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Bodies that Moulder

Allyson Booth

Postcards from the Trenches:
Negotiating the Space between Modernism and the First World War
New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Reviewing Allyson Booth's Postcards from the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War in an issue of the Stanford Humanities Review that deals with "The Athlete's Body" is at first glance an opportunity to explore many interesting shared concerns. After all, Booth's thesis is about what actually happens to soldiers' bodies in the trenches; they become corpses, decay, are shoved underground and often pop back up again after shellfire has disturbed their resting place. According to Booth, this process of decomposition, burial and resurfacing altered the way people conceived of their bodily relationships to space, but it also functions in her work as an allegory of the way in which modernism itself deals with the First World War. Naturally, T. S. Eliot's celebrated The Waste Land (the first few lines of which, as Michael Levenson has pointed out, are arguably spoken from a corpse's point of view) is, as Booth notes, "commonly understood to incorporate the sounds and images of trench warfare and its aftermath" (5) and acts as a crucial test case for her theory. The return to life of the speaking corpse of the opening lines is later speculated about in the poem ("Will it sprout?"), and this points to the "territory between life and death" experienced, according to Booth, by soldiers at the front.

Booth does not, however, spend long enough on Eliot to deal with rival or even contrary readings of such images. The idea that corpses sprouting might be an image of regeneration (as in Frazer's The Golden Bough) rather than unsettling war memories or modernist guilt isn't taken up, nor is the fact that the poem is a variation on a very old genre, the pastoral elegy. It might appear that such criticisms are simply the resentment of Eliot specialists at the temerity of a generalizing interloper, but when Paul Fussell (in his classic The Great War and Modern Memory) has so famously set up the pastoral as the dominant mode in which the war was first conceived by literarily-minded soldiers (and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have set forth the conventions of the pastoral elegy which are echoed in The Waste Land), Booth's silence on this point is deafening. The problem here is not her departure from the usual readings of Eliot's poetry, but rather her general refusal to engage rival theories or genealogies of modernism with even a minimum of polemical energy.

Admittedly, since the publication of Fussell's book and Samuel Hynes's A War Imagined, scholars who wish to link World War One and modernist aesthetics in England have faced a dilemma. While Hynes's and especially Fussell's work revealed a rich vein of cultural sources (popular songs, memoirs by non-combatants, jingoistic propaganda by otherwise literarily respectable writers like Ford Madox Ford and so on) with which more familiar canonical works may be profitably compared, they also seemed like the mature apotheosis of a genre, that is, critical reappraisals of the First World War. Predictably, Booth's book both profits from Hynes's and Fussell's groundbreaking efforts and suffers by the inevitable comparison (despite her own too-assiduous attempts to avoid it) with them.

Booth makes it plain that unlike Fussell and Hynes she is less concerned with capturing English literary sensibility during the war than with tracing the effects of trench warfare on the modernist imagination in general: "the Great War was experienced by soldiers as strangely modernist and... modernism itself is strangely haunted by the Great War" (6). Where Fussell all but ignores the increasingly meaningless word "modernist" and emphasizes the profoundly traditional sensibility which most soldiers and writers brought to the war, Booth tries to recreate some of the spatial relationships and corporeal experiences of soldiers in trenches which account for certain Modernist experiments and obsessions. For instance, she reproduces in her introduction one of the English Field Service postcards mentioned by Fussell; these were cards distributed to British soldiers who would send one home after a battle to let their families know that they had survived. To avoid verbiage and keep battle details secret, soldiers simply circled pretyped phrases that applied and crossed out those that didn't . As Fussell sardonically notes, this format came in handy "If a man was too tired to transcribe the cliches of the conventional phlegmatic letter".

While we may welcome a further development of Fussell's insights about the influence on post-war writers of this sort of grim, dehumanizing document, Booth takes this opportunity to perform an unconvincing reading of Wallace Stevens's "A Postcard from the Volcano". She informs us that the "blanks" in this poem "feel significant," since they remind us of "the distance between 'what we said' [Stevens's phrase] and 'what it is'" (17), but she doesn't say why such blanks bear any necessary relationship to the Field Service postcards sent by British soldiers to their families. Aside from the fact that Stevens was unlikely to have seen any such postcards in America, we must wonder at an interpretation which sees a poem which mentions nothing about soldiers or war (and Stevens could write about both quite explicitly when he pleased) as describing "a space appropriate…to the experience of soldiers" and being "an appropriate image of our erasure of war from the structures of modernism" (17). Such spaces and erasures must be limitless indeed, if these are the criteria for finding them.

Booth sees legitimate and enlightening connections where others might pass on without a second thought, but her associative impulses are sometimes banal and mechanically presented. Her section on Eliot furnishes an example:

The paralysis in The Waste Land seems to be temporary, something into which and out of which one may move. A soldier at the front describes corpses in a similarly ambiguous state: 'Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible...they lay at attention, staring up at the heavens' [Vaughan 32]. These soldiers may be understood to be (a) neither living nor dead; (b) both living and dead. They are immobile, but so are men at attention; their eyes are unseeing, yet they stare up at the sky….

The segue from Eliot to the soldier's account is clumsy, the similarity between the dead and the paralyzed is obvious, and the exegesis of the corpses' appearance is pedantically muddled. Corpses may be understood to be dead — they may seem alive, but they're not. Any ambiguity in the attitude of dead soldiers is simply imaginary; Booth seems to be using a rather ordinary bit of description to try and induce hallucinations in either herself or her readers.

Besides being prone to such unwieldy passages, Booth frequently seems less than rigorous in her scholarship, a suspicion she may be at once acknowledging and trying to deflect when she states in her introduction that her "categories are thematic rather than chronological" (5). She offers this information, presumably, to avoid being conflated or compared with scholars like Levenson (whose analysis of the genealogy of modernism is rigorously historical) yet it has the effect of making the reader wonder what sort of chronology she has renounced, and drawing attention to pre-war movements such as Vorticism, Imagism and Impressionism (seen by Levenson and others as central to an understanding of the main currents of modernism), which are not mentioned in her book. Neglected individual writers whose post-war work is arguably haunted by war imagery also come to mind: David Jones (whose In Parenthesis was perhaps unfairly dismissed by Fussell as "an honorable miscarriage") and Robert Graves (his war memoir, Good-bye to All That, is mentioned by Booth but his poetry gets short shrift). The total absence of Wyndham Lewis from Booth's book is particularly troubling, since he was the theorist par excellence of modernist "space" (one of Booth's professed themes) as well as a war veteran.

To be fair to Booth, one must admit it is no secret that World War One has haunted the imaginations of English writers throughout the twentieth century; what is striking and refreshingly unexpected in Booth's book is her recognition of the extent to which female writers who lived through the war were affected by the experience of male soldiers in the trenches. Conventional wisdom has it that the First World War was, in a general way, a welcome change for British womanhood; while men in the army were cramped into a nightmarish parody of domesticity in their flooded and dangerous front-line dugouts, many women enjoyed a new freedom of movement on the home front, taking over jobs and chores previously entrusted only to men. Of course, women grieved over the loss of loved ones, but as Gilbert and Gubar (cited by Booth) point out, many resented the reimposition of male authority after the war and looked back with some nostalgia on their wartime occupations and challenges. Meanwhile, according to this picture, a vengeful male misogyny was nursing its wounds and preparing for a return to the status quo.

Booth reminds us that many women writers, despite their lack of direct experience of trench life, were deeply perturbed by the psychological damage done by the war and eager to deal with its social impact in compassionate and ambitious ways. The list of such writers is substantial: Vera Brittain, Virginia Woolf, Mary Borden, Ellen LaMotte, Katherine Mansfield, Helen Zinna Smith and Rebecca West all receive attention in Booth's study. Her readings of West's The Return of the Soldier and of Woolf's Mrs Dalloway , for instance, are convincing and obviously relevant to her point about the ways in which the Great War haunted post-war writing. Unfortunately, these women have to wait for their turn until the very last pages of the book, and Booth does not make a serious attempt to summarize or conclude her work in a way that accounts for the differences between male and female reactions to the war. Nowhere do we find compelling evidence that women writers changed the ways in which they viewed all bodies (not just male ones) because of the decomposed, buried and resurfaced bodies of soldiers; indeed, Booth's evidence for her point about the effect of the trenches comes mainly from male writers such as Eliot.

Perhaps Booth's book suffers precisely because her thesis (though it implicitly depends on reaffirming the radical, revolutionary qualities of unfashionable authors like the aforementioned Eliot) seems to have a timeliness which provokes juxtapositions with theoretical work in other fields. Bodies, perhaps thanks to Judith Butler and other authors in this volume, have never mattered more than right now, and it is not impious to suspect that Booth has guaged this fact rather shrewdly. All the more reason, however, to place Postcards from the Trenches in its real scholarly context beside Fussell, Hynes and Levenson. Bodies do matter, but they don't trump all other ways of reading texts; the old drudgeries of debate (by which I mean among other things the task, neglected by Booth, of engaging one's scholarly as well as literary sources in a critical spirit) must go on, however much they may remind us that we in academia are bound to struggle in the wake of others, rather like those soldiers trudging out into no-man's-land on a painful and unprofitable errand.

Brad Buchanan

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.