Thursday, 2 June 2011

Kate McLoughlin: Authoring War

Kate McLoughlin's Authoring War describes itself accurately as 'an ambitious and pioneering study of war writing across all literary genres from earliest times to the present day'. Its scope is astonishing: McLoughlin writes authoritatively about Homer and Heller, Virgil and Vonnegut. She crosses genres and periods sure-footedly, arguing that 'while it is indisputable that all wars are different, it is simultaneously also the case that all wars have certain elements in common: violent death, adverse conditions, the requirement to kill and risk one's own life'.

Her book is the best advocate of her approach, filled as it is with the most unlikely but (it transpires) mutually illuminating case studies. Chapter 1, for example, brings together Gascoigne's The Fruites of Warre, several Shakespeare plays, Defoe's Memoirs of a Cavalier, poems by Longfellow and Browning, Mary Seacole, and Auden and Isherwood's Journey to a War. There are undoubtedly losses in attempting such a range, because the peculiarities of texts risk being overlooked in favour of their shared characteristics. Even so, those losses are outweighed by McLoughlin's ability to expose common concerns across centuries, genres, languages and nations.

McLoughlin's argument is signalled by her title: what does it mean to 'author' war? To put it another way, what is the consequence of the fact that 'the gap between the experience and the representation of conflict can be narrowed but never completely eliminated'? We might say the same about representations of love, or sex, or eating, or watching television, but McLoughlin's argument places war in a special category because of the extremity of the experience and the ethical challenges which it poses for the artist or reporter. Claiming that 'the First World War's natural form was the lyric poem, that the Second World War's was the epic novel, that the Vietnam War's was the movie, [and] that the Iraq War's may well turn out to be the blog', McLoughlin finds a similar crisis of representation in every genre.

My disagreement with Authoring War has nothing to do with the book's execution: it is impeccably scholarly and well written (albeit with a sporadic penchant for obscure polysyllables), and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the relationship between war and literature. The book does, though, seek to make tentative claims for war literature as morally improving. 'Can war literature stop war?', McLoughlin wonders in her conclusion. She fears that the answer is negative, although she does concede on the other side that 'war representation can also occasion delight in violence'. The thought makes her uneasy, but the translating of violence into art is always and necessarily bound up with that delight. However various our motivations, one reason for being drawn to war literature is spelt out by David Bromwich in his brilliant commentary on Edmund Burke: we have 'an active and to some degree a delighted interest in scenes of suffering'. Or, as Burke himself puts it: 'I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others; for let the affection be what it will in appearance, if it does not make us shun such objects, if it makes us dwell upon them, in this case I conceive we must have a delight or pleasure of some species or other in contemplating objects of this kind.'

By contrast, McLoughlin's final paragraphs float a number of uplifting arguments. One such is 'that war literature reveals and recommends love'. So it may do, about as often as literature about love discovers within itself an overt or sublimated violence. Authoring War surrenders to sentimentality when it ends by approvingly quoting Carol Ann Duffy's anthology-of-clich├ęs, 'Last Post'. It is a weak conclusion to an extraordinarily impressive book.


  1. A provocative five-paragraph review, with the central core of interest rightly placed in number three--where the lead sentences made me shout, Author! Author! (No reaction, so far, from any of the possible respondees.) And the paragraph's final quotation sentence left me scrambling to create a new bumper sticker (since Love's been de-based): MAKE LIT, NOT WAR.

  2. I think Burke could have been wrong. I think as often as not, the sort of horrified fascination with which we read about violence comes of fear. When my children were young and first started going uot alone, I used to spend most of the time till they got back morbidly running over in my mind all the terrible things that might happen to them. That certainly didn't mean I wanted any of those things to happen, or took delight in the thought of them, just the reverse. It can be hard to get your mind off that which you wish to avoid - I think a lot about my own mortality too, and not because I'm looking forward to death... I also know folk who have wanted to help animal charities but had to give up because they couldn't get their minds off the awful things they heard of people doing to animals.

  3. I take the point, Sheenagh, but I'm not sure that the scenario of the worried parent replaying the worst possible outcomes in her mind is necessarily a contradiction of Burke's position. In that situation, the parent is drawn to the scene of risk, and is testing out what such an outcome would feel like. There is a certain kind of fascination at play, which is, according to Burke, the beginning of sympathy. The example which David Bromwich uses is Frost's 'The Bonfire', in which risky behaviour is deliberately evoked as a way of conquering fear. '[I]f you shrink from being scared,' the poem's speaker tells a group of children, 'What would you say to war if it should come?'

    So the parent's imagination is self-delightingly and self-protectively creating the worst, scaring herself with the worst, in order to defend herself from the worst 'if [the equivalent of] war should come'. She is fascinated to test out how she would feel, and imagines that outcome in ever more lurid detail.

  4. Kate McLoughlin6 June 2011 at 21:44

    Very glad to see this discussion (and thanks for the review). The idea of war literature as a (fascinated) testing out of risk has plenty of mileage, not least for what it implies about the role of the war writer (see the first chapter of Authoring War - 'Credentials' - for more).

    @I Witness - I was *this* close to using 'make lit not war' myself.