A Commentary-Fall 2022

D. W. White

Today marks Armistice Day, 104 years since the cessation of fighting on the Western Front. The First World War, among the most cataclysmic and shocking events in human history, left profound scars on the society it left behind. The Modernist movement—in literature and beyond—and the works it produced represent an emergence of this convulsion into a radically different method of artistic expression and investigation. The scope and breadth of the disaster can be seen in the sheer revolutionary scale of Modernist art; one does not need a history degree to appreciate in some way the impact of the First World War; one needs simply to read Charles Dickens followed by Virginia Woolf.

Woolf was perhaps the writer most impacted by the war; surely it is her work that, at least among the novelists, comments the most directly upon it. The striking of Big Ben that rhythmically punctuates Mrs. Dalloway recalls to mind the apocalyptic artillery barrages of The Somme and Ypres; the ghostly interlude of To The Lighthouse is a silent reflection on the price demanded by war; the narrative vacuum that forms the core of Jacob’s Room is an elegiac lament to the dead; an aspirational portrait of the sunlit English uplands is one of Woolf’s most arresting moments towards the end of The Years. Then, of course, there is Septimus Smith, the most tragic of Woolf’s characters, who embodies the terrible burden of survival.

Due more perhaps to their vastly different temperaments than anything, the artistic response of James Joyce (born, in one of the cosmos’ more amusing divertissements, a week and a day after Woolf) to the war is one markedly different, but present nonetheless. The sheer hyper-mania of Ulysses, a book which, among one or two other accomplishments, makes brilliant use of juxtaposition and mock heroism in ridiculing the serious and immortalizing the rote, reflects the absurdity of war and the fanaticism with which it was waged. Its polyglot polysemy offers an especially sharp challenge to the rise of nationalism and the wave of jingoism that helped to herd the European powers to the edge of the abyss.

And on it goes. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, sharing with Clarissa Dalloway and Leopold Bloom its centenary this year, is the locus classicus within a rich library of poetic responses to and engagements with the Great War and its aftermath. The vehement, nearly violent nature of the revolutionary departure from Victorian-Edwardian literature that defines Modernism, the urgency with which it seeks to capture the inner life, those falling atoms of mind and memory, illustrates with lasting clarity the severity of the wound. It is this weight, this depth of feeling running through Modernist literature, which gives the work its solemnity. The technique, the shock of the language and style, is, in the best of Woolf, Joyce, and Eliot, doubtless a sublime artistic achievement, but it is the genesis of the movement itself that has so long endured.

A year ago, I toured the memorials and battlefields of Verdun, in eastern France, the site of one of the war’s most decisive and costly engagements. There is a specter that lingers over the rolling fields and picturesque French countryside, a Shakespearean haunting that, like the ghost of Banquo, is nearly tangible to those in whom resides the unspeakable truth. But speak it we must. Three-quarters of a million soldiers were casualties at Verdun; 40 million is the number given as an estimate for the war entire. It is the memory that remains, on the fields and in the museums, yes, but also in paintings and poetry, in philosophy and in literature—in the way the world attempted to move on, to repair through art that which had been torn asunder by man, to wrest from the darkness a new source of light.

D. W. White, 11 November 2022

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