- At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland by Sarah Cole
Sarah Cole’s At the Violet Hour presents an expansive account of the range of aesthetic responses developed within British and Irish literary culture in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as each sought to come to terms with an atmosphere of violence that seemed to insist itself on the era’s cultural consciousness with a particular sense of urgency. Cole details an array of technological changes, revolutionary movements, and shifts in political, social, and artistic discourses that combined to position violence as an increasingly pervasive element. This element simultaneously energized and challenged modernist writers “to find a conceptual register cued to its brutalities” (5) while discovering “ways to reframe, contain, and aestheticize it” (295). Tracing the literary impacts of anarchist bombing plots, the First World War, the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, and the dark portents of a massive conflagration to come, Cole combines extensive analyses of works by Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Virginia Woolf with reflections on a range of contemporary responses by Henry James, Sean O’Casey, Pablo Picasso, and the photographers of the Spanish Civil War. [End Page 264]
Though Cole necessarily addresses First World War texts that may be especially familiar within modernist studies, she succeeds in the difficult task of casting them in a genuinely new light through her insightful close-readings and sustained meditations on the theoretical and historical bases of modernist writers’ shifting aesthetic responses to violence. Thus, in contrast with earlier nineteenth-century idealizations of ancient Greeks as “cool and refined” bearers of “symmetry and grace” (48), Cole suggests that James Frazer’s seminal Golden Bough proposes “murder as the primary cultural deed” (47). Cole argues that Frazer, along with early twentieth-century classicists and influential figures like Jesse Weston and Sigmund Freud, recasts the foundations of an imagined universal culture “as a ground soaked in blood” (48).
Distilling the work of a range of theorists including René Girard, Simone Weil, Elaine Scarry, and Georges Bataille, Cole proposes that aesthetic responses to violence might primarily be considered in relation to “enchantment”—where violence serves “as a sign and precipitator of sublimity”—and “disenchantment”—where violence serves as “a sign and precipitator of total degeneration and waste” (39). Her explorations of the ways these two aesthetic operations of “enchantment” and “disenchantment” can be effected, combined, and counterpoised yields illuminating new readings of The Waste Land for which, Cole suggests, “the enchantment of violence is both the product and the subject” (66). The interrogation of enchantment also produces some intricate readings of Conrad’s ironic deployment of sensationalist journalism in The Secret Agent (118) and Yeats’s famous meditations on “terrible beauty” in “Easter 1916” (150).
Though Cole’s gusto for tracing her ideas across large canvasses invigorates the book, her expansive approach occasionally proves problematic. For example, her effort to render the development of Irish writers’ aesthetic responses to violence via an elegantly structured succession of four stages—moving from keening, to a sense of generative violence, to an aesthetic focused on reprisal, and, finally, to one framed around architectural allegory—blurs a number of key distinctions. Though keening can sometimes respond to or even foreshadow violence, its practice is largely disconnected from violent death and is freighted with a set of historical and cultural resonances that make its ritualized mourning an inapt referent for the aesthetic response Cole seeks to distill. Cole’s reliance on “reprisal” as a key term likewise misapprehends and reduces the complexity of the guerilla warfare of the Irish War of Independence and the range of intellectual and aesthetic engagements it provokes. Discerning the difference between “reprisal” and “generative” violence is also difficult and politically fraught as the events of the 1916 Rising and Yeats’s series of poetic responses both notably illustrate; indeed, the generative function of the Rising arises from the reprisal violence of the leaders’ execution. A simpler framework might have...