Sunday, June 30, 2013

Blunden: No time for the present

I noted that in Undertones of War, Edmund Blunden juxtaposes the pastoral landscape and its wreckage by modern, industrial warfare. He also juxtaposes different time-scales, gliding between the daily minutiae of his army life and larger time-frames that dwarf such mundane events. This is evident from his use of the term 'ancient', which serves usually to cast our view back to the medieval and early modern life of the French churches and towns along the front.

Present events are made to seem even more trivial when Blunden gestures at the vast stretches of nature's prehistory. Take this passage, for instance:
Date yourself 1916, and come, little as you wanted to stir this afternoon; the autumn day is moody, the ground churned and greasy; leave Martinsart Wood, and the poor dear platoon scrubbing equipment, coaxing stray dogs, hunting for canteens and scrawling letters. We cross the Nab, that sandy sunk road, and, if we are not mad, the ancient sequestered beauty of an autumn forest haunts there, just over the far ridge. Aveluy Wood, in thy orisons be all our sins remembered. (Blunden, Undertones of War)
But, as Blunden adds, 'Within, it is strangely uninhabited.' There is nothing in the Wood that will say prayers ('orisons') or remember him. There, in the Wood, is only indifference to his travails.

Consider the nuances of this next passage, in which Blunden mentions a train schedule from the recent past, something that has been suspended in the present geopolitical crisis:
But here we leave the road, and file along the railway track, which, despite all the incurable entanglements of its telegraph wires, might yet be doing its duty; surely the 2.30 for Albert will come round the bend puffing and clanking in a moment? Below, among mighty trees of golden leaf, and some that lie prone in black channels as primeval saurians, there is a track across the lagooned Ancre. (Blunden, Undertones of War)
The present crisis sends him away from the recent past of train schedules and closer to a prehistoric, and even pre-human, time.

The larger time-frame can be a refuge. When Blunden is dodging enemy fire, his attention is locked within the present instant as he flees into a subterranean shelter. He there finds that 'time-values have changed for a moment from furious haste to geological calm when one enters that earthy cave with its bunk beds, squatting figures under their round helmets, candles stuck longways on the woodwork, ....' (Blunden, Undertones of War)

Blunden's focus is repeatedly expelled from its refuge, cast away from an ancient, other existence of geological calm and back into the violence of the present. As his unit marches back to the front after some R & R, Blunden observes that 'the failing ancient sun shone on the wide and shallow Ancre by Aveluy, and the green fancy-woodwork of the mill belonged to another century, indeed another existence, as we crossed the long causeway leading from the pleasures of rest, and turned along the opposite hillside with its chalky excavations, old trenches and spaces of surviving meadow-like green, towards the new arena.' His trajectory from the rest site towards the front is in parallel with the temporal references: from the ancient age of the sun to the more recent century in the mill's past to the still more recent signs ('old trenches') of earlier stages in the War to their next arena.

Hans Blumenberg described our attempts to fend off time's indifference -- its 'eternal silence' -- by using the narratives of myth and history to blanket time with meaning. But what if the present is unbearable? Time's indifference might then seem like solace. Perhaps it appeared so to Blunden, and perhaps he fixated on the indifference by resorting to the larger time-scale of prehistory.

These excerpts from Blunden's book echo an episode in Tolstoy's War and Peace. When Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, up to that moment an enthusiastic soldier, lies injured at the Battle of Austerlitz he gazes at the sky -- 'that lofty, righteous and kindly sky' (as Tolstoy says). The lofty sky with its ancient sun dwarfs the battlefield. The war now seems pointless, and its great practitioners (or Napoleon at least) are exposed as vain and trivial men.

There are, of course, differences between this episode and the above passages from Blunden's book. After all, a 'kindly' sky can't be wholly indifferent. Still, in both books the traumatized soldier finds succour in a larger perspective from which present crises 'are as nothing'.

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