August 2011

Kerri Arsenault

nonfiction

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

I visited London recently, trod up and down Whitehall almost every day, and stopped every now and then to try on a summer dress, or quaff a pint of ale, or sit on a soft bit of grass in nearby St. James Park. Between these innocuous events and in my evanescent mode, the Cenotaph, a blocky war memorial marooned in the center of Whitehall, became almost invisible, or as Geoff Dyer's describes in The Missing of the Somme the "unheeded architecture of the everyday."

The Cenotaph (meaning "empty tomb" in Greek) was originally erected to commemorate the first anniversary of the Armistice after World War I; however, over time, it has become a permanent memorial to all soldiers who died in military service, or rather a homage to what Rudyard Kipling deemed, "The Glorious Dead," as the inscription on the Cenotaph reads. Each year, Dyer writes, the Cenotaph is "recharged" with silence, referring to the two minutes of annually rendered quiet, yet as I discovered too, the "clamour of London encroaches on it annually; its silence is becoming inaudible, fading." Daily, I passed by the Cenotaph, and like history itself, it passed by me, unnoticed, a derivative of the actual events it seeks to memorialize.

Dyer's slim book, first published in Britain in 1994 and now published for the first time in the United States, derived from his visit to the Somme cemeteries, is about remembering and forgetting, of World War I's ensuing edifices, poems, art, discourse, graves, and how they are intertwined with British identity and memory. I followed a haphazard route of sites mentioned in The Missing of the Somme, those within reach of my Waterloo hotel, to understand "not simply the way the way war generates memory but the way memory has determined -- and continues to determine -- the meaning of war."

The Imperial War Museum, a few blocks from my hotel, houses a compilation of war footage where, as Dyer writes, "Each film seems identical to all the others. Their form is as fixed as the gridlock of trenches in which they are set." Dyer continues his private rant pages later: "So it goes on. Everyone looks the same. Everywhere looks the same. Every battle looks the same... why this need to fight another identical battle, over an identical patch of ground a few months later?" After hours war footage, Dyer is "stupefied by boredom" and "has long stopped noticing which [battle] is which." Though Dyer's commentary on the meaninglessness of war is overt, he is also scolding the clichéd parlance of war and its "plodding, plotless norm." He even conducts a semantic criticism toward ordinary phrases like "the horror of war," which "has become so automatic a conjunction that it conveys none of the horror it is meant to express." He likewise debilitates other phrases like "The Great War," or any other "self-erasing" jargon that virtually ignores the real consequence: the seemingly endless lives of men sent to the front for "meaningless attrition."

Memorials, Dyer explains, were already being discussed before the war ended, with people anticipating how to sculpt "the nation's grief... into a broadly agreed form." The Imperial War Graves Commission was a glimmer in Sir Fabian Ware's eye as early as 1915, and by 1917 the organization (now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) was already officially recognized by the War Office, a year before the war ended, bolstering Dyer's notion that "several of the terms by which we remember the war were established in advance of its conclusion." But with the last combat veteran dying in February 2011, will the next generation's recollection of the War be so fecund as the previous generation's? Or will it get dimmer? Will the hundredth anniversary of the war between 2014 and 2018 add yet another war narrative to the already saturated canon?

Dyer makes pilgrimages to many, if not all, of these burial grounds and sites, shaping yet another narrative of his own. With gifted interpretations that examine beyond the mere artistry of a piece of stone or the meaning of a clichéd inscription, Dyer turns his photographic and scattershot gaze toward the memorials. At Hyde Park Corner, Charles Sargeant Jagger's "Royal Artillery Memorial" is, to my naive eye, hurky and dark. Dyer says it "emphasizes [war's] heaviness." He goes on about Jagger's oeuvre, dissecting the tropes "the heaviness of war" and "the weight of the past" and "dead weight": "Every piece of equipment looks like it weighs a ton. There were no lightweight nylon rucksacks or Gor-tex [sic] boots. Things were made of iron and wood, even cloth looks like it has been woven from iron filings. Everything weighed more then... men do not march to the front so much as carry themselves there. Greatcoats are not worn but lugged." Jagger, Dyer writes, "emphasizes in his sculpture is not the body's vulnerability but is resilience, its capacity for bearing up." In balancing earnestness with lightheartedness (something Dyer often expertly achieves) he then writes, "The future may not be better than the past but it will certainly be lighter" but becomes more sober: "Hence the burden, the weight of the past."

One London morning I watched an episode of the BBC documentary show 20th Century Battlefields that focused on the 1918 Western Front, particularly on the aircraft tactics in Amiens. An animated recreation showed British and French allied infantry lined up facing the Germans. Behind the allied soldiers, aircraft lay in wait and when summoned would fly ahead of the allies delivering bombs atop German troops, moving the war ahead of the physical line where it was being fought. Then the aircraft would circle and land behind the troops, leaving in its retreat an advanced front line, the operation itself a physical manifestation confirming Dyer's notion that the War "helped to preserve the past even as it destroyed it." As the bombs left pockmarks on the land, destroying it, they also permanently marked it as evidence of the battle that had taken place there, establishing the memory of it for the future before the War ended. To this day, "the grass-covered shell-holes make the place look like a particularly difficult golf course."

In America, memory is short, which I believe is inherent in being American, for our ancestors left innumerable countries behind, renouncing the past in a way that helped shaped their future. In London, remembering is the rule, not the exception, for there is always a statue, a brass plaque on a terraced home, a seventeenth-century building to remind you of the past and the "collective memory" of its inhabitants.

Before I left London, I wanted to properly visit the Cenotaph. Surrounding it is a thin V-shaped area set off by painted lines that vehicles are prohibited from crossing, and there exists no marked walkway to the memorial. Motor vehicles and cyclists whizzing along the road nonstop push it further away still. I watched patiently for an opening in the traffic with not much success. Finally, I just darted across the road, put my hand on the cold Portland stone, and stared at the faded and wet plastic wreaths of poppies that lay beneath the soiled flapping flags.

Over a million soldiers died in the War, but, somehow, the sites (23,000 of them) tend to dwarf the meaning of war itself, as does the Cenotaph to the soldiers and events it commemorates. Though many memorials are made of stone, they are "Powerless to protect themselves, their only defence, like that of the blind, is our respect."

The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer
Vintage
ISBN: 978-0307742971
176 pages