The Great War and Our Mindscapes: Centenary Essays, Fakrul Alam, Tahmina Ahmed, Zerin Alam, eds., writers.ink, 2017.
Wars, great and small, have been a part of recorded human history. Given the varied elements that go toward the making of international, or internecine, conflict, one does not have to stretch one's imagination to assume that bloody battles took place before recorded history. One might also look at another form of conflict, the soft variety that often precedes, or follows, the armed variety: diplomacy, also defined as war carried on by other means. But all wars are inevitably catastrophic, as well as game changers, in more ways than one, although some, inevitably, are more bloody and impact-creating on nations and human beings than others. One such example of a bloody and decisive war is the First World War, which began a bit over a century ago from now, and whose centenary of end will be commemorated next year.
The Department of English, University of Dhaka, held an international conference titled “The Great War and English Studies” in 2014 “to commemorate World War I”. The more specific objective of the conference is stated in the dedication of The Great War and Our Mindscapes, edited by Fakrul Alam, Tahmina Ahmed, and Zerin Alam: “To those who wrote on the war so that we would not forget.” We witness the annual commemoration of the war by the major combatant nations on our screens, and their leaders deservedly pay homage to all those who fought, and those who fell. However, writers have also left their mark in many different ways on many people on the topic of the First World War. From a literary and pedagogical perspective, two of the editors explain their impact and significance in the Preface: “The impact of this momentous war on shaping English studies and modern culture is a recognized fact. Going beyond the historical significance of WW I in ushering the modern period in literature and society, the sheer magnitude and scope of the war continues to seep into our collective cultural fabric.” These aspects are dealt with in detail in the book under review, with varying degrees of skill and authority, by the twenty- one writers presenting their viewpoints.
In the Introduction of the book Fakrul Alam deftly brings out the essential elements of the other eighteen essays, and adds his own observations on the War's impact: “Life became tragic for war survivors and their families; politically, the Russian Revolution and Communism became unavoidable after it; feudalism in Europe was swept away, and the great empires of the nineteenth century now sensed for the first time that the sun was about to set on them.” Kaiser Haq's key-note essay is an absorbing piece (“The Great War --- A Distant View”), and is laced with subtle and not-so-subtle sarcasm, beginning with this delicious observation: “How ironical, this use of the epithet “great” for things horrible: “The Great War,” “The Great Plague of 1665”… “The Great Calcutta Killing”.” Haq goes on to note that most Bangladeshis do not seem interested in, or are impressed by, WW I. He finds it worth noting in this connection, too, that rather than the History departments of this country, it is the Department of English of the University of Dhaka that took on the responsibility of hosting a conference on the Great War. I cannot resist the temptation to quote this exquisite aside in Haq's essay: “Specialists in ELT (English Language Teaching) cannot relate to anything literary or historical or philosophical; and younger literature teachers are obsessed with the buzzwords of the moment: it was Diaspora the other day, today it may be “Eco Criticism” --- or is it “Transgender Studies”? His paper explores, quite extensively, both the writers who expressed their horror at the war and its outcome, and those who endorsed it (there were quite a few!). He summarizes the thoughts of Hemingway, Eliot, Lawrence, Joyce, Auden, and others, and, in this context, declares that, “Dadaism remains for me the quintessential postmodernist movement; it was postmodernism avant la lettre”. Haq's view that the First and Second World Wars should be seen as “a dual image of the modern apocalypse” is logical: the aftermath of the first was instrumental to the beginning of the second.
Other writers have restricted themselves to discussing in depth and detail one or a very limited number of writers. Tahmina Ahmed and Zerin Alam concentrate primarily on George Bernard Shaw, Ananya Datta Gupta on Bertrand Russell, Afroza Khanom and Md. Ishrat Ibne Ismail, separately, on Virginia Woolf, and Sanjeeda Hossain in Ernest Hemingway. Joseph Brooker (“What James Joyce Did in the War”) has written an incisive piece on the Irish writer, and reminds readers that, “…much of Joyce's achievement in 1914-18 was retrospective.” He suggests through a compelling line of reasoning that the Great War left a mark in multifarious forms on the major cultural modernists of the time. Niaz Zaman (“Kazi Nazrul Islam of the 49th Bengal”) discusses Nazrul and his complex mindset with persuasive arguments. For example, “In Nazrul Islam's mind the soldier, obeying his superior, and the rebel, revolting against his superior, are fused….” And, “The soldier poet had become the rebel poet…. But without the soldier poet, there might never have been a rebel poet.”
Rupert Brooke, the author of “If I should die, think only this of me/ That there's some corner of a foreign field That is forever England”, who fought and died in the Great War, receives attention from A.B.M. Monirul Huq and Abdullah Al Mamun, while Sourav Dasthakur discusses L.G. Gibbon's Sunset Song in the context of the impact of WW I on the landscape and culture, economy and demography of rural Scotland. Dasthakur concludes with a significant general statement on war and its manifold effects: “The battle thus spills over the Great War, for people's histories persist, as do the discontents of modernity, and the need to write the self through new histories and historiographies over and over again.” Nazua Idris manages to bring in a well-made and popular modern TV drama series, Downton Abbey, in which events of the Great War were sandwiched between occurrences in England before and after the great cataclysm.
The quality of the essays of the collection, not unexpectedly, vary, but, as a whole, The Great War and Our Mindscapes will shed a lot of literary light for sure on an event that has significantly changed the course of human history and its essential determinants.
The author is a thespian, Professor and Head, Media and Communication Department, Independent University of Bangladesh