When I was a graduate student, a friend working on modernist literature reported a harrowing experience from his oral qualifying examinations. Though my friend is exhaustively well read, and quick on his feet, his committee had managed to open the exam with a question that stumped him: “What is modernism?”
My friend recovered from this early pitfall and passed his exam, but the unsettling disorientation of the question stayed with both of us. By the measure of scholarly attention, the study of modernism is at a high-water mark, yet (or: so) its definition and scope are harder than ever to pin down. Is modernism defined by its formal elements, by its aesthetic philosophy, by its subject matter, or simply by its era?
Paul Stasi’s Modernism, Imperialism, and the Historical Sense opens with an account of this muddle and attempts to resolve it with, surprisingly, imperialism, a subject that on its surface seems to have borne little interest for modernist writers. Yet if the modernists make little overt response to imperialism, modernist method, with its hodgepodge of linguistic modes and cultural references, depends on the historical and cultural accumulation that, Stasi writes, “only occurs in the centers of capitalist production.” The modernist writers he discusses—Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Woolf—came from disparate places, both geographically and socially, and their writing was similarly diverse; what united them, according to Stasi, was the task of writing literature in English in the centers of European capital during what E. J. Hobsbawm calls “the Age of Empire.” Neither overtly resisting imperialism nor, as is often alleged, indifferent towards it, these authors’ innovation was to [End Page 420] use the ambivalent fruits of imperialism—the newly ubiquitous world of consumer goods, the suddenly accessible wealth of foreign and traditional art—as the material and subject matter for their writing.
To some extent, Stasi’s book is a return to Hugh Kenner’s classic The Pound Era: like Kenner, Stasi sees modernism as self-consciously incorporating the work and culture of the past into a literature for the present. (Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is frequently quoted.) What Stasi brings to this classic synthesis of old and new is an additional synthesis based on culture rather than chronology: modern-ist works attempted to incorporate the art and history of other cultures without treating them as “other,” just as they incorporated the art of past eras without treating it as mere nostalgia. While the flâneurs of mid-nineteenth-century Europe viewed themselves as standing outside or above their society, the writers of the Age of Empire were aware that their world had grown too big to totalize: “The national space within which Flaubert was still able to locate his contextual meanings was no longer, in the modernist period, the most important horizon for thinking about the relations among competing social forces.” This seems accurate as regards the modernists, but the distinction seems historically arbitrary: since the Age of Empire, by Hobsbawm’s definition, began circa 1875, why did the “modernist period” not begin until the twentieth century? Stasi has little to say about Wilde, Hardy, or Henry James, or other figures who were also presumably affected by the imperialism that was by the 1890s well under way.
The theoretical basis for Stasi’s argument is both broad and deep, and one of his strengths is an ability to handle dense theoretical material with clarity and interest. The most important figures in chapter one, where this theoretical basis is outlined, are from Marxism and postcolonial theory, as Stasi attempts to resolve the standard binary between these schools by arguing that modernism joins Marxism in rejecting the idea of constant historical progress, and joins postcolonial theory in rejecting the reification of the Self and the Other. All of this synthesis—past and present, foreign and domestic, Marxist and post-colonial—has a distinctive effect on the book’s language, as evidenced by Stasi’s wide range of recurring dialectical terms: both, simultaneously, an untenable opposition, two competing...