Book review: “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell

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Book review: “The Great War and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell

Perhaps the best way to write about Paul Fussell’s 1975 masterpiece “The Great War and Modern Memory” would be to simply list willy-nilly some of the myriad insights, observations, facts, quotations and other interesting stuff that Fussell artfully, with ever so much care, throws on the page.

When he died in May, one of the many British obituaries for Fussell, an American, described “The Great War and Modern Memory” as “magisterial.”

I’m afraid, though, that the word suggests that Fussell’s book in some way gives a complete picture of World War I and its impact the past century, that it in some way fits all that into an understandable context, a frame in which the events of the war and its after-effects all have a place.

Really, though, “The Great War and Modern Memory” is something very different — a hodge-podge of material. And that’s a good thing.

The knowledge of good and evil

There is an over-arching idea to the book, and it’s contained in a quote that Fussell uses from English poet Philip Larkin:

Never such innocence again.

Before the war, life was seen to have meaning. Reason was in control, and faith dealt with whatever reason couldn’t handle. People knew their place.

The war, particularly for people in Britain, shattered all of that. The war was chaos. The war was destruction without purpose. The war was death without purpose. The war was living without purpose.

Fussell writes, “The innocent army fully attained the knowledge of good and evil at the Somme on July 1, 1916.” And he quotes Edmund Blunden, one of the most eloquent memoirists from the war, regarding the first day of the battle:

By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning.

“The cruel fact”

And it wasn’t as if War could be personified in Mars, as the Greek myth-makers did. War, in this case, was mindless, omnivorous, ferocious and something like an act of God — except how to believe in God in the face of such destruction and murder?

And it wasn’t as if the soldiers were taking part in a tragedy. The War didn’t merit that status.

The War was doing to the soldiers. They could play no Othello-like role. They could have no fatal flaw because, to have a fatal flaw, they would need to control events.

That was not the case.

To attempt to address the war through the orderliness of literature, Fussell writes, is to move so far from the experience as to make the effort seemingly worthless.

Is there any way of compromising between the reader’s expectations that written history ought to be interesting and meaningful and the cruel fact that much of what happens [in war] — all of what happens? — is inherently without “meaning”?

Disorderly and apt

So, although he doesn’t say so directly, Fussell’s approach in “The Great War and Modern Memory” is to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink and refrigerator and coffee-grinder. It is a disorderly — and apt — method.

At points, Fussell is a literary critic spending pages and pages on four writers and their very different ways of writing about the war — Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. He also makes various side trips to discuss authors of later generations, such as Norman Mailer and Thomas Pynchon, whose subjects were the First or Second World War.

At others, he is a military historian, noting, for instance, that cleaning one’s clothing of lice was called “reading one’s shirt” and that, contrary to the propagandists, the use of gas warfare wasn’t the horror it was made out to be. He writes:

As [military historian and Great War veteran B. H.] Lindell Hart points out, gas is “the least inhumane of modern weapons” [since it doesn’t rip apart a body the way a bullet or shrapnel does]. Its bad press was the result of its novelty: “It was novel and therefore labeled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detest innovations.”

Fussell also points out that, except at sunrise and sunset when it was relatively safe to look out over No Man’s Land, a soldier in a trench had an extremely limited view of the world:

To be in the trenches was to experience an unreal, unforgettable enclosure and constraint, as well as a sense of being unoriented and lost. One saw two things only: the walls of an unlocalized, undifferentiated earth and the sky above…

What a survivor of the Salient remembers fifty years later are the walls of dirt and the ceiling of sky, and his eloquent optative cry rises as if he were still imprisoned there: “To be out of this present, ever-present, eternally present misery, this stinking world of sticky, trickling earth ceilinged by a strip of threatening sky.”

What language to use?

Often, Fussell is a social critic, examining how the Great War stretched, deformed and, in some cases, broke British society — and Western civilization in general.

For Americans whose wars, since the Civil War, have been “somewhere else,” it is startling to have Fussell point out how close to home the World War I troops were. A soldier could leave the front line in the morning, and be in London that evening. This increased the disconnect between what the soldiers experienced and how the home folks saw the war. What language could a visiting son use to explain to his parents, his friends, what it meant to be in the trenches?

Speaking of language, there was a whole vocabulary of knightly words used by those at home, particularly the propaganda boosters, to describe what was happening on the front lines that were fantastical and obscene in their blindness to the realities.

Fussell employs nearly a full page of his book to list the euphemisms: “A horse is a steed, or charger. The enemy is the foe, or the host. Danger is peril. To conquer is to vanquish. To attack is to assail……”

How totally beside the point such euphemisms were can be seen from this story related by Blunden:

A young and cheerful lance-corporal of ours was making some tea [in the trench] when I passed one warm afternoon. Wishing him a good tea, I went along three fire-bays; one shell dropped without warning behind me; I saw its smoke faint out, and I thought all was as lucky as it should be. Soon a cry from the place recalled me; the shell had burst all wrong. Its butting impression was black and stinking in the parados where three minutes ago the lance-corporal’s mess-tin was bubbling over a little flame. For him, how could the gobblets of blackening flesh, the earth-wall sotted with blood, with flesh, the eye under the duckboard, the puply bone be the only answer?

But there was more.

At this moment, while one looked with dreadful fixity at so isolated a horror, the lance-corporal’s brother came round the traverse.

Someone else

No wonder, then, that soldiers saw the war as a play and themselves as actors — not really themselves. Or saw themselves as if from a distance, as another person.

Fussell quotes one veteran regarding the final minutes of the War:

On the Fourth Army front, at two minutes to eleven, a machine gun, about 200 yards from the leading British troops, fired off a complete belt without a pause. A single machine-gunner was then seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and turning about walk slowly to the rear.

Sassoon, Fussell notes, described how he played various roles for different visitors to his hospital room:

If the audience is “Some Senior Officer under whom I’d served,” Sassoon is “modest, politely subordinate…quite ready to go out again.” His key line here is: “Awfully nice of you to come and see me, sir.” Confronted by some “middle-aged or elderly Male Civilian,” he notes in himself a “tendency….to assume haggard facial aspect of one who has ‘been through hell.’ ” The line to be delivered now is: “Oh, yes, I’ll be out there again by the autumn.”

And so on.

Then Fussell points out:

The “real” Sassoon, he perceives, is the one that surfaces when the audiences have all gone, the one “mainly disposed toward a self-pitying estrangement from everyone except the troops on the front line.”

Polarization and angst

One legacy of the Great War evident today, Fussell argues, is the polarization of public life and debate.

“We” are all here on this side; “the enemy” is over there. “We” are individuals with names and personal identities; “he” is a mere collective entity. We are visible; he is invisible. We are normal; he is grotesque. Our appurtenances are natural; his, bizarre. He is not as good as we are….

“He” is the Communist’s “Capitalist,” Hitler’s “Jew,” Pound’s Usurer, Wyndham Lewis’s Philistine, the Capitalist’s Communist…He is Faulkner’s Snopeses, Auden’s “trespasser” and “ragged urchin,” Eliot’s Sweeney and young man carbuncular, Lawrence’s nice sexless Englishman, Roy Fuller’s barbarian, and Anthony Burgess’s Alex and his droogs.

And today — Fox News’ Barack Obama, MSNBC’s Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party’s Democrats and the Occupy Movement’s One Percent.

And another legacy is an angst-ridden way of life for modern humans.

“The parapet, the wire, and the mud,” [H.M.] Tomlinson posited in 1935, are now “permanent features of human existence. Which is to say that anxiety without end, without purpose, without reward, and without meaning is woven into the fabric of contemporary life. Where we find a “parapet” we find an occasion for anxiety, self-testing, doubts about one’s identity and value, and a fascinated love-loathing of the threatening, alien terrain on the other side.

There is much, much more in “The Great War and Modern Memory.” But, maybe, it would be best to close this look at the book.

And close it with one sentence from Fussell:

In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot.

Patrick T. Reardon
7.22.12

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