- Encyclopedic Narrative
Paul K. Saint-Amour
Oxford University Press
368 Pages; Print, $29.95
“What remains is the fallible encyclopedia… just the form for our broken day.” In his densely argued study Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (2015), Paul K. Saint-Amour introduces the idea that failure and imperfection are features of encyclopedic writing, in the modernist context, that counter the totalizing discourse of total war. Readers of this special issue of American Book Review should know that Tense Future is concerned not only with the encyclopedia or encyclopedic narrative, but also with the twentieth-century concept or narrative of total war—war that targets civilians, entire populations—and its relation to perceptions of time and space. In particular, Saint-Amour addresses the concept’s psychic effect on metropolitan civilians and colonial subjects during the interwar period: an experience of anxious anticipation of catastrophe (particularly air bombing), a dread in itself as traumatic as memories of disastrous wars. In its flaws and excesses, encyclopedic narrative is presented as a form aspiring to totality but never achieving it; this failure intrinsic to the encyclopedic project is its resistance to the discourse of total war.
The book has two halves or parts. Part One addresses the concept of total war, its emergence during the development of bombing technologies in the First World War and over the 1920s and 1930s. A particular emphasis is the temporality of total war: a sense of oncoming catastrophe orients the experience of time toward a future that has not yet happened, but will. In Part One, Saint-Amour analyzes a very mixed group of interwar texts: air war theory publications, international law resolutions, a manual of archival theory, a colonial adventure novel, a work of speculative fiction and several well-known works by Virginia Woolf, using these exhibits to illustrate and analyze the total war concept in its “omnivorous” reach. Knowing the Woolf texts but not the others, I was fascinated by these analyses. Who would have thought that air-power theory could be so interesting?
The book as a whole begins with two postwar accounts of the dread experienced in Hiroshima (1945) and Hamburg (1943), by those expecting the catastrophic bombings. These are vivid and moving examples of how “time—and anticipation in particular” became “a new medium for delivering injury.” The expectation of apocalypse from above was the interwar (and later, the Cold War) experience. In emphasizing anticipation, Saint-Amour revises trauma theory’s orientation toward memory: we can “see in the experience of an apparently inescapable future, or of a wounding anticipation, something in addition to a symptom of past repression,” something “neither severed from nor reduced to the traumatic legacies of the past.” This trauma is experienced “bi-directionally,” in a dread shaped and shadowed by memories of past war. Spatially, the concept of total war takes the “vertical” perspective of bombers flying over targets. Saint-Amour argues that the focus of total war discourse on nation and metropolis (such as London, Hamburg, Nagasaki) allowed violence to be perpetuated in the colonial “elsewhere.” Against this vertical perspective and power (see today’s drones), Virginia Woolf wrote “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” (1940) to present the perspective of the unseen civilian, thinking within the anticipation of death. To thus “think in a raid,” expecting “thought’s extinction,” is to think against the overshadowing perspective of military strategy. I would add that Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941), set just before the onset of World War II, also conveys an uneasy anticipation of war from above. I think that Woolf’s last novel, written in the anticipation and then experience of German bombs, deserves more consideration than the footnote the author gives it. [End Page 6]
In Chapter Three, Saint-Amour presents the archive, theorized by Hilary Jenkinson in the 1920s, as countering total war’s foreclosure of the future, in the work of ensuring the survival and transmission of culture. Likewise, in discussing the life and work of Cicely Hamilton, speculative novelist and suffragist, he argues that thinking against reproductive...