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.

Links between literature and the social sciences

Some novelists take as part of their task the description and evocation of certain social realities. James Baldwin captured one slice of African-American life in the 1950s and 60s. Tim O’Brien captured aspects of infantry life in Vietnam in The Things They Carried. And Tolstoy caught much about social attitudes and relations in elite Russia at a certain time and place. We could interpret these sorts of novels “realistically” and ask a range of questions about them: how accurate are they? Do they leave out important aspects of the picture? And what was the epistemic location of the author, such that he/she could claim to observe and portray accurately?

If we take this function of literature seriously, then it is natural to ask how this creative act relates to various areas of the social sciences. Does the knowledge offered by Baldwin complement the work of sociologists and historians of race in America? And, for that matter, can the realistically-minded novelist find valuable synergy in the research of historians and sociologists?

These questions are taken especially seriously by critics who are developing the framework of “critical realism”, including especially Satya Mohanty. Particularly valuable is Identity Politics Reconsidered (Future of Minority Studies), edited by Linda Alcoff, Satya Mohanty and Michael Hames-Garcia. The topic is a core concern for the Future of Minority Studies project (link).

So, what about it? Can a work of fiction have realistic, referential content? Is a novel sometimes an empirical statement? Can a fictional character truthfully represent aspect of what it is like to be black in America, South Asian in Manchester, or gay in a suburban Illinois high school? For that matter, can a novel be faulted for “getting it wrong” — for example, for representing an American Muslim as being completely oblivious to issues of racism?  Or is “right” and “wrong” out of place when it comes to evaluating the relationship between a novel and the world?

Here is one possible answer: fiction is always fiction, and normally does not have empirical validity. If we want to make empirical statements about social relations, class attitudes, or typical social values of specific groups, we need to do so based on valid methods of social research: surveys, focus groups, interviews, and observations of behavior. And we need to analyze the data we collect according to valid methods of aggregation and inference. That is what is required in order to arrive at knowledge about the social world.

Another very different response goes along these lines. Novelists are sometimes skilled social observers, and some of these are also skilled “painters” or evokers of what they have seen. A great novelist can pull together his/her many insights and observations into a powerful description of a fictional world or experience that captures an important sociological truth about the society depicted.  So these novelists do in fact gain knowledge of social life through observation, and they represent that knowledge through the fiction they produce. Both parts of this epistemic process are subject to criticism; but both are valid knowledge practices.

According to the second view, readers have the possibility of gaining real knowledge about the social world through the novel.  Seen in this way, a novelist is somewhat akin to an ethnographer, trying to make sense of a complex system of behaviors and meanings and expressing his/her findings in a way that is truthful to the social reality observed.

It seems that one would have to be a pretty narrow-minded epistemologist to hold that there is only one kind of knowledge, and that literature necessarily falls outside its bounds.  This might have been credible when the program of logical empiricism still seemed possible — that there are observations that can be unambiguously arrived at, and that theories are evaluated through a specific logic of confirmation marshaling a domain of observations in support of hypothetical statements.  But this epistemology doesn’t work well even in the sciences.  And within the framework of an anti-foundationalist epistemology, it seems reasonable enough to believe that literature has the potential of revealing important aspects of the social world.
This brings us back to the question of linkage between literature and the social sciences.  If we think that Platoon or The Things They Carried express some important truth about the nature of the experience of that war for American soldiers, this suggests the possibility of framing other sorts of social-science investigations to probe the extent and variation of these characteristics on the ground.  In other words, there is a simple kind of synergy that can exist between novelists, sociologists, and historians, when it comes to framing interpretations and explanations of a complex social reality, and designing further empirical studies to evaluate and qualify these findings.

Mental life








We are all persons with thoughts, desires, emotions, memories, and awareness. In some sense we have first-hand knowledge of all this — we are the ones who experience the situation of going through a difficult job interview, of feeling angry at an aggressive driver, of trying to decide what to do in a moment of important choice, of remembering an incident that occurred months or years earlier. We’re not in the position that Thomas Nagel assumed when he tried to reason about what it feels like to be a bat (“What is it Like to Be a Bat?” in Ned Block, ed. Readings in Philosophy of Psychology v.1). And yet we have a surprisingly thin set of theories of what is involved in this active experiencing of the world as a thinking, acting person — and some of our theories are obviously wrong. So why is it so hard to formulate a clear, simple philosophy of the mind — an overarching sketch of how various mental states and processes relate to each other within the functioning person?

One sign of the confusion this subject engenders is the great variety of terms we use to capture what we’re talking about: the mind, the agent, the self, the person, the subject, the knower, the actor, the ego, the conscious being, the soul. Each of these terms might be said to refer to the same thing — the experiencing, wanting, acting human individual. And yet each highlights a different aspect of the topic: the act of perception, the gathering of knowledge, the experience of wants and desires, the fact of subjectivity, the problematic unity of the self, the process of decision making and action, the causality of the emotions, the situation of awareness. And, sure enough, there is a separate strand of philosophical thinking about each of these perspectives.

So here is my question: is it possible to sketch a basic theory of the conscious human being that allows us to assign a place to each of the mental activities and processes that we think are taking place; and can the various parts of psychology and neuroscience give us greater understanding of how this system works and greater confidence in the theories we advance? Can we arrive at a schematic but phenomenologically and behaviorally adequate sketch of how these bits of mental activity and process fit together? The diagrams above are pulled from the web with the search term “models of mind.” They illustrate some very different ways of representing these different aspects or features of the person’s mental experience, and they are, in some sense, the sorts of theories I’m looking for in this posting. But none is close to being satisfactory. So the question is, can we arrive at a sketch that can be defended on the basis of the evidence of logic, phenomenology, and behavior?

I think this was a large part of William James’s goal in writing The Principles of Psychology. James wanted to explore the complexities of human mental life as presented through introspection; and he wanted to do this in a scientific fashion. (See a very good article from SEP on James here.) James describes his scientific goals in these terms in the first few sentences of the work:

Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are such things as we call feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like; and, superficially considered, their variety and complexity is such as to leave a chaotic impression of the observer.

Scientific psychology left this program behind almost a century ago, although parts of the effort are reflected in current cognitive psychology and social psychology. But it isn’t sufficient to simply legislate the problem away; it is impossible to deny that memories, impulses, intuitions, aversions, feelings, desires, emotions, daydreams, and calculations all play roles in human mental life and action. So we need to have at least a sketchy idea of how we think the mental world we experience is organized and how this soup of mental life is related to action and behavior.

The effort to find concepts and frameworks in terms of which to analyze human mental life has been a continuing part of philosophy, in the fields of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, and cognitive philosophy. One place to start on this large field is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, with articles on folk psychology, mental representation, the computational theory of mind, memory, and Merleau-Ponty. Philosophers have continued to take seriously the questions of consciousness, subjectivity, representation, and thinking.

But another place where one can turn in attempting to get a handle on the nature and organization of mental experience is literature. Great novels often capture a lot of the complexity of ordinary human mental experience in their narrations of individuals as they navigate life: Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, Julien Sorel in Red and Black, Rufus Scott in Baldwin’s Another Country. These are “interior” novels — novels where the author is making a sustained effort to get inside the head of the character, giving the reader a view of the nature of the subjective experience and thoughts that the character undergoes. And it seems to me that the intellectual work that the author is doing is very similar to the work of a philosopher in grappling with the nature of consciousness: he/she is attempting to arrive at a language that allows for description of these fleeting interior moments, and a framework of observation about how they may fit together — how passion or jealousy affects action, how calculation interferes with love, how the experience of discrimination colors one’s relationships. These theories aren’t necessarily true — in fact, one of the things we can do as critical readers is to see how well the novelist’s framework of mental life holds together from the points of view of consistency and phenomenology — but they represent significant intellectual efforts at understanding mental life nonetheless.

I think the subject is important for understanding the social world, because the subjective, active human individual is the “molecule” of social life. The ways in which individuals reason, act, form beliefs, create affinities, and emote are deeply important to social processes. And we won’t understand many features of social life unless we can make some degree of progress on the problem of formulating an abstract model of the human person.

Greenblatt in the world

I recently read Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant biographical book on Shakespeare, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, and I was once again struck by what a large contribution Greenblatt might make to the social sciences. His innovations in literary theory are well known, particularly in his pioneering work on forging “the new historicism” (for example, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare). (Here is a link to a nice website on the new historicism.) Greenblatt’s interpretive imagination, his ability to think clearly and innovatively about identities and meanings, and his remarkable ability to link a series of observations into a startling inference and insight — these abilities would be most beneficial to the problems associated with “understanding society.” We need some new ways of framing the tasks of understanding social and historical reality — and Greenblatt’s incisive mind provides many new perspectives on these sorts of issues.

And, in fact, the idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Greenblatt’s contribution to Sherry Ortner’s The Fate of “Culture”: Geertz and Beyond shows his ability to turn ethnographic, as does his book on the writings of the colonial navigators who brought Europe to the new world (Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World). In each case he demonstrates how fertile the connections are between literary, ethnographic, and historical interpretation. He is particularly profound when it comes to thinking about social identities — they ways they are formed and expressed, and the ways they vary across time and place.

But let’s focus here on what makes Will in the World such an interesting book. Greenblatt does a simply stunning job of constructing an interpretation of Shakespeare’s mentality and his creative mind, linking the grainy historical context in which Shakespeare was writing to the brilliance and startling novelties expressed in his plays. Greenblatt is pursuing a bold ambition here because there is so remarkably little evidence about Shakespeare’s life that would serve as the basis for a traditional biography. Moreover, Greenblatt’s goal is somewhat different from that of the traditional biographer. He is interested in getting a better understanding of the author’s mental and experiential world, based on his personal chronology, many very specific details about England’s history during this half century, and a profound knowledge of Shakespeare’s writings.

Greenblatt freely admits that much of his interpretation exceeds the historical facts. There are few documents that would directly establish Shakespeare’s feelings about his marriage or his family; the situation of the persecution of England’s Catholics; or his attitudes towards Marlowe, Greene, and the other brilliant bohemian playwrights of the London scene. And yet he makes a case for his interpretation that is deeply compelling and evidence-based — though the evidence is largely internal to Shakespeare’s body of writing. (Even the lack of diaries or personal notes is taken as a kind of evidence — evidence of the very great danger that the persecutions by the Crown created for anyone suspected of involvement in Catholic conspiracies. Greenblatt writes vividly of the rows of heads on spikes that would have greeted him as he entered London for the first time — often the heads of Catholic conspirators.)

Another kind of evidence in Greenblatt’s case is the collation of knowledge of historical conditions in the mid-sixteenth century in England that we do know quite a bit about — the availability (or non-availability) of books, the character and content of schooling, the history of the expulsion of the English Jews — with the series of developmental experiences that Shakespeare certainly went through. Even if we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s youth, the fact that he is likely to have attended the Stratford grammar school under the tutelage of a Simon Hunt, tells Greenblatt quite a bit about the kinds of drama and history to which he would have been exposed.

The Crown’s fierce oppression of the Catholics in the early to mid-sixteenth century is a particularly important element of Greenblatt’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s mentality. Greenblatt hypothesizes that this period of terror touched Shakespeare and his family fairly closely. The smashing of Catholic images in churches, the dismissal of the local priests, and the occasional hunt for persistent Catholic practices in private homes all touched Stratford directly. And John Shakespeare himself had evidently signed a Catholic “spiritual testament”, discovered in the eighteenth century hidden away between the rafters and ceiling of the Stratford home. In this setting, Greenblatt considers a scenario for the missing year of Shakespeare’s life at the age of 16: he considers that the young man may have served as a private teacher in the household of John Cottam, a prominent secret Catholic in Lancashire. And there he would have had vivid exposure to the drama surrounding the illicit activist Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion. (Campion was apprehended, tortured, and executed in 1581.) Greenblatt finds many traces of this personal history of covert Catholicism in Shakespeare’s plots, language, and life.

What I find most thought-provoking in Greenblatt’s work here, is his ability to bring history, literature, and life story together into one extended interpretation. The book sheds light on ordinary life in sixteenth-century England — rural and town. In this respect it serves as vivid social history. And it sheds light on the literature as well — the many ways in which themes and turns of language can be related to Shakespeare’s own itinerary, as well as the astonishing ability the writer had to transform the ordinary into something transcendent.

Literary tradition and social identity

Literary traditions are sometimes thought to have an underlying interconnectedness and coherence that makes them more than simply a group of works sharing geography or group. Irish poetry and drama, for example, extend over several centuries, involving writers with a range of voices and preoccupations; and yet it is often thought that they are distinctively “Irish.” How should we conceptualize this notion? And how does it relate to the concept of a social identity?

One might speculate that the continuity of a literary tradition derives from two social factors: first, that authors directly and indirectly respond to the writings of other authors in their tradition; and second, that writers express themes in their work that derive from a cultural tradition that they hold in common with other writers in this literary tradition. If, for example, there is a long oral tradition of popular songs and poetry that would have been a formative part of most Irish writers’ experience as children, then it would be understandable if the cadences and phrases of this oral tradition infused their literary writings. If there are historical moments in the history of the Irish people — Easter 1916, perhaps — that are focal points for cultural meanings and historical turning points for ordinary Irish people — then, once again, we might expect that themes surrounding these historical moments will recur in the production of Irish literature. And, of course, once a Goldsmith, Joyce, Yeats, or Heaney has created his poetry — this constitutes an exemplar within the literary tradition itself that influences other Irish writers.

So there are a couple of social mechanisms that we can cite as providing “microfoundations” for the production of a national literary tradition. However, there are dimensions of variation and dissent that make the idea of a coherent and guiding literary tradition more difficult to sustain. It is recognized within most literary traditions that there are different streams of influence, with diverging literary styles and presentations. It is also recognized at a point in time that some great writers offer a literature that is strikingly at odds with the tradition from which they emerge. And it must also be recognized that large literary traditions — the literature of India, American literature, Caribbean literature — represent the confluence of different voices and different cultural experiences. And often these voices are deeply at odds with each other and with the dominant social order — Jack London’s novels represent a very different perspective on the United States than those of Henry James.

Within the literature of the United States — what is often called “American literature” in US college English courses — we can find a diversity of influences at almost every level of scale: the New England novel, African-American songs and stories, women’s novels and journals, … And within each we can discern important variations with cross-cutting influences — the African-American voice of the deep south is evidently different from that of Chicago or Harlem or Los Angeles.

So we would certainly want to recognize that great writers are more than simply an expression of their literary or social tradition; rather, they find their voice and perspective through a dense interaction with culture, history, daily experience, race, gender, poetry, song, and dozens of other influences. And their products are often both innovative and “traditional”. The novels of James Baldwin capture and embody many aspects of African-American experience and literature; they in turn contribute to the meaning of African-American literature post-Baldwin; but in the end they transcend the framework of a fixed formula. Baldwin’s novels are original and particular — not simply an expression of “the African-American tradition.”

So from this point of view it seems that the idea of a literary tradition recedes from the metaphor of a compact, tightly bunched set of texts, to a meandering confluence of many cultural traditions and voices. This suggests that we need a metaphor that captures the diversity of voice and influence better than the idea of a river or stream.

This set of questions is relevant to the idea of a social identity as well. First is the obvious connection: if there is such a thing as “Irish social identity,” it is plausible that this identity plays into the production of Irish literature. But the points raised here about diversity of experience and the non-reducibility of one writer’s literature to a formula are also valid when we consider ascriptions of social identities. Rather than imagining that a person embodies the social identity of her own group, we should recognize that each person’s social identity is a complicated mix of influences and commitments. Rather than “Sally is catholic”, we might be better to observe that: “Sally is a mid-western Catholic with a feminist bent and a taste for punk music.”

This suggests to me that we encounter in both traditions and identities, a kind of social construct that in a sense disappears as we increase the resolution of study; through closer study we come to see the variations as much as the commonalities within a group of people or a group of texts. Does this imply that identities and traditions do not exist? It does not. Both function as real social causes and influences. But both need to be understood as fluid, heterogeneous compounds rather than as essential, abiding realities.

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