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War and Words: Broken Writing and Modest Inflections of Brutality

Cornelius Crowley

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From Henry James to Paul Celan

  • 1 For an example of the historical turn in the study of modernism, see Trudi Tate’s 1998 book, Modern (...)

1Recent years have seen a spectacular and largely consensual historical turn in the study of modernism. Books on the cultural and political context out of which modernists writers wrote are now legion.1 For many, this has been experienced with a sigh of relief and a sense that the imperative of theory ─ the “linguistic turn” ─ epitomised in a dogmatic misreading of the Derridean axiom, il n’y a pas de hors-texte, has been lifted. Which implies that literary scholars can get back to the real life of real writers. This can involve an enhanced sense of the implications carried by the dates of birth and death of a cohort of great writers: Henry James (1843-1916); Oscar Wilde (1854-1900); Marcel Proust (1871-1922), James Joyce (1882-1941); D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930); Ezra Pound (1885-1972) T.S. Eliot (1888-1965); Paul Celan (1920-1970). The oldest, Henry James, exemplary instance of the writer as “master,” (or, as we shall see, as one of “the ornaments of our generation”), died in 1916, the year of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme. The last-mentioned, Paul Celan, was born in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, a German-speaking Jew in Romania, his poetic oeuvre that of a bereaved survivor of the second great European (world) war. James recorded in his letters his sense of bewilderment at having lived to witness a moment which, in August 1914, he qualifies as “an unanimity of woe.” Paul Celan lived long enough after the second war to write poems in which he tries to come to terms with his calling to poetic utterance in the German language. And given that thinking and questioning are the ineluctable modality of the poetic, and given that language is a call to the poetic disclosure of Being, he survived to travel on a pilgrimage to meet Martin Heidegger, in order to question the “thinker.” Whatever the magnitude of everything that separates James from Celan ─ the canonical centrality of the novelist in contrast to the marginality of the poet, the distance between James’s controlled art of the novel and Celan’s enigmatic practice of the German lyric, or the fact that Celan writes after the consummation in the death-camps of a European 20th century experience which James could not have imagined (for that is the thrust of the letter to Rhoda Broughton, written in the first days of the Great War, out of his sense that the powers of the imagination buckle, being unable to fathom the “unthinkable massacre and misery” that is hidden “just across the Channel, blue as paint today”), both of them write in order to question an ordeal which beggars their understanding. Both of them touch on the extremity of failure in words. To call this failure “sublime” is justified, in the case of Celan’s poem and James’s letter of August 10 1914, on condition that we rid our idea of the sublime of the slightest suggestion of aesthetic indulgence or delectation.

2The retrospection in Henry James’s letter to Rhoda Broughton involves the ironic consideration of a tide he had long believed to be the buoyant tide of progress: “The tide that bore us along was then all the time moving to this as its grand Niagara.” Celan scrutinises the figure of Martin Heidegger who meets him in his “hütte” in Todnauberg in the summer of 1967, while the poet walks or stands with him in the hope that something (what?) will come from the words spoken by the thinker : “einer Hoffnung, heute,/auf eines Denkenden/Kommendes/Wort” (A hope, today,/for a thinker’s/word/to come,/in the heart).

3Two close readings of the poem, by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1986) and Pierre Joris (1988), whose English language translation is quoted here, are an essential guide. The irony of ironies is that it is Celan who performs his 1967 pilgrimage in the hope of a word which…might amend? ... might set aright a time out of joint?... might resonate with the burden of the “unanimity of woe”? James’s retrospection is carried out in his moment of black epiphany, when the extinction of his hopes and expectations is brought home to home. For James, the hopes and expectations bear on the process of civilisation: the forward movement of “the tide that bore us.” For Celan, the hope has been honed down to the solitary power of thought and language, practised as a possibility of poetic accommodation within the narrow ground of the lyric poem or, so he had hoped, within the ascetic confines of the thinker’s Hütte. It is this intensity of expectation and investment we shall briefly examine, in order to reflect on the sea-change that can be plotted by way of these two figures, Henry James and Paul Celan, and through the acknowledgement that of the cohort of writers we have mentioned, Oscar Wilde did not live to face the 1914 “unanimity of woe,” while the others invented ways through which to negotiate the ordeal, the most successful and resolute in the capacity to treat the war as a distraction from his artistic calling being James Joyce, whose novel, published in 1922, standing as the emblematic achievement of high modernism, is set in Dublin in 1904 and is superbly immune to the “woe,” so that the novel is devoid of the slightest proleptic suggestion as to what, insofar as Joyce published his novel in 1922, did lie ahead. This absence of any prophetic dimension in Ulysses would, in the context of a post WW2 socialist-realist critique of modernist writing be castigated (Lukacs, 1977) as being symptomatic of the myopia of “bourgeois” formalist literature. In the case of D.H. Lawrence, we find evidence of a faculty of deflection, adopted as a tactical and intuited response to the foreboding that the “unanimity of woe” is not to be outstared by attempting to face it head on. This grace of deflection, for Lawrence as for Celan, involves the writer’s drawing on the assistance or sustenance of all that is not human, but that is not however transcendent to the plane or location in which a human condition is both accommodated and exposed.

4Lawrence’s powers of deflection are more robust than those of Celan, who begins his evocation of Todnauberg with an inventory of healing plants: “Arnika, Augentrost.” We shall see that the Lawrencian therapy is an affair of grace and accident, so that if there is to be a possible alleviation of the “woe,” the remedy is not to be looked for in any hope, Hoffnung, that what will come about can be inscribed within the programme of our expectations. If there is to be an alleviation of the “woe,” it is by way of the devious and maverick sleights of the writer: an affair of chance and insouciance, of the writer’s refusal to assume responsibility for the public reverberations of the “woe,” while also abandoning any anticipation that through the substance and high seriousness of the poetic achievement the massive actuality of the war, which is the cause of this “unanimity of woe,” might be offset or cancelled, or in any sense transcended. In this respect, we shall see, Lawrence is a peculiarly diffident and dainty modernist. But this peculiarity is I believe essentially a part of an “English” literary culture, where the lesser expectations placed upon any sacramentally hypostasised powers of the Word may have enabled Lawrence, despite his frequent lapses into bombast, to steer clear of the ambition of taking up the gauntlet for a titanic confrontation between great art and great war.

Prose, poetry, and theatre of war

  • 2 For the canonical version of the English great tradition of the novel, F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradi (...)

5If we go through the textbook episodes in the creation of a literature of bourgeois modernity, what is striking is the pervasive indifference to the affairs of the battlefield. As if a literature of enterprise and self-definition, in prose or in poetry, had to explore a theatre far more unpredictable than the theatre of war. In Don Quixote the hero exemplifies his comic incapacity to grasp this. By contrast, Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe do understand that the non-epic condition of heroines and heroes supposes their ability to make the most of their opportunities. In Sterne’s Tristram Shandy the theatre of war (Flanders) is merely the location of the endless sieges chronicled by Uncle Toby in his predictable and repetitive yarns. In Jane Austen’s world, the great affair is marriage, and if red-coated soldiers have a dashing charm, the task for the heroine is to learn to decipher more durable qualities in a man. Charles Dickens? Sentimentality and the city, verbosity and the cash-nexus. George Eliot? The theatre of intellect and moral idealism. Thomas Hardy? The stifling of genius, great hope and expectation beaten down and defeated.2 Hardy’s verse epic, The Dynasts, written in the first decade of the 20th century, offers a multi-perspective vision of the Napoleonic wars as an epochal event. It is the one exception (and significantly it is not a work of prose) where an English writer who is clearly part of the great tradition within which D.H Lawrence would take his place confronts in words the theatre of war. And if we look briefly at French literature in prose the predominant impression is again that the art of the novel is deployed après la bataille: Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, or indeed Mme Bovary, are all called to draw up a battle-plan for engagements which do not abide by the laws of war (Robert, 1972)). And whether we invoke Wordsworth’s The Prelude or Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, again the correlation is between the literary endeavour of poetry and the measuring of the self against possibilities and expectations which have been liberated and cast adrift as a result of the post-heroic eclipse of the theatre of war. It is not presumed that the destiny of the modern heroine or modern hero is hostage to either the glories or the disasters of war.

6And it is this which set the stage for the supreme accomplishment of the novel of polite, “civilised” ordeal. Henry James did not directly confront the battlefield of the American civil war, where his younger brothers introjected what the 20th century would learn to call the belated “trauma” of battle (Edel, 1978). If The Portrait of a Lady, published by James in 1881, the same year as the publication of Ben Hur by Lew Wallace, a former Civil War (Union) general, is a far greater book than an epic of war or a pious epic of faith, it is because James the writer, and the successive generation of his readers, have subscribed to the civilised postulate that the moral drama of the heroine’s choice of a husband, and the subsequent decision as to what she should do once it has been brought home to her consciousness that she has made a mistake, has an intensity equal to the turmoil of any battlefield. If we shall subsequently refer to a process of “Brutalization” (George Mosse, 1986), Henry James’s refinement of the drama to the drama of consciousness, coupled with the confinement of tensions within the polite, urbanised space of the modern city and the sites of the tourist’s pilgrimage, stands as the conclusive note in a process of civilisation which had been played out over a longue durée, a process charted by Norbert Elias (2000) in a work first published in German in 1939, at a catastrophic moment by which, if we follow Mosse, it was already a thing of the past, following the militarisation of European societies and the brutalization of their cultures, a process unleashed through the “Niagara” (James) of August 1914.

7And if we choose to consider the relation between war and literature in the period 1815-1914 (which in the aftermath of the two 20th century great wars would be bracketed as the long European peace between Waterloo and the beginning of WW1), going through the succession of conflicts which did break out ─the Crimean war (1853-56), the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), the Russian-Japanese war (1904), the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), whatever the accusations made at the time about outrages perpetrated by the belligerents, and whatever the reverberation of the conflicts in the emerging mass-circulation press, national or imperial, there is little evidence that any of these conflicts took hold, to the point of overwhelming it, of the imagination and language of serious writers in their serious literary writing. (In their private musings or dinner-table talk, serious writers could be as obtuse and jingoistic as others, but the dispensation of European high civilisation did presume that the sacred calling of the writer was unsullied by anything debased or common. War and literature each had its separate theatre and academy. And so the lack of any sustained literary investment in the theatre of war, over a period marked by the centrality of the novel as the form expressive of the condition of modern bourgeois experience, can be explained both by the rarity of war in the experience of polite European society of the long 19th century, and by the sense that, when and where war did actually break out, the experience was not one which profoundly impinged on either the consciousness or language of the novelist or poet. In other words, there was a shared confidence that “through the long years we had seen civilisation grow and the worst become impossible” (James), a confidence which in no sense led to any bridling of the imaginative quest. Art was no less important for not having to deal with the sound of guns firing and the hooves of charging horses. It simply meant that the données with which the paradigmatic Jamesian artist worked were of a more refined and inward tenor, just as the motif of an avant-garde painter had long divested itself of the philistine iconography of peinture d’histoire.

Bewilderment, interruption, caesura

The only blot on our unanimity is that it’s such an unanimity of woe. Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I’m sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it. You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilisation grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the time moving to this as its grand Niagara ─ yet what a blessing we didn’t know it.[…] The country and the season here are of a beauty and peace, and liveliness of light, and summer grace, that make it inconceivable that just across the Channel, blue as paint today, the fields of France and Belgium are being, or about to be, given up to unthinkable massacre and misery. One is ashamed to admire, to enjoy, to take any of the normal pleasure, and the huge shining indifference of Nature strikes a chill to the heart and makes me wonder of what abysmal mystery, or villainy indeed, such a cruel smile is the expression. (James 713-714)

8Reading these words one hundred years later, our sense is that Henry James says it all (all that is to be said or the little that can be said), as if for him the sense here and now of a moment of irremediable caesura were both irrefutable and immediate. The uncrossed divide is the modest expanse of the Channel: between the south coast of England and the “fields of France and Belgium.” To this acknowledgement of spatial interruption is added the sublime disconnection between the time and “tide” of human affairs and the order of Nature, in its “huge shining indifference.” Henry James is not normally a writer attentive to the order of nature or, if he is, it is in the manner of a Florentine painter who integrates the plane of nature as the supporting order of the foregrounded space of human relations. Here however Henry James is forced by the circumstances to adopt a mode of utterance that is “unJamesian,” ominously close to that of Celan writing after the second of the great wars, and which speaks the defeat of comprehension and the severance of exchange and communication, the fracturing of space, worlds, experience.

9“The tide that bore us along was then all the time moving to this as its grand Niagara.” Whereas James in his novels and stories had been able to focus on the ironic revelation to the hero or heroine Isabel Archer, Lambert Strether, Milly Theale, John Marcher, to name but a few of his “frail vessels” of distinguished consciousness exposed to the world of the vanity of their presumptions, one here senses that Henry James has to face the revelation of the bankruptcy of the conditions on which he had founded his “house of fiction.” James did not raise his “house of fiction” on the foundations or presumptions of literary “modernism” (and for the generation of Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence he was a taken-for-granted “ornament,” yes, of the established literary scene, not a model of what they sought to achieve). In his letter of August 10,1914, James explicitly resumes a note he had sounded in his youth (Brooks, 1976): a hinting at gothic interruptions and expropriations of the self, so that the reader has the impression that in the climactic moment of August 1914 the writer who is approaching death remakes and rejuvenates himself as a practitioner of the short form of cryptic and expressive address, a writer to be read in juxtaposition to the lyric fragments of Paul Celan, or to the letter-writing of D.H. Lawrence during the same period. For James, August 1914 is thus the apocalyptic termination, a “wreck of our belief” which destroys the capacity to contemplate “liveliness of light, and summer grace” without deciphering in their charms the ironic exposure of his civilised illusions. When a few days later James writes to Edith Wharton, the rhetoric of irony and interruption is already in place, as if all that is left for the literary imagination is the admission of its own powerlessness, so that James is at last forced, not as in Yeats’s poem to “lie down in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,” but to consign to paper the redundant acknowledgement that the season is “monotonously magnificent” and that his writer’s consciousness can make nothing of what is going on “beyond.” “The season here is monotonously magnificent ─ and we look inconceivably off across the blue channel, the lovely rim, toward the nearness of the horrors that are in perpetration but beyond,” ( Letter to Edith Wharton, August 19th 1914, James 715).

10The question is thus one of reception, framing, perspective. We are suggesting here that “out of the blue” (from across the Channel “blue as paint today”), Henry James is refashioned as a lyric worker of short fragmentary utterance, in stark reversal of his conscientiously practised art of representation. In other words, James becomes here, under duress, what he and his peers did not have to be in the period between 1815 and 1914: a writer for whom the motif or donnée of warfare is now an imposing presence, not to be evaded, so that one is forced to accept that the discreet deflection of the massive fact of “massacre and misery,” by way of the event’s oblique apprehension and a correlatively broken, paratactic mode of writing, is the only available art through which to deal with the aesthetic, moral, existential or political challenge of the conflict. (Here the piling-up of the complementary epithets is on our part a further admission of the rare difficulty of the task for the writer, with the result that the poetic response can only be a reflexive one, insofar as the confrontation with the event requires the deflection of the latter, its verbal channeling through abstraction and allegory, so as to render it receivable by the reader as a figuring of “an unanimity of woe” (or so as to propose the unspecified blanket qualification “unanimity of woe” as the only available idiom through which the writer will fail to represent what is being enacted on the other side of the expanse of water “blue as paint"). The Jamesian art of representation of the world is thus at the last turned inside out, exposing a caesura at the heart of all representation.

The touchstone of the ordinary, militarisation, poeticisation

The War finished me: it was the spear through the side of all sorrows and hopes. I had been walking in Westmorland, rather happy, with water-lilies twisted round my hat ─ big, heavy, white and gold water-lilies that we found in a pool high up ─ and girls who had come out on a spree and who were having tea in the upper room of an inn shrieked with laughter. And I remember also we crouched under the loose wall on the moors and the rain flew by in streams, and the wind came rushing through the chinks in the wall behind one’s head ─ and we shouted songs, and I imitated music hall turns, whilst the other men crouched under the wall and I pranked in the rain on the turf in the gorse, and Kotilianski groaned Hebrew music ─ Ranani Sadekim Badanoi.

It seems like another life ─and we were happy─ four men. Then we came down to Barrow in Furness, and saw that war was declared. And we all went mad. (D.H. Lawrence, Letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith, 31 January 1915, Letters, vol. II, 268).

11Again the writing is retrospective, as in James’s letter to Rhoda Broughton. (In the immediate aftermath of his visit to Heidegger Paul Celan will interrogate what was, by way of his recollection of the meeting, so that the poem is therefore retrospective. However the crux of the focus is modal rather than temporal, more on the unachieved possibility of the encounter, on what might have been voiced by way of the mutual exposure between poet and thinker). There is an uncanny suggestiveness lurking in Lawrence’s evocation of a day spent “walking in Westmorland, rather happy,” the suggestion that boundaries are being irrevocably crossed: from the religion of flowers to the blood of sacrifice. The “spear through the side” marks the consummation of the Redeemer’s blood-sacrifice on the cross. Lawrence here identifies with the passion of Christ which, in the Garden of Olives, the Redeemer had confronted as a “chalice” not to be refused. Does this mean that for Lawrence, or for a generation, there could be no resting in the budding promise of the “religion of flowers” (Derrida, 1974), that there must be blood, or that blood will out? Certainly by January 1915 the blood-letting or blood-sacrifice of European societies was in full flow and there could be no going back to the innocence of which the “water-lilies twisted round my hat” are the floral emblem. The passage quoted from Lawrence’s letter is the evocation of a day out on the moors in the company of jeunes filles en fleurs. Their “shrieking with laughteris laden with the promise of sexual rapture, a promise as yet intact and still to come. As yet, is on our part a further inflection of the idiom of the New Testament, justified insofar as the scene evoked is steeped in the temporality of a waiting for rapture. The girls “having tea in the upper room of an inn” are awaiting what Pentecostal coming? Then there is a turning back to the men: “It seems like another life ─ we were happy ─ four men,” as if the burden of sacrifice, of the crossing of the threshold from the flowers to the letting of blood (by way of the mindless Dionysian excess of the rapturous music, which means that the men were already mad, ecstatically so, as Lawrence “pranked in the rain on the turf in the gorse”) were the special prerogative or original sin of the men. Various forms of madness are thus intimated in the letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith. One can read in the evocation of the climactic transport from the “turf in the gorse” to Barrow-in- Furness, where they learn that “war was declared. And we all went mad,” an ominous suggestion of irrevocability, as if a frolicsome rapture cannot be consented to without its necessary fulfillment through the madness of death given and death consented to, a consummation orchestrated through war and the militarisation of whole societies.

12Like James, Lawrence dwells in his letters written during the war on the indifferent beauty of the countryside. The transitions and caesurae are however far more abrupt and hysterical than in the case of James’s August 1914 letter to Rhoda Broughton. A letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell on May 5, 1916, is symptomatic of the loss of balance (or the impossibility of any balance) in the art of composition as practised as an art of verbal composure and continuity. For in the organisation of Lawrence’s address to Lady Ottoline Morrell there is absolutely no connection between what he writes about the war and what he goes on to remark about the beauty of the countryside, or with the passing reference to the “new novel” which he has begun:

I don’t believe fundamentally in the Christian-democratic principle. But surely it ought to be saved from the rats. Can we never be shocked into consciousness of our true position? Or are we possessed by a mad, perverse desire to be devoured by rats, like some loathsome fanatic. In the name of common-sense, isn’t it worse to be devoured by unclean creatures like our allies than to admit the frank enmity of Germany.

I don’t know what will happen to us particularly. We shall go on here, Murry and I, till we are made to work. One can do no other. I have no conscientious objections. I don’t care much who is killed and who isn’t, who kills and who doesn’t. But oh, I can’t stand this unclean and fakir-like mania for self-desecration, which has come over England so strongly: for there is no doubt that the government does represent the country. […]

The country is very beautiful, with tangles of blackthorn and solid mounds of gorse blossom, and bluebells beneath, and myriads of violets, and so many […] ferns unrolling finely and delicately. I have begun a new novel: a thing that is a stranger to me even as I write it. I don’t know what the end will be. (Letters, vol. II, 604)

13No more than a Mallarméan coup de dès might abolish le hasard, the writing of a “new novel” will not recompose or suture the fabric connecting what, earlier in the letter, Lawrence had called “a meaningless war on Germany” (603), or indeed “these last events in England and Ireland” ─ by which he was referring to the Easter rising in Dublin ─, to the contemplation of the “ferns unrolling finely and delicately.” The only aesthetic which is available or operative will be one of deflection, obliquity, brokenness, if the writing is not to lapse into dogmatic bombast. In a letter to Dollie Radford, 16 May 1916, refuge is again sought in the celebration of natural beauty: “The country here has been, and is, perfectly lovely with bluebells and primroses, and the sea-pinks now coming out, all along the edge of the sea. I do wish there was peace, so we could have a happy time together” (Letters, vol. II, 605).

14The bombast is here avoided, along with the madness, as the spectacle of the flowers is taken in as an antidote to the war and as an opportunity to voice a feeble wish that “there was peace, so we would have a happy time together.” However the thrust, whether poetic, literary, anthropological, civilisational, of Lawrence’s letters during the war suggests that the sequence sketched in the evocation of his coming down to Barrow-on-Furness to learn of the declaration of war is not reversible and, what’s more, that the blooding is irrevocably there, already lurking in the purity of the “water-lilies twisted” round his hat. Lawrence’s engagement with all of this, which I here flesh out as implying the promise of the flowers and the inevitability of the blooding, suggests that there is no option of facile evasion, that the enterprise of writing goes beyond the expression of a wish that “there was peace, so we could have a happy time together.” The broken writing of the modernist response to war can be neither a fantasy writing of wishes by way of the regression to the religion of flowers, nor a sacramental achievement of wish fulfillment where the modernist artwork would stand as the atonement and overcoming of brokenness.

15The wartime letters repeatedly come back to the condition of madness ─ collective, individual, within, without ─, at times suggesting that the mad rapture of singular experience might be an antidote to the common madness of crowd or nation, while at other times suggesting that such distinctions are evasive. On September 13, 1914, in a letter to Edward Marsh, Lawrence notes that “Of course in war all the madnesses come out in a man, that it is the fault of war not of a man or a nation” (Letters 214-15). Writing to Lady Ottoline Morrell on May 14 1915, Lawrence celebrates an intrinsic madness proper to the unadulterated forms of the natural order: “Everything has a touch of delirium ─ the blackbird on the wall is […] delirium, even the apple-blossom. And when I see a snake winding rapidly in the marshy places, I think I am mad” (339). However the assured celebration of the pure “delirium” quickly mutates, by way of the snake, into the collective frenzy and madness of men, as the letter goes on to address the sinking of the Lusitania and then returns to the question of the war with Germany, by way of the reverberation of catastrophes in the medium of the press:

It is not a question of me, it is the world of men. The world of men is dreaming, it has gone mad in its sleep, and a snake is strangling it, but it can’t wake up.

When I read of the Lusitania, and of the riots in London, I know it is so. I think soon we must get up and try to stop it. Let us wait a little longer. Then when we cannot bear it any more, we must try to wake up the world of men, which has gone mad in its sleep.

I cannot bear it much longer, to let the madness get stronger and stronger possession. Soon we in England shall go fully mad, with hate. I too hate the Germans so much, I could kill every one of them. Why should they goad us to this frenzy of hatred, why should we be tortured to bloody madness, when we are only grieved in our souls, and heavy. (Letters, vol. II, 340).

Brutality and its possible inflection or deflection

16Lawrence’s wartime letters, by way of the comparison between the 30th January 1915 Letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith and the May 5, 1916 letter to Lady Ottoline Morrel, suggest the impossible challenge which is involved in the attempt to write in or about a time of total war: there is the temptation to take refuge in the contemplation of nature and there is the facile indulgence of bombast or armchair commentary on the grand politics of the conflict. Of course “Poetry makes nothing happen” (Auden), and the broken writing of literary modernism can neither assuage nor make meaning of the “unanimity of woe” which James so quickly intimated (in accordance with what is an implacable law stipulating that insofar as he had placed great expectation in the ongoing process of civilisation, he immediately comprehended the lesson of the dark epiphany through which it was brought home to him that the hope was misplaced). The impossible challenge is taken up as the imperative of trying to say it right, however devious the strategy that is adopted, Joycean proliferation or the telegram laconism of Hemingway.

  • 3 I am drawing extensively from, quoting from, the paper entitled “‘All of Us’ : D.H. Lawrence’s Firs (...)

17For D.H. Lawrence, the challenge involved the endeavour to compile “a tiny book of poems of the present day” and give it the people as the “war literature they are looking for,” as he wrote to his agent J.B. Pinker in December 1916. Drawing here on a paper given in June 2015 in Paris by Kate McLoughlin,3 I will briefly evoke Lawrence’s strategy of deflection as (perhaps) the only way that the public and programmatic nature of the category of war writing or war poetry might be complied with, by way of a capacity not to give the people what it is commonly presumed they are looking for. Lawrence’s 31 poems, published “for the first time in full under Lawrence’s title All of Us in Christopher Pollnitz’s edition of Lawrence's Collected Poems” (McLoughlin), are based on Lawrence’s translation into English of the versions in German drawn up by the Egyptologist Heinrich Schäfer, who in 1901, “is carrying out excavations outside Cairo and has noticed that the fellaheen assisting on the digs are singing interesting songs” (McLaughlin). Here is the opening poem of the sequence, entitled “Farewell and Adieu” which, McLaughlin tells us, is based on Shafër’s Song 46, “one of three under the title “Difficult Parting”:

When in the morning I rose to depart, my love came to say farewell.
She wept bitterly, hiding her face in her kerchief. I said, ‘Why then!’
She said to me, ‘Stay three hours, to comfort me.’ ─ Such is a girl!
Do not ask me, Almighty God, to part from her again.

18As McLaughlin comments, “that’s the entire poem.” So what does it mean to say that this is the “war literature they are looking for”? It is certainly not a literature of the battle-field, since there are no words on the page which could compete with the thunder of guns and, as James had understood, there can be no faculty of restored relation across the expanse of “the Channel, blue as paint today.” Shäfer has given the songs of the Egyptian fellaheen the rhythm and brevity of a medieval German ballad, a form rediscovered by the German romantics, and which will later mutate into the fractured lyricism of Paul Celan. Lawrence translates this into English and offers it as a poetry of war. Which is to make of war the catastrophic precipitation of the human fatality of leavetaking, carried out under the auspices of promises given, and which are just as inevitably promises broken. As if men went to war in order to enact their control of women by way of the battlefield evasion of the intimate drama of “leavetaking.” The breaking of promises and engagements is the enigmatic performative law of this poetic speech act (a law of invalidation or “infelicity” that is in accordance with the suggestions made by Jacques Derrida in his Homeric disagreement with John Searle (Derrida, 1990): that promises are promises insofar as they are fated to be broken, unfulfilled, at least in the ordinary sense of what we mean by fulfilment. As in the logic of dreams or the logic of the traditional tale, we can divine that the speaker’s prayer, “Do not ask me, Almighty God, to part from her again” will indeed be answered, so that after the present leavetaking he will never have to “part from her again,” because there will be no meeting again, the caesura of war having simplified things so that the ordinary difficulties of leavetaking and fidelity will have been liquidated by the unquestionably performative force of weaponry.

19A thing of small mercies, if this is the “war literature” the people are looking for (even when they pounce on the communiqués of the war-machine published in the war-press). The implication of Lawrence’s offering is to suggest that for the writer to propose any more substantial or any less brokenly enigmatic response to the massive actuality of war would be to collude in the process of brutalization (Mosse) which, rather than the process of civilisation (Elias), had been under way since August 1914 (and for long before, in ways that the implicit cruelty and terror of James’s polite society dramas does allow us to imagine). For Mosse, the brutalization impregnates both the aggressively angular heroics and the coercive pathos of the post-war commemorations and monuments. There is very little, in Mosse’s reading of the signs of 20th century European culture that has not been vitiated by the will to muscular grandeur and to bombast. This is what Mosse wrote in 1986: “Yet it was the Myth of the War Experience which transfigured the war once peace arrived. […] The treatment of political enemies as people to be utterly destroyed in peace as in war ─ the language of war applied to peace-time politics ─ come to mind” (Mosse, 507).

20Practising professional historians can easily point out that Mosse’s category is too large, too all-encompassing to be the foundation of good “source-based” history. It is however the category of a moralist historian, who is reading the evidence that is all around us in the body of our contemporary European culture. “Brutalization” is as apposite a qualification of the general condition of a culture as Lawrence’s short poems are valid endeavours in war literature, if the broken writing thus produced is to offer an oblique figuring of the disasters of war while steering clear of bombast and the indulgence of either the pathetic or the aesthetic fallacy.

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Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Celan, Paul. Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry, A Bilingual Edition. Trans. Pierre Joris. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Dagen, Philippe. Le silence des peintres. Vanves: Hazan, 2012.

Derrida, Jacques. Glas.Paris: Galilée, 1974.

—, Limited Inc.. Paris: Galilée, 1990.

Edel, Leon. Henry James, The Complete Biography. New York: Avon, 1978, vol. 1, The Untried Years 1843–1870.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Revised edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000 (1939).

James, Henry. Letters, volume IV (1895-1916), ed. Leon Edel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984.

Joris, Pierre, Paul C2LAN. “Celan/Heidegger : Translation at the Mountain of Death.”,

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. La poésie comme experience. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986.

Lawrence, D.H. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, volume II June 1913-October 1916. Ed.

George J Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

—,Collected Poems. Ed. Christopher Pollnitz Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2013.

Le Ray-Burimi, Sylvie. Vu du front. Paris: BDIC/Musée de l’Armée-Hôtel des Invalides/Somogy éditions d’art, 2014.

Lukacs, George. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. Trans. John and Necke Mander. London: Merlin Press, 1977(1963).

McLoughlin, Kate. “‘All of Us’ : D.H. Lawrence’s First World War Poems for the People.” Société d’études modernistes. Paris: 12 June 2015.

—,Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Mosse, George L.. “Two World Wars and the Myth of the War Experience.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 21, No. 4 (October 1986), pp. 491-513. Sage Publications, Ltd, Stable URL:

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Tate, Trudi. Modernism, History, and the First World War. Manchester UP 1998.

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1 For an example of the historical turn in the study of modernism, see Trudi Tate’s 1998 book, Modernism, History, and the First World War, Manchester UP 1998. In the context of the centenary of the Great War the historical turn in the study of early 20th century high modernism is inescapable. The social and contextual study of literary modernism addresses questions which are also addressed in relation to the various movements of early 20th century avant-garde painting. The question of painting and the Great War is addressed in Philippe Dagen’s book, Le silence des peintres: les artistes face à la Grande guerre (Vanves: Hazan, 2012), and is at the heart of the exhibition entitled “Vu du front, recently organised in Paris, autumn 2014, in the Musée des Invalides in conjunction with the B.D.I.C Centre for the Study of Contemporary International History in Nanterre; for the catalogue, Sylvie Le Ray-Burimi, Vu du front (Paris: BDIC/Musée de l'Armée, Hôtel des Invalides/Somogy editions d’art, 2014).

2 For the canonical version of the English great tradition of the novel, F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1972), (Harmondsworth, Peregrine Books, 1984).

3 I am drawing extensively from, quoting from, the paper entitled “‘All of Us’ : D.H. Lawrence’s First World War Poems for the People” given on June 12, 2015 seminar of the Société d’études modernistes at the Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle in Paris. Readers of this paper can also consult her book, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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Cornelius Crowley, « War and Words: Broken Writing and Modest Inflections of Brutality »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 46 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2015, consulté le 03 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Cornelius Crowley

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense

Cornelius Crowley, Professor and Director of the Research Centre of the English Department of the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre, has published numerous essays on various authors including David Hume, Henry James, Joyce, Yeats, Nietzsche, Zola and Lawrence.

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