Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination

By Frigerio, Vittorio | Anarchist Studies, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination


Frigerio, Vittorio, Anarchist Studies


Jeff Shantz, Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination Exeter: Imprint Academics, 2011, 147pp.; ISBN: 9781845402372

Shantz makes his position clear from the start by declaring: 'There is no anarchist literary reading list and no consensus view on the subject of anarchist literature' (p. 12). With that safely out of the way, he can then proceed to give us his own take on the long and complex relationship between anarchism and literary expression in the field of Anglophone literature from the nineteenth century to the present time. The guided tour begins with a close reading of two amongst the most often-quoted books by canonical authors who have dealt with the matter of anarchism, or rather who provided 'literary distortions of anarchism' (p.33): Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday and Conrad's The Secret Agent. Shantz highlights the various ways in which aurhors who had no personal experience of the anarchist milieu could resort to the use of stereotypes totally unconnected to reality, contributing to the creation of highly durable misrepresentations of both anarchist doctrine and life. Chesterton's position is probably more complex than it is presented here, and an analysis of it would benefit from reference to more than this one single novel, plus a few secondary sources, but the point is nonetheless well taken. The critic becomes much more convincing when he talks about Joyce and his 'idiosyncratic socialism' (p.74), showing how the novelist s beliefs originated not from Marxist theory, but from a personal experience and understanding of oppression and struggle that made him in many ways somewhat of an anarchist sympathizer - not to mention the fact that connections between modernism and anarchism have been often highlighted and explored by recent studies. He then moves on to an analysis of Wole Soyinka as a writer situated 'within a broader socialist stream, notably a libertarian and anti-statist socialism' (p.85). The assessment Shantz provides of the path of the Nobel-winning African writer is quite compelling and based on a careful reading of his works, although one could argue that the opposition between a supposedly positive and libertarian-oriented 'primordial culture', often steeped in religious and mythical thinking, and the alienating forces of modern culture may need more development to be truly persuasive. These discussions are followed by other excursions into the works of authors usually more frequendy connected to anarchism, such as the famous science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin (whose novels, Shantz righdy notes, reflect 'die growing importance of non-economic, or supra-class, issues .

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