Minute Particulars

Thomas Davis, The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life

Columbia University Press, 328pp, £50.00, ISBN 9780231169424

reviewed by Guy Stevenson

Recent work on inter-war modernism has emphasised a shift from psychological introspection – exemplified by figures like TS Eliot, James Joyce and Ezra Pound – to active re-engagement with the outside world. The latter camp, chastised by George Orwell in 1940 as ‘eager-minded schoolboy[s] with a leaning towards Communism’, are the main subject of this book – a group of British writers and artist that included WH Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Henry Moore and whose politics were heavily influenced by the build up to and outbreak of a second World War. Thomas S. Davis’ The Extinct Scene reimagines that conventional binary, reading literature’s politicisation in the 1930s and 40s not in terms of an explicit ideological swing but rather the illumination of world affairs through detailed attention to the local. Far from naive, this was, he tells us, a serious and revealing attempt to examine the effects of world war and ‘the disorder in the world-system that pushed the locus of global power from Britain to America.’ ‘How do these agitations at the level of everyday life,’ Davis asks ‘correspond to “great change” – that is, the large scale of war, systematic change and historical events? And what form of attention to the everyday is required to establish that correspondence?’

He tackles these questions through rigorous and theoretically informed analysis, first of inter-war film, literature, sculpture and painting, then a selection of post-World War Two writers who inherited the same tendency to explore geo-political events through minute particulars. Beginning with the birth of documentary film in the 1930s and ending with WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, Davis charts a century of artistic responses to urban destruction – in its physical, social and psychological senses. The book’s opening and best section, on Jim Grierson’s ‘Mass Observation’ project, borrows from theorists Fredrik Jameson, György Lukacs and Jacques Ranciére to puzzle the grey area between aesthetic and documentary purposes. As the author puts it, his aim is to ‘restore the role of avant-garde aesthetics to the history of documentary,’ in the process understanding documentary filmmaking as politically engaged but also the natural evolution of a politically wary avant-garde tradition. Britain’s first ever filmmaking collective, ‘Mass Observation’ formed in 1936 as a direct reaction to ‘Abyssinia, the coming of civil war to Spain, the atavism of the new Germany and the revival of racial superstition.’ Its mission ‘to sift through everyday life to find evidence of how the population’s wishes and fears, the psychological and affective shape of their daily lives, related to the state and its institutions,’ was both artistically experimental and politically protectionist. Although supported by TS Eliot – who put his name to Grierson’s manifesto – and artistically indebted to many of the techniques of high modernism, Grierson and his contemporaries substituted the previous generation’s ‘antagonism’ towards authority with their own spirit of ‘compatibility’.

The same paradox underpins much of what is interesting in The Extinct Scene. Sculptor Henry Moore, whose work adorns the book’s cover, took government money to sketch Londoners sheltering from the Blitz but used it to produce an eerily gothic, morally ambiguous aesthetic. As Davis astutely observes, these pictures contain the ‘imminent danger that his subjects do not recognize and, perhaps, the fears his patrons did not want recognized.’ That re-emergence of the gothic also resulted, we hear, in Elizabeth Bowen’s peculiarly British response to impending doom. The muffled sound of bombs exploding above ground, she wrote, felt like ‘a cold in your head’, which provides Davis with a handy metaphor for the zombie-like thought processes recorded in many novels of the period. Work by Henry Green, for example – who is read rarely now but whose ‘contemporaries thought him on par with Woolf, Joyce and Lawrence’ – understood that the diurnal encodes ‘past historical events, internalizes the antagonism of the present, and sometimes serves as mute indication of possible futures.’ The next step in Davis’ thinking - that ‘the twentieth century’s total wars’ should have ‘render[ed] the gothic powerless’ – is interesting but underestimates both the horror that incubated gothic literature in the first place and the real possibility that wartime London was about to get a lot worse. ‘What repressed, monstrous thing’, Davis asks, ‘would not already be apparent in a corpse-filled no man’s land or in a smoldering, bombed cityscape?’, to which the answer is multifold.

After Moore, Green and Bowen in the Blitz we get Orwell on his fellow literary combatants in the Spanish Civil War – crusaders ‘lured by . . . shallow parallelisms’ – and WH Auden in China with Christopher Isherwood as the Manchuria crisis is boiling over. If it is well documented that Orwell became embittered by Republican infighting, much less has been written about Auden and Isherwood’s Journey to War, a travelogue Davis unpacks to reveal deep-lying geo-political fault lines. He shows us these two young graduates reclining on the British Consulate lawn in Canton, spectators to an air raid that killed five hundred civilians and thirty fighter pilots. He also moves beyond standard postcolonial questions of Eurocentric privilege to draw fascinating comparisons with Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and to demonstrate ‘a shift in the post-1919 world order from collective security modeled on international law to a more aggressive, technologically enhanced geopolitical realism.’ In Orwell’s Spain, but more acutely in Auden and Isherwood’s China, Davis explains, the total destruction made possible by new military technology is reflected through the authors’ everyday sense of unreality. What he neglects to mention is Orwell’s distaste for these two writers in particular – poster boys, Orwell thought, of ‘the right left’ scene that had laid waste to serious literary expression in England during the 1930s.

The apparently new practices Orwell, Auden and Isherwood observed, of ‘bombardment, scorched earth, collective punishment’ had actually ‘long [been] reserved for politicking the colonies,’ a fact Davis then uses to introduce some excellent analysis of the immigrant literary scene in 1960s London. Through Vic Reid, Samuel Selvon and Colin MacInness, three very different writers who nonetheless ‘form a relationship between the figurations of political belonging happening in the spheres of political theory, legislative debate, and the mass media and the everyday lives of marginalized and dispossessed populations,’ he extends his thesis to propose post-colonial vernacular writing as a way not only of reflecting racial marginality but of finding new, creative forms of identity. If Grierson’s ‘Mass Observation’ films and Henry Moore’s sketches were at once artistically experimental and politically propagandist, these West Indians writing from London came closer in spirit – but also style - to an early modernist ‘antagonism’.

The Extinct Scene is an original though at times repetitive reading of changing trends in inter-war literary modernism. By foregrounding minute particulars rather than grand ideological reversals, Davis has produced a study that is unspectacular but perhaps more valuable for it. The geo-political implications of the everyday make for a less thrilling copy than, say, modernism’s shift from the right to the left, but they also move the conversation forward steadily and with purpose. Scouring local material for clues of larger forces, Davis succeeds in his aim to challenge readings in which ‘“realist” or “modernist” period[s are] neatly bracketed by the beginning and endpoints of an aesthetic style’s lifespan.’ Refreshingly, he reacts with ‘suspicion [to] claims for modernism’s absolute novelty,’ placing it in the longer, messier historical context of overlapping aesthetic and political purposes, both in previous and successive ages. As well as raising fresh doubts about the line between modernism and realism – and revisiting a number of novels and works of art that have fallen under the radar – this book offers a new and important way of understanding a complex and often oversimplified period in 20th-century literary history.