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Representing violence, rewriting empire.

DENTITH, SIMON. Epic and Empire in Nineteenth Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 245 pp. $88.00 cloth.

HAYWOOD, IAN. Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 270 pp. $69.95 cloth.

KUCICH, JOHN. Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007. 258 pp. $37.50 cloth.

Viewed retrospectively, the history of the British Empire seems to be composed of equal parts self-confidence and hubris. As John Kucich points out in the introduction of Imperial Masochism, however, for those living before or even within imperial times, their outlook was potentially different: "from the perspective of those who could not have anticipated future successes and who either knew of or had themselves experienced harrowing encounters with disease, captivity, enslavement, military defeat, dependence on non-whites, or sadistic cruelties ... narratives of British suffering may have seemed more honest" (7). Notwithstanding their significant methodological differences, all of the books under consideration in this review are concerned with the conjoined British experiences of nation and empire and with literary attempts to make sense of those experiences as they were taking place. Far from taking the coherence of nation- and empire-building projects for granted, each of the authors astutely recognizes that such coherence was precisely what writers during the period of the rise and zenith of the British Empire--approximately 1776 to 1914--struggled to articulate.

According to Ian Haywood in Bloody Romanticism, most previous studies of British Romanticism share a failure to appreciate the pervasiveness of violence in the period's culture. For Haywood, Romanticism as it was popularly experienced was not primarily about Wordsworth's ruined cottages or Shelley's skylarks; rather, it was about the apparently endless series of wars, uprisings, rebellions, and riots that punctuated the period. Between the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, slave rebellions in San Domingo (now Haiti) and Demerara (now part of Guyana), the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and a seemingly interminable succession of domestic riots, the British literary marketplace was consistently saturated with contemporary images of violence and death. Haywood admits in his introduction that he is "not trying to construct a coherent genealogy or metanarrative" (8) of violence in the Romantic era; rather, his primary aim is to demonstrate the omnipresence of violent images and motifs in Romanticism, a task that he admirably fulfills through copious examples, many of them archival and non-canonical and some of them visually striking. He includes, for example, William Blake's disturbing images of slaves being beaten, which were commissioned to illustrate John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negoes of Surinam (1796).

One noticeable drawback of Haywood's approach is a certain amount of repetition: in his desire to convey just how thoroughly Romantic Britain was awash in bloody imagery, Haywood's book occasionally reads like one of the catalogues of period violence that he discusses. The primary advantage of his method, however, is that it allows for a forceful rereading of the era's poetry, prose, and visual culture that highlights the hitherto underregarded place of what Haywood calls "spectacular violence" in Romanticism's representational repertoire. Throughout Bloody Romanticism, then, scenes of spectacular violence are carefully analyzed from a variety of ideological perspectives. Indeed, Heywood explicitly argues that such scenes cannot be identified in advance with any particular ideological motive; instead, different configurations of the three main elements of any scene of suffering--the victim, the perpetrator, and the spectator or reader--"made the relations of power ... complex and challenging" (5). This productive refusal to prejudge the politics of a given scene of spectacular violence leads Haywood to propose interpretations that occasionally run counter to the currents of contemporary criticism. For example, whereas most recent critics have viewed accounts and images of slave executions as indexical of the British public's voyeuristic appetite for scenes of interracial violence and colonial domination, Haywood is more interested in the way such scenes were central to the antislavery campaign insofar as they "brought the body of the suffering slave into the heart of British culture and made it the responsibility of that culture" (25). Later in the book, Heywood considers representations of the Gordon Riots, which engulfed London in June of 1780 after Parliament failed to repeal the Catholic Relief Bill of 1778; ten thousand soldiers were eventually required to restore order but only after over two hundred rioters had been killed and over four hundred arrested. Haywood points out, however, that we should probably be suspicious of the traditional account of the riot as originating in spontaneous anti-Catholic sentiment, especially as no Catholics were actually killed by the rioters. Accordingly, Haywood focuses on "conspiratorial theories concerning the motivation of the rioters," such that "it is the carnivalesque or Saturnalian features of the narrative which demand attention: inverted power, transgression, taboo, and the grotesque body" (185). In these and many other examples, Haywood demonstrates both the danger of generalizing about the politics of representations of spectacular violence in the Romantic period and the necessity of close but contextualized readings that always pay attention to the "the ability of literary texts to say and do something meaningful about the 'real' world of power, suffering, and pain" (222).

The political and social violence of the Romantic period, so thoroughly delineated by Haywood, clearly needed to be tamed and directed if Britons were going to recover some sense of their national identity and purpose. In Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Simon Dentith argues that epic provided an appealing, albeit problematic, generic vehicle for authors looking to contain and manage the messy reality of forging both nation and empire. In a series of short chapters, Dentith chronologically reviews the attempts of British authors from James Macpherson to Joseph Conrad (supplemented by a conclusion that extends his line of reasoning to include Derek Walcott) to find a usable epic form with which to tell the story of Britain's progress to modernity.

Dentith begins his critical narrative in the late eighteenth century, with the advent of what he identifies as the problematic of "epic primitivism": the group of ideas surrounding the recognition that epic--as represented especially by the works of Homer--embodied a set of values (such as honor and ferocity) against which modernity could define itself. As such, epic primitivism entailed from the start an attitude of ambivalence toward the past: "the sense that contemporary civility marks a real progression from the barbarous past, but also that there is a real loss of glamour, heroism, or straightforward poetic interest in the decorous rationality of the present" (12). This attitude is embodied most straightforwardly in the Ossianic poetry of James Macpherson, who simultaneously celebrates the martial virtues of Scotland's ancient inhabitants and sentimentally consigns them to a past that is no longer threatening. By locating the origin of national British epic in the Scottish Highlands, moreover, Macpherson essentially created the model of mapping epic but barbarous qualities onto less developed, and therefore less modem, spaces--a pattern that would be repeated in the late-nineteenth-century imperial adventure fictions of H. Rider Haggard and others. At the same time, the controversy over authenticity that surrounded the Ossianic poems almost from their first appearance made explicit the problem of pastiche that consistently plagued subsequent writers: how does a modem writer create new epic work that avoids sounding merely derivative of original, truly ancient epics?

Macpherson's solution--to present his works as translations--created as many problems as it solved and ultimately proved unsuccessful. In a chapter on Walter Scott's poetry, Dentith explores how Scott solved this problem by creating for himself the persona of the bardic minstrel. Believing that epics were in fact simply elaborate versions of the traditional oral histories that circulate in primitive societies, Scott consistently presented his metrical romances as the productions of a latter-day minstrel singing to a rapt audience. Working within the stadial historiography of the Scottish Enlightenment--which theorized that all societies progress through stages of development, from the primitive to the commercial--Scott declined to attempt to present Macphersonesque imitations and instead produced poems that adopted ballad-like measures in order to produce the feel of antiquity without claiming actually to be antique. In this way, Scott was able simultaneously "to dramatize a moment of historical transition, when the social order or 'manners' which sustainted minstrelsy definitively passed away...and to claim the authority of that bardic tradition in the present moment" (43). As Dentith establishes, the different epic choices made by Macpherson and Scott represented the two paths available to poets throughout the Victorian period: try to produce "a nineteenth-century equivalent of the poetry of heroic ages," as William Morris attempted in his now-forgotten 1876 epic Sigurd the Volsung, or "provide a highly moralized story or set of stories that can prove exemplary in the present day" (74), as Tennyson did in his better-known Idylls of the King (1878). Either way, the risk of pastiche was always present. Accordingly, a poet like Barrett Browning chose to reject the traditional epic aesthetic altogether in her masterpiece, Aurora Leigh. In a fine chapter on this poem, Dentith uses a series of close readings to demonstrate how "Barret Browning's embrace of modentity ... implies the transformation of the epic, to retain those of its features which could survive into the contemporary world, and to repudiate the indications of its barbaric or martial origins" (98).

In the second half of his book, Dentith turns from poetry to the novel as the genre primarily responsible for carrying epic primitivism forward into British modernity. On the face of it, this seems like an odd conjunction; after all, Bakhtin famously argued that epic and novel embody not only competing generic aesthetics (with the monological epic being replaced by the heteroglossic novel) but also opposing worldviews: while elitist epic tells the story of the nation's development from the top down, the novel takes a more inherently democratic approach by representing a fuller range of voices and perspectives. As Dentith indicates, however, Bakhtin's assignment of epic and novelistic attributes has been greatly modified by Franco Morretti, who argues (in his Modern Epic of 1996 and Atlas of the European Novel of 1998) that the nineteenth-century novel both takes over the totalizing Hegelian dynamic of traditional epic and becomes the most effective form for imagining the nation-state as a unitary entity. Ultimately, Dentith argues for a middle way, ending his chapter on "Mapping Epic and Novel" by outlining "a further way of describing epic and novel in the nineteenth century: they may be seen as elements of a complex generic repertoire, among which writers could choose as they sought to shape or make sense of the world which confronted them" (125). In practice, this meant that late Victorian novelists of empire--including Kipling, Haggard, Stevenson, and Conrad, all of whom Dentith discusses-routinely looked to the less developed colonies for the epic virtues that they felt were lacking in, or at least suppressed by, metropolitan modernity. Kipling in particular is seen to be the legitimate heir of Scott, repeatedly presenting in his stories and poems "exemplary figure[s] of the pre-modern world, imbued with at least some of the heroic virtues" (161), and thus with attraction as well as danger. If epic primitivism lives on in the late-Victorian novel as a way of investing the colonial margins with atavistic glamor, however, it migrates to fantasy literature following the Empire's breakdown in the twentieth century. Accordingly, although Dentith gamely insists that the flight of epic from the realm of the realistic "suggests not so much the impossibility of epic under the conditions of modernity as its displacement into a popular and fantasised form" (211), the reader is left with the distinct impression that the discourse of epic primitivism, once such a powerful tool for comprehending both nation and empire, has perhaps outlived its usefulness.

In John Kucich's Imperial Masochism, several of the authors surveyed in the final chapters of Dentith's book take center stage: Stevenson, Kipling, and Conrad--along with Olive Schreiner. This book's originality consists less in its selection of authors than in the theoretical perspective that Kucich brings to bear on them: masochism. More specifically, Kucich is interested in the ways in which each of these authors combines an investment in masochistic fantasy with an interest in both imperial and class identities. This nexus of concerns is hardly self-evident, to say the least, but Kucich makes it compelling through a combination of broad argumentation and close but contextualized readings that frequently illuminate hitherto inexplicable or seemingly contradictory elements of these authors' oeuvres and lives.

Kucich is aware that, for most non-specialists, the term masochism tends to connote sexual perversity of the whips-and-chains variety. Accordingly, in his dense opening chapter, he is at pains to clarify what he means by masochistic fantasy. Whereas most theorists, following Freud, tend to view masochism through the prism of oedipal sexuality, Kucich, following the object-relations branch of psychoanalysis, finds it more productive to view masochistic fantasy as operating within a pre-oedipal framework. Such "relational masochism" carries two primary ramifications. First, as Kucich indicates, it "should be understood within a narcissistic problematics, not a sexual one" (22); in other words, relational masochism is primarily concerned with compensating for the psychic traumas stemming from a damaged relationship with a parent or parent-figure rather than with enacting the eroticized desires and jealousies of the oedipal complex. Kucich explains that oedipal masochism always has sadistic and sexualized elements that pre-oedipal, relational masochism lacks (140-41). Second, and even more importantly, the relational masochist's voluntary, cherished pain has a specific compensatory goal: the production or promotion of omnipotent fantasy. Admittedly, this proposition initially sounds counterintuitive, but Kucich neatly adumbrates the masochist's literally perverse logic: "pain is the origin of the need for compensatory fantasies as well as the stubborn reality that omnipotence seeks magically to transform" (22). He then helpfully, if rather clinically, delineates four main varieties of masochistic fantasy: "fantasies of total control over others, fantasies about the annihilation of others, fantasies that maintain the omnipotence of others, and fantasies of solitary omnipotence" (23). Each of these types of illusions crops up at different places in the writings of the four authors whose work Kucich analyzes in the remainder of the book.

Many scholars would be content to map the manifestations of the above-mentioned fantasies in their chosen authors; Kucich, however, is more ambitious than this. For him, masochistic fantasy is important primarily insofar as it intersects with two other discourses: imperialism and class. Indeed, Kucich goes so far as to state that he is primarily interested in masochistic fantasy not for its inherently political nature (he explicitly rejects the idea that relational masochism has any particular political dynamic in and of itself) but for the ways in which "such fantasy operates like a switching mechanism for rewriting social discourse" (84). In other words, the masochistic fantasies embedded in the late-Victorian writings that Kucich analyzes serve as matrices within which different combinations of imperial and class discourses can be configured, manipulated, and disseminated.

The long, single-author chapters that constitute the bulk of the book maintain the introduction's rigorous conceptualization of the relations between masochistic fantasy, imperialism, and class while also sensitively charting their differing configurations according to the personal situations and political positions of the author under consideration. In his second chapter, for example, Kucich explores the development of Stevenson's attempts to unify the melancholy and magical sides of masochistic fantasy. In early fiction like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Stevenson plainly splits the masochistic personality in two, with Jekyll representing the omnipotent power of the fantasist and Hyde violently acting out the anger and shame that frequently motivate the masochist in the first place (although, typically, these roles can also be reversed--a pattern that Kucich sees in the alternating bullies and victims of Kipling's later story collection Stalky & Co. [1899]). This model is continued and even refined in the Scottish historical novels of Stevenson's middle period, with the two contrasting brothers of The Master of Ballantrae (1889) "dramatiz[ing] a masochistic subjectivity that has lost coherence with itself and that fails to achieve the integration of self-imposed suffering with narcissistic omnipotence that is masochism's chief goal" (38). It is here, too, that Kucich locates Stevenson's characteristic ambivalence toward his own middle-class identity, as one brother's bohemian creativity conflicts with the other's bourgeois moral authority with ultimately tragic results. In his later writings on colonial spaces, however, Stevenson is able to draw remarkably more coherent protagonists by imagining that middle-class evangelical morality--which Kucich demonstrates is unmistakably masochist and which many of Stevenson's contemporaries feared had been lost in the waning decades of the Victorian era--could be recovered in a colonial theater. In forceful re-readings, Kucich shows not only how Stevenson's South Seas tales tend to critique imperial evangelicalism by demonstrating that "the wrong people seemed to be profiting from a return to the traditional moral springs of middle-class social power" (59) but also how Stevenson's political writings on Samoa allow him to merge the two sides of his personality since "only in the South Seas could he discover a political role that brought together the playful bohemian ironist and the bourgeois moralist" (82).

If the above summary does not do enough justice to the care and attention Kucich brings to his readings of Stevenson and the other authors that he covers in his study, it hopefully conveys something of the originality and productivity of Kucich's approach, which consistently strikes an admirable balance between the theoretical and historical poles of critical methodology. Indeed, as Kucich indicates in a brief conclusion, one of the overarching goals of his book is to reintroduce "both the category of social class ... and the domain of the psychological" into the practice of literary historicism (248). Taken together, then, the three critical studies under review here admirably succeed in suggesting that private, psychological causes must be taken into account alongside public, social forces when trying to understand how Britons experienced and represented their nation and empire over the course of the century and a half of its greatest expansion.

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Title Annotation:Epic and Empire in Nineteenth Century Britain; Bloody Romanticism: Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832; Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class
Author:Gottlieb, Evan
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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