The death of “high” diction
Like anyone who reads a lot of books written before one’s grandparents were born, the imaginary world of literature and history begins in the mind to contend with the perception of the immediate world of real life. Outmoded words begin to enter the vocabulary, and must be consciously prevented from escaping into the daylight of ordinary conversation. One instinctively knows that words like “valor”, “comradeship”, and “foe” have no place in everyday language (“How was your basketball game today?” “Oh, it was a great! My comrades and I vanquished the foe 3-1.”) though words such as these crop up in older writings all of the time. Like chivalry, these “high” forms of speaking are now dead. But what killed them?
This week, I started reading The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) by Paul Fussell, which describes the traumatizing shock that the First World War delivered to the Western psyche. To die with the millions of soldiers in combat was a European idea about the perfectibility of mankind and society. The effect of this collective experience lasts to this day, even in America.
The summer before the war, the summer of 1914, was memorable for its picnic-perfect weather. During these warm summer months, Europe (especially Britain, which hadn’t really seen war for a hundred years) breathed the air of chivalry, romanticism, and boundless self-confidence for the last time. The shock of the war to come contrasted so sharply with the idyllic season before it (Fussell describes at length in the first chapter how this dichotomy created a sharp and enduring impression of the irony of life on the Western psyche), that “the summer of 1914” would for many decades become synonymous with astonishing naiveness.
To illustrate how this change took place, Fussell relates a handful of the countless ironic (meaning, having one’s optimistic hopes about the future punished with exaggerated misery instead) experiences that soldiers witnessed during the war. Fussell quotes one instance from another author’s memoir:
A young and cheerful lance-corporal of ours was making some tea [in the trench] as I passed one warm afternoon. Wishing him a good tea, I went along three fire-bays; one shell dropped without warning behind me; I saw its smoke faint out, and I thought all was as lucky as it should be. Soon a cry from that place recalled me; the shell had burst all wrong. Its butting impression was black and stinking in the [back of the trench] where three minutes ago the lance-corporal’s mess-tin was bubbling over a little flame. For him, how could the gobbets of blackening flesh, the earth-wall sotted with blood, with flesh, the eye under the duckboard, the pulpy bone be the only answer? At this moment, while we looked with dreadful fixity at so isolated a horror, the lance-corporal’s brother came round the traverse.
Before such experiences as the British losing 60,000 men in one day’s fighting during the Battle of the Somme, many of the gallant British officers thought that the war would be like sport, like playing in a soccer match. Fussell describes one incident where a British officer “equipped” his unit with four soccer balls for a frontal assault on the enemy trenches, and offered a prize to the group of soldiers that would first kick their ball to the German lines during the attack. The officer died in the assault, and two of the soccer balls are displayed in a British museum (perhaps as a testament to misplaced bravado). Such a “sportsmanlike” attitude to war is hard to imagine today. Philip Larkin wrote poignantly of this cultural death of a certain type of European mindset: “Never such innocence again”.
It’s interesting for me to read about the this aspect of World War I because that war’s subtle psychological effects are so prevalent all around us today. There is a good reason why we don’t talk about “gallantry” or “virtue” anymore without snickering or wincing, and the collective memory of trench warfare in Flanders and Picardy ca. 1914-1918 (and its attendant visceral impression of the irony of life) is why. Phrases like “over the top” (meaning, to do something preposterously stupid like go over the top of your trench to attack the enemy) that we use today originated in those same trenches. It’s fascinating how we’re inheritors of so much more of “history” than we know.