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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.2 (2002) 453-460

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Nationalism and Modernism

Sarah Cole

Pericles Lewis. Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. x + 241 pp.
Paul Peppis. Literature, Politics, and the English Avant-Garde: Nation and Empire, 1901-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. x + 236 pp.

What are the governing tropes of modernism? Radical alienation? Imperial domination? Imperial failure? International avant-gardism? The displacement of the individual? The dominance of the psyche? The fear and dismissal of mass culture and middle-class morality? The enthrallment with mass culture and a desire to recoup a sense of shared communal values? A return to myth?

While asking any single concept to provide such sweeping explanatory potential might seem to invite failure, many modernist scholars have continued to approach the period in such a spirit, and for several reasons. The first is that the modernists themselves—with their manifestoes, their highly successful artist-critics, and their New Critic proselytizers—inaugurated a critical practice that looks for overarching and unifying themes. Secondly, the critical tradition in modernist literary studies has tended, even up to today, to be structured according to a correctional model, in which a given vision of the period will be highly uniform [End Page 453] and well entrenched—in essence proclaiming some core truth about modernism as a movement—only to be overturned and replaced with its near converse. To take just one rather obvious example, Conrad was once viewed as a paragon of anti-bourgeois skepticism and doubt; later, he seemed not so much to question as to rehearse the West's embedded racism; he was once read entirely ahistorically, almost as an image for narration itself; subsequently, he became a virtual spokesman for history's insidious voice; and so on.

The concept currently holding dominion among modernist critics is nationalism. The once-fashionable sense that modernism represented a flourishing internationalized movement, where the metropolis—be it Paris, London, Vienna, New York—became the fertile soil for a diverse array of cosmopolitan artists whose national affiliations were much less important than their shared, radical, political and aesthetic principles, has been jettisoned, and modernists are now seen as thoroughly penetrated by national discourse. It is not so much that modernist writers are attacked as nasty nationalists, but rather that a complex sense of national subjectivity is understood to be at the very root of their work. As Pericles Lewis nicely puts it in the opening chapter of Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel: "Max Weber showed that ideas can be more than mere epiphenomena produced by inevitable historical forces and capable simply of serving one set of social forces or another. They can also influence action in unpredictable ways [. . .]. I am concerned here with one such magical and religious force, the idea of the nation" (12). As the invocation of Weber makes clear, and as both Lewis and Paul Peppis in Literature, Politics, and the English Avant-Garde stress, the "idea of the nation" under consideration here is no simple ideological bludgeon. National identity, patriotism, the desire to speak for the nation, the problem/ideal of militarism, nations as racialized bodies, nations as expressions of collective character or collective will: these thorny issues need to be treated both individually and in concert, with clarity and nuance, and both Lewis and Peppis approach the subject in a refined manner. Indeed, what these historically-attentive studies argue is that nationalism became an important idea for modernism precisely because it contained within its wide conceptual frame a variety of often contradictory, competing possibilities; the nation functioned as a kind of forum for converging vectors of interest, giving shape, but not resolution, to such problematic topics as [End Page 454] race, history, war, progress, and language. Lewis, for instance, offers an exceptionally thorough, careful account of the term "race" in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, arguing finally that the famous "conscience of [Stephen Dedalus's] race" makes most sense in national terms. Despite affinities with a variety of other notions (involving eugenicist concepts of racial difference, for instance, or, conversely, the broadly...


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