Guest Editor's Column: Reimagining the Great War at 100 Years
Close to a million poppies—888,246 to be exact, one for each British or colonial military fatality in the First World War—appeared gradually in the moat of the Tower of London between July and 11 November 2014, when they abruptly vanished. This vast art installation of ceramic flowers by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, “was intended to reflect the magnitude of such an important centenary and create a powerful visual commemoration” of the war’s outbreak (“About”).
Over five million visitors are estimated to have visited the exhibit, and although it was well received, it was not without critics who questioned what they deemed an aestheticization of horror (Brown). As thought-provoking as this moving artwork thus proved to be, perhaps the power of its visual spectacle masked another striking aspect of recent commemorations: since 2012, the absence of any living veterans of the war. Each poppy stood for a fallen serviceman, but surviving comrades were no longer present to remember the dead. In other words, the most potent war experiences—those of combat survivors—have passed entirely from a matter of recollection to that of representation. What does it mean for remembrance to take place without the most direct memories? What does it mean when witnesses can no longer help connect the living and the present to the past and the dead—when images have fully displaced survivors’ voices as the center of memory and commemoration, and when all interpretation is necessarily second-hand?
Moving us from the national and public to the personal and private, Kristina Reardon examines how women writers during and just after the war used botanical metaphors to oppose commemorations dwelling on violence and heroism. Reardon creatively uses the concept of the rhizome, from Deleuze and Guattari, to link women writers’ use of flower imagery across national boundaries, as she brings together the perspectives of nearly twenty female authors from all of the principal Allied and Central Powers. Reardon discusses how botanical imagery gave women authors language through which to express a range of responses—from grief through protest to excitement about battle—uniting them transnationally. Thus, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” gives only the best-known example of many more botanical images in Great War poetry. This essay shows how, even as greater attention has been paid to women writers in recent decades, the scholarly deficit has yet to be erased, and many more authors are still awaiting deserved readings in wider vistas of critical assessment.
In contrast with Reardon’s attention to the purely natural life forms of botany, the article by Robert Hemmings explores the integration of humans and machines. Hemmings juxtaposes Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as exemplars of a new biomechanical aesthetic that he describes through the idea of the “proto-cyborg,” a creation inaugurated by the first tanks (which were assigned gendered names). Rock Drill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover frame the war chronologically while encoding fantasies and anxieties about male reproductivity, he writes, in an analysis that reexamines wartime machine culture from the perspective of cybernetics, a field established relatively recently. Hemmings compares Chatterley’s emasculation and the postwar truncation of Epstein’s sculpture as demonstrating the hold of the proto-cyborg on the imagination.
The next essay takes us from the mechanically immanent to the intangibly numinous, as Katherine F. Montgomery reexamines Rebecca West’s novel The Return of the Soldier from the perspective of spiritualism and mysticism. While the novel has attracted critical analysis dwelling on its incorporation of psychoanalytical themes, Montgomery points out the extent to which West disavowed the importance of psychoanalysis to the novel. Montgomery offers a reading that also distances itself from recent critical consensus regarding the novel’s purported modernity. Instead, she argues, The Return of the Soldier instantiates the turn-of-the-century mystical revival that saw art and literature as enabling transcendent understanding of links between soul, body, and universe. The language of mysticism in the novel is thus not an aberration or a sign of narrative unevenness, but rather an essential marker of enlightened spiritual imagination.
The final article, Claire Buck’s study of E. M. Forster’s intimate relationship with Mohammed El Adl, returns us full circle to the idea of transnational perspectives, but in a way that also reveals a crucial intersection between personal and imperial ties. Forster’s writing about El Adl has been neglected by critics, just as the contributions of colonial peoples to the war effort have continued to be peripheral to Great War literary studies despite recent scholarship. Buck situates Forster’s elegy to El Adl (“Mohammed El Adl’s Book”) alongside his “Incidents of War Memoir” (an ethnographic study of working-class
British soldiers convalescing in hospitals), other writing from his time in Alexandria, and his short story “The Other Boat”—all of which share Forster’s attention to junctions of history, memory, class, and ethnic and racial identities and imaginations. As Buck indicates, a scholarly recuperation of El Adl’s life helps illuminate the colonial subject as key to expanding our understanding of the genres of war writing and the hidden connections in literary history.
Neither Forster nor El Adl were combat veterans. Consequently, as Buck writes, seeing El Adl as one of the millions involved in the Great War “requires a shift in our concept of war subjects and our approach to war writing.” Buck’s call exemplifies the value of new critical approaches as we aim to promote them in this special topics issue. As these articles show, reimagining the Great War through attention to similarly noncanonical subjects, or more frequently studied ones seen from new viewpoints, can help us venture imaginatively into the ever-broadening space of interpretation between such symbols as the Tower of London poppies and the individual lives they represent.
-- Mark D. Larabee, U. S. Naval Academy
Baldick, Chris. The Modern Movement. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
Yeats, W. B., ed. Introduction. The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892-1935. New York: Oxford UP, 1936. v-xlii. Print.