Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Darn Books Keep Educating Me

Reading Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” is like going to a friend’s house and taking a peek into the medicine cabinet: Some things look familiar, but there’s a lot of stuff in there you don’t recognize.

Fussell’s premise is an interesting one: That English writers and poets steeped in romanticism turned many of romanticism’s tropes on their heads as they communicated their experiences of trench warfare. It’s a fascinating topic to study, and certainly one worthy of research – JRR Tolkien wasn’t shy in making known how his experiences during World War I helped him shape the narrative of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Silmarillion.

It’s obvious on first reading, however, that to better understand Fussell’s premise, I’ll have to do a lot of reading of the authors he writes about in order to come to my own conclusions (and then to read other contemporaries to see if, as critics claim, Fussell cherry-picked those who fit the premise he writes about).

So back to that medicine chest metaphor: You always want to peek into that chest, but you don’t dare mess with the unfamiliar there unless you’ve done your research. Fussell’s book is one of those medicine chest books, one that makes you do a lot more reading in order to understand what you saw at first glance.

Here are a few of the authors I want to check out, and why:

Liddell Hart: “The German use of gas – soon to be imitated by the British – was thought an atrocity by the ignorant, who did not know that, as Liddell Hart points out, gas is ‘the least inhumane of modern weapons.’ Its bad press was the result of its novelty. It was novel and therefore labelled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovations”

William Ratcliffe: “[B]y the time the war began, sunrise and sunset had become fully freighted with implicit aesthetic and moral meaning. When a participant in the war wants an ironic effect, a conventional way to achieve one is simply to juxtapose a sunrise or sunset with the unlovely physical details of the war that man has made. This is the method of 2nd Lieutenant William Ratcliffe, destined to be killed on July 1, 1916. He writes his parents in June: ‘Everywhere the work of God is spoiled by the hand of man. One looks at a sunset and for a moment thinks that that at least is unsophisticated, but an aeroplane flies across, and puff! puff! and the whole scene is spoilt by clouds of shrapnel smoke.’”

T.S. Eliot: “Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it. Writing four years after the Armistice, Eliot accumulates the new, modern associations of dawn: cold, the death of multitudes, insensate marching in file, battle, and corpses too shallowly interred:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short an infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. . . .
There I saw one I knew and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?’”

The more I read Fussell and the authors he quotes, the more I think I’m a romanticist as I write. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The world, I think, needs more romanticists. So this one’s going to get better educated.

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