The Great War and Modern Memory

Paul Fussell

The Great War and Modern Memory

Paul Fussell

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The Great War and Modern Memory is a 1975 book by American historian and war veteran Paul Fussell that features literary criticism focused on the macro shifts in tone and attitude that literature experienced during and after World War I. The book argues persuasively that World War I—or “The Great War,” as it’s commonly referred to—marked a dramatic transition in the world's cultural trends from the Romanticism of the previous century to something far more pessimistic and realistic. In the year it was published, The Great War and Modern Memory won the National Book Award in the category of Arts and Letters.

In the first chapter, titled “A Satire of Circumstance,” Fussell notes how the idea of irony comes to the forefront of Western psychology and culture as the war rages on, broadly defining this notion of irony as a reversal of people’s expectations. The war, Fussell writes, represents an ultimate form of irony for many observers because of how completely thrown off guard people are by this unimaginable—and unimaginably deadly—turn of global events. The author quotes the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy here extensively, calling Hardy the master of irony up to this point in history. Early in the chapter, Fussell characterizes the situation like this:

“Casualties had been shocking, positions had settled into self-destructive stalemate, and sensitive people now perceived that the war, far from promising to be 'over by Christmas,' was going to extend itself to hitherto unimagined reaches of suffering and irony."

This collision of “suffering and irony,” Fussell writes, would come to serve as the seed from which the West’s post-war literary consciousness would arise.

The next chapter, “The Troglodyte World,” focuses on the “trenches” into which each army digs into, examining the term both literally and figuratively. For Fussell, the trenches represent great suffering as the author discusses the extraordinary amount of death and pain that transpires within these hellish, manmade scars on the Earth. But they also represent a larger metaphor for an attitude reaching widespread adoption among Fussell’s “sensitive people,” the term the author uses in the previous chapter to describe the vanguard of modern thinkers at the time. There is a prevalent feeling of being stuck, unable to move forward from one’s current position, displayed in the literature of the war and the decades that would follow it. This marks a dramatic turn from the forward-thinking imagery of nineteenth-century Romanticism and its wide-eyed seeking of the sublime in nature and humanity. For the writers of the Great War, however, not only is there no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but no rainbow even to lead the way out of the bloody, “entrenched” mire.

Despite the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that would mark much of the writing of the twentieth-century Modern Era, Fussell notes in Chapter Three (“Adversary Proceedings”) that the war created at least one tendency toward concrete thinking, an unfortunate one he refers to as “gross dichotomizing.” Fussell characterizes this as an “Us Vs Them” mentality, and this fracturing of perspectives is an early indication of the massive, almost-atomized fragmentation of perspectives that will occur in the post-modern era of literature.

The “Us Vs Them” mentality is only one way that World War I represents a turn back toward medieval modes of thought. In Chapter Four, titled “Myth, Ritual, and Romance,” Fussell states that the proliferation of “secrets, conversions, metamorphoses, and rebirths” that accompanies The Great War facilitates a return to the myth-making that dominated pre-Enlightenment ways of thinking. In a passage that illuminates the contradictions inherent in the return to these Medieval, backwardly-religious ideas, Fussell writes, “That such a myth-ridden world could take shape in the midst of a war representing a triumph of modern industrialism, materialism, and mechanism is an anomaly worth considering.”

Having established a road map for understanding the cultural trends of the moment, Fussell for the first time begins to discuss in detail the literature of the World War I era in Chapter Five, which is titled, “Oh What a Literary War.” Fussell makes the persuasive argument that literature is the most important prism through which to view the cultural and psychological changes of the early twentieth century, citing two main reasons: One, is the strong belief at the time that classical and English literature are the cornerstones of modern education; and two, is the reality that literature is the primary form of entertainment, as opposed to the cinema and television that would take precedence in later decades.

In the next chapter, “Theater of War,” Fussell recognizes that despite the prevalence of literature as the people’s primary form of entertainment, the theater is also an artistic and cultural force worth discussing. The relationship between theater and the war, however, is characterized by Fussell as being more metaphorical than the influences of literature of this era. The author likens soldiers to actors, conscripted to play a certain part and under the control of unseen “writers” and “directors” whose distant stage directions push them forward, often to their doom. In this way, the military is a disturbingly morbid version of theater, as playing your part perfectly can lead to one’s demise just as effectively as failing to play it.

Next up is “Arcadian Resources,” which considers the ways in which nature—a key element and source of the sublime in Romantic literature—takes on a much different form in the literature of World War I. While the Romantics and especially the Transcendentalists marveled at the power of nature and characterized it as something beautiful, nature is a particularly harsh component of wartime life. For soldiers, nature can mean frying under the hot sun while stuck in the trenches or it can mean freezing to death. For this reason, Fussell calls war “antipastoral.”

The next chapter, “Soldier Boys,” concerns sexuality and how sex­—at least in a heterosexual sense—is rendered entirely metaphorical for soldiers, stuck as they are in a “womanless world.” The final chapter, “Persistence and Memory,” considers the ways in which the war deprives storytellers of “the hero’s power of action,” which up to this point in history is a crucial literary element.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Fussell not only captures the horrors and absurdities of war; he also makes a compelling case for how those pressures gave birth to the modern literature and macro psychological trends that would come to define the twentieth century.
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