Monday, April 20, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

ANZAC Day is celebrated this week, and I have been priming myself to write a long polemic on why I have such mixed feelings about this particular celebration, even if I think it is right and proper that a country should honour its war dead. But I’ve decided to save that long polemic for another day. Instead, let me strike out on another theme, inspired by a passage from Wyndham Lewis’s memoir Blasting and Bombardiering.
After he has been describing the scene of desolation as he saw it on the battlefield, Lewis reminds readers that it is what the soldier feels, and the immanent threat of death, that really makes the landscape one of desolation; and that therefore attempts to depict or reconstruct it are distortions:
To make a reconstruction of this landscape for a millionaire-sightseer, say, would be impossible. The sightseer would be the difficulty – for the reasons I have already given in my dissection of romance. This is a museum of sensations, not a collection of objects. For your reconstruction you would have to admit Death there as well, and he would never put in an appearance, upon those terms. You would have to line the trenches with bodies, guaranteed freshly killed that morning. No hospital could provide it. And unless people were mad they would not want – apart from the cost – to assemble the necessary ordinance, the engines required for this stunt of landscape-gardening. – Except that they were made, they would not have wanted ever to assemble it.”  (Wyndham Lewis Blasting and Bombardiering, Part Three, Chapter Four)
I’ve thought about this passage quite a lot recently, as we appear to be in an age of affluent sightseers who go off to look at old battlefields. This is especially true as the tourist industry feeds off the centenary of the First World War.
What are we attempting to capture at such sites? Are we remembering the dead with sorrow or respect? Or is it simply another tourist “experience”?
When I hear of the increasing numbers of young Australians and New Zealanders who go off to Anzac Cove at Gallipoli, for the annual commemoration, I might for a split second think as some wishful-thinking editorialists have, and imagine that this shows a growing interest in our history. But then I hear of the controversy over whether or not an Australian rock-band should play for the young visitors, and I know that this is just another entertainment, to be bracketed with the Munich October Fest or the running-of-the-bulls at Pamplona as part of what young Kiwis and Aussies do in their international holiday time.
I also consider how little there is of war to be seen at such sites. As I noted in an earlier posting [look up What Passing Bells? on the index at right] I was in Flanders, with some of my family, on Anzac Day last year [2014]. I went to an Australian-and-New Zealand ceremony, under light drizzle, at the British cemetery at Polygon Wood. I visited the well-maintained and reconstructed town of Messines, so tidy and neat that one would imagine no war had ever touched it, with its new statue of a New Zealand soldier in the main square. And I went to a specifically New Zealand ceremony on Messines Ridge. It was here in particular that I thought how impossible it really is to reconstruct war, even on the site of a century-old battle. Look across the very gently rolling Flemish countryside, and you would imagine that nothing had ever happened here, apart from centuries of peaceful farming.
And what if, for the tourists, somebody was to reconstruct dugouts and trenches here, complete with barbed wire and old ordinance? Such abominations have been set up on other old battled fields.
Frankly, I think it would be a mockery – a sanitised version of whatever it was that soldiers once experienced there, and less of a true memorial than the peaceful farmland telling us that war should be seen as an aberration.
Once upon a time, civilian spectators sat on nearby hillsides to watch the clash of armies. This was in the age before high-explosive shells had been invented, and before wars had become “total”. War could then be a spectator sport. But it hasn’t been that way at least since 1914, and tourism should not incline people to see it as a spectacle now.

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