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ELT 45 : 4 2002 Modernism & Empire Howard J. Booth and Nigel Rigby, eds. Modernism and Empire. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xiii + 338 pp. Cloth $69.96 Paper $29.95 ALTHOUGH MODERNISM is coterminous with the apogee and then the slow dissolution of empire, its study in relation to empire has been slow coming. This is most remarkable in the case of what might be called the study of commonwealth literature. Picasso's debt to the museological gaze on Africa, American literature's homage to that bastion of empire, the Empire State Building, and everything that it, along with the Brooklyn Bridge, signified for what Gertrude Stein called the Roman character of American identities, even Proust's debt to fine quality empire furniture and the fusty subtleties of French life: these dependencies of modernisms on empires of various sorts have been much studied. However, until recently the larger situation of modern commonwealth literature in relation to empire has largely been confined to what the authors themselves portrayed of empire in their works. It is perhaps only because the colonial question has been at the centre of so much of British literature (Conrad/Forster/Lawrence/Cary, et al.) that literary studies could have thought that the question of the largest empire in the world in relation to and among the largest literatures of modernism was exhausted by what modernist authors have written on the question. Such a view, combined with the obsession (shared by modernist writer and literary scholar alike) that the tour de force and raison d'être of modernism resides in its formal inventiveness, artistic autonomy and deep subjectivity, has kept the study of literature in relation to empire circumscribed . This until the combined onslaughts of scholars like Fredric Jameson and Edward Said, in conjunction with an entire postcolonial generation of commonwealth writers, began to force the issue of the overall centrality of empire for the understanding of British and commonwealth modernism per se—indeed for the English language in the broadest sense of that term. Empire is now categorically central to the study of modern literature in itself, but especially in concert with related categories of race, class, gender and "modernity." Modernism and Empire is a very good book of essays in this vein. Focusing on modern writing not from Britain (the exceptions being essays on D. H. Lawrence and on Pound in London), the book is about writers from Australia, New Zealand, India, Kenya, Ireland and other colonial places. Concentrating on white settler writing, 454 BOOK REVIEWS one of the interesting themes in this book is implicitly to challenge the crude distinction between indigenous late-colonial cultures and white settler cultures by showing, for example, that the drama of identity thought found in the work of Frantz Fanon applies to indigenous/nonwhite late-colonial subjects. According to the terms of this drama, identity must be discovered, confirmed and sustained through a taking on of the language of the cosmopolitan centre (in this case, the language of modern literature). There is no alternative. And yet the desire is to turn away from this language as strongly as it is to absorb it and maintain it. Whether Pound's, Yeats's or Joyce's complex relationship to the Celtic revival, or Mansfield's to a similar Maori romanticism, the geo-cultural move inward is motivated by the desire to proclaim one's own difference from the home country (thus proclaiming that Ireland or New Zealand are more than mere appendages to empire), while also abhorring the provincialism to which total immersion into a mythically nostalgic property of "Irishness" or "Maoriness" would condemn one. To be modern at the periphery is to take the double stance of refusing, and requiring, cosmopolitanism . And cosmopolitanism always also means dependency on the centre, a partial obliteration of oneself, just as it also always means the continuation of privilege and empire which the settler (be they manager or writer) needs, and without which they are nothing. The politics of writers at the periphery vis-à -vis the centre are thus ambivalent. There is the need to stake oneself and one's place as different, while also staking it as continuous with the centre...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 454-457
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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