War Stories, Ghost Stories
There was an intermittently fascinating programme on BBC Four Wednesday night, the ironically-titled What Did You Do In The Great War, Daddy – ironic because the programme focused on the children of those killed in the First World War. What struck me in particular were the psychological implications of the conflict – one segment discussed the fathers-as-absentees, with one interviewee talking about the somewhat cold reception he gave his father on home leave: “I didn’t know him, I couldn’t think of him as my father.” Another man talked about how he romanticised that his father – who was confirmed Killed In Action – would one day return home, “and give him all the love he’d been missing”. Is the post-war decline of Britain – beyond the obvious economic factors (i.e. the development of staple industries in colonial countries, causing structural depression in Britain, the enormous debt the country got itself into in the War) – traceable not to the ‘Lost Generation’ myth but the seeds of psychic damage laid by the War?
Certainly, the situation of the War was remarkable for being something like the Oedipus Complex writ large: if the patricidal young turks who were a little too young to be sent to France (the ones in priggish late adolescence as the Allies ground on to Arras, for whom, as Orwell wrote, "the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles") were bubbling with resentment at the patriarchal Big Other which controlled the military and rationing (the block to supposed enjoyment), and which included the Church, schoolmasters, the monarchy and their pro-War supporters, the children of the Great War had something different – a total absence where the father was meant to be, nothing but a mother. In many cases, resentment was transferred to stepfathers (remarriage was necessary for many women, their job opportunities disappearing with the fighting) who appeared as competitors for their mothers’ love, thus restoring typical Freudian Oedipal circumstances. But for many – and there were many women who never remarried and left their ‘war widow’ status, who had to wear it as a stigma of undesirability – the absence remained; if, as K-Punk has suggested, the father figure properly emerges as “the always-already dead god, zombie despot-deity who acquires power only on the presupposition of his own absence” – a process hinted at in Freud’s ‘Moses And Monotheism’ – then the forever-absent fathers of war, killed by their own fathers, exert a different kind of symbolism.
One of the thoughts the documentary spurred was the question of why, precisely, we keep up the pretence of ‘remembering the dead’. The continued excavation of that area of history – through television, radio, countless unnecessary novels (Sebastian Faulks, I’m looking at you), and the annual ceremony conducted everywhere – resembles less the exorcism of grief than the continual picking at a wound, the perverse and deliberate trips to the graveyard in order to stir up grief. It’s not mourning, but melancholia, in the Freudian sense, the malfunctioning impulses of grief – malfunctioning precisely because the whole question was too complex for people to understand completely, because there was no-one (the ruling-class patriarchy who conducted the slaughter still being held in slight awe) or nothing (no easy, ‘biological’ death, i.e. by old age or disease) to simply blame it on, because the unconscious notion of their own complicity in the slaughter was too much to compute – ending in a continual irrational return and reiteration. (Note: I haven’t actually read any Freud – are both melancholia (i.e. depression) and unresolved Oedipal complexes classed as neuroses?) Whatever the dead are, they are, in their absence, a reproach to the living.
But whilst they’re now utilised as the fronts for reactionary hate-campaigns – i.e. ‘our forefathers fought and died to defend freedom/democracy/the British way of life, so we need to get rid of these anarchists/teenagers/immigrants’ – that’s not the sort of reproach I mean. (In fact, if anything, the inhabitants of Daily Mail-land – the ones who, having nothing better to do, exercise rhetoric in my local paper – are far more traitors to the ‘purpose’ of many of the soldiers than anyone else: promised ‘homes fit for heroes’, many expected to return and find the beginnings of socialism, proper compensation for the weight of bloodshed and strain the working-class were subjected to during the war, and the fact that the successors to the same people who shouted ‘hang the Kaiser’ are still pushing for unfettered pre-1914 capitalism shows just how resilient stupidity is in the human organism, and how much contempt for human life resides in reactionary politics. The Russian troops who left the Front, defecting to the revolutionary cause, and the British Tommies, were fighting for exactly the same thing.) Instead it’s something that lurks in Britain’s collective id, hanging around like Banquo’s ghost at the dinner table. If I remember rightly, Freud’s work on the uncanny and mourning – which feeds into hauntology – was written just after the slaughter of the War, and was influenced by the increasing interest in spiritualism (as you can no doubt tell, I’m completely out of my depth in this territory.) The dead are manifested in the film as decayed photographs, long-treasured objects like phonograph records – the spectral media of hauntology, emanations from the haunted collective unconscious of the 20th century. No fucking wonder the best war poets (Owen, Rosenberg, neither of whom got out of the war alive - now that's what you call a transmission from the other side) were religious types or metaphysicists through and through.