Sunday, November 17, 2013

`Reading in Wartime'

Paul Fussell’s Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 1989) includes a chapter titled “Reading in Wartime,” borrowed from Edwin Muir’s poem of the same title. Fussell says Muir offers Dr. Johnson and Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich as “models of the un-military and the un-subservient and the supremely human,” and quotes these lines: 

“Boswell's turbulent friend
And his deafening verbal strife,
Ivan Ilych's death
Tell me more about life,
The meaning and the end
Of our familiar breath,
Both being personal,
Than all the carnage can,
Retrieve the shape of man,
Lost and anonymous.”

Muir writes as a civilian during World War II, and suggests that even on the homefront some degree of regimentation is inevitable. Just as soldiers must sacrifice autonomy and individuality to function in a military unit, so too with those of us who didn’t serve.  With the coming of peace, Fussell notes, we can return, in Muir’s words, to “the original face, / The individual soul.” That sounds suspiciously Zen-like, and Muir’s scheme is a little too optimistically schematic. 

At the start of the poem, he writes: “Boswell by my bed, / Tolstoy on my table.” Coupled with the title, I thought: Good, stout, consoling reading. Such works sustain us throughout life, not merely in times of war, because their main characters – one historical, the other fictional – are quintessentially human (I read Tolstoy’s character more sympathetically, less satirically, than some). If I read Muir correctly, however, his point is almost utopian. Johnson and Ivan Ilyich (or Boswell and Tolstoy) “Tell me more about life…Than all the carnage can.” Well, no. Books don’t supplant our experience of life but supplement it, and vice versa. It’s not “Books, good; life (or war), bad.” Bellicosity will always claim an enormous share of life. We are the bellicose species. We read Homer and Waugh, in part, for the moral dilemmas and distinctions they pose. Fussell, in reference to Muir’s “the original face, / The individual soul,” cites the popularity of Joseph Wood Krutch’s Samuel Johnson, published in 1944, but adds, “…sometimes even the image of the brave, stable, tough-minded Johnson was of no use.” He goes on to cite a passage in Robin Maugham’s account in Come to Dust (1945) of a “ghastly” tank battle in North Africa: 

“I sat down in the small tent built from the side of a 15 cwt. truck and began to read Boswell’s Johnson, but it could not attract my interest from what had been before. While the bulky doctor tapped his way along the railings of eighteenth-century London I could hear the screamings of a man trapped to death.”

1 comment:

George said...

The Oxford edition that combines Johnson's and Boswell's accounts of their tour to the Hebrides has a preface by the editor, remarking that he did some of his work next to an artillery piece in his charge near Salonika.

Muir's poem "The Town Betrayed" captures--I imagine--some of the feeling of the late 1930s, with states arming and trouble expected. The poem you quote I had not seen.

I know that you do not much care for Yeats, but the section "The Stare's Nest at My Window" says something about continuity and chaos that I think of now and then.