In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell looks at the First World War and its relationship to literature, especially poetry and war memoirs, and by extension its relationship to modernism. While the scope of the book is broad in terms of the time-frame it covers --it looks in particular at the First World War, but it also examines the dawning of the modern age in general --it is, overall, narrow thematically in that it concerns itself with English literature of the First World War and what it reveals about its authors' psyches, as well as its influence on writing in the twentieth century. Fussell's thesis is that the First World War paved the way for modernism in literature and in thinking generally. He argues that the war prompted people to question, and in some cases discard, the certainties of the pre-war period and established, among other habits of mind, the use of irony (here defined as the contrast between what is expected and what actually happens) to understand the world. In order to support his thesis, the author draws mainly on literary sources spanning the period from the First World War to the mid-1970s, and gives particular attention to the work of war poets and memoirists such as Sassoon, Owen, Graves, and Blunden.
The book is divided up into nine chapters, each of which illustrates a different habit of mind involved in writing about the war. In Chapter 1, "A Satire of Circumstance,” Fussell focuses mainly on the satirical and ironic element in the war and the way this was reflected in war literature; this theme runs throughout the book. He begins somewhat unconvincingly by suggesting that Thomas Hardy somehow predicted the war’s irony in his satirical poetry, but then backtracks to admit that “I am not really arguing that Hardy .... wrote the Great War." This is merely an elaborate way of beginning his discussion of irony: noting Siegfried Sassoon's fondness for Hardy's work, he moves on to a consideration of "The War as Ironic Action.” Here his personal feelings about war (Fussell, an American, was traumatised by his service in World War II, and the book is dedicated to a soldier who died beside him in France) surface for the first time: "Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends. In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot. The Second War offers even more preposterous ironies.” (This is a surprising and somewhat offensive remark.) "But'', he goes on, and this is key to the thesis of the book, ‘'the Great War was more ironic than any before or since ... lt reversed the idea of Progress." He then gives a fairly comprehensive overview of the war and its ironies to enable the non-specialist to make sense of the chapters which follow, emphasising the irnportant point that the war's battles were very different to those which had characterised earlier British wars, so that they did not make sense "in a traditional way.” (Conventional battles had, for the most part, a clear outcome, achieved at the cost of far fewer casualties than those of the largely inconclusive battles of the First World War.) The author notices, too, Edmund Blunden's eerie idea that by 1916, "'the War had won, and would go on winning’” --this idea of the war as a separate entity runs throughout the book. Fussell examines pre-war attitudes: "One reason why the Great War was more ironic than any other is that its beginning was more innocent.” He surveys the values, such as Glory and Honour, and the abstractions which permeated the pre-war world, outlining also the concept of "high" diction, in which elevated, "feudal" language was used for concepts referring to fighting and battle.
Fussell fails to advance his argument when he makes the contentious observation that the pre-war literary world was pre-modern: "There was no Ulysses .... no Proust, no Waugh. One read Hardy and Kipling and Conrad and frequented worlds of traditional moral action delineated in traditional moral language.” However, Hardy and Conrad, the former with his atheism and irony and the latter with his anti-colonialist viewpoint, both present recognisably modern (i.e. questioning and sceptical) challenges to Edwardian orthodoxy; they hardly view things in a traditional way. The complexity of Kipling also cannot be ignored, in the nascent humanism of Kim, and the bitter satirising of religious orthodoxy in some of his poems, as well as the apocalypse of Recessional. According to Fussell’s own terms —use of irony and questioning of traditional concepts-- these writers seem to be, if not “modern” in style, certainly modern in preoccupation.
Fussell then moves on to a consideration of irony in soldiers' memoirs and how it has survived in later war novels, giving as an example of the latter Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which he continues to draw on throughout the book. He states his thesis clearly at the end of Chapter 1: "I am saying that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War."
In Chapter 2, “The Troglodyte World,” Fussell gives a very good description of the trench system. The irony of the British trenches —the fact that they were constructed shoddily so as to minimise the cost of defence and allow more resources for offence, under the misguided notion that the war would be one of movement rather than attrition-- is fully brought out. He evokes trench life and the pattern of military action (or lack of it) during a typical day, paying special attention to the ironic contrast between the pre-war romantic view of sunrise and sunset and the dread with which they came to be imbued through association with morning and evening “stand-to.” The use of this particular irony in writing about the war, as for example in Blunden's Undertones of War and war poetry by Wilfred Owen, is also discussed. This is followed by a contrast with the view of sunsets and sunrises in Georgian poetry. However, when considering the Georgians Fussell seems to disregard their complexity (the self-satire implicit in Rupert Brooke's ''The Old Vicarage: Grantchester", for example, and the unsettling character of some of De la Mare's poetry), allowing them only "vague high hopes”. He then examines the ironic proximity of the trenches to “home," a theme also explored in modern literature about World War II, for example in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (which, like Catch-22, he refers to continually throughout the book.) Fussell surveys the "almost unendurably ironic peacefulness of the war graves,” and then turns to the idea of the never-ending war, the feeling on the part of the troops that the war would go on forever. He asserts that this idea too has become a distinguishing feature of modernity: "The idea of endless war as an inevitable condition of modern life would seem to have become seriously available to the imagination around 1916 .... The drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the impossible... the catastrophe that began it is the Great War."
In Chapter 3, "Adversary Proceedings", the author looks at what he views as the modern mental habit of "dichotomizing" and its origins in World War I. To begin with, he explores the idea of ''the enemy" and suggests that "prolonged trench warfare, with its collective isolation, its defensiveness, and its nervous obsession with what ‘the other side' is up to, establishes a model of modern political, social and psychological polarization .... The most indispensable concept underlying the energies of modern writing is that of 'the enemy’.” The "versus" habit, the idea of one thing being irreconcilably opposed to another, is also a facet of this mindset and thus of modernism. One important opposition is captured in the trope of "The Enemy to the Rear,” the sharp division between the troops and the staff (revealed in such poems as Sassoon's "Base Details”), as well as between the troops and those at home. According to Fussell, the former antagonism formed a useful paradigm in peacetime for hostility between artists (the troops) and critics (the Staff) —an idea which seems really rather farfetched. Fussell then examines "The Binary Vision of Siegfried Sassoon," exploring what he calls the "polarities" in Sassoon's work, "between 'his' ground and ours; the enemy and 'us' .... the knowledge born of the line and the ignorant innocence of home; the life on the line and the life of the Staff.” He examines such extremes and ironies in the Sherston memoirs, and concludes that, for Sassoon, '"the line' divides everything and always will.” This view does not seem to adequately sum up Sassoon’s work —many of his poems contain no such antithesis —although it does capture one important theme in his writing, the unbridgeable chasm between the troops and “everybody else.” At the end of the chapter Fussell looks at "the persistent enemy," the habit of thinking in adversarial terms long after the Great War was over, as shown in modern writing of the twenties and thirties and in such later novels as Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. Fussell's main point in this section is summed up by his quote from C. G. Jung: "'the war, which in the outer world had taken place some time ago, was not yet over, but was continuing to be fought within the psyche.”' This may well have been the case, but whether this internal fighting actually went on within the framework of such dichotomies is another question entirely.
Chapter 4, "Myth, Ritual and Romance," examines the superstitious, religious and myth-ridden mental world of many of the troops. Although the war itself was modern, it was “especially fertile in rumor and legend" because distrust of the government and popular press resulted in "an approximation of .... the psychological atmosphere of the Middle Ages, where rumor was borne .... by itinerant[s]." Fussell examines myths that were discredited after the war, such as the Angel of Mons and the Crucified Canadian, and again references these irrational ideas to other manifestations of the same impulse in World War II literature, most noticeably Pynchon. He looks at the habit of thinking in threes, brought on by the tripartite structure of trench life, and how it fitted into various myth-paradigms, including Christianity: '"training', 'combat', 'recovery'. Or innocence, death, rebirth." Thus, "movement up the line, battle, and recovery become emblems of quest, death, and rebirth.” Fussell as a result disagrees with Bernard Bergonzi's notion that "'The dominant movement in the literature of the Great War was .... from a myth-dominated to a demythologized world'. No; almost the opposite." If this is the case, it is hard to explain the religious scepticism, brought on by experiences in the war, of poets such as Owen, or the fact that the Western world seemed to become increasingly secularised after World War I. Perhaps it might be more accurate to suspect that great stress caused superstition and religion to occupy soldiers' minds during the war itself, but that the horror of their experiences eventually contributed to a pronounced scepticism and secularism in the interwar years.
Fussell examines the legends attaching to the leaning Virgin of Mons, and then discusses the effect of William Morris's The Weil at the World's End and Bunyan's The Pilgrim’s Progress on the troops' perceptions of their war-time experiences, as revealed in their writing. The reason for so much reliance on previous sources was that the war was more horrifying and difficult to conceptualise than any British war of the previous hundred years, so that ''unprecedented meaning thus had to find precedent motifs and images." The failure of these motifs to adequately capture the reality of the war is explored in Fussell's examination of David Jones's In Parenthesis, which draws extensively on pre-war mythology and poetry for its idiom. This does not work, in Fussell's view, because ''the effect .... is to rationalize and even to validate the war by implying that it somehow recovers many of the motifs and values of medieval chivalric romance.” Fussell concludes that ''the war will not be understood in traditional terms .... It is too human for that."
In Chapter 5, "Oh What a Literary War,” the author points out that the reason why privates as well as officers were able to relate their experiences to things they had read was that "the Great War occurred at a special historical moment when two 'liberal' forces were .... coinciding in England .... the belief in the educative powers of classical and English literature was still extremely strong" and ''the appeal of popular education and 'self-improvement' was at its peak .... The intersection of these two forces .... established an atmosphere of public respect for literature unique in modern times." Thus, "'literature' dominated the war from beginning to end." Fussell asserts that the British troops had a special connection to literature which was "instinctive and unapologetic" (in contrast to the furtive American attitude). He looks at the ways in which the troops drew on earlier poems and novels in their own writing about the war: TheOxford Book of English Verse was an especially popular source, as has become legendary. In "The Problems of Factual Testimony,” Fussell reiterates the point that "the presumed inadequacy of language itself to convey the facts of trench warfare is one of the motifs of all who wrote about the war.... finding the war 'indescribable' in any but the available language of traditional literature, those who recalled it had to do so in known literary terms." He looks at a number of other topics: linguistic invention as a means of coping with the war, the convention of displaying "sang-froid" about the war in letters home and diaries (the irony of which was that it simply served to exacerbate the lack of understanding between the soldiers and the home front), and the Field Service Post Card. He then turns to another important theme, the survival of the language of the war as metaphor after the war. "Data entering the consciousness during the war emerge long afterward as metaphor ….One result of the persistence of Great War rhetoric was that the contours of the Second War tend to merge with the First. The result was a conflation of wars through language, or, as one might put it, the perception of one Great War running from 1914 to 1945.” This theme of two-wars-as-one runs throughout the book, and Fussell returns to another theme -modernity- at the end of the chapter: "the diction of war resides everywhere, just below the surface of modern experience." One uses such language "without .... any sharp awareness that one is recalling war, and yet with a sense that such figures are most appropriate to the modern situation."
In Chapter 6, "Theater of War", Fussell looks at the associations between war and theatre, most of which are encouraged by the nature of war itself: "the whole thing is too grossly farcical, cruel, and absurd to be credited as a form of 'real life. '" (Here again we may note Fussell's obvious—if thoroughly understandable— anti-war bias.) Also, "the most obvious reason why ‘theatre' and modern war seem so compatible is that modern wars are fought by conscripted armies, whose members know they are only temporarily playing their ill learned parts.” He states that "British soldiers are more like actors than others". He imputes this to the English temperament, which is “phlegmatic and ironic….conscious that if the war is not real it must be not real in a[n] .... understandable, social way." It is also due, apparently, to ''the vividness of the sense of role enjoined by the British class system .... and the British awareness of possessing Shakespeare as a major national asset." At this point, the analysis seems to have become somewhat tenuous. The ‘sense of role’ posited by Fussell was probably not as conscious as he seems to be suggesting, and the influence of the Victorian and Edwardian music-hall on the theatricality of the troops cannot be underestimated either. He goes on to look at the psychological comfort which a sense of theatre could give: "just as a play must have an ending, so might the war.”
Russell then examines the theatrical and farcical element in Robert Graves's memoir Good-bye to All That, and touches on the important point that memories of the war should be taken as fiction rather than fact. The ‘playlets’ in Graves’s memoir, according to Fussell, are '"theatrical' because they present character types entirely externally, the way an audience would see them.” lt is odd, though, that in this section on the English flair for theatre he does not remark on Graves's somewhat un-English tendency towards blatant boasting and savage satirising of his characters: "compared with Sassoon, who is remarkably gentle with his characters .... Graves .... sees his as largely a collection of knaves and fools." Furthermore, the fact that irony is fundamental to farce (since farce relies to a great extent on the contrast between what is expected or hoped for and what actually occurs) seems to escape Fussell in his analysis of Graves's work. Graves's satirising of the propaganda letter of the "Little Mother" again underscores the lack of comprehension between the soldiers and the home front. One of the main points of this section is ''the dubiousness of rational. ... historiography." Taking the letter of the "Little Mother" as a case in point, the author suggests that ''the documents on which a work of history might be based are so wrong or so loathsome .... or so downright mad that no one could immerse himself in them for long, Graves implies, without coming badly unhinged.” At the end of the chapter Fussell again returns to Joseph Heller, who, he maintains, is "the heir of Graves." He then looks at the recollection of the First World War in theatrical terms during the Second World War, and the Second World War in cinematic terms in the period after it, the dominant form of entertainment preceding each war shaping memories of it afterwards. He devotes pages to a consideration of Anthony Burgess's The Wanting Seed, which suggests to him that "Burgess has sensed both the alliance between war and theater and the necessity of our approach to it through the channels of myth and cliche."
In Chapter 7, "Arcadian Resources," Fussell examines English pastoralism and its relationship to the war, noting that its effects were seen in all ranks: "'Gardeners camouflaged as soldiers': that was the RSM's rueful comment.” The pastoral provided both a means of satirising war's violence and a comfort against it, turning up very frequently in soldiers' writings about the war. Fussell examines various aspects of the pastoral, including the allegorical significance of sheep and shepherds (men and officers), and of course birdsong, which was, ironically, loudest at morning and evening “stand-to.” The symbolism of roses and poppies is next explored: the rose as an emblem of England and its significance in the English interpretation of Et in Arcadia ego, and poppies as symbols of death and oblivion. Fussell's penetrating analysis of John McCrae's "In Flanders' Fields" includes a comparison with another "poppy" poem, "Break of Day in the Trenches" by Isaac Rosenberg. (Given the space that Fussell devotes to his consideration of the pastoral and his fondness for projecting First World War themes onto the Second World War, it is strange that he does not mention one of the best-known poems of World War II, Henry Reed's ''Naming of Parts," with its ironic contrast between the beauties of nature and the mechanised character of modem warfare.) He then turns to Edmund Blunden, who, he feels, epitomises the pastoral element, and his memoir Undertones of War. He focuses specifically on Blunden's horror at the destruction of natural beauty by the war, which reveals itself even in the later poems, such as "The Midnight Skaters.” He characterises the poet as "innocent", "vulnerable", and "gentle," but focusing on Blunden's sweetness of temperament prevents him from noticing the real bitterness in poems such as "Report on Experience”: “I have seen the righteous forsaken, /His health, his honour and his quality taken. /This is not what we were formerly told." The quiet expression of the sentiment does not render it any less bitter or deeply felt. Fussell examines the poet's deliberate use of archaism in language: "with language as with landscape, his attention is constantly on pre-industrial England, the only repository of criteria for measuring fully the otherwise unspeakable grossness of the war…. every rhythm, allusion and droll personification, can be recognised as an assault on the war and on the world which chose to conduct and continue it. Blunden's style is his critique.”
Chapter 8, "Soldier Boys," is problematic from the start. Fussell appears to be having cultural difficulties in understanding romantic friendships between men in the trenches, preferring to view these as predominantiy sexual or erotic (which he can get away with by referring to this element as "sublimated"), so that he ends up by grossly misinterpreting the work of Wilfred Owen as charactised mainly by homoeroticism rather than by outrage or anger. Owen's homosexuality no doubt formed an important part of the emotional backdrop to his poetry, but it certainly cannot be said to be the main point of his work. (A much better interpretation of Owen's war poetry can be found in Jon Silkin's Out of Battle: the Poetry of the Great War.) Fussell's apparent and reductionist assumption that anything written by a homosexual man will naturally be homoerotic, his attempts to link the war poets with a school of pederast poetry, and his distortion of Housman’s work (focusing exclusively on the homoerotic element in A Shropshire Lad and ignoring its pastoral theme) invite a number of outraged criticisms. Suffice it to say that Fussell's interpretation of Owen is the most simplistic and problematic of any of the interpretations of poets that he offers.
In Chapter 9, "Persistence and Memory," the author looks at "The Literary Status of Great War Memoirs," that is, the idea that memoirs are by their nature characterised by selective and subjective recall and thus are closer to fiction than to history. If this is true, it seems odd that Fussell is trying to make the case for a specific Great War mentality based precisely on such documents: if they are unreliable as records of historical fact, how can they be treated as a guide to an even more amorphous and ambiguous subject, such as how people in general thought about the war? Given that each author is individual (as Fussell is at pains to emphasise, however simplistically: Sassoon's work is characterised by “exaggerated antithesis,” Graves’s by “farcical dramaturgy” and Blunden’s by “unremitting literary pastoralism”), it is hard to see them as representing a typical mood. Fussell is similarly unconvincing when he tries to make the case that the Victorian age was marked in literature by "low mimetic" (in Northrop Frye's theory, a type of literature in which the protagonist has an ordinary level of power —realistic fiction, in other words) and the modem age by ''the ironic". The trouble is that literary eras cannot be delineated as neatly as this: to do so, one has to ignore the various types of "high mimetic" (epic and tragedy) which were very popular during the Victorian age, such as the works of William Morris and the many retellings of Malory's Morte D'Arthur and other myths and legends, and the popular forms of “low mimetic” which persisted, especially in English literature, throughout the twentieth century. The theory is altogether too tidy to do justice to the reality, but if we acknowledge that Fussell is right in general terms (that the Victorian age was mainly characterised by low mimetic and the modem age by the ironic) then his observation that the special quality of war memoirs is due to ''their residence on the knife-edge between these two modes" has some merit. Here, as elsewhere, Fussell's statements are entirely too sweeping. He again returns to the theme of memoirs-as-fiction, saying that ''too few readers have attended to their fictional character, preferring to confound them with 'documentary' or ‘history.”' Again, this undermines the author's own work, as he himself has drawn a good deal on soldiers' memoirs in discussing, for example, the realities of trench life. Fussell then reiterates the point, made in the chapter "Theater of War," that in mental terms, "Every war is alike in the way its early stages replay elements of the preceding war. Everyone fighting a modern war tends to think of it in terms of the last one he knows anything about.” The problem here is with the word “everyone” --giving a few examples from poetry and magazines of this type of thinking does not demonstrate that indeed "everyone" thinks this way. lt may well be the case, but more evidence is needed.
The author ventures into uncertain territory again in the section "But it Still Goes On," when he says that ''the whole texture of British daily life could be said to commemorate the war still." This seems very doubtful, even in 1975 when this book was published, especially as another war has taken place in the interim. He notes that "The Great War persists in many of the laws controlling aliens and repressing sedition and espionage.” He does not discuss, however, whether World War II might have provided the motivation for maintaining such laws, or even added to them. This very odd excursion reaches peculiar conclusions regarding allotments, eggs and chips, memorial columns, a sign in Hatchard's Bookshop, Piccadilly, and lesbian couples on trains during the 1930s. Suffice it to say that they are also insufficiently supported.
In the remainder of the chapter Fussell again provides a number of literary sources to support his thesis that the First World War influenced perceptions of the Second, particularly certain features of the First World War such as the parapet. He gives here as evidence passages from Norman Mailer and (again) Pynchon. In the final summing-up, Fussell maintains that "ex post facto, literary narrative has supplied it [the war] with coherence and irony, educing the pattern: innocence savaged and destroyed.”
In evaluating The Great War and Modern Memory, it is important to look first at what the author is trying to do. Essentially, he is endeavouring to make the case that the First World War precipitated modernism, by looking at writing of the First World War and examining its impact on subsequent writing. If he were concerned only with modernism in modern literature this might be a useful approach, but he is examining modernism in general, as a mentality. It seems, therefore, inappropriate to only use literature (which is almost always produced by an educated elite) to gauge the attitudes of ordinary people, either before or after the war. While Fussell is careful to include a number of working class sources in his analysis, not enough material is given from the vast bulk of society to convince the reader that, indeed, most people shared this "modem" view of the war. What is more, Fussell's frequent misinterpretation of his sources further undermines the conclusions that he draws from them. The simplification in his readings, whether of Graves, Sassoon, or Owen, undermines his argument; faulty interpretation leads to faulty inference. Overall, Fussell demonstrates a consistent tendency to think of things (the pattern of history as well as his sources) in terms of only their most obvious characteristics, and not their entire character. Thus he wishes to make the case that modernism began with the First World War, and appears to ignore the modem element in writers, such as Conrad, who were writing before the war. The book would have been more credible had he chosen to view the war as propelling forward a process of artistic modernisation that was already well underway, in the writings of the Bloomsbury group, for example.
He is also entirely too selective in the sources he uses from ‘modern’ (that is, post-war) literature. There is no doubt that some modern writers were influenced by the Great War, but Fussell's handful of modern sources fails to show that this influence was general. There is manifestly more to modern literature than Heller, Eliot, Pynchon, Mailer, and Burgess, however influential these authors may have been (and it might not be too cynical to ask, given the preponderance of American authors in this list and the rather brief American involvement in the First World War, just how much it impinged on American cultural consciousness compared with its impact in Britain).
The assertion that people viewed the two world wars as one and the same is also contentious. The novelty and vibrancy of the 1920s and 30s seemed to have the effect of separating the wars in the minds of many writers. For example, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which Fussell actually quotes in the section on the pastoral element, constitutes at its core an elegy for the interwar period, contrasting it favourably with the Second World War and portraying it as a sort of psychological oasis between the wars.
There is another, more fundamental problem with Fussell's thesis: in trying to attribute the attitudes and ways of thinking of the fifties, sixties and seventies to the First World War, he completely ignores the significance of the Second World War as an intellectual and cultural watershed, the traumatising effects of which (particularly the discovery of the concentration camps, which could not be fitted into any previous Great War paradigm) are still being felt. It would be more credible to posit that the First World War accelerated a process of cultural change that had already begun, and which was accelerated again by the influence of the Second World War. Furthermore, it would also be an oversimplification to say that the modem mindset is entirely due to one (or both) wars. Given that the twentieth century also saw important social movements —feminism and human rights, just to name a couple—and important, smaller but extremely traumatic conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War (which itself had a tremendous impact on writers like Orwell), it seems somewhat blinkered to ignore their effects on modernism.
The Great War and Modern Memory does have some major strengths. It is distinguished, first, by the author's general compassion for his subjects. lt is also frequently thought-provoking, and some of Fussell’s analysis (for example, his examination of the pastoral element in Great War literature) is excellent as literary criticism. But it is not good history, because of the author's obvious anti-war bias, the subjective nature of the material he uses, the highly individual character of each of his sources, the frequent misinterpretation of his (very selectively) chosen authors, the tendency towards over-simplifying in both the theory and the analyses, and various claims that are almost impossible to substantiate. It is, in fact, very difficult to figure out what the general Zeitgeist was from the writing that people left behind. The weight of evidence is not substantial enough, and is frequently too specialised, to support the author's main conclusion. Thus, while The Great War and Modern Memory has occasional merit --indeed, moments of brilliance-- as literary analysis, its value as an historical work is doubtful. --Isabel Taylor