Chew on This

I had an idea that I might try just straight-up asking questions about some things that I have questions about. Think of it as a front-pager’s-privileged version of a WTF. (Or, for the more traditionally inclined among us, a discussion question.) I even made up a fancy new tag for them, in the hope that they will in fact provoke conversation. So here’s one:

It seems to me that literature about World War II is qualitatively different from literature about World War I. I don’t say that as a judgment of merit, but as a position on the distinctive elements of each. Consider, for example, “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Im Westen nichts Neues versus Gravity’s Rainbow and Catch-22. It seems like there’s a transformation, from the one literature to the next, of straight-up horror to horror inflected with ironic, absurdist, or even nihilist laughter. But I don’t know that I feel well-enough informed to be able to call this a fact. On the understanding that this entire effect may just be an artifact of my specific reading experiences and lacks—in which case, please tell me so I can fill them in—why do you think this is? Was there a particular change in the ways of war that caused it (nuclear weaponry, maybe)? Is it a function of the time lag between the wars and their respective literatures? (If so, what kind of function?) Is it just a matter of changing literary fashions that happened to coincide with the passage of time between the wars? I’m all ears.

10 thoughts on “Chew on This

  1. Paul Debraski February 29, 2012 / 4:40 pm

    Jeff, this is a really interesting question. I have absolutely zero ability to answer it (I didn’t think I read much war fiction until I saw your two listed WWII books).

    However, I want to put in my two cents that my dad was in WWII. He was stationed in the pacific in a non-combat area. And all of the photos I have an the stories he told me made it seem like (pesky war aside) they had a not-too-terrible time. Counter that with everything I’ve heard about WWI (which sounds like nine types of hell) and I wonder if that has anything to do with it–the possibility that if you’re not knee deep in gunfire and european winter hell, you can really reflect on the absurdity of war.

    Just idle speculation which I hope doesn’t derail this interesting question.

  2. DCN February 29, 2012 / 4:50 pm

    1. Owen and Heller fought in the wars they wrote about. Pynchon did not. Is there a difference between literature about a war written by one of its veterans and literature written by someone who was not there? Another example that comes to mind are Pat Barker’s novels set during WWI. The answer is obviously “Yes,” so the real question is “What is the difference?”

    2. To what extent is a work actually about the war that serves as its setting? Gravity’s Rainbow has never really felt like it was about WWII to me. Until I read it, I thought it was about Viet Nam. (That may be partly due to the fact that I am not particularly bright or observant).

    3. I think that the literary styles and tools of the times are certainly going to have a big hand in the type of novel written. A WWI novel written now is going to be different than a WWI novel written in 1932. In a way, a WWII novel isn’t about WWII, but about the sum of all wars that came before. Pynchon and Heller (and everyone else) are writing from a position of knowing about both wars (and Korea and for Pynchon, Viet Nam also).

    I’d even go as far as to say that it isn’t so much that the literary styles of the times changed the way novels were written, but I think that novels changed in response to the vast amount of violence and bloodshed (and knowledge of that violence and bloodshed provided by the 20th Century’s unprecedented expansion in our ability to communicate and see).

    A poor example: 100 years ago, we read about the Titanic sinking. This week, we can watch hundreds of hours of video footage of the Costa Concordia running aground and computer simulations of what happened scored by the voices of those involved ordering the Captain back on the ship.

  3. Dennis Fleming February 29, 2012 / 8:46 pm

    I would add that Pynchon (as well as Richard Hooker’s _MASH_, though based in Korea) was informed by the Vietnam War. Heller was in WWII, but flew missions, not as a ground troop. I don’t know that he saw a lot of fighting. And Vonnegut (_Slaughterhouse_5_) did spend time in as a POW. His take was a novel about a man who could not himself accept the horrors of war and so retreated into madness. I think that a lot of energy was spent after that war to take men’s minds off of the horrors they witnessed and there seemed to be a concious attempt to promulgate the normalcy we see in ’50s and ’60s sitcoms. As much intellectual energy was thrown back by showing the absurdity of the two choices.

  4. Stevie February 29, 2012 / 11:39 pm

    My (12th grade) students are reading Catch-22 now; it’s a long favorite of mine. I know far less about WWI than II, but I remember being taught that one big difference in the second was that the killing was becoming more & more impersonal; Yossarian, for example, has virtually no contact with the enemy he’s dropping bombs on. As far as I understand it, WWI was devastating on a grand scale, but there was still a tremendous amount of hand-to-hand combat, & of course no atomic bombs. I don’t know how that apparent distance leads to the irony & absurdity. One of the first jokes the book hits you with is that Yo takes the enemy shooting at him personally, so his friends think he’s paranoid even though people ARE trying to kill him. I’m sorry if this is getting away from me. I’ve never attempted GR, so I don’t know how similar it is.

  5. Christine March 1, 2012 / 2:02 am

    I know less about wars than about lit, so maybe this response is biased, but the differences between novels written in the 20s and this novel from the 70s are not *only* due to the wars or how they were fought. The social shifts that gave rise to Modernism (post-Victorian but pre-WWII) and postmodernism (post-WWII) are way bigger than I can fit here, but a really simplistic way to describe the difference is: the loss of God (the loss of central narrative, religious or otherwise and the resulting onus on humanity to find or create its own meaning) versus the post-WWII loss of hope (and the resulting disenchantment that gives a giant Eff You to the idea of truth). So yes, novels from the first half of the Twentieth Century are vastly different from novels from the second half. Think Hemingway vs. Pynchon, if you must find representatives (I loathe such an exercise, myself, but they both hit their strides at the peak of their respective movements) so you can visualize spare, precise, logic-driven language versus confusing, meandering, illogical, cynical prose.
    Links? Glad you asked.
    Insanely short article–Postmodernism
    Purdue takes a crack at diagramming the differences
    and then gives a synopsis of all the major cultural movements in Western Civ.

    • g2-95e91ebfda4fc268358c41bb52401cedm March 1, 2012 / 1:53 pm

      A good point. I would also add, as a particular instance, that our latter writers are more receptive to and influenced by movies. I see this a lot in both Pynchon and Heller. Jump cuts (which contribute to the feeling of fragmentation) are rife in both _GR_ and _Catch_22_.

  6. Christine March 1, 2012 / 4:20 am

    My previous comment is awaiting moderation, but in the meantime I have to add this:

    My comment is still not sufficient until we talk about Modernism’s sense that the self is knowable and permanent vs. the Postmodern fractured self. And we can’t ignore the Modernist experimentation with language, especially Joyce and Stein, in contrast with the Postmodern experimentation with irony and disdain for sincerity.

    • g2-95e91ebfda4fc268358c41bb52401cedm March 1, 2012 / 1:56 pm

      While I would say that’s generally true, it seems Pynchon does have some sympathies for sincerity. The best example I can come up with is from _V_ where the jazz musician McClintic Sphere formalizes his revelation on how to stay sane amidst the madness of the world: “Be cool, but care.”

  7. Jeff Anderson March 2, 2012 / 7:57 pm

    Thanks so much, everybody, for your comments on this one! They’ve given me some things to think about. The points about participation, summing over all previous wars, and the influence of cinema are especially interesting. I suppose I had the modernism/postmodernism thing in the back of my mind all along—it’s basically what I was referring to at the end with “changing literary fashions,” but of course that shift was much more widespread than just in literature. I guess maybe I was hoping to learn some way that war literature was a specific case with particular causes, rather than just an example of that general shift. But it’s absolutely in play, and I appreciate the reminder.

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