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  • Violence Without God: The Rhetorical Despair of Twentieth-Century Writers by Joyce Wexler
  • Leah Flack (bio)
VIOLENCE WITHOUT GOD: THE RHETORICAL DESPAIR OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY WRITERS, by Joyce Wexler. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016. 216 pp. $21.99.

Midway through Joyce Wexler’s ambitious, impressive, and provocative new study of twentieth-century writing, she uses Joyce’s Ulysses to raise a deceptively simple question: “If, as Stephen Dedalus remarks, history is a nightmare, is it to be represented as fact or fantasy?” (93). To consider such a question, her work argues, requires us to recognize with fresh insight a crucial intersection between narrative form, historical violence, and ethics running through modern fiction in its attempt to express the inexpressible. In her analysis of this problem, Wexler takes as her starting point Charles Taylor’s 2007 concept of secularity as “the absence of a [End Page 380] consensus of belief” and his sense that the unprecedented violence of the twentieth century emerged in part because of the “instability of meaning” that followed from the absence of such consensus (2).1 Consensus is crucial when violence occurs, but without a unifying moral order, it is difficult to achieve.

As Wexler’s work demonstrates, in a secular age, literature acquires particular urgency in representing the cultural traumas of war and mass violence. Modern writers face a dilemma about how to describe violence and barbarity without appearing to explain them. Wexler understands this as a choice between symbolism and realism. Symbolism allowed writers to “represent violence without imposing a specific meaning onto events or claiming to explain them” (7). For example, Wexler’s first chapter reads Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to argue that “[s]ymbolism is a way out of the rhetorical dilemma that secularism presents” (39).2 She compellingly defends Conrad from famous critiques by Chinua Achebe and Fredric Jameson by arguing that attaching symbolic meanings to real events served “a secular age by representing violence without presuming to explain it” (43).3

Wexler assembles a fascinating—and sometimes idiosyncratic—constellation of texts to chart the trajectory of narrative strategies modern and contemporary writers have developed to respond to the important ethical and artistic dilemmas of the twentieth century. She argues for a tradition that spans the twentieth century, running from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness through W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and including, among others, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce.4 As such, her work complements criticism in the last decade that has scrutinized the different periodizing logics that have been applied to twentieth-century literary history. The expansive transnational, transhistorical tradition she imagines includes Alfred Döblin, Salman Rushdie, Günter Grass, and Gabriel García Márquez. Through this archive, Wexler tracks the decline in confidence to represent violence across the twentieth century.

What unites such writers is that, in attempting to represent unspeakable violence, they all were doomed to a degree of failure from the start. Consequently, they looked to one another, across national, linguistic, and historical faultlines, for models. Rather than treating the authors as discrete case studies, Wexler argues that each offered a model that was taken up by later writers—these were key participants in an ongoing dialogue about commitments and responsibilities of literature in a time of continuing warfare. Such an organizing principle leaves open, as truly generative studies frequently do, speculation about how Wexler’s arguments might accommodate or be enriched by the presence of writers such as, for example, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, or Michael Ondaatje, among others. [End Page 381]

Wexler begins her study of Joyce by revisiting Eliot’s theory of Joyce’s mythic method set out in “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.”5 Eliot’s sense of Joyce’s mythic method helps us see that it offers more of a structure than an ideology—as she points out, Joyce is using myth to “construct arbitrary relationships. It is a structure, not a set of beliefs” (97). She indicates that the “radical narrative irony” of the novel arises from the lack of “consistent narrative tone or point of view” (99). Rather, style comes to conform “to the habits and assumptions embedded in conventions of...


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