Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part review (see the first part here)
God in dangerous territory: Interview with Rachel Mann,
author of Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory, and God.
It is interesting to consider the idea that [many of the stories told from the Great War] were stories only available to front-line soldiers, the majority of whom would have been working-class. Was there a rise of the veneration of the working-class man that had never happened before in any other British war?
In one sense there had to be. I don’t think you could prosecute a war on this scale and see it through to an end unless you can create heroes. Once they got to March 1915, the British army was wiped out, so then who did they turn to? They needed the clerks, the farm hands, the factory workers. They needed to be translated from what they were into something else, into a whole new class of people who suddenly became worthy of remembrance. They had a million volunteers in 1914. Then they had to deal with the casualty rolls, whole streets that had gone missing, communities gutted out. Those streets and communities had to find ways to represent that loss.
But there was still a gap in our remembrance, wasn’t there? The losses to minority communities and the colonies have not made it into our public consciousness about the Great War. Do you think the reason there is a lack of diversity in our First World War remembrances is because of the “patriarchal God,” that you speak about in your book?
Something that Judith Butler talks about in her recent work is who is grievable, and who is mournable. Who are we othering and who are we erasing? On one hand, it’s not an unreasonable response for someone to come back and point out that the largest losses to British society in the First World War were men, and that does need to be dealt with. I do think there is something significant about the fact that the young, male, upper class was so caught up in this war. Their families and communities had no choice but to be involved, and their stories are the most prominent now. But, in everything that is foregrounded, something is concealed. It’s an ongoing issue in all churches that women are assumed and there is an expectation that we will be totally present, so totally present that we are not seen. Something that I have tried to bring out in the book is that what a lot of people wanted at the end of the First World War were the surrogate dead. After the First World War, the left-behind men came to represent the surrogate dead. Then women couldn’t even do that, they were doubly erased. It is only in recent years that we have started to uncover other stories, the stories of women or conscientious objectors, for example.
Do you think the fact that these other stories have been long hidden is partly to do with the fact that our received narrative of the war, which does largely come from poets, is undeniably upper-class and is an upper-class narrative about the working-class man?
There were working-class memoirists, like Charles Bricknall, but even they would adopt the tropes of the middle-class writers. It is so hard for us to get behind that adopted voice. In some ways, it does remind us that all human experience is troped, even war. Then we are left with the questions of who gets to set those tropes? Where are the references coming from? Even my book fits into a certain trope of writing about the war – it’s very elegiac, its focus is on what is lost and irrecoverable. This is a trope that does partly come from the memoirists and the poets, but also from how we have written about war throughout literary history.
As modern writers, how do we engage with those tropes? Do writers have a responsibility of sustaining remembrance tropes?
One of the things I try and gesture at in the book is to dare to find the cracks for critique and the space for questioning. There is something so total about the established patterns of remembrance. We can’t see beyond them. The book is trying to question that, and open up its own meaning. At one point, I focus on self-erasing monuments and other alternative remembrance monuments and it seems to me that if we are living in fragments of systems we have two options: We can lean into the established patterns of remembrance hoping that they are enough to hold things together, (which are actually crippling under the weight) or we can perhaps look to a series of gestures that might hold something for a while but we can also move on from. We are moving forward in time, and how we enact remembrance will change. Even within the Royal British legion, there has been some movement to broaden the scope of remembrance to include other types of warfare – wars that are unfinishable, or asymmetric.
As a minister, how do you feel about enacting the traditional types of remembrance that may be struggling to change or broaden their scope?
I do feel immensely proud to be able to lead remembrance services. I feel tremendous pathos for the very ordinary people of the First World War, caught up with something extraordinary who somehow, as damaged, traumatised people, managed to come home and pick up the threads of their lives and carry on. I believe that it does come from my family members who did this – my grandfathers, who fought and suffered and survived. I am also stopped and stunned by the power of silence. With so little silence in our current society, it seems extraordinary that we do this still, and I see my role as someone who is responsible, in part, for holding that silence.
What about from a personal perspective? How do you think you enact remembrance as a writer?
If there is a thread that runs through this book, it is a desire to stay with the compromise, where we are people of unclean hands but we are looking for gestures for holiness or glory or purity. I am either a postmodern or post-Hegelian; I am uncomfortable with set positions and worry about absolutes. As a Christian, there is a part of me that wants to say there is no divine gesture in war and that, in an Augustinian way, it is the absence of divine gesture. Yet there is something compelling about the idea that we are called as human beings to live in this compromising, grubby world. What does it mean for me, as a human being and a priest, to live in this world?
Not to labour the metaphor, but it is a little bit like being stuck on the barbed wire, isn’t it? Is it only by being caught on the barbed wire that God can be really seen and made known to us?
I think the question really is: what is the status of Good Friday? What is the status of the Crucified God? Moltmann wrote “The Crucified God” in the light of the “Theology of Hope,” and was trying to show the intentional relationship between them, that you can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that for most of the people in the world, life is a series of Good Fridays. As a Christian, you must decide how you are going to speak to that, and that is something the book speaks to as well. While our world is full of pain and obscenity and violence, in the midst of it all, there is this gesture towards eternity. Towards the third day.
You can purchase your own copy of “Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God” on amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fierce-Imaginings-Rachel-Mann-x/dp/0232532788