- Modernism & Violence
AT ONE POINT in her brilliant new study of modernism and violence, Sarah Cole concludes the following about Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”: “The poem accomplishes something rare in this period, enchantment as form, an idiom that works its violent overload into aesthetic harmony.” For the most part, such harmony is hard to come by, not only for Yeats but for the other modernist writers studied here: the Eliot of The Waste Land (from whom the book’s title comes), the Conrad of The Secret Agent, and Woolf. Instead, over and over again, what we see is simply the power or excess of violence, which is uneasily represented formally because it disrupts form, along with everything else. [End Page 269]
That is, in Rene Girard’s terms, the violence (whether exemplified by the young Stephen Dedalus having his hands whipped or by the slaughter of millions during the Great War) is purely destructive rather than in some way “sacred” (myth being the most obvious way to make sacred). Girard matters throughout to Cole. Simone Weil’s great discussion in The Iliad or the Poem of Force matters just as much. One of the reasons At the Violet Hour is so good is because Cole’s discussion takes place against a rich theoretical background (referencing everyone from Freud to Elaine Scarry) that can be summoned to clarify a consideration of even the smallest examples, whether “enchanted” or not.
This last distinction forms the basic conceptual dichotomy—derived from Max Weber—of the book. A work, a practice, or a “mode” acts to represent violence as either enchanted or disenchanted, that is, as sublime or wasteful, in some way transformative or else just deadly, an affair of “blood” in some grand scheme as opposed to merely the violated, dead body. However much that reenchantment seems like a “burgeoning enterprise” during the first decades of the last century, Cole argues that in fact modernist writing overlaps in its presentation, “its very essence profoundly shaped by the mixing of the two systems of imagining violence.”
Hence the title, in which, for The Waste Land, she argues, “the nature of violet is to usher in violence, to herald or represent it; but it is also to soften and beautify it. Indeed, violetness is perhaps the ideal emblem for enchantment at its most enriching; its transforming energy is all in the direction of the aesthetic, forging an ‘exquisite kind of perception.’ What this means is that it appears to be finally impossible to isolate a definitive moment of disenchantment in the modernist depiction of violence. Instead, disenchantment becomes a moment in (re)enchantment; as Cole phrases the issue with respect to Eliot: “the central idea is to utilize imagery of change, rebirth, resurrection, and metamorphosis as part of the reflection on the troubling relationship between art, with its core commitment to beautiful forms, and the violence that has wrecked human life throughout history.”
Nonetheless, some authors enable such a reflection more richly than others. Conrad ought to be one. For me, though, not so much. The presence of the bomb-laden terrorist, Cole writes, in a chapter entitled “Dynamite Violence,” carries a substance that became “a marker for a threat of violence that was virtually defined by its ability to disappear, and The Secret Agent, which delves deeply into the nature of secrecy, [End Page 270] propounds a logic of increasing invisibility with respect to violence.” This is all very well. Yet precisely because of this logic—culminating in “an image of modern violence as pure, endlessly suspended potential” in the figure of the Professor—some formal resolution proves to be impossible, and we are left with “a structure of everything and nothing, excessive consequence confronting [in the exploded body of Stevie] denuded value.” Is some violence in effect dangerous and frightening because not only has it yet to be detonated but also because its slow, furtive, immanent nature begs the artistic necessity for visible, exterior form?
Both Yeats and Woolf, on the other...