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Rethinking Modernism.

Rethinking Modernism. Ed. by Marianne Thormahlen. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave. 2003. xiv + 286 pp. 47.50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN: 1-4039-1180-0.

Is it the business of criticism to accuse major literary figures of being mad? Two essays in this collection take the dangerous route of suggesting that we can understand modernism better by invoking delusional disorder, or paranoia. David Trotter does this in his essay on Lewis and T. E. Hulme, and Jewel Spears Brooker repeats the move: Pound's poetry was 'written by a madman' (p. 69). I am far from convinced that either critic is at home with either psychiatric practice or its language. Trotter's chapter here is part of his Paranoid Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), a book whose confused use of the terms paranoia, paranoid schizophrenia, and schizophrenia I have discussed at length in the Wyndham Lewis Annual, viii (2001). Brooker confuses mania with manic-depressive illness. This is a field that literary and cultural critics should treat with rather more caution than is apparent here.

The intention of this collection of essays is to revise 'modernism' as a classifying concept. Vincent Sherry shows an able critic working where critics should, with language and culture, rather than in the mental ward. Sherry attends to the tone and register of the literary and journalistic language used of the First World War, 'the liberal war' (p. 11 and passim), as he tellingly characterizes it, by such sources as the Westminster Gazette and a disguised C. K. Ogden. These sources are contextualized in Eliot and Woolf to define the moment, around 1917, when liberal modernity ended and modernism was born.

That is not, of course, the only revision made among these fifteen essays, which derive from a symposium held at Lund in Sweden in September 2000 as part of a wider project entitled 'Elusive Modernism', and which show an enviable gathering of Swedish, British, and North American scholarship. The Swedish contributors tend to describe debates occurring elsewhere, as Gunilla Florby does in arguing Linda Hutcheon's superiority to Fredric Jameson as a critic of postmodernism. Stefan Holander on Wallace Stevens and Erik Hedling on film proceed similarly, yet the quality of these discussions suggests that, like other European scholars of literatures in English, they should be less modest and pursue arguments of their own. Lars-Haken Svensson on classicism in modernism (Pound and H.D.) is a fine exception.

The outstanding essay here, and the one that makes the most radical revision, is Stan Smith's on Eliot. In 'The Disconsolate Chimera: T. S. Eliot and the Fixation of Modernism', two Eliotic revolutions are established. There is the early one we know all about, and another of the 1930s and 1940s that Eliot denies in his prose just at the moment he is enacting it in his poetry. Milton, rejected in the 1947 lecture but quietly embraced in the Four Quartets, is the focus of an act of revolution (or restoration--Smith's puns are endemic) that places 'Little Gidding' in the perpetual revolution in poetry going back through Wordsworth and Johnson to Dryden (tradition, therefore), but which also represents a postwar settlement, dated both to 1660 and to 1945, that is revolutionary and transforming: 'All shall be well', Eliot writes, as he 'seeks to assume the partisan radicalism of Milton' (p. 199). Although Smith has used a related strategy to rescue late Auden, this is revision with a vengeance.

Stan Smith's essay, together with strong contributions by Derek Attridge on Joyce, and Edna Longley on MacNeice, Ciaran Carson, and Paul Muldoon, and a valuable annotated bibliography by the editor, make Rethinking Modernism one of the more substantial collections of this kind to have appeared recently. Publishers are known to be wary of such essay collections, no doubt because coherence suffers when many speakers use a variety of methodologies to address a broad topic. In this case, the variety of voices is prevented from becoming cacophonous by what I suspect has been firm and skilful editing, so that the collection as a whole is both focused and vigorous. Madness apart, modernism is here made a little less elusive.


University of Plymouth
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Author:Munton, Alan
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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