Seen through the Loopholes

David Simpson

  • War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime by Mary Favret
    Princeton, 262 pp, £18.95, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 691 14407 8

When and where does modern war begin? With tanks or gas warfare in 1914-18? With the aerial bombardment of civilians in Mesopotamia in 1920? At Guernica in 1937? With the general conscription, guerrilla campaigns and worldwide conflict of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain and their allies between 1793 and 1815? Or with the destruction of civilian lives and ecosystems in the Thirty Years War of 1618-48 that depopulated a good part of Central Europe? Scholars and writers tend to claim transformational status for the war they happen to be writing about, as Paul Fussell did for the Great War – which was also declared exceptional by those who thought of it as the war to end all wars.

War is always modernising. The increasing use of unmanned drones by the Americans in the current campaigns renders it unnecessary for there to be any human risk at all for ‘our’ side in dealing out death and destruction to those who are limited to a low-technology response, and often to no response at all. (Even those who flew at dazzling altitudes over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at least took the risk of getting into planes and flying over hostile territory.) And yet at the same time war is eerily always the same. The siege of Carthage is not worlds away from last winter’s events in Gaza; the condottieri of late medieval Italy have affiliations with the employees of the Blackwater corporation (rebranded in February 2009 as the techno-Grecian Xe). Exhausted infantry soldiers, even those fighting for the technologically dominant superpowers, still dig foxholes and eat bad food.

Or perhaps it only modernises in part, or from time to time, and subsists as a confusing mixture of ancient, modern and futuristic technologies. The details of death in hand-to-hand combat as imagined by Homer before the walls of Troy – a skull cloven in just this way, a limb severed exactly so – have recurred in all wars fought between then and now. Bodies can now be vaporised and made to disappear completely, but there is at the same time a never-ending parade of the dismembered, disfigured and disabled, dead and alive: fewer of ‘us’ than of ‘them’, but still a lot. Every ravaged body or mind generates an expanding circle of grief and suffering, as it probably has done in most times and places.

Mary Favret has chosen to explore a related but different question: when and how did we (in the anglophone West) begin to be preoccupied with war at a distance, war going on elsewhere, war that we cannot see and do not directly feel but which we are always consciously or unconsciously aware of and responsive to? What might be thought to be a modern attitude when held by those at home thinking about family members or fellow citizens risking their lives (and killing others) hundreds or thousands of miles away? What is the balance of anxiety and relief in the minds of those on whose behalf distant wars are ostensibly being fought? How normal are the normal lives these wars are said to be protecting? What feeling, if any, is there for those suffering human beings who are not our friends, relatives or fellow citizens? And how do the media stimulate or repress such feelings?

After the photos of the fire-bombing of retreating Iraqi columns in the first Gulf War, and after Abu Ghraib, such questions became more urgent; but you are more likely to ask questions about what you see than what you don’t. The non-circulation in the Western world of documentary footage of dead Iraqi civilians, and now of those Afghan villagers visited by our drone-launched weapons of indiscriminate (how many before we call it ‘mass’?) destruction, is of a part with the repression of images of the ‘jumpers’ of 9/11 and the bizarre efforts of the Bush administration (now overturned by Obama) to keep journalists away from the coffins coming home to America. Our current wars are highly mediated, made and unmade by the media and the political interests that so often govern them. Evidence of death and destruction may be immediate, flashed across the world in real time by the major networks as on 11 September 2001, or it may take time to be sifted through alternative websites and sources (easier to access in some places than others). Some of what is seen is taken without question as real, even when it looks filmic (as with Manhattan); other items are held up to a compulsively sceptical inquiry about what has or has not been spliced and doctored. Some things remain unseen.

War at a Distance explores media conventions and their psychic consequences in the years around 1800, and reflects on how they inform present circumstances. The book is primarily interested in British Romanticism, but Favret is wise enough not to suppose that our present was comprehensively formed by that particular past. Before photography and film, before the telephone and the radio, letters, newspaper reports and works of literature played a much bigger part than they do now and they were supplemented by plays and pageants, prints and paintings, and by the panoramas that became so popular in the 1790s and were so startling in their immersion-effect as to make some spectators faint and tremble. The regular sight of sailors coming ashore and militias exercising was another, non-verbal reminder of the omnipresence of a war of global dimensions, as were the diseased and disabled veterans moving across the landscape (there to be encountered by Wordsworth and his like). But much of this has come down to us chiefly because it was written about, and written about in high-cultural forms like the novels of Jane Austen or the slow-selling poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Favret reminds us that much of the literature of Romanticism was produced and consumed at a time when everyday life was suffused with the awareness of war.

This has only recently become clear to critical readers, and that has to do with the felt pressure of our own wars. Yet there was no habit of reading the Romantics as poets of wartime after 1918 or 1945, so why now? Among the reasons we must surely acknowledge the degree to which higher education has passed out of the control of elites with direct ties to ruling-class ideologies, so that the shell-game of official history can now be decoded more efficiently. We are also more attuned to the phenomenon of bad or unjust wars, or wars that have given rise to massive dissent and disapproval. There was no million-person march at the time of the American or French wars in the late 18th century, although there was a lot of dissent among the elites and presumably, though less widely recorded, among others.

What there was, according to Favret, was the poet William Cowper, publishing The Task in 1785 in the aftermath of the American War of Independence, which must be considered a global war even if it did not involve the sheer manpower of the campaigns against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Cowper is at the centre of this book, which builds on the case for his historical and theoretical significance made in Kevis Goodman’s Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism (2004) and persuasively positions him as the crucial observer and recorder of the effects of constant war on everyday life: he above all ‘made war into wartime’. It was Cowper, so frequently sanitised as a pet-loving evangelical or dismissed as a madman, who looked out on the world through the ‘loopholes of retreat’ and thereby strikingly conflated rural domesticity with the threat of a violent outside. It was Cowper who declared, with something between innocence and self-accusation, that in his retreat (itself both a place achieved, and the act of retreating) ‘the sound of war/ Has lost its terrors ere it reaches me.’ Thus he records his strange kinship with those present-day authors who – like Don DeLillo – pose the question of what, if anything, has really changed in the lives of the homeland bourgeoisie since 9/11, the point after which the (our) world was supposed to have (once again) changed for ever. And it is Cowper, as Favret sees it, who is the epitome of the defensiveness of self before proto-military attack that typifies the Freudian subject in its everyday susceptibility to invasion by outside forces. Cowper, like Mansfield Park after Edward Said’s reading and Patricia Rozema’s movie, will never be the same again, and we will wonder why we never saw him this way before.

Some of the best parts of Favret’s book are about the pervasive metaphorisation of military violence in the vocabulary of everyday life. What could be more ordinary than two English people talking about the weather? But the weather, according to Favret, became ordinary in a new way in the Romantic period. Meteorology was something of a rage, and was being refigured as a system of interactions between local and global forces, generated not by the visible and stable earth but by the unseen vectors of the sky: Constable was not working in a cultural vacuum when he spent all that time sketching clouds. In a manner that prefigures modern chaos theory (the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one place bringing about a hurricane in another), Britain’s local situation suddenly came to seem dependent on faraway events, in weather as in war. The reputed mediocrity (in both senses) of the British weather was seen as threatened by larger systems generated out of sight and out of time; the eruption of faraway Mount Tambora in 1815, for example, produced cold summers and critically low harvests in Europe (giving us also Byron’s ‘Darkness’ and, when the sun came out again, Keats’s ‘To Autumn’). Weather, like war and disease, was no respecter of national borders; distant war might come close to home. War and weather acting together produced famine, spectacularly so in 1795, in a way that seemed more empirically undeniable: ‘And of the poor did many cease to be,’ as Wordsworth put it. War and weather both involve an awareness of the movement of fronts (though this verbal conjunction apparently did not appear until the First World War), and it’s Cowper again who forecasts the future in his obsession with global climatological disaster – fog in Europe, hurricanes in the Caribbean, earthquakes in Sicily – which, in the light of this book, we can no longer simply explain as the speculations of a pious man worrying over the vengeance of a retributive God.

Sometimes the weather’s instability gives way to an immense fixity: a heat wave or a cold spell becoming a deep chill – winter. In the classic understanding of warfare, winter was a time to hole up and polish one’s weapons, ready for the spring campaigns. Before Moscow in 1812 as before Stalingrad in 1942, winter joined the battle and took up arms against the human body itself. The conjunction between winter and death in war goes all the way back to Homer (whom Cowper translated) and all the way forward to the 20th-century image of the nuclear winter. Favret finds in James Thomson’s The Seasons and in Cowper and other poets a newly heightened sense of winter as the figure proper to modern war. The fall of snow is like the effect of massively destructive weapons; like death it serves, in Cowper’s words, to ‘assimilate all objects’. A landscape covered with snow is like one covered with leaves, poppies or corpses – everything looks the same. Cowper follows Pope following Homer, and this is the figurative tradition that feeds into the new, modern world of wars fought by millions everywhere and seemingly always. Extreme winter chills and stops the blood: it puts to death.

Other changes in the perception of time and space contribute to Favret’s model of modern war-consciousness as that which is simultaneously adrift and obsessively involved, insulated but constantly aware of its vulnerability. Clock-time, the even, impassive succession of moments of homogeneous, empty time that enables disparate events to be compared or made to coincide (as when I say I will do an hour’s work for £20, or will meet you for lunch at 12.15), was emerging as one enabler of an increasingly mechanised economy and routinised culture. But it was interrupted by other temporalities: that of the news, the transmission of critical information across huge spaces that came in fits and starts (from India, from America, from France); that of the ‘meantime’, as Favret calls it, the time of waiting and of speculation, responsive to the idiosyncrasies of the inner life as well as to events themselves; and that of prophecy, the threatened or promised collapse of past and present into a revolutionary future whose analogues in warfare might be final victory or irrecoverable defeat, an end to things at last. Wartime is all of these at once, or rather the experiencing of one in the constant awareness of the likely onset of the others, rather as one imagines the thunderstorm after the heat wave or the flood after the drought.

Perhaps only for a few of the ultra-faithful was there a messianic prospect in this instability of temporal experience; for many it would have augured the resurgence or cataclysmic outburst of non-metaphysical violence. Wordsworth recorded something of this in The Prelude. Walking across Salisbury Plain in 1793, a time of widespread fears of invasion, he hallucinates ‘multitudes of men’ from the prehistoric ‘past’, but clearly has in mind a threatened present and future when he writes of the disorienting darkness that took – like a heavy snowfall – ‘all objects from my sight’. This superimposition of destructive masses on an empty, rural space is the mark of wartime consciousness.

A similar act of imagination allows Favret to find in the picturesque ambience of William and Thomas Daniell’s painting The Bridge at Serinagur (first exhibited in 1800) an allegory (indeed a history) of the fragile human form in the midst of overwhelming forces. The painting’s middle distance depicts tiny figures crossing a rope bridge over a turbulent, fast-flowing river. The figures are ‘neither close enough to identify as individuals nor far enough away to naturalise or dismiss’; they are between fully human and less than human, and thus merely human in their vulnerability to both natural and man-made hazards. They are (and were known to be) fleeing the city in expectation of a state of siege. They are what we (in the Royal Academy in 1800, or in the drawing-rooms where copies of Oriental Scenery included the print of this painting) are not, but must at least speculate about becoming: the homeless, the exiled, the dispossessed, stripped of the securities of civilisation and left unprotected before nature, whose destructive potential is as great as that of a hostile army. They teeter across the bridge, suspended in mid-air, and are there stopped in time, not yet falling but not yet safe. In her imagining of this slender means of support as about to fall, or liable to fall, Favret is thinking and feeling after 9/11. That she may have felt the same way before 9/11 occurred doesn’t make this any less true. Modern wartime makes futures out of its present.

In Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, the clock is stopped between the two ticks that separate one day from the next, and the world is on the point of turning from water and vapour into ice. It is, then, deep winter. It is also the time of war. Coleridge stares at the fire flickering before him, the ‘sole unquiet thing’ as it generates a ‘film’ on the grate. This film, he explains, is called a ‘stranger’ and is believed by many to portend the arrival of some ‘absent friend’. The stranger is a friend? The friend a stranger? Which is it? Not being able to tell the difference may suggest there is no difference, or that the difference is absolute but indefinable. This very Derridean moment – for who has thought longer and harder (and so much longer and harder than the sponsors of the Patriot Act) than Derrida about hosts and guests, friends and enemies, strangers and intimates? – indicates Coleridge’s modernity (and perhaps Derrida’s continued inhabiting of the time of Romanticism). It is well known that Coleridge borrowed this episode from Book Four of The Task and made it his own; one can’t call it plagiarism since almost all of his readers would have known the source better than they knew anything by Coleridge himself. But Cowper emerges from War at a Distance as something more than an opportune source for a poet with a more enduring reputation. There are less sympathetic voices in The Task, like the one dispensing the judgment that ‘poverty, with most who whimper forth/Their long complaints, is self-inflicted woe.’ But this voice is modern too in its steely self-defence against any identification with the less fortunate. And all too modern, perhaps, is the besetting self-absorption which casts the snowbound waggoner as almost fortunate in his exposure to the brutal winter weather because he is able, unlike the delicate narrator, to bear the cold without the ‘sensibility of pain’. He is a barely human figure, like Primo Levi’s ‘Muselmann’, so that his situation does not appear to call for active redress. Winter for him is almost good news.

There is indeed little evidence in Favret’s account of wartime of active sympathy for those who are not members of one’s own group, though some Romantics did make that case: this was also the time of sustained opposition to transatlantic slavery, and Cowper himself supported abolition. Favret’s profile of the introspective self doesn’t always inspire moral admiration – it is lonely and sometimes paranoid – and in this above all it may be considered prophetic. For Cowper, the stranger seems not to come, and the flickering film on the grate is glossed as mere superstition, ‘prophesying still,/Though still deceived’. This reads not merely as the rhetoric of a Christian dogmatist, but as an admission that there is perhaps no comfort to be had, no companionship in the offing. Friends who are a long way away in time of war can’t be assumed to be coming back any time soon, or coming back at all. What ‘restores’ the poet to himself is the ‘freezing blast’ from outside that ‘sweeps the bolted shutter’. To be restored to oneself may or may not be a boon. Many people in many parts of the world live with the constant fear that their walls are about to crumble; for them, being alone must seem terrifying. And for those who seek to make themselves safe in their homes and homeland, Cowper’s bolted shutters hint at a paranoid isolationism. Domestic dwelling may be too little or too much. This indeed is an index of modern warfare.