Edwin Starr bellowed the message better than anyone else – and in three-and-a-half minutes, to boot. But since war has become a seemingly inescapable (yet all too often, easily dismissible) fact of life, past or present or future, perhaps it’s time to ask another question: How does war affect the literary process?
I. War vs. Social Change: Pride and Prejudice
At first glance it’s difficult to think of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a war novel. There’s certainly fighting over relationships, fussing over marriages (and lack thereof), and all other kinds of verbal conflict, but as far as I can tell no guns are drawn, no swords unsheathed, etc. (I hope that wasn’t a devastating spoiler.) Yet the fact remains that P & P is distinctly set in turn-of-the-19th-century England, and a little research into social context reveals that the British were, in fact, at war – a big war – with France. They’d also be at war with the US not too long after.
So how does Austen get away with blissfully sweeping battered bodies and widespread destruction under the carpet (so to speak)? By doing what anyone else preoccupied with ‘other matters’ would do: giving the war a brief nod, before turning to those ‘other matters:’
The two youngest of the [Bennet] family, Catherine and Lydia, were particularly frequent in these attentions [to Meryton – an English town near their home]; their minds were more vacant than their sisters’, and when nothing better offered, a walk to Meryton was necessary to amuse their morning hours and furnish conversation…and however bare of news the country in general might be, they always contrived to learn some from their aunt. At present, indeed, they were well supplied both with news and happiness by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighbourhood; it was to remain the whole winter, and Meryton was the head-quarters.
It’s very easy to lose sight of the military preparations – or to think of them, as Catherine and Lydia undoubtedly do, as an opportunity for the girls to meet their men in uniform. But perhaps that’s Austen’s point: seeing as the girls’ minds are “more vacant than their sisters’,” war means little more, and probably no less, than a country dance. Not that this comes as any more of a relief to us, because the passage also suggests something darker at stake – namely, that an entire social culture focused on “furnishing conversation” yet somehow “bare of news” has deprived Catherine and Lydia (and probably most of their fellow young ladies) from becoming educated and conscientious of the world beyond their love lives. It’s even possible that the war is a symbolic distraction, an (ironic) barrier to social progress indicator of how ignorant or unresponsive England’s politicians would remain to, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s words, “the rights of woman.” (Married women did not earn the right to own their own property until 1882.)
It is also worth pointing out that Austen doesn’t excuse Elizabeth – certainly more enlightened than her younger sisters – from the twisted psychology of war. Indeed, the heroine manages to reveal the absurdity of it all by fussing over how the latest developments will affect her own life:
When Elizabeth had rejoiced over Wickham’s departure, she found little other cause for satisfaction in the loss of the regiment. Their parties abroad were less varied than before, and at home she had a mother and sister whose constant repinings at the dulness of everything around them threw a real gloom over their domestic circle…[but] by the middle of June, Kitty was so much recovered as to be able to enter Meryton without tears; an event of such happy promise…unless, by some cruel and malicious arrangement at the War Office, another regiment should be quartered in Meryton.
That last sentence is probably my favorite one in P & P – an incredibly sharp and all-too-true satire on the “cruel and malicious arrangements” that war brings to our lives, not to mention a cutting commentary on the role of the domestic woman in early 19th-century Britain. War – what is it good for?
II. War and Identity: The English Patient
I have never seen the film version of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), and it has admittedly been a while since I finished reading the book, but I remember how cinematic my reading experience felt – each section, in alternating past and present tense, drawing out the lives of four individuals caught up in each other’s lives against the backdrop of World War II. Like Austen’s P & P, but in a very different manner, war plays out like a slow, destructive dance in the background of the book’s Italian villa. Yet it also entwines the lives of Ondaatje’s characters (living and deceased – no spoilers here) and creates an unlikely community whose fate is dictated by the physical and psychological toll of the conflict.
For me, the character that best exemplifies this experience is Kip, the Sikh “sapper” (trained bomb defuser) who comes across Hana and the badly wounded “English patient” at the villa. Kip, who serves the British army, has been hardened by months of bomb defusion and detonation, to the extent that his mechanical motions become an extension of his own character. Ondaatje portrays the sapper’s war-inflected identity through a description of Kip’s daily routine:
He peeled the onions with the same knife he used to strip rubber from a fuze wire. This was followed by fruit….
In fact he had always been dutifully in line at the crack of dawn, holding out his cup for the English tea he loved, adding to it his own supply of condensed milk. He would drink slowly, standing in sunlight to watch the slow movement of troops who, if they were stationary that day, would already be playing canasta by nine a.m.
It’s a dreamlike passage, the juxtaposed images creating some bizarre, surreal painting. Onions and fruit clash with stripped rubber and fuse wires; getting milk and tea becomes a duty; canasta and troops make their appearances against early sunlight – and all this in the one of the bloodiest conflicts modern civilization has ever known. But for Kip the reality of war is just as evident as the version we find to be surreal, and his time at the villa – if he wasn’t defusing so many bombs, that is – could easily find its way into a more peaceful novel on Italy.
Kip’s affinity with the other ‘guests’ – Hana the nurse, Caravaggio the thief, and of course the English patient – develops as he comes to realize they do not reject him, because of his faith or difference or otherness. He even nurtures a passionate relationship with Hana, and the two form a very intimate and close bond. Yet Kip remains a sapper, and with the war drawing steadily to a close, perhaps it’s not surprising that a bomb (or rather, more than one) once again jars his spirits:
One bomb. Then another. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.
He swerves the rifle towards the alcove….If he closes his eyes he sees the streets of Asia full of fire. It rolls across cities like a burst map, the hurricane of heat withering bodies as it meets them, the shadow of humans suddenly in the air. This tremor of Western wisdom.
There’s a devastating irony to the fact that Kip loses his connection to Western civilization at the precise moment this same civilization enacts its most terrible punishment on its enemy in order to save itself. Keeping the earlier passage in mind, it’s as though Kip and the war have become integrated into the same tortured self; the end of one brings about massive and intense disillusionment in the other. The young sapper expresses his fury with a sweeping denunciation of “Western wisdom:”
[“]American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman. You had King Leopold of Belgium and now you have fucking Harry Truman of the USA. You all learned it from the English….
Soon he will be alone with Hana. And the motive for all this on the radio. A terrible event emerging out of the shortwave. A new war. The death of a civilisation.
By itemizing the countries that have inflicted so much bloodshed in history, Kip reveals another facet of war that can be easy to overlook despite (or maybe because of) the overwhelming violence: namely, that war doesn’t only disrupt nations and lives, but also the communities – whether tight-knit or disparate – in between. Austen’s satire on war and women shows how conflict at a distance can render everyday life into farce; Ondaatje’s tragic take brings out the intense psychological and interpersonal damage that war brings at all scales, from the ‘front’ to the far-away.
As someone who’s ‘witnessed’ – if you can even call it that – the American wars against ‘other’ nations and ‘other’ notions, I find it difficult to draw any clear, comforting conclusions from all of this. I suppose the best I can do is say that art, in all of its forms, has an extraordinary potential to not only reveal, but also heal. Reading Pride and Prejudice or The English Patient admittedly won’t do anything to end world conflict and discord. But it might help us think twice about how we got to this situation, and how we can think our way through – and maybe even out of – it.