- The Modernist Novel & Decline of Empire
TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY discourses of degeneration prompted D. H. Lawrence to write, "I think there is no future for England, only decline and fall." One century later John Marx contends that writers like Lawrence fell in love with the discordant, the alien, and the exotic— [End Page 349] the dark, primitive interior colony—writing novels that suggest a little degeneration could be a good thing for England. The "good thing" is not decline and ultimate destruction of a violent, bloated, self-serving British imperial machine, as some critics would have contended, but rather the reinvention of English culture and modernism's imaginative contributions to the global proliferation of vernacular Englishes (of which experimental prose is one example). The good thing for readers of Marx's book is exposure to an original, provocative account of the differences between Victorian and modernist novels and more generally, Victorian and modernist cultures, imperial ideologies, and social forms.
Marx sees modernist fiction sweeping aside the center-periphery model that had underwritten the Victorian distinction between British and English through literary forms that aestheticized popular genres and literary contents that idealized expert-manager protagonists. All this is accomplished through extensive research, engaging prose, and close readings of the modernist favorites as well as less commonly cited nonfiction texts like A Thousand Miles up the Nile and the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. While Marx's broadest claim, that modernism "mutates and migrates from the mid-1800s to the present day," is not particularly well defended or even especially useful, his study offers so much else of value it should be on the "must read" list for all ELT readers.
Marx's most important argument is that modernist novels—even those which explicitly catalogue the sins of British colonialism—should not be read as evidence of the decline of England that Lawrence so dolefully contemplates, but rather as products of and contributors to an ideology of professionalism that aided redistribution, not diminishment, of English power in the one-time British empire. Marx is not denying the very real shifts in global power and local culture wrought by colonial independence movements, world war, and home front politics. But he argues that if we attend carefully to the difference between Great Britain and England, we'll discover signs of an emerging modern globalization in early-twentieth-century political and literary discourse. He contends that Britain may have died but it gave birth to a newly vigorous English transnational administrative elite and with it, elite cosmopolitan consumers, all eager to buy modernist fiction written in difficult, "exotic" English that was "neither fully English nor fully foreign." Marx describes the prose we teach in the classroom in terms of high modernist experiment or avant-garde aesthetics as "vernaculars [End Page 350] that could be described only through a rhetoric of neither/nor" (2). He expands on the implications of this neither/nor "rhetoric of litotes" for scholars curious about the transition between Victorian and modernist literatures:
What was no longer indispensable for modernism, as it turned out, was English's status as a standardized imperial language. The English vernaculars that appear in the pages of early twentieth-century fiction can best be understood as not not English, attempts to reject the inside/outside alternatives that organized the peoples, cultures, and idioms of the British Empire in previous centuries.
While signs of Foucault's thinking inhabit this formulation of a modernism constructed out of proliferating English vernaculars and consumed on a global scale, other, less-famous theorists (Rudolf Hilferding, Niklas Luhmann, Jagdish Bhagwati, Nan Lin) play a larger role in Marx's analysis of the ideological and institutional connections among novels, international finance, and the professional elites who managed both.
Upping the ante one year after publication of Jed Esty's widely hailed A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England, which examines modernist fiction side by side with imperialism, Marx adds a third term, professionalism, to Esty's two concerns. Marx argues that his triangulation of the components of modernism, imperialism...