Nov 7, 2014    |   For more information, contact Paul Marck
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, author and UBC Okanagan Critical Writing Assoc. Prof. Nancy Holmes organized the Canadian Literature of World War One International Conference at the University of Ottawa last summer. With Remembrance Day approaching, Holmes discusses the literary impacts of war and reflects on the recent murders of two Canadian soldiers.
Did the First World War have a significant impact on literature of the day?
The literature just before, during and after the First World War was defined and shaped by modernity: the mass scale of new technologies, new materials, new media (film, telephone, recording devices, cameras), new sources of power and energy (oil, electricity and steam), and new social structures to create the mass exploitation of Western capitalism, science, and ideas about time.  All of this led to change in traditional forms in literature and art.
In Flanders Fields is perhaps the last great war poem in western civilization that is not an anti-war poem.  In 1922, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was published – radically changing the fabric and structures of modern poetry and shaped by mental illness and the legacy of the war. In 1925 Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway was published – radically changing the modern novel and putting mental illness as the result of the war into public view.
Prof. Nancy Holmes
The sense of horror and loss coloured all artistic experiments. So, I’d say that yes: literature changed.
What is the legacy that we see today from authors’ works of the First World War era?
Perhaps the legacy is that they were the first generation in Western civilization that felt utterly betrayed by their culture and civilization, and I suspect that we’ve never recovered our confidence in our culture and civilization.
The First World War changed the literary view of war. It is hard today to imagine a writer valourizing soldiers and it is hard to think of soldiers as literary characters who are not damaged, mentally ill, brutal murderers, or poor dupes of a malignant government or other authority. 
The great war novels of the Second World War are about the pity and horror of war or about its stupidity  (Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five), not an upbeat “noble war” theme.  Our politicians and generals, at times, try to pump up patriotic fervour by hauling out poems that they approve of, like In Flanders Fields, when they want to invade a country, or on Remembrance Day. But literature, for the most part, is not their friend. 
We have seen the spectre of war influencing post 9/11 literature. Would the recent killing of two Canadian soldiers by terrorists on Canadian soil also inform current literary work?
As Mohsin Hamid, who wrote a 9/11 book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, said: “Fiction re-complicates what politicians wish to oversimplify.” The recent attack in Ottawa is being simplified to make us think it was a coldly planned act of a terrorist. In fact, it seems far more likely that what we saw, exposed to the world, is our shame in how Canadians treat homelessness and mental illness. Since the government doesn’t want us to have this response, especially if we are bombing people in the Middle East this week, we have to frame this as an act of war.
The spectres of war, therefore, are created by our own governments, politicians and generals. This is probably why literature can’t make stories out of war anymore, where soldiers are seen as doing good, or sacrificing themselves for a noble cause or being strong and virtuous, even under terrible conditions. The exceptions, perhaps, are stories about war’s victims.  

Paul Marck
UBC’s Okanagan campus
Tel: 250-807-9278
Mobile: 250-863-9745
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