Violence and imagination

While I was working on ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab) Trevor Barnes introduced me to Tom McCarthy‘s mesmerising novel C which, among many other things, contains some extraordinary passages describing a young British pilot soaring high over No Man’s Land on the Western Front in the First World War.  His job was to identify the location of enemy artillery batteries and then direct (‘range’) the British guns on to them:

‘Serge feels an almost sacred tingling, as though he himself had become godlike, elevated by machinery and signal code to a higher post within the overall structure of things, a vantage point from which the vectors and control lines linking earth and heaven … have become visible, tangible even, all concentrated at a spot just underneath the index finger of his right hand which is tapping out, right now, the sequence C3E MX12 G…

‘‘Almost immediately, a white rip appears amidst the wood’s green cover on the English side. A small jet of smoke spills up into the air from this like cushion stuffing; out of it, a shell rises. It arcs above the trench-meshes and track-marked open ground, then dips and falls into the copse beneath Serge, blossoming there in vibrant red and yellow flame. A second follows it, then a third. The same is happening in the two-mile strip between Battery I and its target, and Battery M and its one, right on down the line: whole swathes of space becoming animated by the plumed trajectories of plans and orders metamorphosed into steel and cordite, speed and noise. Everything seems connected: disparate locations twitch and burst into activity like limbs reacting to impulses sent from elsewhere in the body, booms and jibs obeying levers at the far end of a complex set of ropes and cogs and relays.’

Serge is using the clock code to range the guns on to their target, but the passage is remarkable for McCarthy’s imagery of ‘machinery and signal code’ and ‘ropes and cogs and relays’. Some of those who survived the war used the same mechanical imagery, perhaps nobody more effectively than Ernst Jünger:

‘The modern battlefield is like a huge, sleeping machine with innumerable eyes and ears and arms, lying hidden and inactive, ambushed for the one moment on which all depends. Then from some hole in the ground a single red light ascends in fiery prelude. A thousand guns roar out on the instant, and at a touch, driven by innumerable levers, the work of annihilation goes pounding on its way.’

What distinguishes McCarthy, I think, is his realisation that more is happening than lights setting levers in motion. Later he has Serge recognise that he is the messenger of death but insist that

‘he doesn’t think doesn’t think of what he’s doing as a deadening. Quite the opposite: it’s a quickening, a bringing to life. He feels this viscerally, not just intellectually, every time his tapping finger draws shells up into their arcs, or sends instructions buzzing through the woods to kick-start piano wires for whirring cameras, or causes the ground’s scars and wrinkles to shift and contort from one photo to another: it’s an awakening, a setting into motion.’

This is much on my mind today for two reasons.  First, while I’ve been recovering from my eye surgeries last month I’ve been reading more diaries from the First World War (reading is apparently good therapy!), and in one of them Captain Henry Wynard Kaye of the Royal Army Medical Corps describes several visits to a friend in command of a Royal Flying Corps squadron on the Western Front.  He describes exactly that sense of ‘a quickening, a bringing to life’ – and death – that McCarthy evokes so perceptively.  Here is Kaye’s entry for 12 August 1915:

 ‘Two of his officers went off at 5 to destroy some trenches up by Hooge. The observer had the spots on which they were going to put shells marked on his map, and off they sailed saying they would be back at 8. Their programme was to fly up to the place, and directly they secure a suitable place for observing the observer sends a wireless signal to the Battery Commander telling him to begin. Thereafter the observer directs the battery about each shot by wireless until the job is done…  In an artillery job he clearly regards himself as running the whole show, and talks about ‘I’m going to shoot’, ‘I’m going to put shells there and there’, regarding the Battery Commander only as the man who puts his orders into effect’.


I drew on McCarthy’s work in “Gabriel’s Map’ because, so it seems to me, there are times when nominally ‘fictional’ writing captures with distilled perfection what ostensibly ‘factual’ sources labour to bring into partial view: the ‘truth’ of fiction, if you like.  So much so that I’ve written elsewhere about the lazy distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ (though since I wrote that the US election has clearly made that distinction even more tense).

And so my second reason for returning to all this: Brad Evans‘s interview in the latest Los Angeles Review of Books with Tom McCarthy, which pivots around his new collection of essays Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, and the intricate imbrications between philosophy and literature throughout his work:

I try to undo the distinction that’s usually made between “fiction” and “reality,” as though “fiction” were synonymous with fakery. I don’t think that’s the right layout to work with; I think there’s something else going on. In Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, I try to argue that “fiction” is best understood in terms of a gap or interim, a delay or décalage — what Hamlet calls an out-of-jointness. Another way of thinking about this would be (and this perhaps goes back to Faulkner’s ripple image) as a kind of asynchronic overlay. And vitally, what this overlay gives rise to, in its collisions and its recesses, is a possibility — and an ethics — of witnessing. Tell him we were here, says Vladimir to the boy-angel amid all the replays and repetition loops and waiting periods of Godot: Don’t turn up here tomorrow and deny you ever saw me. Then, watching Estragon sleeping, he asks himself, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?”; and he muses that someone is also watching over him (Vladimir) and thinking: “He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” Now, of course someone is watching him — it’s a play! But beyond that, I think Beckett is invoking the notion of literature as a shared or consensual hallucination in which the act of witnessing, of affirming the existence of “the others,” becomes possible. This is not a journalistic or “scientific” act; it’s ultimately an imaginative one, an act of the imagination.

One thought on “Violence and imagination

  1. Dear Derek
    First I wish you a speedy and successful recovery from your eye operation. I missed your blog!
    I am currently making miniature sculptures that interpret the letters of a New Zealand FWW artilleryman in an ‘episodic’ way. I’m doing this as a PhD project and often digress from the ‘act of imagination’ ie the poetic as opposed to the model-maker, the military modeller and the war-gaming ways of visual and plastic means of expressing this narrative (235 letters over a four-year period, 1915-1919).
    So thank you so much for alerting me to McCarthy’s novel and his ways of thinking-out the creative/fictional difference to the factual and the historically verifiable. The difference has bedevilled my ‘research’ for some time now.
    Kia kaha e hoa.

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