Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Gentlemanly Spirit

British troops in France, 1917,  George Grantham Bain collection/Library of Congress, via Britannica.

Brooks's commemoration of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice ("The Struggle to Stay Human Amid the Fight") seems to have been written mostly by Brainy Quotes, but it does take a surprising angle, while everybody else is praising the sacrifice of the troops in the conventional way people do, Brooks is complaining about the cultural effects of the Great War, which is that it created an atmosphere of distrust in institutions and spoiled everybody's gentlemanly, sporting spirit.
Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.
As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.
Paul Fussell did not point out that the British upper classes used genteel words for plain ones before the war. Winston Churchill did not ask Mrs. Churchill if she had a nice slumber, or take his steed out for a canter. Fussell is talking about writing: the awful, disembodied, euphemism-soaked literary language of the Edwardians and Georgians, particularly in poetry (p. 21?):

—and it wasn't because of their gentlemanly, sporting spirit, but because of their diseased fear of reality, which the war wiped out, working like a massive vaccination program, giving everybody a sufficient dose of the worst reality you could get so that they understood there was no sense in trying to hide from it, and the sickly euphemism of Rupert Brooke gave way to the angry truthfulness of Siegfried Sassoon.

Once we get into Fussell, we find ourselves in a bit of a David Brooks Plagiarism Watch:

The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.
Fussell  (p. 19, I think), and Hemingway's Frederick Henry wasn't "embarrassed", he was nauseated almost literally to death:

The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons. “Simple antithesis everywhere” is how Fussell captured the mentality. Along with it was what T.S. Eliot called a “dissociation of sensibility,” in which thoughts of tenderness and care are cut off from reason and calculation.
Fussell (p. 105)

George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.
Fussell (p. 107?):

and (p. 110):

And that little bunch of quotations filched from the total ten pages of Fussell's book that he's looked at, like wildflowers abstracted from a public park, is pretty much the whole column, sandwiched inside layers of quotes from the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, perhaps derived from a page in the IMDb.
When the assault catastrophically fails, the generals look for scapegoats and decide to execute three enlisted men, more or less chosen at random, for alleged cowardice.
Colonel Dax is finally overcome with disgust and explodes at one of the generals: “You’re a degenerate, sadistic old man. You can go to hell!”
The general — cynical, crafty, bureaucratic, incapable of emotion — replies: “You’ve spoiled the keenness of your mind by wallowing in sentimentality. … You are an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot. We are fighting a war, Dax, a war that we’ve got to win.”
It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.
I'm not going to unpack how totally wrong he is about the film, as Driftglass has taken care of that (easy for him, he's done it before). He also got the best headline, "Psychopaths of Glory".

Brooks has offered an interpretation of his own column, via Twitter (h/t Boswood):

But I think (as Bos does) he ought to be thinking about George W. Bush, and himself, and the ci-devant War Against Terrorism, in which "we" decided to invade Iraq for much the same reasons General Mireau decided to have his own soldiers shot, that is no arguable reasons at all unless it was to cover up somebody's inadequacy. Brooks loves to complain about the ongoing loss of trust in American institutions, and of that gentlemanly spirit by which we have always been animated, but he has no idea how much his war played a central part in that in the same way as the Great War played a central part in the loss of the Lost Generation.

It was a good thing in the 1920s that people stopped writing like Rupert Brooke and started writing like George Orwell, and stopped believing in the corrupt institutions, the aristocracy and the secret bilateral negotiations, that had given rise to the war. It was the worst war in the world, but at least folks managed to learn something from it. Brooks's struggle, in his flabby, plagiarized prose, is to avoid learning things. Fuck the gentlemanly spirit.

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