Writing Against War: Literature, Activism, and the British Peace Movement.
It is rare that I read a book of literary criticism like a work of fiction: compelled to keep turning pages, unable to break away from the narrative force or engaging style long after the time for reading has ended. But such was my experience while reading Paul K. Saint-Amour's Tense Future (2015): I found myself captivated, rapt in a way usually reserved for fiction. Tense Future, awarded the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize and the Modern Language Association's first annual Matei Calinescu Prize, promised a robust reading experience but Saint-Amour exceeded my expectations with his wide-reaching and engaging analysis of "the relationship between warfare and futurity" (7). And yet, what could easily be heavy and cumbersome--total war and encyclopedic form--is proffered with such precision that the breadth and density of the analysis does not weigh down but rather fuels the reader, propelling her forward while demanding she attend keenly to the future imagined by the past. For that is Saint-Amour's subject in Tense Future: the past's understanding of its potential futures, bombed, war-torn, anxiety-ridden, or, at the least, shaped and saturated by the aftereffects of total war and the suspenseful anticipation of its return.
Evoking Walter Benjamin's ninth thesis from "On the Concept of History," Saint-Amour reframes the infamous angel of history in a manner that represents the project of Tense Future:
And what if some of the most trenchant critiques of violence we possess were mounted by those faced with a future they believed already lost to violence? In response, the angel of history would need, while facing the past, to bear witness to the past apprehensions of the future as the disaster or the storm oncoming. This angel would be willing to look over the cold shoulder it gives to futurity, not to gaze in fealty at history's triumphant consummation but in the effort to catch the dissident glimpses of the future--as otherwise, as retrograde, as null--that have since been consumed by progress. (23)
In Tense Future, Saint-Amour assumes the positionality of this angel, "bear[ing] witness to the past apprehensions of the future" and in so doing, he offers modernist scholars a new framework for reading the interwar and its literature. By leveraging what Saint-Amour calls critical futurities--"scholarship that takes as its object past and present conscriptions of 'the future'" (24)--he reimagines the interwar years, an especially important project for those who locate modernism's apex at 1922. Complicating the commonplace understanding of the interwar as a retrospective description mapped onto a period that during its unfolding was only postwar--"read[ing] the middle by the back light of its terminus" (34)--Saint-Amour contends that many conceived of the immediate postwar years as an interval between what was then the Great War and its anticipated sequel, even if the form its sequel would take on was still uncertain. Since the 1930s are already understood as a decade of increased anxiety about and mounting fear of a return to war, Tense Future's most significant contribution to modernist studies is through its attention to the years most closely associated with high modernism, providing scholars of the interwar a way to read canonical modernist novels like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses as products of a war-wearied present that imagines its future as one already damaged, if not foreclosed, by the violence of total war. "What would happen," Saint-Amour inquires, "if we were to transperiodize the interwar condition forward, conceiving of it as interrupted rather than ended by the beginning of the Second World War?" (37). One thing that becomes strikingly clear: interwar modernism has much in common with future-obsessed fiction written during the Cold War. In other words, by refusing to confine war to "an event that either is or is not happening within a global frame" (37), the twentieth century is reimagined, not as modular periods of relative peace flanking finite episodes of war, but rather as the continuous duration of interwar occasionally interrupted by an always anticipated and ever memorialized war. As Saint-Amour provocatively queries, "What would it mean to stop waging interwar?" (37).
There is an important caveat to Saint-Amour's argument that must be addressed. Although he does examine canonical novels--as well as other literature unequivocally not modernist--he "does not advance a wholesale redefinition of modernism in relation to total war, traumatizing anticipation, or encyclopedic form" (38). Rather, modernism for Saint-Amour is associative, probabilistic, and connotative, functioning locally and provisionally throughout Tense Future (38). In this manner, Tense Future emerges as an exemplary text for understanding the efficacy of weak theory. As Saint-Amour explains, unlike strong theory which proffers a totalizing view of modernism, rejecting the possible in favor of surety and completeness, "weak theory tries to see just a little way ahead, behind, and to the sides, conceiving even of its field in partial and provisional terms that will neither impede, not yet shatter upon, the arrival of the unforeseen" (40). The weakening of the theory of modernism compels scholars to eschew definitional approaches and embrace "uses, models, questions, temperaments, and possible typologies" (41).
As its weak theory approach suggests, Tense Future's bibliography is deep and its scope wide. Saint-Amour's argument touches on aspects of modernism and interwar writing as diverse as the archive, the epic, and encyclopedic form while also reaching forward into modernism's Cold War future. But of particular interest to Woolf scholars is his chapter "Perpetual Suspense: Virginia Woolf's Wartime Gothic." Saint-Amour encourages readers to attend to both the "radiant moment of presence" and the "rending moment of disaster" that Woolf's fiction highlights (92). Unlike Woolf scholarship that privileges the "luminous halo" of the present moment, to adapt a phrase from "Modern Fiction," Tense Future identifies and examines the sense in Woolf's fiction "that something terrible, even annihilating, is at hand" (93). Through this framework, Saint-Amour reads Mrs. Dalloway not as a novel reaching towards what it beholds as a possible future, but rather as a narrative seized, haunted by past shocks and the potential of future disasters (93). In this manner, Saint-Amour perceives Woolf's writing as cultivating an ethics of "perpetual suspense" that positions her novels as a "kind of second-generation sensation fiction...adapt[ing] the late gothic to the civilian's experience of world war" (96-97).
Beginning with "A Mark on the Wall," what emerges is an "air raid archipelago," tracing a path through scenes that explicitly and implicitly explore the experience of city-dwelling civilians in an age marked by the upturned gaze indicative of an emerging airmindedness (103). Of course, airmindedness--a phrase for which Valentine Cunningham credits Elizabeth Bowen (British Writers of the Thirties 167)-is more than the cultural obsession with new forms of air travel; after the German Gotha raids on England beginning in 1915, airmindedness carried with it the stress and apprehension of possible destruction. For Saint-Amour, this attention to the skies fueled not only awe and curiosity--what exactly is the skywriting airplane in Mrs. Dalloway penning in the sky?--but also fear and vulnerability--"The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?" (MD 14). The chapter thus brings a nuanced perspective to oft-cited scenes from Woolf's writing. Mrs. Dalloway, The Years, and "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid" constitute Saint-Amour's air raid archipelago through which he reads Woolf's pacifism as inseparable from the discourse of total war thus challenging Alex Zwerdling's claim that Woolf's pacifism constituted an "'involuntary revulsion for the whole business'" (qtd. in Saint-Amour 97). Rather, Tense Future reveals Woolf's deep engagement with the discourse of total war, thus undercutting her well known declaration that "We are all C.O.'s in the Great War" (qtd. in Saint-Amour 97). Instead of assuming the role of the objector, Saint-Amour argues, Woolf "asked what could be seen anew from inside the logic of total war" (98). In other words, Woolf's pacifism leveraged the discourse and doctrine of total war--its rhetoric, temporality, form, and vocabulary--as her vehicles for thinking through and beyond total war. Woolf, thus, hones her pacifist gender politics, on display most fully in Three Guineas. Instead of perceiving the male soldier and the female civilian as "opposed by nature and law," Woolf, according to Saint-Amour, is able to present them as "intimately connected through social webs, structures of feelings, and their shared legitimation by a reproductive view of a national future" (98).
Charles Andrews's monograph, Writing Against War: Literature, Activism, and the British Peace Movement, joins the scholarly conversation currently oriented by Tense Future with an engaging examination of the 1930s peace movement focusing particularly on experimental writing by a diverse set of authors including Aldous Huxley, Storm Jameson, Siegfried Sassoon, Rose Macaulay, and Virginia Woolf. As such a line up suggests, Andrews's book exists at the intersection of scholarship on 1930s literary modernism and pacifism in the British peace movement. Rather than pushing against the parameters of either 1930s literature or modernism--since both are often employed simultaneously as period designations and aesthetic programs--Andrews leverages their overlapping contexts in order to paint a complex portrait of interwar pacifism during the decade leading up to the Second World War. In order to do this successfully, Andrews first attends to the slipperiness of one of his main concepts: pacifism. I found this brief introductory discussion extremely productive as it helped illuminate a central tenet of Writing Against War: that pacifism is "more capacious and varied than is often supposed" (7).
In fact, if Andrews's argument across all five chapters has one thing in common, it is the commitment to challenging the overarching simplification that has commonly attended pacifist literature--and, by extension, the commonplace reduction of 1930s literature and modernism to flimsy, one-dimensional constructions that do not account for the way politically-engaged, experimental, pacifist writing emerged within their concomitant cultures. By "showing how literary works engage with matters of peacemaking and conflict resolution apart from explicit representations of violence"--or, for that matter, explicit representations of peace--Andrews offers scholars of peace studies, war writing, 1930s literature, and modernism ways of reading that counter the tendency to divide literature written in the decade before the Second World War into categories such as war, pacifist, modernist, or 1930s writing. And by foregrounding the British peace movement broadly, and the Peace Pledge Union particularly, Against War "reframes the notion of 'failure'" so often associated with pacifist writing and privileges the "long view" on peace activism, opening up the canon of pacifist writing to works by modernists, veterans, and activists. Consequently, Against War is poised to be useful to many scholars in modernist studies and beyond.
Of special interest to Woolf Studies Annual readers is Andrews's chapter, "Thinking as Fighting in Virginia Woolf's The Years and Three Guineas." The beginning of this chapter rehearses the evolution of Woolf's image from E. M. Forster's "the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury" to Jane Marcus's portrayal of Woolf as an activist on the page (155), as well as her more explicit intellectual engagement with politics in the last decade of her life. Andrews highlights the political activism Woolf engaged in through her lectures--about which she was often ambivalent--and the Hogarth Press. Taking the Peace Pledge Union as an example, central throughout Against War, Andrews illustrates Woolf's proximity to, as opposed to her involvement in, pacifist and anti-war politicking. And it is this "'of but not in'" positionality that motivates Andrews's readings of The Years and Three Guineas, which occupy the last third of the chapter.
Against War offers Woolf scholars a compelling reading of her nuanced political position that does not lean heavily on her declaration in Three Guineas that as a woman she has no country. Woolf did emphasize her outsider position, of course, in gender and also by way of her refusal to join political societies whose activist strategies require complicity with patriarchal ideologies. But Woolf was also deeply engaged in the political unfoldings of her time, as scholars have meticulously documented--and on this score, Andrews's chapter does not add anything particularly new to the conversation. Rather, the strength of Andrews's examination exists in the way he situates Woolf vis-a-vis the broader peace movement and diverse pacifist writers. In fact, the majority of the chapter is dedicated to this rich contexualization and Andrews's readings of The Years and Three Guineas productively employ context as a framework of analysis enriching the close readings of relevant and frequently studied passages. In this manner, Against War makes a compelling argument for reading Woolf's 1930s writing as demonstrating "literary peace witness," as opposed being a straightforward example of pacifist writing. As Andrews concludes, "As long as we remain fixated on whether Woolf was or was not a pacifist at the end of her life, we will reproduce the pacifism/antipacifism binary that plagues so many attempts to examine peace activism" (190). Ending, as most studies of Woolf's relationship to war do, with "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid," Andrews refuses to celebrate Woolf exclusively as a pacifist writer whose anti-violence and anti-war commitment earned her a place in his study. Rather, he chooses to address her legacy as it is represented by the memorials that populate Bloomsbury near Woolf's Tavistock Square home: the bust of Woolf erected by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain stands in proximity to a statue of Ghandi, a cherry tree honoring the victims of Hiroshima, and an inscribed stone dedicated to conscientious objectors, and although her memorial "says nothing about peace activism," it "places her as a pacifist outsider working alongside the British peace movement" (193).
Cunningham, Valentine. British Writers of the Thirties. Oxford University Press, 1988.
--Erica Gene Delsandro, Bucknell University
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|Author:||Delsandro, Erica Gene|
|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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