Frank Kermode

  • The Generation of 1914 by Robert Wohl
    Weidenfeld, 307 pp, £12.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77756 4

‘Generationalism’, as Mr Wohl designates the practice of thinking about history and society in terms of the characteristics attributed, usually by themselves, to members of particular age-groups, is a conceptual device nobody seems to have studied very closely till the 19th century. Not, of course, that conflicts between youth and age hadn’t been noticed: ‘they hate us youth,’ as Falstaff remarked, thinking of his behaviour rather than his age. Nor is it always the part of youth to be the wild ones. They may come on strong for discipline, reversing decadent trends, restraining reckless middle age. The novelty of 19th-century generationalism lay in a new self-consciousness about generational differences, and a desire to discover in them some historical dynamic. The result was a good deal of tediously abstract speculation about the length of a generation, the manner in which it acquired its characteristics, and so forth. Meanwhile more practical politicians found ways of using the cults of youth which acquired dignity as a consequence of all this cerebration.

Mr Wohl is interested in generationalism as a philosophy or pseudo-philosophy of history, but has focused his inquiry on one generation that was particularly self-conscious and had a more spectacular fate than most. In order to find out what its members thought a generation was, and what their own was destined to achieve, he ransacks the literature – novels, poems, memoirs, philosophical treatises – of five European nations, and provides potted biographies of a great many people born between about 1880 and 1900. In so doing, he supplies us with a lot of interesting, if somewhat densely packed material, and it is hardly his fault that the whole enterprise has an air of futility: one is as often irritated by the foolishness of these men as touched by the sadness of their fate.

Spain, France, Germany and Italy all provide chapters that have some sort of philosophical backbone, whereas England is without its thinker. We get instead a few pages each on Brooke, Sassoon, Owen, Aldington, Graves, T.E. Lawrence and on the English idée fixe of a lost or sacrificed generation. Wohl has no difficulty in identifying this as largely mythical – the slaughter was great, but very far from including a whole generation – or in showing how class-bound the whole notion was: the sacrificed generation consisted more or less entirely of officers. However, it appears that he himself is under the spell of this Georgian myth; it would certainly have been possible to include a few English thinkers, notably Wyndham Lewis (an omission so vast as to defy explanation), who belonged to ‘the men of 1914’. It is hard to understand why Prezzolini and Papini deserved so much space when none could be found for BLAST, its contributors and its editor, whose intellectual heritage was admittedly un-English and rather obscure, but better worth investigation in this context than Sassoon’s or Brooke’s.

So we are left to wonder at the foreigners, and their different ways of responding to a realisation that a simple age-group can, by the very fact of its intellectual members taking thought, be transformed into a generation. In France, a New Youth emerged just before the war in opposition to the old guard at the Sorbonne; they liked speed and sport and were devoted to ideas of order and discipline, being anxious to reverse the ‘Decadence’ of the ‘generation of 1885’. Another thing they had in common was a fervent desire to fight a war with Germany, or, almost, with anybody. There seems to have been an agreement to think of such a war as having an importance transcending international rivalry, as constituting in fact a sort of transition between epochs, the past yielding to a new world. That they got their war and could make little of its sequel is a reason for their attaching to themselves the label of ‘Sacrificed Generation’, though once again the sacrifice was thought of as having been made by an élite, this time of intellectuals; since they are the people who do the thinking about generationalism, it is always probable that they will, unthinkingly, make such assumptions.

It is, in fact, the intellectual styles of these generationalists that impress us now, rather than what they actually thought. Montherlant was a Catholic without belief, and a war hero without patriotism; Drieu la Rochelle carried the ideas of courage and sacrifice into the disappointing years after the war; and by repeatedly affirming that battle was the greatest of all experiences they persuaded their juniors to feel deprived (a sentiment that was also strong in this country, as Isherwood and others confirm). Perhaps in this, as in other more directly political ways, the sacrificed generation prepared us for more sacrifice.

Such sentiments and motives were felt, as one might expect, even more strongly in Germany. Germans were already familiar with organised youth cults and the revolt of son against father; a particularly ecstatic Youth Movement was ready to act out the myth of the holy fighting man, master of explosives and flames, in the manner of Ernst Jünger. This Movement suffered horrible losses in Flanders, and its remnant and descendants were later easily seduced by the Nazis, who, though insistent upon a proper respect for age, consistently represented themselves as the party of youth. In Germany, too, the generational cult was associated with the sense that an age was ending, another Renaissance at hand, this time German. Günther Gründel, an important spokesman for this view, had at least one good idea: he dismissed Hitler as a false prophet (good apocalyptic thinking – false prophets were a sign of the end that was at hand), and urged youth to train itself in matters of technology and money against the day, some time in the Forties, when a true Führer would arise to lead them.

One senses the relief with which Wohl leaves all this behind and tackles Karl Mannheim, who held that the old were protected from experience by a self-constructed experiential system which filtered all the information; the young had not yet acquired this system. That sounds sensible, if oddly expressed: but Mannheim’s most interesting idea was that there existed an analogy between generations and class. A generation was a ‘social-historical location to be understood in terms of the relation between social fact and the consciousness of social fact’. As in the matter of class ideologies, people from other generations could (like Falstaff) participate in a new generational impulse (Mannheim was a pupil of Lukacs). Wohl, who spots various faults in Mannheim’s theory, thinks he could have taken the relation between class and generation a little further: in some ways, he thinks, a generation is an alternative to a class.

He has much more time for Ortega y Gasset than for Mannheim. It is true that Ortega, with Mannheim and Gramsci, stands out from this mob of Revolutionary Simpletons, as Wyndham Lewis might have called them: but I find it hard to admire Ortega’s generational lucubrations. All those distinctions between ‘cumulative’ and ‘polemical’ epochs rest on the hazy notion that a particular generation can be ‘inauthentic’. But, as Wohl remarks, Ortega on generations is really incomplete without Ortega on historical crises more generally considered. He believed, with many others such as I.A.Richards (who receives no mention here), that around 1920 the world reached a major historical crisis, and that man was beginning to be ‘disorientated with respect to himself, dépaysé’. The man of action threatened and ‘rebarbarisation’ loomed; Ortega looked for the ‘genuine generation’ that might restore to us a ‘vital horizon’. As Wohl succinctly remarks, ‘it was not enough in 1933 to be right.’

Italy provides what is in some ways the most turbulent and original generationalist history, and we are taken from the intellectualist imperialism of Papini to the opportunism of Mussolini, who supplemented what Wohl describes as the ‘doctrinal poverty’ of Fascism by manipulating ‘youth’ and the vague aspirations and disappointments of war veterans. The greatest name, however, is Gramsci, whose meditations on cultural hegemony and the necessary solidarity of intellectual and worker involved generationalist speculations of a more refined and useful variety than most.

What gives Wohl’s book its distinction is his perception that generationalist thinking constituted an international genre; it shaped thought and expectation, and had an undoubted influence on events. He attributes its rise to a weakening of the social and economic bonds of father and son, to greater physical and social mobility, to the lengthening of the period known as ‘youth’, and to the dissolution of local and regional loyalties. Moreover, taking off from Mannheim’s insight, he argues that the concept of generation was sufficiently differentiated from that of class, yet sufficiently close to it, for the generation of 1914 to have, as a generation, ‘a project of hegemony over other social classes’. Not, of course, in England.

What really set the generation of 1914 apart from all others was simply that it lived before, during and after the Great War. That war has associations of apocalyptic terror and apocalyptic transition lacking in the war that followed only a generation later. The sons of the men of 1914 were (except possibly in Germany) unlikely to think of their war as a rite of purification. ‘History,’ said Ortega in 1914, ‘is trembling to its very roots. Its flanks are torn apart convulsively, because a new reality is about to be born.’ The point is not that the second war was any less terrible, only that it was not thought of in that way, the mood being rather ‘il faut en finir.’ In the circumstances, any peace would have disappointed the survivors of what was not always vulgarly called Armageddon. Their sons partly envied them the experience, partly blamed them for the sequel. Wohl maintains that ‘intellectuals born in the last two decades of the 19th century could not divest themselves of the feeling that apocalypse had only been postponed,’ and that may be true, for it is a feeling characteristic of disappointed millennialists. But the young didn’t share it, and the increasingly weary and cynical utopianism of second-war propaganda entirely annulled it. The next ‘authentic’ generation was, no doubt, the neo-Dadaist utopians of 1968, but as to their effect on history it is now as if they had never existed – not because they weren’t important, but because they lacked the talent, and history failed to provide the truly memorable occasion.