Literature and memory

As a way of finding some interesting distraction in the social isolation of Covid-19 I have been reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. The book primarily treats the way that literate English soldiers, educated in a certain way and immersed in a particular public school culture, found words and phrases to capture part of their horrendous experiences in trench warfare over the months or years that extended between the moment of enlistment and death. Pilgrim’s Progress plays a central role in many depictions, and some of Britain’s most striking poetry of the twentieth century comes from this time.

Fussell is primarily interested in exploring the ways that British poets who served during World War I chose to express their experience of war and the violence, fear, and chaos of the trenches. He captures the bitterness, irony, and cynicism created in this generation by the war in authors and poets like Robert Graves (Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War), and Wilfred Owen (“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”).

The book is interesting in part because of the particular moment that we are all enmeshed in right now, from Mumbai to Milan to Manchester to Detroit. The world of Covid-19 feels a bit apocalyptic — even if there are no heavy artillery pieces thundering away in the distance. It seems certain that we will all have memories of this period that will be clear and sharp, and colored by the illness and deaths of so many people around the world and the country. Also similar is the pervasive sense of the utter incompetence and arrogance of the national government (in the United States, at least), in its lack of preparation and foresight and its continuing efforts to minimize the crisis. Just as the officers and soldiers of 1916 despaired at the complacent idiocy of the general staff, so we have come to despair at the moral and scientific buffoonery that emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reading Fussell led me to reread Robert Graves in his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That. Graves himself was seriously wounded by artillery fire during the battle of the Somme, at the age of twenty. His colonel mistakenly wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, saying “I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss” (Graves, 274). That turned out to be premature; Graves survived the war. But a pleasure he took with him throughout his life came from the words that were said about him when it was believed in London that he was dead: “The people with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my parents: my housemaster, for instance” (281). But there was a disadvantage in being dead: “The only inconvenience that my death caused me was that Cox’s Bank stopped my pay and I had difficulty in persuading it to honour my cheques.” An advantage was also possible, though; he was able to make changes to his own obituary. During recovery in Wales with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he writes, “We made a number of changes in each other’s verses; I remember that I proposed amendments which he accepted in his obituary poem ‘To His Dead Body’ — written for me when he thought me dead.” And he and Sassoon agreed about the idiocy of the war: “We no longer saw it as a war between trade-rivals; its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.”

The items that Graves took back with him to the front following his recovery are quite interesting — the list makes one think of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam book, The Things They Carried.

I went back as an old soldier; my kit and baggage proved it. I had reduced the Christmas tree that I first brought out to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery in it, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary British army issue would only cut British wire). Instead of a haversack I had a pack like the ones the men carried, but lighter and waterproof. I had lost my revolver when I was wounded and had not bought another; rifle and bayonet could always be got from the battalion. (Not carrying rifle and bayonet made officers conspicuous in an attack; in most divisions now they carried them, and also wore trousers rolled down over their puttees like the men, because the Germans had been taught to recognize them by their thin knees.) Instead of the heavy blankets that I had brought out before I now had an eiderdown sleeping-bag in an oiled silk cover. I also had Shakespeare and a Bible, both printed on india-paper, a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin, and two light weight, folding, canvas arm-chairs, one as a present for Yates the quartermaster, the other for myself. I was wearing a very thick whipcord tunic with a neat patch above the second button and another between the shoulders; it was my only salvage from the last time out except the pair of ski-ing boots which I was wearing again, reasonably waterproof — my breeches had been cut off me in hospital (293-294)

The whipcord tunic was the same clothing he wore when wounded by shrapnel at the Somme — hence the neat patches in two places front and back.

What is particularly interesting about The Great War and Modern Memory is the creative selectivity that it illustrates. Fussell chooses particular poets, particular poetic devices, and particular features of a subaltern’s war experience to tell his story. But there is a limitless range of choice in all these features. Fussell could have told many different stories, using boundlessly different sources and perspectives. There is no final and comprehensive story for building out the title “The Great War and Modern Memory“. Fussell’s genius is his synthetic ability to take a handful of details from multiple sources and fuse them into a powerful, unified story. His development of the theme of euphemism in war is a brilliant example. But of course it is just one such story. And there are limitless materials that would add insight to the story but that have never been studied — including countless military records of specific engagements, unpublished but archived memoirs and diaries of soldiers who served at the Somme or nameless corners in the trench system, or home-side newspaper accounts of life and war in France. Fussell makes use of materials like these, but his examples are only a small fraction of those available. 

Jay Winter’s introduction to the book captures Fussell’s perspective on his material very precisely: angry, disgusted at hypocrisy, and entirely cynical about the top officers. Part of what Fussell brought to this book in his own duffle bag of equipment was his own service in the US Army during the Battle of the Bulge, an experience he describes in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. And of course he wrote this book during the final years of the war in Vietnam — a war with similar futility, irony, and waste. Winter writes:

Fussell was a great historian, one who found a way to turn his deep, visceral knowledge of the horrors and stupidities of war into a vision of how to write about war. … How did he do it? By using his emotion and his anger to frame his understanding of memory, and his insight into the way language frames memory, especially memories of war. War, he knew, is simply too frightful, too chaotic, too arbitrary, too bizarre, too uncanny a set of events and images to grasp directly. We need blinkers, spectacles, shades to glimpse war even indirectly…. The indelible imprint Paul Fussell left on our understanding of war was on how language frames what he termed “modern memory”. (kl 102)

Paul Fussell was both an angry and a witty man. He was drawn to the poets and novelists of the Great War in Britain in part because they were, like him, truth-tellers about war. But his earlier work on Augustan poets of the eighteenth century predisposed him to the delights of irony and the savagery of words usefully applied to the cruel masters of the world. (kl 122)

This is sense-making — both by the poets like Graves and Sassoon whom Fussell analyzes, and by Fussell himself, in trying to work out the relationships that exist between experience, language, and poetry in our efforts to make sense of the Yossarian-like things we are often subject to in the crises of modern life.

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