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  • Ludic Terrorism:The Game of Anarchism in Some Edwardian Fiction
  • Shane McCorristine (bio)

The temporal and literary proximity of the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse) and Arthur Rimbaud represented a deeply synchronic episode for some of the most prominent members of the twentieth-century French avant-garde. André Breton described the period just before and after the Paris Commune: “poétiquement il nous impossible aujourd’hui d’apercevoir dans le passé une époque aussi riche, aussi victorieuse, aussi révolutionnaire, aussi chargée de sens lointain,” (‘poetically, it is impossible for us today to take in a time so rich, so victorious, so revolutionary, so charged with distant meaning’), while his fellow traveler in surrealism Philippe Soupault noted: “Il est evident que là, il y a une constellation extraordinaire. Remarquez pourtant que, entre Rimbaud et Lautréamont d’une part, et le surréalisme une influence déterminante qui a duré ensuite” (‘It is obvious that there is an extraordinary constellation. Note however that, between Rimbaud and Lautréamont on one hand, and surrealism on the other, there is a decisive influence which has lasted’) (Breton 225–26; Soupault 95). Yet it was perhaps the great critic of nineteenth-century modernism, Walter Benjamin, who most fully approached the particular sense of Lautréamont and Rimbaud as synchronous representations of terrorist shock: “Between 1865 and 1875 a number of great anarchists, without knowing of one another, worked on their infernal machines. And the astonishing thing is that independently of one another each set the clock at exactly the same hour, and forty years later in Western Europe the writings of Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud, and Lautréamont exploded at the same time” (“Surrealism” 53). The anarchist in late-nineteenth-century culture was as much a symbol and mythological entity as a proponent of a particular political ideology. “Anarchy” denoted a variety of meanings: mercurial creativity, revolutionary disorder, social chaos, communitarian utopia, unstructured activity (see Arnold, Phillips 13, and Shpayer-Makov, “Anarchism” 493). The multivalence of the term allowed Benjamin to describe Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Dostoyevsky as “great anarchists” in an encompassing way that would be inconceivable were he to label them “great communists” (53). In his correlation between anarchist terror [End Page 27] and avant-garde poetics, Benjamin was certainly drawing attention to the violent, revolutionary associations of anarchism in order to suggest that a certain kind of literature could have the impact of an attentat, or bomb attack. If they never dealt with the contemporary theme of anarchism in their writings, all three of Benjamin’s examples possessed a mordant sense of humor, were obsessed with amorality, could adopt a variety of nihilist postures, and seemed to experience anomie in a way consistent with the “anarcho-psychological critique” of society—a much broader challenge to technocratic modernity and its discontents (see Carroll).

It has been readily accepted that the most prominent representations of the anarchist in late-Victorian and Edwardian literature feature the anarchist in a very specific manner and in very specific loci. The popular representation of the bomb-throwing anarchist drew its inspiration from the era of the “propaganda of the deed,” when dynamite-attacks, assassinations, and political violence in continental Europe and Russia ingrained the image of the anarchist as fanatical terrorist. As one commentator notes: “During the period of 1885–1914 one Head of State or leading Minister fell every eighteen months—and most of them by the hand of anarchists” (Burton 23). In French, American, and British fiction, the anarchist was frequently of this bomb-throwing type, was of foreign origin (a political refugee or émigré from Ireland, Italy, Germany, or Russia, for example), and was committed to the destruction of the liberal state and its institutions (see Melchiori and Di Paola). While Jewish immigrants were especially singled out as anarchist supporters, a contemporary prejudice echoed in John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, the great works of fiction to feature anarchists in the period, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale and G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, think of anarchists, be they working class or upper class, primarily as terrorists, and paint a picture of a...


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