This is my graduation MA diploma paper (still under construction) at the University of Wroclaw, 2000-2001. All Rights reserved.  For any critical comments e-mail me at



Marek Helman


The Provinces of the Exiled – Exoticism in the Literature of 1930s



The 20th century has witnessed a great change concerning point of view both in the literary and ontological sense. The common feature of the two is the shift of focus towards inwardness. This change of balance between the outward and the inward world has had a result in the emergence of exoticism as one of the modernism’s outstanding motifs. Modern identity has undergone an acute crisis and its most apparent sign is the retreat to subjectivity in representation of the exterior reality. The precedent mode of perception in binary dichotomies has been disturbed; since the center-periphery division had lost its validity, many crucial notions such as domesticity, outwardness, or sense of belonging had to be redefined. As a result, the term ‘exoticism’ has obtained much broader meaning, now enriched by the ontological constituent.

“J’ est un autre” – this well-known statement uttered by Rimbaud encapsulates the way of modern and post-modern thinking. The problematics of seeing the reality as well as the self in center-periphery dualistic terms becomes an important background for the twentieth century literature. By claiming that ‘I is the other’ the identity has been at least doubled and the epistemological ground has lost its previous stability. The humanity that witnessed a great technological progress became forced to question and explore centers, margins and peripheries both in physical and mental terms. Many examples of such quests can be found in the British literature of the 1930s.

An isolated island with its strict class division, neurosis, and highly developed technology, Britain of the 30’s seems a good example of a society with a notable accumulation of need to question its national, cultural and ontological position. In order to better understand the nature of exoticism it would be advisable to explore the relationships between centers, margins and peripheries, as well as to show dualism in the British literature of the 1930s.

Although present in modernist writing, concepts of center, margin, and periphery were known and used before the twentieth century. It was in the colonial literature that the phenomenon of othering was prevalent. As shown below, eighteenth and nineteenth century writers, who represented the then British mentality, portrayed the surrounding world in dualistic terms. The grounds for othering were laid by stiff rules of conduct, the ‘propriety’ of behavior, appearance, origin, as well as hierarchy, exclusion and alienation. All this snobbish frame of mind helped to establish a mindset based on binary oppositions, where the center was equaled to the norm, which was the English culture, while the periphery meant everything else. To illustrate this dualistic view and strictly colonial and patronizing approach of other cultures, two paradigm imperial writers can be quoted: Daniel Defoe and Rudyard Kipling

Defoe’s adventure novel Robinson Crusoe is a fine example of how distant countries were perceived by the colonizers. The environment into which they arrive is portrayed as unknown and dangerous, and one can easily get lost in its vast space. The terra nova is also full of colorful vegetation and resembles the gardens of Eden. The new surroundings are not only unfamiliar, but also menacing. By contrasting the setting with the home country, a clear distinction between center and periphery is made. Further on, we see that the inhabitants of the future colonies are not treated as human beings equal to colonizers; they are rather inferior to Europeans. There is a plenty of evidence in Robinson Crusoe showing that the colonizers’ superiority was obvious, thus pushing the colonized aside to the margin: Robinson had a gun, which made the ‘poor creatures’ obey and respect him:


It is impossible to express the Astonishment of these poor creatures at the Noise of my Gun; some of them were even ready to dye for Fear, and fell down as Dead with the very Terror. But [after] they saw the Creature dead and sunk in the Water [...] they drag’d him on Shore and found that it was a most curious Leopard, [...] the Negroes held up their Hands with admiration...[1]


Robinson’s approach towards Africans can be seen in terms of cultural violation: Friday, his slave, gets his name from the day he was found by Crusoe, he was never asked his real name. Moreover, Robinson never bothers to learn a word in Friday’s language, the new species of fauna and flora are given English names, and finally it is Friday who learns English in order to communicate with Crusoe. The Negroes are not only portrayed as unintelligent creatures who exchange beads for gold, but also as trading goods themselves: Robinson gives an account of his ‘...Voyages to the coast of Guinea, the manner of Trading with the Negroes there, and how easy it was to purchase upon the Coast, for Trifles, such as Beads, Toys, Knives, and the like; not only Gold Dust, Elephant Teeth, &c. but Negroes for the Service of Brasils, in great Numbers.’[2]

Another example of a text confirming the presence of division between the English civilization put in the center, and all the other worlds, is Kipling’s poem, White Man’s Burden. The burden of the white race from the title is the duty of serving the conquered peoples by bringing illumination to them; although superior, white race has a mission to “Send forth the best [they] breed/ Go bind [their] sons to exile/ To serve [their] captive’s need...” White man’s responsibility for ‘half devil and half child’ people deprives him of his own freedom, so it may be concluded that Kipling’s thought was that colonization is a very unfavorable obligation.

Throughout the poem, which can now be read as a sort of dialogue with the history, there are many

Statements that can dialogs with the and the facts.

attempts of changing the history like claiming that colonizers were exploring the far away countries ‘...To seek another’s profit,/ And work another’s gain’, which resembles neo-fascists’ denying the existence of concentration camps during the World War II (the body count is comparable), but what we are interested in is the terrible gap between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The relationship between those two is that of superhuman and subhuman, and clearly the primary quality is given to the former one. The othering was based on binary distinctions, thus laying ground for the contemporary notions of center, periphery and margin. A look at evolution of these notions up to the 30’s will be given here to show how great an epistemological change had occurred that it was possible for Auden to write: ‘...Time that (...) Worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives;/ Pardons cowardice, conceit,/ Lays its honours at their feet./ Time that with this strange excuse/ Pardoned Kipling and his views...’ only 40 years after publication of ‘The White Man’s Burden.’

In order to have a broader view of the western self with reference to the ontological space in which it is positioned, a brief description of fundamental changes that occurred in post-Victorian era will be presented. The position in which ‘I’, or rather ‘we’ equaled ‘good’, and the margin was disregarded and equaled to absence, was upset by different scientific discoveries. Scientific proof started to have more authority than dogma; archaeology and Darwin’s claims on origins of human species contradicted biblical point of view. Moreover, Einstein’s theory of relativity challenged the traditional linear understanding of time by showing that humans are thrown into a time-space continuum, which introduced subjectivity as a new mode of seeing the reality. If the aforementioned sentence by Rimbaud is added, a picture of an individual questioning and contradicting their own self emerges.

Awareness of this schizophrenic split within oneself is evident in the poetry of Wystan Hugh Auden. One of the symbols referring to this predicament may be the recurring image of a mirror, a metaphor standing for the ‘other I’ that has escaped us. One found him/herself in a situation in which the previous view on ‘who I am?’ was violated up to the point in which this question could not be given a satisfactory answer. In order to get out of, or deal with it, an individual needs to put their life in a frame, so that their existence had some meaning. In the book entitled Sources of the Self Charles Taylor dedicates the chapter Inescapable frameworks to speak about the necessity of having a


framework that incorporates a crucial set of qualitative distinctions. To think, feel, judge within such a framework is to function with the sense that some action, or mode of life, or mode of feeling that is incomparably higher than the others which are more readily available to us. The sense of what the difference consists may take different forms. One form of life may be seen as fuller, another way of feeling and acting as purer, a mode of feeling or living as deeper, a style of life as more admirable, a given demand as making absolute claim against other merely relative ones, and so on.[3]


Taylor also acknowledges a loss of the ‘knight ethos,’ which used to be given the center and most valuable position. Still, in modern society, the life of an everyday person can be described as ‘good’ and be given some meaning, for example through constituting a family. Hence, the value is given to the common, by which their peripheral position is appreciated and uplifted:


With the reformation, we find a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life. The crucial issue was how it was led, whether worshipfully and in the fear of God or not. But the life of the God-fearing was lived out in marriage and in their calling. The previous ‘higher’ forms of life were dethroned, as it were. And along with this went frequently an attack, covert or overt, on the elites which had made these forms their province. (...) This affirmation of ordinary  life, although not uncontested and frequently appearing in secularized form, has become one of the most powerful ideas in modern civilization.[4]


Such a turn from the center to the margin is exactly what happened in the 30’s, when, to use Auden’s words, ‘industry mixed social drawers.’ Letter To Lord Byron, an extensive poem commenting on the British society, describes the emergence of the ‘economic man.’ The fact that the economical status became the only determinant for one’s social position brought the destruction of the previous hierarchy between people. Auden’s statement ‘We’ve grown, you see, a lot more democratic,/ And Fortune’s ladder is for all to climb,’ coupled with the previous quote shows a social confusion, which is nothing more, but a move from a center-periphery hierarchy to multiple standpoints. After acknowledging this change, the institution of snobbery becomes absurd and outdated. In the further part of the poem, Auden gives bitter and ironic comments on snobbism:


I’m saying this to tell you who’s the rage,

And not to loose a sneer from my interior.

Because there’s snobbery in every age,

Because some names are loved by the superior,[5]


And then goes on to describe a specific example of a snob:


The mountain-snob is a Wordsworthian fruit;

He tears his clothes and doesn’t shave his chin,

He wears a very pretty little boot,

He chooses the least comfortable inn,

A mountain railway is a deadly sin;

His strength, of course, is as the strength of ten men,

He calls all those who live in cities wen-men.

I’m not a spoil-sport, I would never wish

To interfere with anybody’s pleasures;

But think it time to take repressive measures

When someone says, adopting the ‘I know’ line,

The Good Life is confined above the snow-line.[6]


Snobbery here is seen as a will to belong to a specific group that elevates themselves. By this, snobs not only lose their individuality, but also try to restore the old order by creating centers, in which they wish to find themselves. Another aspect of snobbery or tourism worth mentioning in the context of this poem is the fact that both of them are oriented to the ‘outside;’ both have the intention of either transforming or transporting oneself to become alien to the new, exotic environments. The inclination to going to the peripheral province is a tool of uplifting oneself by differentiating from the dullness of down-to-earth existence.

Auden shows the change from ‘the John Bull of the good old days’ to the average man of today that occurred with the process of democratization, or in a broader term, ‘decentralization.’ Keeping Taylor’s account in mind, let’s see how Auden describes the occurrence of the average, ‘un-heroic’ man in the British society:


We’ve still, it’s true, the same shape and appearance,

We haven’t chanced the way that kissing’s done;

The average man still hates interference,

Is just proud still of his new-born son


But he’s another man in many ways:

Ask the cartoonist first, for he knows best.

Where is the John Bull of the good old days,

The swaggering bully with the clumsy jest?

His meaty neck has long been laid to rest,

His acres of self-confidence for sale;

He passed away at Ypres and Passchendaele.

Turn to work of Disney or of Strube;

There stands our hero in his threadbare, seams;

The bowler hat who strap hangs in the tube,

And kicks the tyrant only in his dreams,

Trading on pathos, dreading all extremes;

The little Mickey with the hidden grudge;

Which is better, I leave you to judge.[7]


The Orators by Auden is a text that gives another perspective on the issue of center and periphery, this time from the angle of politics as well as linguistics. The very title is loaded with meaning, an assertion can be risked that it is a sort of summary of this long and cryptic poem/narrative; it suggests oratory acts, that is, utterances made in order to persuade and convince, utterances that on no account are disinterested. This, linked with the introductory lines ‘Private faces in public places/ Are wiser and nicer/ Than public faces in private places’[8] gives a picture of demagogic politicians who are linguistic deceivers; their machinations are an example of a deviated language in action. Their public, ill used language becomes a totalitarian tool, and this is visible in the use of tone that assumes listeners’ agreement: ‘...What does it mean to us here, now? It’s a facer, isn’t it, boys? But we’ve all got to answer it.’[9] There is a terrible split between two different languages: one used in one’s privacy to express feelings and emotions, and another uttered in public, where it loses its natural function of two-way communication, thus being transformed into a ‘transaction, oratorical performance with an end in view that is interested rather than disinterested, intended to persuade, whether as prophecy, indictment, seduction, conversion, greeting, insult, reproach, complaint, confession or whatever.’[10]

Through employing authoritarian, fascist-like language, as Auden admitted himself, ‘the Orators was meant to be a critique of the fascist outlook, but from its reception among some of his contemporaries, and on reading it himself, he saw that it could, most of it, be interpreted as a favourable exposition.’[11] The readings of the text were ambiguous, and Auden’s irony not understood; some of the first readers got caught in a trap of one-sided interpretation of a self-reflexive text. In the book A Poetics of Postmodernism Linda Hutcheon writes about self-reflexivity as follows:


Textual self-consciousness can be used as a deliberate strategy to provoke readers to critically examine all cultural codes and established patterns of thought. [...] Metafictional self-reflexivity is an anti-repressive liberation of the reader from conventions which were representations of dominant social and political institutions. The underlying belief here is that self-awareness combats self-delusion, and that (even in textualized form) it can be a form of resistance to the power of homogenizing mass culture and of traditional strategies of representation. [...] This is the lesson of postmodern fiction’s inscribing of the political doubleness of demystification through its self-conscious but also overtly manipulative narrators and narratives.[12]


Apart from this linguistically-political split between private and public utterances in The Orators (which translates to sincere/insincere, or disinterested/interested distinction), another center-periphery relationship between geographical settings of the book is observed by Stan Smith:


At the beginning of The Orators the old boy delivering an ‘Address for a Prize-Day’ speaks of a ‘Divine Commission’ of Angels sent out to survey the British isles, one of whose members will ‘take all rain-wet Scotland for his special province.’ [...] Auden chose to specify a real time and place for this survey: 1931, Helensburgh, situated on the Clyde twenty miles downstream from Glasgow, but a world away in time and space. [...] His Ordnance Survey treats deliberately unfamiliar ground. In doing so, it makes a political point about the metropolitan, universalising pretensions of modernism. That this study of Englishness should be undertaken in Scotland is part of the point. One theme of the book is ‘the gradual abdication of central in favour of peripheral control.’ Helensburgh, ‘a provincial town,’ squarely centred in itself, infected by what the book calls ‘the mass hatred of the villas,’ lies on many peripheries, in a Scotland itself in turn marginalised by London and the culture of ‘Englishness.’ The Orators looks in on a self-regarding English culture from what that culture considers the margins, to deconstruct the whole centre-periphery model upon which Englishness is constructed. The text repeatedly attempts to create between ‘a centre and a circumference...awareness of interdependence- sympathy’; whereas ‘The enemy attempts to disturb this awareness by theories of partial priority.’ Against the partial priorities of a hegemonic culture, The Orators affirms that, in the words of one of the Odes, ‘The marginal grief/ Is source of life.’[13]


In this fragment a move from the center to the periphery is emphasized; the challenging of the center is a symptom of the pursuit of individuality and authenticity. This move to the margin in order to look at the center (‘the Englishness’) from without was also Auden’s warning of fascism, a system that hated individuality. In the Epilogue of The Orators, which is a conversation taking place within the same person, reader asks rider ‘O where are you going?,’ and the rider answers ‘Out of this house,’ which shows will to part with one’s domesticity (‘house’ stands for ‘England’), as well as the need of moving to the margin in order to take stock of one’s position and to explore the Other, that is to say, the Exotic. The book ends with a line: ‘As he left them there, as he left them there.’ Hutcheon comments on the move from the center in the way that can be assumed a good summary of Modernism: ‘to be ex-centric, on the border or margin, inside yet outside is to have a different perspective, one that Virginia Woolf once called “alien and critical,” one that is “always altering its focus,” since it has no centering force.’[14]

The move from center to periphery does not mean the former swapped places with the latter, because in that way still the world would be seen in dualistic terms. ‘Postmodernism does not move the marginal to the center. It does not invert the valuing of centers into that of peripheries and borders.’[15] The distancing from the center is rather made to have a better, undistorted view from periphery.

John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, in spite pf being a shocker, anticipates many of the themes typical to the poetry of the Audenesque generation. Its main protagonist named Richard Hannay is involved in a murder case. In spite of his being innocent, he has to flee London for some time. He chooses mountainous Scotland as the best place to hide. Throughout the novel, the nature is described as a ‘shelter,’ or a ‘sanctuary,’ whereas culture stands for the danger of capture. This distinction clearly shows two opposite ends at which the natural settings, and civilization are placed. A symbol of menacing technology is the image of an airplane searching for Hannay, who is easy to spot from above while escaping in open spaces. Such an uplifted perspective that gives one advantage is a recurring image of the Audenesque. Richard is unable to act without such elements of civilization as maps, trains, or cars. Moreover, he uses newspapers to trace the events connected with the murder in London. In this way Hannay closely observes the center (London) from the periphery. Another postmodern feature of The Thirty-Nine Steps that is connected with center-periphery issue was described by Hutcheon as the shift from ‘the modernist concept of single and alienated otherness that has been challenged by the postmodern questioning of the binaries which conceal hierarchies (self/other).’[16] In other words, stress is put on multiplicity, heterogeneity, plurality, rather than exclusion. This may be exemplified by Hannay as he changes his identity while hiding: first he leaves his home disguised as a milkman, and further on changes his identity into a road-man and a Scottish countryman. These transformations are not only superficial, since his persecutors’ intelligence forces him to change himself mentally into the individuals he imitates. Hannay explores different levels of the social ladder, thus taking multiple standpoints on the margin.

The aesthetics of center, periphery, and margin occupy an important place in the literature of the thirties. Many factors contributed to this: the colonial outlook laid grounds for the dualistic point of view, and the scientific, socio-political, or economic changes that occurred in the twentieth century, forced abandonment of that view in favor of multiplicity of outlooks. As it has been shown on the examples of Auden and Buchan’s writings, the issues of center, periphery, and margin are applied to many different aspects of reality, namely society, linguistics, politics, landscape, and identity.

With the preceding recapitulation acting as a background for further exploration of exoticism, let us now track another transformation that was greatly contributive to the modernist shift from mimetism to abstract and detached writing. The Great Semantic Disturbance, a notion that emerged around the turn of the century and has continued to influence literature, introduced dramatic changes into the existing representation modes of the world/reality. The transformation, parallel to the disturbance of the center-margin model of perception, concerned language and its function. The significance of the Great Semantic Disturbance lies in revolutionizing the function of words – that is to say linguistic signs that were meant to represent objects or ideas. The ‘sacred’ bond between the signifier and the signified appears to have been irretrievably broken. The defamiliarized language becomes displaced from signifying, or representing the real, making it possible for Bruno Schultz or Henry Miller to describe their indigenous streets as amazingly fantastic environments. Everything external to the narrator/I-speaker can now be treated as ‘exotic’ (from Greek ‘exo‘ – outside). Seen in this light, exoticism seems a natural mode of modernist thinking; with modernism’s inclination inwards, any description of the outer world can be colored with exoticism. This brings us into a newly defined territory of language, a virtual territory, which from now on acts as modernism’s experimental range that is not only capable of imitating the reality, but also surpasses it, acts as a feedback to it – once inferior to reality, now emancipated, language is a by-product of the evolution of the human consciousness. Literature becomes self-reflexive and self-analyzing, the two features that make its medium – which is language – its main focus.

In his book Exiles and Emigrés Terry Eagleton describes the complicated chemistry between a creation and the person behind it. He states that there is


a complex and intractable problem in the nature of the contemporary author’s relation to his work and culture. At the core of that problem has been a conflict which centers on the general paradox that literary art, like any achieved from of perception or cognition, demands a relationship of both operative distance from, and intricate inwardness with, its object.[17]


This accurately renders a modern writer’s position: he/she is both ‘within’ and ‘without’ any given province or dimension, be it geographic location, society, language, or culture. Although the two elements of this pair –  ‘in’ and ‘out’ are opposed, they define and act as points of reference to each other, thus being inseparable. The very use of language, an ‘exo-‘ element as shown, is a compromise at the expense of inwardness, but still, the collaboration between the internal and external has to be achieved, otherwise one falls into solipsism, a


philosophical view that the human mind has no logical justification for believing in the existence of anything other than itself. It is thus an extreme form of idealism in which the outside world exists only in the mind of the observer. Critics, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, regard it as incompatible with the existence of a language capable of expressing the view.[18]


What is evident here is the impossibility of detaching inwardness from external devices, a paradox that smacks of Oriental philosophies like Yoga, Zen, or Hinduism. All of them claim inseparability and unity rather than mutual exclusion of the opposite elements such as body and soul, life and death, or male and female.

In his book Travel As Metaphor Georges Van Den Abbeele points out a similar inter-relation between the physical act of traveling and abstract fabric of language – two factors, that in spite of belonging to different realms, are necessary in the experience of the exotic:


Not only, however, do both text and voyage raise the same set of problems, but one finds with surprising frequency that the problems of associated with one are posited or described in terms of the other. It is as if the domestication or economy of the one proceeded from the other. On the one hand, one finds topological theories of language in which utterance becomes a question of choosing the right “route”; on the other, a textualization of topography such that travel requires the interpretation of signs; the ability, for instance, to “read” a map. This interpretation can also be written down in the form of travelogues or what the French writers of the Classical period referred to as relations de voyage. This latter appellation well denotes the domesticating aim of such writing. A relation de voyage is what relates the events of a voyage; it re-lates the voyage, brings it back by way of the narrator’s discourse. The “relation” (from refero, to bring it back) itself acts as a voyage that brings back what was lost in the voyage. It institutes an economy of the voyage. If it acts as a voyage, it is because qua relation it repeats the voyage by recounting the itinerary in chronological order at the same time qua relation (from latus, borne or transported) it displaces the topography into a topic of discourse. The result is a mimetic narrative, which is nonetheless instituted by the very loss of what it claims to bring back, to relate. The relation de voyage can only mime and recount (can only mime as it recounts) what is already lost, what has already transpired.[19]


Van Den Abbeele further develops his parallel between landscape and text and claims that they are inscribed into each other as utilizing the same concepts as well as being oriented to the same points of reference which are constituted by center and periphery. In this way traveling “happens” within a text:


If the narrative is as much a translation as it is a relation – the constitution of that text can only take place if the voyage is somehow already a kind of text, that is, if there is already in place a differential structure of relationships that allows the “voyage” to be cognised or recognized as such. This structure can be a map or any similar system containing points of reference. The idea of reference point refers to the oikos [a home, or privileged point] as the transcendental point of reference to which all others are referred. We can now add, though, the further qualification that this referential economy is of a textual order. In other words, a place can only “take place” within a text, that is, only if it can be marked and re-marked from the area in which it is inscribed. Only in this can we speak of a topography, for insofar as the very perception and cognition of a landscape requires an effect of demarcation, the latter can only be constituted as a space of writing.[20]


Similarly, landscape is understood by the 30s’ authors in abstract terms rather than literally. The British islands are a recurring image – a piece of land confined by boundaries that need to be crossed. This transgression is understood metaphorically, the coastline standing for the frontier between land (the familiar, domesticity), and the sea (representing constant flux, displacement). The unfamiliar, exotic environments are perfect laboratories for modernist thinking, thus traveling (to China, Iceland, USA, or Berlin, as it will be presented in further chapters) has become a metaphor of changing viewpoints and challenging one’s views and position.

Another notion that plays a part in the discourse of the exotic is logocentrism, a term often employed by Jacques Derrida. According to his observations, the Western metaphysics privileges presence over absence, and speech over writing. As issuing from a person’s (speaker’s) presence, speech is perceived as the mode of expression more adequate to convey an ultimate truth – logos, while


writing inhabits a realm of derivative, supplementary signs, a realm twice removed from the 'living presence' of the logos whose truth can only be revealed through the medium of authentic (self-present) speech. (…) However, for Derrida and other poststructural theorists, the authenticity of speech is illusory, not least because we always speak from the illusion that we possess a centered self. Meanwhile the advantage of writing is that, in the end, it suffers from no such delusion.[21]


In this way logocentrism pushes written language into a state of  self-sufficiency, and acquires a special status of an imaginative realm. In relation to the postmodern identity, this notion can be seen in terms of loss rather than gain as the self is deprived of formerly familiar, inbound language that now has become an exotic territory. The term of loss can be employed to describe the condition of postmodern human consciousness; the self is deprived of its former property and displaced from the provinces it previously belonged to. The complexity of the problem of loss of domesticity can be further illustrated by a view on the self placed against the background of the modern society.

A self is the fundamental constituent of an individual, and the latter is the basic unit of a society. It could be logically assumed then, that a society is made up of individuals. But is it really so? It seems that this mathematical line of reasoning cannot be applied while considering the province of the public. Paradoxically, a reverse occurrence can be observed: when confronting a crowd, a subject is melted into homogeneous mass and deprived of its individuality. One cannot expect any reason in the realm of sociology. It is the brutal force of inertia that prevents the uniform members of society from questioning its ways and keeps them going. At the same time, there is nowhere to escape from the culture and society; it is impossible to turn back from the way Occidental civilization has chosen. Such a defeat of the self in favor of society is what seems to be emerging from the thirties' poems of Louis MacNeice, Michael Roberts, and William Empson.

The first-person plural form in the title of Roberts' poem In Our Time indicates the important theme of society, which was one of dominant topics of the poetry of the Audenesque generation. The recurring word in the lyric, 'between,' marks a limit in the history-conscious time-space within which the identities have been confined. This 'between,' which can be substituted by the word 'nowhere,' is an unstable place in which the modernist selves have been exiled. The space 'between' is limited by unfriendly boundaries projected in the poem as 'gabbro and the cold sea.'[22] This multidimensional environment sentences identities to insecurity and alienation; it is a product of one's own culture and at the same time one's enemy. Roberts portrays the harness that the society imposes on its average man: economic constraint makes individuals fall into the hands of industry. Another poem that contains a similar vision of the society is Louis MacNeice's Autumn Journal. The citizens work all year with the perspective of holidays, outside which one has no chance of being an individual. Everyday routine limits a person to 'the workman' and leaves him in the void of prosaic existence, his only solace being


(...) films or football pools

Or (...) the gossip or cuddle, the moments of self-glory

Or self-indulgence, blinkers on the eyes of doubt,

The blue smoke rising and the brown lace sinking in the empty glass of stout.[23]


'The workman' can no longer own an autonomous self, he becomes a tool of mass-production, and is conditioned by the society to response to a stimuli in a way that is described by MacNeice as a 'habit.'

Roberts speaks about people becoming the objects of the rapacious machine of society, in whose domain 'Folly grows up to its height.'[24] The 'folly' represents the aforementioned absence of rationalism that is typical to society ruled by the politics of power and pride. The narrow-minded politics aided by the mechanical force of industry is apt to being totalitarian; unleashed society that takes into account only forward movement tends to give a distorted and crude reading of Friedrich Nietzsche. The members of the society become the necessary fuel, and their 'weariness and duty (...), fear and empty bellies'[25] is the condition of societies' functioning. Such a loss of humanism in running a country/society is well described by the following image: 'Under the shadow of the guns, the corn ripens,/ And folly cannot die.'[26]

This constant abuse of citizens is maintained not only by the use of economic pressure but also by the means of economic and political propaganda. The language of deception promises 'a better Kingdom.'[27] Autumn Journal contains a perceptive description of the emergence of the language of advertising in the late thirties: the idealized Promised Land is 'sketched in the air or travested in slogans/ Written in chalk or tar on stucco or plaster board.'[28] A fine example of political double-talk is given in Just a Smack at Auden, in which William Empson emulates the authoritarian tone of Auden's The Orators. Empson's speaker addresses his listeners 'boys,' and in spite of his autocratic tone, he asks 'the boys' numerous banal questions that show speaker's indecision, for example: 'Shall I pluck a flower, boys,/ Shall I save or spend?'[29] This aspect of the poem is another textual reference, this time our scope of reading Just a Smack at Auden is broadened by T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in which the speaker assumes an authoritarian tone by stating at the beginning: 'Let us go then, you and I,'[30] and then asks his reader a number of prosaic questions that resemble Empson's lyric even in the regularity of the rhythmic, iambic verse. As he says for example: 'Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?'[31] Both poems stress the inability of a self to make a decision, or judge reasonably in the modern society; notwithstanding whether one is a leader or a commonplace man like Alfred Prufrock, they are exiles in a society that lacks domesticity.

All the aforementioned instances of lack of freedom and of being subdued by a machine-like society add up to form a vision of suppressed individuality in the thirties. In spite of some traces of hope, like belief in the Marxist ideology, pessimism prevails in the portraying of the society, and Empson's line 'Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end'[32] signifies the apocalyptic mood of the period.

Another province crucial to reading the 30’s literature is history. After fundamental changes in understanding caused by the relativity theory, time becomes a complex notion; no longer being a linear concept, it gains a multi-dimensional depth in the sense of interconnectedness between different points in the course of time. The separate moments are now treated as if they were happening simultaneously. This kind of time perception is close to the fragmentariness of T.S. Eliot’s poems. The holographic model can be refered to here to further exemplify the post modern meaning of time: unlike a piece of normal film, small pieces of holographic film cut from the original will possess the entire original image, the whole contained in every small part. This specifics of holographic film can be applied not only to the perception of time, but also to post-modern aesthetics in general; even if a fragment of a work of art is quoted in another one, the whole meaning of the quoted entity is present within the quoting piece. The concept of time is understood similarly, the scope of one’s vision being broadened and enriched by the past. The image of an airman who sees more due to his uplifted position standing for a symbol of enlightened mind can be brought. Furthermore, the perspective is amplified by the distance achieved through the aforementioned self-reflexivity. The humanity now is aware of forming the history and its course: unfortunately, the gradual evolution of mankind is seen in gloomy colors. Having witnessed emancipation from traditional values (represented primarily by Christianity) and atrocities of World War I, the collective consciousness of the 30’s tends to interpret the course of history as ‘deterioration’ rather than ‘progress.’ Nietzsche’s proclamation “God is dead” accurately summarizes this shift towards unconstrained freedom of the übermensch as well as the loss of epistemological ground. Moreover, having crossed different barriers (namely technological, political and moral ones), the decade doubts any further positive developments, and therefore sees the future as mysterious and menacing.



[1] Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (London: W. Foulsham & Co., no year), p. 22

[2] Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe (London: W. Foulsham & Co., no year), p. 29.

[3] Charles Taylor: Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp.19-20.

[4] Ibid, pp. 13-14.

[5] W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, ed. By Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber, 1976), p. 92.

[6] Ibid, p. 99.

[7] W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, ed. By Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber, 1976), pp. 92-93.

[8] W. H. Auden: The English Auden, ed. By Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber), p.59

[9] ibid, p.61

[10] Stan Smith: Remembering Bryden’s Bill: Modernism from Eliot to Auden , p.54

[11] ibid.

[12] Linda Hutcheon: A Poetics of Postmodernism (New York, London: Routledge, 1995), p. 206.

[13] Stan Smith: Remembering Bryden’s Bill: Modernism from Eliot to Auden , p.59.

[14] Linda Hutcheon: A Poetics of Postmodernism (New York, London: Routledge, 1995), p.67.

[15] ibid, p. 69.

[16] Linda Hutcheon: A Poetics of Postmodernism (New York, London: Routledge, 1995), p. 61.

[17] Terry Eagleton: Exiles And Emigres (London: Chatto And Windus, 1970), p. 219

[18] online encyclopedia <>

[19]Georges Van Den Abbeele: Travel as Metaphor (Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), introduction p.p. xx-xxi


[20] ibid, p. xxi

[21] online encyclopedia <>

[22] Poetry of the Thirties, ed. By Robin Skelton (London: Penguin), p. 53.

[23] Ibid, p. 45.


[24] Ibid, p. 53.

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid, p. 45.

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid, p. 64.

[30] T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York: Hardourt, Brace & World, 1963), p. 7.

[31] Ibid

[32] Poetry of the Thirties, ed. By Robin Skelton (London: Penguin), p. 64.