Dan Todman of Trench Fever calls her article in last week’s Guardian “Evidence that Mary Warnock is a philosopher, rather than a historian.”
Well said – except that for philosophers there is no word more important than “truth”. Yet Warnock writes:
We read truthful accounts, like Goodbye to All That, that opened our eyes to what it had actually been like.
Robert Graves truthful? He was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good anecdote, and in his dealings with military authorities and Sassoon at the time of the latter’s protest, he seems to have lied freely to all concerned, and then lied about it again in his memoirs.
At the moment I’m trying to get my head around the commonplace idea (which I think Warnock is repeating rather uncritically) that the texts of ten years later somehow “told the truth about the war” in ways that earlier ones did not.
Plenty of earlier ones had described horror, suffering and loss; plenty (like MacGill or Dorgeles) had given vivid accounts of the physicality of war. Criticisms of the Generals had been made by, among others, Philip Gibbs in Realities of War. What did the later books (Graves, Remarque, etc.) add? I’m coming to the conclusion that they didn’t so much add something as take something away.
Earlier books, I would argue, had been written out of the tension between two propositions which almost all British writers believed to be true (cognitive dissonance is often the mainspring of art). These were
a) That the war was just, and moral, and the best of causes
b) That the war caused appalling suffering.
Writers both of fiction and of poetry between 1914 to 1928 were trying to find ways of reconciling these two propositions – which they did positively through the deployment of such ideas as “noble sacrifice”, or negatively through irony.
After about 1928 the first of the two propositions is no longer subscribed to by many writers. Their texts therefore explore the horror of war alone, tending now to present soldiers much more as helpless victims, rather than as rational agents trying to make their way through difficulties. With no moral reason to have enlisted, they seem merely the unfortunate dupes of propagandists and politicians.
Meanwhile we find critics of the late twenties with one criterion left, judging texts by how dreadful they make the horrors, because that, it is assumed, is what war books are all about. Thus the New Statesman’s review of the English translation of All Quiet:
If we seek in literature the quintessence of the soldier’s life in that dismal episode in history, it is better, perhaps, to look for it on the German side, rather than on the British, for on that side everything was a little more so – militarism was a little more militarist; parade ground imbecilities were a little more imbecile; the squalor of the trenches (in the last year or two) was more squalid; there was less relief, less leave, more hunger, more weakness, more disease. And the typical victim of the war should be, like Herr Remarque, one who was always in the ranks.
In other words, the nastier the better.
This nastiness is a truth about the war. But the whole truth? And nothing but the truth?