Friday, July 16, 2010


On a hot summer’s night in southern Edinburgh (so hot that one member arrived with white wine in a cooler) the proposer introduced “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. He said that, given the current debate about Britain’s involvement in the Afghan War, it seemed appropriate to revisit a book about “the war to end all wars” which had made a great impact on him. On his second reading of the book he still found it engaging and moving.

Remarque was conscripted in late 1916 at the age of 18. After training he was posted to the Arras front on 12 June 1917. On 31 July 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele he was wounded by shrapnel in the leg, arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany. He had only returned to training when the war ended. This – probably the most famous of all World War One novels - was therefore based on only just over seven weeks of experience in the front line.

The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in a German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in January 1929. He wrote a sequel, “The Road Back” (1931), which one of our number reported was also good but not quite as powerful. Both were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany.

“All Quiet On The Western Front” sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-five languages in its first eighteen months in print. Indeed one of our number was sporting an American First Edition complete with cuttings of contemporary reviews, which, surprisingly, referred to unnecessary censorship in the American edition on “moral” grounds. In 1930, the book was adapted as an Oscar-winning film of the same name.

Surprisingly, although one or two members of the group had an interest in military matters, no-one in the group other than the proposer had read the book before. Without exception, they were extremely positive about the book. “Absolutely marvellous”. “Great pace – I couldn’t put it down”. “Have read nothing approaching this, other than possibly Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ ”. “Beautifully constructed, so that his anti-war messages are put over without interrupting the narrative flow and without preaching”. “Engaging variety of humour”. “Totally compelling”.

Looking at in more detail, one reader was struck by the way Remarque could venture into quite poetic uses of language – for example on the subject of earth - without any sense of inappropriateness, despite the generally grim subject matter.

Another was struck by the ability of his characters to joke in the direst of situations, such as the description of roasting pork in a ruined house despite the fact that the smoke from the fire was attracting increasingly heavy artillery fire. The very first episode – about double rations for the troops – was laced with irony as the cause was that half the company had been killed.

His writing was particularly powerful - short and too the point. He could bring a scene to life or create a character with just a couple of brush-strokes, just a telling detail or two. Remarque’s descriptive ability could be measured by seeing how much more gripping his work was than the now widely-published recollections of former World War One soldiers describing similar events. Two particularly powerful scenes were that of the hero’s isolation on returning home on leave and that of his surreal experiences trapped in a shell crater.

The scenes set in hospital – with the ghastly range of injuries, the frequency of death, and the sense of the hospital’s limited resources being overwhelmed by demand – were perhaps the most potent of the many anti-war elements of the book.

The novel, which exposed us to the elemental in the trenches, made one reflect that our generation had been a very sheltered one. It was terrible that a teacher – presumably with no experience of war – could persuade a class of schoolchildren to volunteer.

It was intriguing that 1929 saw the publication of this classic in Germany and in the same year two other World War One classics: “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves and “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway. This coincidence might reflect a desire by publishers to publish anti-war books. However, the great majority of German war literature in the twenties and thirties was nationalistic and pro-war, and some of it glorified death for one’s country in almost mystical terms. The Hemingway book included a lot of material other than the War, but Hemingway’s ability to conjure up moving descriptions with simple short sentences and a few lucid details was similar to that of Remarque’s.

One notable difference was that Graves and Hemingway were writing from an individual perspective, whereas Remarque’s hero characteristically wrote about “we” rather than “I”. The “we” often refers primarily to his group of school friends, but more widely it can be taken to echo the idea of a lost generation set out in his preface:

“This book is intended to neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling.”

This striking theme was developed as he observes that older soldiers had jobs and families to return to, while the next generation had escaped military service. It was his generation that was left in limbo. The theme was deepened further in the painful scenes where he returns home and is unable to connect properly with his family and neighbours.

(Perhaps, ventured your scribe, Remarque’s emphasis on “we” also reflected the remarkable German capacity for organisation, which would shortly be demonstrated against England in the next round of the World Cup? This was swiftly silenced by a few anti-racist glares from those unaware that your correspondent could rival an octopus for powers of prediction).

One note of reservation was about the very brief ending, in which we discover from a new narrator that the original narrator Paul Bäumer was killed right at the end of the War. For some this was rather perfunctory and had little dramatic impact. Perhaps the real function of the ending was to underscore that Remarque was writing a novel and reserved the right to produce further novels about other World War One characters. The ending was, however, tied in to the title - in German “Im Westen nichts Neues”, with the English paraphrase “All Quiet on the Western Front” introduced by the first translator A.W. Wheen and entering the language. The title also reflected the gulf between the experience of the participants at the front and the understanding of civilians at home.

Remarque was very observant about the detail of warfare, such as how soldiers could spot the different types of artillery shell from the sound of its flight (artillery being the major cause of death in the First World War, as in most wars). He noted how the Germans had started to use entrenching tools as weapons in preference to bayonets, and how fragments of frozen ground thrown up by shells could cause as many injuries as shrapnel.

Remarque’s lack of nationalism was one of the most attractive features of the book, and must have contributed to its international success. He for one did not subscribe to the “myth of total evil” (see our discussion of Jonathan Haidt last month). Perhaps that was why he had dropped the “Remark” spelling of his name and reverted to that of his French ancestors. However, he did reproduce the widely held German view that they had not really been defeated on the Western Front in 1918. He argued that they were the better soldiers and had lost only because they lacked food and replacement artillery, and had been overwhelmed by greater numbers.

Every war sowed the seeds of the next war, and the view that the Germans had not in reality been defeated, combined with the severity of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, had combined to provide fertile ground for the development of the Second World War.

Finally we briefly considered two World War One poems. One was Owen’s iconic “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The proposer noted that it followed on from the description of a gas attack in the Remarque book. He found Owen’s work very powerful. It built up a vivid picture in your head with its simple but imaginative language and compelling rhythms.

It was remarkable that such a hideous war should have produced so much memorable poetry, and we could not think of a war before or since that had seen such a flowering of poetry. (It was pointed out, however, that revisionist historians felt that the poignancy of the poetry had contributed to misconceptions about the competence and integrity of the British military effort).

In this poem Owen set out to shock, and he succeeded:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud…”

Shock also came from the incongruously erotic undertones of :

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling…”

Some of the power came from onomatopoeia, as in the hard work getting through the consonantal mud of

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge..”

but with alliteration pulling the reader on. The language’s energy also came from the use of a high proportion of nouns and verbs rather than adjectives, as in the use of gerunds in:

“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams…”.

It was pointed out that there is a permanent exhibition to the War Poets at Craiglockhart that anyone can visit, and before long we were off on to a debate about shell-shock.

A brave soldier set off over the top armed only with the argument that we all suffered from a degree of shell-shock, simply from living long enough to be disillusioned by our inability to change things. He was mercilessly gunned down by a machine-gun nest spitting out bullets such as “unable to cope with everyday life!”, “post-traumatic stress!”, and “nonsense!” and left bleeding in no-man’s land.

Harold Begbie’s “Fall-In” (1914) was very different to Owen’s poem: aimed, like a white feather, at shaming young men into volunteering.

"What will you lack, sonny, what will you lack,
When the girls line up the street
Shouting their love to the lads to come back
From the foe they rushed to beat?...

But what will you lack when your mate goes by
With a girl who cuts you dead?”

Remarque would have hated this manipulative piece as much as his hero hates the schoolmaster who had persuaded his class to volunteer.

In printing this poem from the internet one member had inadvertently also printed a series of posts from schoolchildren who had been given the poem as a set text, along the lines of:

“I'm doing this poem for my interim assesment and I really like it but I don't get some of the meaning behind the words. Can anyone help”

“I'm doing the yr 10 coursework, we're doing this poem as one of our pro-war choices i like it, altho i hate the idea of war i really like this jingoistic poem”; and

“I have to do this poem for coursework for english , and i need to give a summary about what it is about , would anyone like to help”

All of which suggested that exposing the young to war literature might not have quite the impact we fondly hope for.

Inculcating post-war generations of British schoolchildren with First World War poetry did not stop a British Prime Minster from that generation leading Britain into five wars.

And Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” – which we were unanimous in hailing as a brilliantly powerful anti-war novel, probably the best of all - had not been enough to stem the pressures building up in Germany that would lead to the outbreak of the Second World War ten years later.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Introducing the book, the proposer – who had been looking particularly chipper in recent months – said that he had resolved to read more non-fiction and science books this year. “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt (2006) had been recommended by an eighty year old friend, who was still very much interested in questions such as the meaning of life.

The proposer had found the book to be stimulating and thought-provoking. It was a cross-disciplinary amalgam of fable, literature, psychology, philosophy, literature, and genetics and own-life experience. Haidt’s approach was based on evidence rather than assertion. The style was very accessible and readable, and revealed enough personal information about the writer to humanise the book without making it irritating.

A film of Haidt speaking could be found on the internet at, a site he recommended. It showed him to be also an extremely cogent speaker. The proposer had been sufficiently impressed to read the book twice, and skim it for a third time. He had recommended it to both his daughters, who were in turn enthusing about it to their friends. It was thus a book that was creating interest across the generations.

The majority of the group shared his enthusiasm. This was so much more than the standard American self-help manual that some had feared. Haidt had a remarkable ability to make complex ideas and research accessible, and to encompass a vast range of learning in concise and elegantly written prose. The range and density of the subjects covered was such that many would want to read the book for a second time to get the full benefit from it. It was an understated book which – unlike, for example, “The Black Swan” - did not trumpet its own virtues.

While much of the book did indeed focus on issues of what made people happy and the possible meaning of life, the book was much broader than that. It provided a wide survey of much modern psychological research, and of many systems of philosophy. To pick up one of Haidt’s own themes, the journey through the book was more rewarding than the destination it reached. Thus the title of the book – no doubt proposed by the publisher - was rather misleading. The yellow Mr Happy smile cover had proved something of an embarrassment to those reading the book in a public place, but at least it reflected the appealing fact that the book did not take itself too seriously.

Much of our discussion therefore did not focus on the happiness issue as such, but on some of the intriguing gems unearthed in the book. Thus we liked the metaphor of the elephant and the rider as a more apt image for the human mind than that of horse and charioteer or id/ego/superego. The elephant’s ability to respond quicker than the conscious mind was echoed in day-to-day experience. We also recognised only too well Haidt’s description of the rider rationalising the prejudices of the elephant. We were also sympathetic to his arguments against the ‘blank slate’ view of the human mind at birth.

We were struck by Haidt’s ability to empathise with people who took a different world view to his own, based partly on fieldwork. Thus most of us (but it should be said not all) found his analysis of the Eastern mind-set and philosophies compelling. His fair-minded analysis of the role of religion was impressive, particularly when he was not religious himself. He made an interesting point that transcendence was a central concept in religion, but that bureaucrats who had never had a transcendental experience then ran religions. His analysis of the concept of disgust, and how that helped create a whole religious and ethical system that would find Western practice abhorrent, was compelling.

Similarly his scrupulously even-handed attempt to define the psychological reasons for the difference between Republican and Democrat values in the US, despite being himself a liberal, was most illuminating, and had much wider applicability. It was a refreshing change to the judgemental tone of most political analysis. To understand all is to forgive all, and we were particularly swayed by Haidt’s analysis that the “myth of absolute evil” was a conceptual trap to be avoided.

(One of our members at this point risked the comment that the newly formed Liberal/Conservative coalition had found that their differences were in reality much less than their tribal rivalries had suggested. Various elephants in the room lumbered to their feet sensing scope for a re-match of last month’s political dust-up over Chris Mullin’s diaries. Mercifully the riders got a grip on their beasts just before they tumbled into that fatal elephant trap...)

There was general sympathy with the case Haidt made for the positive and active teaching of virtues rather than teaching children to act by reasoning out each individual case. We were intrigued by his discussion of the shift from talking of “character” to talking of “personality”. How often these days did you hear it said that someone was of “good character”? Today’s children could make little sense of Victorian novelists talking about “reputation” and the importance of avoiding pre-marital sex.

We also recognised the picture of journalism as a profession in which there was a disjunction between the ideals that had led people to join the profession and the reality of the way they were forced to operate, and a consequent impact on the happiness of journalists.

We liked his analysis of the psychology and ethics of groups, agreeing that in the case of soldiers they were essentially fighting for their mates rather than any wider cause (and noting his ironical observation that cowards were more likely to add to the gene pool).

So was everyone happy with the book? Well, no – there were some who had plenty of reservations to express (no doubt coincidentally, the group with particularly vocal reservations was the same group which had been spotted hitting the search for happiness in Mathers Bar before the meeting…).

Wasn’t everything Haidt recommended predictable? A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and everything pretty conventional and rather boring? And wasn’t there a bit of a vogue just now for this type of popular science book?

And why did Haidt not explore the opposite viewpoint more? Did we really want happiness? What about the viewpoint of the schizophrenic? How would the Chain Saw Massacre murderer feel? (Hmm…difficult one). And what about double-glazing salesmen then?

Was Haidt right to say that the brain could never be matched by a computer? Evidence from injuries to the brain and progress in artificial intelligence suggested to one reader that he might be wrong.

The sections of the book dealing with younger people, where he could draw on his own experience (he was in his mid-forties) seemed considerably more convincing than those dealing with older people, where he could only draw on research, as was perhaps inevitable.

However, most were very positive about the book. But was there anything in it that would change their lives? Well, someone now understood a new way of persuasion, which illuminated a youthful adventure and might now be put to productive uses. Hmmm… Another, far from accepting Haidt’s advice to volunteer because volunteering made the volunteer happy, found it reinforced his suspicion that volunteering was more about the needs of the volunteer than the recipient. But most of us found a lot to ponder on in the book rather than a lot immediately to act on, found that in many cases the book had confirmed things we suspected, and wanted to reflect further through another reading.

And what about Haidt’s opening section on whether incest between brother and sister, in which there was no chance of children, was in fact immoral? “Ah well”, noted our medical adviser “experts nowadays consider that horizontal incest is less troubling than vertical incest.”

?? Run that by me again?

As we left someone suggested returning to Mathers for a libation. The elephant quickly said yes before the rider could formulate the arguments for temperance.