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Comparative Literature Studies 42.2 (2005) 130-161

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Air War Prophecy And Interwar Modernism

Pomona College
The sirens sound. Schoolchildren, factory hands, housewives, office workers, one and all don their gas masks. Whirring planes overhead lay down a blanket of protective smoke. Cellars open to receive their refugees. Red Cross stations to succor the stricken and the wounded are opened at improvised shelters: underground vaults yawn to receive the gold and securities of the banks: masked men in asbestos suits attempt to gather up the fallen incendiary bombs. Presently the anti-aircraft guns sputter. Fear vomits: poison crawls through the pores. Whether the attack is arranged or real, it produces similar psychological effects. Plainly, terrors more devastating and demoralizing than any known in the ancient jungle or cave have been re-introduced into modern urban existence. Panting, choking, spluttering, cringing, hating, the dweller in Megalopolis dies, by anticipation, a thousand deaths. Fear is thus fixed into routine: the constant anxiety over war produces by itself a collective psychosis comparable to that which active warfare might develop. Waves of fear and hatred rise in the metropolis and spread by means of the newspaper and the newsreel and the radio program to the most distant provinces.1

The above passage, from Lewis Mumford's The Culture of Cities (1938), describes a sequence of events in what Mumford calls the "war capital" or "war metropolis." The events constitute an emergency, clearly, but for Mumford they are more importantly a routine: the metropolis, in this account, is a space where the civil defense crisis has become ritualized, quotidien, a general rather than an exceptional case: the city, in other words, [End Page 130] as battlefield or trauma ward. But more unnerving than this depiction of the routinization of emergency, more disturbing even than its vivid and primitivist take on urban terror, is Mumford's claim that "Whether the attack is arranged or real, it produces similar effects." The disaster that arrives and the disaster that may be about to arrive have equal powers here to engender a "collective psychosis"; the real war and the rehearsal for war become psychotically indistinct, nearly interchangeable backdrops before which the highly automated ritual of anticipation, dread, and mass-traumatization is enacted. By refusing to identify the event he describes as real or as rehearsal, Mumford suspends his reader, too, between the horror of the event and the horror of the drill in preparation for it, in the very space of future conditional anxiety inhabited by the war capital's citizens. In that space, the reader experiences at the hands of Mumford's tightly regulated prose a miniaturized version of what the citizen experiences in the air raid drill: "the materialization of a skillfully evoked nightmare" (275).

Entitled "A Brief Description of Hell," the section of The Culture of Cities that recounts the air raid alert does so in order to provide one example of a more general phenomenon: the assault on "all the higher activities of society" by what, masquerading as peacetime, is "equally a state of war: the passive war of propaganda, war-indoctrination, war-rehearsal: a preliminary maneuvering for position" (278; 275). In what follows I wish to take seriously Mumford's suggestion that a "collective psychosis" might be instigated by pre-war anxiety—that is, by the eventuality of a future conditional war as much as by the actual event of war. However, what is for Mumford only an example—the aerial bombardment of cities as a military practice that occasioned disciplined civilian rehearsals—will be my main ground. I argue that the memory and dread of aerial bombing not only figured prominently in interwar public discourse and the concurrent urban imaginary, but also constituted the locus classicus for a kind of proleptic mass-traumatization, a pre-traumatic stress syndrome whose symptoms arose in response to an anticipated rather than an already realized catastrophe. Making such an argument will entail treating the lexicon of futurity—terms such as premonition, prevision, prophecy, prolepsis, foresight, forethought, anticipation—in a non-magical fashion, or...


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