Combat Gnosticism Essay Research Paper Combat Gnosticism

Combat Gnosticism Essay, Research Paper Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism The war hastened everything–in politics, in economics, in behavior–but it started nothing. George Dangerfield 1 In The Romantic Ideology, Jerome McGann famously proclaimed that the criticism of literaryRomanticism (that of M.

Combat Gnosticism Essay, Research Paper

Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism The war hastened everything–in politics, in economics, in behavior–but it started nothing. George Dangerfield 1 In The Romantic Ideology, Jerome McGann famously proclaimed that the criticism of literaryRomanticism (that of M. H. Abrams in particular) was more concerned with promulgating theworldview of its topic than subjecting it to rigorous critique. For McGann, mainstream Romanticcriticism was not criticism at all, but the application of literary/aesthetic criteria to a period ofliterary history that that period had itself generated: “the scholarship and criticism of Romanticismand its works are dominated by a Romantic Ideology, by an uncritical absorption inRomanticism’s own self-representations.” 2 I want to borrow McGann’s terms, if not his entiremethodology, to make some similar inquiries into the criticism of First World War poetry. I see acomparable genealogy operating within this critical discourse: the mainstream criticism of FirstWorld War poetry, most conspicuously Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory,has formed itself around a certain set of aesthetic and ethical principles that it garners from its ownsubject. 3 In other words, the scholarship in question does not so much criticize the poetry whichforms its subject as replicate the poetry’s ideology. I see this ideology primarily in two forms: anaesthetic criterion of realism and an ethical criterion of a humanism of passivity. Furthermore,these criteria are combined by both the poets and their critics to create an ideology of what I term”combat gnosticism,” the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of experiencethat is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identicalexperience. Such an ideology has served both to limit severely the canon of texts that mainstreamFirst World War criticism has seen as legitimate war writing and has simultaneously promoted warliterature’s status as a discrete body of work with almost no relation to non-war writing. The critical tradition that I identify as mainstream and dominant is [End Page 203] one thatequates the term “war” with the term “combat.” As a result, what it legitimates as war literature isproduced exclusively by combat experience; the knowledge of combat is a prerequisite for theproduction of a literary text that adequately deals with war. This is what I mean by combatgnosticism: a construction that gives us war experience as a kind of gnosis, a secret knowledgewhich only an initiated elite knows. Only men (there is, of course, a tacit gender exclusionoperating here) who have actively engaged in combat have access to certain experiences that areproductive of, perhaps even constitutive of, an arcane knowledge. Furthermore, mere militarystatus does not signify initiation, but only status as a combatant. It is not the label of “soldier” thatis privileged so much as the label of “warrior.” The results of such a construction are fairly obvious: the canonization of male war writers who notonly have combat experience but represent such experience in their texts. Siegfried Sassoon,Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves become the exemplary figures of the genre. The attitudetoward war of any particular writer is less an issue than his first-hand experience; Sassoon’s use ofhis war experience to promote a sort of pacifism and his friend Graves’s opposing occasionalretention of militarism are seen less as contradictions than contrasting uses of a commodity (warexperience) that remains essentially unaltered. 4 To use the language set forth in Eric Leed’s NoMan’s Land, combat is a liminal experience that sets the veteran irrevocably apart from thosewho have not crossed the ritual threshold of war. 5 It can, indeed has, been seen as the ultimaterite of passage: a definitive coming to manhood for the industrial age, in which boys become menby confronting mechanical horror and discovering their essential masculinity, perhaps even theiressential humanity, in a realm from which feminine presence is banished. The primary type of literary text that generates this ideology of combat gnosticism is what I wouldlike to refer to as the trench lyric. The trench lyric constitutes a formally conservative, realistic textbased on the direct combat experience of the junior officer class. “Trench,” in this formulation,calls attention to the poem’s most common setting, not necessarily its scene of composition (infact, few of the trench lyricists wrote finished poetry while physically in the trenches). The trench,with its accompanying images of filth, shellfire, barbed wire, and so forth is of course the dominanticon of the First World War. The trench lyric portrays these distressing conditions in anunromantic light, thus differentiating it from the more abstract and patriotic lyrics of the early war.The trench lyric as a genre is realistic in that it employs the traditional styles and dictions of Englishpoetry, especially as used in the Georgian poetry movement that was gaining cultural momentumjust prior to the outbreak of the war, in such a manner as to be readily [End Page 204] acceptedby a poetically, if not politically, conservative audience (that is, one with a low tolerance foravant-garde formal experimentation). Yet it uses these traditional poetic forms to portray theheretofore unknown gruesome details of the physical and psychological situations of the trench asseen from a participant’s viewpoint. Perhaps the single most important defining element of the genre is this emphasis on personalexperience. The trench lyric is written from the point of view of a direct observer, and itslegitimacy depends upon the putative accuracy of its representation of its writer’s experience in thetrench. Therein lies its realism, the hallmark of the trench lyric and its criticism. Yeats famouslyreferred to Wilfred Owen’s poetry as “all blood, dirt, & sucked sugar stick.” 6 The ideal of realismcovers the first two-thirds of this formulation. The trench lyric rejects the Romantic praise ofbeauty in favor of an emphasis on the sheer ugliness of front line conditions in order to destroy thecomplacence of a sheltered civilian readership. Owen’s poetry, for instance, uses the linguisticsensuousness that he learned from Keats in order to invert Keats’s most famous poetic dictum,that beauty is truth. The trench lyric, as the borderline oxymoronic term itself suggests, gives usvisions of horror that, because they are horrible, must be true. “The true Poets must be truthful,” inthe words of Owen’s Preface (CP 535). The trench lyric thus represents a revision both of the aesthetic purposes of lyric poetry and of anaively optimistic attitude toward the conduct of the war. However, the equation of the trenchlyric with war poetry has recently come into question. Understandably, recent feminist criticismhas attempted to circumvent the narrow parameters of the trench lyric by focusing on previouslyforgotten noncombatant writers, especially women. The exclusive identification of war withcombat results in a theory which would allow only combatants to write war literature, for only theyare really affected by war. Anyone out of the trenches should not presume to infringe upon thedirect, unmediated experience of those who do the actual fighting. A feminist study of warliterature must necessarily question these claims. In expanding the war canon beyond its previousbounds, feminist critics have rediscovered an immense body of texts. Catherine Reilly’s 1978bibliography of First World War-related poetry demonstrates that poetic reaction to the war wasby no means limited to combatants; 7 in fact, as Elizabeth Marsland points out in her book, TheNation’s Cause, Reilly’s research makes unavoidable the observation that “the typical EnglishFirst World War poet was not a combatant but a civilian.” 8 With grounding in such primaryresearch, many critics have recently reopened the question of women’s reaction to war and thelegitimacy and multifariousness of its poetic expression. For instance, Nosheen Khan’s Women’sPoetry of the [End Page 205] First World War considers seriously the impact of war onwomen as expressed in their poetry; 9 moreover, she confronts the widely remarked misogynisttrope of the canonized combatant poets, demonstrating that not all women war poets were, likeJessie Pope, the jingoist specifically addressed in early drafts of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce etDecorum Est,” rabidly pro-war activists who were eager to send men to die in a hellish war fromwhich their gender sheltered them. Likewise, Brian Murdoch’s Fighting Songs and WarringWords expands the definition of war poetry well beyond the combatant lyric and into even thepopular songs of the war era, 10 while Elizabeth Marsland’s aforementioned The Nation’s Cause,in offering a comparative study of French, German, and English war poetry, broadly defined,demonstrates how the mainstream form of English language war poetry criticism “has produced adecidedly warped image of the English First World War poetry in general, and especially ofprotest writing” (NC 144) by focusing exclusively on (necessarily) masculine combatants and theirsimplistically represented felix culpa from fervent idealism to bitter realism. Finally, Claire Tylee’sThe Great War and Women’s Consciousness explores the effects of the First World War onculture; 11 her representatives of culture, however, are women–representatives that mainstreamwar literature covertly silences. In addition, Tylee’s concerns, even her title, connote a response and a refutation of the critic whohas been most responsible for the construction and popularization of what I have represented asmainstream World War literary criticism: Paul Fussell. Fussell’s immensely influential book on theFirst World War, The Great War and Modern Memory, is a study of the War’s impact onBritish culture. Its focus is almost exclusively that of the combatant: the experience of the FirstWorld War is synonymous with the experience of the trenches in Fussell’s analysis. As is madeevident in his section on the home front, “The Enemy to the Rear,” civilian reaction is seen only interms of its inadequacies vis vis the trenches. The combatants’ resentment is the primary,privileged experience, while that of noncombatants is represented only as a foil to set off the bitterand legitimate irony of the front-line troops. If civilians reacted to the war in any terms other thanwholesale enthusiasm, we do not know it from Fussell. There is practically no mention of a pacifistmovement (outside of the qualified involvement of the combatant-poet Siegfried Sassoon) or theimpact of the war on women, either in terms of increased employment opportunities or effectsupon the ongoing suffrage movement. For instance, Sylvia Pankhurst is mentioned only inconnection with her agitation to inform the families of soldiers executed for military crimes thattheir sons had died of wounds. In the context of Fussell’s argument, this is clearly not a good thing:it is presented in a paragraph on military obfuscation and euphemism under the topic [End Page206] sentence “No one was to know too much” (GW 176). For Fussell’s version of what the FirstWorld War meant and continues to mean to English-speaking cultures, women figure only asrepresentatives of noncombatants and the linguistic violence they do to the stark reality ofcombatant experience. To put it in the terms of this project, feminist studies of war literature have questioned mainstreamcriticism’s contention that combat experience is a direct conduit to a realm of gnosis. I wish tomake a more direct objection to the basic tenet of combat gnosticism, that the experience offighting provides a connection to Reality, an unmediated Truth to which only those who haveundergone the liminal trauma of combat have access. The canon reformation of Khan, Murdoch,Marsland, and Tylee allows us to see that there is more to war literature than what commonlygoes under the title of war stories. War affects the civilian in different ways, assuredly, but war isnot an exclusively combatant, and thus not an exclusively masculine, experience. Women’s livesare affected, even destroyed by war; culture involves women as well as men, and if war helps toconstruct a culture, as Fussell indeed seems to argue, it constructs feminine as well as masculinesubjects. So, while I wish to acknowledge this approach to questioning mainstream World Warliterary criticism, I also wish to confront more directly the epistemological assumptions upon whichit rests. Fussell dedicates The Great War and Modern Memory “To the Memory of / Technical SergeantEdward Keith Hudson, ASN 36548772 / Co. F, 410th Infantry / Killed beside me in France /March 15, 1945″ (vii). I do not wish to cast aspersions on what I take to be a heartfelt gesture toa victim of war. Yet I am also profoundly interested in how this dedication sets up the text thatfollows. Fussell is very careful to identify Edward Hudson in standard military language and toplace his death in proximity to Fussell as author and authority. Hudson’s death thus becomesFussell’s way of placing himself: within the military, within a war, and, most important, withincombat. Fussell has seen combat, he has seen death, his buddy was killed at his side: thus we aremore inclined to consider seriously the importance that he places upon combat experience in thesubsequent 350 pages of text. That the war in which Fussell places himself is the Second ratherthan the First World War seems not an important distinction; the gnosis of combat may alterslightly between different wars, but there is an essential core of knowledge that remains untouchedby historical difference. The author participated in combat (any combat): he has authority, so wewho lack such experience should listen to the knowledge he provides. 12 I do not want to imply that The Great War and Modern Memory is not in many ways animportant book, primarily because of its iconoclastic [End Page 207] stance toward receivedopinion. It is a significant piece of revisionist (in the broad sense) history. Nonetheless, in as far as

it has been influential, it has furthered the uninvestigated myth upon which it is based. Thisbecomes more evident in Fussell’s second scholarly war-related text, Wartime: Understandingand Behavior in the Second World War. The content of this book is much less literary than TheGreat War and Modern Memory; there is not the same emphasis on biographically basedsummations of the canonical literary figures. Instead, Fussell is much more overt about reading thewar as a text rather than reading texts about the war. Nevertheless, combat gnosticism stillremains: the line between combatant and noncombatant is, if possible, drawn even more stronglyhere, despite the breakdown of clear distinctions between combatant and civilian in the SecondWorld War. Fussell turns away from combatant fiction and poetry and privileges the combatantwar memoir. In his final chapter, entitled “‘The Real War Will Never Get in the Books,’” hedescribes the best American examples of this genre as “conveying their terrible news . . . by anuncomplicated delivery of the facts, conveyed in a style whose literary unpretentiousness seems toargue absolute credibility.” 13 To a great extent, this kind of formalist hierarchy signals a furthergnostic development, for only the most unmediated statements, those which come straight fromthe heart of combat experience without the intervention of literary or poetic form, can be trusted.Fussell wants us to apprehend combat directly; he wants his combat memoirists to transcendlanguage and give the Truth to us directly so that we too will have experienced what it means toknow combat. Yet is such a thing possible? I am thinking here less of the rather naive epistemological assumptionthat because a text is less overtly literary it must therefore lie closer to the truth; rather I am askingwhether the apprehension of direct combat experience by the noncombatant is possible givenFussell’s construction of combat gnosticism. In order to answer this question, I want to turn to oneof Fussell’s non-academic books, Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays. 14 First,we need to understand that the title of this collection is not as ironic as one might assume: Fussellactually is thankful for the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for he believes that theyhastened the end of the war and thus saved many lives, his own included. Moreover, in the titleessay Fussell leads with his combat experience and belittles the arguments of those who nowquestion the ethics of the atom bombs, portraying them as self-satisfied moral hypocrites because,due to age or social class (gender is not even mentioned as an issue), they did not have combatexperience and thus cannot understand what the atomic explosions meant to those who expectedto invade Japan. Experience marks the great divide between those who understand what the atom[End Page 208] bombs really meant and those who, “remote from experience,” idly philosophizeabout them. Clearly, combat is the experience that counts, the only experience worthy of theword. Other kinds of experience are not experience at all. But can we benefit from Fussell’s combat gnostic experience? Solipsism remains a constant threatin such a position. Initiates like Fussell may or may not choose to enlighten noncombatants;moreover, it may not ultimately be possible for them to do so. If understanding is truly basedmerely on experience, it remains impossible to tell others of one’s own experience unless theseothers have also undergone identical experiences. Thus talking about war becomes anexclusionary activity in which only those who already know can speak to each other. Those on theoutside, without experience, cannot learn; whatever experience they do have lacks validity. Thoseon the inside, on the other hand, cannot tell one another anything they did not already know. Fussell’s experience is a form of presence (in the poststructural sense of the term): presence incombat gives one an aura of knowledge, the ability to speak without (literary) form, the exclusiveability to know and to tell the (extratextual) truth. Yet, as is the case with presence, there remainsalways a trace of what is excluded, in this case civilian experience. That women have no voice inmainstream World War literary criticism is due to the exclusive primacy it grants to a mythicaldirect access to experience and presence. To put this in psychoanalytic terms, combat is phallic: itallows one to speak while those without the phallus must stay silent. My purpose here is not todemolish the validity of combat experience but to suggest that it is not the phallus, or that if it is, itfunctions as other phallic discourses: to make something appear to be whole. Combat experienceby itself cannot tell the whole story: it cannot make any one speaking subject the monolithicauthority who controls what atomic bombs really mean, what language really means. It is simplyan experience among other experiences, a (gendered) voice among other (gendered) voices. Yet how did we get the idea that it was the only voice, that it was exclusively valid? I wish tosuggest that the genealogy of such a position rests on the literature around which the discourse firstformed. Modern war criticism began with the First World War because it was the first war whichincluded among its combatants a significant number of educated writers with access to means ofpublication. I am thinking mostly of the two poets whose names are synonymous with war poetry,yet who considered themselves poets well before they became combatant officers. Both SiegfriedSassoon and Wilfred Owen wrote poetry which privileges direct combat experience whoseostensible purpose is to educate an ignorant civilian populace of brutal realities it would prefer toignore, [End Page 209] yet both poets also become caught in an epistemological trap: theycannot truly inform an audience who lacks the experiential basis for understanding their work, andthe only way an audience can acquire such a basis is to experience combat, at which point theyare no longer the noncombatant audience the poetry assumes. I am not saying that this invalidatestheir poetry, only that this inevitable tension runs through all of their most famous texts. What ismore objectionable is the uncritical acceptance of such a problematic paradigm of knowledge onthe part of critics who have addressed this poetry. Mainstream criticism of First World War poetry has been primarily biographical in approach.Such an approach has tended to result in a criticism that implicitly (or occasionally explicitly)argues for its subject. In other words, war poetry criticism has not so much read its subject in acritical manner as it has presented various apologies for its subject, that subject being both the warpoem and the war poet. Like Sassoon and Owen going back to the trenches to make an effectiveprotest on the behalf of their men, war poetry critics have protested the sufferings of theirsubjects, Sassoon and Owen themselves. At least since Bernard Bergonzi’s Heroes’ Twilight,first published in Britain in 1965, critics have argued for the acceptance of war poetry on its ownterms. 15 A poetry of pity, a poetry of political protest (the latter especially prevalent in JonSilkin’s Out of Battle, first published in 1972 16 ): this is what war poetry criticism has offered us.But most of all, trench lyric critics have stressed the importance of the poet as witness to theslaughter of the Western Front, the man whose biography remains important because he wasactually there and can thus provide us with the Truth of War (to borrow the title of DesmondGraham’s text on the subject 17 ). Mainstream war poetry critics have thus absorbed rather thancritiqued the ideology of their subject, and they continue to replicate this ideology to the exclusionof other voices. I would like now to make the discussion a bit more concrete by placing it in terms of twoparticular poems by Wilfred Owen. When Yeats wrote his withering damnation of Owen and theother war poets to Lady Wellesley, he referred to “Strange Meeting” as Owen’s “worst & mostfamous” poem (L 124). Qualitative judgments aside, it is certainly no longer his most famous text.The anthology piece of choice today is “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and the change is, I think, anotable one. “Strange Meeting” is a dream vision: in it a soldier confronts the enemy he has killedand this enemy articulates his lost hopes that any real wisdom will arise from this war. The ironyhere is subdued, a quiet resignation in the knowledge that subsequent generations will learnnothing from the carnage of the trench. “Dulce et Decorum Est,” on the [End Page 210] otherhand, allows Owen to describe trench life at its least heroic and most ironic: tired and dirty troopsslog away from the front line when they are attacked by gas shells. The meticulously realized deathof one of the soldiers, complete with “blood gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” (CP 140),leads to the angry conclusion in which civilians are blamed for holding unrealistic assumptionsabout the war while the Latin tag, a popular gravestone motto for the war dead, is twisted for allthe irony it can muster. It is this kind of situational irony of which mainstream war criticism stronglyapproves. To put it simply, war poetry criticism has come to favor the realistic (”Dulce etDecorum Est”) over the visionary (”Strange Meeting”). Underlying this shift is the epistemological question of representation. Does the trench lyric give usthe most accurate, the most mimetic, representation of actual trench conditions, or does it offer aparticular construction of them? The novelty of Sassoon’s and Owen’s descriptive poems has ledthem to be seen as pieces of reportage, a kind of poetry of witness to the horrors of moderntechnological warfare. And this version of them is not, of course, wrong. Yet it is limited. Owenand Sassoon not only represent war; in representing it they also construct it by giving it meaning.The rather simple ironic meaning produced by a poem such as “Dulce et Decorum Est,” avariation on “reality is not as you like to think it,” fits rather effortlessly into mainstream warcriticism’s metanarrative of irony ber alles, but some of the less obviously descriptive piecesremain a bit more difficult. “Strange Meeting” is less a rehearsal of the horrible realities of war thanan interpretation of what the war means to those who find themselves victims of it. Mostimportant, in constructing the war as a fantastic encounter in hell between two dead soldiers,Owen removes most questions of realism, defined as a representation of an unconstructed reality,instead constructing a dream world that literally and figuratively underlies the realities of combat.Owen thus does not so much bear witness to a particular representation of the reality of combatas he constructs a world in which he can explore the meaning of war. The second or ethical half of the ideology foregrounds what I want to call an ethic of passivehumanism. The mature trench lyrics of Owen and Sassoon are commonly read as poems of ethicalprotest. Where the more stereotypically Georgian Edmund Blunden and Edward Thomas objectto war on an aesthetic level, protesting its ugliness as compared to the beauty of an unconstructedand undestructed nature, Owen and Sassoon object to war because of its human cost in terms ofboth the wasted lives of soldiers and the callous and willful misunderstanding of staff officers andcivilians. As Owen put it in his justifiably famous [End Page 211] formulation, “Above all I am notconcerned with Poetry. The Poetry is in the pity” (CP 535). Such statements bring ethics to theforefront of the trench lyric, where it cannot be ignored. Again we can take Yeats’s objections as a starting point: in excluding the trench lyric from TheOxford Book of Modern Verse 18 in 1936, he declaimed that “passive suffering is not a theme forpoetry” (xxxiv). The ethics of the trench lyric lies not only in portraying the passive suffering of thevictims of war, but also in actively articulating that suffering. Owen speaks often in his last lettersof pleading the case of his men, of returning to the trenches in order to witness and protest theirtrials. One of the standard tropes of the trench lyric is the Crucifixion, with the men playing thesilent and suffering victim to the willfully ignorant civilian Pilates. 19 All noncombatants become thebeneficiaries of the sacrifice of the silent young men, leaving it to the trench lyricist to point out theimmorality of the situation. The trench lyricist as ethicist, then, acquires the moral high ground inorder to point an accusing finger at those who sacrifice their sons for their own benefit. Heconstructs an asymmetrical relationship: he accuses while we, the noncombatant audience, hearthe sentence passed on us. Thus the ethic of passive humanism, in the hands of the poet, necessarily betrays itself. In order toarticulate the case of those silent sufferers who become the victims of civilian complacency, thetrench lyricist must give up his own passivity and actively blame others. In fact, the situationbecomes inverted: the noncombatant is robbed of her voice (or occasionally, in Sassoon’s case,given a few transparently vapid lines) 20 while the warrior inflicts punitive suffering for the sake ofhis troops. And I am using the feminine pronoun advisedly here; as often as not, the representativeof all things civilian is a woman, either benefiting from a lover or son’s suffering or rejecting himupon his return from the front. “Dulce et Decorum Est” can again serve as an example. After the end of the opening sonnetsection, Owen introduces the second person pronoun and the poem turns from a description intoan accusation. If you could see the realities of war, you would not promulgate the ideology thatallows this to go on. By extension, you bear the responsibility for the passive suffering from the”vile incurable sores” on this “innocent tongue.” And the officer poet is going to make you quiteaware of this predicament that you have gotten yourself into. Moreover, as anyone who has readthis poem in an annotated anthology knows, the original recipient of the accusation was “a certainpoetess,” Jessie Pope, the writer of patriotic children’s war rhymes. She calls the trench poet outof his passivity so that he might confront her face-to-face and force her to see the harsh realities ofwar. [End Page 212] On the other hand, there remains an important sense in which the epistemology of “Dulce etDecorum Est” is not quite as unproblematic as traditional war poetry criticism would seem tosuggest. In fact, the poem resembles “Strange Meeting” in that the second, accusatory half of”Dulce” takes place in a dream vision. The first fourteen lines, comprising a traditionallyself-contained sonnet, can easily be read as straight reportage. Immediately following this,however, and compromising if not breaking the formal self-sufficienc