Book of the week: On Art and War and Terror

An interdisciplinary tour of conflict in all its shades and guises grips Robert Eaglestone

September 17, 2009

This remarkable book's credo, taken from Seamus Heaney, is stated in the first line: the "imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it".

Inspired thematically and formally by Michel de Montaigne, who is cited at length in the epigraph, this collection of essays looks at first sight like one of those books of mostly previously published work that have been hung on a frame to give the impression of unity. But it is, in fact, a much more powerful, united and beautifully strange book than that.

While academics are frequently exhorted to aspire to interdisciplinary work, this often boils down to tacking a discussion of a novel on to a piece of historical writing, or making reference to a few events to contextualise a picture. Real interdisciplinary work goes on when there is something unifying and unique beyond, or perhaps below, the academy's usual disciplinary boundaries. This is the case with Alex Danchev's work, and with this book.

Danchev is a military historian who has written on recent events (the Falklands conflict, the first Gulf War, Anglo-American relations) and authored the biographies of military figures, and he is the editor of the celebrated War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke (2001). But he is also a writer on art, with a biography of the artist Georges Braque, a book on Picasso and articles on other artists, literary writers and photographers to his credit. These are not distinct fields for him; not separate academic and personal concerns, as it were, because his interest lies in the shape of a life, life shaped in its telling or showing and in its living.

Peter de Bolla's influential book Art Matters asks the question: "What does this painting know?" And this book's ten chapters - facing artworks concerned with war, terror, approaching death and moral decision and evasion - repeatedly asks and answers this question in terms of how people shape their lives in response to these moments of horror.

For example, a discussion of Braque's The Guitar Player centrally concerns the idea of authenticity. Danchev takes us through the painting's provenance - its claim to authenticity - not only with references to Marcel Proust and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but also 1920s art dealers, the Second World War, the theft of art objects by the Third Reich and current legal difficulties. But then his meditation broadens this "narrative arc" into a consideration of political authenticity, or provenance: John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, John Kerry and finally to another picture of a guitar player, Tony Blair, by Damien Hirst. The complexities of these two forms of provenance are put at odds with each other, the one illumined by what the "exemplary life" of the painting knows.

This chapter - and the others that begin by meditating on Gerhard Richter, Braque, war photography, Basil Liddell Hart, Evelyn Waugh, Alanbrooke and Abu Ghraib - illustrates an immediate feature of Danchev's approach, the astounding and rewarding range of reference in the book. Painters, philosophers, politicians, soldiers, strategists, as well as current and past events, glide through the book like dancers under the author's direction (given this, it's even more of a shame than normal that the index is so bad: let's hope a paperback edition sorts this out). Each chapter leads to and through some moving and important artwork: the astonishing war photographs of David Douglas Duncan (which can be viewed online via the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin) and a fresh sympathetic take on Waugh. Just taken as a source of information on a huge spread of war art, these essays are extraordinary.

But perhaps one can go further. While these essays cover the whole of the 20th century, the Second World War is omnipresent. Danchev writes, correctly, that our understanding of the art the war produced and of the art produced by the "recent meditators on the long half-life of that war", such as W.G. Sebald and Alan Ross, is still in its early stages. The impact on human consciousness of that war, and of its afterlife, is still being measured. This book, with its allusive style and its refusal to be limited to one academic discourse, perhaps begins to offer - as does the work of others such as Saul Friedlander - ways of negotiating that heritage.

But these essays do not only grasp and illuminate: inhabited by an ethical seriousness, they judge, too, as this is presumably an unavoidable part of the "grasping and comprehension" of the imaginative transformation of life. In some cases this seems relatively straightforward: the "shamelessly detailed" Guantanamo interrogation log of Mohammed al-Qahtani (the "20th hijacker") is the shaping of a life that is sickening, the more so in contrast with the other works the book discusses.

But Danchev's moral seriousness is not simplistic in its condemnation. He finds complexities and nuances even in Abu Ghraib. Sabrina Harman, convicted of abuse there, is a more complex figure, and her photographs and letters highlight a wider horror. And Danchev rightly praises William Kimbro, a naval Master-at-Arms, for his repeated refusal - under some pressure - to let his three dog teams be involved with the torture.

Sometimes the judgments go against the image of the age: Danchev's account of Alanbrooke's view of Churchill reveals the latter to be a drunken ogre, yet Alanbrooke writes that "never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent". As Danchev points out - and keeps reiterating - the readings of these artworks of war and terror tell us again and again that certainty and black-and-white absolutes not only mislead us in our actions, but also in our views of others. In these cases, at the boundary of human experience (acts of terrorism, war zones, occupations), the artworks raise questions, difficulties, compassion and confusion, and the critic and audience are only doing them justice to respond to them in the same way.

While Danchev clearly prefers soldiers and artists - indeed, certain sorts of soldiers and artists: phlegmatic, independent and opposed to melodrama - over politicians and time-servers, even these are seen in more complicated colours.

That said, there is very little abstract reflection in the essays, even about judgment, despite the number of thinkers and philosophers who appear in the pages. In a way this is a pity because his theme - the transformation and grasping of life in art - is one of the central concerns of the English literary critical tradition, from F.R. Leavis through Frank Kermode's epochal The Sense of an Ending, to more contemporary work on ethics, biography, history and trauma.

But in a way, perhaps this is the point: that the abstract thought here always arises from the complex and detailed analysis of artworks or of particular lives retold. The chapter on Liddell Hart circles around his disappearance for just over a day into some horror during the Battle of the Somme, and over his enigmatic discussions of this event, but Danchev does not speculate or draw out some "trauma": instead he lets the works speak for themselves. And this, in the end, is perhaps the strongest thing about this book: the ways in which the artworks themselves are allowed to speak for the suffering they witness.

THE AUTHOR

Alex Danchev, professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, has research interests in art, war and terror as well as political biography. Unsurprisingly, given his eminence in the field of politics and his wide-ranging research interests, he has been involved in the writing of more than 50 books.

His biography of the philosopher-statesman Oliver Franks was one of The Observer's "Books of the Year" for 1993, and his biography of the military writer Basil Liddell Hart was listed for the Whitbread Prize for Biography and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 1998. His uncensored edition of Lord Alanbrooke's War Diaries was so popular that he can claim to have ranked at number two in the non-fiction chart (the only book to beat his was Nigella Bites).

A regular contributor to Times Higher Education, Danchev provided the idea, and one of the first reviews, for our regular series on The Canon.

On Art and War and Terror

By Alex Danchev

Edinburgh University Press

256pp, £60.00

ISBN 9780748639151

Published 6 July 2009

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