Trenchant memories unearthed…

Paul Fussell. The Great War and Modern Memory (1975).

I decided to start reading this on Remembrance Day, having had it on hand since 1990, & never having gotten around to reading it. Fussell is, in many ways, a traditional literary critic, but with a finely tuned sense of the relation of literature to life (& vice-versa); & so he offers both a large scale reading of the World War I & the ways British soldiers came both to comprehend & memorialize it. He begins by glancing at Thomas Hardy as almost clairvoyant in his Satires of Circumstance (1914), wherein the ironies of situation seem to prepare the British imagination for a new kind of response to the horrors of trench warfare. This would be the war of savage ironies, coming after nearly 100 years of peace & ‘innocence.’ Certainly there was an ‘innocence’ to both the call to war & the response. In his first chapter, ‘A Satire of Circumstances,’ Fussell offers a compressed overview of the British High Command’s continuing failures of imagination & strategy & the terrible losses that ensued. In the chapters that follow, he begins his close readings of poetry & prose memoirs that attempt to render an apocalyptic scene, always (as he points out in various asides throughout, & then argues carefully near the end) in ‘a curious prophylaxis of language’ (although he applies that statement to the official pronouncements). Thus Chapter Two, ‘The Troglodyte World,’ takes us on a tour of the trenches though the various essays at description in some major memoirs, but also in letters home now held in the British War Museum, where he obviously spent a lot of research time & effort.

He also begins his subtle & complex reading of the most powerful tropes emerging from this war. As he points out again & again, for the British (& not really for any other combatants) this was a deeply literary war. So sunrise & sunset become ‘a highly ritualized distillation of the state of anxious stalemate and the apparently absolute equivalence of force that led to the stasis of mutual entrenchment’ (51-2). In ‘Adversary Proceedings,’ he explores the ‘gross dichotomizing [a]s a persisting imaginative habit of modern times,, traceable, it would seem, to the actualities of the Great War’ (75). There’s always the ‘us and them,’ but, interestingly, the enemy is not just ‘the Hun’ but also ‘The Enemy to the Rear,’ & Fussell exhibits the many ways writers from the Front demonstrated this.

Fussell uses each chapter to take a different tack toward his subject. He finds much of use in Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, but applies the large generalizations there to specific readings of various aspects of war writing. Thus, he shows how ‘Myth, Ritual, and Romance’ entered into both the imagining & remembering of writers’ war experiences. In ‘Oh What Literary War,’ he explores the way British poetry, drama, & fiction subtended the imaginative responses of both the higher educated officer class & those of the ‘Other Ranks,’ due especially to ‘the study of literature at Workmen’s Institutes and … such schemes as he National Home reading Union’ (157). Then, in ‘Theater of War,’ he explains that the two terms match up so well because ‘modern wars are fought by conscripted armies, whose members know they are only temporarily playing their ill-learned parts’ (191) (this was written just as the Viet Nam War was winding down). ‘Arcadian resources’ returns to the pre-war literature of Britain, & its ‘highly sophisticated literary pastoralism’ (231), which almost every soldier knew through his reading of the Oxford Book of English Verse, found in just about all their knapsacks. Part of that Arcadian vision, from those ‘innocent’ late Victorian & Georgian days has to do with a representation of beautiful ‘lads’ in a wide variety of poems & essays. Fussell explores the hidden erotic underpinnings of that image, & shows how the best writers, like Owen, transcended the merely erotic to create a deeply compassionate vision of the youth dying all around him.

In his final chapter, ‘Persistence and Memory,’ Fussell returns to his grand theme: how both the realities & the written remembering of the Great War have affected all literature since. Not to mention general public opinion, in such ways as a general cynicism toward politics & journalism, neither of which can be trusted as they may have been before World War I. He also returns to a novel he has alluded to throughout, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (he has also shown how Catch-22 revisited & revised certain central tropes of Great War writing). Pynchon, who was born too late to participate in World War II (which many see as merely the last part of a 20th century Thirty Years War), nevertheless reaches back to some of the core tropes of the Great War to underline the futility & dark ironies of his narrative, but with the added ability to render them in a language sufficient to the obscene cause. ‘The greatest irony is that it is only now [1975], when those who remember the events are almost all dead, that the literary means for adequate remembering and interpreting are finally publicly accessible’ (334), says Fussell. Well, as for interpreting, Fussell has done a superb job of that, & his close readings of individual texts throughout this wide-ranging & generous cultural critique serve to underline a large vision of modern culture in the West to which it offers a singular, &, he admits, narrow, opening.

Throughout, Fussell offers lots of quotes from his various texts, & even though so many do, as he says, dilute the horrors their writers experienced, they still reveal just how terrible life in the trenches was, & how horrible the deaths & wounds that occurred in every ‘push.’ Reading this shortly after reading Out of the Dark, I could not help but note how these descriptions put the descriptions of fighting in that novel in their place — as a kind of fantasy (of course, some die, but the good guys don’t, or if they do, why a greater power [a vampire]still saves them). This comparison may be unfair, but there are writers who do a much better job in their fictions of providing a real feel of a battle, at whatever stage of technology.

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