Lest we Remember…
Blog post by Les Albiston:
In Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys,” Irwin, the new young history teacher claims “there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” He makes the statement during a class discussion on World War I and it challenges his pupils’ view of that conflict and our traditional reaction to it. As this play has been a standard OIB text, I’ve had to discuss this issue with English 31 pupils and while I have always tried to remain neutral, as every teacher should, I admit I’ve found myself secretly rejecting Irwin’s remarks as offensive. My trip to England during the recent holidays made me reassess that response.
As we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the “Great War” it is only proper that we should pay due respect to those who died and suffered in that terrible conflict. I do feel however that with so much coverage we are in danger, as Irwin suggests, of forgetting the reality and creating a kind of fiction which has as much to do with aesthetics as ethics. As there are no longer any survivors of World War I, it is inevitable that we must imagine lived experience from the records that we have but I am uneasy with the plethora of documentaries, dramas, and docu-dramas on British television, the shelves of books in the bookshops, the facsimiles and souvenirs on offer, the historians vying to give us their take on the reasons for the conflict each promoting his or her own theory in contradiction of the others. Are these dramas presented to commemorate the sacrifice of so many or is television exploiting the war because it provides so many gripping stories? Are writers and historians really acting selflessly and dispassionately in the search for the truth or are they trying to make a name for themselves as the next big TV pundit by latching on to the public’s curiosity about a major world event- the “bow-wow school of History” as Irwin’s colleague, Mrs Lintott disparagingly calls it?
During my trip I went to Stratford (surprise, surprise) to see “Love’s Labours Lost.” It was set as an Edwardian/Georgian house party and of course finished with Berowne and company marching off in their uniforms to World War I. It was clever and slick but somewhere in it all Shakespeare got a little lost. I went to the imperial War Museum in London as I had some research to do for a school trip. The place was awash with families queuing for the special World War I exhibition. I went to see the now famous poppies installation at The Tower of London –late one evening to avoid the crowds- but still encountered hundreds of people taking “selfies” and family snaps. Apparently when it is dismantled in two weeks’ time over four million people will have visited this installation and there is now an on-line petition to keep it in place for a year so that more people can see it. I hope it’s to remember the dead but I have the suspicion that for some it may be to see the art, to be part of the event, to get the quick emotional fix.
And I must admit I find it hard to justify my own presence apart from just wanting “to be there.” Was I motivated by genuine imaginative sympathy, a desire to pay my respects to the dead or by mere voyeurism? In recent years I’ve had the same dilemma with the poetry of World War I. This is absolutely standard fare for older collège pupils, and during my career, the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg et al have become part of every English teacher’s repertoire. I have a pretty nifty lesson on “Anthem for Doomed Youth” but I find myself now reluctant to use it. Owen claimed “My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” Perhaps, but the sonnet is such a formal creation that I can’t help feeling that the poem is as much an exercise in poetics as it is a denunciation of war. So if I use this poem in a lesson, what should I be exploring with my pupils, the beauty of the English language or the horror of war? Owen died in November 1918 the victim of a war whose futility he had tried so earnestly to denounce, and in a kind of dreadfully fitting irony his parents received the news of his death on Armistice day. Can any amount of poetry, no matter how beautiful make that worth it? Can art render real human suffering aesthetically satisfying? As Hector that other teacher in “The History Boys” says of writing about real human suffering, “…putting it well demeans it as much as putting it badly.”
I think this is why I feel more comfortable with King Lear, Hamlet and Othello. At no time in the history of humanity did these individuals actually live, suffer and die. They are brilliantly executed fictional representations of human experience from which we can learn. In the drama, individuals suffer and die for us each night on stage, but they do so within the confines of the play. Nobody has had to die in reality so that we can understand the danger of willful stupidity, unbridled jealousy or introspective indecision. The fiction has done it for us. In this sense great art is a moral process which fully engages our emotional and intellectual faculties and challenges us to consider seriously our understanding of ourselves and of the world we inhabit.
There comes a point when a historical event becomes so remote from our lives that we can only imagine it. Time has transformed it into a story. I have a feeling that we might have arrived at this critical moment with our memories of World War I. After one hundred years it is just on the verge of slipping out of collective memory into the realms of popular imagination. Perhaps this explains our current obsession with the subject as we seek both to remember and to imagine it and end up not quite managing to do either.
It’s striking that since World War I no other conflict since has engendered such poetic output. I’m relieved. Poetry can’t heal a wound, it cannot undo suffering, it can’t make the dead live again. If poetry and ritual bring individual consolation and relieve individual suffering then they serve a noble purpose, but if they merely allow us to gloss over reality, to fabricate the spectacle of mourning in a social-media-fuelled public display of emotion with which we then do nothing, then we really are in danger of doing exactly what Irwin claims- we’re commemorating without really remembering. At the end of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Duke Theseus states,
Love….and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most to my capacity
I think he’s right. There are times when, faced with the extremes of real human experience, be it positive or negative, tongue tied simplicity really does speak most. In the end, we know that things really matter when we finally run out of words to express them.