Acton Commentary

World War I and the Break with History


This weekend marks the formal start to events marking the 100th anniversary of World War I, which took the lives of an estimated10 million military personnel and seven million civilians, and wounded another 20 million. More than 117,000 U.S. soldiers’ lives were lost either on the battlefield or due to accidents and 204,000 others were wounded in an era Pope Benedict XV declared “the suicide of civilized Europe.”

Beyond those lost at Flanders Fields and elsewhere, there exist today other, very real, costs of the Great War. In fact, the 1914-1918 conflict ushered in an “age of anxiety” three decades before W.H. Auden found the words adequate to describe another era of spiritual torpor. The British poet and painter David Jones, a veteran of the Somme offensive, described World War I as “the Break” – the precise chronological moment when humanity divorced itself completely from history and embraced the trophy wife of technology.

American-born poet, critic and essayist T.S. Eliot observed in “The Wasteland” that the war rendered an anthropological and existentialist quandary upon Western civilization from which it would more than likely never fully recover. Tank warfare, aerial combat and the crowning jewels of human endeavor up to the first 14 years of the twentieth century were employed now solely for the destruction of human life and (seemingly to some writers of the time) the entirety of the race’s preceding achievements.

Not that everything was rosy prior to the war. Both Jones and Eliot viewed the war as evidence of already declining religious faith and its aftermath as finalization of the rupture. Eliot’s editor was firebrand Ezra Pound. Pound vacillated between literary genius and traitor (of which he was found guilty for radio broadcasts in support of fascists during World War II, avoiding execution only through incarceration in a mental hospital). In “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” Pound wrote that the war succeeded only in killing a “myriad” of the culture’s best and brightest: “For an old bitch gone in the teeth/For a botched civilization,” leaving readers with the indelible impression Pound viewed the war as a tremendously wasteful effort waged on behalf of “two gross of broken statues/For a few thousand battered books.”

The art world before the war had already discarded the former order as bourgeois, patriarchal and conformist. Liberation from the status quo led to art intended to shock, including the clamor of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, and the highly eroticized ballet of Vaslav Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev. “Make it new,” Pound intoned, and so they did in a manner that devolved art to the realm of worship only for its own daring, its inventors and the lucre it generated.

As noted by Modris Eksteins in his Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, some artists went so far as to characterize the act of war itself as art – not only as a tonic for staid European culture but actually desiring all-out warfare as a visual canvas of twisted metals, gas masks, foxholes, barbed wire, explosions and mangled human bodies. Once again Pound: “The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace,” and this it received in spades.

The war served as the demarcation of sorts. Much of the art before it can be seen as moral in nature while post-Armistice art commonly celebrates materialism if not outright hedonism. This is not to denigrate all Modernist and postmodern art. In fact, there is much in both canons to admire. Aesthetic prudence for critics isn’t inherently predicated on prudery. Eliot, for all his Anglicanism, for example, was a staunch defender of James Joyce’s racy Ulysses, even found the work of Henry Miller worthwhile (I myself do not) and was quite the fan of Groucho Marx.

After the Great War, however, the genie was out of the bottle, leading to works meant only to shock, dismay or anger would-be censors and art consumers in general. These works lacked what Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke were essential for a  “moral imagination” of which he wrote in his classic Reflections on the French Revolution: “Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.”

Pope Benedict XV (1854-1922) was elevated to the papacy in September 1914, and dedicated his tenure to caring for the women and children damaged by the war effort, promoting the trading of prisoners of war and calling for a cessation of violence. He called on both the Allies and the Central Powers to cease deployment of chemical weaponry.

He was a lover of art. Commemorating the 600th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death in his 1921 encyclical In Praeclara Summorum, Benedict said of the poet: “So that while we admire the greatness and keenness of his genius, we have to recognize, too, the measure in which he drew inspiration from the Divine Faith by means of which he could beautify his immortal poems with all the lights of revealed truths as well as with the splendours of art.” Similar to the painter David Jones’ distrust of scientism and modern technology, Benedict continued:

If the progress of science showed later that that conception of the world rested on no sure foundation, that the spheres imagined by our ancestors did not exist, that nature, the number and course of the planets and stars, are not indeed as they were then thought to be, still the fundamental principle remained that the universe, whatever be the order that sustains it in its parts, is the work of the creating and preserving sign of Omnipotent God, who moves and governs all, and whose glory risplende in una parte piu e meno altrove; and though this earth on which we live may not be the centre of the universe as at one time was thought, it was the scene of the original happiness of our first ancestors, witness of their unhappy fall, as too of the Redemption of mankind through the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. Therefore the divine poet depicted the triple life of souls as he imagined it in such a way as to illuminate with the light of the true doctrine of the faith the condemnation of the impious, the purgation of the good spirits and the eternal happiness of the blessed before the final judgment.

The eminent Russell Kirk summed up: “It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes. As Burke suggested in 1790, letters and learning are hollow if deprived of the moral imagination…. Such imagination lacking, to quote another passage from Burke, we are cast forth ‘from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.’”

While the Allied defense against the Central Powers in World War I eventually succeeded, Western civilization received not only such works of great beauty and insights into human dignity as Jones’ In Parenthesis and Eliot’s Four Quartets, but also works which now pass as “classics” such as William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch and or an Andres Serrano photograph. More’s the pity.