History Repeating: The Great War Plus Five

Oh, the fun! Fabi has come up with a wonderful idea for celebrating human history. Now I’ve always been fascinated by the study of history and by history itself–in fact, this avid interest in history is the thing that led me to blogger extraordinnaire Ceres‘ page–so when another blogeger extraordinnaire (the inimitable Fabi, of course), came up with this idea, all I could do was rue the fact that I’d posted already that day.

Here’re the guidelines set by Fabi, if you want to play along:

Write a blog entry that tells us:
What your favorite period of history is. This can be as narrow as one event, or a era of history. It need not be of your country of origin – it could be Aztec, Persian etc.
Explain why it interests you so much. What is it that initially got you into it? Is it the characters, the events, the changes that occured, the technologly or mythology etc.
Give us a paragraph or two about something specific in that period; maybe a character that grabs the attention or a major event. Might as well crowbar some education into the post too right?
_________ Woo and Hoo! ___________

PC Disclamer: What you are (I hope) about to read centers on (mostly) white America and Great Britain. To me, as a white American Anglophile, this makes sense; however, this is not meant to discredit, belittle, or otherwise denigrate other historical eras, nor the peoples of other ethnicities, countries, or heritage. It is, in other words, all about me.

Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “on or about 1910 human character changed” has been alternately seen as melodramatic and insightful, but it’s this sense of human character—indeed, of the world—changing that draws me to the years leading up to and those five years (or so) following World War I. Now, in my head, WWI is always The Great War (cap “T” on “the”, even), and it was “great” in both the sense of its vastness and of its immediate and lasting impact.

The Victorian Era has been seen by most who care to look at its cultural production as a time of rigid and divisive dichotomies—good (worthy)/bad (unworthy), masculine (worthy) /feminine (unworthy), rich (worthy) /poor (unworthy), moral (worthy) /immoral (unworthy). Its literature, indeed the very aura of the era, was one of didacticism (show me how to live a good life, to take my “place” in the world) and of repression. These are, of course, gross generalizations (that I’m not going to defend. So there.).

But then something happened, something unseen and incalculable, and human character, while it might not have fundamentally changed, began to awaken and break free of the rigid constructs of that era. Now there are as many reasons for this as there were people—not the least of which were multiple innovations that made transportation and communication easier. (brainstorm: rather than waxing on about all this, I’ll just jot up a recommended reading list at the end. Um, should anyone be interested.).

Get thee to the point, Fuzzy, I hear those of you still reading plea. And getting to the point, I am. So we’re trucking along, minding our own and everyone else’s business, when out of nowhere (well, okay, so there were political machinations at work, but give me my narrative space), some Archduke was shot. All hell broke loose. Well, all war did, anyway.

The Great War wiped out nearly an entire generation of young men: thus Gertrude Stein’s dire statement to Ernest Hemingway that “you are all a lost generation.” But that’s not all she meant or is understood to have meant (the latter far more fun to unravel, no?). She also seemed to mean that Hemingway’s generation (the twenty-somethings of the teen and twenty-somethings) actually were lost. They were lost in terms of not knowing their place in a changing world, lost in terms of clinging to the former Victorian dichotomies and yet embracing the emerging modern acknowledgment of layers of complexity, lost in terms of being ideologically separated from their parents (and others still enmeshed in the Victorian worldview), and lost in the accepted confines of expression, be it artistic or otherwise.

And lost they were. Can we see a huge shift in every conceivable area of our lives while it is actually happening? Apparently, yes. But processing that, finding a way to make it work . . . that’s the difficult part. And the writers, artists, philosophers, et al of the day grappled with all this in their works. Modernism emerged, and it wasn’t linear and preachy; no, it was circular or without any form at all, and it didn’t care what you did or with whom. Instead it cared about how and why you did it. Experimentation with everything from narrative form to the understanding of the human psyche was being played out in every possible cultural arena.

In literature, gone were the lengthy (and BORING) painstaking descriptions of every person, place, and thing; outward appearance wasn’t for symbolically heavy-handed teaching. Instead, we have inward movement: what are people thinking? How do they think? Don’t things all happen at once and not in sequence, how can we capture this complexity? Do people really think in linear and logical ways, or do they think about several things at once, all of them overlapping and backtracking and intersecting and separating? And how do we construct representations of this?

The Great War, itself, was unprecedented. A fully mechanized war that was largely played out by entrenched (a word coined during this war) soldiers who were in many ways torn by former and largely literary standards of courage, honor, and bravery and by what they experienced in those trenches, on those battlefields. And we have that shift recorded in the works of the incredible Great War poets; we have early war poems by men like Rupert Brooke (died 1915) that extol the virtues of war, the honor and valor of the men who die, the avid nationalism involved in the fight (“The Dead” and “The Soldier”), and we have late war poems by men like Wilfred Owen (died November 4, 1918—one week before Armitice Day on November 11 of 1918, which we recognize in the U. S. as Veteran’s Day) who dared to say what had not been said: that war wasn’t just hell and that men weren’t living the life of heroes in war, that war was men dying gruesome deaths by poison gas and that war was glorified based on the lies perpetrated not only of the government but also by culture and society (I’m referring here, of course, to “Dulce et Decorum Est”). And we have this shift in ideology in just a few short years, but it’s not absolute (indeed today we hear soldiers speaking of war in glorified terms), and these men had to face an unforgiving civilian population at home.

What didn’t change during these years? We had women bobbing their hair and wearing long pants, smoking and drinking in public, and even saying swear words; there was an (admittedly short-lived) era of sexual freedom for women. We had Freud telling us that we wanted to murder our mothers or fathers after having sex with them, and we had him telling us that we weren’t really culpable for our mistakes, our lusting, ourselves. We had Bergson speaking of additional dimensions, and James (William, not Henry) talking about stream of consciousness. We had change, and we had it big. And for better or worse, we live in the shadow of that historical moment, because we, as humans, changed on or about 1910.
the picture depicts a squad of soldiers from the 12th Royal Irish Rifles on July 1 1916 [I didn’t move the pic over, so this doesn’t mean a thing]

Recommended Reading (if you are so inclined):

Must Read on The Great War: Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory I cannot extol enough the virtues of this book (and yes, there are problems with it, as with all historical accounts that try to “perform” criticism). This book is a standout must-read if you have any interest in modern literature, modern warfare, modern life.

Okay, was going to link to the best books by Freud, et al, but decided not to; if you’re interested, you’ll look into it. As to the poets of the Great War, well, all I can say is to try these:
Wilfred Owen, Seigfreid Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, and Robert Graves. Note that one of the most famous poems about war (after Homer’s The Illiad and Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”) was written about The Great War. John McCrea’s “In Flanders Fields” is one that most of us have heard of (and yes, if I want to, I can end a sentence with a preposition).

Autobiographies about The Great War years:
Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (thanks, Treesparrow, it’s a very good book!) and Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That.

William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury (if you’ve not read it, the first section can throw you, turn you off; just know that it’s narrated by a mental retard, or as we like to say now, someone who is developmentally challenged. Like many modern works, the actions here take place in but three short days, and like many modern writers, Faulkner adhered to established traditons of symbolism, while heartily denying this. Three days . . . hmmmm, and what does that make us think of?)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby (for real fun, read TSP first, it’s got a Hardy-esque-Moll Flanders sort of thing going on, and is a great appetizer for Gatsby)

Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms (okay, so AFTA was published late, like 1929 or so, but it’s still a good representation of the war and of the experimentation of the age. AND it examines the changing face of war. AND if you are so-inclined, I dare you to find a misogynist paragraph in there!)

James Joyce: The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and/or Ulysses (note: Ulysses can be a difficult read; it’s not as bad as later Joyce, think Finnegan’s Wake, but it’s a bear. Experimentation is key here, as is Joyce’s Catholic obsession and his harkening back to Homer’s The Odyssey; don’t try to “make sense of it,” just read it, do what Aristotle urged us in drama, suspend your disbelief. Otherwise, you’ll go just as mad reading it as Joyce did from syphilis, and that’s no good.

Gertrude Stein: Three Lives (just the “Melanctha” section if you’re bored)

Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway

Contemporary Works:
Only one is worth bothering with to my mind, and that is Pat Barker’s Regeneration. It’s stellar. It’s also part of a trilogy that only Barker’s most avid fans will like. Read Regeneration, though, if you have even the slightest interest in this historical period (um, read Fussell first, though).

**NOTE: this was originally written 9/1/07; just moving it over from 360 (which turns out to be a good thing, as just my copying it to paste here seems to have deleted it from there. Sigh.)


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