Angels of Modernism: Religion, Culture, Aesthetics 1910-1960

By Matteson, Travis | Cithara, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Angels of Modernism: Religion, Culture, Aesthetics 1910-1960


Matteson, Travis, Cithara


Angels of Modernism: Religion, Culture, Aesthetics 1910-1960. By Suzanne Hobson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 226. $90.

At first glance, Suzanne Hobson's Angels of Modernism appears to be a "who's who" of angels in the early twentieth century, a catalog of angelic allusions in the works of such modernists as D. H. Lawrence, H. D., Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Wyndham Lewis. Yet, Hobson's work is no mere survey or glossary of symbols. Ultimately, through the lens of angelology, Angels of Modernism not only redefines the literary significance of the angel figure, but mounts an ambitious revision of the field of modernism as well.

The drawing Hobson has chosen for her cover image makes this revisionary project evident immediately. The image is not Paul Klee's Angelus Novus (which appears in various forms on recent critical work by Jerome McGann and Philip Weinstein, among others), the insignia of a particular vein of modernism since Walter Benjamin. Hobson forgoes Angelus Novus in favor of another, less familiar Klee drawing, Angelus Militans. In a chapter entitled, "'The Necessary Angel of Earth': World War II and the Utopian Imagination," Hobson offers a reading of Klee's Angelus Militans as the very image of bewilderment an disorientation, divorced from religious literature and art, in contrast with the triumphant angels of Milton's day (160-62). Hobson bravely ventures into the burned-over region of Klee's Angelus Novus, so long regarded as the emblem of a modernity marked by melancholy progress, with a refreshing recovery of the plurality (perhaps a "heavenly host") of modern angels.

Hobson finds the core of her argument in the anachronistic character of angels in a supposedly-often self-proclaimed-secular age (3). Through the course of her four chapters, she argues that the potential for the cultural work of the angel figure persists, even thrives, in the modern period. In fact, according to Hobson, the apparent incongruity of the angel in modernity accounts for its allure among many modernist writers. From the angel as a symbol of resistance to secularism, to the reinscription of the angel as a figure of resistance to heteronormativity, the paradox of the modernist angel serves as a catalyst for new meanings.

In the course of Angels of Modernism, the figure of the angel emerges not merely as a cluster of symbolic and allusive material, but also as a critical and analytical device for interrogating the experience of modernity. In the context of the field of modernist studies, this text further excavates the ethereal character of modernism recently unearthed by scholars such as Jean-Michel Rabaté, Alex Owen, and Helen Sword. From the vantage point of a skeptic ("I am not a believer in angels," she writes) Hobson's modernism emerges as one still colored by secularism, but one that accommodates its own paradox (3). If angels still inhabit modernism, Hobson asks, we must reconsider what it means to "make it new."

While Angels of Modernism acknowledges the decidedly uncritical role of angels in consumer society, which are employed so often as a shortcut through social and psychological problems, Hobson seeks to rehabilitate the angel for its ethical potential in modernist writing. …

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