Friday, November 9, 2018

The Centenary of the Armistice: A Personal Cycle Closes and a Gash That Never Heals

"Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected... Its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends... Millions were destroyed because two people, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, were shot... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing meliorist myth... It reversed the idea of Progress."
Paul Fussell

This Sunday, November 11, 2018, at 11:00 am, a personal gyre of history closes for me.

I entered college with an attachment to the First World War, if that’s what you can call it, because of T.E.Lawrence. I had read through Seven Pillars of Wisdom in high school and fallen under its heady spell. Lawrence was a gifted writer who embodied the English literary tradition from the inside, and he wrote his own mythology simply because he could: he knew the power of the trope and how to wield it (and saw an opportunity in the newsreels of his own personal Barnum, Lowell Thomas).

To my Freshmen amazement, there was a class on World War One Literature, taught by Paul Fussell, based on his own National Book Award-winning The Great War and Modern Memory. It’s a cultural study/close reading of the literary tradition before WW1—particularly poetry--- and how it changed during and in relation to the war.

We did not study Lawrence, but I discovered the vast and profound literature of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and the work of Sir Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, and Bernard Bergonzi. Few people were looking at this work in the 1980s, and it made a deep impression on me.

The Shell Shocked Lord Peter

Also in college I discovered the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, and her Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Her novels are murder mysteries, not Zola-like realistic drama but it is notable that her sleuth is suffering from shell shock.  It is worked into the stories in such a matter-of-fact way, such was the reality of the fate of the returning servicemen from World War 1.

Wimsey is seen as a foolish ass in some ways to start, but we learn that he was severely injured by artillery fire near Caudry, France, and suffered a complete breakdown when he was demobbed. The foolish demeanor is his way of coping with the shell shock.

In Whose Body, the first Wimsey novel, when he pushes himself too far it leads him to hallucinate he is back in the trenches. Luckily his manservant Bunter is nearby:

"Put that light out, damn you!" said Wimsey. "Listen—-over there-—listen—can't you hear it?"

"It's nothing, my lord," said Mr. Bunter, hastily getting out of bed and catching hold of his master; "it's all right, you get to bed quick and I'll fetch you a drop of bromide. Why, you're all shivering—you've been sitting up too late."

"Hush! no, no—it's the water," said Lord Peter with chattering teeth, "it's up to their waists down there, poor devils. But listen! can't you hear it? Tap, tap, tap—they're mining us—but I don't know where—I can't hear—I can't. Listen, you! There it is again—we must find it—we must stop it . . . Listen! Oh, my God! I can't hear—I can't hear anything for the noise of the guns. Can't they stop the guns?"

"Oh, dear!" said Mr. Bunter to himself. "No, no—it's all right, Major—don't you worry."

"But I hear it," protested Peter.

"So do I," said Mr. Bunter stoutly; "very good hearing, too, my lord. That's our own sappers at work in the communication trench. Don't you fret about that, sir."

Lord Peter grasped his wrist with a feverish hand.

"Our own sappers," he said; "sure of that?"

"To be sure they will," said Mr. Bunter, "and very nice, too. You just come and lay down a bit, sir—they've come to take over this section."

"You're sure it's safe to leave it?" said Lord Peter.

A later novel, The Unpleasantness at the Belladonna Club, begins on Armistice Day, 1928, and the plot revolves around the fact that for the 2 minutes of silence at 11:00 am on November 11, nobody moves, so the killer can get to his target unseen.

It’s also notable for this exchange between Wimsey and Captain Fentiman from the war:

George: "I wish to God Jerry had put me out with the rest of ‘em. What’s the good of coming through for this sort of thing? What’ll you have?”

Wimsey: “Dry Martini.  Cheer up. All this Remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it won’t do to say so. . . .How are things going for you?

George: “Oh rotten as usual. Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income-tax.”

* * * * *

That negative feeling toward the Remembrance Day services has been around since they began, particularly from the men and women who served. They ceremonies provide a psychological balm for some, and not for others. If there were no ceremonies, no remembrance, would that be better?

This lucite statue was created by the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation in collaboration with the Remembered and its inaugural Armistice 2018 Project, There But Not There. The poppy is from the gift shop at the Flanders Museum in Ypres, Belgium, the medieval Cloth Hall that was completely razed in WW1 and then rebuilt.

The problem of shell shock, of PTSD of the gash to the souls of the combatants--will continue as long as soldiers are sent to war to kill each other.  It's a matter of life and death for us all.