Sherry, Stein and Strachey

Vincent Sherry, in his annoying book The Great War and the Language of Modernism, characterises the War as a Liberal one (and he doesn’t like Liberals). He sees Britain’s engagement as motivated by self-interest, and then justified by a liberal rhetoric, a discourse of apparent “lucidity and rationality”, a “language of logical optimism”. This language is being used for false ends, and becomes automatically hypocritical.

It’s an arguable case, though I am far less inclined than Sherry to see duplicity in Britain’s entry to the War. Yes, there were secret agreements, but the invasion of Belgium would have made it impossible for Britain to keep out of the conflict whether those agreements existed or not.

He is right, of course, to see a great deal of double-think in much of the material produced to justify Britain’s engagement. War-heated imaginations produced exagerrations, and an unwillingness to consider subtleties or counter-arguments. But where I differ from Sherry is in his insistence that the main (and he comes close to suggesting the only) resistance to the overbearing official discourse came from the Friends of Ezra, the small group of modernists who were playing with experimental modes of writing at this time.

Siegfried Sassoon gets one entry in the index, linked to a quotation from Paul Fussell that labels him second-rate (and so not to be bothered with). Rose Macaulay gets one footnote in which she is lumped in with other writers who give a “conventional representation of family experience in the Great War.” (Really?) Lytton Strachey gets passing mentions as one of the “intellectual gentry of English Liberalism.”

It’s Strachey I’ve been thinking about recently, re-reading his life of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians (1918). If Sherry wanted an exposure of how disinterested public rhetoric could mask the demands of a ferocious private will, he only had to look at this brilliant piece. Similarly, if he wanted examples of a wartime writer casting doubt on the apparent disinterestedness of the War Office, he had to look no further than Strachey’s description of Lord Panmure:

But no; duty was paramount; and he set himself, with a sigh of resignation, to the task of doing as little of it as he possibly could.

In that sentence we have a brilliant demolition of public rhetoric by the application of a lethal style – exactly what Sherry claims for his pet modernists. But of course, it does not fit his thesis. Strachey attacks conventional rhetoric not with willed obscurity, but by being more lucid and rational than those he criticises.

Strachey’s book immediately reached an audience, and had a strong efect on the intellectual temper of the following decade. I for one would certainly rank his critique of conventional rhetorics as far more effective than that of this piece of Gertude Stein’s which Sherry admires:

Clouds do not fatten with teaching.
They do not fatten at all.
We wonder if it is influence
By the way I guess.
She said. I like it better in Eggland.
What do you mean.
We never asked how many children over eleven.
You cannot imagine what I think about the country.
Any civilians killed.

Sherry seems to think that calling England Eggland is a particularly comic parody of rationality. Hmmm.

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