As we have already seen, World War I was an enormous catastrophe for people across Europe. It was seen at the time as the decisive turning-point in defining both Europe’s values and the sense it had of itself. The war wiped out a large percentage of a generation. It brought down three empires in Europe, the German, Austrian, and Russian. It changed the balance of power in the world, too, for now the United States began its ascendancy to a dominant position that it still holds. .
The war shaped almost all intellectual work of modernity in the West. The ensuing reorientation of thought is often described as a shift away from the optimism of the 19th century, that is, a shift away from the belief in Liberalism, progress, and the universal faith in positivism. Critical tendencies that had already been at Europe’s cultural margins, with the literary Avant-Garde, suddenly became central intellectual positions. The belief in the explosive power of the irrational became one of the new dominant assumptions of European thought. As is evident in the work of Sigmund Freud, psychology became a central way of understanding human behavior, casting aside previous beliefs in the power of reason on which Liberalism and the Enlightenment had been built. Now Freud and his colleagues became gurus for a society that wanted to understand behavior that appeared to be inexplicable in rational terms.
In this lecture, I want to concentrate on three areas in which World War I had its greatest impact. The first is the crisis of Liberalism. The second is the popularity of cultural pessimism. The last is the extension of the pre-war Avant-Garde into post-war cultural predominance.
Let us consider, first, the post-war cultural context. The dominant thread of meaning that emerged from WWI was its complete meaninglessness. Originally, there was some enthusiasm for the war, though this enthusiasm has been badly overstated by some historians. The summer of 1914 is the period that Germans called the Days of August, and it was supposedly the time when everyone came together to fight a war against national enemies. This is not quite true, as there was much trepidation throughout Europe at the thought of the coming war. Nonetheless, as the killing increased, even the strongest war partisans soon forgot why it was being fought at all. Indeed, when Europeans looked back on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the alliance system that together had brought about the war, the whole thing seemed absurd. The Triple Alliance stood against the Triple Entente. So what? Could there really be a point to this?
As you know, the war began with the Russian invasion of Germany and thereupon followed the German invasion of Belgium. Following the Schlieffen plan, the Germans swept through Belgium and had been in sight of Paris when their advance was stopped cold by new defensive technology: machine guns, cannon, and barbed wire. Hence, from 1914 to 1918, the war was essentially a stalemate, and took an unbelievable toll in human terms. This was due in part to the stupidity of many generals, who failed to see that the defensive situation could not be overcome easily and held that only an offensive spirit would be enough to push back the enemy. This was the case for both sides, but the British and French leadership truly distinguished themselves through their obtuseness. At the battle of Verdun from Feb/Dec 1916, that is 300 days, both the French and the Germans counted 500,000 casualties. At the Somme, a British offensive that lasted 140 days cost the Brits 600,000 men for 6 miles of territory. Then, of course, the Germans won it all back and then some.
There had never been a war like this before. The magnitude of the slaughter and its apparent pointlessness fostered cynicism and bitterness everywhere. By Nov. 1918, there were 30 million wounded on all sides. The Germans had lost a total of 6 million dead, the French 5.5 million. In addition to this, with the collapse of the German, Austrian, and Russian governments any hope in the progress that Liberalism had promised was all but destroyed. Europe had lapsed into chaos, and now no one could believe in progress. Too many traditional values seemed to have no point. What was the point in “progressing,” if the starting point was already absurd? Let us turn, thus, to what historians call the crisis of Liberalism.
The Liberal tradition had dominated economic, political, and social thought across much of Europe in the 19th century. The fundamental belief was that the individual was autonomous and special. His (and increasingly her) rights ought to be respected as the foundation of society. The war, however, overwhelmed all this naïve individualism. Why talk about the importance of one person, when so many were dead and wounded? And why prize the individual’s role in the economy, when it seemed to bear no direct connection to real events. During the war, the government had intervened in economic life to an unprecedented extent, as all national economies came under state control. There was rationing and extensive price controls, while the government managed the production and distribution of the most important goods and services. The laissez-faire state, which Liberalism had cultivated, was now gone for good, and government intervention in individual economic activity would now be the norm.
The war also disrupted the Liberal social order. It created a huge group of alienated war veterans, who had no stake in the old order. In fact, this group became a breeding ground for anti-liberal causes and groups. Existing gender relations were also undermined as women, who had discovered a work life outside the home, were now required to return home and liked it not at all. Politically, the war undermined the Liberal conception of the individual life. The state now assumed control over all aspects of a person’s life, as people had grown used to being told where and when to work. The values of free speech and a free press were no longer held quite as dear in a context where there was little work and much destruction. Thus, in general, European society broke with its liberal past, a break that culminated with the Russian Revolution, perhaps the ultimate repudiation of liberal values.
Liberalism also came under attack, however, from the intellectual realm, where one would actually have expected a good deal of support for it. For any post-WWI writer, the war was the only reference point, and the key that arose therefrom was pessimism, a sense the Europe had entered an irreversible crisis. The intellectuals became obsessed with an extraordinary sense of loss, feeling that a glorious past was gone and that brightest had been wiped out by the war. In many ways, this sense was exacerbated by feelings of guilt and disorientation that came from survival. How could one explain the rationality of random survival? Since it was not clear why they had survived—there was no real explanation for it—the intellectuals came to stress how an entire world had been lost to them. An example is Robert Graves’ work Goodbye to All That (1928). In this book Graves argued that the old faiths and beliefs were made obsolete by the shattering post-war crisis, and called for new ways of explaining why people do what they do. For Graves, people did not seem to be in control of their lives or even their desires. In his view, the only possibly explanation was medical and psychological: Europe had fallen ill.
Cultural pessimism was especially clear in the work of Oswald Spengler. His main work The Decline of the West (1918) challenged the liberal progressive view of history by returning to an older cyclical view. As he saw it, history does not progress, move to higher levels of human achievement. In fact, all cultures rise, decline, and die. And as far as he was concerned the West was trapped in a process of decline so enormous and so powerful that the individual was entirely lost, merely afloat in historical forces that paid no attention to human reason, or human desires.
We see a similar decline of optimism in Modernist Poetry. W.D. Yeats and T.S. Eliot began to stress the experience of transition and collapse in their works. Eliot’s The Wasteland (1922) and Yeats The Second Coming (1921) both encompass a general sense of decline, a sense that life was out of control, that there was a fundamental emptiness at the heart of the human experience. We see the fullest expression of this in Eliot’s The Hollow Man (1925). Thus, the belief that pessimism was the only intellectually honest position became fundamental to European culture. This happened, in part, because there had already been precursors in European culture. The literary avant-garde in Paris and Vienna had already begun its attack on Liberalism and Progress, at the twentieth century’s turn. For them, the only way to make sense of the world was not to try to represent it. In art, literature, and poetry it was assumed that only a leap into the irrational could explain anything. With that, we turn to the Avant-Garde.
The war moved the most extreme movements of art and literature from the margins to the center. In order to understand this, let us take step back into the pre-war literary scene. The pre-war Avant-Garde emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a critique of liberal values. In particular, writers turned on Liberalism’s faith in reason and enlightenment. You have already seen some of this in Nietzsche, who emphasized striving and war over contemplation and the settled life. You can also find similar critiques on Dostoevsky. For example, the protagonist in his famous psychological novel Crime and Punishment carried the name Raskolnikov. In Russian the word raskol means schism, and a man who bears within him a schism can hardly be called rational. The Avant-Garde began to push this radical thought further, bringing in aesthetic elements from the Romantics such as Gustav Flaubert and reveling in the irrational, or better perhaps, the non-rational nature of human experience. In this context art became liberating, stressing the priority of personal insights over a collective discussion of objective reality. All truth became subjective and perspectival. Truth, the Avant-Garde said, came from inner vision.
Literary Modernism takes as its governing theme the belief true reality is not external but is based in internal experience. We can trace the origins of this movement to the symbolist movement in France. For example, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) held that everything we can see can be taken as a symbol for something else. To reach a deeper understanding we must interpret and imagine the world. Symbolist poets such as Stephan Mallarmé (1842-1898), Arthur Rimbaud (1838-1889), and Villiers de L’Isle Adam (1838-1889) were obsessed with the problem of symbols. Mallarmé was at the center of this movement. He wrote complex poems for only a small audience. In his view, poetry had to convey the inner language of a poet, which was of necessity personal and not subject to wide understanding. The internal was the real, the external an illusion. Many of the symbolists turned to drugs and alcohol to help them plumb the depths of the inner world. Others turned to primitive cultures, such as Gauguin, who went to Tahiti, and Rimbaud, who fled to Africa and then Asia, before renouncing writing all together.
This modernist tradition then became intensified during the First World War. One famous example was the Dada movement. The Dada was founded in 1916 by a Swiss poet name Tristan Tzara, who was an irrationalist poet, writing words down in a random fashion. (He would even go so far as to pull words out of a hat and write them down.) This suggested that all of civilization was random and absurd. (You may recall Nietzsche’s line in Twilight of the Idols that we will continue to believe in God as long as we believe in grammar.) The idea was that cultivating randomness was the only rational response to a world that had become absurd. Dada tended to be mostly destructive in its effects and did not last beyond the war. We can see the longer-term impact of the war, however, in the painting movement known as Surrealism. This movement emerged in the 1920s and its most famous exponent is, of course, Salvador Dali. This art movement went back to some of the themes of the symbolist poets. Led originally by the French painter Andre Breton, the movement held that painting must explore the subconscious world, must use the things of daily life as mere symbols of a deeper reality.
We can also see similar trends in the literary world. The common point among writers there was that external reality did not work. Novels in the period demonstrated skepticism toward the external world, especially the world of politics, and many writers simply judged the world of politics to be irredeemably corrupt. Left with nothing in public life, these writers consoled themselves by turning to the personal exploration of artistic truths. For that reason, the modernist novel wanted to alienate the reader entirely, that is to take away him or her away from all comforting truths. It tried to redefine the familiar by breaking up common assumptions such as the unity of time and space. Novelists in this period did not care for chronology or order. When they bothered to describe them, external events seemed nothing more than random happenings and completely irrelevant to interior life. The key events in the modernist novel were inside the person and were explored by narratives that probed only the inner world
In French Literature, a good example of this is Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Proust is notable for, among other things, retiring at the age of 30 to a cork-lined room so that he could do nothing more than write and drink massive quantities of coffee. He died young. His six volume work Remembrances of Things Past (1913-1922), which he wrote while locked up in this room, is a monument to interiority. While France was at war, he sat in his room and explored every last memory he had and developed as his main theme that the self is the ultimate. What we are in ourselves is isolated and ineffable; it cannot be communicated to other people, though there is a small hope that other people can access us through art. Art cannot fully communicate our thoughts to others, but it is the only alternative to complete isolation in a cork-lined room. Another French writer to keep in mind was André Gide (1869-1951). He lived a more public life than Proust, but also believed that the individual was completely isolated. For him, morality had been torn asunder by the war and art was the only thing that could restore it. It was left to the artist had to create a new morality for a broken world. That both these writers were also homosexual in a world that had no place for homosexuals merely accentuated their sense of isolation and marginalization.
We can find similar themes in English literature. There we see the same interest in interiority and the emphasis on the marginal. James Joyce (1882-194) is a classic example. Joyce was also marginalized, but by a life in exile. Although he was Irish, he spent many years living in Italy, Switzerland, and France. His work is marked by an extended exploration of the interior world, as is apparent in his great novel Ulysses (1919). Written during WWI, the novel’s fundamental problem was time: it was 800 pages long and devoted itself to exploring the random events packed into a single day. What action there is in the text is more internal than external. More importantly, to describe this inner world, Joyce used a literary innovation called the stream of consciousness style of writing. There was no logic to time, thought, or even narrative, as the text moved randomly from one theme to the next. Another key writer is Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf looked for reality in language as opposed to actions. She was not totally detached from public life, but still insisted on removing herself from it from time to time. A member of the group called the Bloomsbury Circle, which had strong ties to Cambridge University, she and her colleagues saw truth as transcendent, above simple reality. Hence Woolf’s work does not pay much attention to external events, while inner thought is considered in excruciating detail. As a result, there is no clear narrative in her work, and the emphasis is on sudden internal discoveries and emotional breaks.
We can see a similar disorientation in German literature, as well. In no case is the crisis of literature clearer than in Franz Kafka (1883-1924). A German-speaking Jewish intellectual living in Prague, he worked as a state insurance inspector. This was, no doubt, dreary work and, perhaps for that reason, his characters are always portrayed as alone in the world. For Kafka, there was no meaning to the social world and everyone was always alienated from everything and everyone. Social and political processes had no meaning other than to frustrate everyone’s ambitions. For those of you who have read his work The Trial, this sense of frustration and alienation will be particularly clear. Kafka’s alienation is extreme in German literature, but even less extreme writers such as Thomas Mann (1875-1955) followed similar themes. Mann saw a Europe in a crisis, and this sense dated to even before the war, as is apparent in his classic work Death in Venice. In this text he explored how official culture had stripped away people’s vitality, leaving only illness and death. For Mann illness became a metaphor for modernity. Initially, he saw World War I as a way to revitalize culture, but soon it became only another symptom of the root disease. He analyzed this shift in his work The Magic Mountain (1924), which is set in a tuberculosis hospital, with patients from all over Germany dying a slow, painful death. The hospital is in the mountains and is, therefore, remote from all culture. Perhaps, for that reason, the novel presents the reader only with ideal types. The general sense that emerges from the remoteness of the space and the emptiness of the characters is that Europe needs to find a way to affirm life. This was a fundamentally Nietzschean theme, but it identified a new central problem: people were lost and needed something new to believe in.
We have seen how the First World War left an entire generation rootless and bereft of the ability to explain or connect to the world. One element of this was the flight into the irrational and the unconscious, and it is not coincidental that Freud became something of a guru for the world. (It is also not coincidental that European culture, such as it was, became horribly boring in the 30s and 40s.) The thing to keep in mind, however, is that as people floundered about, looking for something new to govern their world, they wound up looking in dubious places. Communism and Fascism are two examples, and the combat between them would dominate Europe for almost the next thirty years. But the literary nihilism and elite alienation became a permanent part of the European cultural scene. Its effects would be addressed by the Europe’s next series of messianic ideologies, anti-nuclear sentiment, environmentalism, internationalism, and anti-Americanism.