Over the long Veterans Day weekend, I’m hitting the final lap on the world’s most procrastinated thesis. I’m focusing on Virginia Woolf—specifically, on how she writes about World War I soldiers.
When you read enough Woolf, you start to notice something interesting about perspective. The soldier figure is a common character throughout her books, but I’ve found it’s difficult to get to know any of them, even when they are central to the storyline. In Jacob’s Room, we only see our main character through the widely varying perspectives of his acquaintances and random people on the street. Mrs. Dalloway’s Septimus suffers shell shock—what we’d now call PTSD—reeling through a world of broken, hellish visions and repetitive scenes, constantly losing touch with reality, utterly unreliable as a narrator. Percival in The Waves is too perfect—beautiful, heroic, yet somehow unavailable. Woolf not only doesn’t write out any of his thoughts, she never even gives him a single word of dialogue.
This isn’t because Woolf was unfamiliar with soldiers or loss; she had a brother who died young and a generation of friends affected by the war. It seems that in looking for the “true reality” of people and their reactions to trauma, though, Woolf finds that there just isn’t one. She shows each character through a broken mirror, the scattered pieces all revealing completely different angles and qualities of light, each piece reflecting off the others. She never gives over completely their thoughts or experiences—she talks around them, presents interactions based on them, but always avoids stating the one true thing itself. She seems to be saying that there is no one true thing; every opinion, every experience, every life has a million facets and explanations and interpretations. No matter how much we chatter and assume, we can never truly know the reasons behind why someone else does what they do.
It’s an interesting idea, especially this Veterans day weekend, in the aftermath of an election that has completely shattered everyone’s expectations.
Veterans Day, or as it’s celebrated abroad, Armistice Day, is celebrated on this date each year. The reason: at 11am on November 11, 1918, Germany signed the Armistice to end what was until then the bloodiest and most damaging war in modern history. It was a war motivated by political tensions, patriarchal blustering, and power moves, a war characterized by the first use of chemical weapons and aerial bombardment and the machine gun. To give you some idea of the devastation, Austrian soldiers suffered a ninety percent casualty rate. In Russia, the death toll was 3.4 million; in Serbia, almost thirty percent of the entire population was killed. The world was heartbroken and angry; an entire generation had been wiped out for a reason no one could remember by the end. As they signed the Armistice, leaders declared it would be “the war to end all wars.”
We all know how that turned out.
As the weekend wears on, I’m still overwhelmed by what happened on Tuesday night. As we approached Election Day, I was stung by the “locker room talk” episode; I was frightened by the racist rhetoric and angry on behalf of those I love who came to the US as immigrants. By the end, for me, it had come down entirely to a question of racism, sexism, and ignorance, and whether we support or reject them. So the outcome was devastating. Tuesday night I drank an entire glass of rum and actually bought a vacation out of sheer stress; Wednesday morning I was a weepy, sleepless zombie. My body still hums, galvanized by anger—an impotent, growing, terrible anger that has no productive outlet.
Naturally, my first step was to log onto Facebook, post a status entirely made up of curse words, and begin clicking through every devastating link I could find. The media was like a freight train gone off the tracks: US to become a police state! Here are all the terrible things that have already happened on day one! Nuclear war looms on the horizon! Other news outlets poked fun at those lamenting the outcome: Listen up, coastal elites! You don’t know anything about real life—click here to learn all the ways you were wrong! Even the articles urging us all to love each other, posted Wednesday morning, came too early and felt disingenuous and dismissive. I found myself spinning in circles, getting angry at cyber chatter spewed forth by people I haven’t even seen in years, people I don’t even know. The litany of hateful commentary and condescension flying between both sides on social media has risen to a level of insanity, to a deafening cacophony.
I don’t understand the results, and at the moment, I’m not ready to put them behind me. But I do recognize, logically, that I can’t possibly be right about everything. (Note: no one is ever to tell my boyfriend that I admitted this.) If I point fingers at the other side, I am assuming something very negative about an entire group of people, which is exactly what I was angry at them for doing in the first place. Everyone has a different perspective, a different fragment of the mirror; assuming that everyone who doesn’t share yours is wrong or lashing out in anger is not only harmful, but illogical.
There’s a story I came across in my research that I like a lot, one really bright spot in the whole darkness of the Great War. On Christmas Day in 1914, several German soldiers crawled out of their trenches on the Western Front. They put their hands up in the air and walked slowly, hesitatingly, across no man’s land. The Allied soldiers must have watched them with bated breath, outlined in black against the dawn, picking their way over ditches and spent shells. But as they grew closer, the Allies saw something that made them crawl slowly beneath the wire and tumble out into the mud toward them: the Germans were unarmed.
The two sides faced one another down in the middle, between cannons and miles of razor wire—and then one of them embraced another. They began exchanging presents and sweets sent from home, showing off letters from girlfriends to one another. They dug ditches and buried the dead on both sides. As the sun broke over the horizon, they played soccer together, just fellow humans. Before they scrambled back into the trenches at the end of that day, they had become—improbably, briefly, and heroically—friends.
I’m not suggesting that this week was even remotely equivalent to a war; frankly, I think we’ve all had enough drama without that. This is the normal course of a democracy (normal being a relative term here, obviously), and our feelings may evolve over the course of another week. But no one can deny that we have entered unknown territory, the political barely distinguishable from the personal now. We all voted the way we did, and hold the opinions we hold, because we are fiercely trying to protect the groups of people that we belong to or care for. Many of us are defensive and afraid, and have a right to be—but we need to take care not to destroy our relationships with one another. We need to preserve the means to achieve peace, or at least an armistice.
This weekend is a time to reflect, to honor those who died and learn from what happened when anger and intolerance were allowed to grow unchecked. We all know the dream of World War I being the “war to end all wars” never came to be; we know the fate of Woolf, sinking beneath the current as she watched the world crumble around her a second time. But ultimately, we honor history best by learning from it. It’s our collective responsibility to step away from useless argument, reconcile ourselves with our own feelings, then begin to engage with one another. Because we all have different perspectives, and we have a lot of forging, talking, protesting, and rebuilding to do if we’re going to somehow reconcile them and move forward.
With any luck, this weekend is also the right time to finish a thesis. After all, what is scholarship for? Maybe, just maybe, it’s to provide perspective when we enter uncharted territory.
Photo: Micadew. License: Creative Commons