The Purgatorial Trenches of Wilfred Owen Print
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TS Jan 2017(The Truth Seeker January 15, 2017)

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In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud describes how humankind made up from the intolerable “helplessness” of our childhood fears and the hellish randomness of nature, fate, and human society the balm of religion—in our jurisdiction, Christianity. His is among the most cogent explanations for a system of divine judgment and afterlife protection that insists people conform to the creator’s (human-authored) mandate. Freud says “the gist” of the Christian presumption is this:

"Life in the world serves a higher purpose; no doubt it is not easy to guess what that purpose is, but it certainly signifies a perfecting of man’s nature. It is probably the spiritual part of man, the soul, which in the course of time has so slowly and unwillingly detached itself from the body, that is the object of this elevation and exaltation. Everything that happens in this world is an expression of the intentions of an intelligence superior to us . . . which in the end . . . orders everything for the best."

That humans have felt pulled between here and beyond in our being has always been true. We contrast our carnal embodiment with an eternal dimension, body and soul. We live, we die, and we cease to be is not how we have defined ourselves. That which is unlived or treasured in us, we hope not to give up—for ourselves, for those we love and mourn, or for those whose deaths, say, an enemy combatant we killed, feel unfinished.

All these lead us to assume some reverse incarnation of self in death. (Soul, mind, self, spirit—it’s all rather confusing.) Since it clearly cannot be the body, whose remains are composted by worms and time, it must be the soul, a nonmaterial substance, that lives on, even, some say, progresses and purifies through eternity. Religions regard the soul’s immortality, its existence separated post-death, as their faith’s highest virtue and capitalize on it, to say the least.

Developing recently in human psychology, the Christian enterprise says that God places in each a soul, which outlasts the body and is eternal. God’s “gift” of eternity is not random; it is consequential. (Some Christians say their souls have been activated since the beginning of time and are just waiting their allotted incarnation.) The division is done to reward those who acquire the son of God’s message—crucified for this purpose—and to punish those who don’t. The fate of one’s immortal soul is innocent before birth and largely determinate (some sects differ) by one’s life. Deny this plan at your soul’s peril.

The smart reader grasps Freud’s irony: his simplistic description of “benevolent Providence,” rewarding our allegiance, punishing our apostasy, is meant to frighten us, as though we are perpetual children. And in Western civilization the terrifying fairytale has stuck: Be warned. Your worthiness will be judged: Providence knows when you’ve been bad or good, so you best obey.

Freud wrote The Future of an Illusion in 1927, in part, to assess psychologically how European lives had been majorly and deceptively shaped by Christianity. For him, its reign was ending, though it’s taking much longer than anyone thought. This book was one of his many reactions to an enlightened decade following the First World War. That war we know today as the first in history to be memorialized by a handful of British poets. Their brutalization and (homoerotic) fellow feeling heralded a new antiwar attitude that has changed our view of what servicemen suffer, the war carried within, that is, if they survive. Perhaps as Freud scrutinized the adolescent mindset that religious “reason” fashioned, he was thinking of, even mourning, the greatest war poet ever, Wilfred Owen, a British lieutenant, twenty-five years old, who died fighting in France in 1918, one week before the Armistice.

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It’s less so that Christian lads (English, French, German, American) like Owen fought over whose side God was on and more so that what youthful faith they did have had never been tested. Not with the likes of trench warfare, gas attacks, and the constant bombardment of ordnances that caused shellshock. Add to that a three-hundred-year tradition of English Poetry, from Spenser to Sassoon, in which British boys were enchanted by the Romantic concept of the soul. How strange and potent this attraction of faith, war, and verse was.

While young, we’re all bent by an unrequited love, that swoon which John Keats described as “sweet unrest,” the soul yearning for “intoxication.” Such magnetism (opposite or same sex) often possesses spiritual devotion, the one-night stand having none of the lovesickness for which a soul drawn to mate yearns. The spirit, with its own ghostlike being, may rule the body, overtake the mind. Especially with poets. If violence, not love, is the context, the soul becomes a shadow character who is stuck in an idealized state and there personified as pure intransigence. Something like this Owen believed.

Owen was raised by an evangelical Anglican mother with whom he was abnormally close. She placed her provincial son into the service of a vicar—visiting the poor and sick, which Owen loathed—until he left for France in 1913. There, his faith beginning to unravel, he declared to her that “I have murdered my false creed.” As a bookish teacher and an officer with the Artists’ Rifles, a military elite, he was never impiously turned but rather tragically competent. In April 1917, assigned a squad at the front, a shell exploded two yards from his head and he was severely concussed. Sent home, confused and shaky, he recuperated by writing. As his biographer notes, the war was good for his poetry. His front-forged verse found its soul. He wrote brutal elegies for the lads he commanded and saw shot and with whom, as ghosts, he communed. Dozens dead, the “unburiable bodies” lay as “expressionless lumps.” Souls freed, “their spirit drags no pack, / Their old wounds, save with cold, cannot more ache.”

As a means of psychic survival, Owen and many Tommies identified with Christ’s passion. He writes that “Christ is literally in no man’s land,” the barren bombed-out space between the stagnant enemy lines. In the emptiness, Christ trails his cross. With “Soldier’s Dream,” Owen evokes Christ as a war-nixing pacifist: “I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears; / And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts.” It should be noted that arousing a messiah reflected his wish to save men, not see them sacrificed for a heavenly reward. Robert Graves poses the indebtedness to Jesus as a paradox, which “made most of the English soldiers serving in the purgatorial trenches lose all respect for organized Pauline religion, though still feeling a sympathetic reverence for Jesus as our fellow-sufferer.”

Imagine fighting on the front and being bedeviled that all this suffering had a purpose (honor, glory, country), bestowed on the living via culture and religion, but also internalized by soldiers who, as they “leapt to swift unseen bullets,” might feel forced to carry that purpose into an afterlife where the quality and degree of each man’s devotion will be weighed. Imagine a God who wouldn’t free you of this personal obligation even in your eternal repose. Such conjurings Owen felt poetry should address.

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To say that Owen’s verse got good because of the front is really to say that once his subject crystallized as death and the soul’s assessment, he blossomed lyrically as he thought he would. At the same time, Freud shared a fascination with these subjects—in a psychoanalytic German world far apart from Owen’s—when he published a short essay, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” in 1915, a year after the fighting began. His thesis was, “the disillusionment which this war has evoked, and the altered attitude towards death which this—like every other war—forces upon us.”

And the illusion people had harbored? The fantasy that the moral progress made by individuals over time would be maintained by their governments. All truths are casualties of war. Men who would not murder would be ordered to, as aggression and survival. For Freud, of course, civilization keeps our “instinctual impulses” under wraps. Religion, he argues, fortifies the citadel by not dealing with loss, grief, and death but, rather, delegating them to the father’s protection. A major loss is one’s spiritual life, that higher, purpose-seeking drive in humans, which civilization represses, and, as an antidote, war releases.

Religion, under the guise of helping erect and stabilize civilization, denies death its human fullness by declaring the soul free of and freed by the suffering of sanctioned murder. In war, the soldiers’ death-expectancy is let loose: instinctual fears of cowardice, of selfishness, of agony, which have been dammed up behind Christian absolution. Mark the irony. Christianity holds that it has been tending to men’s souls via grace and salvation. For Owen, “carnage incomparable” is utterly graceless and saves no one.

Thus, he writes, in an early poem, of the poet’s responsibility to remain in the darkness because he, the poet, is the source of light, a link to the soul’s darkness only he can access. Humankind needs the alt-visionary: “I am where but few advance.”

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone

Lawless; in passage through all spheres,

Warning the earth of wider ways unknown

And rousing men with heavenly fears…

This is the track reserved for my endeavour;

Spanless the erring way I wend.

Needless to say, Owen’s growing certainty as a poet begins deprogramming his mother’s evangelicalism in him. He will grow to hate the church even more because it preached an anti-Christ message, bandying war over negotiation. As Dominic Hubbard puts it, “In urging men to slaughter their enemies, the churches were on the side of the devil.” (To his credit, Pope Benedict XV was vigorously opposed to the conflict.)

Once Owen is leading a platoon in France, he puts his witnessing gift to work. In one poem, he notes a “Smile,” “Faint and exceeding small, / On a boy’s murdered mouth. // Though from his throat / The life-tide leaps / There was no threat / On his lips.” The piece begins in Owenian mockery: “Has your soul sipped / Of the sweetness of all sweets?” The poet’s third eye sees not only what most cannot (the boy is smiling because he’s happy he’s dead) but also a light in the darkness death brings. This is a land where strewn about are remnants of murdered boys, “Smiling at God.” (That Owen is taken by their youth and fairness is evident in nearly one-third of his small output, using the terms boys or lads for those on the front.)

Another affecting poem is “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Anthems are songs of praise, devotion, patriotism. Listen to the forlorn rite in this first of two stanzas where Owen sounds the sourest “shrill” note of hurrah.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

We are a long way off from the glory of war, the lads’ village bugles “calling for them.” Indeed, the problem, if you will, with trench warfare for the romantically mustered British soldier was something they fathomed only later: This was a war of attrition. The Western Front, once established as a meandering line between France and Belgium, more or less never moved for four years while nine million men died in defense of it. For the daredevil English officer, who, religious or nationalistic, wanted some parade for his service, there was none. With so many maimed and killed, and no victory, what was there to celebrate?

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If we drop our suspicion that Freud desires war as the ouster of civilization’s “conventional treatment of death,” we may espy his deeper motivation: People need, in 1915, to be warned: Hand-to-hand combat involving hundreds of thousands of lethally armed soldiers will alter our millennia-built psychology in a few years. The worst abyss will be the Battle of the Somme, the July-November siege of 1916 with its one million casualties. After which, Freud says,

Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands, in a single day. And death is no longer a chance event. To be sure, it still seems a matter of chance whether a bullet hits this man or that; but a second bullet may well hit the survivor; and the accumulation of deaths puts an end to the impression of chance. Life has, indeed, become interesting again; it has recovered its full content.

We are forced to believe in it. Brutality has immediate and lasting wounds. What better witness-participants of “interesting” death than soldier-poets who bear its tidings and woe and help us bear it as well. Freud felt an awareness of death is a good thing, reviving what he calls the rebirth of primeval man’s “very remarkable attitude towards death.” We would not go back to our safe caves or savannah huts, but rather process the primeval with the modern, try to adapt to war’s magnitude and randomness, its mass killing and lethargic attrition, across the 440-mile front—Goliath against Goliath—wholly unprecedented.

In grand poetic terms, Owen ruminates on all this experientially. He’s a youth-loving foot-slogger who like most enlistees is less motivated by God and country and more by loyalty to his pals. Indeed, Owen sees war not as an offense against God but an offense against virtue—killing ourselves and those we treasure, debasing our fellowships, and merging with what will haunt us: the memory of why these lads, their “froth-corrupted lungs,” their “incurable sores on innocent tongues,” need not die, on either side.

In a 1913, prewar letter to his sister, Owen is reevaluating his Anglican faith. He writes that he is happy she has belief in “spiritual matters” and declares “the finest Christian spirits are those who have direct communication with Powers Unseen, and who are consequently independent of what man can do unto them, either for evil or for good.” It’s certainly not a rejection of Christianity, but rather a wish for numinous insight that might animate his poetry.

Within a few years, “Powers Unseen” become one of his constant companions in the trenches. These Powers will be his verbal imagination, a kind of “direct communication” he has wished for. Smitten by the war’s theater, his mind reenacts gas attacks after which the souls of soldiers, like the dead King father haunting Hamlet, bedevil him. The spirits of English and German boys, limey and Hun, are stalled in the mud of farewell; like mortars they rocket over the battlefield and land inside his poems. Call them the dead narrators with whom Owen has transcendent dialogue.

Among his creepiest inventions is “The Show.” After dying, a soldier’s personified soul “looked down from a vague height, with Death, / As unremembering how I rose or why.” He sees the battlefield he left behind, “pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues.” Though he says his height is “vague,” it’s actually quite high, for he sees the troops’ movement below as if they’re worms inching along. Opposing sides crawl toward each other, the gray string attacks the brown string; the grays “ate them and were eaten.” In the midst of this vision the acrid smell of war hits him. He pauses, considers a meaning. But the odor and view overpower him: “I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.” Death falls with him, too. And then, on the ground, Death picks up a worm and reveals the illusion. Death “Showed me its feet, the feet of many men, / And the fresh severed head of it, my head.” How grotesque is the moment of death; how cruel Owen is in rendering it.

In other poems, a zombie state fogs many in Owen’s battle-benumbed squad. “Mental Cases” reveals “men whose minds the Dead have ravished.” The image alludes to today’s most popular TV show, The Walking Dead: “Their heads wear this hilarious, hideous, / Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.” And in “A Terre,” subtitled in parentheses, (being the philosophy of many soldiers), a blinded infantryman imagines, for the reader, his “soul’s a little grief, grappling your chest, / To climb your throat on sobs.” His final wish is this haunting directive: “Carry my crying spirit till it’s weaned / To do without what blood remained these wounds.” Owen half-locks the couplet on the pararhyme of weaned and wounds, suggesting the soul feeds off the blood, vampirish, until the blood’s gone out. The exsanguinating body of the undead plagues Owen and other infantrymen as well as nourishes the spirit’s awareness of what it has lost.

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Owen’s war poems are animated by this strangely enmeshed spirit. He writes not just to the overwhelmed Tommy on the front, whose dire condition he word-paints as “wading sloughs of flesh,” but to the men who have died and whose intransigent souls stay on, as though they, too, cannot break free of the war even in death. To be sure, there were believers and atheists in foxholes, and plenty of rousting arguments among them, but there was also a third limbo: the real/unreal figures of the mind, the true target of Freud’s caution. These unredeemed apparitions, like the ghost of Dickens’s Jacob Marley, may have been the most ghastly of all figures in every grunt’s shell-shocked skull serving in the Great War.

In his 1915 essay, Freud writes that our spirituality, mainly our attitude toward life after death, stems, over a very long haul, from our ancestors pondering “the significance of annihilation.” Primeval man felt for those he loved and, especially for himself, a desire for continued life, which became “the basis for assuming other forms of existence.” To encode such hope sparked the Grand Division: body and soul, the here and now and the now and forever. For one warrior to extend such sympathy to “his slain enemy” fostered, at first, scant wonder; the threat obliterated, there was nothing left to grieve. But, Freud observes, these differing post-life states were irreconcilable in our developing consciousness. The friction produced “the conflict of feeling at the death of loved yet alien and hated persons.” In other words, the questions crept in: Couldn’t the slain have been loved by their kin, a child, a wife, or a brother? Couldn’t any of the dead have a predestined soul whose “newborn spirits” housed “evil demons that had to be dreaded”? It’s hard not to see Owen’s (or anyone’s) psyche populated by these mind missiles in trench warfare.

Owen’s most brilliant bit of this malingering is “Strange Meeting,” in which he enters a tunnel, sees “sleepers” who are “too fast in thought or death to be bestirred,” and realizes he’s entered Hell, a place where the fighting has stopped, “no guns thumped.” There he meets a soldier, a Hun, whose soliloquy centers on “the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled.” Such pity, the implication is, needs to be told. Needs to be witnessed. Why? Because we think it’s about tribal differences and religious sects. But it’s not. It’s about combatants enduring the same personal fate. The soldier then names himself, a soul, the embodiment of an innocent, who reminds Owen of Owen’s repulsive deed in the final five lines:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now. . . .

Surely, the irony is not lost on the soldier, on Owen, or on us: all are freighted with this nightmare of reparation Owen’s poem concocts, one triggered by the Hun’s simple remembrance that Owen, as he bayoneted him, “frowned.”

Freud, the atheist and clinician, is not interested in poetic suffering. His point is to remind us that deep-veined superstition cults still inhabit our existential lives. Even the highly rational still fear the soul’s lingering, awaiting final judgment. The fear produces religiosity’s greatest hits: the transmigration of souls, reincarnation, ritual penances for killing, the avenging souls of the dead, nationhood and patriotism, and, ultimately, the most ill-advised of all raptures—the denial of death. In war, Freud writes, “the spirits of his slain enemy are nothing but the expression of his bad conscience about his blood-guilt.”

Such impressions and concatenations are not nothing. Indeed, they are the wiring of Owen’s verse. The Greeks thought of the soul as mind, as psyche, and mind for them was everything, whether controllable, deceivable, or indefinable. Alan Watts puts it succinctly in his Reality, Art, and Illusion: “Your mind is very largely outside your body. It’s inside, too; it’s simultaneous. But I can’t have a mind without seeing, feeling, and relating to other people.” In a kind of trench mind is where Owen dwelled, in the realities of the soldier’s thoughts whether as metaphor or fact, whether alive or dead, whether here, there, or anywhere.