Common Knowledge (8/8)

In many ways, Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas is an attempt to bridge two perspectives or introduce another reality into the one perceived by those with power in government, church, and press. Reading the collected newspaper clippings that were often written by knighted men or judges helped me understand, as much as someone who studies but never experiences an era can, how that reality was so irrationally superseded.

"If she is an employed person her employer may object to employ her on the ground that she is a married woman just as he may object to employ a one-eyed man." - Wives the laws favorite

"In law she [a married woman] has forfeited little, if any, freedom. Her husband in law has little, if any, control over her."

"Official football circles here regard with anxiety the growing popularity of girl's football."

Woolf's essays undertake what is almost like a thirteenth labor of Hercules, and while it may not be impossible to communicate with the victims/perpetuators of a dominant history how their majority's vision is skewed, it almost feels that way. Many of the narratives and perspectives addressed in Three Guineas remain all too present and often encountered. I found myself frenetically highlighting and ALSO considering chucking this book at certain acquaintances' faces; violent urges aside, this reading invited me into a new visual history and another perspective on how the societal disposition to war might develop.

And lastly, to address one more quote (tangentially):

"In any case it is clear that the author of the pastoral epistles, be he St. Paul or another, regarded woman as being debarred on the ground of her sex from the position of an official 'teacher' in the Church, or from any office involving the exercise of a governmental authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12)."

I believe this is an interesting discourse for me because the rhetoric above is clearly sexist, and I have had the opportunity to research translation with its imposed biases on certain scriptural passages which then become employed toward exclusion. Although it seems like a random departure from literary study of Three Guineas, isn't narrative manipulation (and one-sided interpretations of the world) what it's all about?

To minimize my soapbox time, I'll keep it brief:

"I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." (1T 2:12)

Ultimately, the greek word Didaskein (teach) NEVER appears up in the source greek. Not to impose my own opinion, but the word used throughout is Authentein (associated with control or misused authority) which implies far more agency already. Hēsychia (lack of disturbance) would not at all seem to imply "remain[ing] quiet" and being barred from contributing equally. In addition, the verb preceding Authentein is Entrepō, which is temporary and conditional. Again, I'll leave these dots to be connected themselves, but all of these original greek meanings paired with the fact the word for man (Anēr) is often used for a husband imply a different interpretation than the one that has been so often employed in the ways Woolf describes. To encourage said dots after they've been separated for so long: I argue that this passage might have more to do with a specific social moment in one community and a request for a woman (who possessed authority to exert) not to, in the literal translation, "verbally assassinate" their partner when it isn't an appropriate moment, for the sake of public gathering. A reading like this does not exclude women from teaching, leading, or taking part. It might even imply agency and authority that is at the very least equal. Lastly, I would like to add this passage should never have become a permanent or universal statement; its tense is temporary and conditions-based.

I believe Virginia Woolf might have appreciated this possibility for novel interpretation; this is why egalitarian authority is so essential in the pursuit of truth. When biases are imposed and unchecked, realities shift from their foundations. In this way, an analysis like this ties into the idea of perspectives lost and reasserted. Common knowledge is not to be taken for granted; truth takes work, especially in scenes of power imbalance.




Testament of Youth 5/8

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is a story that follows a wealthy middle-class lady through her years in college, War World I, and politics. There is an intentional focus on her experiences as a woman trying to make it in a man’s world and build her own sense of purpose. Her early years are self-absorb, which leads to her ignorance of life outside of her world. This environment was created by her isolation and her father’s belief that a women’s goal is to get married. Due to this sheltered life and inability to imagine other’s life, she is shocked by the poor food choices when she goes to Oxford. Furthermore, when she becomes a V.A.D. nurse, she realizes her inability to boil an egg is an embarrassment. “Among other facts of life, my expensive education had omitted to teach me the prosaic but important essentials of egg-boiling, and the Oxford cookery class had triumphantly failed to repair the omissions” (165). As a lady of privilege, Vera didn’t have to worry about where or how her food arrived. “To me, whom meals had hitherto appeared as though by clockwork and the routine of a house had seemed to be worked by some invisible mechanism” (165) makes the reader think that Vera never walked into a kitchen or went into town to interact with other people. Her sheer revelation of food is also a sign of her growth throughout the war.

Her novel is about change that you can and not control. While she learns to boil an egg and cook for herself and fight for women’s rights, she cannot control war or death.

Surviving and the Necessity of Helping

*I had just finished reading this piece when I received the email about the shortened version, so I am not sure where we are cut off. I may write about sections not assigned.

Testament of Youth is far from being a celebration of youth; instead, the pages are filled with trauma and guilt over surviving when all others close are dead. Youth is supposed to be something to look upon with nostalgia, but this book shows how it became a nightmare for an entire generation. Vera Brittain describes the state of her heart during this period: "Sometimes my heart feels very tumultuous, full of passion and fierce desire; at others it is possessed by a sort of blank and despairing resignation to what one feels must be inevitable" (173-174). Already, the scene of her early twenties are becoming characterized by the blank state the novel ends with. The suffering of this war, to Brittain, is not redeeming or refining--it is simply destructive suffering. She describes suffering: "At first, pain beyond a certain point merely makes you lifeless, and apathetic to everything but itself" (193). This effect of suffering is clearly scene in Brittain's own letters and narrative as she explains all that takes place upon the death of those she was closest to. Brittain does not blossom because of her pain and turn into a saint. Instead, she becomes a shell of the girl she was.

When Brittain is spending time with her mother, who is ill, she begins to become aware of how little work she has done for the war effort. She writes, "I felt myself a deserter, a coward, a traitor to my patients and the other nurses" (433). Brittain is looking over a letter from her friend, and it reminds her of her own supposed duty in the war. It is not a patriotic or religious duty for her. The duty she feels appears to be one connected to her own knowledge of the soldiers' circumstances and those she lost. She even states: "I did not propose to submit to pious dissertations on my duty to God, King and Country. That voracious trio had already deprived me of all that I valued most in life" (450). Though she may work in a religious hospital for a governmental agency, Brittain is spurred on by letters from other nurses and her own experiences.

Nationalism, psychology, and sentimentality (7/8)

Rebecca West, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, expresses the need for an honest "mode of life" that is more than what England offers, and this drives her towards Yugoslavia as a novel space in which to explore her worldview. While sentiment-driven, her intuitive thoughts often prove more evocative than more cautious, vetted observations. Her worldly knowledge blends with the feeling that motivates her analysis. I found this approach reminded me of surrealist theory. Her subconscious (or sentimental) self offers an honest mode of thought, even if this mode falls victim to what initiated it.

West seems to have reallocated much of her "nationalism"  to a nation... and those with whom she cannot identify outside her context as an observer. Her external gaze provides clarity, but then also leans too hard into romanticism: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon can somehow address the dangers of ethnic zoning (which would be relevant in the upcoming war) and also limit the Slavic nationality to its pre-globalization "purity." Critics in the introduction address this pitfall, because her fea that sameness has caught up to her is a product of psychological need. The black lamb is arguably a symbol of national identity, youth, loss, and sacrifice all in one. In exploring the symbolic so directly, West reveals what she wants to protect in Yugoslavia. The diverse population appears divided in her writing, resulting in the ideological death of the Ottoman Empire. Lacking in agency, a nation as its people has become the "sacrificial lamb" without agency instead of the "priest" who controls the ritual (war). 

Bryher and Brittain both address this idea of psychological need in different ways. One describes war in the present (situated memories) and recalls the effects on the mind and the young. Identity, packaged in nationalism and a higher education community built on the discussion of historic ideals, drives one soldier to hope he will reflect well on his college whatever happens to him individually. Bryher says, simply: "Fascism and Communism alike respond to primitive, psychological needs." The global culture shifts pre-WWII, whether that is after avatism and the sentimental nationalism; modern media like film, aimed for social evolution; or a different system of government, hyper-national identity. 


The Space In-between in West's "Journey"

In the introduction to Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing, James Duncan and Derek Gregory outline major concepts related to travel writing. One in particular caught my eye: “as descriptions move from one place to another… they circulate in what we have called ‘a space in-between’... In general, and as Venuti (1993, 210) points out, translation [in this case, translating experience from foreign climes and customs, etc.] is either a ‘domesticating method, an ethnographic reduction of the foreign text to target language cultural values, bringing the author back home’ or a ‘foreignizing method, an ethnographic pressure on those values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad’” (4-5). Travel writing, then, can be understood as making the foreign familiar or foregrounding foreignness-- of a place or people, say. Yet as the text attempts to make familiar/foreign, it never quite resolves into one or the other; it exists in-between. It’s with this frame that I considered West’s chapter, “Journey.”

The “space in-between” in this chapter exists in a couple of places. The first is in its relationship to the genre of travel writing. The chapter title, “Journey,” suggests an exoticness and a certain excitement that a more accurate title, like “Train Ride,” would elide. Even in the content of the chapter, West ironically plays on the genre of travel writing. She is concerned with the social politics within the train car more than she is the Yugoslavian landscape or culture without. A few instances pop through, as when the “snowfields” appear or discussions of food take place. These elements typical of the genre are humorously deflated and overshadowed, as when the scenery is easily forgotten as the passengers enact justice on the second-class ticket holder or when West falls into a consideration of taste and nationalistic food superiority. The space in-between here creates tension in the narrative, made all the more humorous (darkly humorous) by the weighty topics alongside which they are placed (in West’s narrative but also in the sensibilities of the Europeans passengers).

The other space in-between is in West’s consideration of the German passengers. In many ways, the Germans are the subject of West’s attention. She asks us to sympathize and pity them for their imprisonment within Nazism, yet they exhibit a moral failure in their willingness to eject someone else from the train car while justifying their own rule breaking. There is uncertainty in this scene, I would argue, as West humanizes the Germans: they are people who quibble over small inconsequential things and run into typical problems. This familiarization is broken by the end, though, as they become “incomprehensible” but also “exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known” (37). Even in the ending, the Germans maintain both their illegibility and foreignness and their familiarity. One could argue that West’s “journey” is one of observing German tourists, fellow travelers who despite their familiar quirks and characteristics become legible alongside the foreign Nazi regime.

The chapter ends on an innocuous note, albeit a funny one, as the Germans “[break] into excessive cries of exasperation and distress” because the train stop is several miles from Zagreb’s city center. While this scene works as a humorous retribution, the key to West’s ending is her witnessing an elderly man searching for “Anna.” This sad but sweet scene is immediately recognizable and familiar to West: “I was among people I could understand” she writes in the final line. West becomes at several points a defender of Yugoslavian worth as a country, namely through a defense of their local food and hotel accommodations. And she closes the chapter in this very way. The space in-between the foreign and familiar is dispelled as the Germans leave, taking with them a sense of foreignness and incomprehensibility. What is left is West looking out the window at a stranger in a foreign country. Here is where she finds the familiar.

West's "Supa Hot Fire" (5/8)

Rebecca’s West’s prologue to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is intricately political, though it is connected by a bloody thread of gory violence and passionate drama. Rulers beget rulers, terrorists slay those rulers, families fight each other, and West verbally obliterates most of them with her–I have to say–relentlessly savage insults. Any of the following alone are enough to warrant a ‘hands on cheeks, mouth wide open’ reaction: 

  • “She was a great slut” (6) 

  • “She was always thrusting the blunt muzzle of her stupidity into conclaves of state, treading down intelligent debate as a beast treads down the grass at a gate into mud” (6) 

  • “[she was] a very fat and plain little girl” (7) 

  • “His face is sucked too close to the bone by sickness to be tranquil or even handsome” (15) 

Together, they show an author not withholding her biases, an author willing to simply state the ways things look (to her, of course). In this vein, dismembered fingers, thrusted stilettos, and bullets in a crowd all converge to the prologue’s climax: the assassination of the King of Yugoslavia. Yet in West’s poetic descriptions of the king’s murder, which she watches countless times through the medium of film, she constructs an especially telling and absurdist image with her same characteristically candid quips. After “innumerable hands'' fondle the dying king, the camera catches a royal official fleeing the scene. In the official’s hasty exit, West recalls the “special ridiculousness of middle-aged men, who have the sagging, anxious faces and protruding bellies appropriate to pregnancies” (West 15), and while this absolutely merciless diss is damaging enough to envision gifs like “supa hot fire,” her forthright opinions in juxtaposition to aforementioned murders (coupled with a cinemographic record) deromanticize this particular violent moment. In other words, West’s propensity to ‘end people’s whole career,’ per se, works to de-deify the situation. The king himself is tired, the assassin is sloppy (and promptly beaten to death by the crowd), and the royal accompaniment looks like fat, pregnant old men. West philosophizes that “It would be a superb ending for a comic film” (15), yet it is West’s paradoxically comedic descriptions in contrast to the senseless violence that elevate this scene to the genre of absurdity. It’s funny and sad, sensible and senseless, and serious and stupid. West recognizes these contradictions; the reader (in retrospect) can, too. West’s blunt but amusing honesty positions the reader in the same contradictory space as the king. And like Hitchens posits in the introduction, through these tensions–in this absurdity–one can feel the next lingering, unnecessary irrationality: “the shadow of the encroaching swastika” (Hitchens xxxvi).  

The Mad Train and Salvador Dali 4/8

Did anyone else read this passage slowly or was it just me? Comparing The Mad Train by Henry Poulaille with The Origins of Surrealism by Charles Moffat, edited by Suzanne MacNevin; I find that Poulaille mirrors some of the views of Salvador Dali where the “three constants of life were sexual instinct, the sentiment of death, and the anguish of space and time” (Ballard i). I feel that Poulaille’s work is more on the side of Veristic Surrealists as opposed to Automatists and that his subconscious images have meaning.  

Maybe this is grasping, but Poulaille’s story may not be about sexual instinct, but more about both sexes dying during the war. This is a clear intentional focus as men were mostly the ones in the trenches during WWI. Women lose men through death and the returning men are lost to PTSD, which disrupts society, brings confusion, and “no one will escape” (Poulaille 41) in this post-WWI world. Poulaille and Dali relate more with death, space, and time.

Poulaille expresses that the destination is “death, collision” (Poulaille 44), and “the passengers are mute with horror” (Poulaille 46). This makes me think that society is still dealing with post-WWI trauma with no solutions. He also gives meaning to the dream by saying “the train is crossing a land of nightmares. Everything has lost its character” (Poulaille 41). I feel like all one thousand passengers are trapped and they can only watch from the inside as their fate is decided by the two men in the cabin. I guess this would be similar to how a military battle scene would work for a soldier. A soldier is given a command and they follow the orders unable to change their path. The focus here seems to be the inability to make your own choice, you are at the mercy of the cabin boys or the war commanders. I wonder if this increased the opposition to the draft? 

Poulaille displaces space and time similar to Dali, in that the passengers are confused, silent, and paralyzed. Maybe this dream is a reenactment of a specific war scene and the landscape that is rushing by is like the bullets flying over your head. The train goes a “kilometers [every] half [a] minute” (Poulaille 44), which is 74.5 mph. In the 1920s the Ford Model T would travel at 20-28mph, so this train’s speed would seem unstable and lead to the reader questioning the reality of time and space. The illustrations like the lake appearing to go "out like a glow-worm” (Poulaille 44) gives the image of fantasy. I wonder if this leads the reader to get an out-of-body feeling. At this point, the reader might be questioning how all this is possible or what is reality. 

This last comment is a little off-topic, but why is the number one thousand mentioned 6 times in this story? What is the significance of that number during the 1920s? Is it biblical? 

Art Therapy and Childlike Imagination

Breton, in name-dropping and adopting Freudian logic to his manifesto, centers the therapeutic potential of art. Surrealism, as a movement begun by Breton and Apollinaire, is explicitly a vehicle not for illustrating Freudian or psychoanalytic logic, but for providing therapy for the creator. In its “psychic automatism” it aims to “to express … the actual functioning of thought” (5) in, I think, an omnipotent sense.

Yet Breton also considers surrealism capable of “reli[ving] with glowing excitement the best part of its childhood” (5), producing an intensely personal contrast to the lofty aims of expressing “the actual functioning of thought.” Moreover, Breton aims to achieve similar sorts of childlike play found in the writing and logic (analogic? alogic?) of Dadaists. Breton wants the psychic automatism to reproduce childhood—plunging the artist/writer into their memory, (or desire for a memory), of their “sentiment of being unintegrated” (5). This nonconforming, unintegrated, automatic (self-acting) approach strives to escape from experience and return to innocence—something no doubt on the (conscious and unconscious) minds of those who survived the War.

Another semi-related thought I had reading the manifesto is about the term imagination, and how Breton uses it. I’m not sure if this is a translation, but nonetheless, I’ve always associated imagination with a conscious creative energy. If I consider imagination as a framework for a movement built on psychic automatism that allows a sudden return to childhood, I'm reminded of my second cousins at play. They aren’t playing a specific game at all but just playing make-believe. Indeed, imagination to them seems automatic.

Transition # 2 May 1927 The New Nihilsm (Blog 4 of 8)

Elliot Paul’s the new Nihilism touches on many aspects of this class. He talks about how the violence of war is repeated in various ways in art and literature of the time. People had to find ways of expressing the horrors they saw, but words alone were not enough. Paul argues that the old values had become meaningless after World War I. He believes those values of blind loyalty to decrepit systems of monarchy had become obsolete. Paul says even pity had been exhausted by the war, and for many people, maybe it had. It was like the war was a giant mosquito that sucked up all their emotions and feelings until they thought they had none left to spare.  

Paul says “Young Germany abandoned hope...France lost grace....Russia stared and bewildered...England looks backward...America has guilt, sentimentality...”  

When Paul writes “England looks backward”, it immediately makes me think of TS Elliot’s the Wasteland. There are many call backs in the poem to ancient Greeks and Romans, as if the author wishes he could go back in time to a better place where he felt something again. 

Paul argues that there are no great books forthcoming. This is the one statement that bothers me. Something as traumatic as World War 1 would take time to process in human emotions, especially as I suspect most people had some form of PTSD from what they experienced. These people would never be the same again. It takes time to re-form your entire being, much less write/paint a great work of art. 

Paul goes on to say that there are no illusions to revive Europe’s great past. This is true, the artists of this time such as Dada were forming new ways to look and think about art, and Surrealism was helping to fill in gaps that people could not explain with words. But having the strength to creating something new out of the rubble of the past was, pardon the pun, a Herculean task. 

All Aboard! ha ha ha ha ha! (4/8)

The two railroad firemen in “The Mad Train” must work quickly; the passengers “safety depends upon it” (Poulaille 43). While the two shovelers feverishly empty the firebox, in an attempt to slow the agitated vehicle, they speak of fate, of the abyss: “Death. Collision. To leave the rails And the mad race off the rails. The plunge into the abyss. What mattered? What hope was there?” (Poulaille 44). The train plummets toward darkness, the unknown, and at this moment, the workers question their task; what meaning can they find if all hope is lost? Will they find the energy to keep the locomotive properly stoked on its frantic journey? In this dream-esque image, Poulaille constructs an extended metaphor for the intersection between nihilistic thought and the psyche of individuals during this interwar period. Through this surrealist framework, the two shovelers act as the subconscious mind, desperately exerting energy to keep the train (the body, movement) from plunging into the abyss, while all along the passengers, or the conscious mind, looks on in horror, paralyzed and unable to help. In this, Poulaille does not simply suggest that “People.. just sat down and ceased reacting or thinking at all” about the war (Lewis 62), but perhaps that they ‘sat down’ and processed the vast senselessness in a way that looks more surrealist, an unspoken dream and a quiet reality depicting “the actual functioning of thought” (Breton). For people affected by the war, the subconscious might just replace the conscious mind in thwarting negative thoughts, keeping nihilism at bay.   

According to Wyndham Lewis, in his retort to “New Nihilism,” “it was understood that (the war) was to be forgotten and never mentioned”. Lewis goes on to suggest that only “about a year ago [from 1929]” were people more forthcoming in depicting it in various media. If many felt reluctant/unable to release their anxieties or stresses about the war, either through conversation or art, it follows that they may have pent up these same traumas internally. Surrealism, consequently, takes up this burden in its tensions between the subconscious and reality, and “The Mad Train” helps one understand the difficulties of those grappling with assigning meaning in what seemed to them a meaningless reality. The railroad firemen eventually ease the burden of passengers–the subconscious mind reconciling its reality–and the passengers exit to try and make sense of their new location. Even if they are displaced, stranded in the “desert” of France, they’re saviors were inside the train all along, if only they look inward; if only we all explore what lurks behind the curtains of our mind can we start anew when faced with insurmountable darkness, else we go off the rails on this crazy train (sorry, I had to).