- Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq by Kate McLoughlin
Kate McLoughlin's ranging, acrobatic, erudite, perspicacious, and occasionally flawed rhetorical analysis of war literature, Authoring War, aims to describe a handful of literary strategies that characterize writing about war from ancient Greece to contemporary Mesopotamia. The book does not quite pay out these global ambitions. In fact, her book is mostly concerned with British and American literature from the sixteenth century on, though she does address a few examples in translation, most notably War and Peace.
McLoughlin structures Authoring War thematically, with chapters on "Credentials," "Details," "Zones," "Duration," "Diversions," and "Laughter." Each chapter takes up a range of texts and brings a variety of theoretical approaches to elucidate that chapter's theme. Chapter 2, for example, on "Details," includes discussion and digressions on Henry V and 1 Henry VI, Paradise Lost, Byron's Don Juan, and Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun, along with selected poems by Robert Southey, Cecil Day Lewis, George Orwell, Siegfried Sassoon, and Keith Douglas; it brings Bakhtin, Barthes, Benjamin, de Man, Derrida, Freud, the Gothic body, Jakobson, Kant, the Greek concept of kleos, David Lodge, W. J. T. Mitchell, and much else to bear on these texts and on the theorization of name-tallying versus synecdoche in war literature. Thirty-one pages take us from the Hundred Years War to 1938, from drama to epic to lyric to novel, and yet, despite the fact that this chapter is specifically about the problem of "how to frame the huge scale of war for human comprehension," the frame remains distinctly limited: the texts dealt with are predominantly within an Anglo-American literary tradition and the approach securely inside the boundaries of post-structuralist literary theory (52). [End Page 350]
The most significant trouble with Authoring War is that McLoughlin's main arguments are not just about war literature, but about war itself. McLoughlin's central argument opens with and builds upon the claim that war "resists depiction, and does so in multifarious ways" (6-7). This idea, adapted from trauma theory, is an unstable foundation on which to build an analysis. The first problem with this claim is that "war" is an abstraction, a concept, a category of complex human endeavor (like "marriage," "justice," "capitalism," or "religion"). In asserting that "war" resists depiction, McLoughlin begs the question of how we "depict" abstraction in the first place, and specifically the question of what the relation is between a literary example and the abstract concept it supposedly exemplifies. Certainly Aeschylus's Agamemnon depicts marriage, but so do The Tale of Genji, Jane Eyre, and The Waste Land. At what point are we justified in making essentialist, transhistorical claims about "marriage" and its depiction?
The second problem is the implicit presumption that war is special or singular in its being "impossible" to represent. Without delving into the age-old problems of mimesis, the status of language vis-à-vis its referents, or phenomenologies of reading, it must be clear to anyone who thinks about linguistic representation at all that reality itself "resists depiction." Translating lived experience, material being, and sense data into nouns, verbs, and syntactical relations is a vexingly difficult task, and it is a near miracle that we do it with such aplomb, day after day. If it is true that war resists depiction, war is no different from countless other aspects of human existence, such as "the self," Spain, going to the grocery store, society, consciousness, eating an apple, swimming, and love.
Alternatively, if the statement that war "resists depiction" means that "war is specially charged because huge in scale, devastating in impact and encompassing of human behaviour in its greatest trials and intimacies" and that this is precisely "what makes war impossible or very difficult to write about" (8-9), then this claim is demonstrably wrong. As McLoughlin herself points out (using the terms "conflict" and "war" somewhat interchangeably), "depiction of conflict is ubiquitous and of ancient standing" (7). That is, writing about...