Friday, August 04, 2006

The Return of the Old Lie

Virginia Woolf was only artistically right when she said, “The modern world began on or about December 1910.” She referred to painting and poetry and they are, like all arts, always the canary in the coal mine. The bursting of forms in images and languages was both liberating and threatening; the few people who knew anything about these esoteric and disparate happenings at the time wondered what they meant.

In our era, the wretched violence and physical disrespect contained in hip hop and rap music preceded, foreshadowed, and expressed a sick American spirit that would go into Afghanistan and Iraq not knowing what was wrong with itself and convinced, in fact, that nothing was wrong.

By general agreement, August 4, 1914 is, in political and economic terms, the beginning of the modern world. As railway-rolling German armies slipped across the Belgian border in the morning fog, world trade stood at levels so high they would never again be reached until the 1990s. German chemistry, English poetry, French painting, and Italian music had just begun to achieve artistic heights that in some ways have never been repeated. The illusion of civilization was everywhere robust and growing.

And it was everywhere shattered in a relatively brief period of time. At Christmas 1914 there was a spontaneous truce on the Western Front, with singing and international football. By 1919 the consensus figure for total military dead is 9 million, apparently excluding post-war early veteran deaths from wounds, exposure, malnutrition and despair. Britannica gives 13 million civilian dead. Then there are the estimated 8 million killed in the Russian Revolution and Armenian Genocide, which it is difficult to exclude conceptually from the war’s cost.

Finally, “The global mortality rate from the 1918/1919 pandemic is not known, but is estimated at 2.5% – 5% of the human population, with 20% of the world population suffering from the disease to some extent. Influenza may have killed as many as 25 million in its first 25 weeks; in contrast, AIDS killed 25 million in its first 25 years. Influenza spread across the world, killing more than 25 million in six months; some estimates put the total killed at over twice that number, possibly even 100 million.” –Wikipedia, “Spanish flu”

A figure often cited for the flu epidemic is 70 million dead worldwide, and again it is difficult to exclude these from the effects of the war. On an US Census-estimated 1920 world population base of 1,960 million, 100 million war deaths gives humanity a 5% mortality rate. Though this pales in efficiency by comparison to nature’s unaided estimated 25% mortality rate during the Black Death around 1350, the impact of 100 million manmade deaths is no paltry achievement.

Celebrating it, however, is another matter. Early in WWI the English high-society magazine Punch published a poem by a Canadian lieutenant-colonel that would enter the pantheon of official patriotism from Canada to the US to Britain to South Africa to Australia and New Zealand. This sentimental effusion is, in Virginia Woolf’s terminology, definitively pre-1910.

Dr. John McCrae
May 3, 1915

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Relatively unknown in the US, perhaps because of its familiar use of Horace’s OdesIII.2.13, is the infantryman’s answer in true modern poetry to the high schmaltziness of the medical corps given above. The usual Horace translation is, “Sweet and Fitting it is to Die for your Fatherland.” Using one of the distinguishing tropes of modernism Wilfrid Owen shows death so realistically that he savagely undercuts any notion of glory.

On the 92nd anniversary of the beginning of the War to End All Wars (which was swiftly followed, as Sellar and Yeatman pointed out in 1066 And All That, by “the Peace to End All Peaces,”) it is right and proper to remember the dead. All of them, civilians in equality with military.

Owen was killed eight days before the end of the war in yet another senseless offensive. McCrae predeceased him by ten months, of pneumonia, a little early for the Spanish flu but just as fatal.

By Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 - March, 1918

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.


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