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Reading 1922, Reading 2022: Modernism, Historicism, and the Crises of Liberal World Order

How should modernists think about the current invasion of Ukraine, and the underlying crisis of liberal order, if at all, and what does that have to do with the crisis in historical thinking and legitimation in literary studies more generally? My initial claim in the following is that what we already teach and write, in this centenary of the modernist Wunderjahr 1922, has everything to do with the sudden re-entry of geopolitics into view in 2022. The modernist masterpieces of 1919–1922 were formed and contested one hundred years ago in the matrix of a crisis of liberal order, a crisis that has now returned with only slightly different names, faces, and justifications. That we cannot quite recall this is not only a gap in our understanding of modernist geopolitics, but also a more fundamental failure of historicist reason and legitimation. If we are in fact living through the repetition of certain cyclical patterns of history, ideology, and liberal-imperial order that modernists themselves diagnosed, do we still have the commitment to historicist understanding required to read those problems accurately?

The Republic of Ukraine (1918–1920) in a postcard from 1919.
Fig. 1. The Republic of Ukraine (1918–1920) in a postcard from 1919.

Keynes in 1919: The Shock of Summer

Recall this famous passage by John Maynard Keynes, describing the moment before a shock that could be our own:

The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.”[1]

This passage, written at Charleston between stints weeding Vanessa Bell’s garden, could have been written about yesterday’s Amazon deliveries in Kyiv. Keynes writes, in this passage of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, about the central illusions of permanent global commerce and peace which the explosions of 1914 were to shatter. The central chain of assumptions, for Keynes, links the “normal, certain, and permanent” freedom of increasing consumption, movement, and investment characteristic of liberal capitalist societies to the “improvement” of civilization in general. The links between a progressivist notion of improvement, the perpetual growth of investments, and the liberal freedom of world markets underwrites the prosperity of financial capitals like London in particular. This chain of liberal-capitalist presumptions was destroyed after 1914, replaced by a new “unregenerative” time put in place by the imperialist victors: the time of reparations, spiraling inflation, permanent debts, and a constant cycle of nationalist conflict.

What we might particularly note in Keynes is the shock of conflicting temporalities. The bourgeois Londoner wakes up assuming the stability, or slight improvement, of his financial, personal, and political world, perhaps with the help of a few Reform Bills, but without any great sacrifices. (Keynes passes over the violence inflicted on the Suffragist protesters, the recent massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, the striking miners in Birmingham, and Irish Republican revolt). The Londoner will learn, as Septimus Smith learns, that time can reverse into a cycle of conflict, recrimination, and decay, that the shared experience of suffering is the surest bond of national feeling (as Ernst Renan would put it), that no experience of wartime trauma is ever truly over, but rather that it fractures the present itself.  He will learn—as Stefan Zweig notes in The World of Yesterday—that the easy access of the European to all corners of the world is a structural feature of racial and imperial privilege, premised on military domination that must be constantly maintained. He will learn that economies can be structured to generate permanent debts, dispossession, and spoil, rather than increase and profit, after what Keynes calls the “Carthaginian Peace” of 1919.

In the wake of the collapse of the progressive time of liberal economism, we have to develop a sense of the conflictual histories at work within each moment of a life, or an artwork: this was one of the central premises of a mode of literary criticism dependent on the “historical sense.” The appearance of a new work of art depends on the “tradition” of all those works before it, T. S. Eliot claimed, and gains its power through refiguration of an existing order: “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.” Eliot’s historical sense depended not only on a deep reception of past art, its sequence and inner relation, but on the belated entry of the individual consciousness into history, registering both its timeliness and timelessness in good Hegelian fashion.

It’s not too much to say that Anglophone literary criticism as a discipline is born in this moment of postwar historicism, through the re-ordering of traditional philological history into a new applied program of close literary-historicist reading by Eliot, I. A. Richards, and F. R. Leavis, but also by Caroline Spurgeon, Erich Auerbach, and J. Saunders Redding.[2] Since few secular critics still publicly avow the ideal historical order of Eliot’s tradition, with its the underlying racial and civilizational assumptions, our historicist reading practices have floated between regimes of legitimation: we need historicist reading and careful periodization in the Marxist-formalist dialectic of history and form, for quite different reasons from a Burkean-conservative attachment to the “cultural inheritance,” which is different again from the new historicist emphasis on discourse analysis, the interaction of modernist art and mass culture, and a careful documentation of the artwork’s entanglements with its moment. Or perhaps we need history to resist history: we need to remember the history of all the “small wars” of liberal imperialism and colonial violence that preceded and prepared the way for liberal-imperial collapse. Now even the conflict over historicism has begun to pass into (post-)disciplinary history, along with our attachment to periodization in hiring.

What we lose when we give up “modernism” as a category for hiring and writing, however contested its definition, is our commitment to understanding history’s grip on the present. We lose our sense of the conflictual, divided nature of our moment and any moment. We forget history’s continuities and its recurrent surprises. Let us take the simplest example of such surprises in Eliot’s long poem of 1922, written out of the same crisis of liberal individualism evoked by Keynes.[3]

Reading 2022 through 1922: The Waste Land

“April is the cruelest month”: clearly a poem about the mud and gore of the Urkainian rasputita, the season of thaw when the roads cannot be passed and the dead cannot be permanently buried. And then the poem begins anew, asserting its particular polylinguistic, polyvocal form:

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talk for an hour:

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. (ln 8–18)

We wake from the calm and equipoise of a prewar imperial life measured out in coffee spoons into the surprises of summer, the guns of August. The stasis of Marie Larisch’s childhood recollection is the necessary condition of everything that follows. The poem must be understood a sequence of temporal surprises to the calm life of the Bavarian aristocrat and the London bourgeois, and to liberal-imperial assumptions, then and now used to order, progress, and ratio in one’s poetry as in one’s bank accounts. We need to read the break from liberal rationalism in the very break from the ratio of the line, as Vincent Sherry shows in his work on the Great War and the language of modernism.

From April we are suddenly in summer, but a summer long ago, in a vanished aristocratic order; from forced trochees and dactyls we move into the broad equipoise of Marie Larisch’s memories of the Belle Epoque. Most startling to the bourgeois Londoner is the move from a dry evocation of Chaucer’s renewing April rains to the fragments of a multilingual Europe: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” Let us paraphrase that line thus: from a blissful childhood in Bavaria, with our cousin the Archduke, we drop into a world of overlapping ethnic, linguistic, and political definitions, by a line that first works to negate an imperial Russian space, then invokes one of the many new postwar nations, and finally affirms a linguistic and racial identity. Out of the calm of the Romanov and Hapsburg empires explodes a confusion of “self-determining” peoples and states, a sudden burst of nationalist sentiment that Lenin harnessed as a tactic within the larger strategy of Soviet internationalism. This is the strategy that re-integrates Ukraine as a “republic” within the Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922, after a short period of civil war and Ukrainian self-rule from 1918-1920; and this is the contradiction between ethnic-state belonging and Great Power imperial control that has once more erupted into view in 2022.

The “liberal international order” that was founded after 1919, and then reinstituted after 1945 in new guise, always had as its intimate Other the cyclical and backward-facing memories of a previous Empire, Reich, Czardom that would found this Empire, Reich, Soviet International. These cyclical times of national and imperial regeneration matter intimately to those who live and die within them, as we seem so easily to forget. Jacob Flanders is sacrificed in Flanders Fields, against the Deutsches Reich, but before that to the glorification of imperial Rome, the Latin orators, and the demands of British liberal-imperialist masculinity. Septimus Smith is divided in name as well as psyche, a split Latin-English subject forever captured at the site of previous battles. The Waste Land is haunted not only by the “Murmur of maternal lamentation” in Russia and Ukraine after the civil war (ln. 367), but by the drowned commercial empire of the Phoenician, and by the profit and the loss of Eliot’s daytime excavations into postwar European debt. The point of historicist understanding in all these cases is not simply to place a poem or novel in its time, but to understand the tension of very different times within the work of art, within a historical document, within ourselves.

Political terms and allusions from the postwar period have now returned as if surfacing from the frozen mud: but they were always there underneath the illusions of liberal progressivism. “Great power” politics, and extraterritorial Grossraüme, surface again in Putin’s Russia and in the work of “realist” political theorists like John Mearsheimer, and with them the racial and social-Darwinian analogies on which they depend. Great Powers, like all organisms, have interests in sufficient space for their “people” to expand, in the resources that support them, and in defending their people from foreign invasion. To survive, they must cleanse border spaces infected with racial and religious minorities, fifth columnists, traitors to the Fatherland. A distinctively fascist temporality, with its palingenetic appeal to lost glory, slouches again towards Bethlehem: we must make Great Russia again, we must Make America Great Again, we must reconquer France from Muslim invaders, as Éric Zemmour and his party Reconquête insist. National and imperial histories depend on legends of humiliation and sacrifice more than on memories of “victory,” as interwar liberals also discovered, on traumatic Dolchstosslegende that found future regenerations and future atrocities.

Historicist reading places 1922 and 2022 within a whole history of conflict, rent by the contradictions of capital and empire, by fissures within our grasp of event and situation, by the aporias attendant on our own position within a particular history and space. The history of 1919–1922, as I explore in my first book, is constituted by imperial self-justifications, by the traumatic fragmentation of vast multiethnic empires into linguistically and ethnically-defined “nations,” by what Du Bois calls the “world color-line,” by the logic of capitalist expansion and the resistance of proletarian revolt, by white supremacist lynchings and the first Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, by continued imperial annexations of China and the ensuing May Fourth revolution in politics and culture, by the successful protests of the suffragists, by anti-colonial revolt in Egypt, India, and across Africa, by the expansion of the first vast petroculture of modernity, and its attendant obsession with speed, artifice, and bombs. Do we still have the disciplinary capacity to register these conflicts at the level of the text, the archive, the line?

Because historicist criticism is reinvented as disciplinary method after 1914, the decline of historicist reason in modernist studies also means the progressive loss of a larger disciplinary self-understanding. Eliot’s historical sense, the New Critics, the Russian Formalists, the Frankfurt School, and the first great wave of anti-colonial critique and activism, all arise out of the post-1914 breakdown of liberal-imperial order and its post-1919 reinstauration. The fading of postwar historical memory means, then, the forgetting of the intellectual origins of Anglophone literary criticism itself. There’s no prospect for a simple return to the older new historicist consensus, nor to the model of the historical specialist that digs for ore in one archive or another, then writes up results never read by cheerfully compartmentalized colleagues. We now must publicly justify the grounds and legitimacy of our work to ourselves and to our administrators, in a time of rule by metrics, in the face of a crisis of contingent university labor, against the ongoing erasure of the history of race and capitalism. We need to stand in solidarity with our colleagues across disciplines and castes to wake from the sleep of historical reason. The question is whether we have the desire to defend our work at all, or whether we would rather, like good subjects of empire, simply drift into new dispensations, new administrative logics, new ways to dream the dreams of the present.


[1] The Economic Consequences of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920), 11.

[2] See the recovery of J. Saunders Redding and Caroline Spurgeon in Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).

[3] See Michael Levenson’s reading of The Waste Land alongside Keynes in “Does The Waste Land Have a Politics?” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 3 (1999): 1–13.