Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Thinking and not thinking about The Great War

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Thinking and not thinking about The Great War

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Last night Dr. D. and I were talking about World War I.  We had attended an excellent presentation at the Museum of Fine Arts about the arts in the early 20th century.  The speakers were Christopher Capozzola, a history professor at MIT; Edward Saywell, an MFA curator of contemporary; and Lloyd Schwartz, poet, music critic, and all-around delightful person. The discussion, with its focus on World War I’s impact on visual arts and poetry, left us curious about why, at this moment of its centennial, that war feels so distant to us. 

Why does World War I feel so unknown? (As I write these words, the clock on my desk reads 11:11; we all know at least that much about it.) Even hearing a sampling of the poetry last night--Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon--makes the question feel surprising. No one can read or hear those words and pretend not to know the unspeakable horrors the WWI poets witnessed; they remain the iconic truth-tellers. 

World War II, by contrast, feels familiar, almost current.  We still obsess over it in  films (a recent smattering-- “The Imitation Game,” “Unbroken,” “Monuments Men”).  And books--fiction, non-fiction--where to begin? One of the best novels I’ve read recently was Anthony Doerr’s captivating, beautifully written “All the Light We Cannot See.” 

Obviously World War II had that clear good-versus-evil story line that has made it such enduringly inviting subject material.  But, beyond that, was it that the first world war began, not with a sudden invasion a la September 1, 1939, but with a dramatic event followed by a muddled, hapless slide into inevitability? It’s hard to grasp exactly how it started, why it continued, and what, after all, was the result. And it's made even more distant by thoughts of its participants--Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Montenegro, Rhodesia. 

Maybe the fact that that war led so clearly to that other and even more others makes us collectively want to forget it. Maybe it’s this: that the war to end all wars didn’t. 

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