Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Orwell on the Nature of World War I Literature


George Orwell (Top Right) with the British Home Guard in WWII

In his 1940 literary essay "Inside the Whale" George Orwell contrasted the best  Great War's writings by its participants with those of contemporary author's who ignored the fighting and other authors who later wrote about the Spanish Civil War of which he was a veteran.

During the past ten years literature has involved itself more and more deeply in politics, with the result that there is now less room in it for the ordinary man than at any time during the past two centuries. One can see the change in the prevailing literary attitude by comparing the books written about the Spanish civil war with those written about the war of 1914-18. The immediately striking thing about the Spanish war books, at any rate those written in English, is their shocking dullness and badness. But what is more significant is that almost all of them, right-wing or left-wing, are written from a political angle, by cocksure partisans telling you what to think, whereas the books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Le Feu, A Farewell to Arms, Death of a Hero, Good-bye to All That, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and A Subaltern on the Somme were written not by propagandists but by victims. They are saying in effect, ‘What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure. . .

If one looks at the books of personal reminiscence written about the war of 1914–18, one notices that nearly all that have remained readable after a lapse of time are written from a passive, negative angle. They are the records of something completely meaningless, a nightmare happening in a void. That was not actually the truth about the war, but it was the truth about the individual reaction. The soldier advancing into a machine-gun barrage or standing waist-deep in a flooded trench knew only that here was an appalling experience in which he was all but helpless. He was likelier to make a good book out of his helplessness and his ignorance than out of a pretended power to see the whole thing in perspective. 

As for the books that were written during the war itself, the best of them were nearly all the work of people who simply turned their backs and tried not to notice that the war was happening. Mr E. M. Forster has described how in 1917 he read "Prufrock" and other of Eliot's early poems, and how it heartened him at such a time to get hold of poems that were ‘innocent of public-spiritedness’:

"They sang of private disgust and diffidence, and of people who seemed genuine because they were unattractive or weak...Here was a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being so feeble...He who could turn aside to complain of ladies and drawing rooms preserved a tiny drop of our self-respect, he carried on the human heritage."

That is very well said. Mr MacNeice, in the book I have referred to already, quotes this passage and somewhat smugly adds:

"Ten years later less feeble protests were to be made by poets and the human heritage carried on rather differently...The contemplation of a world of fragments becomes boring and Eliot's successors are more interested in tidying it up."

Similar remarks are scattered throughout Mr MacNeice's book. What he wishes us to believe is that Eliot's ‘successors’ (meaning Mr MacNeice and his friends) have in some way ‘protested’ more effectively than Eliot did by publishing "Prufrock" at the moment when the Allied armies were assaulting the Hindenburg Line. Just where these ‘protests’ are to be found I do not know. But in the contrast between Mr Forster's comment and Mr MacNeice's lies all the difference between a man who knows what the 1914–18 war was like and a man who barely remembers it. The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and a sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that. 

If I had been a soldier fighting in the Great War, I would sooner have got hold of "Prufrock" than The First Hundred Thousand or Horatio Bottomley's Letters to the Boys in the Trenches. I should have felt, like Mr Forster, that by simply standing aloof and keeping touch with pre-war emotions, Eliot was carrying on the human heritage. What a relief it would have been at such a time, to read about the hesitations of a middle-aged highbrow with a bald spot! So different from bayonet-drill! After the bombs and the food-queues and the recruiting-posters, a human voice! What a relief!

But, after all, the war of 1914–18 was only a heightened moment in an almost continuous crisis. At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all, decent people. 

The full (longish) essay can be read HERE 

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