The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell views World War I through the lens of literature. Examining, at turns, satire, myth and ritual, theatricality, and Arcadian recourses (among other topics), Fussell interrogates the "drift of modern history," which "domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable." The catastrophe that begins this, he holds, is the Great War.

Much of my interest in the book stemmed not only from my interest in literary criticism, but also in my discovery last year of some pictures of my great-grandfather, who fought for the US during the war (one of these photos is below; he's sitting at lower left). Although he died before I was born, I've wondered how his experience influenced his life and his career as a painter; whether it's possible to "see" the imprint it had on his life in the stroke of a brush, the turn of a line, or whether that's all just an impossible grasping at straws. 

stephen wwi.jpg

The Fussell, of course, did little to answer any of those questions, but it did provide much food for thought. One of the passages that resonates in particular is the search for a rhetoric to capture the war:

... how are actual events deformed by the application to them of metaphor, rhetorical comparison, prose rhythm, assonance, alliteration, allusion, and sentence structures and connectives implying clear causality? Is there any way of compromising between the reader's expectations that written history ought to be interesting and meaningful and the cruel fact that much of what happens---all of what happens?---is inherently without 'meaning'?"

Definitely worth a read if you're interested in the period, in modernism, in patterns of thought, &c., &c.