A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing

A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing

A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing

A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing


What does modern British and Irish literature have to do with French impressionist painting? And what does Henry James have to do with the legal dispute between John Ruskin and J.M.W. Whistler? What links Walter Pater with Conrad's portrait of a genocidal maniac in Heart of Darkness? Or George Moore with Irish nationalism, Virginia Woolf with modern distraction, and Ford Madox Ford with the Great Depression?Adam Parkes argues that we must answer such questions if we are to appreciate the full impact of impressionist aesthetics on modern British and Irish writers. Complicating previous accounts of the influence of painting and philosophy on literary impressionism, A Sense of Shock highlights the role ofpolitics, uncovering new and deeper linkages. In the hands of such practitioners as Conrad, Ford, James, Moore, Pater, and Woolf, literary impressionism was shaped by its engagement with important social issues and political events that defined the modern age. As Parkes demonstrates, the formal andstylistic practices that distinguish impressionist writing were the result of dynamic and often provocative interactions between aesthetic and historical factors. Parkes ultimately suggests that it was through this incendiary combination of aesthetics and history that impressionist writing forced significant change on the literary culture of its time. A Sense of Shock will appeal to students and scholars of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, aswell as the growing readership for books that explore problems of literary history and interdisciplinarity.


What was literary impressionism? One answer to this question is offered in The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), G. K. Chesterton’s satirical novel about anarchists and detectives, when the poet Gabriel Syme contemplates a fellow double agent:

Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood
of witchery… this mere chaos of chiaroscuro… seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of
the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off
their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people.… Was
there anything that was apart from what it seemed?… He had found the thing which
the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism
which can find no floor to the universe.

Here Chesterton names the modern condition of philosophical doubt, for which the only remedy, in this novel, is religious belief. Impressionism, anarchism, and philosophical skepticism are thus cast as symptoms of a crisis of faith that has resulted in widespread cultural malaise.

Chesterton’s glancing commentary on impressionism has proven surprisingly consistent with the underlying assumptions of many literary-critical accounts of the subject. Variously encountered in the writings of Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Walter Pater, Virginia Woolf, and others, literary impressionism is usually described as a set of stylistic and formal strategies designed to heighten our sense of individual perceptual experience. Such techniques as achronological narration, limited point of view, centers of consciousness, multiple narrators, and the intensely visualized image are said to fix our attention on impressions, “our more lively perceptions,” as David Hume defined them, as opposed to those “less forcible and lively” perceptions called “ideas” Some critics have seen these techniques as literary equivalents for the vibrant, atmospheric colors, the rapid brushwork, and the multiple, angular perspectives of impressionist painting; others have emphasized their philosophical dimensions; and some have combined these approaches. But in agreeing that the impression, in literary impressionism, signifies the mark of sensory experience on human consciousness, most accounts point to the same conclusion as Chesterton: that impressionism, specializing in dramas of subjectivity beset by doubt, means extreme skepticism.

A curious elision is at work here, so that the historical question (“What was literary impressionism?”) is treated as an ontological, ahistorical question (“What is literary impressionism?”). In Chesterton’s religious language of faith and eternity, this elision seems necessary and inevitable. The present study, however, seeks to answer the historical question in historical terms. Situating impressionist writers and texts in their social and political contexts, this book asks: What did the term “impressionism” actually do in the literary culture of the modernist period?

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