Saturday, November 06, 2004

History and the end of the world

For Julia

This review article is partly about the difficulty of understanding, almost re-experiencing, past events through the objects that they produce: news accounts, reports, literature, artifacts.... And it's partly about the unimaginable magnitude of the Great War. Still, the impacts can be described. For example, the author refers to the slaughter of 30 million horses and donkeys as "the genocidal end of a once-benign, millennium-old friendship between men and horses."

From The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated November 5, 2004

Our First View of the End of the World

List: Books discussed in this essay



What does it mean to remember the First World War? Over the past few years I have been trying to get my students -- mostly 19- or 20-year-old Stanford English majors -- to learn about, think about, reckon with, remember the Great War. I have been spectacularly unsuccessful. My latest failure came just this spring, in an honors seminar on Virginia Woolf. We were reading Jacob's Room, the hero of which dies on the Western Front, and I suspected -- correctly -- that my students knew little about the war or its repercussions. (Make of it what you will, but all of the students except one were female.)

I set out to give them my usual nasty brutish overview, complete with some rough-'em-up Powerpoints to shock them into attention: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife dead in their coffins; the idiot kaiser in his skull-helmet; pathetic mobs of Frenchmen, Englishmen, and Germans crowding into recruiting stations in 1914-15; Ypres and Verdun in ruins; trenches and craters and bombed-out churches; and of course lots of dead and dismembered bodies. Boneyards and muck on a sunny Palo Alto morning! This is why, I gravely informed the students, Woolf gave the doomed protagonist of Jacob's Room the last name of Flanders.

When their papers came in, one of the more intelligent young women in the group (or so I had judged her) had produced some garbled late-night drivel about how traumatic it was for Woolf to see the peaceful English countryside devastated by trench warfare during the First World War. Now I know academic piety insists that one hold one's students dear, even when they exhibit the most shameful ignorance and inattention. But for several days afterward I felt only rage at the student and a fairly mind-boggling hatred for my job. Why did I have to deal with such obtuseness? How could a seemingly good student get it all so bollixed up? Why did these intelligent Stanford girls (their hip-huggers and pedicures and blonde ponytails notwithstanding) have to be so blatantly oblivious? What was the point (splutter) of trying to teach them anything?

Why do we want to forget the First World War? Why can't we keep our facts straight? Why

would we rather talk about "memory objects" than the memories themselves? (Or our inability to find them?) Given our flaunted "interest" -- and academics are the worst -- why do we seem so keen on not remembering?

We can't remember the Great War because we weren't there. Only if we had some magic syncretic access to the experiences of every human being alive between 1914 and 1918 might we have a chance of "remembering" -- or at least of not forgetting so completely. We'd have to have the experiences of every animal and plant alive then too, especially the millions of horses, mules, dogs, carrier pigeons, trees, rats, lice, and other nonhuman things that were also part of the carnage. Some 30 million horses and donkeys -- mainly pack animals -- died in the Great War. Yet when I once described the war (again to bright Stanford students) as a "hippocide," the genocidal end of a once-benign, millennium-old friendship between men and horses, they smirked as if I'd made some strange professorial joke.

Source: Arts & Letters Daily

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