What Literature Tells Us About War

In what follows, graduate student Monica Soare reports about a recent meeting of the department’s Nineteenth-Century and Beyond Working Group, which hosted Professor Mary Favret from the University of Indiana.  They discussed a chapter in Professor Favret’s new book War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime.


As soon as messages were sent out about Professor Mary Favret’s upcoming talk for the “19th Century and Beyond” working group, “Telling Time in War,” messages came back in from students and faculty of various departments, even from students no longer at Cal, requesting a copy of the paper.  Aside from the interest provided by the interdisciplinary nature of the project and Professor Favret’s reputation as a critic, something else seemed communicated by the volume and speed of the requests: people were eager to understand and talk about what we’re living through – wartime.

As Professor Favret explained, she began thinking about her forthcoming book, favret_coverWar at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime, during the Gulf War, but it became especially urgent after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  A sense of disorientation, of wars blending into each other and evading conventional historiography, created by a second Bush war in the Middle East is at the heart of what Profesor Favret explores. (Incidentally, I was reminded of having experienced this sense of disorientation myself while watching a rerelease of the late 90s film The Big Lebowski a few years ago: when broadcasts from the Gulf War and bits from President Bush’s hubristic speech were played ironically in the film, it took me a second to realize what war was referenced.  And the 2007 audience was subtly but palpably unsettled.)  While living through these wars, Professor Favret discovered a Romantic war poetry anthology complied in the 60s (during yet another war): Betty Bennett’s British War Poetry in the Age of Romanticism.

Reading Bennett’s anthology, Favret realized how much war is “the elephant in the room of Romanticism,” which “is usually discussed in terms of Revolution and reaction, or in terms of historical figures like Napoleon” but not in terms of “the experience of living with war.” Yet “Romantic literature is wartime literature.”  Favret especially wanted to counter the “condescension” from twentieth-century critics who saw in Romantic writers such as Austen a desire for pre-modern “innocence.”  Favret shows that war is omnipresent in the Romantic imagination and that wartime subjectivity is most powerfully represented by unspectacular, seemingly personal moments – thus, as she argues ingeniously, the preponderance of accidents and blows to the head in Persuasion are displacements of battlefield violence; thus, Wordsworth’s “Long months of peace / . . . are mine in prospect” suggests much beyond a wish for a private retreat; thus, Radcliffe’s famous psychological suspense is also the suspense of wartime waiting and the fear of, and simultaneous desire for, war on British soil.

More specifically, the chapter entitled “Telling Time in War” argues that the affect induced by modern war – which is often global in reach and thus usually “at a distance” – is wrapped up with questions of time.  This intimate connection between war and temporality has to do with the fact that a distant war is necessarily mediated – as in the daily newspaper regularly delivered by post – and each print or visual medium has its own temporal rhythm. The other mediating factor, importantly also connected to timekeeping, is official history, dates that seem to organize wartime.  But both newspapers and official history give a limited sense of wartime affect, and poetry can express what these other “timekeepers” cannot.  Drawing upon Kevis Goodman’s work, Favret argues that it is Cowper’s wartime poem The Task (written at the end of the war with the American colonies) which most powerfully and influentially expresses the affective states induced by war and does so through “figures of timekeeping.”  Cowper writes about three forms of temporality, each corresponding to three affective states: regulated time, represented by the media and its time-bound reports, which provides a sense of war as orderly and comprehensible but also “numbs” and “blocks” affect; the meantime, when one turns away from the mass-media and the distracted mind becomes anxiously yet paradoxically creative, open to fuller engagement with the reality of war; and prophecy, when the past and the present merge and apocalyptic fantasies are conjured in response to anxiety, which is associated with “conviction” and “a sense of purpose.”  All three forms of temporality resonate in Romantic literature – from Charlotte Smith’s haunted sonnets to the apocalyptic writings of Richard Brothers – and suggest our modern wartime experience of terror alerts and Doomsday clocks.

During the discussion of Favret’s chapter, some wondered “how historically contigent” this sense of wartime is and whether this is truly a modern phenomenon, and Favret pointed out that what is specific to the modern experience is the sense of war as “global” (“the entire world being at stake”) and the existence of a mass-media that seems to grant access to war even as it leaves one unsatisifed.  Springing from this was the question of historicism, with its reliance upon the very chronology and periodization that Favret suggests wartime exceeds.  Favret said she feels the need to be true to the historical moment but also “feels the resonance” of this Romantic wartime literature everyday; we’ve inherited these particular structures of feeling, she argues. Other influential studies of wartime were also discussed, and it was pointed out that Lukács’ model of war as mass experience is limited because his account is of Continental literature and thus of war on one’s soil.  The other major book brought up was Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), but Favret explained that this doesn’t address the much longer history of wartime we inherit, nor the ways that the Napoleonic wars anticipate modern experience.  Favret thus powerfully reveals a whole new wartime literature and suggests that the affect of wartime is most often expressed not via the sublime but rather the everyday.