The shadow of the Great War: some initial thoughts

A hundred years later the First World War still casts its shadow over our society, and in some ways, even more so over mainland Europe. The legacy of the war was not only the collapse of empires, but also the rise of new ones – most notably the United States and the Soviet Union. It saw the rise and collapse of fledging democracies across Europe, the rise and eventual collapse of fascism, the advent of the Second World War, the Cold War, the collapse of communism, and finally the emergence of the post-Cold War.1.

But there is another legacy, another shadow, and this is the psychical wound that the First World War has left us.  And perhaps a key aspect of this psychical wound has been what might best be described as the traumatisation of history. What I mean by this is that it was not only individuals who were traumatised by the war, and not only a whole generation; rather, the notion of trauma itself entered historical and social discourse, and with it a different view of the self and subjectivity.

Ours is a traumatised age, and nothing signifies this better than the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But PTSD has a history, and this history has its origins in the trenches of the First World War. This is not to say that soldiers (and civilians) were not traumatised prior to 1914; rather, it is to argue that the idea that war profoundly affects the human psyche was not, I would argue, commonly accepted until after the war.

Not that the military high command – in both this country and in other combatant nations – were keen to embrace the idea of psychological trauma. In fact, even in the Second World War the idea that combatants could be psychologically affected by the stress of war was still being resisted in many quarters. Perhaps one of the most (in)famous examples was that of ‘lack of moral fibre’ – a ‘diagnosis’ that was given to RAF pilots and other crew members who were traumatised or stressed out by their experiences.   In the Great War senior commanders were extremely sceptical about the notion of ‘shell shock’ – in spite of the fact that many officers were succumbing to psychological trauma.

And perhaps the most famous Great War encounter between doctor and trauma patient was that between Dr W.H.R. Rivers and the officer poet Siegfried Sassoon in 1917 at Craiglockhart Hospital.   In spite of the mythology that has grown up around this encounter, this was not a case of a psychoanalytic treatment for shell shock. As Shephard points out in his excellent history of military psychiatry in the twentieth century, Rivers was no Freudian, even though he took a great interest in Freud’s ideas, and especially those relating to dreams.2 Like many psychiatrists of his time (and since) Rivers was sceptical of Freud’s insistence on the sexual aetiology of neurosis. In fact, we would probably now argue that his ideas were more in accord with Freud’s notion of the actual neuroses. Certainly his approach to ‘shell shock’ was that its origins lay in the present or near past, rather than in childhood experiences. However, he did think it essential that his patients be given the opportunity to articulate their traumatic memories and dreams.

As for Sassoon, as Shephard also points out, he was hardly your typical ‘shell shock’ patient. In fact, he had been sent to Craiglockhart in order to prevent him from publicising any more of his anti-war views, following his Times letter questioning the aims the war. There were added complications, including Rivers’ repressed homosexual feelings towards Sassoon, and the fact that Rivers was struggling with his own pacifist views, whilst trying to persuade his patients to return to the front.

Interestingly enough, the Great War did lead Freud to question his own theories, though not in terms of abandoning his theory of the sexual origins of neurosis. Rather, it led him to develop the concept of the death drive, which he described as being ‘beyond the pleasure principle’.3  Even many of Freud’s closest admirers struggled (and still struggle) with this concept, in spite of the fact that the death drive manifests itself all around us. As with many of Freud’s ideas, this is a complex one, and should not be reduced to the notion of a ‘killer instinct’. Much of it revolves around his theory of the ‘binding’ and ‘unbinding’ of psychical energy, and his theory of the drive as the reduction of tension. Later on, Lacan was to reformulate the idea of the death drive with his concept of jouissance.

But perhaps the death drive is important in another way: not only does it force us to redefine the notion of the drive, and related to this, human subjectivity; it also forces us to question the whole humanist, and indeed the whole Enlightenment, project. Freud himself had already begun this deconstruction of the humanist subject with his theory of the unconscious, and the idea that the head does not rule the heart; that reason does not prevail. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that reason is a slave of the passions, a servant of desire.

But when we talk about a death drive are we saying that human beings are driven towards destruction? Some analysts like to speak of a conflict between Eros (the life/sex drive) and Thanatos (the death drive).4 This implies an element of choice, that human beings are not ‘doomed’ to destruction. Freud, on the other hand, was more pessimistic, and argued that in the end life is but a detour (albeit an important one!) towards the inevitable.

However, this should not be read as saying that human beings are innately war-like. Rather, it’s more that human beings are being eternally driven towards a state of blissful ignorance, towards a lost paradise, a return to an original state of wholeness and perfection, a return to the Garden.  In Lacanian parlance, this is conceptualised in terms of a desire for the lost object – the objet a. The objet a has some rather peculiar qualities, not least the fact that it only comes into existence at the moment it disappears.

What has this got to do with the Great War and its shadow?  Ironically, many politicians, military leaders, artists and intellectuals welcomed the Great War as a form of purification. They felt that the old order had become stale and corrupt.   It was time for something new. This is something that Modris Eksteins, in his book Rites of Spring, explores in some depth.5 This attitude was particularly pronounced in Germany. As Eksteins points out, many Germans saw the onset of war as the realisation of the spiritual and physical unity which Bismarck had tried but failed to bring about:

Spirit and might would be reconciled in a state of surreal harmony, of Dionysian activity together with Apollonian tranquillity, in which means and ends, object and subject, would be fused. Archaism and modernity would become one. Technological innovation and industrial progress would, in a grand synthesis, combine with a spirit of pastoral simplicity. Society and culture would no longer be conflicting realms but an indissoluble whole.6

Perhaps it might be better to argue that technological innovation and industrial progress were the means by which a pastoral simplicity, a lost innocence, could be achieved. And isn’t this just another way of trying to ‘refind’ the lost object, the object that only appeared as it vanished? In other words, the desire for radical change, a new life, which was so prevalent (even prior to the war), was structured around a very ancient desire: the desire for the lost paradise – even if it utilised the latest technology and science to try and find it.

Of course, what transpired was a living nightmare; one that continued long after 1918, and one that, in many ways, we are still living in today. And perhaps this is the real paradox of the Great War and its legacy: the horror and the trauma – both of the war itself and its enduring legacy – were rooted in a desire for a better world, a new life.

  1. Which if it’s anything like post-modernism, might be better defined as the hyper-Cold War []
  2. Shephard, B. A War of Nerves. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000. []
  3. Freud, S. (1920) Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In: The Standard Edition. London, Vintage/The Hogarth Press, pp.3-64. []
  4. Freud himself did not use the term ‘Thantatos’. []
  5. Eksteins, M. (2000) Rites of Spring The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. London, Papermac. []
  6. ibid p.192 []

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