- Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism by Jessica Berman
Jessica Berman’s Modernist Commitments is not an exhaustive literary map, but rather a book of connections. From feminism to postcolonialism to working-class criticism, the volume engages in a multiplicity of discourses to explore particular manifestations of modernism that emerged in Britain, the Caribbean, India, Ireland, Spain, and the United States. At the core of this international web is the book’s argument that “reading modernism transnationally shifts our perspective on the forms and commitments of modernism,” which Berman undertakes by simultaneously considering the specific “rhetorical action” of its many geographical variants while cultivating “the continuum of political engagement that undergirds its world-wide emergence” (9). To this end, the book’s comparative approach establishes lines of inquiry between texts, authors, and genres that, as one dives into Berman’s meticulous readings, multiplies the possibilities of modernism instead of proposing a new definition of the term.
Thematically, Modernist Commitments operates at the intersection between ethics and politics in the texts that Berman revisits, searching for the point of contact between individuals’ choices and their contexts. This can be explored, Berman suggests, by investigating the power of narrative to create possible worlds in which we can consider the possibilities of justice: “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). The relational nature of the narrative act, which necessitates a narrator and an audience, opens up a space for individuals to reckon with alterity and participate in the plurality that it invokes.
Further, Berman convincingly proves that one way we can begin reconsidering modernism on the ethical-political axis is by engaging with the formal characteristics of its texts: “To rethink modernism’s role in imagining justice, we need to re-create the social and political implications of its refusal of verisimilitude, its blurring of fact and fiction, its disruption of conventions and genre or narrative structures of address, its display of uneven temporalities, its destabilization of the fact/value split, and other styles and attitudes as they arise around the world” (26). It is in these disruptions that Modernist Commitments [End Page 211] identifies productive avenues to reconsider the political potential of the literary movement. Berman places modernism’s refusal to abide by the conscriptions of national boundaries at the center of this disruptive spirit, which she underscores in the etymological explanation of the term “transnational”: “In addition to simply meaning ‘across, over, and beyond,’ the prefix ‘trans-’ can imply ‘on the other side of,’ representing not only a crossing of boundaries but also a challenge to the normative dimension of the original entity or space” (10–1).
The book is divided in two parts preceded by a theoretically rigorous introduction in which Berman lays out a detailed framework with which she triangulates ethics, politics, and aesthetics in order to explore “narrative experimentation as a force of social activity” and foreground a number of modernist novels’ “formal resistance to consensus-based realism in their oppositional political engagement” (8). The chapters in the first part offer, on the one hand, a comparative reading of a “feminist, intimate ethics” in the works of Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys and, on the other, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable’s indebtedness to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses (33). The three chapters that constitute the second part present self-contained readings of “less studied transnational modernisms” in which Berman discusses the zenana (the homestead) as a space for national and domestic contestation in the works of Indian women writers Cornelia Sorabji, Iqbalunnisa Hussain, and Ishvani; partisanship and propaganda in Spanish Civil War writer Max Aub’s trilogy The Magic Labyrinth; and the power of narrative as an instrument for political empowerment in the fiction of working-class...