The Artist’s Dilemma: Truth, Process, and Form in the Great War Narratives of Robert Graves, Mary Borden, and David Jones
Steele, Suzanne Marie
Date: 1 August 2016
University of Exeter
PhD in English
The Great War narrative has been the subject of wide scholarship but there have been no studies that have specifically focused on understanding the ethical and aesthetic struggles of the artist in war, the artist’s dilemma. The generation that experienced the Great War included many giants of twentieth-century intellectual, cultural, ...
The Great War narrative has been the subject of wide scholarship but there have been no studies that have specifically focused on understanding the ethical and aesthetic struggles of the artist in war, the artist’s dilemma. The generation that experienced the Great War included many giants of twentieth-century intellectual, cultural, and political life, many of whom wrote personal narratives of their experiences. These narratives have contributed to shaping familial stories and the meta-narratives of nation states for generations—sometimes limiting a fuller understanding of the war. Through this thesis I aim to open the field of narrative investigation into a wider inquiry through applying what Brian Lande identifies as the ‘sensual and moral conversion’ of the soldier in war, to the artistic actor in the theatre of war. The proposition is to identify and read beyond generic conventions, then to observe the process, the tasks, and the moral, psychosocial, and aesthetic dilemmas of the artist in the theatre of war. To do this, the work focuses on three robust texts of the Great War: Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That (1929), Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone (1929), and David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937). The project explores not only the nuance of creative witness, self-witness, and testimony, but proposes a fuller empathic engagement with the narrative within the social contract of war writing. After developing a model of the formal conventions which structure the genre of war writing, and building on the work of Max Saunders, Henri LeFebvre, and others, I have carried out close readings of the three authors’ Great War narratives and related works. With an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses literary, artistic, historical, ethical, and sociological studies, and with extensive archival research, I propose to introduce another perspective on reading between the lines of Great War narratives. This perspective encompasses the ethical and aesthetic dilemmas that faced the artists of the war generation as they acted and reacted to war, a generation that shaped the intellectual, political, scientific, and artistic life of the twentieth century, and the lives of generations to follow.
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