Bertrand Russell’s Chinese Eyes

By Eric Hayot

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 18, no. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 120-54

This essay illustrates and resolves an intellectual divide in the scholarship on Anglo-American modernism. It attempts to resist the geographical and temporal chauvinism that locates modernism in “origins” in Europe and sees all non-European (or non-Anglo-American) modernisms as simply derivative of a purified original. The example through which it does so is Chinese, but the claims it makes focus on how to conceive of modernism (including Anglo-American modernism) as an aesthetic phenomenon whose cultural influences cannot be thought separately from its philosophical ones.

Two possible choices, the essay argues, will allow us to escape the trap of mapping the great historical canard of capitalist progress (in which the rest of the world is simply a primitive and undeveloped version of the West) onto literary history.

First, it ought to be possible to do work that suggests that at the so-called origin of European modernism, the foreign has already inserted itself: that is, in other words, that what has been for a long time conceived of as an aesthetic movement whose concerns were purely European can be shown to have at its core features that draw from other cultures. The impact of African art on Picasso and other modernist artists is well known. Here the project is to turn the fact of cross-cultural influence (from South to North, and East to West) into a kind of “common sense” of modernist studies globally.

Second, it ought to be possible to reconceive a definition of modernism itself that would not simply generalize the traits of the two or three “original” modernist texts of the early twentieth century, but would consider the entire global cultural output that has occurred under the name “modernism,” which would permit an understanding of “modernism” from a much larger historical and cultural perspective. In such a schema the various “other” national modernisms would find a place not as derivative products of an origin but rather as full partners in a literary movement that is now, if one begins with Flaubert, over 150 years old, and is still evolving.

The point would then be that all modernism is partly local, partly defined by local characteristics and local histories. But also that the local is in turn defined by a relation to the global–in fact you can’t know what the “local” is except in relation to some global world that the local is not. The “local” makes itself local through a relation to travel, trade, and cultural flow, just like the global does; it’s simply a different relation. Everyone knows this, and yet when it comes to modernist scholarship in Anglo-American studies, such a perspective is too frequently forgotten. What is needed is a kind of double vision. This essay attempts to provide it, in order to illustrate the general principles for which it argues via an intense attention to and close reading of the philosophical and literary material addressed by two recent studies in Anglo-American modernism, Anne Banfield’s The Phantom Table and Patricia Laurence’s Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes .

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