WWI Shell Shock & Jazz Age Dancing

Try playing both of the videos below simultaneously to see how the effects of WWI Shell Shock (a fried central nervous system associated with being shelled, now categorized under Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Jazz Age dancing of the 1920s embody the same underlying anxiety. Jazz Age partying (heavy drinking, casual sex, wild dancing) is often described as a nervous release following four years of worry and stress. However, watching the similarity of the movements side-by-side is a good way to see how the same underlying condition of trauma spread from the battlefield itself through the homefront population and became a pervasive part of the culture, even among those who did not directly experience the combat, right up to the start of WWII.

The machine-like movements of the shell-shocked veterans -- twitchy, automatic, beyond control -- are reminiscient of WWI literature's depictions of the industrialism of the combat. The passage from Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is one example: “We do not see the guns that bombard us; the attacking lines of the enemy infantry are men like ourselves; but these tanks are machines, their caterpillars run on as endless as the war, they are annihilation, they roll without feeling into the craters, and climb up again without stopping, a fleet of roaring, smoke-belching armour-clads, invulnerable steel beasts squashing the dead and the wounded – we shrivel up in our thin skin before them, against their weight our arms are sticks of straw, and our hand-grenades matches” (282). To paraphrase Sassoon, the Great War didn't end, it simply moved inside of us.

 In Modernism of the 1920s -- especially T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) -- shell-shocked veterans like the ones in this medical film were a common public sight after the war and became a pervasive element of the culture.

Also very public was the twitchy chaos of Jazz Age dancing, which seems to derive from a social form of the trauma, perhaps as a way of numbing ourselves collectively before the knowledge and the scale of what happened, to avoid confronting it directly. A defense mechanism similar to the neurotic behaviors described by Psychoanalysis between the World Wars.

It's an instructive experience to play these two videos simultaneously and watch the similarity of the movements. Try it with the sound off. If the ads or other annoyances set the timing off, set the Shell Shock video at 24 seconds and the dancing video at 28 seconds, and then press play on both of them.

A more thorough medical film with titles describing the ailments and treatments (from British Pathé Archive) can be found here.

Writing Assignments

Short Writing Assignment 1: Description

  • Handout: Descriptive Writing

Short Writing Assignment 2: Summary

  • Handout: Summary Writing




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