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Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism by Jessica Berman (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 390-392 | 10.1353/jjq.2012.0008

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Jessica Berman’s project in her fascinating Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism is to explore how “narrative can play a crucial role in bridging the gap between ethics and politics, connecting ethical attitudes and responsibilities—ideas about what we ought to be and do—to active creation of political relationships and just conduct—what is right and possible within the power structures and discourses of our social life and institutions” (5–6). Berman carries out this argument by examining well-known modernists’ ethical and political engagements alongside those of many transnational modernists. By viewing established authors with lesser-known ones, Berman creates a conversation among them and discusses how they approach the disparate fields of ethics and politics, arguing that modernist narratives’ “rhetorical activity exists in constant and perpetual relationship to the complex, various, and often vexing demands of the social practices, political discourses, and historical circumstances of modernity and the challenges they pose to systems of representation” (7–8). In reading the aesthetic of modernist narrative in a political and ethical way, Berman opens up new perspectives on how the modernists both affected and were influenced by their historical contexts.

In her chapter on James Joyce and Mulk Raj Anand, “Comparative Colonialisms: Joyce, Anand, and the Question of Engagement,” Berman reads the two authors side by side in order to discuss Joyce’s influence on Anand as well as their shared manipulation of the bildungsroman. Anand, who took as one of his major inspirations Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, saw himself reflected in Stephen Dedalus, claiming that “the portrait is a good model for me, if I want to stage the recovery of self . . . in my novel.”1 Berman argues that, given this influence, we can read Anand through Joyce and Joyce through Anand. By reading them in conjunction with one another, we can discover how both are politically involved because of the colonial status in their work. Berman argues that the manner through which both Joyce and Anand engage with geographical space can reveal their approach to the colonial politics of Ireland and India: “Joyce’s geographical intervention focuses on the extents and limits of geopolitical frameworks for understanding space, the participation of Ireland in a broader region or world system, and the notion of possibilism rather than racialized determinism as a means of understanding cosmopolitan human community” (101). By viewing Joyce’s geographical approach through Anand’s, Berman argues we can “see how local versions of modernism in their geographical specificity alter the ongoing global conversation. Anand’s combination of political engagement and experimental modernism helps us see Joyce’s texts in new light, reading them, for example, within the context of postcolonial Indian linguistic hybridity or debates about caste” (111). Regarding these authors in tandem allows us to understand their individual approaches to their own countries more clearly, highlighting the political engagement underlying their aesthetic experiment.

Berman’s approach to Joyce in her book adds a great deal to post-colonial scholarship on his texts, extending work already done by other Joyce scholars.2 Her interdisciplinary approach, especially her focus on geography, helps to illuminate aspects of Joyce’s writing that have not been previously considered. Reading her book also makes one desire to learn more about a number of lesser-known modernist authors, given that she not only explores Anand’s work but that of Spanish Civil War authors,3 women writing from within the purdah,4 and American working-class authors from the 1930s who seldom receive any notice within scholarship.5 Many of these authors’ works are currently out of print, indicating the lack of scholarly attention they currently receive. By juxtaposing them with Virginia Woolf and Joyce, Berman not only sheds light on unfamiliar writers but also approaches Woolf and Joyce in a fresh way. Familiarity can create comfort, but what Berman does in her book is to defamiliarize Joyce and Woolf by examining them alongside these relatively unknown authors. By doing so, Berman allows her readers to see Woolf and Joyce anew and to expand their understanding of modernism so that it encompasses writers beyond the boundaries of Europe and the United States...

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