Traumatic Cosmopolitanism: Eleanor Dark and the World at War

By Gildersleeve, Jessica | Hecate, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Traumatic Cosmopolitanism: Eleanor Dark and the World at War


Gildersleeve, Jessica, Hecate


[A] traumatic cosmopolitanism becomes readily visible when we remember that many of these new communities of writers and artists were formed in the exigencies of displacement, expulsion, self-chosen exile, and bitter political choice. Under such pressures, the meaning of writing itself was drastically changing. (Gandhi and Nelson 291)

It seems to me that during the war the overcharged subconsiousnesses of everybody overflowed and merged. [...] I felt one with, and just like, everyone else. Sometimes I hardly knew where I stopped and somebody else began. (Bowen 95)

Eleanor Dark found refuge and support in her correspondence and friendships with other women writers throughout the war years. Her wartime novel, The Little Company (1945), also advocates for the value of a cosmopolitan community forged through trauma and suffering. Indeed, the novel suggests that the war is a welcome crisis for the ways in which it awakens transnational values. Ultimately, it is critical for our understanding of global modernism and the development and importance of the literary relationships between Australian women wartime modernists and their European counterparts, as they construct a "little company" of intellectual and emotional war work.

In her essay "Wartime Cosmopolitanism," Susan Stanford Friedman asks whether Virginia Woolf was alone in her move away from "loyalty to the nation-state" and towards "pacifist cosmopolitanism" (23), and proposes the term "cosmofeminism"-which does not simply signify "a call for global sisterhood," but in more complex and potentially more important ways, is "rather situated in a feminist critique of the nation-state in wartime and a utopian longing for a peaceful world citizenship founded on justice and liberty that is compatible with an antinationalistic love of country" (23-24). The term "pacifist cosmopolitanism" is also one which has been used to describe the way in which, during both World Wars, women assembled global communities calling for a peaceful end to the conflicts - what Lela B. Costin has called "a courageous and daring demonstration for international reconstruction and peace by women from both neutral and warring nations" and "a striking and highly competent application of women's energy and will toward the development of alternatives to war" (301). However, it was not only pacifism which instigated the formation of global communities of modern women. Extending the concept of pacifist cosmopolitanism as a way of uniting women writing in and about war, in this essay I extend Friedman's discussion of cosmofeminism to focus on women's united experience of trauma. I propose that women writers working during and prior to the Second World War produced works which might be identified as examples of "traumatic cosmopolitanism"- that is, a cosmopolitanism forged through the shared experience of trauma. As Max Pensky defines it, the cosmopolitan describes "elements of a moral, psychological, political-institutional, or cultural discourse that both describes and recommends normatively important identities and relationships beyond national belonging" (256). This essay suggests, then, that in narrativising their shared, global traumatic experience, and in particular, the experience of being a writer during this time, wartime women writers effectively construct a community of (thinking about and writing about) suffering which moves beyond the national discourses of jingoism and ignorance that can perpetuate trauma and violence. Australian women writers of the Second World War, I argue, are at the vanguard of such ethical projects for the ways in which they challenge the lapse into nationalist dichotomous discourses of war.

Importantly, then, with a focus on Dark's wartime novel The Little Company, the book Drusilla Modjeska calls "her most emphatic political statement" (xi), this essay suggests that women's literary responses to war in Australia can be compared to those in other cosmopolitan centres, especially in Britain, and considers the dual sense of psychological threat and the ethical responsibility of the writer which is figured in such works. …

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