A War of Individuals: Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War

By Jonathan Atkin | Go to book overview

9

Public commentary on familiar themes

The `herd instinct' versus the individual

Throughout this book, contemporary evidence has been the key to unlocking the emotions of the past — both private and public. Although some excerpts have appeared from the numerous books and memoirs generated by the war (and largely written after the event), comparatively little evidence has been cited from the wider contemporary sphere, the exception being the case of the Cambridge Magazine's vocal support of Bertrand Russell as part of its balanced and humane view of the wider conflict. Now it is perhaps appropriate that some attention is drawn to contemporary newspapers and periodicals — journalistic reactions fully exposed to public scrutiny and in contrast to the enclosed world of intimate diaries and letters.

In summing up one of the main themes of humanistic and aesthetic opposition to the Great War — the friction that existed between the structure of the war-state with its resultant 'herd instinct' and notions of the sacredness of the individual — there is perhaps no more apposite personal example than that of Gilbert Cannan, an individual who, like Bertrand Russell, specifically projected his concerns into the public sphere. Cannan was a friend of D.H. Lawrence (who, together with his wife, had moved to Buckinghamshire in August 1914 to be near Cannan and his wife Mary), and he saw himself as a defender of that which he described as 'a man's most precious possession' — human dignity.

He had first expounded on this theme in an article for the Cambridge Magazine in November 1914 in which he wrote that, 'Every day strips this war of a little more of its dignity, even of the dignity of death, for it is not dignified to die in a trench armed with a rifle and bayonet against a machine miles away out of sight behind a hill'. 1 This commodity of dignity was, he felt, almost the sole guarantee of decency in human affairs, 'the magnetised needle which swings to the points of the moral world', violations of which caused 'untold secret suffering', due to the fact that many men would submit to indignities in the name of the State rather than see their dignity impaired by the taint of accusations of cowardice, moral or otherwise. Cannan commented that thousands had, by submitting to the dictates of the war-state, inflicted the very damage they sought to avoid ('though they have realised it only too late'). He concluded sadly that

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A War of Individuals: Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • A War of Individuals - Bloomsbury Attitudes to the Great War *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements and Abbreviations *
  • Introduction *
  • 1 - `Recognised' Forms of Opposition *
  • 2 - Bloomsbury *
  • 3 - Academics at War — Bertrand Russell and Cambridge *
  • 4 - Writers at War *
  • 5 - Writers in Uniform *
  • 6 - Women and the War *
  • 7 - Obscurer Individuals and Their Themes of Response *
  • 8 - Three Individuals *
  • 9 - Public Commentary on Familiar Themes *
  • Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Secondary Sources 242
  • Index *
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