Shephard and Motion


In 2002, Ben Shephard wrote A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists 1914 -1994. This is a work of serious history, examining a wide range of sources and attempting to get beyond conventional ideas about war neuroses. He looks at these in their historical context, in a way that illuminates the behaviour both of soldiers and of doctors. He writes in his introduction:

The clinical literature of the war neuroses is so rich that it is easy for the historian to pull together a collage of horror and pathos. But to understand why, in the past, ordinary people were able to come through the horrors of war, we have to look at the overall record, not just at the gripping psychopathology. To get at the truth, case histories must be reconciled with another, less enticing body of writing: official histories, war diaries, regimental histories, Pentagon memoranda – dull, managerial, impersonal in tone and full of military euphemism, the ‘tough school’. (xxi)

It is therefore unsurprising that he was annoyed when Sir Andrew Motion filleted his book for quotations to make up exactly the kind of ‘collage of horror and pathos’ that he thought inadequate to the subject. It appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, and although it was advertised as an original work, it was actually a poem of eight sections, five of which were almost exact transcriptions of quotations from Shephard’s book, while the others were taken from Siegfried Sassoon.
Ben Shephard has raised the question of copyright. This is not the most important issue in this case, I’d say, but certainly pertinent when a poem of Sir Andrew’s posted on a website comes with the stern injunction:

To reproduce part or whole of the poem, permissions must be cleared through Carol Macarthur at United Agents, 020 3214 0880;

Double standards  seem to be at work here.
More important are the literary ethics of the case. Sir Andrew has come out fighting. “He has got the wrong end of the stick.” he says haughtily. “To blow off about it like he has done completely misunderstands what found poetry is.” He cites as a precedent Shakespeare adapting North’s translation of Plutarch in Antony and Cleopatra. Quite apart from the fact that Shakespeare was writing a long while before our current standards of literary property were developed, the cases seem to me to be very different indeed, and it is maybe instructive to compare two very different types of adaptation. Here’s what Shakespeare did with Plutarch:

North’s Translation of Plutarch
Therefore, when she was sent unto by divers letters, both from Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made so light of it, and mocked Antonius so much, that she disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus; the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of her self, she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus, commonly drawn in picture: and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god  Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.
Antony and Cleopatra

I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion – cloth-of-gold of tissue -
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

When I was a schoolteacher, I once gave these two passages to a sixth-form class to look at, to discover what Shakespeare did with his source material, and they didn’t find it hard to realise that he added richer sense impressions (the perfume), the personification of the water as ‘amorous’, the magical paradox of ‘what they undid did’, and so on. Then there’s the skilful use of a free iambic pentameter, with phrasing constantly made various by enjambment. Also, because he was a dramatist, he added to the effect by putting the words in the mouth of not-easily-impressed Enobarbus, and at a time when Antony had just promised to marry chaste Octavia, so that the speech is charged with dramatic irony. And so on. In other words, Shakespeare took a very good piece of writing by Plutarch, and changed it into a string of words that will be read with wonder and delight for as long as the English language exists.
Now let us look at what Sir Andrew did with a paragraph quoted from A War of Nerves, attributed by Shephard to Tom Salmon, an American army psychiatrist in the Great War who had, in Shephard’s words, ‘an eye alive to incongruity’:

A War of Nerves
War from behind the lines is a dizzying jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports, blueprints one day and the next – with the help of a broken-down Ford and a few gallons of gasoline – marching men with grimy faces and shining eyes, horses straining and plunging at guns, little white clouds drifting under the big ones, and piles of bloody clothes and leggings outside the door of a field hospital. Everything which is dull and stupid and everything which yanks at your heartstrings, all mixed up together so that at the end of the week you can’t quite remember whether you spent Tuesday going over the specifications for a possible laundry or skirting the edges of hell in an automobile.
Sir Andrew’s poem
War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble.
Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust
reports, blueprints one day and the next –
with the help of a broken-down motor car
and a few gallons of petrol – marching men
with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes,
horses straining and plunging at the guns,
little clay-pits opening beneath each step,
and piles of bloody clothes and leggings
outside the canvas door of a field hospital.
At the end of the week there is no telling
whether you spent Tuesday going over
the specifications for a possible laundry
or skirting the edges of hell in an automobile.

It seems to me that Sir Andrew here has done the opposite of what Shakespeare achieved. The words are taken away from from a specific speaker, and put into a generalised collection of bits of war writing , where one speaker seems much the same as the next. Salmon even loses his nationality when his Ford becomes just a car and gasoline becomes petrol. He even loses his ability to look up in wonder, and his sense of the sheer variousness of things – those clouds, large and small, that are such a contrast with the bloody clothes below. Instead of the pretty clouds there are dangerous clay-pits; the tone is evened out to uniform grimness. Salmon sees war as various: “Everything which is dull and stupid and everything which yanks at your heartstrings”, but Sir Andrew won’t have this. It all has to fit one grim tone. The alert ‘eye alive to incongruity’ gets switched off, so that the paragraph will fit into a prosy sermon for Remembrancetide.
Prosy – that’s the real problem. Sir Andrew has chopped up the paragraph into lines that each have four main beats, but those lines just lumber along. Somewhere I read as justification of Sir Andrew’s use of this material that he had put in line breaks, and that these were original. The trouble is, they’re not very good. What on earth is the point of the break after ‘over’?
I know I shouldn’t blame poor old Sir Andrew for not being Shakespeare (though it was he who suggested the comparison). But there is a basic aesthetic principle, I’d say, that if you use ready-made material in a literary work (and many writers do, one way or another) then the transformation into a poem, play or story should in some way or other enhance the material. Shakespeare obviously passes the test. Sir Andrew actually manages to make the original material less interesting. He wants to reduce all war experience to passive suffering. One of the great merits of Shephard’s book is that he refuses to do this:

Finally we must see the shell-shocked soldier not simply as a victim, silently suffering, powerless to help himself, but as an agent, using his medical symptoms as a weapon of resistance to military authority.(xxi)

Shephard, therefore, is alert to the individuality of the shell-shocked soldier; Sir Andrew is not. No wonder Shephard was annoyed to see his work used in this way.

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One Comment

  1. kirosl
    Posted November 16, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Really interesting post, thanks!

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