Write About What Doesn’t Interest You

We haven’t had any Mitchelmore for a while, perhaps because he seems to have decided his form of literary criticism is better served by the 140-character limit of twitter. I did enjoy his recent piece though on Eliot Weinberger’s [firewalled] criticism of Josipovici’s What Ever ..? . The following paragraph is, I find, a particularly masterly piece of logical argument:

He [Josipovici] wonders if Britain is relatively innocent of Modernism precisely because it wasn’t touched by the Napoleonic and First World Wars, the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, and mass migrations. At least, not to the same extent as Europe was touched. Of course, hundreds of thousands of Britons died in WW1, only it took place on the other side of the English Channel and has always been somehow unreal; told rather than experienced. As the Battle of the Somme turned the sky dark and scorched the landscape, in England the sun still shone and birds still cheeped. It still does, they still do. It explains why we still write and reward novels about a century-old war.

As always, it’s hard to tell where Josipovici ends and Mitchelmore begins [ed. Surely it’s with the phrase “As the Battle of the Somme”]: such is the misfortune of the apologist; – but which ever, this paragraph contains one of the most extraordinary and fascinating ideas I’ve ever come across. For Josipovici-Mitchelmore appears, if I understand his argument aright (and I admit, it’s often difficult – but this is what I at least take the last two sentences to mean) to be saying that Britons often have written and continue to write about the first world war precisely because they weren’t affected by it. – Now, as an amateur philosopher myself, I’m well enough aware that you should always generalise specific arguments, so the above would only be likely if we also argued in general: people tend to write about things precisely because they’re unaffected by them.

Yes, it’s given me much pause for thought. Because in my middlebrow complacency, I’d always imagined the opposite was more likely.

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7 thoughts on “Write About What Doesn’t Interest You

  1. Although if you had actually died at the Battle of the Somme, you wouldn’t have been able to write a good modernist novel anyway. Ah, these critics and their theories…

  2. Thinking about the fact that, in British terms, the First World War was “told rather than experienced”, I found myself wondered how many British soldiers were actually deployed in the field. I discovered the answer on this website: 5,704,416. – That’s quite a lot of people who directly experienced it then.

    Perhaps, though, what is being got at, is that the First World War (and indeed, the Second) was not fought on British soil – it was a distant war. I find this too a bit of a specious argument – it reminds me of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War: that atmosphere of the WW1 that, if you weren’t actually on the front-line, then you wouldn’t even notice there was a war going on in France. (Civilian casualties in France in WW1 were much the same as the UK).

    Again, though, with J., I suspect that wars and ideologies are cherry-picked in order to prove his theories. – The only other three European nations I can think of who were “unaffected” by the Napoleonic and First World War, fascism or communism or mass migration are Sweden, Switzerland and Ireland (though I’d probably have to check my history a bit). Incidentally, none of those 4 countries were “affected” by the Second World War either.

  3. That paragraph you quote has to be one of the most impressive pieces of bollocks I’ve read in a while.

    I wonder if, given your introductory comment, he couldn’t quite bring himself to write: “As the Battle of the Somme turned the sky dark and scorched the landscape, in England the sun still shone and birds still tweeted.”

  4. As Blanchot says (perhaps, I can never fully figure it out), what is truly fascinating about a text is precisely that which is absent: in this case, the silent interlocutor with whom he is conversing, as in:

    A: “Britain is relatively innocent of Modernism precisely because it wasn’t touched by the Napoleonic and First World Wars, the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, and mass migrations”
    B: But surely it was “touched” by these things?
    A: Yes, but “not to the same extent as Europe was touched”
    B: But didn’t hundreds of thousands of Britons die in WW1?
    A: Yes, but “it took place on the other side of the English Channel”.
    B: But all the same, millions of Britons must have experienced it?
    A: Yes, but it was “told rather than experienced”.
    B: But “told” in books, by people who “experienced” it?
    A: Perhaps.
    B: But to a literary critic qua critic of literature, isn’t everything actually “told rather than experienced”? And even if we accepted any of this, why is it again that this would make them less likely to write in a modernist style (that is, supposing it is true that they do any more so than writers from the continent)?

  5. I think Ireland was invaded by the French in 1798, though the incursion didn’t last long and was technically pre-Napoleon. There was a certain amount of emigration later in the 19th century.

  6. Yes, but that’s the thing about cherry-picking: we can’t have Napoleonic Wars including wars consequent on the French Revolution, because perhaps the wrong countries were involved, or the theatre of war was in the wrong place; just as the Franco-Prussian War or the Italian and German Wars of Unification clearly never gave anyone any pause for thought.

    Mass migrations? Hmm, I hadn’t really thought of it. – Now, you can hardly claim England was “unaffected” by mass migration – either immigration or emigration – during the period 1800-2011. Seems a strange thing to claim.

  7. Oh, I agree with you. The Josipovici/Mitchelmore Hypothesis would disgrace a Year 12 essay.

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