with the Cold War period "emerged as a palpable threat during the 1920s," making it clear that he is winding the chronology back further than studies of such phenomena that concentrate solely on the "gathering storm" in the 1930s (8, 11n). He establishes this with characteristic narrative flair by commencing the book’s introduction with a consideration of the pre-/post-uncanny experienced in Hiroshima (bukimi) before winding the chronology back to the codename "Gomorrah" bombings of Hamburg in 1943 and their toll on citizens’ conceptions of temporality, before winding back further to Lewis Mumford’s observations in 1938 of the "collective psychosis" in a city preparing for war (1-7). This is Saint-Amour’s introduction to the concept of total war and its attendant phenomena, particularly how its foreclosure of the future elicits "prophecies of social collapse, visions of the archive’s effacement, and military theories that capitalized on both prospects" (8). In the earlier parts the book, Saint-Amour examines literary responses to these phenomena, offering a strong reading of Woolf’s "The Mark on the Wall"—particularly its depiction of suspense as an everyday condition (106)—and how Woolf later developed such portraits of solitude into tales of "communal suspense" informed by her diaries’ records of First World War air raids (111). Yet the most compelling argument made in Tense Future is its thesis on encyclopedic form as employed by writers to resist totality and re-open the future.

Early in the book, Saint-Amour introduces "encyclopedic form" as a concept and puts forward his argument that encyclopedic texts resist the oppression of totality by offering an inevitable "partiality" and "counter-totality" that are "plaited" together (10); this form, he underlines in the closing passage of his Introduction, is the means by which certain writers expressed their dissent to war (42). His argument as to the features and intentions of encyclopedic form are fully developed in the book’s mid-section in a pair of chapters that bridge its two parts. The chapter on archival anxiety establishes the conceptualization in the literary and wider cultural imagination of the practice of compiling all human knowledge into textual resources. Using examples from science fiction and dystopian narratives, Saint-Amour explores the fear that libraries and archives contain the seeds of humanity’s ultimate destruction, for instance the knowledge that makes the development of world-ending weapons possible (140-41). Their very existence also shapes futurity in the cultures they represent, predicated as they are on prophecies that future wars could eradicate all knowledge; as such, Saint-Amour compares the appearance of time capsules to pre-emptive weaponry (180-81) and quotes in an epigraph a definition of the Encyclopédie as a "war machine" (179). Yet his key argument regards the distinction to be made between epic, the war-going nationalist narrative form par excellence, and the more expansive, and therefore knowingly compromised and fallible, form of the encyclopedic text (189). He resists the evolutionary, linear models of encyclopedic narrative posited by Edward Mendelson and Franco Moretti which claim encyclopedism as modernization narratives concerned with, respectively, national becoming and globalization (212-13). Instead, Saint-Amour argues that encyclopedism was a formal experiment undertaken by interwar writers—with Joyce’s Ulysses as exemplar (225)—to demonstrate the impossibility of full cultural assimilation and summation and in doing so express their resistance to nationalist politics: "The long modernist narratives that took shape during those [interwar] years were built not on an epic armature to foreground the lost totality of the present, but on an encyclopedic armature to contest the resurgent totality of the present" (214-15). It is perhaps appropriate that Tense Future itself is too full of allusions, chronological jumps and provocations—on subjects as diverse as the queering of nuclear criticism or the re-orientation of trauma studies—to ever follow through on each fully, being not comprehensive but instead fantastically entertaining as a plate-spinning performance.

Both Saint-Amour and Perloff challenge the notion that the period designated interwar was ever really "peacetime" proper. Saint-Amour highlights the particular situations of, for instance, postcolonial subjects (36) and more broadly argues that the years 1918-39, afflicted by all-pervading tension, were experienced "in real time as an interwar period" (8). Perloff emphasizes the terrible cost of so-called peace in post-imperial Vienna, citing Musil when considering the post-1918 punishment of the defeated: “The peace treaties [were] less forgivable than the declarations of war” (83). The latest monograph by Sean Pryor, Poetry, Modernism and an Imperfect World, presents the crisis experienced by poets in this period who had to reconcile the idealism and aspirational qualities that traditionally distinguished their chosen medium with a fallen world in which it was near-impossible to conceive of future peace and harmony. Pryor argues that "modernist poetry engages powerfully with the fallen world when it reflects on its own particular falls or failings" (Pryor 5). His is "a formalist argument about poems negating themselves, and it is a historical argument about the meaning of those forms and negations at a particular time," that being "a brief but important moment...from about 1914 to 1930 or so" (17). Given Pryor’s adoption of a formalist approach, it’s telling (and amusing) that he cites T. S. Eliot’s disdain for poets who exhibit "a lack of curiosity in technical matters" and the attendant immorality of such a dereliction of duty (57). The focus on form and technique necessitates a close reading methodology, which Pryor explains in the Introduction but most eloquently expresses on the book’s penultimate page, when he justifies the concentration on "single poems and volumes" by his chosen writers, as opposed to "the sweep of long careers," as best demonstrating how specific works "wrestled with the idea of poetry" that so often overshadowed them (196). Early on, he makes the distinction that poetry is not inherently hopeful, but that it is utopian (3). The underlying idea of poetry is that of an endless quest to conceive of better worlds and brighter futures, as Pryor discussed in his 2011 monograph W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and the Poetry of Paradise. In that tradition, "both Mallarmé and Pound dreamt of perfect languages," the choice of verb evoking both the imaginative will and the recognition of a world beyond reach that constitute utopian thought (14).  Reciprocally, utopia has often been imagined as a place for the flourishing of poetry, Edwin Muir proclaiming that "in the ideal society of the future everyone will be a poet" (12-13). Pryor skillfully elucidates how such lofty and burdensome hopes for poetry not only weighed upon certain modernist poets but were actively engaged with as their major works exposed their own limitations and failings. His description of the dialectic between "poem" and "poetry" as being between the particular and the universal, between the instance and the ideal (193), provides the context for understanding each of his chosen poets’ reckoning with the pressures of tradition and the task of imagining harmony in a fallen world.

Pryor lays out the key debates in an excellent Introduction that first establishes "modernism as the art of an imperfect or fallen world, and modernity as a world in which art is imperfect or fallen" (2). Having set up his argument on the condition of modernity, and on poetry as the exemplary art form for engaging with the fallen world, he embarks upon a detailed introduction to a range of socialist periodicals that represented "common preoccupations" of the twentieth century’s first two decades and contributed significantly to their intellectual climate (15). He focuses on the little magazines The New Age, Seven Arts, and The Masses and particularly on the religious qualities of many notable writings appearing in their pages. He reveals how their editors’ and contributors’ idealism (or futurity) was often figured in terms of building heaven on earth and how notions such as Original Sin and the possibility for humanity’s redemption were invoked in debates that grappled with the perceived chasm between the modern world and the just world of the future. In a 1916 issue of The New Age, Ramiro de Maeztu lamented that the "ideal of perfection has almost disappeared in modern men," linking it to Western civilization’s weakened "consciousness of original sin" (12); reviving this rumination upon perfection, then, was something that fell upon the shoulders of poets. In Poetry, Modernism and an Imperfect World, Pryor provides readings of major works by five poets, beginning with Ford Madox Ford’s "On Heaven" (1914). He presents Ford’s poem as vacillating between contradictions in its consideration of the ideal, but most prominently as disconsolate in its hopes for a heaven that is not simply an intellectualized fantasy but accessible to all (28). If poetry is complicit in that inaccessibility, then Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium (1923), as discussed in the book’s fifth chapter, defies the poet’s belief in the benefits of "happy accidence" over excessive deliberation or design, confirming that such brilliant instants cannot be realized in the routines of labor that produce poetry (or, for that matter, anything else). Pryor’s reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) meticulously examines its free versification haunted by something like Baudelaire’s "deliberately broken alexandrines" (53-4) in service of a familiar argument about Eliot’s vision of a fallen world—albeit one that convincingly asserts how the poem "confesses its complicity and implicates the art of poetry" (54). Pryor is similarly scrupulous in detailing the phonemic repetitions, in the relation to Freud’s theory of verbal wit, that distinguish Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose (1923-25) as not only satiric or beautiful by turns, but capable of expressing a profound indifference.

The most striking aspect of Pryor’s book is its reappraisal of Joseph Macleod, an underappreciated figure whose opus The Ecliptic shared 1930 with such other major works as Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday and Pound’s Draft of XXX Cantos. Pryor devotes his final chapter to Macleod and in such a way that sets up the poet’s concept of an imagined "poem of redintegration" as being key to the book’s conclusion (197). This final chapter begins by considering modernist poetry’s relation to the future, particularly with regards to prophecy; in an age calling for faith in the future, "Stevens’s compromised imperatives complicate that faith," whilst Eliot’s "imperatives and prophecies clash with age-old banes and eternal cycles," collapsing temporal distinctions (160). Once again, Pryor is situating modernist poetry as the knowingly complicit art of a world off its axis, with his reading of Macleod’s poem proving exemplary. The Ecliptic is a poem organized by twelve signs in reference to the zodiac, an appropriate conceptual framework given that, as Pryor explains, the ecliptic was named "the oblique circle" by the Greeks because of its divergent angle from the Earth’s equator (165). Pryor also reminds us that the zodiac is "contingent," appearing as it does "only because of our particular configuration of earth, sun, and stars" (167). His reading of Macleod’s poem teases out the overabundance of tangled images, mixed metaphors, and meanings, reveling in the opportunity to exaggeratedly attempt to follow the logic of Macleod’s lines down the proverbial rabbit-hole, touching on everything from astronomy and evolutionary biology to the practices of Phoenician traders (158-59). (Pryor’s grappling with The Ecliptic’s proto-psychedelic imagery could be the most heady and exciting literary performance in a book full of energized, impassioned prose.) Of the poets that Pryor addresses in this book, Macleod’s treatment of prophecy is perhaps the most ingrained in the mechanics of poetry itself, revealing through the structure and unresolved imagism of The Ecliptic how the continual proliferation of signs only serves to endlessly defer the imagined future. This overload of portent, this gathering of masses of material into what proves to be an oblique circle, reminds us of Perloff’s reading of Kraus’s intertextual barrage and of Saint-Amour’s concept of the encyclopedic; that is, of a text being consciously too full of material and potential misdirections, the fallibility of it totalizing form therefore putting forward a compelling critique of the very notion that the future can be intelligibly discerned from signs in the modern world.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. Wartime Diary. Trans. Anne Deing Cordero. Ed. Margaret A. Simons and Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Rostowski, Jacek. "Why today’s politics do not mirror those of the 1930s." Financial Times. 28 July 2016. 

Smith, Harry Leslie. "In 1939, I didn’t hear war coming. Now its thundering approach can’t be ignored." The Guardian. 14 August 2017. 

Tebbit, Norman. "Today as in the 1930s, real fascism comes from the Left." The Telegraph. 28 August 2017. 

Williams, Zoe. "Paddy Ashdown: ‘I turned to my wife and said, it’s not our country any more’." The Guardian. 16 September 2016. 

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