The experience of war pervades the literature of t

Discuss with reference to two writers.

‘Wars are funny things.
Apart from reducing the population
in a rather dramatic way,
they sometimes have surprising side - effects.’

The Very Bloody History of Britain (143).

‘The years between 1910 and the Second World War
saw a revolution in the literature
of the English language as momentous
as the Romantic one of a century before.’

Image and Experience (4).

When we embark on a discussion about the impact of the experience of war on the literature of the period, we are relating to a time set around the first half of the 20thcentury; the people within this period being referred to as the ‘war - generation’. The term ‘generation’ therefore refers to people who were born roughly at the same time and in the same place or area. This implies that they have all experienced the same social and political happenings of the time. The war generation, which I shall be talking about within this paper, has undergone both World War I and World War II, which had profound influences on society and culture.

WWI (1914 - 1918) led to an immense recruitment of millions of men into the armed forces. Most young men were enthusiastic about the war and joined on a voluntary basis. Just the thought of fighting for their country made them full of patriotism and national pride. All in all ‘there was a feverish rush into the army before the war was over’ (Stevenson, 50). In the military forces the recruits were trained to drill and march. The women and girls, who stayed at home, were taught other skills like bandaging. War, however, also meant that there was a shortage of food. Certain supplies such as meat, tea, butter or sugar had to be rationed.

In other areas, such as political, religious and scientific ones, profound changes could also be felt. A strict obedience to a higher authority or to a traditionally fixed pattern remained no longer unquestioned. Women, for instance, did their utmost to attain a better status. As far as religion was concerned, a deviation from the ‘original, traditional’ belief could also be observed, for Christianity was being questioned, ‘becoming a marginal feature of British society’ (Stevenson, 356). Stevenson even refers to this decline in religious adherence to Christianity as ‘one of the most significant features in twentieth - century Britain’ (Stevenson, 356). Psychologists, such as the Austrian Sigmund Freud or the Swiss Carl Gustav Jung, and philosophers, such as the German Friedrich Nietzsche, developed new concepts about the human being. The existence of ‘instinct’ rather than ‘reason’ was stressed. The ‘unconsciousness’ gained significance. Alterations and improvements were also made visible by new ‘discoveries’ in science and technology. Natural science prided itself on Albert Einstein’s ‘theory of relativity’ and Sir Ernest Rutherford’s ‘nuclear theory of the atom’. The biological sciences gained a better insight into the spheres of nutrition and genetics and the electrical sciences came forward with the invention of broadcasting, radio and television. Our life would be unthinkable without them. All these improvements and a lot more overlapped with the two World Wars and were partly even quickened by them.

Both World War I and World War II, the depression that followed World War I, the above - mentioned changes in religious, scientific and political areas, and the whole new complexity of the world, never experienced before, resulted in the emergence of a whole new generation: a generation that was marked by a rising awareness of social and political facts as well as by a rising self - consciousness and, most importantly, a generation that expressed itself in a variety of different ways and different forms.

Alienation, primitivism, fragmentation, departure from the linear and formalism were the immediate consequences of this period. A whole revolution took place affecting many well - known painters, musicians and writers, such as James Joyce, Thomas Stearnes Eliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, William Butler Yeats, David Herbert Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Bert Brecht, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, Luigi Pirandello, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Sch├Ânberg and Pablo Picasso. It is evident that their works, whether written, painted or made into music, were influenced, if not to say inspired, by what was happening around them. Thus, the state of world in this period is undoubtedly mirrored to a great extent in the works of these writers, painters and musicians of the early 20thcentury.

This change in art and culture, nowadays referred to as ‘modernism’, is, however, not something that happened overnight. It is by no means a change that - and now I am making use of an analogy by Virginia Woolf - occurred as quickly as the flowering of a rose or a hen’s laying of an egg[1]. It is a revolution that stretched itself and developed over a long period of time. Thus, it is not surprising that many critics and 20thcentury authors alike have difficulties pinpointing the actual beginning. As a matter of fact, opinions as when to fix the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ of the modernist era vary a great deal. Whereas in a BBC television discussion George Steiner and the writer and critic Malcolm Bradbury agreed to the beginning of modernism being around the middle of the 1880s, Stevenson traces the roots back to the years before 1914. The writer Peter Faulkner claims in the introduction to his book Modernism that ‘it was in the 1920s that the term Modernism began to move from a general sense of sympathy with the modern to a more specific association with experimentation in the arts’ (Faulkner, viii). Virginia Woolf is the only one who thought she knew the exact date of the change in artistic expression. She narrows the date down to ‘in or about December, 1910.’ (Woolf, Virginia, ‘Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown’, in: Faulkner, A Modernist Reader, 113).

If we are not able to pinpoint the precise date of change, we can at least name the kind of changes that emerged within this period. The ‘traditional’ novel that emerged in the early 18thcentury with Daniel Defoe and continued on with well - known and highly praised writers such as Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens and George Elliot, to name but a few, underwent a notable change. In these so - called Victorian or Romantic novels the authors managed to create a world and made the reader believe it to be the real world. The reader enters an imaginary sphere full of detail, a world where heroes and heroines exist, who all encounter obstacles, make decisions and act accordingly. We, as reader, step into this world and become absorbed in it. We suffer and sympathise with the characters until we have finished the fictitious book. Then we put it aside and pick up another one, open it up and once again let ourselves become one with the content. This is exactly, where modernist writers differ. Modernist authors believe, as Josipovici rightly observes, that we are ‘forced to recognise that the world never conforms to our picture of it, and that by imagining it does we conceal the truth from ourselves.’ (Josipovici, 114). He furthermore states that ‘modern art always moves towards silence, away from language, towards the annihilation of language and of the work - ridiculous the waste sad time before and after.’ (Josipovici, 114).

In other words, the late 19thand the early 20thcenturies are characteristic of contrary and divergent ideas and approaches with regard to art and culture, where a strong link between history and literature can be found. This may become visible by taking into consideration the following observations: an entirely new tone runs through poetry and fiction, a tone that is partly ironic, bitter or angry; ugly things are named and described[2]; the rhetoric also changed: elaborate and detailed descriptions of places and characters are done away with. Places, people and objects are simply reduced to the plainness of the actual fact and thought. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, two of the most distinguished and most well - known but most probably also two of the most controversial pieces of writing, provide a good illustration of these post - war changes.

As far as Eliot’s The Waste Land (published in 1922) is concerned, ‘one can certainly see now that ... [it] especially was a work that drew very strongly on war feelings and pre - war feelings, and looked at the past with regret and at the present with dejection’ (Hynes, 33). History is mirrored in the poem and Hynes even refers to the poem as ‘a war book above all others in the twenties’ (Hynes, 25). He says that Eliot brilliantly manages to put his own contemporary history into the poem; contemporary history meaning vestiges of the war.

There was once a time in the past that carried some sort of meaning and significance, but in Eliot’s contemporary time a belief of a meaningful world did not exist. His time was marked by emptiness and aridity and was devoid of coherence and meaning. This is reflected in Eliot's poetic vision of the world in The Waste Land. Within this poem he presents us with numerous broken, shattered images, an anti - rhetorical style, lack of homogeneity and no coherence. The content is constructed of fragments and full of dense allusions. Just like the post - war ruins of buildings and people’s beliefs, chaos reaches a wide public. No immediately apparent order and meaning exist. The poem is ‘like a battlefield after the battle’ (Hynes, 25). The fragments Eliot presents us are at the same time fragments of culture. Eliot speaks to us and tells us about a shipwrecked world; a world as he experienced it; a world that is about to drown and to be stranded. Already the opening lines of the poem are a perfect illustration of this point.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
(Eliot, Selected Poems, 51).

The gap between life and death is very narrow, in the poem as well as in Eliot’s lifetime. We are able to look at spring from the perspective of a corpse. We hear a voice from beneath the ground; a voice that tells us what the world looks like from underneath. As the poem continues, we realise that the buried are not dead yet. They rise from their graves. A resurrection occurs.
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylea!
‘That corpse you planted last year in the garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
(Eliot, Selected Poems, 53).
The dead bodies rise with a new awareness. The people realise that April is coming disguised as the year’s cruellest month. But they foresee more than only that. They also foresee an advancing catastrophe:

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal (Eliot, 65).

The poem oversteps boundaries, moves through time and between bodies by expressing emotions rather than by putting forward an argument. However, the poem is not as incoherent as it may have appeared to be at first sight. On closer observation, we may realise that these seemingly disjointed images indeed form a linear whole. The connecting links between these fragments simply do not draw attention to themselves so easily. Yet, the poem is a close representation of an ugly, empty and aimless land, simply a ‘waste land’ of Eliot’s time. It is a representation of ‘the shipwreck of civilizations, about the elements and the seasons, about rites and mysteries and trade, and lust, and cosmogonies, and Eastern initiations, and the Tarot pack, and Tradition, and the humblest nonsense songs.’ (Cattaui, 47).

James Joyce’s Ulysses, which Joyce took seven years to write, and a novel that is full of bizarre and most uncommon language, was in deed to become a major success and a prime example of modernist literature despite its prior banishment in Britain. Joyce’s language was too excessive, his sexual references too scandalous. According to Ellmann, ‘an art which failed to suggest that its characters were capable of defecating, urinating, masturbating, copulating, menstruating, was for Joyce a falsification.’ (Ellmann, 76). ‘We watch ... [his characters] performing bodily functions of a kind strictly excluded from fiction hitherto’ (Carey, 20). There are numerous examples to illustrate this point, of which I have chosen one. The incident occurs in the chapter Nausicaa, where Bloom and Gerty Mac Dowell encounter without actually exchanging words. After watching Gerty for some time, Bloom gets excited by her looks and masturbates.

And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft! (Joyce, 477).

Being held as a prisoner of war, Joyce was released in 1915 by the Austrian government under the condition of remaining neutral, which did not cause him too much of a problem, for Joyce preferred the Austrian Empire to the British state. The latter he considered to be too violent and brutal. Joyce, detesting violence of any kind, stood up for a ‘liberation’ of his country, which resulted into his masterpiece Ulysses, where he ‘believes in the supremacy of the word over force.’ (Manganiello, 99). This he brings home to the reader in his two characters Bloom and Stephen. On page 745, in the chapter Eumaeus, Bloom exclaims that he ‘resent[s] violence or intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything.’ (Joyce, 745). The whole movement of the book is one against brutality, for love, not hatred ought to be the aim of life.

Joyce was the first - and very likely also the last - who applied so great a multiplicity and diversity of different writing techniques, whereby each technique is capable of bringing about a different range of experience and consciousness. However, there is almost no action or adventure as we are used to encountering in traditional novels. Only the events of one single day namely the 16thof June 1904 are described and, yet, the novel is a combination of both the historical and the narrative. ‘Ulysses recounts a portion of history and in doing so must fail to tell a story in the conventional sense’ (Faulkner, 51).

It is not only university students but also prominent critics such as Richard Aldington, who dare claim that both Eliot and Joyce’s writings severely lack logical coherence and, instead, abound with irrationality and obscurity. According to Faulkner, Aldington regards Joyce as a ‘great undisciplined talent’ (Aldington, in: Faulkner, 17) and he also states that the incoherence of the age need not result into an incoherence in art. Aldington’s criticism of Ulysses, which appeared in The English Review in April 1921, was reason enough for Eliot to counter - attack. In his article ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’ in The Dial LXXV, 5, (November, 1923), Eliot brings forward his view on Ulysses as follows:

Mr. Joyce’s book ... has not been out long enough for any attempt at a complete measurement of its place and significance to be possible ... I hold this book to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape ... Mr. Aldington treated Mr. Joyce as a prophet of chaos ... He finds the book ... to be an invitation of chaos, and an expression of feelings which are perverse, partial, and a distortion of reality ... I have chosen Mr. Aldington to attack on this present issue .. In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him ... It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history ... Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is ... a step toward making the modern world possible for art, toward that order and form which Mr. Aldington so earnestly desires. (Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’ in: Faulkner, A Modernist Reader, 100 - 103).

Whether these severe allegations are justifiable or not, is not in my power to say. Many people criticise Eliot and Joyce’s seemingly fragmentary and incoherent way of expressing themselves. But how can a period full of uncertainties, instability and emptiness be better depicted than in the way Eliot and Joyce did it? How can a period that lacked coherence and linearity be possibly related to in a perfectly coherent rhetorical style? For ‘all genuine poetry is in a sense the formation of private spheres out of public chaos: and therefore we would remind those who annually criticize us for lack of homogeneity...that on the whole it is environment which conditions values, not values which form environment.’ (Auden, in: Hynes, 31).

Critics have commented on both The Waste Land and Ulysses for more than half a century. They have interpreted and analysed both of them by parsing each and every sentence into its components. Every one of the critics has approached this task in a different way. However, not everything has yet been said about the works themselves. The wide range of references alone Eliot is alluding to needs intense and deep study. Having said that, there is one thing that may be worth taking into consideration when discussing world - famous writers such as Eliot or Joyce:

As soon as a book is used in the classroom or the lecture hall it begins to be talked about. What I am suggesting is not that we should ban all such talk. I am only urging that we recognise the kind of destruction that takes place when students are made to analyse a page of a Golding novel, a portion of The Waste Land, a poem by Yeats. I think we should recognise that we do a great disservice to the great modern writers by placing them at the centre of so many syllabuses and spending so much time ‘explaining’ their work. (Josipovici, 117).

The rapid changes in society triggered off new forms and conventions in literature as could be clearly seen in two of the most discussed of modernist works Ulysses and The Waste Land. Upon analysing these new forms and conventions, there is but one thing we have to bear in mind: As soon as we try to discuss a modern piece of literature and express our feelings about it, we often make, at the same time, an attempt to fill in the gaps thereby imposing linearity on it. This is exactly what we must avoid doing. We must not put meaning into the fiction by linking up its fragmented parts. Had Joyce and Eliot wished to express themselves in a different way, they would have undoubtedly done so. Just as Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys in their books Mrs. Dalloway and Good Morning Midnight constanty refer to Clarissa and Sasha’s pasts, so the recollection of war in modernist texts returns persistently. If the writers chose to relate to this time in a fragmented, incoherent way, we should not force any kind of order onto the pieces but try to understand them the way they are: as fragmented representations of a fragmented world.

Cattaui, Georges, T. S. Eliot, transl. by Pace, Claire & Stewart, Jean, London: The Merlin Press, 1966.

Carey, John, The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880 - 1939, London: faber and faber, 1992.

Drew, Elizabeth, T. S. Eliot. The Design of His Poetry, London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950.

Eliot, Thomas, Stearnes, ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’, 1923, in: Faulkner, Peter, ed., A Modernist Reader, 100 - 104, London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1986.

Eliot, Thomas, Stearnes, Selected Poems, London: faber and faber, 1961.

Ellmann, Richard, The Consciousness of Joyce, London: faber & faber, 1977.

Farman, John, The Very Bloody History of Britain, London: Piccadilly Press Ltd., 1992.

Faulkner, Peter, Modernism, London: Routledge, 1993.

Hough, Graham, Image and Experience. Studies in a Literary Revolution, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd., 1960.

Hynes, Samuel, The Auden Generation. Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s, London: The Bodley Head, 1976.

Josipovici, Gabriel, The Lessons of Modernism, London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1977.

Joyce, James, Ulysses, London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Levenson, Michael, H., A Genealogy of Modernism. A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908 - 1922, Cambridge: CUP, 1984.

Manganiello, Dominic, Joyce’s Politics, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

Stevenson, John, British Society. 1914 - 45, Penguin Books, Suffolk: The Chaucer Press, 1984.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown’, 1924, in: Faulkner, Peter, ed., A Modernist Reader, 112 - 128, London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1986.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Modern Fiction’, 1919, in: Faulkner, Peter, ed., A Modernist Reader, 105 - 111, London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1986.


Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, New York: OUP, 1959, VII, Croessmann Collection.

Ackroyd, Peter, T. S. Eliot, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984, picture 39, by Cecil Beaton.

[1] Woolf, Virginia, ‘Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown’, 1924, in: Faulkner, Peter, A Modernist Reader, 113.
[2] See, for instance, Wyndham Lewis’s description of Bestre in ‘Bestre’ 1927.

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