An inadequacy of words when the blood flows
At last week's ceremonies commemorating World War I, rhetorical attempts were stillborn, writes John-Paul McCarthy
Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30
In Paul Fussell's deeply moving meditation on 1914-18, The Great War and Modern Memory, he warned about the heavily stylised aspect of so much of even the best writing on this catastrophe.
He tried to show how actual events were really "deformed by the application to them of metaphor, rhetorical comparison, prose rhythm, assonance, alliteration, allusion, and sentence structures and connectives implying clear causality." His theme was really the inadequacy of mere words.
Last week's events in Belgium showed Fussell's wisdom. All the major actors in the commemorative stakes found that their rhetorical weapons broke in their hands.
President Michael D Higgins's well-meaning meditation in Glasnevin on something called the "ethics of narrative hospitality" was rewarded by zoo noises from the railings. For a split-second it looked as if the president had been cornered by the jargon-police, but his hecklers turned out to be from the Legion of the Rearguard who seemed to think he could undo the 1921 Treaty. (If it had been President Eamon de Valera speaking, the hecklers would have probably ended up in the Curragh.)
Former Taoiseach John Bruton felt Fussell's sting next, as his nuanced restatement of the Home Rule case failed to achieve orbit.
He was rewarded with the suggestion that maybe it was time that the descendants of the 1916 martyrs unionised so as to more effectively extort sympathy from the public.
During the formal ceremonies then in Belgium, the mood became more sombre, but equally predictable. A distracted British PM did the bare minimum and fled to Portugal for his holidays, while German President Joachim Gauck proved himself ostentatiously penitent in Liege.
These proceedings seemed a fair distance off the extraordinary Kohl-Mitterrand hand-clasp at Verdun in 1984, a gesture that may have provided Sebastian Faulks with the powerful coda for his novel Birdsong a decade later ("he found that he had opened his arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other's shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives").
All in all, the 2014 actors seemed somewhat mired in the compulsory unanimity of the graveyard.
Is it possible to let in any light here, or are we pretty much stuck with President Higgins's emphasis on inclusion-where-there-was-once-exclusion - itself a faint echo of the gracious gesture of Taoiseach Sean Lemass in 1965 when he went out of his way to insist that our war dead "were motivated by the highest purpose"? (Lemass was taking aim here at James Connolly more than anyone else, the most aggressive critic of the "viciously and fiendishly evil" recruiters).
Our fairly conservative approach to the Great War, as exemplified by the president's interview with Brian Dobson, stands in contrast to some of the more interesting aspects of the debate outside Ireland.
The most important recent study of the war written in German challenged readers to think in new ways.
Jorn Leonhard's Pandora's Box asked readers to ponder the central mystery of the conflict, what he called the "mechanism of self-prolongation" that kept the war going, even as the casualty lists reached stratospheric dimensions.
Echoing Norman Stone in the UK, Leonhard suggested that the suffering actually sustained the fighting because the more blood was shed, the more participants at home and at the front yearned for the "total victory."
If we had to state this thesis in a vulgar way, we might say the combatants brought this nightmare on themselves, and even willed it to continue until every drop of blood drawn by the canon had been paid for by another drawn with the sword. Like Patrick Kavanagh's bachelor farmer in The Great Hunger, they cried for their own loss "one late night on the pillow, and yet thanked the God who had arranged these things".
If viewed in this prism, the Great War becomes something a thousand times more terrifying than the "sleepwalkers" thesis allows.
President Higgins might consider broadening his repertoire in the coming years, especially for Irish audiences. Someone must explore the way that war fed the venerable tradition of the cover-up that has been an important part of Irish life - ever since the strong farming class pretended it was the British rather than themselves who really broke the landless labourers during the Famine.
How many other countries in the world needed some five decades before their prime minister found he could speak publicly about the scale of his people's commitment to the Great War?
President Higgins could also explore how Connolly's grave misunderstanding of the Germans (those "who loved us and our land") anticipated similar errors during the de Valera, Haughey and even the Cowen eras. The important thing here is to move off the inclusivity issue.
Lemass did the heavy lifting there a long time ago.