Story and history : exploring the Great War
This essay suggests that the creative imagination proved to be the most effective guide to the experiences of the Great War. The argument is that the rational consciousness and its received, discursive language proved unable to explore many of the dimensions of an experience that was characterized by the irrational. That most precious of heritages--the language-actually prevented people from seeing and saying what was going on. Most of the memoirs demonstrate a tension between that which is recognized by the rational consciousness and that which is rendered as there by the creative imagination. The various tactics employed by the memoirists to deal with that tension (most interestingly by the creation of a persona who stands in for the memoirist) are revealing in themselves. In exploring these issues we will discover that memoirs are actually a subset of fiction, and must be seen and read as such. We learn to trust the tale rather than the teller of it. The novels, too, will demonstrate a dichotomy between novelist and novel. There too, as in the memoirs, we discover that the imagination can lead us into places not readily available to the discursive mind. Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End gives us an extraordinary picture of a civilization bound and impotent, helpless to free itself from the dead hand of its past except by some apocalyptic smash-up. It suggests in a number of ways precisely how and why European civilization seemed in the end to be so eager for the war that would destroy it. H.G.Wells's Mr. Britling Sees it Through is one of the very few contemporary renditions of the war that sees it clearly as nightmare and horror. Worse, Britling must realize that even though this nightmare may consume his son he can do nothing about it. It is a lesson of impotence that is enforced. Finally D.H.Lawrence's Kangaroo starts to explore some of the implications of the war. In the end, as a result of his own experiences in England during the war, Somers has lost his faith in the England he once so cared for, in civilization, in democracy, in any kind of political action, in connecting. It is a staggering loss.