restricted access At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland by Sarah Cole (review)
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Sarah Cole. At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. xiv + 377 pp.

Sarah Cole’s fascinating new study At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland takes its title from The Waste Land. Optically and aurally close to “violent” yet also denoting spring flowers and the color purple, the word “violet,” Cole argues, “herald[s]” violence in Eliot’s iconic poem (74) while simultaneously “transform[ing]” and “beautify[ing]” it (75). Thus, “violetness” becomes an apt figure for what she names the “enchantment” of violence (75). However, because the words are so similar, the “violet hour” is always at risk of shading back into the “violent hour,” and thus violetness also serves as an evocative figure for the complex interplay explored throughout the book between enchantment and its opposite mode for imagining violence, disenchantment. Enchantment, as Cole has it, is the process through which violence comes to be sacralized and viewed as productive. Disenchantment, by contrast, treats violence as “unredeemable” (36). Lest we are tempted to substitute aestheticization for enchantment, Cole emphasizes that both modes are, in fact, aesthetic. Her masterful readings of a wide range of texts acknowledge the generative function of violence for modernist literary production as well as the excessive quality to it that often “haunt[s],” “stain[s]” and “deface[s]” even those texts that enchant it (19).

At the Violet Hour chiefly sets out to reconsider the centrality of violence to modernist form, and Cole argues powerfully that in [End Page 178] “seek[ing] to understand literary violence, we will find ourselves looking at literature’s very nerve center, the place where its most proud accomplishments and greatest limitations are engendered and defined” (7). The book provides fresh looks at key modernist authors Eliot, Conrad, Yeats, and Woolf, while carefully situating their work in relation to other authors and modes of textual and visual production that similarly grapple with the violence of the modernist moment. Cole reaffirms the pivotal role of World War I in the development of modernism but cautions that not all modernist texts readily fit into the narrative of the war as the driving force behind experiments with form. Thus, she directs our attention as well to European anarchist violence—or, in her rather more colorful parlance, “dynamite violence”—and to the specific, historical convulsions of violence that rocked early twentieth-century Ireland (36).

The book is comprised of an introduction, four substantial chapters, and a brief coda. Throughout, Cole combines original close readings of canonical texts with a cultural studies approach that sheds light on their broader cultural and historical milieus. The introduction opens by noting the extent to which the story of literature has always been enmeshed with the story of violence, from the writing of the Homeric epics to the present. Yet, she notes, the modernists were singularly situated to explore questions of the representation of violence, not only because of the cataclysmic violence of their era but also because of their well-known interests in “deconstructing great cultural institutions that are fundamentally sustained by violence” and “exploring the human psyche” (4). Chapter 1 continues the introduction’s work of setting up the argumentative framework, beginning with an elaboration of the theoretical model of enchantment and disenchantment. This chapter represents the book’s primary engagement with World War I’s impact on literature, and it ends with an incisive reading of the interweaving of the enchanted and disenchanted modes in The Waste Land.

The next three chapters are designated “historical chapters” (35). Chapter 2 explores the representation of dynamite violence and the closely associated figure of the anarchist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in popular novels, drama, sensationalist journalism, and Conrad’s The Secret Agent. It also considers the transmutation of the historically specific late-Victorian anarchist into the “transhistorical figure of the terrorist” (36). Chapter 3 turns to early twentieth-century Ireland, offering four new paradigms for understanding literary violence in that context. This time, the privileged terms are “keening,” “generative violence,” “reprisal violence,” and “architectural allegory,” each associated with a specific period from the lead-up to revolution to...