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Introduction: Reassessing Literary Commitment (Anew)

Introduction : Repenser (à nouveau) l’engagement littéraire
Catherine Bernard


Dans le sillage de numéros récents d’Études britanniques contemporaines consacrés à la portée historique de la littérature britanniques des xxe et xxie siècles, les articles ici réunis explorent la manière dont nombre d’écrivains britanniques n’ont eu de cesse de relancer la dialectique de l’engagement et de l’autonomie qui sous-tend la pensée du littéraire depuis le Modernisme. De Radclyffe Hall à Martin Amis, ces lectures posent à nouveau la question de la pertinence de cette dialectique. C’est le double impératif d’intégrité formelle et éthique de la littérature qui est ici éclairé derechef. La littérature est ici espace d’interpellation, à l’interface du monde et des mots, là où la langue devient comptable d’expériences qui engagent notre humanité.

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1It seems but apt that for its anniversary issue, Études britanniques contemporaines should choose to turn to the issue of commitment. More accurately, it seems all too apt that the 2015 conference of the French Association of English Studies (SAES), during which initial versions of the articles here gathered were first heard, should have focused on ‘Commitment.’ The editorial committee and scientific committee of Études britanniques contemporaines find here a wonderful occasion to reassert their commitment to an exploration of British literature and culture of the 20th–and 21st–centuries in all their diversity, from the High Modernists to very recent experimentations carried out on the frontier of the literary.

2In the wake of issues devoted to literature’s capacity to speak up and speak against (‘The Age of Outrage,’ Ebc 45, 2013) and to its capacity to endlessly reinvent its mimetic imaginary (‘State of Britain,’ Ebc 49), this issue returns to one of the most hotly contested notions in the field of contemporary British literary studies. Commitment is no doubt one of the most ubiquitous categories there is when applied to literature. More often than not, the notion is conjured up in a dialectical tension with its seemingly opposite, autonomy. Yet, thoughts on commitment and autonomy seem to have moved a long way from the apparent binarism central to Jean-Paul Sartre’s defense of committed literature in his famous essay of 1948 Qu’est-ce que la littérature ? When replying to Sartre, and even more urgently to Brecht, in his 1962 article ‘Commitment,’ Theodor Adorno famously returned to his privileged dialectics according to which the formal imperative should not necessarily be seen to stand in direct antagonism with the political or moral purport of literature. Reacting to Sartre’s plays, rather than to his 1948 essay, and to Brecht’s committed drama, Adorno reworks the central argument of his 1958 essay ‘Trying to Understand Endgame,’ in which Beckett’s negativity is analysed as offering the only acceptable consolation in the face of general disintegration : ‘Hope skulks out of the world, which cannot conserve it any more than it can pap and bon-bons, and back to where it came from, death. From it the play draws its only consolation’ (Adorno 1958, 275).

3As already repeatedly underlined by criticism, negativity and the modernist cult of difficulty work towards the undoing of what Brecht famously defined as ‘culinary’ art as early as the late 1920s as he was working on Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Yet, as also amply evidenced by Brecht, Dos Passos, or the later Eliot, difficulty as ‘high culture’s default position’ (Diepeveen 230) should not be cast as the symmetrical opposite of commitment. Ample work has been done on the complex tension between commitment and autonomy and yet it seems that the binary opposition elaborated by many modernists is still an entrenched one: ‘Today we are for the most part, then, acting out a modernist script. […] The triumph of difficulty created a default way of interacting with art, an interaction that has had tremendous staying power’ (Diepeveen 228). Needless to say, such entrenched binarism has come under critical flack from theoreticians intent on highlighting the complex interaction between form and ideology. As Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau remind us, 20th–century British literature has constantly redefined that line of formal resistance meant to differentiate autonomy and commitment:

If autonomy, both from the socio-historical context and the literary context or intertext, is unthinkable, does it mean that literature is necessarily synonymous with commitment, responsibility, accountability? […]

And wouldn’t there be other forms of commitment—aesthetic, religious, amorous or ethical—indirect ones that would be in keeping with the essential indirection of modernist writings. (Reynier and Ganteau 10–11)

4The list is now long of essays which, from Fredric Jameson’s famed 1981 The Political Unconscious, to more recent readings into the political nature of modernist cosmopolitanism (see Anna Snaith’s Modernist Voyages. Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945), have irrevocably altered our conception of literary commitment. Recent emphasis placed on the aftermath of modernism and the writers who spoke openly for greater accountability, has gone a long way already to highlight the complex legacy of the autonomy/commitment dialectics. In the introductory chapter to British Fiction after Modernism. The Novel at Mid-Century, Andrzej Gasiorek insists on the new forms of commitment imposed to the literary by the First-World War and the renewed urgency experienced by many writers to ‘render justice to the visible world,’ and one can only be struck by the insistance of many essays that relate to the historical commitment of modernisn and its capacity to engage with the present, from Marine MacKay’s Modernism, War and Violence to Thomas S. Davis’ The Extinct Scene – Late Modernism and Everyday Life. The return to an aesthetics of commitment is even more striking when one turns to other European Modernisms, as evidenced for instance by Marjorie Perloff’s essay on the cultural effect of the fall of the Austrian Empire in Edge of Irony. Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire.

5Writers themselves have often held conflicted views regarding commitment, views at times seemingly at odds with their own pratice. For all his canonically committed literary practice, George Orwell wrote one of the most vibrant and extreme defense of autonomy with ‘Inside the Whale.’ Woolf’s ‘The Leaning Tower’ has often been read as yet another defense and illustration of artistic autonomy, although in fact she was then as much writing in defense of politically aware writing as she was denouncing what she considered the ‘destructiveness’ and ‘emptiness’ of engaged writers such as Louis MacNiece. ‘The Leaning Tower’ is undoubtedly one of Woolf’s most radically political essays. In it, she undoes the mechanisms of a class-consciousness that gnaws at literature and traps it in contradiction. Her vision is avowedly utopian, as she conjures a final vision of a ‘classless and towerless society of the future’ (Woolf 276), a world without social borders in which a common reader would fully embrace her task as a critic and as an active reader, working towards a common cultural and ultimately political goal:

We can help England very greatly to bridge the gulf between the two worlds [that of the public school and that of the village school] if we borrow the books she lends us and if we read them critically. We have got to teach ourselves to understand literature. Money is no longer going to do our thinking for us. Wealth will no longer decide who shall be taught and who not. (Woolf 277)

6For Woolf, literature always already partakes of society and culture, and a vast part of late modernist and contemporary criticism tried to define to what extent such immanence guarantees literature and art sufficient autonomy so that they may affect the world, as much as it is affected by it. In The Human Condition (1958), Hannah Arendt would insist on the specific status of artworks and speak for their radical uselessness, a radical uselessness that conversely ensures they are the only works to be fully and exclusively of the world (193). Louis Althusser, for his part, was later to define such ongoing interaction as a form of relative autonomy (14), in which on the contrary the artistic superstructure is always asymmetrically affected by the base of economic forces. In recent years writers have also chosen to confront the issue. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Outside the Whale’ remains the most explicit call to literary commitment to have been published to date with its vibrant reminder that in a globalized world, there is no way writers may remain immune from the havoc that is contemporary history:

[P]olitics and literature, like sport and politics, do mix, are inextricably mixed, and that mixture has consequences. […] Outside the whale is the unceasing storm, the continual quarrel, the dialectic of history. […] If books and films could be made and consumed in the belly of the whale, it might be possible to consider them merely as entertainment, or even, on occasion as art. But in our whaleless world, in this world without quiet corners, there can be no easy escapes from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss. (100–101)

7Eventually all positions may be subverted and seen as self-contradictory and art that intends to resist the contaminations of politics be exposed as ‘culinary’ or mere distraction. The very notion of artistic ‘integrity’ cannot offer any stable ground from which to adjudicate between commitment and autonomy. As Benjamin Kohlmann cogently argues in Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s, the notion became the locus of an embattled dialectics of commitment and autonomy: ‘The internal conflict is mirrored in one of the critical keywords of the 1930s, “integrity,” which come to designate the formal self-containment of literary discourse (its ‘poetic integrity’) as well as the notion of literature’s accountability to extra-literary obligations (its ‘moral integrity’)’ (5).

  • 1 I am thinking of his foundational essay ‘“American-Type” Painting’, in which his defense of form al (...)

8Such conceptual reversibility was to underlie every attempt at pinning down what is exclusive or not to the realm of art, in an endless quest for art’s ‘truth to the medium’ which is always already art’s truth to aesthetic accountability; and even Clement Greenberg’s adamant defense of artistic self-accountability could not escape a political agenda that thrust art and society in a complex embrace1 (see his defense of ‘American-Type Painting’).

9The present collection of articles offers new readings into the complex tension just adumbrated. Its three sections allow us to return to correlated issues and map out adjacent critical territories. The first section ‘Truth to the Medium’ brings together readings of works which, as just mentioned, exploit the reflexive agenda of modernism and contemporary fiction in order to indirectly enforce the accountability of writing and its relevance to the present of culture. The focus is not exclusive of other media than literature. Commitment to formal integrity is to be found in early film criticism as Noëlle Cuny’s ‘Gender, the Demotic and the Cinema in the Early Adelphi (1923-1924): The Iris Barry Moment’ shows. The emphasis on the politics of form central to her reading is carried over into Karen Zouaoui’s reading of experimental fiction of the 60s: ‘“Sometimes it is sufficient to disimagine” (Out, 185): penser l’engagement avec Christine Brooke-Rose.’ The same dialogue of form and ethics is also central today to the works of writers who cannot be oblivious of the complex agency of writing, as Elsa Cavalié shows in her reading of Ian McEwan’s more recent works.

10The secon section, ‘Commitment to otherness,’ explores a specific form of commitment already incipient in McEwan for instance: a commitment to the marginal or the culturally suppressed. Tina Terradillos’s article turns to a lesser known work by Radclyffe Hall, The Sixth Beatitude, in which the author of The Well of Solitude confronts herself to other under-explored areas of the real in order to test the language of representation. Adeline Arniac’s article ‘“Because they die in our name” : responsabilité et engagement dans Party Time de Harold Pinter’ and Julien Alliot’s ‘Party politics in the Republic of Happiness : s’engager dans l’Autre’ both turn to drama, respectively Harold Pinter and Martin Crimp in order to analyse how the language of theatre may reinvent literature as satirical praxis, in the case of Crimp, or as a form of responsibility harnessing empathy in the case of Pinter. Cécile Girardin’s piece—‘Heir to the Enlightenment: Memorial Writing and Commitment in Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie’—returns to one of the key figures in our exploration of contemporary literature’s commitment to art’s historicity: Salman Rushdie, who rereads his own writerly task as directly indebted to the Enlightement and its philosophical commitment to action.

11The third section, ‘Confronting the Real,’ takes the reflection into even more conflicted grounds with two pieces focusing on literature’s commitment to the unsayable and the unthinkable. Anne-Laure Fortin-Tournès’s article ‘Politique et poétique du roman sur la Shoah : l’engagement de l’écriture contre la banalité du mal dans The Zone of Interest de Martin Amis (2014),’ explores anew fiction’s political and ethical responsibility to the inhuman in man. Hélène Machinal’s piece ‘Devenirs de l'humain et fiction contemporaine : imaginaires de la fin, corps bio-technologiques et subjectivités numérique’ brings the present collection to a close with an apposite exploration of recent fiction and criticism devoted to the post-human, a most elusive notion, yet one which once more impels us to reflect back on literature’s and theory’s accountability to our shifting sense of historicity.


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Adorno, Theodor, ‘Trying to Understand Endgame,’ Notes to Literature. Volume One, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, New York: Columbia UP, 1991, 241–275.

Adorno, Theodor, ‘Commitment,’ New Left Review, I.87-88 (September-December 1974); reprinted in Aesthetics and Politics, Theodor Adorno, et al., London: Verso, 1977, 177–195.

Althusser, Louis, ‘Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’état. (Notes pour une recherche),’ 1970. Ebook.

Arendt, Hannah, L’humaine condition, trad. Georges Fradier et al., Paris: Gallimard, coll. Quarto, 2012.

Davis, Thomas S., The Extinct Scene. Late Modernism and Everyday Life, London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Diepeveen, Leonard, The Difficulties of Modernism, London: Routledge, 2003.

Gasiorek, Andrzej, ‘Rendering Justice to the Visible World: History, Politics and National Identity in the Novels of Graham Greene,’ British Fiction after Modernism. The Novel at Mid-Century, Marina MacKay and Lindsey Stonebridge, eds, London: Ashgate, 2007, 17-32.

Greenberg, Clement, ‘“American-Type” Painting,’ Art and Culture. Critical Essays, New York: Beacon Press, 1961, 208–229.

Kohlmann, Benjamin, Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s, Oxford: OUP, 2014.

MacKay, Marina, Modernism, War, and Violence, London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Perloff, Marjorie, Edge of Irony. Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire, Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2016.

Reynier, Christine and Jean-Michel Ganteau, eds., ‘Introduction,’ Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Literature, Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditérranée, 2010, 9–14.

Rushdie, Salman, ‘Outside the Whale,’ Imaginary Homelands. Essays and Criticism 1981-91, London: Granta Books, 1991, 87–101.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, Qu’est-ce que la littérature?, Paris: Gallimard, 1948.

Snaith, Anna, Modernist Voyages. Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945, Cambridge: CUP, 2014.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Leaning Tower,’ The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Volume 6: 1933 to 1941, ed. Stuart N. Clarke, London: The Hogarth Press, 2011, 259–283.

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1 I am thinking of his foundational essay ‘“American-Type” Painting’, in which his defense of form also dovetails as an illustration of the rise of American art.

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction: Reassessing Literary Commitment (Anew) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 50 | 2016, mis en ligne le 07 avril 2016, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Paris Diderot University. She has published extensively on contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Rachel Whiteread, but also Gillian Wearing and Sam Taylor-Wood). She has also done extensive work on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker or Graham Swift). Her research has also turned to English modernism and more specifically Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. She has co-edited several volumes of articles on Woolf, has published a critical study of Mrs Dalloway (Gallimard, Foliothèque, 2006), as well as a critical edition of Flush, for the Pléiade Edition of Woolf’s works (2012), and a critical edition and translation into French of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is currently working on a study of the body politic of contemporary British fiction and visual culture to be published with the Presses de la Sorbonne. She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SÉAC).

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