Fields of Concentration
- Cultural History
- Course: 19th Century Novel
- Course: Spaces of Memory
- Course: Intermediate German II: Topics in Language and Culture
- Tutorial: Virginia Woolf and Narrative Structure
What I hope most to demonstrate with my Plan of Concentration, is that there is a cohesive and traceable logic to the lead-up and beginning of the First World War. In the work of Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens, and the cultural and political inquiries of Barbara Tuchman, Frederic Morton, Adam Hochschild and Anthony Clayton, social and political tension and impending upheaval is visible. Unlike the myth that for decades—up to and including the time I was in high school—proposed that World War I began over the assassination of a single foreign diplomat, the profound and persistent artistic, literary and socio-cultural work on the parts of many people for many years demonstrates that the war was neither random nor isolated. World War I is, I believe, one of the most brutal clashes of cultural, social and historical eras: late Victorianism collided with early Modernism, artistically, economically and culturally. The result was not only the physical manifestation of the first instance of industrial warfare, but also of fundamental changes to perceptions of space, time and culture.
In addition to providing a context for the war, I hope that this Plan will make apparent the profound and tragic beauty generated by the war in the form of literature, poetry and cultural shifts. Wilfred Owen famously said that, “the pity is in the poetry,” as he was writing an introduction to his own collected works. Before the anthology could be finished and published, the young poet was killed, less than a week before the Armistice was signed. Owen’s life and death is, perhaps, one of the most overwhelming demonstrations of his own words. The war both forced the unwilling into acts of horror and atrocity, but also unleashed a creative juggernaut that had for years been lurking just below Britain’s tepid cultural surface. I suggest—and hope to demonstrate—that it is precisely because of the war that Woolf was able to write without traditional forms and structures, as well as provide a modus operandi for her messages. Septimus and Clarissa, Peter and Richard, Elizabeth and Miss Kilman would not be the powerful and fleshed-out characters they are without the reader’s knowledge that they have lived through the First World War.
On the most experimental and abstract level, I hope also to suggest that industrial structures and methods that were popularized by the economic surge of the 18th and 19th centuries directly contributed to the way World War I was fought. In the creation of trenches, heavy artillery, poisonous gas and mechanized supply lines, the military and political heads of World War I created a military conflict whose structures and methods mirrored those of domestic industry. This not only introduced mechanization and industry to pastoral countrysides, but it also industrialized military interactions on a human level, and made the experience of warfare less of an individually-defining process, and more on a utilitarian system.
“I propose that the Battle of the Somme was the decisive transition of World War I from a military endeavor based in a nationalistic image of the past to one that was industrial. The methods, strategies and execution of plans at the Somme represent a fully mechanized and industrialized material intention, even if cultural and social expectations about bravery, individual deeds and the significance of the soldier had not arrived at the same conclusion. Consequently, there is a stark contrast between the number of soldiers present at the front and the overwhelming inhumanity of the developing war of industrial attrition.”
“While Dickens doesn’t actively seek to validate social and moral dichotomies, his novels rely very heavily on their existence for relevance and coherence. To consider his work within the scope of de Certeau’s construction, the historical “true” aspects of his work are perhaps the social and moral codes and structures themselves, while the “real” part is the author’s insistence that his readers question these codes–a call to societal reflection in the face of imminent change.”
The most memorable moments of my Plan work are those spent talking about and deciphering ideas, theories, and disparate images with my Plan sponsors. These were the best, and most important, moments of my Plan process. In one tutorial Geraldine and I brainstormed a list of all the most important and inscrutable pieces of literature having to do with the First World War and modernist narrative development. Then we read all the books and talked extensively about each one.