The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Mourning and Mysticism in First World War Literature and Beyond: Grappling with Ghosts

Mourning and Mysticism in First World War Literature and Beyond: Grappling with Ghosts. By George M. Johnson. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. xiv + 256 pp. $90.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Marlene Briggs, University of British Columbia


In his ambitious monograph, George M. Johnson situates Rudyard Kipling’s reaction to his son’s death in the wider context of a “horrifically scarred and wounded” culture (229). John Kipling (1897–1915) enlisted at age seventeen, became an infantry officer, and went missing in action in France. Kipling’s emotional ordeal is a well-known instance of protracted bereavement following the First World War. In addition to Kipling, Johnson examines a fascinating array of British writers from the late Victorian, Edwardian, and Modern periods, including F. W. H. Myers, Oliver Lodge, Arthur Conan Doyle, J. M. Barrie, May Sinclair, Virginia Woolf, Wilfred Owen, and Aldous Huxley. This evocative book on loss and repair begins with the birth of Myers (1843) and ends with the death of Huxley (1963), spanning the Crimean War to the Cold War. In an interdisciplinary analysis indebted to literature, psychology, and religion, Johnson adopts an unconventional outlook on conflict. He dwells on the home front rather than the combat zone, underscoring neglected continuities between peace and war. Theories of object relations and models of attachment enable Johnson to highlight the unresolved grief that may precede and complicate historical injuries.  This “collective biography” is based on a composite portrait of gifted individuals who each engage in “a mystical response to mourning” (4, 7). However, Johnson invokes multiple terms and texts without, at times, delimiting central concepts and contexts. He thus pursues an expedient approach to complex social problems that impedes his worthwhile effort to shed new light on group dynamics in the period.

Johnson argues that mysticism, a popular response to mass death after 1914, had the potential to be both therapeutically viable and “socially disruptive” (7).  He claims that men and women preoccupied with childhood attachments often cultivated reparative strategies involving parapsychology to renegotiate broken bonds in war-torn Britain.  Johnson links his chosen authors, or “wounded healers,” through their aesthetic, psychological, or scientific interests in the supernatural (7, 229). Key texts include Lodge’s Raymond, or Life and Death (1916), Doyle’s The Land of Mist (1925), Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and Huxley’s Time Must Have a Stop (1944). With its gripping biographies and unsettling statistics, the volume strives to synthesize the dysfunctional patterns of the private house and the disordered dynamics of the public sphere, which contributed to prolonged mourning. In line with his “sympathetic” orientation to spiritualist practices of communication between the living and the dead, Johnson favors a harmonizing view of psychic and social divisions, although he acknowledges the limits of repair in some cases (3). Yet, if Kipling’s obsession with his missing son and his exploration of uncanny phenomena contributed, in part, to the creation of “a new psychoclass of group fantasies” that bolstered bereft readers, such fantasies also raised disturbing ethical and political questions about the intergenerational and imperial reproduction of violence that Johnson ignores (152). He upholds spiritualism as an oppositional mode of dealing with loss; however, memorial practices, whether civic or mystic, may reinforce as well as subvert dominant norms. The consolations of the séance are not necessarily consonant with the ethical practices of “resistant mourning” that Clifton R. Spargo delineates (13). When Johnson conflates psychological healing with social critique, he oversimplifies postwar mourning processes.

Johnson conceives of mysticism in general terms as “at-onement with God”; the Christian writer Evelyn Underhill defines it as a universal tendency towards “complete harmony with the transcendental order” (4, 5). Myers’s posthumous publication, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), is a touchstone in this study; he posits the existence of a “subliminal self” that may facilitate ecstatic transports and telepathic exchanges (49). Myers led the Society for Psychical Research, a key organization founded in 1882; other affiliates included Lodge, Doyle, Sinclair, and Huxley. Johnson rightly signals the contested nature of “enlightenment” in each era although he undercuts this appeal to context by defending the transhistorical validity of psychic claims (3, 15-16). In fact, he reports that Myers, Lodge, and Doyle continue to contact the living through spirit mediums (121). Jenny Hazelgrove and Jay Winter, other scholars who address mysticism in interwar Britain, maintain that the Second World War marks the decline of spiritualism; however, Johnson eschews historical perspectives on the topic. He merely concedes that writers espoused “varying degrees of commitment” to mystical beliefs and that such commitments had “mixed consequences” (232).  Yet the book confirms that Victorians gravitated towards scientific research into postmortem survival, while modernist writers tended to exhibit aesthetic interests in the supernatural. In keeping with his focus on creative individuals, the author disregards cultural and social developments that might account for waning investments in mediumship and its comforting visions of the afterlife (cf. Hazelgrove 272–73).

Mourning and Mysticism treats literature as a mode of therapeutic expression, an avenue of psychological and spiritual transformation. D. W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who pioneered work on transitional objects that mediate separation from the mother, inspires Johnson’s notions of art. Patricia Crittenden’s category of “avoidant-resistant” attachment builds on John Bowlby’s influential research. She describes an insecure pattern of childhood attachment typified by ambivalence and inhibition in environments necessitating frequent behavioral adaptation (10). Johnson classifies all of his chosen writers under this rubric. Photographs furnish evidence for such conjecture, revealing Doyle’s deep distrust, Kipling’s defiant glare, and Woolf’s stricken gaze. Johnson accentuates their serial efforts to manage relational anxieties through creative writing that often features fantastic and supernatural elements. In this respect, Barrie, who served as a “replacement child” for his dead brother, remained mired in early patterns (129). Throughout, Johnson offers critical slants on received biographies, yielding uneven results as he ponders “psychic subtexts” in literature (183). For example, he develops an intriguing discussion of Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes in terms of his avoidant-resistant behaviors and mystical impulses; on the other hand, his inquiries into Owen’s spectral tropes and veiled representations of homosexuality omit contexts crucial to comprehension of the war poems. Johnson generates insights into attachment models that motivate reparative strategies although he overlooks other facets of interpretation.

Johnson illustrates avoidant-resistant patterns in dramatic vignettes. While he mobilizes the affective investments of readers, he also discloses his identifications with his subjects. In the first chapter, Myers, a boy of eight, confronts the death of his father and counsels his distraught mother. In the final chapter, Huxley, an adolescent of sixteen, suffers the effects of a serious eye infection possibly exacerbated by paternal carelessness. Subsequently, they each mourned the loss of a loved one to suicide. In another vignette, Johnson imagines the meeting of Sinclair and Woolf (1909). They both negotiated conflicted relationships and serial bereavements; neither woman had children. The monograph catalogues many impaired caregivers who contended with addiction, depression, or illness. Myers, Doyle, and Owen had “enmeshed” relationships with their mothers which were punctuated by idealization and resentment (33). Moreover, bullies tormented Lodge, Doyle, Kipling, and Huxley in boarding schools. In turn, some writers subjected their offspring to abuse, manipulation, or neglect, perpetuating destructive intergenerational cycles. These attachment scripts generally constrain prospects for social change, although exceptional individuals may disrupt formative patterns through creative initiatives. In Johnson’s account, the harrowing psychodramas of childhood arguably eclipse the historical devastations of the First World War.

This engrossing monograph may stimulate further research on interpersonal bonds and extreme events. Sir Thomas Brock’s sketch, “Aid for the Fallen” (1914), which depicts an injured man and his distressed comrade, encapsulates its intimate focus. In a distinct but related study, The Secret Battle, Michael Roper contemplates mother-son attachments in order to fathom the emotional states of trench combatants (24–27). Yet Johnson prioritizes civilian perspectives on loss, underestimating the psychosocial conflicts engendered by industrial warfare for both soldiers and veterans (cf. Winter 64–71). While childhood patterns and historical crises may interrelate and overlap, they also involve disparate contexts, participants, and ramifications. More rigorous engagement with trauma might illuminate the fundamental issues of perpetration, victimization, and violence that exceed familial paradigms. Aggression, compulsion, and guilt, obstacles to mourning processes, also warrant more attention as do intergenerational antipathies such as those Owen articulates in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” (151). Given the public promotion of state interests by Kipling and others, convergences and divergences between personal observances and official commemorations merit careful consideration (cf. Edkins 57–59). Johnson raises challenging psychological and spiritual questions about ghosts although he might grapple more closely with the ethical and political implications of haunting. In short, Mourning and Mysticism provides an idiosyncratic but suggestive investigation of the composite cultures of mourning that preceded and followed the First World War.                    

Works Cited and Consulted

Edkins, Jenny. Trauma and the Memory of Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hazelgrove, Jenny. Spiritualism and British Society between the Wars, Manchester University Press, 2000.

Owen, Wilfred. “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy, Norton, 1986, p. 151.

Roper, Michael. The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, Manchester University Press, 2009.

Spargo, Clifton R. The Ethics of Mourning: Grief and Responsibility in Elegiac Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Winter, Jay. Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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