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Review Essay of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body

Review Essay of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,
Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body

by Roger Griffin

Wittman, Laura. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body

  University of Toronto Press
  Laura Wittman

Format: Hardcover
Published on: 6-11-11

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

About the author: Laura Wittman is Associate Professor of French and Italian at Stanford University. She is interested in connections between modernity, religion, and politics.

Click here for a video of her discussing The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

About the Reviewer

Roger Griffin is professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of over 100 publications— and is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Fascism. Read more about him on Wikipedia.

Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler
By Roger Griffin

  Palgrave Macmillan
  Roger Griffin

Format: Hardcover
Published on: Dec 15, 2010

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

Intellectual debates surrounding modernity, modernism and fascism continue to be active and hotly contested. In this ambitious book, renowned expert on fascism Roger Griffin analyzes Western modernity and the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler and offers a pioneering new interpretation of the links between these apparently contradictory phenomena.

"A product of enormous erudition and profound thought."
–Zygmunt Bauman, Leeds University, UK

Working with case studies and sources, Wittman collates the conflicting ‘receptions’ of the tombs and their incorporation into the collective psyche. She explores their impact upon national consciousness—swollen with pride rather than diminished by the war’s human cost and bottomless grief generated by its futility and mind-numbing destructiveness.

Conventional historians tempted to dismiss her approach as ‘culturalism’ might lack the will or intellectual stamina to read past the introduction. But those who sense the crucial role played by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier— shaping the convulsions of the human spirit wrought by the cataclysm of the war and catastrophe of modernity’s unfolding—will find the effort demanded worthwhile.

Wittman is utterly absorbed by her subject, driven by an urge not just to record ‘the facts’ surrounding national projects to commemorate the war dead en masse through an anonymous victim or empty tomb, but to interpret what they signify. Read sympathetically, the mythic space contrived by the tomb’s architecture and ritual becomes a portal through which—almost a century after the events—we can still engage key issues arising from the ‘Great War’.

The war marked a profound caesura in the linear temporality and optimistic narrative of progress inherited from the Enlightenment, setting in train the Russian Revolution, disappearance of four empires, birth of new countries (some of them by the Caesarean section demanded by savage peace treaties), a lethal flu’ pandemic, and radical economic, social and political upheavals unique to each country. Cumulatively, these traumatic events created a climate of profound existential anxiety even in the victorious nations, engendering despair and anomie—alongside new forms of hope in a transformed future and secular millennialism.

The project of the tomb can be seen as a grotesque exercise in state hypocrisy and euphemism, perpetuating the myth relentlessly exposed by the poetry of Wilfred Owen—that to die for the nation was still ‘Dulce et decorum’ (sweet and fitting). The public response to these contrived manifestations of ‘political religion’ showed that the tombs reified authentic but  inarticulate collective longings—to make sense of incomprehensible mass death and mechanized slaughter, and somehow transfigure the oceanic suffering and trauma into a rite of passage to a new age.

The monuments’ cold stone or marble with their promise of immortality can thus be seen as signifying the unconscious bid to transcend the collapse of reality’s self-evident solidity and purpose captured in T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland in the section Unreal City:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Reading these lines in the context of the war memorials highlights the deeper psychological import of the word ‘defeat’, from the French ‘défaite’, which, like the Italian ‘disfatta’, derive from the verb for ‘undo’.

At the same time, the tombs give aesthetic expression to the need of modern man for redemptive myths despite, or maybe because of, the ‘death of God’. They marked yet another point where the modern West collectively expressed the existential dissatisfaction and intimations of nihilism—and hence the concomitant longing to return to the ancestral state of mythic consciousness that had given rise to the first burial ceremonies. This longing was diagnosed by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy:

And now mythless man stands there, eternally hungry, in the midst of all past ages, rummaging around and digging as he looks for roots, even if he has to shovel for them in the most remote ancient times. What is revealed in the immense historical need of this dissatisfied modern culture, the gathering up of countless other cultures, the consuming desire to know, if not the loss of myth, the loss of the mythic homeland, of the mythic maternal womb?

Seen in terms of mythic responses to the threat of nihilism, the tombs of the Unknown Warrior signal the onset of two decades in which superficially modernized currents of mythopoeia were drawn from deep cultural wells. They were poured into forms of secular apocalypticism familiar as ‘political ideologies’—for which ‘civilized’ Europeans will within little over a decade again be killing and dying in their millions.

Already in Russia the myth of the Bolshevik Revolution—as the act of creative destruction needed to usher in a new age of socialism—was finding affective resonance within broad swathes of Russians, infusing them with enthusiasm for a vast experiment with the nature of society, history and humanity itself. These mythic energies would soon animate the mass support for Fascism, Nazism and both sides in the Spanish Civil War—before exploding into the violence of the Second World War—fuelled from outside Europe by the Japanese variant of ultranationalism based on the emperor cult.

The tombs highlight how anomie following the Armistice of 1918 was at fever pitch, within both victorious and defeated nations. Nationalism filled the spiritual vacuum for millions, and nationalists created new ritual ceremonies and spaces that could transmute a sense of loss and decay into hope and redemption. The modern state conceived as an embodied ‘people’ took up the role once performed by the Church—as orchestrator and choreographer of mass emotion.

The evidence Wittman collates from Italy, France, Britain and the US shows that—even in purportedly rational, liberal countries upholding the values of Enlightenment—it was not democracy or socialism, but a dangerously Romantic, organic, almost tribal form of nationalism that created powerful forms of political religion. This elemental force—having fuelled hostilities for four years—was more akin to the driving force of the Aztecs than to anything in the works of J. S. Mill.

It was a religion of state and people capable of papering over cracks between official Christianity, and a modern sense of absurdity and bottomless contingency; between humanistic values that insisted on respect for all human life, and the anonymity and obscenity of death mass produced by modern warfare; between official rationales given for the war, and the reality of its utter pointlessness.

Wittman’s book throws into relief two key dilemmas arising from the nature of a modernity, inhabited by human beings whose cosmological needs and ritual reflexes are still those of the Stone Age. What does the ‘eternity’ or ‘perpetual presence’ celebrated in the symbology and ceremonies of the tombs mean in the absence of a theologically conceived immortality? What can ‘sacrifice’ mean in an age where there is no metaphysical basis for a sense of the sacred or sanctity?

Laurence Binyon’s poem The Fallen, whose lines are solemnly repeated every Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph in London, expresses the concept of eternity offered by the political religion of nationalism forged by the hecatombs of the battle fields, even though they were written in 1914:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

And here is the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge’s blatant attempt to pervert Christianity into a rationalization of the death of Irish volunteers at Gallipoli—in lines that combine the topoi of both sacrifice and the eternity of the fallen in a celebration of nationalism:

Who said that such an emprise could be vain?
Were they not one with Christ Who strove and died?
Let Ireland weep but not for sorrow.
Weep that by her sons a land is sanctified
For Christ Arisen, and angels once again
Come back like exile birds to guard their sleep.

The banality of the nationalist ethos that dictated these lines and created the tombs is thrown into stark relief by Owen’s profoundly humanistic dramatization of the absurdity of the mutual slaughter of the trenches in Strange Meeting. Here the talk is not of eternity or sacrifice, but of how the war cut short lives (his one of over 9 million), some of which were destined to reveal the only true eternity and sanctity of life possible in a post-Nietzschean secularized world.

These, he suggests, are achieved by plunging to the depths of a shared humanity and emerging into the light with vitalistic acts of compassion beyond race or nation, acts that acquire a peculiar beauty which cannot be sculpted into stone.

Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

A few lines earlier Owen has presaged the age of yet more bloody conflict engendered by those who, discontent with the world left by the war, find their blood boiling for new utopias:

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek
from progress.

The tomb of the unknown warrior drew its cleansing water not from a restored humanism, but from the toxic wells of nationalism blended with Christianity, which within 20 years would be eclipsed by the ideological equivalents of cholera: Nazism and Japanese Imperialism.

Wittman’s book can help researchers in historical studies come to grips with the profound liminality of the inter-war period wherever modernity was striking home, and the terrible events ideologically fuelled by the need for new mythic certainties and dimly articulated collective hopes for redemption.