The Peculiar Sanity of War: Hysteria in the Literature of World War I

The Peculiar Sanity of War: Hysteria in the Literature of World War I

The Peculiar Sanity of War: Hysteria in the Literature of World War I

The Peculiar Sanity of War: Hysteria in the Literature of World War I

Synopsis

During wartime, paranoia, gossip, and rumor become accepted forms of behavior and dominant literary tropes. The Peculiar Sanity of War examines the impact of war hysteria on definitions of sanity and on standards of behavior during World War I. Drawing upon Joseph Conrad's comprehensive understanding of war's impact on soldiers and civilians alike, and extending Michel Foucault's construction of madness and reason, Kingsbury expands the definition of war neurosis to include peculiar sanity at home as well as on the front lines. While other investigations of World War I consider shell shock to be the only definable war madness, Kingsbury is the first to build a powerful argument around the insanity of the home front's vilification of the enemy. Ultimately, Kingsbury's study establishes peculiar sanity, among civilians and soldiers, as an inevitable response to war's madness. The Peculiar Sanity of War begins by locating the roots of war mania in Edwardian hypocrisy, then moves on to examine the way propaganda operates in nontraditional texts, such as housekeeping guides, and in the novels of Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Rebecca West, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, and H. D. Celia Kingsbury's eloquent and moving book... brings together war and madness in unexpected ways. Beginning with a phrase from Joseph Conrad, she diagnoses the condition of a culture gone awry, a peculiar sanity.'... - from Laurence Davies's foreword

Excerpt

Celia Kingsbury's eloquent and moving book on the First World War— known in its time as the Great War or the War to End All Wars—brings together war and madness in unexpected ways. Beginning with a phrase from Joseph Conrad, she diagnoses the condition of a culture gone awry, a “peculiar sanity” induced by the shameless and distorting forces of wartime public opinion. She cites Robert Graves, who, home on leave, found the civilians to be odder than any soldiers: “We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudomilitary outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language” (p. 107). We might associate the combination of war and madness with rage, as in the berserk frenzy attributed to the Vikings; with the cruelty and craziness of pillage, rape, and slaughter after battle, as seen in Callot's etchings of the Thirty Years War, or in the brutalities of Nanjing; with hostilities begun over football matches, severed ears, or the precise nature of salvation, with doomed charges and hopeless last stands; with unreined loathing or an unslakable craving for revenge; or with the flight of reason in the face of horror and fear. Dr. Kingsbury attends to all these associations, especially the last, but she sets them against a vision of sanity as vulnerable and inconstant—sometimes malleable, sometimes brittle, always contingent. Her subject, then, is consensual foolishness, sanity defined in bad faith. Among the writers she considers are Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, H. D., Rebecca West, H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, and, of course, Conrad. It is one of this study's many merits that she sees the intricacy and uncertainty of their positions: neither safe from the imaginative diseases of their time (as if their art could make them immune) nor so infected as to be helpless.

In a remarkable passage of the Agricola, the biography of a Roman governor of Britain, Tacitus allows a voice to the British resistance. He translates the words of Galgacus, who said of the conquerors: “Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (“Where they make a wilderness, they call it . . .

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