Regeneration – ”The Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.”

January 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

In Paul Nash's 'We Are Making A New World'. In Nash’s bitter vision the sun will continue to rise each and every day to expose the desecration and to repeat judgment on the perpetrators. This new world is unwanted, unlovable but inescapable. (From BBC- History)

If the ridiculous war mythology of Steven Spielberg latest idiocy, War Horse, has you wanting to sink your teeth into something that doesn’t spew forth from the decrepit minds of that minority of hardened reactionaries who apparently still think that there is still something heroic, nah even gloriously tragic about that industrial massacre that was the first world war, then Regeneration is the novel for you.

Pat Baker’s novel came out in 1991 and combines fact and fiction to tell the stories of several soldiers who have been pulled from the front during the first world war and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to be treated for various mental problems, such as shell shock, resulting from their war time experiences.

One of the main characters in the novel is the real life poet and hero soldier turned anti-war icon Siegfried Sassoon and Regeneration opens with his famous declaration, Finished with the War:

”I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

You can read the rest here.

After Sassoon issues this declaration he hopes to be court marshaled by the British military and so presumably take a public stand that can reveal the barbarism of the war. He is however convinced by his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves, by both moral pressure and fraud, to take up the military’s offer of being sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated for shell-shock.

The rest of the novel mainly takes place at the Hospital and concerns the treatment of the soldiers by the doctors as they try to come to grips with the horror of  war. In particular it deals with the conflict between the fact that Sassoon doesn’t suffer any actually mental illness and the constant attempts by the doctors to find someway of making out his anti-war positions as something spawned by shell shock.

One of the most terrifying but at the same time brilliant things that Pat Baker manages to do in Regeneration is to bring to life to horrifyingly surreal experiences of the soldiers.

First of all she does this through the back stories of the various soldiers, back stories that often play an important part in their particular mental problems. Burns is probably the best (or worst) example of this. When he was at the front a bomb landed near him and threw him into the air, he then landed, head first in the ruptured stomach of a rotting soldier. Now when Burns eats his mind instantly recalls the scene and he vomits up his food, throughout much of the novel Burns is wasting away inside the hospital.

The other way Baker brings us into the experiences of shell shocked soldiers is through the way in which everyday events and items take on some insidious connection with there traumatic war time experiences. For instance a ruined fence, some mud and rain transporting the veterans back to the Somme.

Pat Baker, however, doesn’t leave it at just describing the terrible conditions of soldiers ruined by the war, she uses this as a jumping pad to critique the war- and indirectly all wars- and a series of other interlocking issues in British society in particular.

Much of this critique is brought out through Sassoon and his arguments with the other characters in the novel, in particular debates with his Doctor, Rivers, and his fried Robert Graves.

It’s useful I think to give a bit of a lengthy quote from one of their debates to give you the flavor of it. This quote begins with Sassoon complaining to Robert Graves about his treatment at the hands of the hospital.

‘he tells me I’ve got a very powerful ”anti-war complex”. I don’t even know what it means.’

[Robert Graves says] ‘I’ll Tell you what it means. It means you’re obsessed. Do you know, you never talk about the future any more? Yes I know what you’re going to say. How can you? Sass, We say on a hill in France and we talked about the future. We made plans. The night before the Somme, we made plans. You couldn’t do that now. A Few shells, a few corpses, and you’ve lost heart.’

‘How many corpses?’

‘The point is..’

‘The point is 102,000 last month alone. You’re right I am obsessed. I never forget it for a second, and neither should you . Robert, if you had any real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce in the way you do.’

Sassoon is often unrelenting in his criticism of the war, willing to abuse and upset his closet friends in order to ram his point home.

Pat Baker’s critique of the war is also shown through her exploration of the war and mental illness.

Madness and the First World War are deeply intertwined in Baker’s novel. First of all in the literal sense that the soldiers experience mental illness because of the trauma of war. However the connection between the two is also on a deeper level. The doctors, in particular Rivers, as well as some of the patients like Billy Prior grapple with the connection between mental illness and the war. For instance Billy Prior makes the argument that it is far more insane to voluntary be apart of the barbarism in the trenches than to have a mental illness. Rivers can’t fix up the contradiction that they are simply helping the soldiers to get better so they can go back to killing and most likely return to their previous state. Rivers considers this in the following passage:

‘Obviously he and Yealland [another doctor] were both in the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had -however unconsciously- rejected. He’d found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work. Normally a cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behavior that is clearly self-destructive., But in the present circumstances recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal.’

Rivers here also recognizes his own role as a Doctor in helping the war machine to continue. This is despite the fact that he and Yealland (a Doctor who practices sadistic treatments on his patients) have opposite ways of helping soldiers, however, they have the same goal in the end, the regeneration of soldiers for war.

It would also be wrong not to mention something (not as much as I would like as I am running out of time) about Gender and Regeneration. In an interview Pat Baker said that “[Regeneration] is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don’t get into the official accounts”. This is particularly true of women in war fiction and nonfiction, Baker had a very different idea in mind as she said in the same interview, ‘In a lot of books about war by men the women are totally silenced. The men go off and fight and the women stay at home and cry; basically, this is the typical feature.’ Baker has also pointed out that the women in the munitions factories were expected to produce weapons to kill thousands, but a woman who attempts to abort her unborn child is criticized.

This is mainly done through the character of Sarah who works with a bunch of other women in a munitions factory and eventually forms a relationship with Billy Prior, a patient from the hospital. She is a tough, confident working class women character- something rare in fiction and this is important as most of the book is about men and conflicts between different men. Sarah and her friends are – unknowingly- being poisoned by their work, as the chemicals in the factory bleach their skin yellow. Baker then points out some of the contradictions of life for working class women during the war. Many of them were able to gain a level of independence and therefore confidence they never had before thanks to employment opening up due to the shortage of men. However this work was also grueling and exploitative.

This is not to say that the way that Baker deals with women’s oppression is perfect – its not, in particular the way the nurses are portrayed –  but detailing the lives of working class women in a sympathetic way that tries to grapple with the contradictions of their position in society is definitely a step better than most fiction.

There is also some talk about homosexuality and British society during the war. Sassoon implies that he is gay when talking to his Doctor Rivers and they briefly chat aboutEdward Carpenter the writer of The Intermediate Sex . Sassoon thinks that the conditions for gays are getting better but Rivers tells him otherwise:

‘I think they were. Before the War. Slightly, But it’s not very likely, is it, that any movement towards greater tolerance would persist in wartime. After all, in war you’ve got this enormous emphasis on love between men – comradeship – and everybody approves. But a the same time there’s always this little niggle of anxiety. Is it the right king of live? Well, one of the ways you make sure it’s the right kind is to make it crystal clear what the penalties for the other kind are.’

So, in short Pat Baker’s novel is great piece of anti-war fiction that should tide you over the current War Horse hysteria. I might give the final words to Wilfred Owen, another soldier and anti-war poet who also appears as a minor character in the novel.

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.*

*It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

PS. Sorry about the lateness of this post, it was a longer one than usual.

Similar Posts: Dracula and the Fears of Victorian England

Advertisements

Literature Under Capitalism in 2012

January 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is just a short post really, outlining a rough strategy for the year both for the blog and for fiction writing.

Blogging Projects:

I feel like Literature Under Capitalism needs some real structure here, I mean I update relatively regularly but at pretty random times and am often behind on the reading that I want to post up about. So here are some things that I’m going to do this year:

Guardian Reading Group Project: This is the monthly reading group that Sam Jordison does over on the Guardian website. He chose to do Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta in November because of the Occupy protests so he can’t be all that bad. Anyway my plan is to read every book and blog about every book to give the site a good spread of commentary on a variety of books that I’m sure will be pretty good.

On top of this I also want to try to read another non fiction book a month at least, if not more often. I will blog about these as well if it seems relevant.

I want to blog at least once a week with a set day being Friday for now on (when this post is going up), other stuff may go up at random times but there will always be something on Friday. (To stay up to date why not join my newly created facebook page?)

I think all of this will hopefully give the blog some more weighty material which I enjoy writing more anyway as well as some shorter stuff that often doesn’t need to be that long to get the point across. I also want to get more reviews and such on current fiction up there as well as genre stuff.

Now onto some of my fiction projects

First of all is ‘Deep Roots in Dark Places’  lovecraftian dark horror/fantasy set in the western Australian mining region and dealing with questions of class and race, mining and scary squid like cosmic monstrosities.I’ve started writing this but I really need to get cracking at least to see if its going anywhere if I’m wasting my time. There are a few places that might take such a story.

There is also a submission to the shared world Aether Age project that I have been working on as of late, only in the outline. This is something I want to start on soon.

Also a literary fiction novella that I’ve got a rough outline for, concerning the production of a movie about popular radicalism that gets out of control. (title ideas: directorship of capital? lol)

Another idea I have is a surrealist supernatural tale called The Great Southern Gulag Archipelago, dealing with a political issue that I’m sure is obvious at least for Australians.

Other Writing Projects

There are also a bunch of other misc things like a submission of article about capital, empire and non-western literature in Beyond Victoriana that I’ve been thinking about, coming out of some of the planing for the Aether Age thing. We will have to see with these ones.

Anyway these are just some things that will be coming out over the next few months that I thought I would but on paper (or screen) and thus force myself to actually do.

So I will see you next Friday for You’ll Have to Wait and See 😉

In the mean time  check out Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk and Steampunk will Be Afraid Of Politics for an interesting blog and article on a genre that is fast gaining interest with this newbie.

2011 – 2012: Revolution, Literature & Politics

January 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

2011 was in many respects a year of crisis, resistance and -after many barren years- revolution. It was the year of the Arab Spring, where political and economic factors combined to push the Arab masses into a revolutionary fervor that ended dictatorships that had lasted decades, in a matter of weeks.

It was a year in which the resistance in Europe to the ongoing economic crisis and its consequences for the mass of the poor and workers continued to battle away against the failures of capitalism and the exhausted ideologies of liberal democracy. Multiple general strikes in Greece, a mass strike in England, immense demonstrations in Spain. The illusion of an era of stability and prosperity is well and truly over, but that’s not all, now a fightback based upon the mass of working class people is making itself felt.

Even in the heart of the beast, in the United States, resistance to the economic and political order has smashed its way onto the streets with the Occupy Wallstreet movement.

It has been an inspiring year for anyone with a left-wing bone in their body and a terrible one for those who run this cruel, corrupt system.

However (and this may seem like a bit of a side question- and it is in the grand scheme of things) what effect has this year of social crisis, resistance and ongoing economic devastation made on the topic of this blog- i.e literature?

It’s an important question to consider because many of us who are on the left and are interested in literature argue that there is an important connection between society and culture, the world we live in and it’s contradictions and the literature that is produced by the people who live in it. Now obviously this isn’t some liner, one to one relation, it’s complex and mediated but that doesn’t get around the fact that there is an important and vital connection and that by understanding the world we live in and in particular the system we live under (Capitalism in case you didn’t know) we can come to a better understanding of literature because literature is, in a complex and mediated way, a reflection of the society which produces it.

Now this post isn’t going to hold many of the answers to this questions unfortunately, although there are I think some general things that can be said about the development of literature at the moment and it’s trajectory.

First of all the dead weight of the past still hangs over a lot of literature and for that matter discussion of it. Postmodernism,  individualism and bland social realism about fuck wit middle class nobodies dominates not only the shelves but also the awards.

Take Fanzen’s novel ‘Freedom’ released at the end of 2010 to widespread acclaim, Helen Scott, from the University of Vermont, captured the novel well in her review for socialistworker.org:

Freedom does capture something of the ennui, guilt, angst and paranoia of middle-class America in the 2000s, but it doesn’t move outside, or reach beyond, the limits of the insular world it dislikes.

Novel of the world, or of the century, it is not.”

One of the top sellers at the moment is Stephen King’s dull, meandering time fiction novel 11/22/63 (as of early January it’s the number 1 on the nytimes hardback bestsellers list) followed shortly by yet another Grisham novel.

When literary awards are not being given to selected exotic darlings of the Global South that the white middle class has decided to adore for the moment, it is given to the Frazens, Howard Jacobsons and Julian Barnes of the world.

There are however a whole series of bright sparks. Stieg Larsson’s novels that take on sexism, fascism and big business are still hot (undoubtedly helped at the moment by the impending US movie release) which is a good sign and All That I Am by Anna Funder is supposed to be an interesting novel set in revolutionary Germany between the wars. Writer of ‘The White Tiger’ Aravind Adiga, a kind of Indian Dicken’s, has released his second novel Last Man in the Tower and continues to deal with issues of industrialization, poverty and working life in India.

However these are bright sparks in an overwhelming night sky of varying shades of darkness.

Now this doesn’t mean things won’t change, an important thing to come back to is what I said before about the connection between society and literature being mediated. The full effects of the economic and social crisis and the emerging radicalization among young working people in particular can take some time to flow through into literature for a variety of reasons. There are for instance banal reasons like the fact that it takes time to write and then publish a novel so there is often a lag between writing and the society around it, in particular with the nature of literature being quite different to say newspaper or internet journalism. There are also other reasons like the social position of most writers, the nature of the publishing industry, the time it takes for political radicalization to consolidate into a general ongoing popular mood that it recognizable to the so-called gatekeepers of literature.

So perhaps we should cut a little bit of slack, well maybe a little but not too much. It is still undoubtedly the case that the massive contradictions in our society between rich and poor, different nation states, real democracy and our sham parliaments, war and peace, unemployment and bankers pay checks are now so utterly in the open that they should shake the walls of literature.

That’s exactly what writers should do: shake the walls of literature by turning a critical eye to the world we live in. Now, I don’t mean every writer should sit down now a start writing their own version of Capital but for fuck sake writers need to take the world as it stands as their starting point not some bullshit delusion that they have created for themselves.

And this is a world now, as much as ever, of economic depression and mass strikes, of revolution and government sponsored racism, of increased imperialist rivalries and an unbound Juggernaut called capitalism. It’s also a world full of decent people who want to and are starting to, do something about it.

Ted Genoways writing in Mother Jones sums it up for me (almost completely)

” young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.”

This isn’t going to come about magically or mechanically, writers will need to, on some level take up the challenge that this rupture in world politics presents for literature. Wither they will or not isn’t predetermined as Genoways pointed out about the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on fictional literature in the US.

”In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars.”

It’s time for those writers with a progressive bone in their body and a head out of the sand to step up to the plate. None of the problems of 2011 have been solved, the rupture in society caused by the world economic crisis has only continued to deepen and interact with connected grievances, especially around democracy, so 2012 looks like its set to keep on giving writers opportunities to deal with this ‘wrecked and lovely world’.

‘Wrecked’ by the rich and their system, kept ‘lovely’ by the struggle of the wretched and dispossessed.

On Friday: I take a look at what this all means for my own blog.


Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for January, 2012 at Literature Under Capitalism.