Global Modernist Literature and Metropolitan Unreality

Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story “Nevsky Prospect” opens with a paean to the vivacity of life on its titular street:

There is nothing better than Nevsky Prospect, at least not in Petersburg; for there it is everything. What does this street – the beauty of our capital – not shine with! I know that not one of its pale and clerical inhabitants would trade Nevsky Prospect for anything in the world…Here is the only place where people do not go out of necessity, where they are not driven by the need and mercantile interest that envelop the whole of Petersburg.[i]

Gogol’s sweeping prose conveys the dazzling elegance of Nevsky Prospect, an area seemingly set apart from the commercial interests of Russian mercantilists. The story follows two heroes transfixed by beautiful women they have seen on Nevsky Prospect, dramatizing one of the features of the emerging European metropolis, the chance encounter with a stranger (or, more accurately, the harassment women face in urban spaces). By story’s end, however, the rapturous prose of the opening gives way to the loss of illusion:

It lies all the time, this Nevsky Prospect, but most of all at the time when night heaves its dense mass upon it and sets off the white and pale yellow walls of the houses, when the whole city turns into a rumbling and brilliance, myriads of carriages tumble from the bridges, postillions shout and bounce on their horses, and the devil himself lights the lamps only so as to show everything not as it really looks.[ii]

The story’s inexorable progression, then, not only lays bare the disorientation accompanying the loss of illusion, but credits it to the metropolis itself, now configured as unreal. Thus, Gogol captures the duality at the heart of the urban existence that increasingly defined life across a modernizing Europe.

            Although “Nevsky Prospect” would not be classified as a modernist story in any literary taxonomy of which I am aware, this narrative movement – from rapturous urban illusion to unreality – characterizes much canonical modernist literature. The centrality of urban spaces to modernist aesthetic can be found as early as Edmund Wilson’s 1931 book Axel’s Castle. Wilson’s genealogical account of this literature, not yet called modernism, places such Parisian symbolist poets as Mallarmé and Rimbaud front-and-center, likewise noting the attraction Paris holds for writers such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Eliot.[iii] Other, later accounts of modernism continue and complicate Wilson’s emphasis on the urban.

            For instance, Raymond Williams’ essay “Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism” does not celebrate the metropole, but notes its hegemony in what he calls “the metropolitan interpretation of its own processes as universals.”[iv] Williams highlights the twin modernist themes of the urban crowd and the individual’s alienation within it, but also observes that a proper understanding of modernism involves both “seeing the imperial and capitalist metropolis as a specific historical form,” as well as “looking, from time to time, outside the metropolis.”[v] Williams’ historicizing gesture emphasizes the metropole’s centrality to modernist development even as he urges our horizons beyond “the comfortable and now internally accommodated forms” of modernism to recapture instead “something of its own sense of strangeness and distance.”[vi] I argue, following Williams, that a proper understanding of the distinctively urban and metropolitan characteristic of modernist form and aesthetics must undo the implicit binary distinction of urban and rural, center and periphery, in order to take in the full story of modernist development. This story is as often about the flow of people and culture into the metropole as it is the literature that emanates from it.

            Modernism rests on a series of oppositions. The center/periphery model, like any other modernist opposition, can be discredited or superseded, but not ignored. Simon Gikandi argues that one of the signal oppositions of modernism is its abiding fascination with the other, particularly the racialized colonial subject: modernism, dependent on a rejection of tradition, finds the other a useful symbol, but at the same time uses traditional, pre-existing categories to both approach and racialize the other.[vii] This simultaneous valorization and rejection of tradition has implications for other (perhaps all?) modernist oppositions. Following Gikandi, I propose that a similar binary function undergirds modernist engagement with the unreal city. This binary directs both the necessary ground of modernist development and one of its chief objects of critique, the metropole directs modernism and modernist criticism along oppositional lines that any engagement should seek to untangle.

            I begin with Gogol, therefore, because St. Petersburg exists uneasily within both the center/periphery model and metropolitan modernity. A planned city devised by the westernizing czar Peter the Great to stand alongside the great European capitals, the contradictions of St. Petersburg demonstrate the modern urban dichotomy. Peter, desirous of a port city accessible to the rest of Europe, conscripted peasants – who died by the thousands – to build his city in the Petrine Baroque style that signaled his ambitions to modernize his empire which, in comparison with Western Europe, remained a feudalistic backwater well into the twentieth century. Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air contrasts St. Petersburg with Paris, calling the “distinctively weird form of modernism” that emerges from Peter’s capital “the ‘modernism of underdevelopment.’”[viii] I prefer to think of this as what Leon Trotsky called combined and uneven development, which I suggest is one of the fundamentally constitutive elements of modernism.

The Warwick Research Collective, in their 2015 volume Combined and Uneven Development, use Trotsky’s notion as a heuristic for their account of world-literature, arguing for its foundational position within modernity, replacing in the process the center/periphery model:

Capitalist modernisation entails development, yes – but this “development” takes the forms also of the development of underdevelopment, of maldevelopment and dependent development. If urbanisation, for instance, is clearly part of the story, what happens in the countryside as a result is equally so. The idea of some sort of “achieved” modernity, in which unevenness would have been superseded, harmonised, vanquished, or ironed out is radically unhistorical.[ix]

The book’s unrelenting focus on capitalism as a necessary condition for modernization serves as a necessary correction to accounts of world-literature that ignore political economy in their theorizing. Foregrounding St. Petersburg’s political economy therefore proves revealing. As a modern European city forged virtually overnight on a swamp by a massive force of conscripted laborers by the despotic ruler of an empire populated largely by serfs, St. Petersburg stands as a monument to modernity in all its contradiction and complexity. The massive costs in capital, labor, and life necessary for the development of St. Petersburg, seen through Williams’ lens, expresses the uneven development at the heart of the metropole itself.

            In Williams’ account, the “general conditions” of the metropole, as a space in which writers and artists relocated themselves leading up to and during the period of modernist ferment, proved decisive for its development, particularly “in [the metropole’s] direct effects on form.”[x] These emigrant artists, forced to fall back on “the only community found to them” in the swirling reality of the metropolis, “a community of the medium; of their own practices.”[xi] I take this to mean that modernism’s emergence from artists’ contact with the metropole decisively shaped their work in ways that demonstrate Williams’ assertion that one must look outside metropolitan spaces to take its full measure as a catalyst for modernist emergence. Here I am thinking particularly of the vital literatures of the U.S. south and Caribbean and African colonies, which only emerged from metropolitan centers after writers or their texts emigrated there. Metropolitan perception therefore centers the metropole as a source of cultural formation while at the same time undermining its geographical limitations. It allows for the simultaneous occupation of spaces and modes of being seemingly removed from its sources in the great cities of Europe and the United States. (Gogol, it is worth remembering, came to St. Petersburg from a Cossack village in Ukraine.) This way of seeing – or rather, this way of organizing space and human beings – has become absolutely global under the continued processes of capital. Here, as in Gikandi’s observation of the modernist fascination with the other, imperialism is foundational to the global formation of culture.

            Many of modernism’s signal texts express a similar sense of disorientation as that of Gogol’s story. While the particularities of St. Petersburg are somewhat untranslatable to other cities or contexts, the experience described in “Nevsky Prospect” proves remarkably durable across metropolitan spaces. The fifth section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land contains an exemplary articulation of the unreal city, extending even beyond Europe in the light of the devastation of the First World War:

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Unreal[xii]

While Eliot’s project after The Waste Land increasingly depended upon his identification of the city of London as a seat of both culture and Christianity, it bears remembering that he was raised in what was, by metropolitan standards, a provincial outpost: St. Louis, Missouri. Other authors from the periphery, less interested in following Eliot in upholding London as a standard-bearer of culture, express a strikingly similar sense of metropolitan unreality. Jean Rhys, a white Creole from the Antilles, downplays the differences that distinguish one English city from the next, portraying them as an endless succession of damp, gray spaces. In her novel Voyage in the Dark, she writes, “You were perpetually moving to another place which was perpetually the same.”[xiii] Her narrator seeks to escape this sensation through remembrances of her sunny, colorful Caribbean home, with its variegated sounds and smells and tastes.

Mechanized movement and unreality also feature in the long opening sentence of Sam Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners, which describes the arrival of a black West Indian to London in dialect:

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 45 bust at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trindad on the boat-train.[xiv]

Despite the racial and linguistic gulfs seemingly fixed between the worlds of Eliot and Selvon, that both focus on the unreality of the city suggests how metropolitan perception is often formed around alien encounters. Somewhat differently, Rhys tends to favor an interior, psychological alienation, but her descriptions of British towns similarly suggests the aesthetic range the émigré uses to portray the metropole.

            Due to their émigré status, writers like Rhys and Selvon sit uneasily between the categories of center and periphery, but William Faulkner’s works, if not Faulkner himself, found a home there. To this point, Pascale Casanova claims that Faulkner’s canonical acceptance upholds a center/periphery model of world literature because, as she observes in her volume The World Republic of Letters, “Faulkner, like the great writers of Latin America, was consecrated in Paris.”[xv] For Casanova, peripheral literature – colonial and postcolonial works included – are “a sort of extension of European national literary spaces” primarily through their importation of European languages.[xvi] In Casanova’s telling, this situation exists not to be defended, or even pilloried; rather, it just exists as such, and any account of global literatures has to accept this arrangement (although she does wittily credit the “habit of seeing literature as the outstanding expression of national character” as “peculiarly English”).[xvii] Casanova’s argument absolutely depends on the metropole’s power not only to colonize, but also to create big-L Literature, particularly for those works emanating from the periphery. For Casanova, no other metropole rivals Paris for its ability to canonize writers.

            In this regard, Williams’ idea of metropolitan perception differs from Casanova’s account through his historicization of the metropole’s emergence in the nineteenth century: “It was the place where new social and economic and cultural relations, beyond both city and nation in their older senses, were beginning to be formed: a distinct historical phase which was in fact to be extended, in the second half of the twentieth century, at least potentially, to the whole world.”[xviii] The force of modernity may emanate from the metropole, but the very development of the metropolis exists within a globalizing modernity, or what Fredric Jameson, in a slightly different register, calls “a singular modernity.”[xix] But the work of the Warwick Research Collective, who draw on Jameson’s concept, underlines that singular does not mean uniform.[xx] In short, combined and uneven development characterizes modernity in its social, political, economic, and literary forms.

            At a time when modernism has been expanded to include the periphery through models of global and even planetary modernisms, even more so at a time when jobs in modernist literature are all but nonexistent, revisiting these terms of debate may seem at best perverse. Yet, I take Jessica Berman’s explorations of ethical dimensions of modernism as an alternative configuration to global modernist models that seek to enlarge the canon for ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual inclusion without confronting the challenges of these alternative literary formations. “The ethical demands of alterity,” she writes, can stage an “ethical event between writers and readers that responds to, intervenes in, and changes its rhetorical and social situation.”[xxi] By eschewing static canons in favor of dynamic processes, her global perspective draws attention to “new literary and political synergies that might have looked incorrect, dissonant, or out of time in relation to the old modernist canon.”[xxii] This understanding, harnessed to metropolitan perception, emphasizes the continued relevance of modernism for literary and cultural studies, limning the contours of uneven development that mark both literary forms and the lived reality of modern subjects. In other words, modernism’s response to modernity exists not solely within the historical memory of European enclaves, but offers instead a picture of global cultural, aesthetic, and political formulations which remain in flux.

            Such writers as Rhys and Selvon indeed emerge from their contact with the metropole. But, inasmuch as the periphery is the center’s necessary other, so too is the center logically dependent on the periphery. In other words, the dependency of the center on the periphery and vice-versa must be taken into account. Many who seek to revise canonical understandings of modernism and modernity overlook this. For instance, Susan Stanford Friedman’s Planetary Modernisms nobly seeks to break “conventional periodizations” that reify “a center/periphery and diffusionist model that undermines transnational or global revisionisms.”[xxiii] But for all the careful work of definition and the weighing of various issues of historical periodization found in Friedman’s pages, this desire to escape center/periphery models of literary organization seems at times to want to escape the structural realities of modernity itself. However deeply misguided, Euro-centric, and racist these conventional groupings are (and they are all that, and more), the deeper realities of uneven development that are encoded within them should not be ignored in the development of revisionist accounts. Modernity cannot be grasped by widening its temporal scope to include political and cultural formations outside of conventional periodizations, however limited and problematic they may be. Or, to put it in the terms with which I began this essay, the particular historical formation of the modern European metropolis remains inescapable for understanding both center and periphery as mutually dependent. To think otherwise risks making a profoundly ahistorical argument.

            What this means for the development of peripheral literatures only begins to make sense in light of metropolitan perception: without colonialism, without the global force of capitalism, the work of, for instance, Barbadian novelist George Lamming would be starkly different. Writing of the West Indian intellectual’s migration, after the Second World War, to London – of which he was an early, and exemplary, participant – Lamming argues that

the novelist was the first to relate the West Indian experience from the inside. He was the first to chart the West Indian memory as far back as it could go. It is to the West Indian novelist – who had no existence twenty years ago – that the anthropologist and all other treatises about West Indians have to turn.[xxiv]

While it is true – and Lamming likely would not argue the point – that the reception of West Indian literature, its very ground of production is, in fact, dependent upon the West Indian novelist’s migration from the Caribbean to London, this fact neither reifies metropolitan perception nor effaces the view from the colonies. Rather, it implicitly argues for the specific historical, social, and political formation that made such migration necessary, while at the same time insisting on the absolute authority of the West Indian novelist’s view of their own culture and homeland. In other words, the importance of the metropole for access to publishing and an audience does not inherently speak to the superiority of the center. Rather, the very colonial hegemony that the peripheral writer like Lamming both relies upon and resists through language creates the necessary conditions for West Indian literature.

Even within the conventional modernist canon, similar arguments have long been made. Writing in 1970, Terry Eagleton argues in Exiles and Émigrés that English “culture was unable, of its own impetus, to produce great literary art: the outstanding art which it achieved has been, on the whole, the product of the exile and the alien.”[xxv] Eagleton here concerns himself with canonical white male modernists such as Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot. Yet, as Lamming observes, the great writers of the first decade of Anglophone Caribbean literature, “Mittelholzer, Reid, Mais, Selvon, Hearne, Carew, Naipaul, Andrew Salkey, Neville Dawes, everyone has felt the need to get out.”[xxvi] Lamming maintains that these writers would prefer to work in their home country, “[b]ut the pace is much too slow for the time in which we live,”[xxvii] a rueful acknowledgment of the colonial publishing hegemony of the post-World War Two era.

            The British Nationality Act 1948 opened up citizenship to Commonwealth members, including the artists Lamming mentions, and the thousands of unnamed migrants that Selvon portrays in his novel. Only a generation or so later, despite a handful of relatively minor immigration restrictions, popular resistance by white British citizens resulted in the British Nationality Act 1981, slowing the postwar flow of migrants to a trickle. As Ian Baucom writes, the passage of this act allowed “Parliament [to write] into law a bill designed to divorce England from its ‘overseas’ history, a law designed to defend the ‘island kingdom’ against its erstwhile empire.”[xxviii] In overturning hundreds of years of legal precedent that defined Britishness though a sense of place, the Act of 1981 “codified a theory of identity that sought to defend the ‘native’ inhabitants of the island against the claims of their former subjects by defining Britishness as an inheritance of race,” thus making legal the racism and discrimination long experienced by black migrants. [xxix]

            Between the two Acts, incremental legal gestures limiting the flow of immigration were made, but perhaps the most decisive crystallization of the rising sentiment against the influx of black migrants to Britain was Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. Defining Britishness along racial – as opposed to place-based – lines, Powell identified what Baucom calls the “failures of place,” a curious formulation perhaps considering the “nostalgic celebrations of place that have also been a regular feature of New Right discourse in England over the past quarter century.”[xxx] More to the point, Powell’s emphasis on race over place reinforces the collapse of metropolitan perception as definitive for that cultural formation called modernism. It is not coincidental that Powell’s speech was delivered in 1968, the year of so much left-wing political unrest in the U.S., France, and elsewhere. Moreover, this is also around the time that the literary and philosophical formation often called “postmodernism” emerged.[xxxi]

            I do not mean to suggest that modernism secured the rights of black imperial subjects as British citizens, nor that postmodernism undid such a formation. Rather, I am arguing that these conceptual shifts mirrored the wider social and political – and, yes, literary – shifts that made the 1981 Act not only possible, but inevitable. From a literary historical perspective, the work of Peter Kalliney indicates that when it was advantageous to their own literary development, black colonial and postcolonial modernists adopted the rhetorical position of aesthetic autonomy held by the metropolitan modernists: “The hope that the field of literature and its practitioners would spurn the racial categories of the day, far-fetched as it may now seem, is precisely what late colonial intellectuals found appealing about midcentury cultural institutions that were accommodating new talent from around the world.”[xxxii] As Kalliney observes, this alliance on the part of the late colonial intellectuals to metropolitan writers and cultural intitutions was purely strategic, and eventually ran its course. [xxxiii] (Not coincidentally, this was around the time Powell made his speech.)

Kalliney ends his study by considering the late ‘60s British institutions of the Caribbean Artists Movement and the Booker Prize. These separate developments serve to measuring the gap that had arisen in the years subsequent to the initial, fruitful collaborations between white metropolitan and black colonial writers and the cultural and political developments that eventually drove them apart.[xxxiv] Kalliney’s convincing account of postwar British and colonial literary developments complicates the center/periphery model undergirding so much modernist criticism, while also making the interpenetration of metropole and colony clearer.

            As I hope I have shown, the unreality of metropolitan life that characterizes the literary works I quoted above indicates the inescapability of metropolitan perception for even the most peripheral modernist literatures. Concomitantly, the rising prestige of world literature on publisher’s lists throughout the latter half of the twentieth century down to the present testifies to the continued interest these works hold for metropolitan readers. While this assertion may seem to underline Casanova’s argument that the metropole determines the place of individual works in the “world republic of letters,” I instead suggest that paying closer attention to the dependent interpenetration of metropolitan and marginal literatures indeed reveals a singular modernity characterized by combined and uneven development. The origins of modernist literature lie a century or more behind us, and an argument for the continuance of that particular formation would stretch even the most generous literary taxonomy to the breaking point. However, even as aesthetic categories have shifted in subsequent decades, the conditions in which modernism emerged have not fundamentally transformed. Indeed, modernity’s expansion continues apace largely along the grounds set by the development of capital in the late eighteenth century.[xxxv] While modernism may continue on primarily through its academic institutional afterlives, the historical and cultural grounds of its emergence remain contemporary.

Benjamin J. Wilson is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Kentucky, focusing on global Anglophone modernism and U.S. southern literature and culture. His current research examines modernist novels for the presence of a trope he terms “southern alterity,” which characterizes southern spaces globally as sites of decay, dissolution, and degeneration. His stray musings can be found on Twitter at @pintsandpoetry.


[i] Nikolai Gogol, “Nevsky Prospect,” The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage, 1998), 245.

[ii] Ibid, 278.

[iii] Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (1931; New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2004), 20.

[iv] Raymond Williams, “Metropolitan Perception and the Emergence of Modernism,” in The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, ed. and introduced by Tony Pinkney (London: Verso, 1989), 47.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Simon Gikandi, “Africa and the Epiphany of Modernism,” in Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity, eds. Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005), 32.

[viii] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982; New York: Penguin 1988), 193.

[ix] Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development: Towards a New Theory of World-Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2015), 13.

[x] Raymond Williams, “Metropolitan Perception and the Emergence of Modernism,” in The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, ed. and introduced by Tony Pinkney (London: Verso, 1989), 45.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” in Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1963), 67.

[xiii] Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark (1934; New York: Norton 1982), 8.

[xiv] Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956; Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1985), 23.

[xv] Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. M.B. Debevoise (Cambridge: Harvard UP 2004), 125.

[xvi] Ibid, 116.

[xvii] Ibid, 74.

[xviii] Williams, “Metropolitan Perception and the Emergence of Modernism,” 44.

[xix] See Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (London: Verso Books, 2002).

[xx] “Jameson emphasizes both the singularity of modernity as a social form and its simultaneity. In the idea of singularity we hear the echo of a hundred years of dialectical materialist discussion of totality, system, and universality…The multiple modes in and through this ‘coexistance’ manifests itself – the multiple forms of appearance of unevenness – are to be understood as being connected, as being governed by a socio-historical logic of combination, rather than as being contingent and asystematic.” Warwick Research Collective, Combined and Uneven Development, 12.

[xxi] Jessica Berman, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics and Transnational Modernisms (New York: Columbia UP, 2011), 6.

[xxii] Jessica Berman, 32.

[xxiii] Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia UP, 2015), 8.

[xxiv] George Lamming, “The Occasion for Speaking,” in The Pleasures of Exile, forward by Sandra Pouchet Paquet (1960; Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992), 38.

[xxv] Terry Eagleton, Exiles and Émigrés: Studies in Modern Literature (New York: Schocken, 1970), 9-10.

[xxvi] Lamming, “The Occasion for Speaking,” 41.

[xxvii] Ibid, 42.

[xxviii] Ian Baucom, Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999), 7.

[xxix] Ibid, 8.

[xxx] Ibid, 21.

[xxxi] The actual “emergence” of postmodernism is endlessly debatable, but I am referring specifically to Jacques Derrida’s paper “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” infamously delivered at a conference on structuralism at Johns Hopkins in 1966. Derrida, of course, was ambivalent about the term “postmodernism.”

[xxxii] Peter Kalliney, Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), 7.

[xxxiii] “I read the posture of disinterest and the discourse of aesthetic autonomoy rather differently: white, metropolitan intellectuals began using it as a way to recruit new collaborators from the decolonizing world, while black, colonial writers could use it to renegotiate the terms of cultural trade.” Kalliney, Commonwealth of Letters, 31.

[xxxiv] Ibid, 245-258.

[xxxv] I make this observation by extrapolating from Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument in her work The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2017).

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