Paul Fussell, RIP

Scott normally covers the literary as well as the music beat here on Power Line, but if I can horn in on Paul’s sports desk, I may as well beat Scott to the notice of the death of Paul Fussell at the age of 88.  Fussell is a little bit like Scott Fitzgerald—a great writer with many worthy titles, but one looms above all: The Great War and Modern Memory.

Fussell managed the extraordinary feat of weaving together a spare account of the salient military and political facts with a sweeping survey of the literary impact of the Great War, in neither case overdoing it.  One reason for this was simple: he was an infantryman in World War II, so he didn’t approach war simply from the point of view of the cloistered poet or novelist.  He wrote many other worthy articles and books; I especially liked his defense of the bombing of Hiroshima, which he rested ultimately on admirably simple grounds: as an infantryman, it likely saved his life, and the life of hundreds of thousands of others.  End of argument.  Fussell was, as far as I can make out, a typical post-war liberal (such people are almost a reactionary today, of course), but I get the feeling that if he ever ran into the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bed-wetters in a tavern, he’d have punched them out.  And not lost a moment’s sleep over it.

A few samples from The Great War and Modern Memory:

Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected.  Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.  In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot.  The Second World War offers even more preposterous ironies.  Ostensibly begun to guarantee the sovereignty of Poland, that war managed to being about Poland’s bondage and humiliation. . .

But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.  It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century.  It reversed the Idea of Progress. . .

Furthermore, the Great War was perhaps the last to be conceived as taking place within a seamless, purposeful “history” involving a coherent stream of time running from past through present to future. . .

Indeed, the literary scene is hard to imagine.  There was no Waste Land, with its rats’ alleys, dull canals, and dead men who have lost their bones: it would take four years of trench warfare to bring these to consciousness.

These are just from the opening chapter.  As the saying goes, it’s worth reading the whole thing.  RIP.

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