Matthew Wilkens, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp.

MATTHEW WILKENS, Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016), 176 pp.

Amerikastudien/ American Studies 63.1



Readers of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man will remember a pivotal scene in which the narrator—the Invisible Man of the title—witnesses an elderly black couple being evicted from their Harlem apartment. An angry crowd gathers. The Invisible Man watches in fascination, alternately dismayed and enthusiastic, as the crowd corners the white marshal tasked with executing the eviction. “The marshal was spun this way and that, then a swift tattoo of blows started him down the street. I was beside myself with excitement.” The Invisible Man is conflicted. Does he want to pacify the crowd, preventing an outburst of violence that will surely bring harsh reprisals? Or is mob justice the only way of redressing the wrong of the eviction? Later on, the Invisible Man encounters a man named Dupre, who sets fire to his Harlem apartment block in protest against living conditions in the slums. Dupre, the Invisible Man says, is “a type of man nothing in my life had taught me to see, to understand, or respect, a man outside the scheme until now.” The apparent senselessness of the riot both appalls and attracts him. “They did it themselves, I thought, holding my breath—planned it, organized it, applied the flame.”

But what, exactly, did they do? Start a revolution? Or merely a riot? What’s the difference? How do we know a revolution when we see one? These, more or less, are the big questions Matthew Wilkens takes on in his Revolution: The Event in Postwar Fiction, a work at once formidably intelligent and, at times, frustratingly abstract. Nominally a study of American and British fiction of the 1950s—a period, Wilkens says, confusing to literary historians because neither fully part of the modernism that preceded it nor of the postmodernism thought to follow—Revolution has consequences for the study of all twentieth-century literature. The book’s largest quarry is a sort of unified field theory of change across different domains of cultural production and of politics. What, Wilkens asks, does revolutionary political change have in common with “revolutions” in other spheres, like science or the arts?

For Wilkens, the Invisible Man’s description of Dupre as “outside the scheme until now” is “exactly the formula of the event” (110), “the event” being a term of art closely related to or even synonymous with the concept of “revolution.” The violence Dupre initiates has at least the potential to inaugurate a new situation—to accomplish a revolution. Wilkens’s definition of “revolution” builds on and synthesizes two influential theoretical models of change. First, there is Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the “paradigm shift,” a broadly-invoked account of how scientific revolutions effect corresponding transformations in world-view. (Though foundational, Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” is now largely contested in the academic history of science, the discipline he helped create.) And then there is Alain Badiou’s notion of the “event,” an unpredictable occurrence that permanently alters the contours of a political situation.

On Wilkens’s account, both the Kuhnian paradigm shift and the Badiouian event offer models for thinking about the definitionally retrospective character of revolution. It is only after the event has taken place that it might be perceived for what it is; indeed, its “eventness” consists in the fact that its very taking place produces the conditions for its own post hoc recognition. If a would-be event fails to produce the conditions of its own legibility—the conditions by which it can be recognized as an event—then it has failed. For the Invisible Man, Dupre’s riot is just such a failure, “a disaster rather than an event because its violence is carried out solely in the service of the distinctions it purports to overturn; it merely reaffirms the status quo in the process of destroying Harlem, through its own residents, with particularly ruthless efficiency” (111).

Unsurprisingly, Wilkens offers the French Revolution as an exemplary “event,” an historical rupture after which everything looks different. The Revolution retroactively re-names all of the elements of the historical situation that produced it. “Thus, although the peasantry, for instance, was clearly an element of the French situation before the Revolution, the revolutionary peasantry of the Grande Peur […] exists only as a term of the Revolution itself. The same is true of the guillotine, the ‘Marseillaise,’ and any of the other elements of the site, all of which are measured against the event” (44). The Revolution succeeds as an event not just because it replaced one kind of government with another, but because, in order to do so, it triggered a comprehensive re-description of the terms of reality itself. This is what it shares conceptually with the Kuhnian paradigm shift. Kuhn[1] himself would seem to authorize the application of his model to political history when, of the “parallel between political and scientific development,” he writes: “Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit” (93). Should a revolution succeed, the institutions it targets are utterly transformed—just as, in science, “when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them” (111).

Wilkens is a scholar of literature; the use he makes of Kuhn and Badiou is characteristic of literary criticism’s happy methodological eclecticism. But it has risks. The topic of Kuhn’s usefulness (or lack thereof) for political history and theory is a well-trodden one, but Wilkens’s Kuhn comes without any qualifications or hedges derived from the secondary literature. On Badiou, conversely, one wishes Wilkens had rather less expertise—his exhausting glosses of that philosopher’s ostensibly mathematical models for understanding the ontology of the event can be very hard going. I suspect that among potential readers of this book I am not alone in my inability to parse lengthy footnotes like “Cardinality is also the concept that allows the natural numbers to be derived from the empty set…by setting Ø = 0 and defining the successor S(a) = α U { α } so that 1 = {o} = { Ø }[…].” (135). My own cognitive limitations should not dictate anyone else’s interpretive tactics, but I am not convinced that I need to understand set theory in order to comprehend such formulations as “an event is a change in the structure of a situation […] there is always one situation that exists before it and another, comprising different elements, after it” (40).


As his discussion of the riots in Invisible Man suggests, Wilkens is interested in the representation of political revolution in the novel. But this is only half of his subject. More broadly, he is concerned with revolution as the engine of literary-historical change and of the retrospective periodization, both popular and academic, which makes such change visible. Why the 1950s? According to Wilkens, “[s]ocially, politically, and historically, those years make up an odd interregnum between the first half of the twentieth century […] and the pervasive transformations of the later sixties that mark the beginning of our contemporary world” (1). Revolution offers three case studies, each meant to illustrate in different ways the uniquely transitional character of the literature (and, presumably, of the wider culture) of the 1950s: William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953), and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962). In different ways, each of these novels shares two traits that Wilkens says belong saliently to the art and culture of “revolutionary” periods: they are allegories, and they are encyclopedic.

Drawing primarily on Walter Benjamin, Wilkens’s insights about allegory’s relationship to revolution are some of the book’s most penetrating and exciting. Allegory is often thought of as proper to periods of belief—think of the stable Christian allegory of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress—but, according to Wilkens, the most intensely “‘allegorical’ ages” (21) are in fact those during which large-scale belief-systems are unsettled or appear inadequate. In the Baroque analyzed by Benjamin, allegorists are caught between, as Wilkens has it, “the waning of Christian hermeneutic hegemony” and “the clear emergence of an alternative worldview” (22). We are meant to take the 1950s as similarly interstitial, an ambiguous decade on either side of which relative coherence can be perceived. For Wilkens, then, allegory is most interesting when it addresses (and attempts to resolve) a difficult, ambiguous, or uncertain situation; when, in other words, it must strain against the inadequacy of its own schematizing. The flipside of the allegorical strategy—always a strategy of ordering, of coherence—is “encyclopedism,” the sprawling, heterogeneous, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic characteristic of Gravity’s Rainbow and Giles, Goat Boy, both mentioned in passing as postmodern touchstones (96). In the “transitional” literature of the 1950s, encyclopedism and allegory are not simply opposed but dialectically enabling: “On the one hand, such literature is marked by the expansive, accumulative strain of epic encyclopedism…It is disordered, heterogeneous in form and content, more allusive than tightly referential, and prone to unchecked gigantism. On the other hand, if this literature is not to be simply incoherent, it requires the imposition of some sort of interpretive or relational scheme to hold its divergent elements together” (64).

A principle object of the encyclopedic narrative’s encyclopedism is literature itself—the encyclopedic narrative becomes a compendium of past styles and genres. This is one reason why, for Edward Mendelson (whose seminal work on encyclopedism substantially informs Wilkens’s own), Don Quixote is such an important early encyclopedic narrative. By supplementing Mendelson’s account of encyclopedism with a sophisticated discussion of allegory, Wilkens shows us something quite profound about a certain strain of long novel in the twentieth century: “[A]llegorical interpretation giv[es] shape and legibility to the raw material of the encyclopedia” (67). I think this is exactly right about the motivation behind, and the effects of, a certain kind of long novel. We are given the proliferating messes of history, incommensurable discourses jostling against one another for our attention—but we are also given the promise or the intimation of a key, of a vision of order with which to make sense of the sprawl.

But isn’t this a time-honored way of reading no less canonically modernist a text than Ulysses? What about it is specific to the period after modernism? Wilkens’s sensitive theoretical acumen radically enriches our understanding of how some twentieth-century novels work, but it seems to me that many of his descriptions apply as well to the period before the 1950s as to the 50s themselves—to say nothing of the period after. My resistance to Wilkens’s periodizing applies to his treatment of allegory, too. Allegory, he says, is a “ubiquitous feature of post-war fiction,” even as “the Romantic age was an anti-allegorical one, just as were the periods at the beginning and end of the twentieth century. For allegory to thrive, our ways of knowing and communicating knowledge need to be more unsettled” (14, 18). It is not at all clear to me that the period from, say, 1899-1925 was not sufficiently “unsettled,” with respect to “ways of knowing” and much else besides, to qualify as an “allegorical age.” By some measures it is arguably the most unsettled span in human history. Nor is it obvious that the most important American and European literature of the period—The Magic Mountain, Heart of Darkness, The Waste Land, to pick examples not exactly at random—is not allegorical through and through.

Indeed, I finished Revolution newly uncertain about how formally to distinguish postmodernism from modernism, though, like Wilkens and others, I think I know it when I see it. One quite familiar effect of putatively postmodern “encyclopedism” is its promiscuous stylistic and generic allusiveness, its relentlessly ironized participation in a range of voices, idioms, literary kinds. Modernism’s own techniques—like the stream-of-consciousness—come in for special attention. As Wilkens puts it of The Recognitions, “the once-defamiliarizing techniques of canonical modernist texts from Joyce and Stein to Faulkner and Eliot [are shown] as codified and denumerable, even when they no longer work especially well” (73). But the parodic deployment of such “denumerable” styles was already a central part of encyclopedic narratives in modernism proper, in, for instance, modernist parodies like Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God, but also in Ulysses itself, not to mention non-Anglophone works like Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers.

My uncertainties about Wilkens’s periodization notwithstanding, I share his intuition that there is something crucially transitional about the 50s, though it’s hard to say just what it is.  In The Recognitions, for instance—a very long, difficult novel about an impassioned art forger who believes he has authentic access to the spirit of the Northern Renaissance, the object of his expert forgeries—the preoccupation with forgery prefigures postmodernist skepticism about authenticity without quite getting there: “[A] large part of what is at stake in the novel is the process by which these dichotomies [between authenticity and forgery] have begun to break down but in which their terms remain the operative ones through which to articulate a new framework for aesthetic valuation” (78). The Recognitions, a novel of thick allegorical atmosphere that nevertheless, by its various stylistic and formal difficulties, refuses to make its meaning at all clear, is a perfect instance of the kind of allegory Wilkens sees as produced in periods of uncertainty and transition. Gaddis’s tortured treatment of authenticity and originality in the art-world allegorizes a larger uncertainty about where the sources of cultural value or authority are to be found—an uncertainty that, on Wilkens’s account, would have to wait until postmodernism proper for its full development. This reading accounts not only for The Recognitions’s themes—forgery, the art-world, and Christianity—but also for its formal peculiarities, its semi-parodic stylistic density and metastasizing allusiveness. (The difficulty, in my view, is that so much of modernism proper is already an allegory of its own failure and an interrogation of the fragility of the sources of cultural authority—“For two gross of broken statues / For a few thousand battered books,” as Ezra Pound put it in Mauberly.) Beyond or above the local allegories about art and authenticity, Gaddis offers a kind of meta-allegory about aesthetic modernism’s inadequacy to new historical conditions.

As Wilkens explains in his discussion of Doris Lessing, such meta-allegory will eventuate in the properly postmodern form of metafiction. Like a latter day Fredric Jameson (clearly Wilkens’s ideal critic), Wilkens is interested in the relationship between novelistic representation, political ideology, and historical change. His best readings share Jameson’s knack for the virtuosic unearthing of literary form’s political and ideological underpinnings. For Wilkens, allegory becomes interesting when the allegorical referent is obscured—the very uncertainty about how to make sense of a deliberately murky allegorical symbol-system enacts “a kind of radical critique of the epistemological structures underpinning the situation from which [allegory] emerges” (25). By wedding a certain kind of character (a politically self-conscious radical for whom gendered subjectivity is the central problem for political change) to a certain form (metafiction), Lessing will attempt to leave behind “the impasses of late modernism” (130). That she doesn’t quite succeed is, according to Wilkens, what makes her 1962 novel, like The Recognitions and Invisible Man before it, an exemplary document of the transitional 50s.

Wilkens calls The Golden Notebook “the last text of late modernism” (114). The Golden Notebook is a novel of ideas in which the protagonist, one Anna Wulf, tests out theories about gender, English colonial rule in Africa (like Lessing, she is a white Rhodesian by birth), and leftist political commitment in a series of color-coded notebooks, the fragmentary interaction of which both describes and enacts her own psychic breakdown. In the titular “Golden Notebook,” Anna (or Lessing) hopes to resolve the paralyzing contradictions in her personality and historical and political positioning. Crucially, the Golden Notebook involves Lessing in the writing of metafiction—self-reflexive fiction about its own making, one of the most prominent formal trends in the postmodern period to which Wilkens’s 50s are prelude. “[T]he metafictional Anna, the one who has written every word in The Golden Notebook and who is thus unavoidably a figure for Lessing, has created a new form—neither exactly memoir nor fiction nor cultural critique…The move that Lessing’s text undergoes, displacing its allegory from the level of content to the metafictional form of the text, is only a short step from postmodernism proper” (130).

Are these three novels revolutionary works? Wilkens’s answer seems to be “no.” They are, rather, symptomatic failures. Each is “unable to produce the subject-figure for which it calls and therefore remains a transitional rather than a fully achieved work of postmodernism” (124). In The Recognitions, Wyatt, the art-forger, retreats into a Thoreauvian pledge to “live deliberately”; in Invisible Man, the eponymous narrator retreats into the “backward-looking” contemplation of “the ideal of democracy itself as an American trait” (113). Both novels end with a nostalgic glance backwards; each fails to fully envision the kind of person proper to the new epoch that will only be fully inaugurated in “the later sixties.” In Anna Wulf, conversely, Lessing does present such a subject, or at least dramatizes the impasse that comes after modernism: “We are left, finally, with a book that puts into practice a way of forming new subjects, even though it isn’t able to take up the content that would be required to sustain them. The Golden Notebook gives us, in short, an allegory of late modernism’s end” (115).

Towards the end of Revolution, Wilkens diagnoses The Recognitions’s and Invisible Man’s failure to accomplish the aesthetic, formal, and political revolutions they point towards by insisting that “they stopped short of supplying a figure analogous to the revolutionary peasant, the Bolshevik, or the early Christian” (127). The Golden Notebook, on the other hand, does go some way towards supplying such a figure, though not quite: “Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook is almost that book” but “falls […] narrowly short of articulating a full-blown postmodernity” (114, emphasis mine). But Wilkens has, to some extent, stacked the deck. By beginning with the politically quietist Recognitions, then moving to the politically ambivalent Invisible Man (with its vexed relationship to the traditions of the black protest novel) and ending on The Golden Notebook—a novel that is specifically about the relationship between the personal and the political—Wilkens ensures that the kind of revolutionary “subject” more or less analogous to “the revolutionary peasant, the Bolshevik, or the early Christian” will appear right on the cusp of postmodernism.

I confess I can’t quite grasp what Wilkens means by “success” or “failure.” My largest confusion relates to this “subject-figure” for which each novel supposedly calls but which it cannot produce, therefore falling short of “achieved postmodernism.” Do canonical postmodern novels contain such subject-figures? Is Gravity’s Rainbow’s Tyrone Slothrop one, for instance? I would have liked an account of an exemplary postmodern, post-50s novel against which to measure the changes Wilkens sees forecasted but not really achieved in the 50s. The slenderness of Wilkens’s archive is a strength insofar as it allows us to see compelling commonalities among these three very different novels. But it also permits Wilkens to tell a much neater story than a more expansive consideration of the period’s literary production would have allowed. If, as Wilkens suggests in his chapter on Lessing, metafiction is the formal mode appropriate to the new subjectivity allegedly emerging after modernism, how does our understanding of this historically determined form change if we remember that it is, in fact, a distinctly modernist phenomenon? Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, after all, appeared in 1921, and examples could be multiplied. And what about major 50s works like Muriel Spark’s The Comforters (1957) or William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959)? These seminally postmodern novels conform in some respects to Wilkens’s analysis, but would nevertheless require significant revisions to his overarching narrative.

These are quibbles, though, provoked by Wilkens’s welcome argumentative boldness. Revolution contains startling discernments on almost every page. Its account of the connection between allegorical techniques and revolutionary change is nothing short of brilliant, even if its periodizing claims are (as periodizing claims always are) a bit rough at the boundaries. Literary critics and cultural historians of both the post-45 period (focusing on the U.S. and elsewhere) and of modernism will be building on and refining the insights in Revolution for a long time to come.


Len Gutkin (Cambridge, MA)

[1] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012).

Author: American Studies

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