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Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 154-158

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Modernism's Ghosts

Temple University
Harper, George Mills and Margaret Mills Harper, Eds. Yeats's Vision Papers, Volume 4. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 276 pp. $48.00, cloth.
Hungerford, Amy. The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification. University of Chicago Press, 2003. 232 pp. $40.00, cloth.
Maltby, Paul. The Visionary Moment: A Postmodern Critique. SUNY Press, 2002. 176, pp. $24.00, paper.
Richter, Gerhard, Ed. Benjamin's Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory. Stanford University Press, 2002. 365 pp. $24.95, paper.
Sword, Helen. Ghostwriting Modernism. Cornell University Press, 2002. 212, pp. $28.00, paper.

Yeats's Vision Papers, Volume 4 collects "The Discoveries of Michael Robartes," a dialogue between Robartes and Owen Aherne, an untitled dialogue on the same topic, and Version B [The Great Wheel" and "The Twenty-Eight Embodiments"], a very early version of the central sections of both versions (1925, 1937) of A Vision. All four of these fugitive prose pieces represent the earliest available attempts by Yeats to begin to make sense of the materials collected in the previous three volumes of Yeats's Vision Papers, the many but still incomplete transcriptions of Yeats's sessions with his young wife, Georgie Hyde Yeats, as he tries to make sense of the various communications, in the form of automatic writing, from the often antic spirits.

As becomes clearer every year, the practice of mediumship for Yeats served as an effective model for his own method of poetic composition. This fourth volume completes the publication of all the available materials which went into the work on A Vision. Unfortunately, there are gaps in the record, perhaps due to the sensitivity of the spiritual communications, but what there is here and in the previous volumes makes it crystal clear that Yeats, whatever hesitations and qualifications he often expressed publicly, acted as if his occult beliefs were true. I think that the role of the occult [End Page 154] in the formation, not only of his career but in that of many modernist writers, will be increasingly seen as central, not peripheral to modernism's literary concerns.

Amy Hungerford's book, The Holocaust of Texts, could be seen in this context as extending the importance of animating the dead or non-living, of personifying the book as if it contained the spirit of the dead, to contemporary literature and culture. She discusses a wide range of texts-Art Spiegelman's Maus, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Benjamin Wilkomirshi's fake Holocaust memoir Fragments, as well as the fiction of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo-and a wide range of contemporary theorists, such as Cathy Caruth, Jacqueline Rose, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man. Her argument is that our practice of confusing a person or a people with the spirit of a book via the habit of unthinking personification is a theoretically unsound and fundamentally unethical practice in an age of the Holocaust and other instances of genocide.

I confess that although I enjoyed greatly Hungerford's analyses and discussions of the texts and theorists she adduces in support of her argument—I found her use of Cathy Caruth's work on narrative, memory, and trauma particularly instructive—I didn't see what all the fuss was really about. Throughout history individuals and peoples, when facing acts of genocide or near genocide, have turned to their Gods, their cultural institutions, their sacred books, to find material support for their desire for continued identity. After the destruction of the Second Temple, of course, the Jewish people repeatedly rediscovered their identity in the living spirit of their sacred Book. That the focus on memory, memorization, and mournful representation such a practice entails may be theoretically imprecise and may become ethically mistaken because it may unwittingly redirect attention away from the political process of a people's own destruction are not consequences of prosopopoeia, giving a living face to the dead, but are the consequences of an enemy's inhuman opportunism...


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