Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Cambridge Companion to War Writing

The Cambridge Companion to War Writing, edited by Kate McLoughlin, is newly published. It comprises 20 essays by leading scholars, the first five of which focus on 'themes' (for example, the historians' historian Hew Strachan on 'The Idea of War'), the next two on 'influences' (classical literature, the Bible), and the remainder on the literature of particular wars from the medieval period to the 'war on terror'. As the presence of Strachan may imply, the contributors make an impressive line-up. My lone complaint is that, if space can be found for two essays on the Second World War (one on the British literature, one on the American), there really ought to be an essay on Shakespeare.

The book kept me company on a long train journey back from Cambridge to Devon. I particularly enjoyed the essays on those topics outside my expertise, probably because the necessity of writing an overview of each war's literature leaves little space for original approaches. But what has stayed most in my mind is McLoughlin's polemical introduction:

'It is vital that techniques and tools are found to represent war accurately: such representation might not stop future wars, but it can at least keep the record straight... In identifying these techniques and tools, literary scholarship has a unique opportunity --- that of constituting an act of good citizenship.'

This is very well said, although I want to know what it entails to 'represent war accurately'. From whose perspective? 'Accurate' representation can easily come to mean, of course, little more than the kind of representation which supports acceptable narratives of any given war.

I was even more taken by McLoughlin's argument that 'each conflict has its own poesis (and, potentially, genre: in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, think of the First World War and the lyric poem, the Second World War and the epic novel, Vietnam and the movie, the "war on terror" and the blog).' Blessed are the scholars whose parenthetical asides are as rich and suggestive as that.

1 comment:

  1. Tim, I agree with your question, "what [does it entail] to 'represent war accurately'. From whose perspective?"

    I know I repeat myself, but as war poet/artist I continue to believe that war, the understanding/perspective of war, is like a Seurat painting, it requires thousands of dots of paint, points of view, and may be looked at up close but needs the perspective of time and/or distance to fully comprehend it.

    I also believe that the artist as "seer" has much to offer, but so too do the letters home, the ephemera of war.

    What I am trying to do with my work is to push at form e.g., text messaging, online, collaborative as well as more traditional forms, and then too, I envision images, film, multiple approaches to this war we are attending.