Monday, August 22, 2005

War and Literature

'A poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse – indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history. … The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.'
(
Aristotle, The Poetics, trans W. Hamilton Fyfe, (London, 1955), 35 [9, 1451b]. My thanks to Professor Alex Danchev for first pointing me towards this quotation.)

To continue with the post below, and to touch on an issue that Esther MacCallum Stewart is discussing elsewhere, how should historians react to popular historical fiction? Should we just say 'Well, what do you expect?' and dismiss it? Should we try to work with it? These books aren't going to go away, and they have formed a route into interest in the war for many readers. Some of them might even go on to buy our books.

The question I finished my paper at Oxford with was whether it would be possible to have a book about the First World War which was inaccurate at the level of historical detail, but which offered concepts of which historians could approve? For me, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy is an interesting example. At the level of historical detail, it is packed full of anachronisms. Its take on Edwardian male sexuality, the development of military psychiatry, the writing of poetry and the relationship between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen are all just plain wrong (ironically, these seem to anger literary historians more than they annoy me). At the level of concepts, however, a reader could leave these books with the following ideas: 1) the First World War wasn't just about the war poets, 2) some First World War soldiers believed that they were fighting a just war, 3) total wars create a range of social and cultural tensions, 4) some elements of the military experience might be enjoyable to some men. These could represent a significant shift of the reader's opinion from the normal mud, blood, donkeys cliches. In contrast, I think you could argue that Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong is more historically accurate, but far more likely to reinforce its readers' existing prejudices. Which, as historians, should we prefer?

Interviewed after she won the Booker Prize, Barker commented: ‘What people don’t like to be told, I think, is that there are dictatorships so abominable that in the end you have to fight. People aren’t comfortable with that – they’d rather think about innocent young men being slaughtered at the behest of stupid generals.’ That could be Brian Bond talking, or Gary Sheffield. Or me.
(A. Quinn, ‘What Sassoon could never resolve’, Daily Telegraph, 2 September 1995, A4.)

10 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

The quote at the top here links rather nicely to Esther's comments below. It is not just because readers have always thought about the First World War through a literary lense (although she's absolutely right to say that). I think that - at least in the Western tradition - there is a suspension of critical thought when it comes to fiction. If you're going to find those 'bigger truths', you can't be picking around in the details: what matters is that the author presents a version of the past you can buy into.
Is there evidence from other wars/historical periods? Any experts on Cold Mountain out there?

4:24 PM  
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5:02 PM  
Anonymous Esther said...

I don't understand why people find Pat Barker less historically accurate than Faulks! Faulks includes the detail, then distorts it beyond all recognition to follow a pathway dictated entirely by present popular ideas. He does this countless times throughout the book (the returning soldiers on Portsmouth Hard, the comment about newspapers not reporting the war on their front pages, Weir's return to his family, the letters from home, the opening scenes with the Azaires in which the civilian as an ignorant pig or a hypocritical woman is set up...), and then goes on to say it is all historically accurate. In detail, perhaps, but the damage comes through the attitudes presented as true here. Any anyone who has the gall to claim they don't make any mistakes is... mistaken.

Barker is historically inaccurate, but trys a lot harder to produce an alternative - and like you point out, it is possible to come away with an awareness of there being a great deal more available from her texts. Unfortunately, of course, her attitudes are also just as bad, aminly because a great deal of them are nicked from dodgy literary (and not historical) analysis in the first place...

I wonder in this case, since they are both six of one and half a dozen of the other, that Faulks' obvious popularism means he is let off the hook more (the traditional snobbishness about popular literature being poorer quality and for that reason having less overall impact), whereas Barker (who has had a great deal more critical attention) is treated more harshly.

The historical error does rile literary crtics however - probably because current debate has made everyone more aware that they need to think beyond the myth/parable box of literature so far, and also because of course, everyone wants to be right, so starting with a text that is already wrong rather knocks things out of kilter. It's rather hard to stand up for the importance of literature as a valid historical aid when it is so clearly full of gaping holes to start with!

4:55 PM  
Blogger MaryB said...

Haven't read Faulks, have read Barker, so I'll have to reserve comment. People do see WWI as "The Literary War," mainly because that's how we study it (at least in the US - if we study it at all!). As a daughter of the American South, I contend that our Civil War and WWI (for Britain)are comparable in literary importance and place in the national psyche. We have the facts on one hand and the enormous gut-wrenching heart-string pull on the other. While the contrasts are obvious, I think the facts and literature are complementary as well, giving us a more complete picture than we have of other conflicts.

BTW, thanks for a great weblog, Dan. We're having a rather heated discussion on the Great War Forum about WWI blogs. Seems there aren't many out there, and we're trying to compile a list for forum members. Your blog will be a welcome addition (and I've added your link to my own blog "The Wildgoose Chase").

Oh - and judging by some of the comments here, you're getting blog spammed (by foks who have no relevance to your WWI interest). Just ignore 'em.

Please keep posting. I'm sure you'll get many visits from the Great War Forum folks!

2:48 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Word verification now in use - which should end some of this spamming. Honestly: scum.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Black River Eagle said...

I came over for a quick visit today via a recommendation from the Irregular Analysis blog. Your blog is going to be one to follow as I am very interested in learning more about world history and I'm a veteran (U.S. military, Vietnam War Era) that has a keen interest in better understanding why we humans make War.

It's good you found the word verification feature fast to help defeat spammers as it is a growing menace here in the blogosphere. I've been lucky so far over the past year.

Good Luck with your new blog project. I'll be back to read your interesting posts often.

P.S. Could you increase the font size of your posts for us older bloggers? Thanks.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Just read the comment about font sizes as I was about to log off. I've added another couple today in a small size - but my brother returns from holiday tomorrow and is going to help me with a bit of redesign, hopefully - so I will find a way to make it more readable.

10:18 PM  

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