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Book Review: Modern Writers, Transnational Literatures: Rabindranath Tagore and W. B. Yeats

4 April 2022

Jinan Ashraf, Dublin City University

Ragini Mohite, Modern Writers, Transnational Literatures: Rabindranath Tagore and W. B. Yeats (Liverpool: Clemson University Press, 2021)

There appears to be no end of critical and interpretive studies on Rabindranath Tagore and W. B. Yeats. This is in part due to their distinct positions as predecessors of modernisms, the availability of cross-referenced studies on their literary and cross-cultural collaborations, their thematic formulations of aesthetic modernisms, and ideations of the home and the hearth across a range of literary forms borrowing from European, Asiatic and Eastern literary traditions. Readers of Modern Writers, Transnational Literatures: Rabindranath Tagore and W.B. Yeats would appreciate Ragini Mohite’s timely and nuanced study of the fraught relationship between Yeats and Tagore both for its modernist perspective and transnational discourse. Mohite is sensitive to Yeats’ and Tagore’s complex positions as contemporaneous intertextualists in attending to the ‘complementarity, tensions, and thematic echoes’ (p. 4) in such texts as Tagore’s Gora, The Home and the World, Red Oleanders, and The Post Office and Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan and Purgatory besides others. Mohite’s useful tracing of paternalist tropes in colonial and gendered spaces allows readers to locate thematic and formal resonances in the works of Yeats and Tagore while making these writers quite apparent subjects for a study of the broad networks and borders of transnational currents in literary studies in the twenty-first century. 

Mohite integrates an impressive range and breadth of textual sources in her study in order to demonstrate the expansive reach of Yeats’ and Tagore’s modernist productions. She also develops a broadly non-Western methodological framework informed by theoretical inputs from Priyamvada Gopal, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Partha Chatterjee in rendering decentralised avenues for exploring modernist texts. Mohite’s study of Tagore and Yeats as part of Indo-Irish literary networks in the twentieth-century is significant in that it invites readers to consider what transnational approaches to reading Yeats and Tagore in the twenty-first century might look like. By way of methodology, Mohite argues that the transnational mode of reading functions as method and property of modernist approaches: readers are thus encouraged to look for complementarities across Tagore’s and Yeats’ oeuvres historically in non-linear time. To those familiar with the transnational turn in New Modernist Studies, this approach may seem to demonstrate a conceptual interconnectedness with the notion of retromodernism, which lends us to a consideration of the development of ‘alternative modernisms’ irrespective of the Eurocentric model[1] Central to our understanding of the transnational approach is translation in its broadest sense:  a reconceptualization of aesthetic form and culture— others’ and one’s own— while tapping into alternate traditions (p. 4).

While Mohite eschews facile generalisations and false equivalents between the caste system in India and race/class hierarchies in Ireland, the emphasis on the intersectional and socio-political locations in which Tagore and Yeats produce and publish their works complicate categorising these writers as anything but convincingly conservative elite (p. 12). Mohite’s attempts to demonstrate their interstitial positions between the various coordinates of postcolonial writing, modernist migrant writing, and cosmopolitan regionalism only reflect the shifting positions that both writers occupy in their ambivalent attitudes to nationalism. In such an instance, readers could perhaps direct a more concerted attention towards the implied paradoxical position of aristocracy and elitism enabling and even facilitating both writers to pursue literary and anti-colonial interests abroad. Readers would also do well to mine the text for indications of how Tagore’s caste-based and aristocratic leanings of the Hindu Indian tradition and Yeats’ Anglo-Irish roots may work in conjunction with or even as a cause of their ambivalent attitudes; or to what end Tagore employs English as a strategic and hybrid formal, aesthetic and political choice in his critique of the gendered rhetoric of imperialism and cultural purity.

The four chapters in the book engage discursively with and return to tensions of caste, hierarchies and inheritance in a predominantly gendered discourse of colonialism adopted by Brahminical nationalism and the British empire. Yeats is presented as being ambivalent about modernity in his predilection for hierarchies and tendency to lean toward negative eugenics against the rise of European fascism. The transnational readings of these texts are rooted in predominantly Indian (specifically Bengali) and Anglo-Irish socio-political contexts. Mohite provides useful signposts for those reading Tagore’s work from the renewed perspective of world literature by including transliterations of Indian political movements, with specific and relevant historic dates. Scholars in New Modernist Studies may find the discussion on border regionalism, subaltern modernisms, and the doubly colonised other particularly compelling. The coda concludes the study with a brief iteration of the regeneration of modernist discourse in twenty-first-century revivals of Tagore and Yeats’ productions, offering a useful and practical catalogue of translations, commentaries, reprints, screen and stage adaptations, anthologies, archives and institutions and further demonstrates how the textual lives of Yeats and Tagore have shown a propensity for transcultural reverberations in the twenty-first century. Indeed Mohite succeeds in her aim to particularise a mode of reading derived from the study of world literature: the thematic and creative equivalences drawn from a transhistorical perspective secure Modern Writers, Transnational Literatures as a significant intervention in literary discourses on modernism, transnationalism, and world literatures.


Sources

[1] Joanna Jarzab-Napierela, Retromodernism: New “Structures of Feeling” in Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. New Hibernia Review, vol. 23, no. 3, Autumn 2019.

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