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  • Colonial Odysseys: Empire and Epic in the Modernist Novel by David Adams
  • Rebecca L. Walkowitz
Colonial Odysseys: Empire and Epic in the Modernist Novel. By David Adams. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Colonial Odysseys seeks to historicize two characteristics of modernist writing: its use of classical models and its articulation or critique of imperialism. David Adams attributes both of these characteristics to “the tortured working through of… the failure of the modern subject to replace God as a subject of history” (222). He argues that modernist writers (his principal examples are Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf; his secondary examples are E. M. Forster and James Joyce) set their narratives in colonial territories because these spaces allowed them to stage, sometimes reproduce, and sometimes reject a feeling of nostalgia for omnipotence and lost self-certainty. Adams’s title, therefore, refers to the metaphysical “odysseys” for which physical journeys serve as occasion and consequence: occasion, because physical journeys allow fictional characters to experiment with new ideas of authority apart from the godless center; and consequence, because the desire to regain a sense of authority often leads European characters to impose their will on other peoples. The journey or odyssey is not only a metaphor in Adams’s study, since he attributes the historical project of colonization to the historical problem of epistemological homelessness. (It is difficult to speak unmetaphorically of Adams’s argument since, as he shows, home may have a literal geography, but the meanings of geography are ideological and metaphorical.) Adams suggests that secularization led to colonization because Europeans needed to replace one idea of totality with another: if “home is a place where… the totality of the world is fully accessible to the subject,” then secular subjects can retain the metaphorical experience of knowing only by making their hold on the world more literal (47).

Adams’s book offers an articulate response to the accusation, leveled by Georg Lukács and later by Fredric Jameson, that modernist narratives are indifferent to or hopelessly ignorant of “the geopolitical phenomena that they seem to represent” in novels such as A Passage to India and A Voyage Out (2), which Adams examines in his study, and from the geopolitical phenomena that they do not seem to represent in novels such as Howards End and Mrs Dalloway. The first group of modernist narratives are said to be “distracted,” Adams explains, because they are too much concerned with the Odyssey of Homer, as it were, and not enough with the odysseys of present-day Europeans. Adams’s response to this accusation is interesting because it is not a refutation: he argues that modernists were indeed more interested in the self than in the world, but he argues also that problems of the self mobilized not only fantasies of travel but also the economic and social realities of colonialism. Adams thus suggests that modernists who projected interior voyage onto world voyage were not disengaged from history. Rather, they were representing the consequence of European secularization and modernity: filling or struggling not to fill “a god-shaped hole” (11 and passim).

Adams borrows the theory of “reoccupation” that is central to his account of the modernist novel from the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg. As Adams presents it, “reoccupation” refers to the process of answering “theological questions with secular ideas” (4). Adams uses Blumenberg’s theory to argue that modern thinkers used an idea of geographical totality to replace an idea of totality based on a Christian view of God’s omniscience. For the most part, the book offers a historically specific account of “reoccupation,” focusing on the intellectual and social developments of early-twentieth-century Britain. Colonial Odysseys is shaped not only by Blumenberg’s work but also by the tradition of Marxist literary criticism, especially the work of Lukács and Jameson. This is evident in Adams’s assumption that representing the world must involve offering an account of its “totality.” Moreover, Adams suggests that wholeness is a necessary aspect of social life as well of representation. He contends, for example, that Edward Said’s desire for a community based on affiliation rather than filiation “underestimates the human need for integration...

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