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Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Literature


Edited by Christine Reynier & Jean-Michel Ganteau


Collection Present Perfect

Montpellier : Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2010

Paperback. 304 p. ISBN 978-2-84269-890-4. 25 €


Reviewed by André Topia

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris III


This collection of essays revisits a crucial issue haunting Modernist studies and more generally 20th-century literature: the interaction, and sometimes the alternative, between autonomy and commitment. Starting from the well-known opposition between a Modernist aesthetics of artistic autonomy and an anti-modernist swing towards social and political commitment (Orwell, Angry Young Men, The Movement), the editors note a return to an experimental type of writing devoid of all moral or political purpose in the recent postmodern aesthetics, even if contemporary British fiction can accommodate both a concern with society and a narcissictic inspiration. This is a substantial volume including twenty-five essays, covering a period which goes from the fin de siècle and the Aesthetic Movement to recent postmodern productions, and one may have wished that the various papers had been grouped into thematic chapters. As such, the book remains a little heterogeneous and still bears the traces of its origin: two conferences on this topic at the University of Montpellier III. Nevertheless the range and quality of the approach remains impressive and is evidence of the work achieved in Montpellier in the EMMA research group.

In their introduction, Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau, quoting E.M. Forster, but also Adorno, Bourdieu, Jameson, and Rancière, remind us that the two terms, autonomy and commitment, are far from mutually exclusive and that one should perhaps see them in terms of collaboration rather than opposition: the main dangers remain for committed writers the extremes of propaganda and for the upholders of autonomy the attraction of the culture industry. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, in a remarkable opening essay, goes beyond this opposition by reconsidering Adorno's famous pronouncement that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz: starting from the example of foreign words, Lecercle demonstrates that the contrast between autonomy and commitment is in fact dialectical. Using Medvedev's notions of "speech-act" and "social evaluation", he concludes that the work of art does not reflect but refract social and historical conjuncture and, following Benjamin, that the answer to the danger of uncommitted autonomy is in politicising aesthetics.

Catherine Delyfer analyses Vernon Lee's satirical picture of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the Aesthetic circle in Miss Brown, where she sees an exposure of the illusory autonomy achieved by male Aesthetic artists as a denunciation of the intellectual and sexual exploitation of female models and muses, thus announcing the combination of political awareness and artistic innovation characterising what has been called female aestheticism. Pierre Vitoux, in order to clarify the relation between the two poles of autonomy and commitment, sets them in a historical perspective illustrated by three brief studies on Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza, Joyce's aesthetic views in his Portrait, and the question of art and life in Women in Love. The link between Gulshan R. Taneja's essay on Joyce as a satirist and the topic of the volume remains problematic and her demonstration appears unconvincing: satire implies an independent norm of value in the name of which the satirist may assert his position, whereas in Joyce both the discourse of the "satirist" and the object of his satire are contaminated by the same collapse of values. Elena Gualtieri analyses Ezra Pound's articles published between 1938 and 1943 in an Italian literary magazine of the Fascist era and, by examining Pound's use of Italian, she concludes that Pound's commitment betrays a shift in cultural dominance from British to American English and shows him moving not towards the Fascist régimes of Western Europe, but towards the USA. Margaret Gillespie examines the unique position of female Modernist Mina Loy, whose aesthetic eclecticism explores the limits of both autonomy and commitment and troubles the self-containment of established Modernist narratives.

Three essays concern the central figure of Virginia Woolf. Anne Besnault-Levita shows that Virginia Woolf, far from urging aloofness from social reality and from absolving herself from political questions, is critically committed to them by rethinking them in historicised terms. She advocates a "democratic art of prose" requiring a form of political and ethical commitment which is mainly critical. Anne Fauré discusses Virginia Woolf's diary, not as an autonomous ivory tower cut off from the outside world but as constantly responding to the public issues of her time: her resistance to the rise of Fascism is based on the belief that the only battle worth fighting is that of the mind and is inseparable from her attempt to preserve the autonomy of the private sphere and the freedom of the mind. Christine Reynier focuses on Virginia Woolf's short stories and shows that her commitment lies in the very autonomy of the form she displays: by including non-fictional genres (essay, diary, history, biography) in her stories, she turns her aesthetic experiment into a form of political or ethical commitment.

The next group of essays is devoted to British writers from the 1920s to the 1940s. Michel Morel wonders why the present moment is so important for the Modernists and finds the answer in a common belief in the absolute self-sufficiency of art: using Benjamin's conception of origin as a permanent state of innovation, he applies it to writers like Woolf, Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and Proust, and discovers "modernity beyond Modernism" in the moment of enunciation of a transhistoric truth. Aude Ferrand confronts Rosamond Lehmann's fiction and literary reflection with her political action and politically committed speeches by using published and archive material, and concludes that Lehmann's ethical stance goes beyond the apparent contradiction between her attitude as a writer and as an ordinary citizen. Anna Kérchy discusses Stevie Smith's poems and shows that though they seem independent of the historical and political context in their role-playing and self-masking, they provide a dynamics of de-territorialisation and re-territorialisation, opting for a commitment to autonomy. Alain Blayac focuses on Graham Greene's personal commitment to Catholicism in The Power and the Glory, showing that Greene went beyond the alternative between autonomy and commitment by choosing the deeply autonomous spirit of Augustinian Catholicism rather than an alienating fidelity to its letter. Pascale Tollance analyses Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano as underlining the fictionality and autonomy of all discourses: the Consul is a figure through which any stable vision of the world is challenged and the text becomes an autonomous machine which liberates meaning and transforms disintegration by including it in a creative process of resistance to terror.

A last group of essays concerns writers of the postmodern period. Ben Winsworth, using the theoretical work of D.W. Winnicott, examines John Fowles's The Magus as an exploration of "potential space", an intermediate area offering both infant play and adult encounters with culture, providing a matrix of reality and fiction where Nicholas sheds his false self and plays towards ontological authenticity and autonomy. Jean-Michel Ganteau shows how Brigid Brophy's In Transit performs its autonomy by revisiting the topos of the androgyne: by refusing the mimetic tradition of dependence on social reality the novel creates a disruptive baroque aesthetics which promotes an ethics of the event. Sandrine Sorlin focuses on dystopian art as a schizophrenic unstable position between commitment and autonomy: linguistic dystopias, such as Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker defamiliarise the standard language in order to undermine its ideological system and replace the hierarchical arborescent modes of communication with a-centered rhizomatic paths. Eileen Williams-Wanquet argues that Emma Tennant's Faustine (a re-working of the Faust legend) and Two Women of London (a re-writing of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) represent a cultural re-cycling of classics: by addressing fables of dominance and identity building, this revisionist postmodernism revisits the world through the discourses that construct it. Jakob Winnberg, arguing that commitment only occurs through the reader, who makes literature something else than material text, considers the interplay of autonomy and commitment in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow: by his mimetically inadequate representation of the Holocaust, Amis forces the reader to confront the dark underside of modernity. Sabine Requier-Ulrich examines Philip Pullman's His Dark Material as an example of "crossovers", novels first published as children's books and then adopted by adult readers: by moving away from the concept of responsibility originally linked with the educational purpose, Pullman's trilogy has thus achieved a form of autonomy from the rules and traditions usually imposed on children's books.

Jean Radford argues that Hilary Mantel's Experiment in Love, by discussing the Judeo-Christian ethic such as it is debated by Levinas, Derrida and Zizek, and by focusing on the particularities of class and ethnicity, offers a remarkable resistance to ethical universalism and calls in question any abstract commitment to either love or justice. David Nowell Smith, starting from Adorno's article "Commitment", examines how James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late and Translated Accounts justify Adorno's conclusion that "politics has migrated into autonomous art": Kelman does not revert to a "message", but renders politically explicit the very fabric of the work's form by writing in a working-class Glaswegian vernacular and giving voice to a culture normally denied access to "literary" language, thus following a "politics of the voice". Maylis Rospide shows how Will Self, in "Island Life" and My Idea of Fun, though he seems to lean towards the pole of autonomy, uses the image of the Möbius strip to present a pattern where the interior and the exterior of the loop of autonomy seamlessly merge with commitment: in spite of its autotelic nature, Self's fiction thus reintroduces the notion of moral commitment, so that the world of experience and the text become continuous with each other. Laurent Mellet argues that the aesthetics of self-referentiality presented in Zadie Smith's White Teeth announces the autonomy of On Beauty : Smith's novel disappears behind its model, E.M. Forster's Howards End, and shows a purely aesthetic commitment to Forster's own aesthetics. Julie Morère shows how David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, while denouncing humanity's cultural decay, rethinks the very notions of autonomy and commitment by underlining their complex relationship and making the reader interact with these two notions in the act of reading.

This a most stimulating, sometimes even provocative book, rich with possibilities, clear in its careful arguments, offering a great variety of approaches focused on a vast range of writers. It will expand the historical and theoretical knowledge of the question and make a substantial contribution to readers’ understanding of literary theory and history. One of the major interests of this volume is that it reexamines the central question of autonomy and commitment in the light of historical and philosophical theory: Adorno appears a recurrent starting point, but also Benjamin, Deleuze, Derrida, Levinas, Jameson, Zizek, Rancière. The authors have succeeded in escaping the impossible alternative between the two poles of autonomy and commitment by injecting into their work various studies in linguistics (Pound, dystopias, Kelman), psychoanalysis (Fowles), philosophy (Mantel), ethics (Woolf), history (M. Amis), topology (Self). In the best of the essays, the polar opposition is turned into a dialectical relation and what might have appeared as the extreme of stylistic or linguistic autonomy is paradoxically shown to be at the very centre of the writer's commitment.




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