Veteran Poetics: British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790-2015, by Kate McLoughlin

Victims, heroes, delinquents: those returning from conflict unsettle society, writes Helena Goodwyn

November 15, 2018
Chinook at sunset
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After the peace of 1815, Douglas Jerrold, an English dramatist and journalist who had served as midshipman to Jane Austen’s brother Francis, began his writing career. His sensationally successful melodrama Black-Eyed Susan (1829) offered a critique of the draconian disciplinary structures of the Navy and is the only one of his more than 70 plays that is still occasionally staged. In the final scene, Susan’s husband William is about to be executed for striking a superior officer when a lieutenant reminds him of his “firmness”, insisting “you are a brave fellow, William, and fear not death”.

William’s reply begins: “Death! No…I have slept near him, watched near him – he has looked upon my face, and saw I shrunk not…had I been mowed down by ball or cutlass, my shipmates, as they had thrown me to the sharks, would have given me a parting look of friendship, and over their grog have said I did my duty – this, your honour, would not have been death.”

But, the audience are told, to die on land, “to be lying up in ordinary” (a nautical allusion to the part of a fleet taken out of commission), this is a fate worse than death. Or, rather, this is death, because to die in service is something else – something honourable, chronicled by the historical record, and celebrated by others.

The veteran, returning from war, must confront this possibility of dying in unheroic circumstances, without glory, just as those they return to must confront their expectations of seeing that person again. As Kate McLoughlin explores in chapter two of Veteran Poetics, the return of the veteran tells us much about community. Through the “disquieting” presence of the veteran, societal norms, values and fears are exposed. McLoughlin’s framework in this ambitiously wide-ranging book combines literary theory and moral philosophy, weaving together the works of Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, Immanuel Kant, Giyatri Chakravorty Spivak and others to consider what she terms our collective “triplethink” which labels the veteran victim, hero and delinquent. In charting a course from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, through the Napoleonic Wars, the works of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Jane Austen all the way to modern conflicts and contemporary fiction such as the Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) Cormoran Strike series and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, McLoughlin engages with a vast array of texts to tackle existential questions about knowledge and its limits.

Taking on a history of the veteran is a brave act in itself: there are few figures as fraught with cultural assumptions. The veteran not only triggers social anxieties about belonging but for McLoughlin necessitates a shift in the function of criticism that may not convince all readers. In the final chapter of her book, she gives space to a consideration of military veterans as “silenced” and invites a future focus on critical listening (as modelled by Spivak and Butler). This is “dangerous” territory, though, as McLoughlin herself realises: can we really attend without explicating, care without understanding? And if we do “cease judging”, an ethical stance that requires us to “resist the temptation to convert” the unsaid “into story”, then surely the rest is silence.

Helena Goodwyn is lecturer in Victorian studies at the University of St Andrews.


Veteran Poetics: British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790-2015
By Kate McLoughlin
Cambridge University Press
336pp, £28.99
ISBN 9781107195936
Published 24 May 2018

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Coming home a changed man

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