Incommensurable Losses

Every so often I pop in my old audio tapes of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence and, at the expense of sounding hopelessly nostalgic, it leaves me thinking that scholarship is not what it used to be. It reminds me of a few lines from Edward Said that I first came across via Alan Jacobs some time ago, although I no longer remember where exactly. Said, thinking of the humanistic scholars of the mid-twentieth century wrote:

“This is not to say that we should return to traditional philological and scholarly approaches to literature. No one is really educated to do that honestly anymore, for if you use Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer as your models you had better be familiar with eight or nine languages and most of the literatures written in them, as well as archival, editorial, semantic, and stylistic skills that disappeared in Europe at least two generations ago.”

In any case, this meandering all leads to a passage from Barzun with which I will leave you. It is a moving estimation of the losses occasioned by the First World War, a war the consequences of which I tend to think we underestimate. Here is Barzun:

“Varying estimates have been made of the losses that must be credited to the great illusion. Some say 10 million lives were snuffed out in the 52 months and double that number wounded. Others propose higher or lower figures. The exercise is pointless, because loss is a far wider category than death alone. The maimed, the tubercular, the incurables, the shell-shocked, the sorrowing, the driven mad, the suicides, the broken spirits, the destroyed careers, the budding geniuses plowed under, the missing births were losses, and they are incommensurable … One cannot pour all human and material resources into a fiery cauldron year after year and expect to resume normal life at the end of the prodigal enterprise.”

And so, to varying degrees, it must be with any war.

6 thoughts on “Incommensurable Losses

  1. Does your banner image depict part of Duke’s campus?

    1. To the battlefield casualties should be added the tens of millions who died of a weirdly virulent form of influenza during the winter of 1918-19. Also the catastrophically low French birth rate during 1916-17.

    2. Excepting the epic struggle between the Third Reich and the USSR, WWI was worse on the battlefield than WWII. WWII revealed that mobility trumped massive shootouts, except in the USSR. WWII was worse overall, because of the use of military power against civilians, especially aerial bombing, and because of the systematic extermination of civilians by the Third Reich and Japan. Niall Ferguson’s War of the World is a good narrative about these issues.

    3. Germany in WWI had policies in place that excused young university graduates from having to run grave risks (e.g., Heidegger and Brecht never saw action). The French and British armies treated university graduates the same as everybody else. A result is that those countries lost far more future authors and composers than Germany did.

    4. Had Germany won a quick victory in 1914, it is not at all clear that that would have been disastrous for European culture. The French defeat in 1871 ushered in a golden age of French culture. The stalemate of 1914-18 wiped out the better part of an entire generation, and France and Germany spent the better part of last century recovering from the demographic and moral damage. I fear that French civilisation will never truly recover from the pyrrhic victory of WWI, the quick humiliating defeat in 1940, and from the defeats in Indochina and Algeria.

    5. The French authors of the 20s and 30s are no longer read, although Paul Valery deserves better. But all thoughtful literate people have, to some degree, engaged Thomas Mann, who became a richer and wiser writer thanks to the German defeat.

    6. The two world wars and the great depression are the worst disasters in human history. At the same time, our species accomplished more, scientifically and economically, during the 20th century than in any other comparable period in human history. And much of the credit for ending the world wars and for that advancement goes to the people and government of the United States of America. I think of this every time I walk along the Mall in Washington.

    1. Many thanks for each of these, all well taken. A tragedy through and through. Although as you note, this was not the whole of the century’s story.

      As for the banner image, it is of a path in park in Cambridge, England. One of my favorite places.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to make this comment.

  2. I appreciate the tone of your discourse. How did you ever get on cassette tape that huge tome: From Dawn To Decadence? I look forward to exploring your site more thoroughly… hoping to find some of your thoughts on the current state of affairs in these United States. Arlene

    1. Well, good question. I picked them up several years ago and I don’t quite remember where. Likely a used book store. Not sure how much you’ll find by way of “state the country” type reflections, but I do hope you find some useful things nonetheless!

  3. You may therefore appreciate this Open Letter which was written in response to the Kosovo crisis at the request of a high-ranking UNHCR diplomat – it was reworked in response to Sept 11.
    The themes in this Letter were expanded and elaborated upon in the remarkable book introduced via these references
    It was no accident that the author of these references was born in that fateful year of 1939.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s