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The Age of Outrage

Introduction: The Age of Outrage

Frédérique Amselle

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  • 1 Ebc 42 (June 2012), Congrès de la SAES ‘Le rien’; Ebc 43 (December 2012), Colloque de la SEAC ‘Ruin (...)
  • 2 We may note that it is the word used to translate Hessel’s popular pamphlet ‘Indignez-vous!’ (‘Time (...)

1In 2010 and 2011, the SEAC explored the themes of Ruins and Nothingness and produced two volumes published in Études britanniques contemporaines.1 As an antithetic and complementary echo to the topics of the past years, we decided to focus on a question that would link the new and the old in a buoyant and stimulating theme: the age of outrage. ‘Outrage’ is a feeling of anger or indignation—the reaction and the action causing that reaction—that has given birth to rebellions on most continents over the past few years,2 inviting us to examine the rebellious forces at work in 20th- and 21st-century British literature.

2The 2012 annual Conference of the SEAC, held at the University of Valenciennes, France, allowed researchers on British literature of the 20th and 21st centuries to meet and discuss this topic as widely and enthusiastically as could be wished. We are extremely grateful to all the contributors not only for their stimulating papers, but also for their participation, their questions, reflections and discussions over the two days we devoted to the combined notions of indignation and scandal. We also wish to thank the University of Valenciennes and the Calhiste research group for their help and support.

3With ‘the age of outrage’, our aim was to analyse how British writers rebel against their predecessors, how they transform narrative strategies, experiment with style and give rise to new literary forms. By pushing the limits of the text, they seek to question these limits, denounce a certain literary order, reaching a sometimes violent, sometimes subtle ‘textual crisis’.

4The conference also attempted to define the causes served by those literary upheavals. Whether it concerns a single character or a whole text, this subversion of a social, religious, political or sexual order stages an extra-textual indignation within a fictitious world. The papers explore the different modes of indignation, from outraged cry to subtle complaint—for our topic is a broad one, as it also includes notions of satire, parody, caricature and humour, which are amongst the most formidable weapons to stimulate ‘reaction’ (Blast, Angry Young Men, etc.).

  • 3 See for instance Spinoza, Ricœur, Mattéi.

5Unlike resentment and bitterness, outrage and revolt suggest a broad and timeless posture.3 But to what end? Is it, as in the case of Nemesis, to re-establish one’s own rights? This invites us, then, to consider the risks of outrage and of the subversion of norms: the dangers of moral indignation or ideological activism may then act as a threat to the literary text. They may impinge on the expression of a violent and sensitive emotion, and lessen the humorous and subversive dimensions of the texts.

6Should outrage create trouble and possibly lead to horror and discomfort, to ugliness and instability? Is there an aesthetics of outrage? What are the issues at stake as far as reception is concerned? Malaise, laughter, tears: isn’t the reaction of the reader conditioned by the author against whom he/she can, in turn, rebel? This year’s conference led us to discuss the motives of this formal outrage and thereby question the readers’ reaction. Readers can indeed embrace the cause or be shocked, outraged, but they can also resist this rebellion.

7In the first two articles, the essence of outrage takes root in times of war. The political and ethical dimension of outrage is omnipresent in Catherine Lanone and Diane Leblond’s articles, focusing respectively on the First and Second World Wars. In ‘(Dis)figuring Rebellion: Wilfred Owen and the Legacy of Outrage’, Lanone shows how Wilfried Owen, experiencing the trauma of the great war and the effects of shell-shock, voices his anger and conjures the reality of war through the words and silence of his poetry. Catherine Lanone reveals the ethical and political dimension of Owen’s poetry in her analysis of the author’s manuscripts. In her study of an editorial published in Craiglockhart’s journal The Hydra, and the poems Dulce et Decorum Est and Exposure, she explores Owen’s different forms of poetic rebellion and confirms ‘he political potential of outrage’ (Butler).

8Diane Leblond synthesises the issues of time and outrage in her analysis of Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, an unavoidable figure of scandal in British contemporary literature. The novel constantly questions the representation of the Shoah through an unsettling and disorienting reverse chronology. Not only is the notion of verbal and ethical outrage questioned, but it is here closely intertwined with political and historical responsibility—including that of the reader.

9Other writers do not hesitate to denounce the faults of an age they build their work in reaction to. Outrage here takes the form of art, and art forms a motif for outrage. It is the first half of the 20th century, a time of reform and rupture. Elodie Raimbault shows how Chesterton and Conrad put ‘narratives under attack’ in The Man Who Was Thursday and The Secret Agent, two espionage novels where bombs—both literal and literary—seem to blow up the traditional detective story, resorting to satire and parody. The anarchist threat goes beyond the plot as ‘the very notions of action, reaction, outrage and sabotage are displaced and the narrative structure is mutilated’.

10Lytton Strachey certainly uses irony and satire as well, but probably in a more obviously outrageous way. This is what Floriane Reviron demonstrates in her article on Eminent Victorians: Strachey, torn between outrage and deference towards his Victorian subjects and their mores, revolutionised the art of biography with ‘merriment and irreverence’. With wit and humour, he creates a new hybrid form which reconciles art and outrage.

11Published one year only after Strachey’s biography, Night and Day also tackles the themes of public and private spheres and deconstructs the traditional discourse. Through the analysis of Woolf’s texts, but also of some photographs and reading notes, Adèle Cassigneul explores Woolf’s subtle socio-political commitment. Drawing upon Meschonnic’s work on modernity, Adèle Cassigneul shows how, by focusing on marriage and the status of women, Woolf subtly challenges the patriarchal discourse, organises a textual rebellion and manages to link discourse and femininity.

12The question of the Modernist aesthetics of outrage and, above all, of what she refers to as ‘the ethics of outrage’ is also what interests Christine Reynier in her study of du Maurier’s cryptic short story ‘Monte Verità’. She proposes a reflection on the nature of outrage, linking du Maurier’s text to a wider cultural and political context. Thanks to a fruitful intertextual reading, she puts the body at the centre of the modernist revolution, and shows how the artists went against the current conventions in literature, dance and painting.

13The third part of the volume focuses on rebellion against literary order. Outrage is ambivalent here again as it can be in reaction to one’s predecessors or wholly influenced by another outrageous writer. If the modernist writers reacted against the order of things, their work, in turn, provoked reaction. Julie Morère follows up that argument in her reading of Love Among the Ruins, a Romance of the Near Future as Evelyn Waugh’s ‘artistic outcry’. She shows not only Waugh’s conservatism and ambivalence towards his contemporary world, but highlights the complexity of his work thanks to a close study of the text and images that leave the reader outraged and amused.

14Catherine Rovera, in ‘(out)Rage against the Machine’ shows how Jean Rhys was led to publish an expurgated version of her novel Voyage in the Dark, as her publisher considered sexuality, prostitution and the death of the protagonist too subversive. Catherine Rovera thoroughly examines the modifications and alterations Rhys undertook in order to make her novel ‘acceptable’, and shows how ‘the shaping face of censorship’ led Rhys to play with intertextuality (the reference to Zola’s Nana) and ‘parasexuality’.

15If the reference to Zola cannot be missed in Voyage in the Dark, we can see that Hollinghurst and Bonney play with intertextuality and quotation in an even more obvious way. The outrageousness of their forerunners fuels their own outrageousness. In Alan Hollinghurst’s fiction and essays, sexual and textual outrageousness is intrinsically linked to the figure of another writer: Ronald Firbank. Georges Letissier argues that this figure does not only influence but makes possible Hollinghurst’s interest in an aesthetic of the outrageous. Firbank’s life and work (qualified by Sontag as ‘the canon of Camp’) are central themes in The Swimming Pool Library. But Letissier also highlights the author’s evolution from overtly scandalous fiction to introversion (The Stranger’s Child).

16David Nowell-Smith’s analysis of Sean Bonney’s militant poetics gives an insight into two key aspects of his work: Nowell-Smith connects Bonney’s strong political engagement and collective aspirations with his radical avant-garde poetry. The reflection upon politics and language (drawing upon Adorno and Berstein) is omnipresent. This double connection is echoed in his link with two French poets—‘aristocratic’ Baudelaire and ‘Communard’ Rimbault—which stresses the importance of the historical and political context. Out-rage takes on its full meaning.

17The final part of the volume tackles the contemporary sense of subversion, the outrageousness of outrage with a hint of scandal. Both a marketing strategy and an expression of a violent anger against the model of the British novel, outrage is at the heart of the 1979 ‘new’ Granta. Cécile Beaufils shows that Outrage is both its essence—when Granta calls for a revolution in the literary production—and its selling point—when outrageousness becomes a provocative editorial tool.

18Thomas Day, who focuses on three books of poetry and lectures by Geoffrey Hill, shows how outrage, anger and its correlates can create a double bind: between ‘savage indignation’ (‘Yeats’s Englishing of Swift’s Latin phrase saeva indignatio’) and ‘petty resentment’, the subjective poetry of Geoffrey Hill oscillates between provocation and redemption.

19After a reflection on freedom of expression, censorship of art and censorship by the author—the outraged and the outrageous—, Catherine Pesso Miquel concludes her paper on Salman Rushdie’s latest novel for children and autobiographical memoir with a reflection on the artist’s freedom to shock expressed by Rushdie ‘in forms that are often “outrageous”, displaying flamboyant wordplay and comic virtuosity’. In his plea to ‘defend the text’, he enjoins us, ‘readers, to beware “respect” and celebrate the unruly, disorderly power of dissent’.

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Bibliographie

Butler, Judith & A. Athanasiou, Dispossession: The Performative in the Political, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Mattéi, Jean-François, De l’indignation, Paris: La Table Ronde, 2005.

Mitchell, W. J. T., Michael Taussig & Bernard E. Harcourt, Occupy. Three Inquiries in Disobedience, U of Chicago P, 2013.

Mouffe, Chantal, Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically, Verso, 2013.

Ricœur, Paul, L’idéologie et l’utopie, Paris: Seuil, 1997.

Spinoza, Baruch, L’Éthique, Paris: Gallimard, 1954.

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Notes

1 Ebc 42 (June 2012), Congrès de la SAES ‘Le rien’; Ebc 43 (December 2012), Colloque de la SEAC ‘Ruins’.

2 We may note that it is the word used to translate Hessel’s popular pamphlet ‘Indignez-vous!’ (‘Time for Outrage!’). On the subject, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Michael Taussig and Bernard E. Harcourt. See also Chantal Mouffe, and finally Judith Butler and A. Athanasiou.

3 See for instance Spinoza, Ricœur, Mattéi.

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Référence électronique

Frédérique Amselle, « Introduction: The Age of Outrage », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 22 octobre 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/1045 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.1045

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Frédérique Amselle

Université de Valenciennes

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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