Violence as an act seems so immediate as to be almost ungraspable, and yet violence as a word is easy to use, curiously amenable to almost any manipulation. Do violent emotions have anything to do with violent deeds, or is the very question a form of category mistake? Is anyone in love with violence, or does all of our undoubted fascination go to its displaced or metaphorical avatars? Is state violence the same kind of activity as violence against the state—or is the use of the same word a tendentious equation meant to unsettle the establishment? Conversely, is the reprehensible violence of others different from the necessary violence we ourselves use? Is war violent or is it just … war? Is the bombing of Guernica violent in a way in which the pitched battles of World War I were not? Can we measure violence historically? Are some centuries more violent than others, and how would we know? When [End Page 671] are force and violence the same and when are they different? And what about power, or might, both of which seem to belong to this aggressive family?
Not all of these questions can be answered, but it is worth allowing them to trouble us. The four books under review have different ways of negotiating this trouble, intelligent and well chosen in each case, and each decides wisely, in the end, to let the trouble lie. Sarah Cole in particular arrives at a sense of violence as a model of what we cannot deal with, and this seems a very good place to get to—if you have shown in detail how a whole set of writers failed ideally, as Samuel Beckett might say, to cope. Not mastering violence, or even the idea of violence, if you have the requisite patience and imagination, may be the perfect way to explore it without being mangled or swept away.
English writers of the early twentieth century liked to talk about violence. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis said they were not interested in tragedy unless it could “bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.”1 Lewis defined a vortex as “a violent central activity attracting everything to itself, absorbing all that is round it into a violent whirling—a violent central engulfing.”2 There is something helpless, almost näive, about the verbal gesturing here—as if violence would not come when it was called, however insistent you made the summons. In Lewis’s sentence especially, the triple repetition weakens rather than reinforces the claim. There is no promise of violence in the proposition, just the waving of an adjective in the air. In this context the phrase “Word War I,” which appears in Great War Modernism, looks more like an epigram than a misprint (185).
Do we need to distinguish between language that wants to conjure up violence, to be violent, and language that seeks to represent acts of violence in the historical world? This would be one way of drawing a line between Paul Sheehan’s book and Deaglán Ó Donghaile’s: the first is largely about metaphors, and finds plenty of violence in Oscar Wilde and Henry James; the second explores the interest of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature in dynamite and terror. There is common ground, though, which is why the line is helpful but not definitive. Sheehan’s book is balanced between aestheticism and aesthetics, both seen as violent, and each section ends with a close study of a text, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) in the first case, Heart of Darkness (1899) in the...