- Reviewed by
Urmila Seshagiri’s Race and the Modernist Imagination presents a compelling case for a more sustained consideration of the ways that modernist aesthetics are shaped—and sometimes driven—by the shifting concepts of race in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century London’s varied artistic milieux. Exploring writers such as Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, Rebecca West, and Virginia Woolf alongside Sax Rohmer’s popular Fu-Manchu novels and the visual artists and aesthetic theories associated with vorticism, Seshagiri frames race as a constitutive element in the elaboration of modernist aesthetics rather than as “merely a social problem” providing a thematic backdrop or a means for politically locating artists and thinkers (6). Arguing that discussions of race within British modernism have focused almost exclusively on the “colonial fictions” of modernist writers (6), Seshagiri suggests that examining works less oriented toward empire helps foreground aesthetic over “sociopolitical” concerns and enables consideration of a wider array of ideas about the nature of race and racial difference.
This insistence on approaching race as a phenomenon shaping the fundamental thinking behind the elaboration of British modernism “at home” (27) and not just “out there” (23) on the imperial periphery offers an important corrective, as does Seshagiri’s emphasis on questions of form and aesthetics. Though the gains afforded by such an approach are significant, Seshagiri’s efforts to clear space for her explorations by segregating “sociopolitical” and aesthetic concerns or bracketing off imperial contexts propose divisions that are ultimately unenforceable and unnecessary to secure those gains. Such inconsistencies in Race and the Modernist Imagination are arguably salutary, however, inasmuch as the unsuccessful effort to maintain such boundaries helps to illuminate some of the critical divisions that persist within modernist studies with regard to race and empire and provides opportunity for reflecting on different ways that such scholarship might proceed.
Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray offers an intriguing starting point. Asserting that Wilde’s emphases on dissolution and discontinuity anticipates key developments within modernist aesthetics, Seshagiri argues that the widening sense of rupture is registered by a perception of dizzying racial multiplicity. She notes that Dorian’s disintegration unfolds across “a deeply racialized metropolitan geography” (33) in London and is inflected by “racially coded spaces” from around the world “that furnish Dorian with exotic markers of his modernity” and “signify … the widening fissures of modern racial identity” (34). [End Page 556]
Though she makes a persuasive case for the racial inflections of Wilde’s aestheticism and the ways they function to disrupt a sense of coherence and mastery attaching to Englishness and empire, Seshagiri’s analysis loses some of its nuance when she connects Wilde’s approach to the primitivism of the modernist avant-garde and a broader transposition of race from a “sociopolitical” to an aesthetic register (38). This largely overlooks the continuities between imperialist racism and primitivist celebrations of the exotic that depend on a sense of white English racial normativity in order to generate the frisson of disruptive “shock” (14). These are relationships to which Wilde would be highly attuned and points to the benefit that more serious consideration of Wilde’s Irishness and his complicated relationships to both Englishness and empire might yield to the analyses of race and aesthetics in Dorian Gray and in late Victorian culture more generally, especially given earlier celebrations of so-called primitive creativity such as we see in Matthew Arnold’s On the Study of Celtic Literature.
Seshagiri’s treatment of Heart of Darkness offers thought-provoking arguments about Kurtz’s “paratactic racial aesthetics” (44) and makes some breathtakingly original comparisons between the visual presentation of Kurtz’s jungle compound and an avantgarde “primitivist geometry” (47) that fundamentally alter the ways one apprehends the arresting visual elements of Conrad’s text. Her comparison between Marlow’s gruesome discovery of Africans’ severed heads lining the avenue to Kurtz’s stronghold and the avantgarde encounter with “primitive art” illustrates, however, the perils of detaching aesthetically oriented analysis from broader material contexts. Considering the severed heads in relation to primitivist aesthetics offers intriguing possibilities for reflecting on the...