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  • Modernism and the Crisis in Sovereignty
  • John Xiros Cooper (bio)
Andrew John Miller *. Modernism and the Crisis in Sovereignty. Routledge. xxx, 222. US$110.00

Different as they are, Yeats, Eliot, and Woolf share, Miller argues, a number of obsessions. They are concerned with the matter of national identity and of the legitimacy of the nation-state. They suffer in a state of ambivalence, seeing themselves as torn between an emerging global consciousness and as personally and culturally rooted in clearly defined localities. Their exemplary agonies make visible more generally a constitutive obsession in modernism. Moreover, war, a common experience for all three, only ratchets up the levels of disquiet. War unfurls more worrying dimensions of meaning than simple mayhem and gore. Whether global or contained within nations, the wars of modern times are, according to Miller, imagined as essentially civil. There are actual civil wars, of course - the English, the American, and the Irish, each having special relevance for Yeats and Eliot - but even the world wars are a species of civil conflict. Woolf, lacking an immediately relevant civil war of her own, casts an eye back to ancient Thebes and Antigone's clash with the tyrant Creon. These conflicts cast the integrity of the nation-state into crisis. Instead of a stable historical entity, the modern state wobbles in contingency and finds itself always in danger of collapse or dissolution. It shares with the modernist conception of the sovereign person an alarming instability that shakes the psychological, social, political, and economic structures of modernity. Miller contends that to be modern means to see every form of sovereignty, from the individual to the national, in a constant state of crisis at every level. The splintering of sovereignty has pitched us, we are told, into a [End Page 433] post-national condition. But let me add that this is a theoretical condition, so you'd be well advised not to burn your passport just yet.

Two chapters on Yeats outline the contradictions that run through his socio-political thought like the net of hairline fractures in an old teacup. Unable to settle definitively into an entity Miller calls 'an authentically Irish poet,' Yeats spent his whole poetic life tormented by the impossibility of such self-identification. Instead, he performs his Irish-ness and creates an invented self, having, it seems, 'a penchant for virtual realities.' Not really being what he thought he was, Yeats 'committed' himself 'literally to incarnate the authorial identity his written works imply.' This was not just a personal difficulty but one implicated in a wider Irish indecision. In fact, we are told that 'the category of the Irish nation' is 'tenuous and unstable.' Persons and nations reveal a 'logical incoherence that pervades' their 'political posturing.' That they are a species of self-deluded imposters may come as much of a surprise to the Irish as it would if it were applied to, say, the Haida first nation on the west coast of Canada.

The chapter on Eliot tells us that he too has a penchant for contradicting himself, thinking he is one thing when it's clear he's something else, and an unconscious proclivity for self-delusion that takes truly 'dizzying forms.' The fault line in Eliot's mask of composure lays in the tension between the two warring Eliots, the cosmopolitan or transnational professional, on the one hand, and the conserver of tradition rooted in community, on the other. 'In the process,' we are told, 'he obscures from view his own, torturous position within the transnational matrix of geopolitical identity.' To escape from the agonies of this dilemma he adopted, probably unwittingly, a strategic 'contrivance' that recalls Yeats. '[T]he ambiguities of Eliot's post-national self-construction,' which might lead a normal person to a paralysis-inducing nervous disorder, were overcome by 'intimate struggles with language' that reflected 'the transcendental belief that we can operate from a sovereign position of disinterested purity.' But Eliot, it seems, was blind to the fact that declaring 'one's uncompromised purity' as an artist is not, as he may have mistakenly thought, a cry for detachment but just one more tawdry manoeuvre in 'advancing one...


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