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‘Sacrifice and Modern War Literature’ Conference, Pembroke College, Cambridge, 8-9 January 2014




Conference Abstracts

Philip Shaw, ‘Napoleon as Philoctetes’

Throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793-1815) dead and wounded military leaders, on all sides of the conflict, were depicted in art and in literature as willing sacrifices for the greater good of the nation. Napoleon Bonaparte was injured at least three times in battle and there are a number of paintings and prints which focus on his medical treatment and stoicism in the face of pain. This essay focusses on images of the wounded Emperor in order to draw some broader conclusions about the sacrificial underpinnings of the nation state in the early nineteenth century.

In the first half of the essay I consider Claude Gautherot’s painting, Napoleon blessé devant Ratisbonne (1810), which depicts the treatment of a minor bullet wound which the Emperor received in his heel at the battle of Ratisbon (now Regensburg) during the Austrian campaign of 1809. Commenting on Napoleon’s performance at Ratisbon, William Hazlitt notes: ‘at no period of his dazzling career did the genius of Napoleon seem more completely to prostrate all opposition: at no time perhaps did the talents of a single individual exercise such an influence on the fate of the world’. The victory at Ratisbon on 23 April, which emerges in Hazlitt’s account as the zenith of the Emperor’s career, was followed swiftly, however, by a defeat – the Emperor’s first – at Aspern on 22 May. In light of this defeat, Gautherot’s painting may be read as a highly charged propagandist work, which depicts an Emperor who is subject to wounding yet who becomes impregnable unlike even the mighty Achilles, who famously did not recover from his wounded heel.

When, in 1814, Napoleon was exiled to Elba, an event which many regard as the nadir of his career, the Emperor was depicted in an anonymous graphic satire, once again with a wounded foot. Based on a painting by Lethière Guillaume Guillon, Philoctète dans l'île de Lemnos (1798), the print alludes to the fate of Philoctetes, the Greek hero exiled on the island of Lemnos before the start of the Trojan War whose tragedy was represented by Sophocles. While the written commentary at the bottom of the print alludes to Napoleon’s failed attempt to invade Britain in 1803 (‘N’a Jamais passé la Manche’ means either ‘always sleeveless’ or ‘never crossed the English channel’), the image itself raises the possibility that Napoleon’s wound will be cured and that, like Philoctetes, he will go on to further renown. In graphic form, the Emperor’s exile thus becomes an illustration of the Sophoclean idea that redemption comes only with the acknowledgement of pain. With a glance towards contemporary translations and performances of Philoctetes in Britain and France, as well as towards recent critical work on violence and the sacred, the essay will examine the extent to which the wounded Emperor, suspended between life and death on the island of Elba, fulfils the tragic requirements of the disabled god-figure. Mindful of the Napoleonic dictum that ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous there is but a step’, the conclusion will encourage readers to bear in mind the comedic as well as the tragic aspects of the sacrificial hero’s descent into objectification.




Jan-Melissa Schramm, ‘I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy’: The Crimean War, Charles Dickens, and the ‘Inspiration’ of (Self-) Sacrifice

Revising the Book of Common Prayer in 1538, Thomas Cranmer effected radical changes to the devotional understanding of Christian sacrifice. In place of the Catholic emphasis on the Mass as a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, Cranmer articulated the Protestant belief that Holy Communion was commemorative only and that the duty of each individual was in fact self-sacrifice to the greater public good. In the mid-Victorian period, this conflict between theological interpretations of the term ‘sacrifice’ (which had seemed so long settled) flared again with the resurgence of Catholicism as an aesthetic and political force after the passage of the Relief Act in 1829. The tension between these two approaches to the theological work of sacrifice is registered in the fiction of the period as authors both repudiated sacrifice as a primitive, sanguinary rite which civilised societies should abandon and simultaneously embraced it as a mechanism by which to achieve a tragic resolution potentially more transformative than its comic counterpart.

Charles Dickens was amongst those writers who responded to the tragic losses of the Crimean War with renewed attention to the cultural significance of sacrifice. After attending Unitarian chapels throughout the 1840s, Dickens was impelled by a sense of personal and national tragedy to return to the Established Church at precisely the time when theological debate was preoccupied with attempts to define afresh what Christian sacrifice might look like for a generation at war. He followed the war effort with care and protested publicly about the bureaucratic bungling which cost British lives in Sebastopol, and his novels written immediately after the cessation of the war provide us with insight into the aesthetic uses of different models of sacrifice. In Little Dorrit (1856), Dickens explores the vocation of self-sacrifice popularised by feminine service in the War, insisting that just as we reverence the sacramental mediation of ‘a poet or a priest,’ we must also recognise ‘the inspiration … of the heart impelled by love and self-devotion to the lowliest work in the lowliest way of life’. But in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Dickens depends upon the dynamics of barbaric sacrifice to achieve closure as the Christ-like Sidney Carton lays down his life for his brother man on the scaffold. This paper draws upon the work of the theologians Nancy Jay and Yvonne Sherwood to probe the contradictions inherent in Victorian imaginings of sacrifice – the affront it offers to modern senses of subjective autonomy and legal rights, and the fissures it opens between male and female models of heroism. For Jay, sacrifice understood as productive death is positioned within a patriarchal system as ‘birth done better’, and Carton fathers in turn a line of ‘just judges’ who bear his name. But for Dickens, the aim is not to formulate a coherent theology of sacrifice, nor even to make a contribution to the debate about the justness of war, but to claim for imaginative literature the liturgical power and the political status of the public discourses it cannibalised and critiqued.

Rebecca Weir, ‘American Civil War Light Brigades’
Beds to the front of them,

Beds to the right of them,

Beds to the left of them,

Nobody blundered.

(Hospital Sketches, 1863)
When Louisa May Alcott wanted to commemorate the efforts of her fellow nurses in the aftermath of the Union army’s crushing defeat at Fredericksburg (‘the Burnside blunder’), she turned to the most famous war poem of her day. Her parody casts nurses as a female Light Brigade who demonstrate heroism equal to that of Tennyson’s cavalrymen on hospital wards rather than battlefields: every casualty would be satisifed with coffee and rolls ‘whether they lived or died’. Alcott’s pronoun could refer to either nurses or wounded soldiers; ‘they’ unites these groups as would-be sacrifices. Having nearly died of typhoid contracted during her stint as a volunteer nurse in Washington D.C., Alcott knew that female self-sacrifice in the (tea) service was a reality. Her light ‘Light Brigade’ pointedly encouraged readers to consider who or what counted as a Civil War sacrifice and why – even as it played with the cultural authority of the British Poet Laureate and contemporary ideas about the kind of writing appropriate to the representation of war.

Alcott was far from alone in recognising ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ as a site where heroism might be defined and contested during the American Civil War. As Frances Clarke has noted, Alcott’s contemporaries tended to value the poem as a representation of ‘admirable battlefield behaviour’ – one of many which they drew upon in their attempts to understand lost lives and limbs as heroic sacrifices. Building on Clarke’s study of the ways in which (white) Northerners used ‘idealized tales of suffering and sympathy’ and Daniel Hack’s recent essay on African American ‘deployments of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”’, this paper explores the politics of war-time sacrifice in a cluster of ‘Light Brigade’ texts from the 1860s. Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, Herman Melville’s ‘Donelson’, George Boker’s ‘The Second Louisiana’ (renamed ‘The Black Regiment’) and several poems from the Anglo-African newspaper reveal ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ as a site available to diverse groups of Northerners who sought to shape and reshape their own rhetoric of sacrifice -- to ‘make’ Union sacrifices. As they engaged with Tennyson’s privileged and problematic text, they grappled with pressing questions. Were all wartime sacrifices equal in a democratic republic? What did the system of exchange that underpinned the rhetoric of battlefield sacrifice require of non-sacrifices and of the future?


Sources: Louisia May Alcott, Hospital Sketches (1863); Frances M. Clarke, War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North (2012); Daniel Hack, ‘The Canon in Front of Them: African American Deployments of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”’ in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Cohen and Stein (2012)

Dr Steve Attridge, ‘Sacrifice and the Boer War’

A life of Kitchener, written in 1916, begins thus: “The whole of Lord Kitchener's life, seen in retrospect, is an ennobling lesson in duty and patriotism, discipline and efficiency. It is in the hope of revealing those deep-seated, sterling qualities, which made him ever ready to sacrifice all other things to the single aim of maintaining his country's honour and purpose, that the present life -story has been undertaken.” It is taken for granted here that ‘sacrifice’ is the engine of personality and of empire.

I examine the dense and slippery etymology of the word sacrifice with its diverse ramifications of ancient religion, trade, chess, politics, and economics as played out in the convoluted and contradictory narratives and images of the Boer War. I argue that there is a significant but sometimes overlooked difference between the word ‘sacrifice’ when used as noun and as verb, as apparent in the miscellaneous contemporary sources, which range from accounts in which individuals are subsumed to an imagined heroic national type, to more compelling images in the works of, for example, Thomas Hardy and Kipling, which implicitly suggest a contextual and shaping politics in which the idea of sacrifice is a useful rhetorical tool. The distinction here is to be made between willing self-sacrifice and being sacrificed, and my discussion is contingent on this neo-biblical distinction between being in the role of either Abraham or Isaac.

I discuss the political expediency of sacrificing individuals (such as Breaker Morrant in reality, Drummer Hodge as literary symbol); of sacrificing peoples (as in the concentration camps); and lands (Kitchener’s scorched earth policy), in a conflict which was, arguably, the first to ‘industrialise’ death. I argue that older notions of chivalric sacrifice are complicated by debates about conscription and hard numerical facts and a new kind of guerrilla warfare by small bands of Boer civilian soldiers. Traditional stand and fight tactics (or stand and be slaughtered) are suddenly outmoded, and with it, certain notions of sacrifice. Defeat is conflated with sacrifice to sweeten its reception at home. I maintain that much about the history and literary renderings of the Boer War is both a high watershed of Victorian ideas of sacrifice and the precursor of modern military conflicts, such as in Vietnam and Afghanistan. When numerical and technical superiority fails to win easily then literary flourish, from simple propaganda to more arcane romanticisms concerning sacrifice, creates an almost immediate revisionist version of peoples and events in the war. It is here that language becomes at its most cogently operative in the arts of persuasion, disguise and sometimes, downright, lies. I try to suggest that glimpsed in the cracks of all renderings of the war there are real histories and poignant human sacrifices, and concerns with the literature of war do well to remind us of this.

I draw from a wide range of literary, journalistic and other contemporary sources.

Tim Kendall, ‘Sacrifice and WWI Poetry’

Responding to Rupert Brooke's five sonnets titled '1914', Charles Sorley declared Brooke 'far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances'. Sorley's resistance offers an early example of dissent from the officially sanctioned martyrology which Brooke's premature death from scepticaemia, on St George's Day 1915, had occasioned.


Other war poets would find their own reasons for refusing the seductions of Brooke's afflated style, but Sorley's objection remains the most complex and controversial. Self-sacrifice which is obligatory, Sorley argues, must also be unremarkable, unheroic. Yet this overstates both the inevitability of death in the Great War (where far fewer than a quarter of serving British soldiers were killed) and the compulsion to enlist. Brooke, like Sorley, had freely chosen to join up soon after Britain's declaration of war. Having witnessed the siege and fall of Antwerp, and the mass exodus from Belgium in which three civilians had been killed for every one soldier, Brooke knew 'what great sacrifices---active or passive---everyone [in Britain] must make'. Those sacrifices served the nation's interests, but they were also the necessary reaction to what Brooke considered to be the great crime against humanity committed by Prussian militarism.
My talk will consider the rival attitudes to sacrifice in the writings of Brooke and Sorley, using their examples to speak more widely about other poets of the First World War. I will consider, in particular, the various metaphors of self-sacrifice (such as Owen's description, 'we who die as cattle') to assess the extent to which an individual poet's sense of volition shapes his self-fashioning as heroic warrior or passive sufferer.

Vincent Sherry, ‘Sacrifice in the Prose Fiction of the Great War’

The figure of the sacrificial victim recurs extensively through the literature of the Great War of 1914-1918. Where this war lacked convincing rationale for many of the national protagonists, the figure of the sacrificial victim served to consecrate an otherwise uncertain purpose. This figure also recurs with a frequency commensurate with the mass scale of this first mass war, whose deaths clamored for such explanatory paradigms.



My focus will be on the literary representation of the sacrificial victim in the British war experience in particular. An opening into a new critical understanding lies in a remarkable gap in the scholarship of this subject. What is missing is a consideration of the broad, varied, complex but coherent understanding of the importance of sacrifice in the psychological and social sciences in turn-of-the-century British (and American) academic culture. The “costs of social progress” entail sacrifice at every point, as Weber was pointing out emphatically in his landmark work on the Protestant work ethic, and this point is reiterated insistently—varied, countered, adapted, but always reinforced—by authors as various and well-known as Frazer, William James, Simmel, Nietzsche, as well as by numerous other less well-remembered thinkers. This intellectual tradition has been established clearly by Susan Mizruchi in The Science of Sacrifice: American Literature and Modern Social Theory (1998), but it exerts not even a nominal pressure on the book that stands as the obvious touchstone on my subject, Allen Franzen’s Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War (2004). While Mizruchi’s emphasis falls on American literature specifically, and while the Great War does not bear on the national experience of literary tradition she is studying, her frame of background reference is trans-Atlantic as well as pan-European. I will thus be taking the Great War as the consummation of the ethic of sacrifice that she has established in that contemporary tradition. Moving from the obvious point that the political as well as technological circumstances of the war bring this figure of the individual victim to the foreground with terrible urgency, I will be showing how the narrators of prose fiction both represent and contest that establishing value of sacrifice, I will be attempting to discern an emergent, contrary paradigm of social relationship in this work, which includes novels by Ford Madox Ford, Frederic Manning, H. M. Tomlinson, Sassoon, Richard Aldington, and others.

Matthew Campbell, ‘Dora Sigerson and the Hardys: The Sad Years and ‘The Second Wife’
In the papers of the Irish poet Dora Sigerson (1866-1918) held by Trinity College Dublin is an unpublished manuscript and typescript of a poem called 'The Second Wife'. It is a satirical ballad contained in papers dating from 1916 to 1918. The poem addresses the marital arrangments of Thomas and Florence Hardy, friends of Sigerson and her husband, Clement Shorter. Shorter published Hardy's poetry in his magazine The Sphere. On the manuscript, Sigerson has written, 'A bit of shrapnel to the one who said, "Give the Irish a bit of Shrapnel"'.  We have no record of Hardy saying such a thing, but he was profoundly out of sympathy with the Irish cause, and offence had been given either to Sigerson or her husband. This essay will be about the poem and the relations between the Shorters and the Hardys as they open up Anglo-Irish literary attitudes to the events of 1916. Shorter also published Yeats, and was the first to print 'Easter 1916'.  Sigerson contributed articles and broadsides to the labour party Herald newspaper. Shorter, along with Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw campaigned for clemency for Roger Casement after he was sentenced to death; Hardy, among others (Joseph Conrad, Casement's companion in the Congo twenty years earlier, and HG Wells) refused to sign the petitions.
Sigerson wrote a number of poems in her last volumes, The Sad Years, Sixteen Dead Men, and The Tricolour, about these events. They are reflective not just of her anger against the lack of sympathy for the Irish cause in the liberal England in which she was based, but also of her extreme imaginative projection on to the sacrifice of 1916. In their domestic register, these poems also tell of hauntings and fears for the afterlife that faced her. Most accounts from her husband and friends say that Sigerson died from the shock of 1916, a self-willed sacrifice after the defeat of revolution and the executions which followed. The 1916 memorial monument in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin was designed and paid for by Sigerson. Her own grave there makes explicit a desire to be thought of as one of the war dead: the epitaph says that she 'died for the dream of Ireland a Nation'. Whether Hardy knew of the suppressed 'Second Wife' poem, his 'How She Went to Ireland' (published in 1928 after his death), tells of how 'Dora' was brought to Ireland to be buried, a strange riddle poem which doesn't quite have the last word in this poetic story of marriage, sacrifice, illness and misunderstanding.

Ian Patterson, ‘Sacrifice and the Spanish Civil War’

When it comes to the Spanish Civil War, the idea of sacrifice (both transitive and intransitive) is caught up with theories and practices of class-conflict. The much quoted advice of Harry Pollitt (General Secretary of the CPGB) to Stephen Spender, to go to Spain and get himself killed “as the movement needed a Byron” suggests the continuing value of sacrifice for propaganda. Stalinist calculi about ends and means brought measures of expediency to bear on sacrifice (as did the Communist Party’s political manoeuvring). The bombing of Guernica and Madrid were both described as ‘martyrdoms’, ‘The long, crushing, and confused process of defeat, which the democratic principle has been undergoing, has been challenged in Spain…’ wrote Spender and Lehmann in their introduction to Poems for Spain, and this is part of the reason for the elegiac tone that pervades even the more ostensibly hopeful of poems on the subject. But it is also salutary to look at the resolute attempt in some quarters to reject ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom (which are fairly commonly used in commentary on the war) and insist on a specifically different quality, as described by Charles Madge, who writes of John Cornford and David Guest that ‘ Their too short lives are a phenomenon of our time quite unlike the shortened lives of those who were killed in the Great War, because they did not perish in the confusion of Imperialist War, but with their minds made up by a logic from which there is no escape, and in a struggle of whose significance they were deeply conscious’. That is, the logic of democratic, historical progress or historical or dialectical materialism. For all that, this is also, and complicatedly, a logic of self-sacrifice, decidedly so for those middle-class and intellectual members of the communist left whose commitment to revolution included a commitment to the logic of their own supersession. It is this contradiction that animates the textual complexity of the more interesting writing of the Spanish Civil War, and it this that I want to start from. All being well, I shall hope to look at a fairly broad backdrop of ideological, political, cultural and rhetorical approaches to the conflict in Spain, and investigate the ways in which ideas of sacrifice and related formulations shape or figure in poetry and fiction responding to the war.



Helen Goethals, “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?”: Second World War Poets and the Organization of a Ritual Space

‘Sacrifice’ is not likely to be the word that first springs to mind if one is seeking a theme to organize one’s thoughts about the poetry of the Second World War. And yet connections become almost self-evident when one turns to the theoretical thinking about the idea of sacrifice, both that which was available in the 1940s and that which has been published since. Drawing on these critical approaches will allow us to start from two assumptions: the first being that, even in wartime, premeditated killing must be absolved by the state and the second, that such absolution is most easily granted if the context of the killing is perceived, not as a crime scene, but as a ritual space of sacrifice. I will propose in this paper a survey of the war poetry of 1939-45 in terms of just such a ritual space, in order to examine the collective role(s) played by the poets in the war. What difference does it make to our understanding of the nature and function of the poetry of the period if we view the poets as, in turn, the sacrifiers, the sacrificers, the sacrificial victims or as mere onlookers to the sacrificial scene?



Mark Rawlinson, ‘Violence, Sacrifice and the Second World War’

Twenty years ago Evelyn Cobley contrasted writing of the Great War with the literature of Vietnam: an earlier ‘self-image of the soldier as sacrificial victim’ is substituted by an image of the soldier as killer (Cobley, ‘Violence and Sacrifice in Modern War Narratives’, SubStance, 23, 3 (1994), pp. 75-99). In this paper I want to ask where the Anglophone Second World War might fit into this ‘progression’, and to this end I will reflect on selected representations of violence and of sacrifice in wartime culture and in literary commemoration since 1945. But I also want to assess the theoretical opposition on which Cobley launched her reading:

Girard's focus on the interdependence of sacrifice and violence complicates Elaine Scarry's argument in The Body in Pain (1985). By stressing that "war kills," Scarry seeks to demystify the rhetorical strategies used to rationalize and displace the reality of harm being inflicted on the human body. She assumes that knowing the consequences of our actions (pain) would inhibit us from perpetrating violence. But the demystification of violence may not be as unequivocally desirable as Scarry implies. (Ibid. 75-6)
The difference between Girard and Scarry could be presented as what the latter called a ‘reality duel’. But for students of war literature what might matter more is that the binary constituted of ‘misunderstanding’/‘re-description’ and demystification is already central to the reception of modern war literature. Is this relationship a historical variable, as Cobley argues, or could the coupling of these theories of violence help us recognise the contradictions in what we really want from representations of war?

Philip Beidler,By the Numbers: Americans, the Vietnam War, and the Measures of Sacrifice’

If measured by popular culture remembering, the nation has produced an immense body of work about the war in literature, film, music, and the visual arts, with multiple National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and Academy Awards. Print titles alone currently number around thirty thousand, totaling perhaps somewhere around three trillion words. With its words quite literally engraved in stone, there is also the National Vietnam War Memorial—reportedly now the most visited location in the nation’s capital—with its 58,282 names of the American dead.

In all this, there is one signal matter of quantification that we have still not come to terms with. It concerns the numbers of all the other anonymous, nameless, faceless dead of the war nobody wants to remember. I speak of course of the Vietnamese—according to most estimates, between 2 and 4 million of them. Doing war by the numbers is usually thought of as a distinctly inhumane way of addressing matters of human suffering and death. Here, I would propose, on the basis of new archival research and forensic study relating to Vietnamese casualties during the American war, the numbers may be the only way left of getting at what remains of the truth.

I say all this as a combat veteran of the war who still remembers exactly which faces go with which names on which panels of that wall in Washington, D.C. For the record, of all the people I served with in Vietnam, I never saw a single one kill a prisoner, rape a Vietnamese woman, mutilate a corpse, or otherwise knowingly harm a noncombatant. Accordingly, I must also insist on refusing to airbrush the dark record of the Communist insurgency throughout the Indochina wars or the continued repressions of the current government. During the American war, the National Liberation Front and the People’s Army had a well documented history of terrorism, including incidents of rape, murder, and torture; during the Tet Offensive, communist forces conducted the massacre of 3,000 citizens of Hue; at the strategic level, they engineered the decimation of the NLF to clear the way for an eventual northern government. In violation of the Geneva Peace accords, a 1972 invasion with great human suffering was turned back with the assistance of U.S. firepower; after a second invasion eventuating in the 1975 victory there followed mass imprisonments and removals of Vietnamese to political re-education camps.

All of the above having been said, veteran or non-veteran, liberal anti-imperialist or revisionary conservative, one can still only speak with a great heartsickness at what one now knows about the suffering on the dark other side of the American War, or rather, by insisting that the numbers be allowed speak for themselves—where those now familiar to Americans continue to be dwarfed by those of the Vietnamese.

Adam Piette, ‘Sacrifice and the Inner Organs of the Cold War Citizen’

The Cold War as a historical continuum within the citizen imagination existed as a set of internalized mechanisms for the imperilling and domination of the subject. This transpires in some of the more extreme fictions that attempted to stage this anxiety as a fear for internal organs, as a sacrificial logic threatening innocent citizen 'insides': through repressed terror about radiation's genetic damage, paranoid scening of victimization of the unconscious, and fallout hypochondria dramatizing the triangular nature of Cold War geopolitics as inward disease. The texts examined will include Samuel Beckett's Trilogy and its parodies of Sartrean politics, inwardness and the French Cold War; Elizabeth Bowen's 1964 novel The Little Girls  and its representation of bunker mentality; J.G. Ballard's 1969 The Atrocity Exhibition and its exploration of victimizing technology; Douglas Oliver's 1973 novel The Harmless Building and its staging of inner organ anxiety and warfare. Theoretically, the article will be underpinned by René Girard on scapegoating and mimetic desire; Walter Benjamin's 'Critique of Violence' and essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities with its exploration of sacrificial history: these will be used to revise Agamben's Homo Sacer theory slightly (following Anselm Haverkamp's 'Anagrammatics of Violence') to enable a targeted interpretation of Cold War sacrificial codes.



David Wheatley, ‘“The atrocities against his sacred poet”: The Orpheus Myth and the Poetry of the Northern Irish Troubles’

In The Midnight Verdict (1993), Seamus Heaney combines extracts from two texts that take the poet into the underworld: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and more specifically Ovid’s description of Orpheus’ pursuit of Eurydice and subsequent death, and Brian Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán-Oídhche (The Midnight Court). As a poet of conflict, Heaney was forced to produce his art amid much hostile crossfire, as described in poems such as ‘Exposure’. ‘I am neither internee nor informer’, he proclaims, insisting on the critical distance the artist needs (‘escaped from the massacre’) to function with autonomy. If the artist escapes the role of sacrificial scapegoat, elsewhere in North the women of ‘Punishment’ fare less fortunately. The conclusion of that poem, poised between the inadequacies of ‘civilised outrage’ and an understanding from within of ‘exact /and tribal, intimate revenge’, provoked some of Heaney’s harshest criticism. The Midnight Verdict is implicitly a response to this, arraigning the male poetic ego and giving a voice to his female accusers. At issue in North is the right of one or other male group to occupy and master the female land, without this gendering of conflict coming under serious interrogation except at moments of extreme crisis. All through his career, however, Heaney proved adept at transforming moments of rhetorical doubt and crisis into occasions of poetic mastery. When the female voice is given its say, is this genuinely at the expense of male authority or in controlled and stage-managed form?

Heaney’s fellow Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon draws heavily on ironised self-sacrifice as a response to conflict in ‘Rage for Order’. An effete poet figure is attacked for ‘indulging /his wretched rage for order’ as his province burns, but for all his mockery, the speaker implicitly confesses the limits of his own ‘civilised outrage’. He too, inevitably, will end up embracing the poet’s ‘desperate ironies’. As in ‘The Last of the Fire Kings’, a trajectory of rebellion and defeat is traced, casting the figure of poet as tribal spokesman in the role of ultimate scapegoat. When Thomas Kinsella attempts to tackle the Northern Irish Troubles with a more straightforward apportioning of blame to guilty parties, in Butcher’s Dozen, his response to Bloody Sunday, the results are disastrously uneven. Political justice is too urgent, the poem implies, for the rarefied meditations of Heaney and Mahon. Most critics have tended to disagree. Coincidentally, among the models Kinsella has acknowledged for ‘Butcher’s Dozen’ is Merriman’s ‘Midnight Court’. Also coincidentally, perhaps, is the increased attention to gender politics we see in the recent work of both Mahon and Kinsella, as they too revisit the parched, male certainties explored in their earlier work.

The opposition remains, however, between political engagement and sacrifice or self-sacrifice as a metaphor for the failure of this engagement. In a series of readings centred on the theme of gender and the self-representation of the poet, my essay attempts to identify what redress if any Heaney, Mahon and Kinsella find for what ‘the atrocities against his sacred poet’ of which Bacchus complains in The Midnight Verdict.



Alex Houen, ‘Fearful Asymmetries: Reckoning Sacrifice in the Wars on Terror’

In a 2005 speech, President George W. Bush stated that al Qaeda’s outlook is comparable to Cold War communism because al Qaeda ‘teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed to serve a political vision. And this explains their cold-blooded contempt for human life’. Yet Bush concluded that same speech by explaining that America’s war on terror itself calls for political sacrifices: ‘We don’t know [...] the sacrifices that might lie ahead. But we do know [...] that the defence of freedom is worth our sacrifice’. Waging war always involves a reckoning of costs; costs that range from economic expenses to the loss of limbs and lives. When such costs seem unreasonable (do they ever not?), politicians, commanders, and others appeal to values of sacrifice, because sacrifice upholds a ‘calculus’ that rationalises losses by converting them into higher collective gains. The recent wars on terror have seen both sides employing modes of militancy that are largely aimed at disrupting the enemy’s sacrificial calculus. We might question the view (of Baudrillard and others) that suicidal militancy is something that America and its allies can’t respond to in kind, but it is a view that some in the US military have upheld; a commander of the Guantanamo camps, for example, went so far as to argue that even detainee suicides were a form of ‘asymmetrical warfare waged against us’. A different form of asymmetry is evident in drone warfare, which is specifically designed to do away with the usual calculus of ‘belligerent’s right’ (I can take the enemy’s life because I’m putting mine on the line). As the counter-terrorism expert Richard Harris uncharmingly put it: ‘if the Predator [drone] gets shot down, the pilot goes home and fucks his wife. It’s OK. There’s no POW issue here’.



In this paper I will look at how various literary writers have weighed up the war on terror’s sacrificial reckonings and fearful asymmetries. In doing so, I want to consider what writers think the value and effects of their literary labours are in tackling those issues. I’ll draw on Nadeem Aslam’s In the Blind Man’s Garden (2013) and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) to consider examples of writers portraying sacrifice in fiction along parallel lines of money and lives. I’ll draw on Lorraine Adams’s novel The Room and the Chair (2010) to think about asymmetries of drone warfare and technological capabilities. The issue of remote-controlled combat raises questions of distancing and witnessing that James Meek raises in his novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008). The issue of witnessing, in turn, bears on relations of mediated surveillance and bearing testament to faith (shahid and marturos: witness). Numerous literary critics (e.g. Susan Mizruchi, Kate McLoughlin) have suggested that the value of war writing is in offering a realism or truth that cuts through historical newspeak and propaganda. Others (e.g. James A. Winn) have suggested that the value of war poetry’s form is in enabling poetry to commemorate effectively. I want to consider the extent to which literature might offer up not simply realism or commemoration but its own forms of reckoning and rebalancing that may mediate the extent to which readers are affected by aspects of witnessing and sacrificial logic. If I have time, I’ll make some reference to poems by Keston Sutherland, Juliana Spahr, and Rachel Zolf.


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