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C. D. Blanton. Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism.


            review by Claudio Sansone





rsz 51t44ux9zqlBlanton’s study of modernist epic literature in the twentieth-century breathes fresh air into a field of research that is often treated all too lightly. Including discussions of Eliot, Pound, H.D., Auden and MacNeice, but also of Toller and Freud, Blanton is able to descriptively refocus the study of epic in the inter-war period, and he does so more comprehensively than previous studies. His objective is to trace the development of the epic, which Pound defined as “a poem including history,” into a new phase of fragmentation—a disjointed monument that points to and imitates the processes of a problematized “total” historical perspective. Therefore, the first part of the book is titled “Including History.”

In his opening chapter, “Dialectical Poetics,” Blanton presents the apparent contradiction of epic writing in what seems to be a “postepic age” as intimately tied to the way Pound’s famous pronouncement on the epic is interpreted (3). What exactly are the compositional strategies that permit a containment of history—that is—when does history come to be understood as a heterogeneous totality that cannot quite be made to fit any one kind of account? Blanton makes it clear that his is not a study of Pound per se, or of the many inclusion strategies Pound adopted, but of the over-arching strategies of containment that can be gleaned from Pound and Eliot (and other modernists). In essence, Blanton suggests that by imitating the processes of history in various non-mimetic ways, modernist literature comes to contain and express history in a new perspective that is appropriate to its age, and its new visions of what history is.

Blanton makes an exacting use of Lukács to frame this question—for Lukács saw the epic as the genre that captures a total picture of an age, although he recognizes this is not done by literally containing everything. Instead, the text must set up, alongside those things it strategically highlights through inclusion, also a series of suggestive absences which point to the whole and leave history present as an interconnected series of materials that cannot be given one iteration. In the second section to the first chapter, “Negated Epics,” Blanton summarizes the above in a crucial formulation and separates the epic efforts of the twentieth century into two simultaneous “portions” (we might say, “phases”) that attempt to attain containment in two related but quite different dialectical strategies. He writes, “each portion seeks to fix a distinct mode of epic intentionality, to locate the conceptual device through which a poem achieves historical reference even while acknowledging the disappearance of historical mimesis as a formal possibility” (12). The peculiar feature of epics in the twentieth century, however, is that they make this kind of containment thematic—the contradiction becomes the content of the epic, rather than simply an accessory (a valuable one, admittedly, compared to others) in its formal apparatus.

To give these portions their first definition, Blanton compares the Cantos to the The Waste Land. The Cantos stands at the other end of the spectrum to the Waste Land in the sense that it is more diffusely encyclopedic—it gives a real impression of attempting to contain everything, and uses parataxis to imply a radically larger whole than its substantial size barely begins to encompass. Eliot’s attempt at containing history in the Waste Land, in contrast, is based on a much more conservative use of actual material, and more highly charged set of paratactic gaps. In this sense we can begin to see how the texts negate their overt principles as they attempt to reach out towards the historical.

To make this clearer, Blanton had already brought in Hegel’s concept of ‘determinate negation’ (that had inspired Lukács). Here this difficult concept is illustrative of the manner in which modernist parataxis has a determinate intentional direction, while not necessarily containing a unique or specific object. It aims precisely but generally at historical material without specifying an historical object, and this permits the poems to assume a practically quasi-total plurality of reference. The text escapes itself in so many directions just as a historical account implies and excises so many possible simultaneous strands of thought and event in order to give an intelligible picture of a specific moment. But unlike an historical account, the poems are only superficially arguing for the contingent character of specificity, and reveal this paradox precisely in their referential force. Blanton looks specifically at examples to show how this is done through various means—i.e. dialectical negation does not only assume one form but can be seen as a pattern that includes many aspects of the poetics of loss, suspicion, and failure. All of these contribute to the sense that historical accounts are necessary reductions, and that these poems can attempt to contain the principle of such reductionism as it is perceived particularly acutely in the twentieth-century, following complex and ineffable historical transformations like the First World War.

In his second chapter “An Organ of Documentation: Eliot and Order,” Blanton arrives at the book’s most surprising and powerful observation—at least in terms of setting the basis for the discussion of modernist epics as subdivided into two general groups. He persuasively reads Eliot’s wider project with The Criterion as an epic amalgam that, beginning with the ‘compressed’ principle of The Waste Land, developed into an ‘expansive’ project not dissimilar to Pound’s Cantos, pointing out along the way that the epic’s referential nature in any case blurs the question of specific authorship—such that it is not absurd to read a magazine that published very many authors under a loose but intentional editorial direction as an epic. In this move (and some might say also in his inclusion of The Waste Land as an epic, although this is much less radical) we see Blanton’s castigation of prescriptive generic notions, in this case a through disengagement of the epic from the realm of poetry alone. As he develops the more notional structures of the epic in the twentieth-century, Blanton therefore reviews how we might define such a genre in extremely novel ways. Much later in his study he writes, for example, “we have taken the idea of epic to imply, as a regulative and totalizing concept, a mode predicated on a notion that is not primarily poetic at all, but defined precisely by its extents and inclusions, by its capacity to conscript historical totality as a fundamental object and procedure” (94).

The study is a mine for this kind of conceptual reframing of the genre (or, more appropriately, mode), and should be valued also for this characteristic. To give but one more example, very early in his study we read that “there cannot be history without epic” (10). Blanton explains how epic literature gives a tangible shape to the historical consciousness of a given era, making manifest the very patterns of historical thought, and permitting these to be interpreted and modified by contemporary and later thinkers. In this respect, Blanton is not only right to point out that the epic precedes history writing, but he has been able to show that the tension between epic and history has a much wider scope than most scholars account for.

As the study progresses, Blanton evaluates Eliot’s “nomology,” the conventions through which material is assimilated and reproduced, in order to develop his specific paradigms. He then goes on to evaluate how allusive language functions quite differently to the more accepted paradigm of the “mythic method,” and provides a fruitful critique of Eliot’s own understanding of these mechanisms. A final chapter in the book’s first part deals with “Eliotic Marxism” in a very persuasive fashion, outlining the political and cultural implications of all that has been said above as a kind of coda for the descriptive outline of the epic as a twentieth-century mode.

The second part of the book, “Including Negation” then goes on to examine how these paradigms are taken up in the works of MacNeice, Auden, Toller, H.D. and even Freud. There is not the space here to go into this section in great detail—but as the title suggests, Blanton registers a shift towards a more self-conscious adoption of the negative dialectics, and the complexity of interactions within epic and other poetic modes is explored more thoroughly as Blanton descriptively restores texts to a canon that is historically highly prescriptive, and treated conservatively by most scholars.

The one criticism that can be raised is that Blanton’s brief sections of philosophical explanation could be more detailed. For example, pp. 74-76 are especially dense on this front—and the importance of Blanton’s observation is obscured by his much-too-speedy exposition of very difficult concepts in Bradley, Russell, and Husserl. The reader could benefit from a little less speed in places like these, but I do not want to give the impression that this is a recurring problem. Blanton’s style is, after all, heavily loaded but mechanically clear. It was impossible to effectively imitate his careful word-choice and technical terminology in this review, because the apparatus he sets up, page by page, is as helpful as it is complex. The reader may find this a difficult book to consult as a result of this fact—especially if she were to dive into one of the later sections (and even more so in the second part of the book) without first at least developing a familiarity with the introduction and those sections that directly precede the one that is of interest.

All this notwithstanding, this book should be welcomed for its enormous contribution to a waning field. Blanton’s vitality and perspicuous attention to detail are the hallmark of an enthusiastic return to questions that have recently only been treated in passing, and for which a more fully elaborated paradigm has much been needed. I recommend those interested in Blanton’s work on the epic to also consult the edition of the Yale Journal of Criticism that he edited with Nigel Alderman in the Spring of 2000, titled “Pocket Epics: British Poetry After Modernism.”