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Reviewed by
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 the aftermath of civil war (37). The [End Page 179] fourth and final chapter focuses on journalistic and visual attempts to reckon with the rising Continental violence of the 1930s and the early years of World War II, while also detailing the career-long trajectory of Woolf’s attempts to reconcile her artistic practice with the violence of the world that always threatened to overshadow it. Cole employs the term “patterns” to marshal the diverse formal strategies Woolf uses to respond to violence (37). A coda brings Cole’s book up to the present, noting the contemporary period’s continuities with and divergences from modernist strategies for representing violence.

Highlights of At the Violet Hour include Cole’s dexterous close readings. In the first chapter, she makes effective use of her framework of enchantment and disenchantment to offer a persuasive and strikingly original reading of The Waste Land as an extended meditation on the artistic representation of violence. Her discussion in the final chapter of Woolf’s strategy of “bracketing” violence in To the Lighthouse is also quite impressive (229). Cole argues that the novel’s attempt to simultaneously account for violence and simultaneously to manage it is manifested both in the cordoning off of World War I in the “Time Passes” section of the novel (which is effectively, if not literally, bracketed off from the rest of the novel) and in the quite literal bracketing of Andrew Ramsay and his comrades’ deaths in a brief clause within “Time Passes.” However, another bracketed moment in the text, the mangling of a fish for bait by a fisherman’s son—significantly, by cutting a square piece of flesh from the fish’s side that recalls the shape of brackets—retrospectively destabilizes the rest of the text’s efforts at containing violence by returning us to the injured body of the creature and thus threatening to recall and revivify the bodily suffering that is somewhat mitigated by the earlier instances of bracketing. This is just one of Cole’s many convincing examples of the excess of violence that at once motivates modernist formal innovations and evades their attempts to reign it in.

The few difficulties one encounters in the book may be simply side effects of the author’s laudable ambition to provide a suitably complex and comprehensive picture of the relationship between modernism and violence. The chapters, while eloquently written, can become a bit unwieldy—the Woolf chapter alone nearly reaches ninety pages—and the main thrust of the argument sometimes gets a little lost in the details. It is also occasionally challenging to keep in mind the relationships between and critical utility of the various terms introduced, particularly in the chapter on Ireland. Cole does acknowledge that her key terms in this chapter are not parallel, but this lack of parallelism nonetheless creates confusion. Similarly, I sometimes found the specific application and implications of the term “patterns” in the Woolf chapter a bit obscure, though the overarching argument the chapter makes is captivating. [End Page 180]

Ultimately, At the Violet Hour is an immensely valuable and welcome volume that does justice to the complexity and interest of its subject matter. It is necessary reading not only for scholars of British and Irish modernism but for anyone invested in what is at stake in literary form, particularly in relation to questions of violence.

Krista Kauffmann
California Polytechnic State University—San Luis Obispo