Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ritual and the Idea of Europe in Interwar Writing

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Ritual and the Idea of Europe in Interwar Writing

Article excerpt

Ritual and the Idea of Europe in Interwar Writing

by Patrick R. Query

Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012. 257 pages

In September 2011, Jose Tomas appeared before a packed audience for the final fight in Barcelona's iconic bullring. After Tomas was carried off on the shoulders of the crowd, spectators surged into the arena to gather sand from the ground which had, moments before, been paced by bull and bullfighter in their deadly dance. The New York Times described these fistfuls of dust as "souvenirs," but, as Patrick Query's study of ritual, modernism, and the idea of Europe wishes to remind us, we might also understand them as relics, a piece of sacred ground once touched by the blood of a sacrificial victim. And, as Query's book convincingly demonstrates, the play of local and European identity at work in contemporary debates about the role of the bullfight--its use as badge or bludgeon in discussions of Catalan, Spanish, and European identity, let alone concerns about its inherent violence--has a long pedigree testified to in a wide variety of interwar writing. While Query's analysis of the bullfight's ritualistic function is in many ways the most dramatic element of his nuanced argument--the cover appropriately features the bullfighter in midflourish before a large crowd--it is only one element in an impressive study of diverse literary and ritualistic forms deployed in the exploration of the idea of Europe between the wars.

Ritual and the Idea of Europe in Interwar Writing argues that verse drama, the bullfight, and the Catholic Mass provide the ritual tools and sacred spaces whereby modernist writers defined, tested, suspended, and potentially harmonized a host of apparent opposites, most notably the tense relations among the local, the national, and the European grounds of political identity. The architecture of Query's study is based on a series of elegant triads. Verse drama, bullfighting, and the Mass are married to a trinity of modes of engagement: making, watching, and using ritual. The study of each ritual form's literary presentation is introduced in one of three interchapters that contextualize the particulars of the ritual under investigation. Readers unfamiliar with the uneven public life of modernist verse drama, the accoutrements used in the faena, or the history of Catholic oppression in Mexico will leave the book with an excellent understanding of the pertinent basics of each. Query provides close analysis of texts ranging from T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes, D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent, and the Mexican travelogues of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, to name only a few. If at first blush this list seems eclectic, he provides ample support for his principles of selection in the introduction. There, Query builds suitably flexible definitions of both Europe and ritual.

In the case of Europe, Query surveys possible definitions of European identity articulated by thinkers including Jacques Derrida, Bernard Crick, Andreas Michel, and Edmund Husserl (again, to name only a few), not so much to debate their definitions but rather to shift the conversation away from an essentializing question-and-definition dynamic. While criticizing the "blind spots, exclusions, and false assumptions" in Cricks argument, for instance, Query finds a toehold in Crick's assertion that Europe is ambiguous" (6). Rather than write such ambiguity away, Query dwells on it as an essential feature of the idea of Europe, a tension born of the relationship between local cultures, languages, and traditions and the broader concept of a unifying European identity. Specifically, rather than answering the question "What is Europe?"--a formulation that, as he notes, can result in some very conservative and totalizing replies--Query pivots back to the literature to ask: "What does an idea of Europe expressed in the literature of ritual contain? What cultural material adheres to it, and what falls away? …

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