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The Roots of Contemporary War Literature in James Joyce’s Ulysses

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The Roots of Contemporary War Literature in James Joyce’s Ulysses
By Peter Molin

"History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." - from James Joyce, Ulysses, Episode 2

MolinJoyceHemmingwayWriters on WWI, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and art collector, John Quinn, in Paris. Image courtesy of DiscoverFrance.net

At the country's largest gathering of writers in 2014, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP), Peter Molin sat down with fellow veterans and war writers to talk about James Joyce's epic work, Ulysses, and WWI. Here's a peek into that conversation about one of literature's most celebrated, most enigmatic works, first published in 1918:

At AWP14, I had lunch with a hail-fellow-well-met merry band of war writers.  At the far end of the table were Roy Scranton, Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay, and Christine Leche.  At our end were Brian Castner, Mariette KalinowskiColin Halloran,  and Lauren Kay JohnsonKatey Schultz was supposed to be with us, but peeled off enroute to our Seattle waterfront restaurant destination.  About two beers in, I announced that I was reading James Joyce’s Ulysses as part of a nationally-dispersed, Internet-connected reading group.  I was about 99% prepared for that conversational gambit to fall flat.

Boy was I wrong.

MolinCoverulyssesAn older version of Ulysses cover. Image courtesy of lithub.com

Our end of the table erupted in comments, questions, and exclamations.  Mariette Kalinowski had read Joyce’s modernist masterpiece in the not so distant past.  So had Colin Halloran.  Not sure about Lauren, but because we were happy she let us rave on.  Brian Castner, it turned out, was auditing a class on Joyce at Niagara University in Buffalo.  He didn’t like Ulysses as much as the rest of us, but that made for good conversation.  He told us that his prof at Niagara had studied under an Irish Studies Scholar named Declan Kiberd. I liked that because I think the world of Kiberd’s book, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece.  Here’s what Kiberd writes about Ulysses as a World War I novel:

“The world war raging as Joyce wrote had been made possible by a narrow-mindedness among nations, whose leaders often failed to see the larger context of their actions.  The openness of form and the multiplicity of viewpoints in a book like Ulysses implicitly challenges the sort of zealotry which led to the carnage.

“After the war, many soldiers were so traumatized by their suffering in the trenches they could no longer tell stories which carried the pressure of felt experiences.  Many also simply fell silent, lapsing into neurasthenia.  Even among those who remained eloquent on the topic, there was a sense of the ‘unreality’ of civilian life, of everyday living.  Ulysses, though begun around the same time as war itself, tried to restore the possibility that ‘good counsel’ might come from a story.  Young men who had gone to war in search of stimuli were now in search of a consciousness which would teach them how to protect themselves from over-stimulation….

“…..While Joyce wrote Ulysses, sovereigns fell, empires toppled, a world system collapsed:  but he knew he was writing a book for the future community which might take their place.  In that book, he would explore modes of teaching and learning which answer the emotional and intellectual needs of ordinary people in search of a wiser way of life.”

MOLINcalltoarmsIrish WWI Propaganda Poster. Courtesy of www.ww1propaganda.com.

Kiberd thinks Ulysses protagonist Leopold Bloom is a calm, wise, curious, warm soul who should be admired for his lack of militarism and nationalism.  The point is well-taken by my late-middle-age sensibility, though maybe not so accessible to those whose spirit burns younger and hotter.  Still, here’s to Joyce, to Ireland and the Irish, and to the “future community” of which Kiberd writes.  Tomorrow I’m entered for better or worse in a local St. Patrick’s Day 5K, so let’s see how that goes.  At the very end of this post is a picture of the St. Patrick’s Day race we ran at Camp Clark, Khowst Province, Afghanistan, in 2009.

MOLINIrishsoldiersIrish rifles ration party, Battle of the Somme, France, World War I. Image courtesy of www.irishcentral.com

Roy Scranton is the editor of Fire and Forget, an anthology of war fiction. Benjamin Busch’s memoir of USMC service in Iraq is titled Dust to Dust. Phil Klay’s collection of Iraq stories Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award.  Christine Leche edited Outside the Wire, a collection of stories written by soldiers in classes she taught on bases in Afghanistan.  Katey Schultz’s short story collection Flashes of War appeared in 2013.  Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk, a memoir of service as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in Iraq.  Mariette Kalinowski, a USMC Iraq veteran, contributed to Fire and Forget.  Lauren Kay Johnson and Colin Halloran both served in Afghanistan, Colin in the Army and Lauren in the Air Force.  Colin’s volume of poetry Shortly Thereafter appeared in 2012 and an essay by Lauren titled “Home from War, But Not at Peace” can be found here.  

Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us:  The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece was published by Norton in 2009.  This post was inspired by Mike and Lauralea Edwards, the sponsors of my Ulysses reading group.  Mike is a US Army veteran who as a civilian spent a term as an instructor and advisor at the Afghan Military Academy in Kabul.

 MolinRaceSt. Patrick's Day Race soldiers, sailors, and airmen ran at Camp Clark, Khowst Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. Image courtesy of Peter Molin.

Author's bio

PMolinbiopicPeter Molin is a former US Army infantry officer who now teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey. While in uniform, Molin taught English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, for ten years, serving as first-year composition course director for four. In 2008-2009, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as an advisor to Afghan National Army units in Khost and Paktya provinces. Molin also served overseas in South Korea; the Sinai, Egypt; and Kosovo. The holder of degrees from Indiana University (Ph.D.), the University of California-Berkeley (MA), and the University of Virginia (BA), he has published in academic journals and presented at conferences in the fields of contemporary war literature, American antebellum literature, and composition and rhetoric. Molin blogged about his Afghanistan deployment at 15-Month Adventure (petermolin.wordpress.com) and currently blogs about contemporary war literature, photography, art, and film at Time Now (acolytesofwar.com). You can follow him on Twitter at @TimeNowBlog (war art-and lit-related) and @PeteMolin (everything else).

 

A New Kind of Dream: Freud, Trauma, and WWI

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A New Kind of Dream: Freud, Trauma, and WWI
A Look at War and Artistic Creation Through the Theories of Cathy Caruth and Sigmund Freud

CaruthsurrealismSalvador Dali, "The Persistence of Memory" 1931

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychoanalysis,” is perhaps best known to the general public for his work on the unconscious, sexuality, the ego, and dreams. He showed us the often-enigmatic ways past traumatic experiences play themselves out in the present.

Freud’s work with WWI combat veterans marked an unprecedented turn in his understanding of dreams and trauma as his focus on the individual transformed into a study of community and the collective unconscious. The war not only had professional but personal implications for him; his two sons, Jean-Martin and Ernst, fought for Austria, a country that, almost 20 years later forced Freud, a Jew, and his family into exile when the Nazis took over. Three of his four sisters died in concentration camps during WWII.

Read more: A New Kind of Dream: Freud, Trauma, and WWI

The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America's Unknown Soldier and WWI's Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home

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Patrick K. O'Donnell's The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America's Unknown Soldier and WWI's Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home

ODonnellCover

A visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or Tomb of the Unknowns, in Arlington National Cemetery is both a solemn and uplifting experience. In front of the unnamed buried soldiers, we take stock of the unrecognized sacrifice of all fallen soldiers, from all of America’s wars and conflicts.  The stately memorial, with its verdant lawn, white columns, and stern-faced guards, imposes a silence that grants space to imagine thousands of voices telling their story of sacrifice. We are humbled, inspired. The guards’ disciplined, rhythmic steps are some of the few sounds to break the crushing quietness. And when the moment comes to play Taps, it is hard to push away the welling emotions invoked by the song.

Read more: The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America's Unknown Soldier and WWI's Most Decorated Heroes Who...

I Never Saw Him Drowning: Great-Uncle Charlie and the Great War

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I Never Saw Him Drowning: Great-Uncle Charlie and the Great War

by Philip Metres

Gulf War GasSoldiers from the 24th Mechanized Infantry Brigade from Fort Stewart, Ga., carry their weapons as they undergo chemical training in eastern Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield in this November 1990 photo. Source AP

*Leaning over my desk in January 1991, news coverage of the Gulf War droning in the background, I read for the first time the opening lines of Wilfred Owen’s“Dulce et Decorum Est”: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,/we cursed through sludge.” I felt transported, imagining the weight these young soldiers bore in the strange hellscapes of the front. I was a junior at Holy Cross College. All semester, my English professor, Mike True, guided our class through “The Nonviolent Tradition in Literature,” while on television, military leaders touted missile-eye images of “smart bombs” and “surgical strikes.” It was terribly surreal to encounter such polar views of war, knowing that each was only a partial picture of what American poet Walt Whitman once called the “Real War,” the one that would never “get in the books.” Yet Owen’s garish images and his fierce rhetorical conclusion confirmed something that I felt deep in my gut— war was an ugly thing, destroying bodies and haunting minds. On the other side of the world, even though the news coverage would not show it, people were dying under our bombs; it would take poets and artists to slip beneath the media’s redactions and censoring to imagine the horror.  

Read more: I Never Saw Him Drowning: Great-Uncle Charlie and the Great War

Have You Ever Tried to Write a War Poem? by Faleeha Hassan

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Have You Ever Tried to Write a War Poem?
by Faleeha Hassan

Faleeha Hassan arrived in the U.S. in 2012. She was forced to flee her country, not because of her political alliance, but because she wrote poetry about love, family, womanhood, and war. Militants found her poetry too subversive and soon she found herself on a public death list

When WWrite asked Faleeha Hassan to write for this blog on WWI and was writing, she submitted the essay, “Have You Ever Tried to Write a War Poem?” Writing a poem about war is the same in every war, she seems to say. Weapons, geography, and scope may change, she intimates, but poets who have lived through war share a unique characteristic when it comes to the writing process. Not only do they feel the overwhelming, unexpected presence of the memories, even if the events that shaped them happened many years prior; like WWI nurse Mary Borden, British soldier, Robert Graves, and Ernest Hemingway, they also feel the enormous gap that war digs between the combat and civilian experience.

Faleeha 2Faleeha Hassan. Image courtesy of Faleeha Hassan.

Have You Ever Tried to Write a War Poem?

Some people believe that writing poetry requires training and planning. That if you go to school and attend poetry-writing classes or get experience by attending workshops, then you will get the ability you need to write poetry.

Read more: Have You Ever Tried to Write a War Poem? by Faleeha Hassan

Never Too Old to Write: Claude Choules' Published WWI Memoir at Age 109

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Never Too Old to Write: Claude Choules' Published WWI Memoir at Age 109
The Last of the Last: The Final Survivor of the First World War

ChoulesBookCoverChoules' book cover

Before his death at the age of 110 in May 2011, Claude Choules was the last man alive who had served in both WWI and WWII. Claude learned life's lessons during a rural childhood in England and later in the Royal Navy as a boy sailor, before graduating to become an explosives expert in the Australian navy. In his 80s, Claude took creative writing classes and began working on his memoirs with the help of his daughters. The Last of the Last is a riveting account of his life that vividly mirrors how the last century unfolded. Choules had the insight of an ordinary man thrust to the forefront of international conflict. He was opposed to the glorification of war, but his charming anecdotes honor a generation called upon to serve not once but twice. His engaging, wryly humorous excerpt autobiography reflects the amiable nature of a truly unique man. It was published when Choules was 109 years old. The following is an excerpt, detailing his experience of joining the Navy in 1915 when he was just 14 years old:

Chapter Two

I Join the Navy

I joined the Mercury, a three-masted sailing ship in April 1915, a day after my 14th birthday. My number was 1392. She was anchored at the mouth of the Hamble River, which empties into Southampton Water. We boys used to see the great Atlantic liners such as the Mauretania (holder of the Atlantic Blue Riband for 26 years). Aquatania, Lusitania, Laurentic, the original Majestic and scores of wonderful ships travelling through Southhampton Water. We could only imagine the luxury in cruising in liners like that, for life in the Atlantic Blue Riband was tough.

Read more: Never Too Old to Write: Claude Choules' Published WWI Memoir at Age 109

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