Thursday, November 17, 2005

He was not anxious to go

It is good to have time - to revisit old friends for example: Undertones of War came for some reason to my mind today (probably due to lots of work trivia being currently cleared out of it). A treasure of a book. And that reminded me of the one that got me reading Blunden and Sassoon, Owen, Graves and that personal idol of mine, Charles Sorley: Fussel's Great War and Modern Memory. I believe it is quite out of fashion in the shouting match that goes for academia nowadays. But it was sheer magic to read in the first year that I spent in Helsinki having started my studies, a modern classic. He gets Blunden right, Undertones is a long poem of a book, beautiful, intense, intensely controlled, haunting. Blunden never really got to the same heights ever again, and one wonders whether the innocence was completely real in the first place. But it certainly was the most innocent generation our civilization has so far produced. A very tiny minority experience of course, but one that encapsulates much of the modern Western liberal history, the Western liberal hopes and their bitter, horrendous collapse. Otherwise known as the early and middle 20th Century. We might not have saved the best from the ruins.


helsinkian said...

"We might not have saved the best from the ruins." The bleakness of your last line really got me thinking. World War I, that horrendous waste in which old empires crumbled and a new dawn for new ideas arrived.

I guess what was born after the civilization was in ruins is most fascinating to me. The mental landscape after the slaughter paved way for masterpieces like The Waste Land. Paris, London, Berlin, Prague being filled with new ideas and new activities. New things were discovered in Zurich even during the war. One word, dada, although basically empty of significance (sort of yesyes in Russian), says it all to me about the generation and the world they lived in.

Maybe I just haven't read enough about the British Great War experience. I guess I've always seen Britain of that time as the most cynical of players, the least innocent of places at that time. If the British who had conquered the world bit by bit war after war didn't know what the point of war was (the world dominance of Britain), who did? Maybe that's the spot in the British psyche that is the most foreign to me.

To me World War I has always been mostly about Wilson and his messianic plan, something that the neoconservatives today so greatly appreciate. I guess I often connect the innocence to Americans as the relative newcomers on global stage and the British have stood for calculative cynicism in my mental picture. So my World War I book has been A Farewell To Arms by Hemingway... a haunting and touching book. Even Eliot is originally an American. The cultural barrier for me to see World War I through British eyes must be huge.

The event in British territory at that time that has most fascinated me is the Irish Rising of 1916. Is there anything British of the time that I can relate to? Of course, there were many Anglophile Finns then and how important wasn't Britain for the new state that was built in Finland after the war? For Finland it was absolutely crucial that Britain won and Germany lost. That single roll of the dice made the development of liberal democracy possible and gave liberal thinkers top positions here that would otherwise have been filled by more extremely nationalist and autocratic ones.

Should I feel more for Britain in the Great War and the generation that was wasted there? Should I discover more about them simply to see the dominant psyche of the time that would by chance influence the fate of my country?

If I'd go grab a British book now I'd probably go for something of the interwar years that doesn't deal with the war or a British war book that has to do with a colonial war rather than that European one. Maybe too much detail of too much senselessness hurts, maybe that's why this topic hasn't been of great interest to me. What appealed to me so much in Hemingway's novel was the idyll of Switzerland and the hope of getting away from the senseless slaughter. Even if everybody else was committing collective suicide there was a place in Europe where it was still possible to live.

For me the lasting heritage of that epoch is the escapism, not so much dealing with the actual pain. Or at least dealing with the pain coming with doses of escapism makes it easier to bear for me. What that lost generation felt was the madness of self-destruction lifted to the only available mode of being. To be was not to be. When it comes to Freud, some of his best thinking (essays of the interwar years) was spurred by the catastrophy of the war. So I feel affinity to that consciousness dealing with existential issues after the war was over but not really with the "I'm dying now can you save my poem for posterity" consciousness in the phase of being extinguished. Am I too bleak in imagining British World War I poetry? It was the magnificent bleakness in your last line that made my train of thought going.

Let me end my comment by quoting Edith Södergran (Martin Allwood's translation, original 1918, translation 1980):

Singers of yore - be of good cheer,
good blood flowed in your veins -
rich, red warrior's blood.
The spirit of song is war.

stockholm slender said...

A terrible beauty was born... Of course the Easter Rising is also intimately connected to British history as well. In many senses I think that we have not ever fully recovered from the twin shocks of the early 20th century: what we have now is a very materialist civilization dependent on its material success. Liberalism has been outwardly fullfilled in many aspects but almost invariably in a timid and halfhearted way. There is no selfconfidence left after the nightmares of global conflict and the long freeze of the Cold War.

I would argue that the most innocent place and time in our civilization were Oxford and Cambridge in the early years of the century. The years when Bloomsbury was formed and Moore wrote Principia Ethica. The US was already rapidly being commercialized (not completely a bad thing), France and Germany were militarized and narrow and Russia was an awful tyranny. The rest of the world was more a less subjucated under varyingly brutal European rule. As a great power Britain did not behave much better of much worse than the others, but in its society there were niches for high civilization and high liberalism.

Finland's fate in the 20th century was amazing: who would have thought that the Republic established in 1917 would really see the century end. We have had luck but also skillful and flexible statesmen that could base their actions on a strong civil society that became more Nordic each decade of the century. It was of course crucial that both empires, Germany and Russia first fought and then collapsed. That was the outcome that the Finnish leadership hoped also in the Second World War, but incredibly we found a modus vivandi also with the triumphant Stalin. Quite a story.

helsinkian said...

Now there's an interesting topic, innocent Britain vs. commercializing America. I guess you're right about Oxford and Cambridge. How the spirit of Oxbridge is still there haunting us even if British world dominance ended a couple of decades after that innocent era. I understand some of the fascination in the British Great War myth and in the very type of man being slaughtered in that dark episode of history.

In some sense America before the turn of the century was more innocent than Britain despite the commercialization. Yet maybe America never was that innocent. The whole immigration issue leads to an after-the-fact mentality and the creation of a posttraumatic nation if any.

The British innocence that you're talking about is also relative, Oxbridge functioning as some sort of an opposite to cynical London. It's also interesting that I've seen the Taft Administration as being guided by greed and corrupt cynicism, not least in their Latin America policy that was setting a bad precedent for US involvement in the Western Hemisphere. This is then in stark contrast to the role of the progressive Wilson Administration working as a midwife in the birth of the new Europe out of the ashes of the old empires.

In the same way I see different British politicians being motivated by different goals, not all of them motivated by greed. In America some politicians were totally controlled by corporate interest at the time and others had a totally different agenda. Maybe I just don't see US war policy in World War I as a businesslike decision. It's part of the lure of the Wilsonian messianic myth that I'll probably never rid myself of. British war policy represents to me a worse kind of cynicism - a totally different situation from World War II where I have much more respect for the British.

But indeed, it's not the politicians and corporate sharks of the 1910s that have given the most enduring legacy to posterity. The force of civilization and ethics and much of what is still guiding our thinking in the shadows of our minds was not born in the corridors of power in London or New York at the time. Your comment about niches is most enlightening. Your post was about youngsters carrying the torch of high liberalism being led to the slaughter, "not anxious to go". How did high liberalism survive that bloodletting and how did this tradition of thought cope with the new postwar reality?

stockholm slender said...

But did anything survive? Liberalism nowadays is a very subdued, timid affair. I understand that the Great War myth is nowadays downplayed: for the majority of the British nation, for example, the war meant rapidly increasing living standards. Capitalism was even then producing profits and wealth. What was proven to be irrelevant were the high ideals, the high optimism of liberalism. Henry James encapsulated much of that in his dark comments already at the beginning of the war. Quite a clairvoyante, I think. So, in many ways I believe it still was - and is - a true myth.