Near the end of The Eye in the Door, volume two of Pat Barker’s acclaimed 1992–1995 Great War trilogy, her fictional Dr. William Rivers responds to her fictional Siegfried Sassoon’s “smaller, more private, less hopeful” war protest by providing his “own defence” in sending Sassoon back to the front: “‘If at any time you’d said to me, “I am a pacifist. I believe it’s always and in all circumstances wrong to kill,” I . . . I wouldn’t have agreed with you, I’d’ve made you argue the case every step of the way’” (Eye 260; original ellipses). Pat Barker’s great talent notwithstanding, the success of her trilogy owes no small debt to the power of the Great War to haunt us still. Given the horrors and unjustifiable losses on its battlegrounds, the catastrophic and cavalier strategies of its generals, and its troubled victory, it’s no wonder that writers and readers still find this war a compelling ground for debates about pacifism. And yet as Barker’s trilogy attests, this is not solely a philosophical or historical debate, but an imaginative one, figured through [End Page 792] her soldier-poets writing war poetry and recounting and interpreting their recurring war nightmares. 1
Barker’s trilogy can be seen as a postmodern commentary on the modernist World War I text, highlighting through its self-reflexive shell shocks the making and staying power of a mythic Great War in which its soldier-poets lyricize their decentered fates in a national epic. As the neuraesthenic symptoms and moral dilemma of Barker’s Dr. Rivers mirror those of his patients’ stammering, war-torn narratives, their separate narratives form a postmodern cultural diagnosis, chronicling the Great War’s destabilizing but powerfully productive hold on the literary imagination.
This textual interplay dramatizes the historical process that has given the Great War mythopoetic stature. 2 From the writing of the Western Front through its modernist reconstructions, from critical histories of modernism to feminist constructions of the Great “Sex Wars” and a gender-inclusive modernist canon, whatever their formal and ideological differences, writers and critics alike have reconfigured World War I as a mythic war for the defense of pacifism. 3 As ethnic and regional battles rage around the globe in our own time, holding current cultural criticism hostage to anachronistic paradigms of just and unjust wars, the Great War and its recurring nightmares remain paradoxically constant. Even as postmodern literary histories contest and destabilize its modernist grounds, the Great War stands firm as a cultural monument, memorializing the moral efficacy of judging wars as literary history and artifacts.
The Great War’s modernist hold on ethical and literary memory is all the more intriguing if we consider that it was the unfathomable horrors of World War II that called the very definition and moral boundaries of literary representation into question, and so challenged modernist writers as never before. 4 It is not as though the major modernists did not respond to this challenge. But despite the fact that the poems of 1939–1945 by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot have been celebrated as modernist epics, World War II has failed to take root in our modernist literary histories or to inspire a mythopoesis of its own. 5 Even critical debates about the periodization of modernism, while they expand the meanings of war experience to include women in World War I, women’s “excitement and new freedoms” in the 1920s, and their “mysterious passage” into the politics of the 1930s, just stop cold [End Page 793] at 1940, as though reifying the very boundary that expansive efforts had challenged. 6
Clearly, the issue of including a Second World War text is not its lack of literary experiment so central to modernism. In her 1936–1938 novels, Novel on Yellow Paper and Over the Frontier, Stevie Smith takes us on a whirlwind ride through her heroine’s decentered consciousness and intertextual construction of a second world war, testing limits on language, the stability of self, and historical progression. Moreover, as Pompey Casmilus, Smith’s gentile, militant narrator, mocks her minority position in a room full of Jews, she stretches...