Painted by Christopher Nevinson in 1918
Nevinson became an official war artist in July 1917, working primarily for the British. The markings on the plane in this painting are characteristic of the Nieuport 17 flown by Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop. The painting reputedly depicts Bishop in action. Nevinson’s painting also shows three enemy aircraft above the clouds, through which you can see the Somme countryside.
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art CWM 19710261-0517
As war is one of the more perpetual manifestations of the human condition, seemingly bred in the bone, and has been both celebrated and lamented as far back as records of human thought have been recorded I have given thought to it as well over time and, in puzzling over its persistent endurance over eons, have had to confront the possibility that it will be with us for as long as there is time to come and blood to shed. This is not a reassuring conclusion and, as optimism is another of those dogged manifestations of our humanity, have had to search for other possible insights into our propensity to turn to war in order to provide a solution to the difficulties encountered in our human interactions with our neighbours.
As a Canadian, I have often contemplated the difference between our own national character, as a collective character can sometimes be as markedly different from another as that between one individual and another, and that of our continental neighbours in the United States of America. We share many historical similarities, as well as cultural, yet the likenesses between our two countries have diverged, reading like two different books, from the very beginning and that divergence, like two different compass headings emanating from some common point on the map have, over time, brought us to two different destinations (forgetting, for the moment, our recent lurch to the political right under the stewardship of our current C/conservative government).
In an attempt to visualize this national difference in my own mind I had considered it in an evolutionary perspective as though our collective national mindsets were determined by a social or political DNA that, in expressing itself, perpetuates a mentality and extends it, under evolutionary social, economic and political pressures, such that it might become almost inevitable that a country would continue along a chosen path regardless of its wisdom or morality. Thus one population might think it perfectly natural that its government might invade another country, killing millions of its inhabitants in the process, may in fact not give it a second thought, in order to further its national interests as has done the United States repeatedly, while citizens of another might not be so easily convinced as to the wisdom of such an adventure.
In countries founded and fed by immigration, as in the case of our two, the original immigrant, imbued with the political DNA of a mother country, may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable with a warring and predatory DNA such as seems to predominate in the USA but immigrants have traditionally been poor and have arrived in the hope of better opportunities – if not for themselves, then for their children. And indeed it is these children who will inherit this local political DNA (Sesame Street is a powerful educational device) and who will soon join their long-time fellow nationals in viewing the world, and their place in it, with native eyes, with accompanying native blindness, and will see no harm in waging war on poorer countries (such as those that their parents fled) in order to increase the wealth and glory of their now native land. Hindsight is generational and we can see only one generation, and that dimly, into the past.
There have been attempts recently to characterize our contemporary world (and America in particular) as being in a “New Gilded Age” with its attendant inequality of wealth, race and opportunity; such a reality should be frightening to us in the 21st century as it harkens back to the time of Marcel Proust and to the atrocities of class that he satirized at the time. Yet we would be foolish indeed, at least those of us who are capable of thought, to ignore the reality around us today, either in war or peace, and to fail to recognize that today’s robber barons have resurrected the past, much to their benefit, to enrich themselves at the expense of society at large. War has always provided a direct road to riches for the rich and powerful and will continue to do so. The national DNA is programmed to accept the propaganda relentlessly espoused by corporations and the super-rich to dazzle the mob and to entice them to offer up their blood as a sacrifice to their homeland. Such a prognosis is hardly reassuring and doesn’t go far in answering my original inquiry above – that will have to wait – but it seems to me that people that live in a society that has the temerity to call itself democratic should be reluctant to turn the clock back one hundred years and, this time, to enslave themselves.
Proust, in the final volume (Time Regained) of his novel Remembrance of Things Past, also drew a comparison between national character and that of individuals and dwelt upon the blindness and hypocrisy of people during time of war (declared or otherwise and, in his case, against the Germans) and I’ve excerpted here a passage where he attempts to reconcile the macro and micro perspectives, to bring them together where they belong.
Boilerplate Spoiler Alert: These excerpts, from near the end of Proust’s seven volume novel are bound to give away the plot and the fate of characters from the story; to avoid that you can download the (free) eBook for your eReader here or purchase the luddite format here. Better still, support your local book store, new or used, and set aside some time (Time?) to read Proust’s remarkable novel.
Excerpts come from source material available in HTML format here.
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Time Regained – War – excerpt 2
The change which had been effected in M. de Charlus’ pleasures remained intermittent. Keeping up a large correspondence with the front, he did not lack mature men home on leave. Therefore, in a general way, Mme Verdurin continued to receive and M. de Charlus to go about his pleasures as if nothing had happened. And still for two years the immense human entity called France, of which even from a purely material point of view one can only feel the tremendous beauty if one perceives the cohesion of millions of individuals who, like cellules of various forms fill it like so many little interior polygons up to the extreme limit of its perimeter, and if one saw it on the same scale as infusoria or cellules see a human body, that is to say, as big as Mont Blanc, was facing a tremendous collective battle with that other immense conglomerate of individuals which is Germany. At a time when I believed what people told me, I should have been tempted to believe Germany, then Bulgaria, then Greece when they proclaimed their pacific intentions. But since my life with Albertine and with Françoise had accustomed me to suspect those motives they did not express, I did not allow any word, however right in appearance of William II, Ferdinand of Bulgaria or Constantine of Greece to deceive my instinct which divined what each one of them was plotting. Doubtless my quarrels with Françoise and with Albertine had only been little personal quarrels, mattering only to the life of that little spiritual cellule which a human being is. But in the same way as there are bodies of animals, human bodies, that is to say, assemblages of cellules, which, in relation to one of them alone, are as great as a mountain, so there exist enormous organised groupings of individuals which we call nations; their life only repeats and amplifies the life of the composing cellules and he who is not capable of understanding the mystery, the reactions and the laws of those cellules, will only utter empty words when he talks about struggles between nations. But if he is master of the psychology of individuals, then these colossal masses of conglomerate individuals facing one another will assume in his eyes a more formidable beauty than a fight born only of a conflict between two characters, and he will see them on the scale on which the body of a tall man would be seen by infusoria of which it would require more than ten thousand to fill one cubic milimeter. Thus for some time past the great figure of France, filled to its perimeter with millions of little polygons of various shapes and the other figure of Germany filled with even more polygons were having one of those quarrels which, in a smaller measure, individuals have.
But the blows that they were exchanging were regulated by those numberless boxing-matches of which Saint-Loup had explained the principles to me. And because, even in considering them from the point of view of individuals they were gigantic assemblages, the quarrel assumed enormous and magnificent forms like the uprising of an ocean which with its millions of waves seeks to demolish a secular line of cliffs or like giant glaciers which, with their slow and destructive oscillation, attempt to disrupt the frame of the mountain by which they are circumscribed. In spite of this, life continued almost the same for many people who have figured in this narrative, notably for M. de Charlus and for the Verdurins, as though the Germans had not been so near to them; a permanent menace in spite of its being concentrated in one immediate peril leaving us entirely unmoved if we do not realise it. People pursue their pleasures from habit without ever thinking, were etiolating and moderating influences to cease, that the proliferation of the infusoria would attain its maximum, that is to say, making a leap of many millions of leagues in a few days and passing from a cubic millimetre to a mass a million times larger than the sun, at the same time destroying all the oxygen of the substances upon which we live, that there would no longer be any humanity or animals or earth, and, without any notion that an irremediable and quite possible catastrophe might be determined in the ether by the incessant and frantic energy hidden behind the apparent immutability of the sun, they go on with their business, without thinking of these two worlds, one too small, the other too large for them to perceive the cosmic menace which hovers around us. Thus the Verdurins gave their dinners (soon, after the death of M. Verdurin, Mme Verdurin alone) and M. de Charlus went about his pleasures, without realising that the Germans — immobilised, it is true, by a bleeding barrier which was always being renewed — were at an hour’s automobile drive from Paris. One might say the Verdurins did, nevertheless, think about it, since they had a political salon where the situation of the armies and of the fleets was discussed every day. As a matter of fact, they thought about those hecatombs of annihilated regiments, of engulfed seafarers, but an inverse operation multiplies to such a degree what concerns our welfare and divides by such a formidable figure what does not concern it, that the death of millions of unknown people hardly affects us more unpleasantly than a draught. Mme Verdurin, who suffered from headaches on account of being unable to get croissants to dip into her coffee, had obtained an order from Cottard which enabled her to have them made in the restaurant mentioned earlier. It had been almost as difficult to procure this order from the authorities as the nomination of a general. She started her first croissant again on the morning the papers an-announced the wreck of the Lusitania. Dipping it into her coffee, she arranged her newspaper so that it would stay open without her having to deprive her other hand of its function of dipping, and exclaimed with horror, “How awful! It’s more frightful than the most terrible tragedies.” But those drowning people must have seemed to her reduced a thousand-fold, for, while she indulged in these saddening reflections, she was filling her mouth and the expression on her face, induced, one supposes, by the savour of the croissant, precious remedy for her headache, was rather that of placid satisfaction.
M. de Charlus went beyond not passionately desiring the victory of France; without avowing it, he wanted, if not the triumph of Germany, at least that she should not, as everybody desired, be destroyed. The reason of this was that in quarrels the great assemblages of individuals called nations behave, in a certain measure, like individuals. The logic which governs them is within them and is perpetually remoulded by passion like that of people engaged in a love-quarrel or in some domestic dispute, such as that of a son with his father, of a cook with her mistress, of a woman with her husband. He who is in the wrong believes himself in the right, as was the case with Germany, and he who is in the right supports it with arguments which only appear irrefutable to him because they respond to his anger. In these quarrels between individuals, in order to be convinced that one of the parties is in the right — the surest plan is to be that party; no onlooker will ever be so: completely convinced of it. And an individual, if he be an integral part of a nation, is himself merely a cellule of an individual which is the nation. Stuffing people’s heads full of words means nothing. If, at a critical period in the war, a Frenchman had been told that his country was going to be beaten, he would have been desperate as though he were himself about to be killed by the “Berthas”. Really, one fills one’s own head with hope which is a sort of instinct of self-preservation in a nation if one is really an integral member of it. To remain blind to what is false in the claims of the individual called Germany, to see justice in every claim of the individual called France, the surest way was not for a German to lack judgment and for a Frenchman to possess it but for both to be patriotic. M. de Charlus, who had rare moral qualities, who was accessible to pity, generous, capable of affection and of devotion, was in contrast, for various reasons, amongst them that a Bavarian duchess had been his mother, without patriotism. In consequence he belonged as much to the body of Germany as to the body of France. If I had been devoid of patriotism myself, instead of feeling myself one of the cellules in the body of France, I think my way of judging the quarrel would not have been the same as formerly. In my adolescence, when I believed exactly what I was told, doubtless, on hearing the German Government protest its good faith, I should have been inclined to believe it, but now for a long time I had realised that our thoughts do not always correspond with our words.
But actually I can only imagine what I should have done if I had not been a member of the agent, France, as in my quarrels with Albertine, when my sad appearance and my choking throat were, as parts of my being, too passionately interested on my own behalf for me to reach any sort of detachment. That of M. de Charlus was complete. Since he was only a spectator, everything had the inevitable effect of making him Germanophile because, though not really French, he lived in France. He was very keen-witted and in all countries fools outnumber the rest; no doubt, if he had lived in Germany the German fools defending an unjust cause with passionate folly would — have equally irritated him; but living in France, the French fools, defending a just cause with passionate folly, irritated him no less. The logic of passion, even in the service of justice, is never irrefutable by one who remains dispassionate. M. de Charlus acutely noted each false argument of the patriots. The satisfaction a brainless fool gets out of being in the right and out of the certainty of success, is particularly irritating. M. de Charlus was maddened by the triumphant optimism of people who did not know Germany and its power as he did, who every month were confident that she would be crushed the following month, and when a year had passed were just as ready to believe in a new prognostic as if they had not with equal confidence credited the false one they had forgotten, or if they were reminded of it, replied that, “it was not the same thing.” M. de Charlus, whose mind contained some depth, might perhaps not have understood in Art that the “it isn’t the same thing” offered as an argument by the detractors of Monet in opposition to those who contended that “they said the same thing about Delacroix”, corresponded to the same mentality. And then M. de Charlus was merciful, the idea of a vanquished man pained him, he was always for the weak, and could not read the accounts of trials in the papers without feeling in his own flesh the anguish of the prisoner and a longing to assassinate the judge, the executioner and the mob who delighted in “seeing justice done”. In any case, it was now certain that France could not be beaten and he knew that the Germans were famine-stricken and would be obliged sooner or later to surrender at discretion. This idea was also more unpleasant to him owing to his living in France. His memories of Germany were, after all, dimmed by time, whereas the French who unpleasantly gloated in the prospect of crushing Germany, were people whose defects and antipathetic countenances were familiar to him. In such a case we feel more compassionate towards those unknown to us, whom we can only imagine, than towards those whose vulgar daily life is lived close to us, unless we feel completely one of them, one flesh with them; patriotism works this miracle, we stand by our country as we do by ourselves in a love quarrel. The war, too, acted on M. de Charlus as an extraordinarily fruitful culture of those hatreds of his which were born from one instant to another, lasted a very short time, but during it were exceedingly violent. Reading the papers, the triumphant tone of the articles daily representing Germany laid low, “the beast at bay, reduced to impotence”, at a time when the contrary was only too true, drove him mad with rage by their irresponsible and ferocious stupidity. The papers were in part edited at that time by well-known people who thus found a way of “doing their bit”; by the Brichots, the Norpois, by the Legrandins. M. de Charlus longed to meet and pulverise them with his bitterest irony. Always particularly well informed about sexual taints, he recognised them in others who, imagining themselves unsuspected, delighted in denouncing the sovereigns of the “Empires of prey”, Wagner et cetera as culprits in this respect. He yearned to encounter them face to face so that he could rub their noses in their own vices before the world and leave these insulters of a fallen foe demolished and dishonoured. Finally M. de Charlus had a still further reason for being the Germanophile he was. One was that as a man of the world he had lived much amongst people in society, amongst men of honour who will not shake hands with a scamp; he knew their niceties and also their hardness, he knew they were insensible to the tears of a man they expel from a club, with whom they refuse to fight a duel, even if their act of “moral purity” caused the death of the black sheep’s mother. Great as his admiration had been for England, that impeccable England incapable of lies preventing corn and milk from entering Germany was in a way a nation of chartered gentlemen, of licensed witnesses and arbiters of honour, whilst to his mind some of Dostoevsky’s disreputable rascals were better. But I never could understand why he identified such characters with the Germans since the latter do not appear to us to have displayed the goodness of heart which, in the case of the former, lying and deceit failed to prejudice. Finally, a last trait will complete the Germanophilism of M. de Charlus, which he owed through a peculiar reaction to his “Charlisme”. He considered Germans very ugly, perhaps because they were a little too close to his own blood, he was mad about Moroccans but above all about Anglo-Saxons whom he saw as living statues of Phidias. In him sexual gratification was inseparable from the idea of cruelty and (how strong this was I did not then realise) the man who attracted him seemed like a kind of delightful executioner. He would have thought, if he had sided against the Germans, that he was acting as he only did in his hours of self-indulgence, that is, in a sense contrary to his naturally merciful nature, in other words, impassioned; by seductive evil and desiring to crush virtuous ugliness. He was like that at the time of the murder of Rasputine at a supper party a la Dostoevsky, which impressed people by its strong Russian flavour (an impression which would have been much stronger if the public had been aware of all that M. de Charlus knew), because life deceives us so much that we come to believing that literature has no relation with it and we are astonished to observe that the wonderful ideas books have presented to us are gratuitously exhibited in everyday life, without risk of being spoilt by the writer, that for instance, a murder at a supper-party, a Russian incident, should have something Russian about it.
The war continued indefinitely and those who had announced years ago from a reliable source that negotiations for peace had begun, specifying even the clauses of the armistice, did not take the trouble, when they talked with you, to excuse themselves for their false information. They had forgotten it and were ready sincerely to circulate other information which they would forget equally quickly. It was the period when there were continuous raids of Gothas. The air perpetually quivered with the vigilant and sonorous vibration of the French aeroplanes. But sometimes the siren rang forth like a harrowing appeal of the Walkyries, the only German music one had heard since the war — until the hour when the firemen announced that the alarm was finished, while the maroon, like an invisible newsboy, communicated the good news at regular intervals and cast its joyous clamour into the air.