Monday, February 29, 2016

Philosophers reading (and being read in) WWI lit

Here's another philosopher who was a soldier in WWI: Etienne Gilson, who was taken prisoner early in the Battle of Verdun (in February, 1916). Earlier, while on leave from the front, Gilson managed to put together a journal publication.

It's interesting to see how many veterans were critical of the war memoirs and novels that started appearing in the 1920s (esp. in 1929). I've noted Luce's public criticism in a Belfast sermon, which seems to have been aimed chiefly at Robert Graves' Goodbye To All That. Graves' book also drew the ire of Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, who meticulously documented the book's inaccuracies in Sassoon's copy of it. 

Wittgenstein was mildly critical of R. C. Sherriff's play Journey's End (1928). According to M. O'C. Drury, Wittgenstein read the play in 1936. Drury quotes Wittgenstein as follows:
Nowadays it is the fashion to emphasize the horrors of the last war. I didn't find it so horrible. There are just as horrible things happening all round us today, if only we had eyes to see them. I couldn't understand the humour in Journey's End. But I wouldn't want to joke about a situation like that. (M. O'C. Drury, 'Conversations with Wittgenstein', Ch. VI in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981], p. 144)
An early WWI text (1919) was Arthur Graeme West's Diary of a Dead Officer. West was killed on the front in 1917. His diary was edited for publication by his friend, the pacifist and philosopher C. E. M. Joad. There are references to Bertrand Russell in West's Diary (pp. 50-57) . West had been reading Russell's 'A Free Man's Worship' and Justice in War Time. In West, one sees the full disenchantment that is dramatized in many WWI books -- initially a religious patriot who wanted to serve King and country, West became an atheist and seemed on the point of refusing to fight any longer when he was killed by a sniper.

4 comments:

Richard W. Symonds said...

"An early WWI text (1919) was Arthur Graeme West's Diary of a Dead Officer. West was killed on the front in 1917. His diary was edited for publication by his friend, the pacifist and philosopher C. E. M. Joad. There are references to Bertrand Russell in West's Diary (pp. 50-57) . West had been reading Russell's 'A Free Man's Worship' and Justice in War Time. In West, one sees the full disenchantment that is dramatized in many WWI books -- initially a religious patriot who wanted to serve King and country, West became an atheist and seemed on the point of refusing to fight any longer when he was killed by a sniper"

C.E.M. Joad does not list this "Diary" in his 100+ books. Why ? Because Joad would have been sued by the copyright-holder of the book - the father of Arthur Graeme West - who refused to believe what was said about his son by Joad and tried to prevent its publication.

Paul Raymont said...

Thanks for that information, Richard. It reminds me of Albert Perceval Graves' disapproving response to his son's (Robert's) book Goodbye to All That, which was to write a rebuttal titled To Return to All That.

Frank Packer said...

Graves managed to annoy a wide range of friends and acquaintances with 'Goodbye to All That' though I would say that all of the negative responses I have read had much more to do with personal pique than any deep philosophical differences about the war 'experience'. Even the secondary source you linked to in your blog (Brian Bond's 'Survivors of a Kind') states that the factual errors that Sassoon and Blunden collected were mostly "trivial", and the other criticisms surrounded Graves's unflattering characterizations of people both of them knew. In GTAT, Graves essentially takes credit for getting Sassoon into Craiglockhart and for getting him declared shellshocked after Sassoon's mid-war pacifist outburst. In Graves's interpretation of events, Sassoon would have been court-martialed as a coward if not for Graves's intervention. This would appear to be a far more concrete reason for the estrangement between the two (although more gossipy memoirs from the literary circles they both haunted seem to indicate a drifting apart pretty well as soon as peace arrived... will try to find sources for you later when I am back amongst my books.) Sassoon's reaction seems like a much more personally offended response than any reasoned attack on a differing understanding of what the war 'meant'.

'Goodbye to All That' also destroyed Graves's friendships with the Sitwell siblings, though all of them held pretty similar attitudes to Graves regarding their interpretations of the war. Osbert Sitwell's 'The Next War' is certainly as disillusioned as any poem Graves attempted, and Sitwell's war experiences just as bleak and cynical, though they raised few eyebrows by the time they were published in the jaded 1940s. "I remained, however, on ostensibly good terms with Robert [Graves] until the publication of his autobiography [GTAT]... In this he gave my sister [Edith], as well as my brother and me, public dismissal as a friend.... Sacheverell, I think, received his notice to quit the magic circle in the same spirit that I did, not minding it in the least, save for taking exception to the insolent manner in which it was phrased. I suffered no sense of personal loss, for I had always found Graves's character to be exactly divided, half and half, between schoolboy and schoolmaster -- to me... no very attractive combination." Osbert's 'Laughter in the Next Room' (1950 ed) p.165.

Graves may not have been as 'unlikeable' as Wyndham-Lewis, but I don't think rather more basic personal animosities can be ignored in looking at why there are such negative reactions to 'Goodbye to All That'. (and we haven't even touched on the fairly undisguised homosexuality in the work, guaranteed to provoke a negative response from many quarters!)

[Sorry for going on at length; feel free to edit or omit as you wish!]

Paul Raymont said...

Thanks, Frank. Was there also some professional jealousy? I read somewhere (one of the linked sources I think) that Blunden took Graves to have embellished his narrative in order to boost the book's sales.