- Media, Memory, and the First World War: A History of Memory from the Trojan War to the Great War
If memory - as Walter Benjamin's epigraph to this book declares - is in fact a medium, then what is its message? The sum of composed, selective, rearranged pieces of past experience that we orchestrate into continuous and self-defining narratives would seem to be the author's answer to that question. Thus Williams's earlier volume, Imagined Nations: Reflections of Media in Canadian Fiction (2003), and the present one form a diptych. Together, these two works comprise the most sustained and convincing attempt by any scholar to apply the spatial and temporal concepts of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan to Canadian literature and culture. As such, they merit a readership extending beyond the boundaries of English departments. Clearly argued and comprehensive, the two works attest to the literary imagination's continuing power to illuminate the effects of media change upon a national [End Page 362] discourse. They deserve a close and continued reading; these brief remarks should be taken only as a blurb urging readers to acquaint themselves with the insights to be found here.
Media, Memory, and the FirstWorldWar defines film 'as a crucial determinant of modernity' by virtue of its dissolution of the boundaries between past and present. This same commingling of once-discrete timeframes, Williams locates in a number of British and Canadian works about the GreatWar. His discussion of current TVand web locations I found especially interesting, indicating as they do how firmly cinematic in form our historical recollection has come to be. 'Cinematicmemory,'Williams states, 'is not merely an effect of form or technique, but a deep-seated change in our view of time . . . [O]ur 'cinematic memory' of [the GreatWar] was truly opened a new window on time itself, marking the moment when the past would henceforth become a species of the present.'
Williams's discussion proves wide-ranging. His excursions into Homeric and Vergilian ways of presenting time are especially stimulating and relevant to his later discussion of his treatise's principal subject matter. That is, the book at times demands a patient reader, one willing to accept on faith the writer's assurances that the byway before him truly leads back to the main highway. It always does.
Any reader is bound to puzzle over why a favourite work eludes Williams's attention here. Kipling's 'Mrs Bathurst' (1904) remains the first and for me still the finest of the attempts to embed cinematic form within a 'realistic' structure of prose narrative. Rich in meaning (too rich for P.G. Wodehouse, who twice read it without making sense of it), this story's inclusion would have enriched Williams's overall argument. What franker acknowledgement of a monograph's interest than a reader's wish that the discussion there had gone on longer? Highly recommended.
Dennis Duffy, Department of English, University of Toronto