- Henry Green’s War: “The Lull” and the Postwar Demise of Green’s Modernist Aesthetic
In a recently published survey of the postwar British novel, Andrzej Gasiorek wisely commences a section devoted to Henry Green with the warning that “[a]ny assessment of Henry Green’s theory of fiction must be wary of lending it a spurious cohesiveness” (Gasiorek 34). The very heterogeneity of Green’s works identified here, the continual changes in technique through which each text is imbued with its own immanent formal logic, connects with Gasiorek’s decision to place his analysis of Green in a chapter entitled “Late Modernism as Social Critique.” A “scrupulous attention to style and technique informs [. . .] social critique” (23), says Gasiorek, contradicting those critics, like C. P. Snow, who had depicted modernism as a movement which had led the writer “‘to contract out of society’” (3).
To describe a modernist project in which aesthetic autonomy is, in fact, intimately tied up with social-historical developments is to evoke the aesthetics of T. W. Adorno, one of the most powerful and detailed theories of modernist art: “Adorno’s modernism [. . .] is a restless aesthetic dialectic of the new, driven on by the principle of dissonance, [End Page 865] in the context of an inherent tendency toward abstraction, which gains its aesthetic rationale from its immanent resistance to the reification of both social life in general, and the cultural sphere in particular” (Osborne, “Adorno” 39). Adorno’s theory, however, can also be interpreted as announcing a gradual circumscribing of the possibilities of aesthetic resistance that became particularly acute in the wake of World War II. Hence the various arguments subsequently generated by commentators influenced by Adorno who have nevertheless wanted, for obvious reasons, to salvage the oppositional validity of a much wider cross section of modern and contemporary art than the Adornian (admittedly caricatured) paradigms of Kafka, Schönberg, and Beckett would seem to allow. 1 Indeed, Gasiorek’s own view is that the novel today continues to be “a heterogeneous and mutable genre, which undermines its earlier forms in an ongoing search for new ways of engaging with a historically changing social reality” (Gasiorek 8). Green’s “late modernism” (23) forms, in Gasiorek’s account, an early moment in what is very much a contemporary, postwar tradition. Gasiorek describes the novel genre as it stands today as “a constellation of discursive practices” (13–14) that share “an impulse to represent the world” (14). Late modernism, the works of which form one of the new constellations, therefore represents for Gasiorek a starting point in the new manifestation of the novel in the postwar period. However, it is the emphasis on Green’s late modernism as a beginning that I wish to interrogate and modify here. My appraisal of Green’s writings, told through a reading of Adorno, will emphasize instead the sense in which they represent a termination as well as a beginning, a meaning itself inherent in the term “late modernism.”
Adorno and Green were born in the first decade of this century, and the writings of both men, it can be argued, express the sense of lives “damaged.” 2 That is to say, their lives were damaged in the course of a century where the incursions of technologized, instrumental reason had produced, for the first time, the terrors of mass warfare in the civilian domain, a warfare that, more generally, also included the genocidal ideologies of fascism and Stalinism. Additionally, forms of Western liberalism, although in many ways utterly incomparable with the excesses of overtly totalitarian systems, have inflicted partly analogous, partly responsive ideologies of their own. As we shall see in Green’s wartime short story “The Lull” (1943), a central text of this essay, [End Page 866] Green was able to express in characteristically modernist terms the instrumental, reifying pressures placed upon people and communities in wartime London. A diachronic survey of a wider selection of Green’s works, on the other hand, shows how Green the writer can be seen responding over time to a modern, mass society suffering successive crises that culminated in World War II and its increasingly administered, bureaucratized aftermath. It is significant that...