The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
In Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Paul Fussell’s classic study of the correspondences between meter and meaning, feeling and form, structure and thought — the un- (or under-) stated subject is the imagination: how it works, what it’s for, what it can do and why it needs to do it. You could say that The Great War and Modern Memory takes this argument onto the battlefield.
Fussell, who dedicates his book
To the Memory of
Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, ASN 36548772
Co. F, 410th Infantry
Killed beside me in France
March 15, 1945,
was particularly alive to the ironies to which the war to end all wars gave rise. His account of the war and its legacy considers the complicity of irony in memory, and how the literary imagination feeds, and is fed by, both of them.
There’s no shortage of irony when it comes to the Great War, and that holds true for literature’s place in it. The extraordinary poetry that came out of the “sludge . . . and thick green light”, “the torn fields of France” represents one sort; and there’s something like irony in the extent to which the poetic tradition determined how participants recorded, and remembered, what happened. Ironic in this context, and fundamental to Fussell’s argument about the importance of literature in, and to, the conduct of human affairs, is the fact that the individuals who were running the show had no sympathy with the arts, or indeed any access to their own imaginations.
It is Fussell’s literary take on history and his presence as an imaginatively engaged reader of literature and events that separates The Great War and Modern Memory from other histories of the period. The Great War is not only the inescapable shaping fact, the signal seismic traumatic event, of the twentieth century: it’s the Fall — the sequence of decisions that eradicated the last traces of innocence from an entire civilisation. It also ineradicably changed how we imagine war and, ultimately, how we construct the memories through which we imagine the world around us and our lives in it.
What Fussell finds in the inner workings of modern memory which sets it apart, is the mechanism of irony. The culture that crawled out of the trenches differed from the one that dug them out in almost every respect, but principally in what seems almost an evolutionary adaptation to irony. After the war we were no longer or merely ironical on occasion and in passing, or when the mood took us, but scrupulously, holistically ironical, ironical down to the tips of the roots of our outlook on life — and therefore, necessarily, the Great War haunts all literary output ever since.
It also haunts all that came before. “If there is joy . . . , it is joy that is long since dead; and if there are smiles, they are sardonical.” This is Lytton Strachey in the December 1914 issue of the New Statesman. Given that we were only five months into the war, he appears to be demonstrating remarkable insight and prescience — even for him. But it turns out he’s not referring to the war at all: he’s describing Thomas Hardy’s most recent volume of poetry, Satires of Circumstance. Fussell can’t help finding this ironic, but his interest in these particular poems goes deeper.
The Great War and Modern Memory opens on a survey of the comprehensively ironic vision that characterises Hardy’s collection, which includes poems based on experiences from as early as 1870, and nevertheless seems throughout almost clairvoyantly to anticipate the war. Although Fussell assures us that “I am not really arguing that Hardy, the master of situational irony, ‘wrote’ the Great War,” he plainly believes he could have, which is to say, he believes that Hardy had the imagination to envision what the de facto authors of the war could not: “an event constituting an immense and unprecedented Satire of Circumstance. . . the great tragic satire which was the war”.
Out of the unimaginable gap the Great War created between expectations and existing literary constructs on the one hand and reality on the other, modern consciousness was born — begotten, like a distant cousin of Marvell’s Love, by irony upon memory, or, more precisely, by memories hanging by an ironic thread. In the context of the Great War, “a slaughter is by itself too commonplace to notice. When it makes an ironic point it becomes memorable.” Sir Geoffrey Keynes (John Maynard’s brother), recalling a relatively minor event (a German shell killing five officers including the major commanding), ascribes the vividness of the memory to “the small ironic detail of the major’s dead dog”:
‘The pattern of war is shaped in the individual mind by small individual experiences, and I can see these things as clearly today as if they had just happened, down to the body of the major’s terrier bitch . . . lying near her master’.
The argument seems to run something like this: The men who found themselves taking part in this war were utterly unprepared and ill-equipped to sort and store these kinds of experiences, and it was irony that came to their rescue. Irony, when they could make it out through the smoke and commotion, provided their memories with a sort of filing system. What they experienced when they couldn’t was consigned, it appears, to numbness and blanks. Irony and survival became linked. When the war was over, this new, systemic form of irony took its place among the hallmarks of modern consciousness and the qualities of its imagination.
Fussell’s reading of what he (ironically, surely) calls Douglas Haig’s “performance” turns on the Field Marshall’s lack of imagination. “[I]n a situation demanding the military equivalent of wit and invention . . . Haig had none.” He does credit him, however, with forging
the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent of today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm. His want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to provide a model for Great Men ever since.
Extracting these changed paradigms, each one an emblem of the ubiquitous social and moral discontinuities between the great before and the great after, from his various sources — literary text, letter and amateur memoir — is the chief project of Fussell’s book. It is the necessary continuities between literature and life, and their mutual reliance on each other, that is his subject.
One of the most trenchant indices “of prevailing innocence” from before can be found in a full-page linguistic balance sheet Fussell compiles of words and turns of phrase related to combat. In it, medieval romantic literary themes come face to face with stark realism, and the idea of war gets an eyeful of warfare. Then, we said steeds for horses and deeds for actions, breast for chest, limbs for arms and legs, and ashes, or dust, for dead bodies. In the romance of war, death is fate. In warfare, “the red/Sweet wine of youth” is just blood. Then we used those terms unironically; afterwards, they became inescapably ironic.
Linguistic and rhetorical falls from innocence were not confined to military locutions; as with war, so with sex. Fussell notes that before the Great War, which wasn’t all that long ago, “one could say intercourse, or erection, or ejaculation without any risk of evoking a smile or a leer”.
Christopher Isherwood’s mother . . . was an extraordinarily shy, genteel, proper girl, and neither she nor her fiancé read anything funny or anything not entirely innocent and chaste into the language of a telegram he once sent her after a long separation: “THINKING OF YOU HARD.”
Fussell is perhaps at his best when he talks about the interplay between the Great War and the literary tradition. There is no question but that the war changed the contours of the literary imagination:
There was no Waste Land…. There was no Ulysses, no Mauberley, no Cantos, no Kafka, no Proust, no Waugh, no Auden, no Huxley, no Cummings, no Women in Love or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was no “Valley of the Ashes” in The Great Gatsby.
Less obvious perhaps is the extent to which the literary tradition fashioned the perceptions of the war and the myths through which it is remembered. “Flanders fields,” Fussell points out,
are actually as dramatically profuse in bright blue cornflowers as in scarlet poppies. But blue cornflowers have no connection with English pastoral elegiac, and won’t do. The same principle determines that of all the birds visible and audible in France, only larks and nightingales shall be selected to be remembered and ‘used’.
It’s no surprise that Fussell doesn’t miss the irony by which the flower of oblivion becomes the symbol of remembrance of those consigned to it, and their violent end.
“On Cornflower Day, when everyone struts around in blue, it became evident how much the writer of the present scientific treatise feels himself to be a good, innocent child of his times.” This is the Swiss-born writer Robert Walser, in Berlin, in 1911. So is this:
An elegant lady enters and with two fingers skewers a roll spread with caviar; at once I bring myself to her notice, but in such a way as if being noticed were of no concern to me at all. Meanwhile I’ve found time to lay hands on another beer. The elegant lady is somewhat hesitant to bite into the caviar marvel; of course I immediately assume it to be on my account and none other that she is no longer fully in control of her masticatory senses. Delusions are so easy and so agreeable.
When I sat down to write this piece, I suddenly found myself wanting to recommend the dainty observational delicacies of Robert Walser, the feuilletonist of the earliest years of twentieth-century Berlin, whose Berlin Stories NYRB Classics have just brought out in a spiffy new edition and whose delectable morsels of reflection and description make them perfect for, among other things, journeys on the tube, where, coincidentally, I read this timeless account of the childlike novelty of riding on the “electric”:
Gazing straight ahead is something done by almost all the people who sit or stand in the “electric.”... People do, after all, tend to get somewhat bored on such trips, which often require twenty or thirty minutes or even more, and what do you do to provide yourself with some modicum of entertainment? You look straight ahead. To show by one’s gaze and gestures that one is finding things a bit tedious fills a person with a quite peculiar pleasure. Now you return to studying the face of the conductor on duty, and now you content yourself once more with merely, vacantly staring straight ahead. Isn’t that nice? One thing and then another? I must confess: I have achieved a certain technical mastery in the art of staring straight ahead.
With Fussell and the War so much at the front of my thoughts, Walser seemed to have come along to demonstrate what was lost, the fleeting prelapsarian early modern moment, the innocence Larkin was to dub “never such again”. Walser’s irony does indeed feel very far away from ours: it’s a different colour, more amused than stinging, more nostalgic, lighter, less raw. Even at its existential darkest, its enormous charm significantly outweighs its delicate bite. As a crystalline window onto a world of innocence, and irony, in the process of disappearing, like the imagined lives momentarily populating the landscapes rushing past a moving train, Walser’s stories provide a poignant pendant to Fussell’s “crumbling darkness”:
You watch vineyard-covered hillsides slowly falling away, houses sinking down, trees suddenly shooting up out of the earth. Clouds and meadows alternate amicably, meaningfully. . . . What a flying, rattling, rustling. Entire towns and villages are left behind on both sides as though they were lifeless images, and yet in these places human beings respire, horses whinny, a metalworker hammers away, a factory spins its wheel, a steer bellows, a child is crying, a person is consumed by bitter despair, two lovers secretly rejoice, boys are heading off to school, a midday meal is cooked in someone’s kitchen, a pair of unfortunate invalids lie in bed, or two men exchange blows in some wretched altercation. But the railway keeps on flying down its precisely predetermined, prearranged path and lets all the rest of human life and activity be human life and activity.
Every book, like every war, perhaps, is the product of ulterior motives. Among the many behind The Great War and Modern Memory is, I suspect, Fussell’s wish to make a case for his choice for the greatest poem of the Great War. The most popular, we know, is John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”, stirring in its depiction of a battlefield overgrown with crosses and poppies, haunted by the voices of “the Dead”, yet ultimately marred by its generic “recruitment-poster rhetoric”:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
Beside it Fussell sets “the loose but accurate emotional cadences, . . . and the informality and leisurely insouciance” of his own pick’s “gently ironic idiom”. He’s referring to 'Break of Day in the Trenches' by Isaac Rosenberg, reproduced in full below, and his assessment of this poem’s place in the tradition, and his discussion of what distinguishes it from even the most imaginative and accomplished verse the war produced, is one of the highlights of the book.
Here’s my trailer: There’s just one poppy in this poem, but it’s no ordinary poppy. Plucking it from the “parapet”, as if it might partake of those defensive properties and protect him, the poet sticks it gamely behind his ear. It’s a gesture of debonair defiance, but the red flower at his temple is also, of course, more than just a little ominous. The valence of the image isn’t helped by the fact that the poppy is “just a little white with the dust”, i.e., more than just a little doomed, as white and dust confirm. The flower is already in the process of dying a death that the act of pulling it out of the earth, ironically, has set in motion. But then we might say that this is no less true of “the flower of England” (and of Germany), plucked from their native soil; and, anyway, the poet is still safer down in his trench than up on “the sleeping green between”.
And don’t miss the extraordinary encounter between the doomed poet/soldier and “a live thing” — the “droll rat” who is the (mock-?, anti-?) hero of the poem. The irony of the situation in which they find themselves is unmistakable, even to the rat, who knows very well that for once he’s got one over on “strong eyes” and “fine limbs”, poignant metonymies for the young men he passes who are “less chanced . . . for life” than he. An ironic embodiment of Fussell’s argument about irony and memory, the “queer sardonic rat . . . inwardly grin[s]” as he picks his way across the grim fields, the sole witness of what’s “in our eyes”. Scampering back and forth across no-man’s land just before dawn, he’s also an ironic image of the peculiar character of the consciousness that would emerge after the overlong night of the war. A symbol of betrayal and myopia, a satirical emphasis on the perilous and repellent side of the medieval in “medieval romance” — whatever else he is, Rosenberg’s rat, with his “cosmopolitan sympathies”, represents something essential — essentially modern and essentially ironic — of what survives of the Great War in our collective modern memory.
Rosenberg, by the way, who died in 1918 at the age of 27 on the Western Front, was a star Birkbeck student from 1908-10,1 just a few years before he enlisted, in 1916. Fussell, who died this past May at the age of 88, would be pleased to know that Rosenberg is about to be officially remembered afresh, as we’ll see for ourselves one of these fine days as we come out the revolving doors at Malet Street and find ourselves nose to knee with a new memorial statue of an old World War I poet who happened to be one of our own: that’ll be him.2
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver - what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
* * *
1 For a copy of the transcript of Steven Connor’s lecture entitled Isaac Rosenberg: Birkbeck’s War Poet, given as part of Birkbeck College’s From Mechanics to Millennium lecture series, October 30th 2000, follow this link: http://www.stevenconnor.com/rosenberg/.