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Kunka, Review of Modernism, History and the First World War

Modern Fiction Studies 45, 2 (1999), 516-20

Andrew J. Kunka
Purdue University


Book Review:

Modernism, History and the First World War


Trudi Tate. Modernism, History and the First World War. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998. viii + 196 pp.

Trudi Tate recently has made a significant contribution to the study of World War I literature through editing the anthology Women, Men and the Great War and co-editing with Suzanne Raitt the essay collection Women's Fiction and the Great War. In the introduction to Women's Fiction and the Great War, Tate and Raitt raise issues about the direction in which literary criticism dealing with warfare should be heading: "It is easy to apply metaphors of crisis and warfare to every aspect of the Great War, including gender, but an approach which is sensitive only to drama and to violence actually misses much of what the war and its writings were about." Although Women's Fiction and the Great War focuses on issues of gender and warfare, Raitt and Tate criticize the oppositional logic that has dominated much of the past criticism of Great War literature.

Trudi Tate extends this criticism in Modernism, History and the First World War. In her introduction, she distances herself from the limitations of the problematically narrow focus of past critics: "[G]ender is only one aspect of subjectivity and of writing, and this book tries to develop a broader view. [. . . W]e should perhaps be concerned that gender has, paradoxically, become a rather depoliticized focus for reading our culture and its history. It does not seem helpful to treat gender as the final point of inquiry, as if it provided the answers to questions about the war." Though Tate does address issues of gender in this study, she clearly moves away from the tradition of examining opposition in war criticism by studying texts by male and female authors; English, French, German, and American authors; "pro- and anti-war writers; civilians, combatants, and a civilian who pretended to have been a combatant." These writers include HD, Ford Madox Ford, Rudyard Kipling, Henri Barbusse, Edmund Blunden, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Erich Maria Remarque, and Virginia Woolf, as well as the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein. Tate's approach involves a combination of new-historicist, trauma, and psychoanalytic theories to examine how these writers "bear witness to the trauma of the war and its consequences."

Tate divides the study into three sections: "Witness to War," "Corporeal Fantasies," and "War and Politics." "Witness to War" begins by examining how noncombatants in works by HD and in Rudyard Kipling's short story "Mary Postgate" not only witness the war, but also experience traumatic responses to it. This chapter combines readings of HD's and Kipling's texts with analyses of wartime psychological and political texts, such as articles from the medical journal The Lancet and the 1922 War Office report on shell shock. Through these texts, Tate argues for the validity of a civilian war neurosis--a kind of shell shock suffered by noncombatants on the home front who either had direct experience with the war (as does the title character of Kipling's story, who silently allows a wounded German pilot to die in her own back yard) or had traumatic responses to the news of the war. The works by HD examined here, Tate points out, "suggest a direct relationship between violent public events and the private lives of civilians during wartime; for HD, civilians, like soldiers, could suffer from crippling war neuroses." For example, in HD's story "Kora and Ka," John Helforth suffers from the symptoms of war neurosis--"hallucinations, a sense of dissociation, loss of certainty about his sexual identity," yet "his distress arises not from battle experience, but from the lack of it." The example of John Helforth in particular helps to discredit the notion that all men shared a single, unified reaction to the war experience, and HD's work in general destabilizes the idea that male and female experiences of the war were in opposition to one another. This extension of the study of war neurosis into civilian lives is of great use to the future study of Great War literature, partially collapsing the differences between civilian and combatant narratives.

The discussion of civilian war neuroses is followed by a chapter on propaganda and Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End: specifically, how a writer bears witness to the truth of war experience when the lies of propaganda dominate discourse on the war. This question plays itself out in Ford's tetralogy as Christopher Tietjens tries to escape, yet cannot resist, the gossip and innuendo surrounding his marriage to Sylvia and his relationship with Valentine Wannop. The connection derived here between gossip and propaganda adds to the historical relevance of Parade's End. As Tate puts it, "Often praised as one of the great critiques of the war, Parade's End is not simply or self-evidently an anti-war novel. It is powerful for the same reason it is disturbing, expressing anxiety at a pleasure of its own of which it is only partially aware." But, at only twelve pages, this section of Tate's study does not achieve its potential in relation to the length of Ford's novel sequence, and her reading of the novels as hovering on the brink of anxiety and pleasure is never fully developed.

The second section, "Corporeal Fantasies," opens by discussing the images of corpses and dismembered bodies in fiction written by veterans, such as Frederic Manning, Ernst Jünger, Edmund Blunden, Henri Barbusse, and Erich Maria Remarque, among others. Both the presence and the disappearance of corpses in combatant fiction has been examined recently by Allyson Booth in Postcards from the Trenches, and Booth and Tate come to similar conclusions: to quote Tate, the "spatial distinctions between the living body and the corpse are broken down." But, while Booth argues that this breakdown leads to a concurrent disintegration of the distinction between life and death, Tate examines how the breakdown creates a new relationship between the living body and the earth, one in which the earth is both protecting mother and threatening source of death and danger.

Tate moves from the dead soldier to the wounded soldier, looking at images of these soldiers in works by D. H. Lawrence and William Faulkner. The comparison between these two authors is interesting and fairly straightforward: while the blind soldier in Lawrence's "The Blind Man" exhibits no signs of mental trauma as a result of his wound, the similarly wounded soldier in Faulkner's Soldiers' Pay "is so traumatized by the war that he ceases to be subject altogether and can do nothing except die."

It is in this chapter, though, that Tate makes her clearest and most effective challenge to the limitations of gender criticism. Tate specifically problematizes Freud's 1920s writing on women as castrated and scarred by historicizing that writing in the context of the Great War--a war that created more than enough examples of the castrated and scarred male body. This raises a serious question for the study of Freud's writing in relation to the historical period in which it was written: "Is the very notion of woman as castrated a fetishistic response to the sight of damaged men--a response which simultaneously acknowledges the fact of war injury and displaces the image on to women?" Tate goes on to conclude, "The distressing presence of war-injured men surely challenges the idea of woman's body as the basis of all significant difference." This is by far the most thought-provoking section of the book, necessarily leading to further analysis of Freud's writing.

The book concludes with a section on war and politics, containing chapters on the effect of the tank on the cultural imagination and on the role of the Armenian genocide of the 1920s in Mrs. Dalloway. At one point in the novel, Clarissa confuses "Albanians" and "Armenians" during a brief discussion with her husband Richard of his daily activities. Tate reads Virginia Woolf's novel as a satire through Clarissa's ignorance of the Armenian Question that Richard Dalloway, MP (as well as most of the country, as Tate points out), was concerned with during the summer of 1923. From the 1890s through the Great War, Armenians living in Turkey were displaced and killed in what is considered "the twentieth century's first act of genocide." In June of 1923, Richard Dalloway, as a member of Parliament, would have been involved in the negotiations leading up to the Lausanne Treaty of July 1923, a treaty that divided Armenians between the Soviet Union and Turkey and denied them the possibility of a homeland. Clarissa's refusal to think about this genocide, combined with Woolf's representation of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin as a ridiculous nonentity at Mrs. Dalloway's party and the failure of anyone to save Septimus Smith, demonstrates Woolf's criticism of England's irresponsible reaction to the war's outcome. This original and highly insightful reading sheds new light on a novel about which much has already been written.

Overall, Modernism, History and the First World War is a significant new work in the study of Great War literature. Tate's original, historical analyses and her expansive approach make this an important book for anyone interested in the study of modernism and World War I.
Copyright (c) Andrew Kunka (1999)