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Henry Mead. T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.


       Review by Christos Hadjiyiannis 



rsz 9781472582010



“Before commencing a systematic critique of a system,” Georges Sorel wrote in Unity and Multiplicity (1910), “there would often be a very real advantage in finding out the origin of the images which are frequently encountered in it.” For the revolutionary syndicalist Sorel, ideology consisted of a set of ideas, terms, beliefs, and images that needed to be studied carefully – in isolation. A key part of this process was “diremption,” which he defined as an examination of “certain parts without taking into account all their connections with the whole [in order] to determine in some way the nature of their activity by isolating them.” By using “diremption,” Sorel hoped “to put before my readers the working of a mental effort which is continually endeavoring to break through the bonds of what has been previously constructed for common use.”1

In his scintillating T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism, and in the tradition of the best Hulme scholars (whose guidance he acknowledges throughout), Henry Mead pursues a similar method to that which Sorel named “diremption.” Pushing some figures aside, he brings others to the fore. Cutting through the various European intellectual groups and artistic coteries out of which Anglophone modernism emerged, he identifies rhetorical, aesthetic, and political affinities between these different networks – but also real intellectual debts. Patiently, he disambiguates terms and concepts, providing alternative genealogies of recurring images and metaphors in modernist criticism, and painstakingly, he disaggregates (to use Michael Freeden’s more recent term) contested histories, beliefs, and ideologies.2 The result is an absorbing and enlightening (but also quite demanding) microhistory of modernism focusing, chiefly, on T. E. Hulme and his editor at The New Age, A. R. Orage. Admirers of Hulme will rejoice at Mead’s scrupulous reconstruction of this influential modernist’s thinking. Those interested in modernism more broadly will find that they need to chase up the many passing references to figures, movements, and schools that Mead brings into play – but it is hard to imagine that they too will not find reading T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism a hugely rewarding experience.

Hulme’s poetic output may have been notoriously small (he published only six short poems under his name; Mead discusses one), but the critical work he left behind when he died at the front in 1917 was substantial: he wrote lectures, articles, and notes on poetry, metaphysics, politics, art, war, and ethics. Mead considers the entirety of Hulme’s texts, from the rudimentary “Cinders” composed in his student days, to “A Notebook,” his last known work written during the war. Over the course of his study, Mead refines and qualifies various received opinions of Hulme; for example, that he borrowed ideas from others uncritically, or that he promulgated authoritarian politics. But his overarching argument, and the thesis that binds the book, is the following: Hulme was a consistent thinker who held firmly to the relativist view that all truths are arbitrary fictions, but who also saw the advantages of social, political, and moral order.

All of his writings, whatever the subject matter, Mead argues, display this doubleness, which is indicative of his lifelong pluralism: the belief that it is possible to hold distinct and potentially conflicting positions; or, as defined by William James, that multiple or competing truths could operate for different individuals within one world. Though nominalist, his early notes “reveal a longing for some shared condition of being, some kind of conceptual union” (28). Similarly, the poetry he demanded in “A Lecture on Modern Poetry” was ‘dedicated not only to individual vision but also to communicative discipline and power’ (34). As regarding the visual arts, the art that he promoted was rooted in nature – yet it was also abstract: it exposed chaos at the same time as it yearned for fixity and certainty (140). In his political essays, he sought to guarantee individual rights within a structure of discipline and order. And, while asserting objective and absolute values in his writings on ethics, he remained until the end anti-positivist: his change of heart in “A Notebook” was “an act of will, not reason,” Mead writes; a “jump from a conscious acceptance of fictions to the grandest of myths – that of an unknowable deity” (199). (Thus Mead concludes that, by the end of his life, Hulme’s pragmatist desire for order had been replaced by a non-rational, unquestioning belief in God.)

Defending someone customarily accused of inconsistency by arguing that he is consistently antithetical (pluralist and absolutist, attracted to chaos and also to fixity) may, at first, appear a cop-out – some sort of dialectical trick. But Mead is very persuasive in showing that Hulme’s doubleness was shared by many of his contemporaries, and that it was, in a sense, a product of its time. Context matters, and this is precisely what Mead so punctiliously offers. Hulme’s marriage of pluralism with a desire for order appears less idiosyncratic than at first thought when seen, for example, in light of French philosopher Jules de Gaultier’s belief that meaning is always constructed from fiction, but that this is a universal, and indeed necessary, human activity. Equally, his aesthetic views gain new valence when compared to Roger Fry’s contemporaneous negotiation between intuitive experience and formal hardness, his politics more credence when judged against Tancrède de Visan and Maurice Denis’s merging of anarchist politics with a taste for structure and clarity.

Starting as disciples of Henri Bergson, Max Stirner, and Mikhail Bakunin, both de Visan and Denis eventually turned their focus to the neo-royalism of Action Française and the neo-Thomism of the Catholic Revival. As Mark Antliff, Sanford Schwartz, and other critics have previously shown, and as Mead demonstrates here, behind such transitions lay a curious but not uncommon synthesis of vitalism, individualism, and anarchism with right-wing politics, including the classicism of Action Française.3 We are reminded that, at the time Hulme was writing, it was common practice to draw on different and diverse ideas and styles, and to conflate otherwise distinct philosophical and political positions. Especially so at a magazine such as The New Age, which Mead describes as “the most important of those publications that gave British modernists a wider audience” (4). (Rightly in my view, he is not convinced by Ann Ardis’s recent claim that The New Age’s opposition to Poundian poetics was so strong that it cannot be considered a modernist magazine proper). The New Age was notoriously open and multivocal. It owed a considerable amount of its energy to Orage, who was its sole editor from 1908. In Orage, Mead finds a pluralist thinker who valued order in a similar way to Hulme. Orage, he writes, “pursued a form of intuitive, penetrating non-rational consciousness to preserve a heightened sense of individual vitality and recommended an overarching politics of social myth to contain and intensify that individuality” (57). But although he, too, emphasised the Fall, he put equal weight on Redemption. Showcasing himself as perhaps Orage’s finest critic, Mead expertly details how Orage’s socialism was pessimistic but aspirational, and how he believed that the journey to social, political, and individual salvation was hard but possible. He also shows – in what is one of the book’s most fascinating comparisons – that Orage’s 1907 account of consciousness was remarkably similar to that of Bergson in Creative Evolution (also 1907), noting prudently that “it seems likely that this was less a case of direct influence than of shared sources” (73).

Another figure whose thought shared “components” (as Mead likes to say) with that of Hulme was the Spanish guild socialist Ramiro de Maeztu. In Maeztu, he claims, “philosophical Neo-Realism and the doctrine of Original Sin provide the philosophical and moral logic to assert the limited nature and functional status of individuals” (207). By contrast, there were considerable differences (both in degree and kind) between Hulme and the Cartesian, positivist, anti-Symbolist, and racist Charles Maurras (of the Action Française), as well as with the New Age Nietzscheans, J. M. Kennedy and A. M. Ludovici. Mead is particularly convincing about Hulme’s differences with Ludovici. Appropriating Nietzsche’s distinction between master and slave morality, and taking his notion of “transvaluation of values” face value, Ludovici sought an elite founded on brute force, whereas Hulme had no time for what he described (in “A Tory Philosophy”) as “romantic nonsense of the two kinds of morality.”

In addition to restaging the tensional politics of the New Age circle and reconstructing Hulme’s modernism, Mead’s parallel aim is to determine “which, if any of its ideological components might be salvageable as part of a liberal democratic tradition.” The answer he gives is tentative but forthright: “within the cluster that make up his thought, some elements might be reconcilable with pluralistic theories of democracy” (1). Although a carefully-weighted statement, in the pages that follow, this claim is, sadly, not fully developed: sadly, because Mead is right to challenge simplistic readings of Hulme as proto-fascist or as intransigently authoritarian. As a result, it is never entirely clear which elements exactly “Hulmean Toryism” (195) might share with, say, the value pluralism of Isaiah Berlin and John Gray’s “agonistic liberalism” (other than a general distrust of “progress”), or with the “bicameral” liberalism of William Connolly, which, Mead claims (without elaborating sufficiently), is “perhaps the clearest case of an intellectual lineage that contains Hulme” (16). Further, this means that, despite his otherwise sophisticated argument, Mead leaves himself open to objections. To mention only one, when he claims that “Hulme’s conservatism is predicated on relativism” (105) and, then, that Hulme “saw the Tory social system as a necessity – not as an assertion of eternal truths, but as the formulation of a tool to permit human organization” (230), one could plausibly interject that this kind of conservative relativism may still be authoritarian, because it still makes a relative particular (a social system) into a normative standard (the Tory social system). This kind of relativism, which has as its flipside authoritarianism, is what both Bernard Williams and Michael North (the latter with regard to Eliot) have cautioned against.4 What makes Hulme’s relativism different?

To flag up these limitations is not to take anything away from the book’s achievement. T. E. Hulme and the Ideological Politics of Early Modernism is modernist cultural history at its finest, and Mead has given us a book to which Hulme scholars will no doubt refer for many years to come.




1. “Unity and Multiplicity.” Reflections on Violence. Trans. and ed. Jeremy Jennings, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 253; “From Materials for a Theory of the Proletariat.” From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy. Ed. John L. Stanley. Trans. John and Charlotte Stanley. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. 228; Reflections on Violence, 5.

2. See, for example, Michael Freeden. “Political Concepts and Ideological Morphology.” Journal of Political Philosophy 2.2 (1994): 154-5.

3. See, for example, Mark Antliff. Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993, 10, 16-39; Sanford Schwartz, “Bergson and the Politics of Vitalism.” The Crisis in Modernism: Bergson and the Vitalist Controversy. Ed. Frederick Burwick and Paul Douglass. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 278.

4. Williams, “An Inconsistent Form of Relativism.” Relativism. Ed. Jack W. Meiland Michael Krausz, Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 171; North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 86.