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Preface

From: War Pictures

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Preface My father fought a hard war. He fought Hitler, prosecuting the war with a violence that proved uncontainable. I don’t know how to solve that, but without men like my father the war would not have been won! —Derek Jarman, The Last of England (1987) I began to think about the arguments presented in this book in 2003 when the beginning of war in Iraq made it hard not to see war everywhere. I found that the books I read, the records I listened to, and the films and shows I watched all seemed to be about war even when they had evidently little to do with war. In ways both necessary and helplessly trivial, I felt that I saw war everywhere and that seeing war was maybe what interpretation was for. But why? What made looking for evidence of war where it apparently wasn’t seem like a necessity? Why was it that war seemed to touch objects and ideas so distant from it? Was this creeping significance a matter of my imagination—maybe even my guilt—or was it rather evidence of something larger, a shift in how one thinks during a conflict that was imagined as open-ended and exceptional? How did a war, which was only barely about itself, manage to make everything else about war, too? With these questions in mind, I began with my colleague Alan Tansman to prepare graduate and undergraduate courses on war and representation. We paired texts that addressed particular wars with contemporary novels, poems, or films that seemed to have little or nothing to do with their wars, that is, with texts that held their wars“at a distance.”1 How did representations work differently as they drifted across the porous border between texts that treated war and its consequences directly and those that addressed them obliquely or not at all? The Iliad is about war and so is All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Although they don’t address their wars directly, there is little doubt that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946) are also about war. But viii | Preface what about examples where the relation is more tenuous but maybe no less real: what about Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or The Theory of the Novel (1920) or Salem’s Lot (1975)? Both Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1944 and 1989, respectively) are of course about their wars, but what about David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) or his Great Expectations (1946)? War seems in some of these cases to be exactly where it is not; although neither allegorized nor referred to, war feels like an invisible and obscure but no less animating spirit in these and other wartime examples. In addition to reminding us of its own presence, weight, and pathos, war can thus reveal what’s always strained about aboutness, a quality that can and perhaps needs to mean several things at once. To be about is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to be “all over or around,” “at large,” “without any definite purpose,”“on the move,”“to one side, aside, away,”“in circumference,”“around the outside,”“in every direction,”“approximately,” “more or less,”“with regard to,” and, finally, “to have as a subject matter, to be concerned with.” As a number of critics have recently suggested, war can highlight the essentially impacted nature of aboutness. Alex Woloch argues that George Orwell’s war writing “is (oddly) ‘about’ intentionality, ‘about’ about-ness. It doesn’t merely seek to transmit this intention but to dramatize it.”2 Marina MacKay writes that “modernist writing produced between 1914 and 1918 stretched the concept of ‘aboutness’ almost to its breaking point in its approach to the war that saw its publication.”3 Mary Favret suggests that, at least since the late eighteenth century, war has become as much a shared, qualifying, and ambient idea about the world as a quantifiable state of affairs: “War becomes an object of knowledge, a universalizing abstraction; indeed, in wartime it threatens to become all you know.”4 Kate McLoughlin writes that, in many of the best cases, war texts succeed because they fail “to write about war, writing instead about the difficulties of its representation.”5 In each of these cases, these critics take the scope, the inclusiveness, and the violence of war as a challenge to representation , reference, and aboutness...



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