Nico Israel’s Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth-Century Literature and Art sets itself a stunningly ambitious task: with recourse to a single shape, to identify within the last century a [End Page 688] leitmotif engaged by painters, poets, novelists, playwrights, sculptors, and filmmakers that aims to make sense of both time and space (political history and global capitalism). In this regard, and as Israel notes in his introduction, his project runs against the grain of much contemporary analysis. Rather than follow the dominant mode of historical analysis in which the seemingly similar is revealed as fundamentally distinct, Spirals attempts the more rare and challenging task of synthesizing the apparently diverse into a single unifying account.
Israel’s synthetic project is fashioned in morphological terms. Roughly midway through the book’s introduction, Israel inserts a lengthy quotation from “Grids,” Rosalind Krauss’s landmark essay from 1979. Krauss’s ambition, like Israel’s, was to identify and explain the emergence of a single shape that crops up time and again, and in regions of the globe in which artistic contexts seem too disparate to justify this simultaneity. As Krauss notes, “[i]n the early part of this century there began to appear, first in France and then in Russia and in Holland, a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition within the visual arts ever since … the grid.”1 The quotation Israel chose to insert into his book homes in on Krauss’s claim regarding what she calls the “etiology” (rather than the “history”) of the grid’s emergence and persistence throughout the century: “In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art … It is what art looks like when it turns its back to nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral result not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree” (quoted on 12). Israel’s book explores an alternate “etiology” (though he doesn’t use that term), one in which the insistent autonomy and anti-realism of the grid is supplanted by the spiral’s dialectical entanglement with both past and present as well as the local and the global. It is, in other words, an explicit riposte to Krauss’s claim that we should comprehend the through line of twentieth-century modernism as a struggle for aesthetic autonomy. In its place, Israel proposes that we “think spirally”: “to apprehend the nuances of form without succumbing to a sterile, object-bound formalism; to apprehend the torsions and tensions of history without succumbing to a progressive or schematic historicism; and to apprehend the contours of globality without succumbing to the developmental logic of globalization” (13).
As Israel makes clear, both in the introduction and at strategic points throughout the book, the nearest analog to spiral thinking is Walter Benjamin’s melancholic dialectic. The gyrating movement of the spiral, simultaneously circular and linear (either inward or outward), establishes its fundamentally dialectical structure. Likewise, the shape’s inherent ambivalence—concentrative when it spins inward and dissipative when it spins outward—captures Benjamin’s own ambivalence about history (Benjamin’s famous insistence that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” shadows much of the book’s rhythm and tone).2
Before turning to spirals in the twentieth century, Israel provides a brief sketch of the spiral in history. Chapter 1 opens with reference to Roland Barthes’s distinction between the circle and spiral. The former, notes Barthes, “is religious, theological,” while the latter, “like a circle distended to infinity, is dialectical.” Following Barthes, Israel sets out to explore “the inherent historicity of spirals and challenge … notions of historical continuity” (22). After a brief tour of the OED’s definition of spiral and its conception in ancient Greece, Israel begins his historical account with spirals in the middle ages and early modern period. Central to his...