Friday, August 26, 2005


(This posting, and the ones that follow, are brought to you by Lemsip and Sudafed. I have been struck down by a severe dose of ‘manflu’ which has left me coughing like a hag and cursing through sludge. So if I sound irascible, that’s probably the explanation).

Just back from the ACUME conference in Giessen. Excellent venue – a 19th century schloss which made me feel I needed a couple of duelling scars. Interesting selection of papers. Although the overall topic of the conference was cultural memory, most of those speaking were literary scholars. I was one of two historians out of about twenty participants.

This made me a bit apprehensive, but I have to say that for the most part I found it stimulating. It made me think about the study of literature and history in a way that should wrap up some of the points Esther and I have been bouncing back and forth on our two sites.

Papers that stood out for me:

Max Saunders on writing traumatic memory in both world wars: for a military historian, very interesting on the way that memoirs/autobiographical fiction have been written and the shifts that take place around the writing of traumatic experiences. Max used examples from Graves, Douglas, Ford Madox Ford and making reference to Freud. I was struck by the way authors write around these key experiences – circumnavigating them before writing them in detail (arguably The Great War and Modern Memory is a giant circumlocution of Fussell’s Second World War experience), and by the changes in syntax and imagery that accompany them. Most military historians would not, I think, interrogate a text so closely to derive meaning.

Astrid Erll offered a great summation of current thinking on the formation and rehearsal of memory. Astrid’s used research in cognitive psychology to suggest how important pre-formed expectations are in shaping experience and memory. Again, lots for historians to consider here about what ‘witnessing’ war actually means – what scripts are witnesses using. These were points bolstered – from a wider historical perspective, in a paper by Horst Carl.

Geert Bulens gave us a paper on modernist poetry and responses to the Great War that focussed on way these poets – from across the continent – envisioned ‘Europe’ in response to the war. A lot of the work I’ve looked at in terms of re-discovered poetry of the First World War has concentrated on more traditional poets – Geert’s paper had some wonderful examples of avant garde poetry from Belgium and Poland which I’d never seen before. I’ve mentioned elsewhere a possible European-funded project on the 100th anniversary of the war – I think Geert stands a great chance of securing such funding!

Andrea Birk’s paper on recent German literature dealt with a lot of the issues I’m interested in with regard to the First World War in relation to the Second. Particularly: how do you represent a ‘lost’ family experience, the impact of generational change on fictional representations and the growth of ‘family memory’ texts in recent years. Obviously the context and event being represented are different, but I think there are interesting comparisons to be drawn. I left with a list of German texts I need to read and compare.

Elena Lamberti's paper on the Spanish Civil War immediately preceded mine and (miraculously) dovetailed quite well with it. Elena had some excellent points to make about the development of a universal visual language of war in the 20th century - that we all have a set of shared images of 'war'. There is a technological-chronological explanation for this - the coincidence of information and print technology with a period when mass wars were being fought. Elena pointed towards the Spanish Civil War as the moment when a war which attracted international concern coincided with the growth of magazines which relied on pictures to tell their stories - most obviously Henry Luce's Life. I need to think a bit more about the implications of this 'globalisation of war-imagery' for my own work on the 'memory' of the First World War in the 1960s.

Diederik Oostdijk gave a paper on the US WW2 poet James Dickey. Dickey wrote about the war at various stages in his later life. He was also, it turns out, an inveterate fantastist and fabulist about his experiences (and the writer and screenwriter of Deliverance). In terms of witnessing history, Dickey’s changing story – depending on personal and national context, medium and other texts (including Rambo) – was a very informative case study. Again, some interesting comparisons to be made with WWI authors.


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