Academic journal article The Comparatist

From Balzac to Iraq: Soldiers, Veterans, and Military Adaptation

Academic journal article The Comparatist

From Balzac to Iraq: Soldiers, Veterans, and Military Adaptation

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

After his tour of duty on the battlefields of a distant land, a wounded soldier returns home from the horrors of war to discover that the very nation which sent him off to battle with parades and cheers is uninterested in his suffering or his welfare. The familiarity of this scene underscores its endless and tragic adaptability to millennia of imperial conquest, human suffering, and cultural production. One could as easily be speaking of ancient warriors returning from the Trojan War or of recent recruits returning from the war in Iraq.

In his Napoleonic novella, Le Colonel Chabert (1832), Honore de Balzac investigates the trauma of imperial warfare, military invasion, and veteran return in terms that echo the soldierly suffering of ancient texts and that presage future military misery in later wars, and in the texts and films they inspire. From Troy and Waterloo to Verdun and Normandy, from Saigon and Algiers to Fallujah and Baghdad, literary and cinematic representations provide a horrifying record of violent adaptation. Military technologies and instruments of violence change, but the narratives of bodily mutilation, military carnage, and veteran rejection remain the same. In war discourse, the very notion of "adaptation" thus signifies in multiple ways: as a repeating cycle of human violence (adapted to new ages, contexts, and deadly technologies), as a technique for survival (for those soldiers and civilians who must adapt in order to survive and live amid mass death), and as a means of representation (through literature, poetry, art, film, and other forms of cultural testimony).

During the spring semester of 2005, I taught a course at Williams College titled "War and Resistance: Two Centuries of War Literature in France, 1804-2004." Through readings of war texts from Balzac, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, and Emile Zola to Jean Cocteau, Elie Wiesel, Marguerite Duras, and Frantz Fanon, my students at Williams engaged in discussions of the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian Wars, the First and Second World Wars, and the Algerian War in an attempt not only to examine literary representations of war in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France, but to understand some of the analogous and complex public discourses on warfare during the ongoing war in Iraq. Though they paid particular attention to the historical specificity of these very different wars and cultural contexts, my students found a critical space in which to think through some of the common tropes, exaggerations, and fabrications in textual and cinematic representations of war and military violence.

During that same semester, I was invited to take part in a session sponsored by The Comparatist titled "Current Issues in Literary Adaptation" at the annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association. I did not want to limit my discussion on adaptation to the way Balzac's military fictions have been adapted to film, an issue that had already been examined elsewhere, especially in the pages of L'Annee balzacienne during the decade following the release of Yves Angelo's cinematic adaptation of Le Colonel Chabert in 1994. I also wanted to talk about the way literary representations of war, such as Balzac's texts on Napoleonic veterans, could be adapted, interpreted, and understood within new military and historical contexts. I was interested in how literary preoccupations with soldierly suffering and veteran return had been adapted by texts that both preceded and followed Le Colonel Chabert. And beyond issues of textual representation, I wanted to examine how "adaptation" might refer to the very real ways in which both soldiers and civilians must constantly adapt to making war, surviving combat, and returning from battle and its effects. What interested me in the "Current Issues in Literary Adaptation" session was how the literary (such as Balzac's military texts) might help us better adapt (to violence) in the face of current issues (such as war). …

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