Review: A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic by James Gifford

Hailey Maxwell, University of Glasgow

A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic by James Gifford (ELS Editions 201)

A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (2018) is essentially a continuation and expansion of the metacritical project established by Gifford’s previous volume, Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes (2014) which takes the blind spots of materialist analyses in New Modernist Studies as its true object. In the present study, Gifford approaches the entanglement of two definitionally unstable domains traditionally forsaken by the dominant Marxist perspective towards late modernism; anti-authoritarianism and mass media genre fantasy.

Gifford considers the existing model to be inadequate in its address of fantasy (and anarchism) and as such A Modernist Fantasy begins with the dense construction and critique of the scholarly paradigm which has so-far defined the genre in materialist terms. Navigating through the positions of dominant theorists of the genre including Rosemary Jackson, José Monleón, Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin, Gifford maps out the manner in which fantasy has been critically positioned as the inferior sibling of science fiction within the Marxist tradition from the 1970s onwards. Fantasy, like anarchism, emerges defined in Marxist terms as reactionary rather than subversive, conservative rather than experimental and ultimately counter-revolutionary and as such excluded from the radical praxis of social transformation. Compared to science fiction with its ostensible ties to realism, fantasy is dismissed as “an archaic and enslaving ancestor to the aesthetics of modernism and a symptom of the inertia of a dead social system to progressive politics.”[1] At the core of fantasy, according to Jameson is an “oneric” and ahistorical preoccupation with the ethical; in fantasy texts “antagonistic religious ideologies of the Middle Ages are here harmoniously combined into a contemporary anti-Enlightenment spiritualism.”[2] From this “disappointing” determinist position Gifford’s task then, is to show us that by positioning the genre alongside the anarchist tradition an ontological opening can be created within which a radical ethics of fantasy can grow. [3]

The study is then divided chronologically into three sections, charting the parallel development of fantasy and anarchist thought from the nineteenth century to the dawn of postmodernism through a series of nine case studies, using authors distinct from Tolkien-centric conventions of the genre. Beginning with an anarchist recuperation of William Morris and an analysis on his late Romance The Wood Beyond the World (1894), Gifford moves on to recover an anti-authoritarian impulse within Hope Mirrlees’ overtly fantastic Lud-in-the-Midst (1926). In both texts, Gifford identifies an allegorical address to social transformation which orients itself towards the abolition of the state rather than presenting a socialist critique of labour-power relations. Calling attention to Mirrlees proximity to ‘High’ modernist literature – Woolf and Eliot in particular – Gifford concludes that the exclusion of fantasy as a modernist form is largely a consequence of the much-contested distinction between High and Low or the everyday and the avant-garde within scholarship compounded by the Marxist stigmatisation of the genre discussed in Chapter 1. The next chapter opens with a short but adroit discussion of the contentious but crucial importance of myth to modernism; focusing on English literary modernism in particular. This discussion carries Gifford’s thread rather dizzyingly into a discussion of Gifford’s particular area of scholarly command; the anarchism of Herbert Read and of the post-surrealist New Apocalypse group. The Celtic revivalist, Arthurian fantasy works of Mervyn Peake, Poul Anderson, John Cowper Powys and Henry Treece in the late 1940s – 1960s is enthusiastically positioned by Gifford as explicitly and distinctly anarchist within late modernism – developing independently of their contemporaries C.S Lewis and J. R.R. Tolkien.  Gifford’s portrait of Powys – a writer this reader discovered through Mark Fisher – was particularly illuminating in demonstrating the synthesis of modernist literature with the anarchist tradition in his works, emphasising the influence of Emma Goldman in tandem with readings of Proust and Joyce.

The events of May ‘68 and the cultural turn coincided with the deaths of these writers and heralded a new generation of fantasy writers. Gifford’s final chapter addresses the inheritors of the anarcho-fantasy tradition he has mapped out: Michael Moorcock, Samuel Delany and of course, Ursula le Guin. The thematic concerns with power, individual agency and the role of the state and its apparatus Gifford first identified within Morris are traced through the literary worlds of these three distinct writers as they explore the politics of desire and freedom through fantastic narratives.

Although at times, the enchantment of the fantasy texts under discussion is stifled by the weight of Gifford’s larger metacritical project, the book is a rewarding one which expands our critical understanding rather than only adding to our canon. Gifford’s case for developing new techniques and critical tools to interpret themes of magic, the unreal and the fantastic within the culture of late modernism and indeed the contemporary moment is a convincing one. Scholars accustomed to slippery materialist handlings of other currents within modernism whose introspection renders any relationship to the revolutionary project as somewhat precarious, such as Surrealism (indeed presented in terms of ‘fantasy’ to American audiences in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism in 1936) will be familiar with Gifford’s concern about the political recuperation of these phenomena.

Gifford highlights the seismic shifts which can be enabled through revisiting conventional understandings of periodisation and genre, reminding us once again that these conceptual tools are political and cultural constructions that we must continually re-orient and re-evaluate rather than apply as standard. As scholars we can no longer afford to limit our critical interpretations to those subjects which neatly fit our received, conventional interpretative schema.  It is my understanding of Freud that those impusles we repress return as perversion or pathology. We know from our contemporary moment that the stigmatisation and dismissal of irrational drives and mass cultural forms has consequences.  In this light, Gifford’s book generates a shift in perspective which is both timely and necessary.

Sources

[1] James GIfford A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria : ELS Editions, 2018). 3.

[2] Frederic Jameson. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. (London : Verso, 2005) 61.

[3] Gifford. 3-5.

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