Modern Nostalgia

Modern Nostalgia: Siegfried Sassoon, Trauma and the Second World War

Robert Hemmings
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 168
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r1xgw
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  • Book Info
    Modern Nostalgia
    Book Description:

    This book explores Siegfried Sassoon’s writing of the twenties, thirties and forties, demonstrating the connections between trauma and nostalgia in a culture saturated with the anxieties of war.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-3307-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS (pp. vii-viii)
  4. INTRODUCTION (pp. 1-17)

    Towards the end of 1944, an English publisher asked Siegfried Sassoon to select a collection of poems by soldiers serving in the Eighth Army during the fiercely fought invasion of Italy. Sassoon reluctantly accepted. The brief and typically diffident introduction he wrote in response provides unexpected insights into his own later writing. In his prose autobiography, Siegfried’s Journey: 1916–1920, with which he was struggling at the time of this request, he acknowledges that his own traumatic memories of combat from the First World War still held ‘an awful attraction’ over his mind ‘in spite of [his] hatred of war’.¹...

  5. 1 THE SPACE BETWEEN THE WARS (pp. 18-27)

    Sassoon’s great friend and fellow veteran, Edmund Blunden, also gained early exposure through Georgian Poetry, but not until after the First World War. Much of Blunden’s writing, poetry and prose, exhibits the Georgian nostalgia for a simpler past when the landscape helped forge a stronger and authentic sense of Englishness among individuals and their organic communities. Paul Fussell notes that for Blunden ‘the countryside is . . . as precious as English literature,’¹ invoking indirectly the comforting blend of verdant fields and books of Davies’ ‘In May’. Blunden’s aesthetic is rooted in the English pastoral tradition, inspirited by his Georgian...

  6. 2 RIVERS, MYERS AND THE CULTURE OF WAR NEUROSES (pp. 28-53)

    Early conceptions of traumatic neurosis have a great deal in common with the aetiology of nostalgia. In 1688 Johannes Hofer attributed the disease to an ‘afflicted imagination’, noting in patients the persistence of melancholy, relentless preoccupation with home, disturbances of sleep, images of home recurring in dreams, loss of strength and appetite, fever, heart palpitations and stupor.¹ He also speculated that a physiological alteration of channels transferring ‘spirits’ between brain and body underlaid these symptoms. In nineteenth-century Europe, similarly strange symptoms, partial paralyses and other bodily malfunctions arose in those who experienced industrial or railway accidents. In Britain, this was...

  7. 3 WITNESSING AND SURVIVAL: THE CHALLENGE OF ‘AUTOGNOSIS’ IN THE INTERWAR YEARS (pp. 54-81)

    In his writing between the wars Sassoon was strongly influenced by Rivers’s concept of autognosis, the twofold process by which an individual ‘learns to understand the real state of his mind’ by accounting for both conscious and unconscious motivations, and also the environmental ‘conditions by which this state has been produced’.¹ The epigraph for this chapter comes from Sassoon’s 1921 diary, where it is followed by comments asserting the importance of being ‘a watchful critic’ of his own behaviour: ‘I must be both action and the audience; “produced” by environment.’² His words echo Rivers’s sense of the combined influence of...

  8. 4 WARTIME REVISITED: GHOSTS AND SPIRITS IN SASSOON’S PATRIOTIC VERSE OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR (pp. 82-96)

    When Chamberlain reluctantly declared war on 3 September 1939, Sassoon recorded in his diary: ‘It all makes me wish that the July 1918 bullet had finished me. I can do nothing now except endure this nightmare.’² His crisis is evident not only in his likening of the new war to a nightmare, but also in his death-wish and the peculiar circumstances surrounding his last wound of the First World War; his near-encounter with death in July 1918 came from friendly fire, an absurd accident of war. The new war was no less full of absurd acts and incomprehensible events, prompting...

  9. 5 LOOK BACK TO ‘GLADNESS’: NOSTALGIA AND SASSOON’S PERSONAL POEMS, 1940–5 (pp. 97-111)

    Though moved to contribute to the war effort with his patriotic verse, Sassoon continued with the work of autognosis and the poetry of his private self throughout the war. Amidst the anxieties and distractions of wartime, much of his autognostic creative energy was directed to the composition of his prose memoirs, and since before the war began, he had been beset with nagging doubts about his poetic ability. By 1939 he had come to consider his poems in which he sought to express his true or inner self as ‘essentially private communications’.¹ Choosing and arranging poems for Rhymed Ruminations, his...

  10. 6 NARCISSISM AND AUTOGNOSIS: SASSOON, 1936–42 (pp. 112-126)

    There is little doubt that Sassoon, judging by his own admission and the observations of his friends,¹ was throughout his life narcissistic and self-absorbed, and that this motivated and shaped his autobiographical project. In his version of autognosis, which was never as rigorous and disciplined as Rivers might have encouraged, Sassoon’s response to literary tradition was as important as any systematic, psychoanalytic self-scrutiny. When he had completed his trilogy of semi-fictionalized memoirs, he turned almost immediately to autobiography, a genre clearly suited to his preoccupations. Having participated in the great wave of war books in the late 1920s with the...

  11. 7 LIMINAL MOMENTS, UNCANNY SPACES: SASSOON’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND THE MODERN SUBJECT (pp. 127-146)

    At crucial points in his autobiographical project, Sassoon recounts physically returning to specific sites of his past, which generate recurring symbols and tropes of longing and provoke fascinating, uncanny collisions between present and prior selves.

    On the verge of such confrontations, often announced by the image of a threshold, Sassoon apprehends a spatial and temporal gap, a liminal moment of heightened perception of subjectivity. I contend that Sassoon’s engagement with these uncanny spaces, at once distantly familiar and strangely new, demonstrates fissures in his pseudo-Victorian model of aesthetics that reveal an unexpected affinity for the modernist preoccupation with representing fragmented...

  12. CONCLUSION (pp. 147-156)

    Clearly, the composition of Siegfried’s Journey was a fraught experience that left Sassoon exhausted. In 1946 he agreed to write about the life of another man – George Meredith – as a relief from the travails of literary autognosis.¹ Though he began the work with characteristic diffidence,² he completed Meredith in manuscript almost on schedule, in August 1947. In his approach to Meredith, it is interesting to note the same heightened awareness of the multiplicity and elusiveness of self that marks his autobiographical writing. He felt ‘confronted’, he writes, ‘by the protesting presence of Meredith’ warning him of the impossibility of knowing...

  13. INDEX (pp. 157-160)

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