HistoryJournal.org

The death of “high” diction

Posted in Culture, European, Reading by Alex L. on April 4, 2011

(Image links to Amazon.com) Photo of a soldier during World War ILike 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: (more…)