- Modern Nostalgia: Siegfried Sassoon, Trauma, and the Second World War
Over the last decade, Siegfried Sassoon has emerged from obscurity. Beginning with Jean Moorcroft Wilson's first of a two-volume biography, Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, followed closely by John Stuart Roberts's Siegfried Sassoon and then Siegfried Sassoon: A Life by Max Egremont in 2005, interest in the soldier poet has never been stronger. Further, Patrick Campbell's Siegfried Sassoon: A Study of the War Poetry, along with Paul Moeyes's literary survey entitled Siegfried Sassoon: Scorched Glory, have both contributed to a reassessment of his work. As his unpublished diaries and letters have been made available to scholars, questions of his troubled childhood, his tormented sexuality, and his surprising religious transformation are now more understandable. His stubborn adherence to Georgian poetic standards as well as his strained relationship with modernist poets has been exposed and dissected with convincing argument. Nevertheless, Sassoon's critics and biographers have not been particularly convincing about his poetic aesthetic after the Great War.
What is energizing about Robert Hemmings's Modern Nostalgia is that his book demonstrates his familiarity with previous Sassoon studies, yet he convincingly presents a thesis that challenges several uncontested opinions about Sassoon's writings. For example, Hemmings posits that by psychologically probing his own personal experiences through six separate semi-autobiographical works, Sassoon is attempting to comprehend [End Page 382] 'the fragmentary nature of modern subjectivity,' which is at the core of modernist inquiry. Hemmings rightly concludes that Sassoon's impulse is similar to the literary experimentations of Lawrence, Joyce, or even Woolf.
The book examines the nature of nostalgia, an unusual topic one tends to pass over as a misty reminiscence of an imagined better time, but Hemmings turns it into an intellectual inquiry. His discussion of modern nostalgia from the industrial revolution till today is thought provoking and follows smoothly into a discussion of Sassoon's penchant for escaping his travails during the interwar period back to a nostalgic vision of a gentile and cultured Victorian era. Hemmings's book focuses on the connection of this nostalgic impulse and the trauma of the battlefield experience in Sassoon's life and work.
To explain this nexus, Hemmings reveals the complex relationship between Sassoon and W.H.R. Rivers, Sassoon's psychologist while he was under observation at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917. Hemmings contends that while under Rivers's care, Sassoon learned the dangers of repressing his war experiences and 'the importance of articulating . . . one's conscious and unconscious anxieties.' Rivers speculated that war neurosis, the type that afflicted Sassoon, was the result of a conflict between a natural inclination toward self-preservation on the battlefield and the sense of duty that forced a combatant to make himself vulnerable during a battle. The resultant fear that came with doing one's duty needed to be sublimated in the unconscious, and this suppression led to various war neuroses. The problem with this cycle of suppression was that the soldier was constantly returned to the unbidden memory of what was being suppressed. What Rivers attempted to do with Sassoon was to teach him 'the process by which the patient is led to understand the real state of his mind and the conditions by which this state has been produced.' The patient needed to utilize this self-knowledge in a positive fashion.
According to Hemmings, Sassoon's constant literary revisiting his past during the interwar period is an attempt at autognosis (self-reflection), and this quest requires a deep psychological probing into his pre-war past, his wartime experience, and his sexual inversion. From this perspective, Hemmings offers several fresh interpretations not only of Shertson's Progress but also of Sassoon's often overlooked interwar poetry collections such as The Heart's Journey, The Road to Ruin, and Vigils.
With the ominous echoes of a new world war on the horizon, Sassoon, more than ever, wanted 'to give the modern world the slip,' but as Hemmings rightly contends, for Sassoon to escape...