Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Foul System": The Great War and Instrumental Rationality in Parade's End

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Foul System": The Great War and Instrumental Rationality in Parade's End

Article excerpt

Wyndham Lewis's 1919 painting A Battery Shelled is a mural-sized warscape of grey and green, billowing with brown smoke. In the center, a handful of enlisted men load shells into great guns, but their bodies are shaped into their machines' tubes and angles. Meanwhile, the left foreground shows three officers in the loose posture of human beings wearing soft caps; they look on while their men change into war machines. Lewis's Vorticist abstraction delivers the battlefield and the enlisted men in the hard lines of industry. But, the war's administrators watch comfortably from the left frame--one even smokes a pipe--and their recognizable human features distinguish them as a different species from their soldiers. Lewis's work hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London but offers a version of the Great War different from the museum's authorized exhibits and explanations: in this painting, the enemy forces are those that reshape human beings according to a logic of production. A Battery Shelled gives us one artist's vision of modern efficiency transforming people into machine-like objects, and an image of the army institutionalizing these relations between human beings.

A pointed anxiety about instrumentalizing relations is also at the heart of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End. My essay's project is to show that the critique implicit in Lewis's A Battery Shelled is fully enacted in Parade's End's evocation of wartime Britain. When Wilfred Owen promised to make his poetry's subject "the pity of war," he was targeting the sufferings of trench life that we see also in Parade's End. The crucial difference is that Parade's End targets the industrial, bureaucratic society behind the war. (See also Macauley vi.) In Ford's fiction, the Great War empowers an intellectual formation of instrumental, means-ends rationality that becomes the dominant structure of feeling for both Britain's soldiers and civilians. In my reading, the novels illuminate a massive shift in lived experience, otherwise obscured by the dust and sorrow of conflict.

Parade's End is a series of war novels--Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), and A Man Could Stand Up (1926)--and these three novels tell the story of a changing Britain in the first part of the twentieth century. (1) The main character, Christopher Tietjens, is carefully positioned between the old Britain of his family's feudal estate and the modern Britain of his job at the new Imperial Department of Statistics. In Parade's End the certainties of old Britain unravel around Tietjens, while the momentum of new Britain threatens to crush him. One current of Parade's End is the broad flow of social history--Tietjens laments the dissolution of traditional values, and he protests the expanding power of modern ones. The second current of Parade's End is a domestic stream--Christopher Tietjens has a wife named Sylvia who has alienated him with her indiscretions, and a love named Valentine Wannop whose affections he cannot claim without sinning against the gods of his tradition. Christopher Tietjens is, therefore, a man displaced in all aspects of life. He joins the army as an escape but in that escape finds both his societal and personal problems intensified. However, this intensification proves the key to the novel, because the army at war distills the forces acting to destroy Tietjens into an essence of instrumental rationality he can identify and resist.

By instrumental rationality I mean the shaping of human will to the designs of technical administration. This idea is most fully theorized by Frankfurt School critics Theodor Adomo, Walter Benjamin, and Max Horkheimer. Their historical long-view focuses on instrumental reason as the primary tool of the bourgeois subject--that independent, self-actualizing monad of the age of capital--and also the trap that subject springs to ensnare itself in industrial modernity's "iron cage." (See Horkeimer, Adorno, and Jay.) Here twentieth-century subjects' rational thinking leaves them dependent cogs in the encompassing machine of modernity. …

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