Paul K. Saint-Amour
Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form
University Press 2015
Paul K. Saint-Amour, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is a ruminative thinker and meticulous writer. These traits pay dividends in the surprising insights of his new book, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford University Press, 2015), which reframes total war and literature in the interwar years and in the present moment. The book’s articulation of the partiality of total war, especially its focus on violence committed in the so-called periphery–which denies civilians the protections of officially declared war–is all too familiar in the present. Tense Future, like the texts it examines, defamiliarizes works we thought we knew well. It also makes strange some of the familiar narratives within the field of modernist studies, like that concerning the genre of the Modern Epic. Tense Future decouples encyclopedic form from the modern epic, showing how the encyclopedia inspired interwar writers to playfully wrest totality out of the suffocating grip of total war. Saint-Amour’s boldest claim, that we live in perpetual interwar, sutures the drone attacks of the present to air-war theories developed after the zeppelin raids of WWI. Our own future, though not foreclosed, is nonetheless subject to the aperture of the past. Tense Future reminds us of futures past in order to pry open a little room for hope.