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Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 445-449

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Modernist Writing & Reactionary Politics. By Charles Ferrall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. viii + 202 pp. $54.95

Charles Ferrall argues in Modernist Writing & Reactionary Politics that W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and Wyndham Lewis each appeared to embrace an avant-garde aesthetic at certain moments, but that all finally exhibited resistance to truly radical politics and could ultimately only accept political positions that maintained the status quo in various ways. According to Ferrall, each writer "combined a radical aesthetic modernity with an almost outright rejection of even the emancipatory aspects of bourgeois modernity" (2). Although the political positions of these writers varied considerably, Ferrall shows that there is a significant connection between these writers, who each exhibited attractions, at least temporarily, to certain fascist ideologies. These ideologies, according to Ferrall, "provided a kind of parody of 'revolution' which reflected their own ambivalence towards modernism" (2).

Ferrall establishes a definition of fascism as "a parody of the avant-garde" by synthesizing theories put forth in Peter Bürger's Theory of the Avant-Garde and Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." He then dedicates one chapter to each figure (Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, and Lewis) showing the ways that certain texts, which may seem radical on the surface, in fact parody such political impulses. Ferrall argues that because all were interested in establishing aesthetic autonomy while at the same time reintegrating art into society, creating art that was both primitive and modern, each can be seen as fascistic.

Numerous books about modernism and fascism have appeared since Fredric Jameson's influential Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (1979) explored this connection. Not surprisingly, the majority of recent studies use Ezra Pound as a central figure, such as Peter Nicholls's Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics and Writing (1984), Tim Redman's Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism (1991), Vincent Sherry's Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism (1993), and Paul Morrison's The Poetics of Fascism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Paul de Man (1996). By including Pound but not making him the focus of the study, Ferrall suggests that Pound's overt fascist sympathies only make his works fascistic to a greater degree than the other writers he discusses, but not of a different politics altogether. [End Page 445]

Ferrall's study has the most in common with Vincent Sherry's and Paul Morrison's work. Like Ferrall, Sherry observes that: "Archly experimental, the artistic temperament of the modernists promised to be progressive, forward-looking, liberal in a conventional sense, but this aesthetic intelligence colluded with social attitudes manifestly backward, reactionary, indeed atavistic."1 Paul Morrison similarly asks (but of both "fascism proper" and poststructuralism) "How does a potentially revolutionary politics ... come to be recontained as an apology for business as usual?"2 By focusing on fascism as a "parody of the avant-garde" and using both Benjamin and Bürger to develop the framework for his study, Ferrall distinguishes his book from these studies (Morrison critiques Benjamin, but does not discuss Bürger; Sherry refers to neither). Ferrall's methodology and theoretical understanding of fascism actually has more in common with Andrew Hewitt's Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics, Politics and the Avant-Garde (1993), which is primarily a study of Filippo Marinetti and Futurism, but includes significant discussion of Benjamin and Bürger. Vincent Sherry's and Andrew Hewitt's studies are not discussed by Ferrall, nor do they appear in the bibliography (Hewitt's newer book, Political Inversions: Homosexuality, Fascism, & the Modernist Imaginary [1996], does appear); Morrison's book is listed in the bibliography, but not discussed by Ferrall.

Ferralls' decision to include writers who are not usually associated with fascism in his study, such as D. H. Lawrence, align his project with that of Erin Carlston, whose recent Thinking Fascism: Sapphic Modernism and Fascist Modernity (2001) analyzes the work of Djuna Barnes, Marguerite Yourcenar and Virginia Woolf. Both Ferrall and Carlston are interested in showing the ways fascist ideology...


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