Monday, December 08, 2014

Reality behind words

Tranchée de la Soif (Trench of Thirst) near St. Mihiel, France

When we read about what happened, reality is often screened off by a factual description and by figures. What has happened looks often so simple as if there is not much emotion and misery behind it or, otherwise, as if not much joy is involved. In history books war is usually reduced to political conflicts and negotiations, to military movements, strategy and tactics, and to dates. As if not many soldiers were involved with their daily pains and sorrows, not to speak of the inhabitants of the invaded countries and their destroyed possessions. Or a reform of the social care system in a country is seen as nothing but a parliamentary debate and the reduction of costs and seems to have nothing to do with people who need help to have a wash or go to the toilet or, a bit less dramatically, to get the house cleaned. Or, a third example, as if there are no tears of the winner and the loser and much effort as well behind the sports results in a newspaper. Therefore I like to read diaries and autobiographies written by persons who went through the events and facts, preferably if they are a kind of live report; written from the first-person-perspective, as philosophers say. They give me so much better a feeling of what actually took place. They tell me the personal experiences of the human beings that lived the moments behind the dry descriptions. I think it makes me better understand what occurred, even though I do not shun traditional history books, for example, for getting a grip on the main lines.
In his Notebooks of an Infantryman, describing his experiences as a soldier during the First World War, the French captain Charles Delvert writes:
“Yesterday captain Seigneur has fallen. No longer I’ll see his good big eyes. He was cool-headed, elegant, and polite in an excellent way. Now we are only six in the regiment that has seen Ethe. Out of fifty-two combating officers. The others have been killed, were injured or have been evacuated. One sees how terrible losses there were in the first two months of the war ...
But as Voltaire said already, it’s all about understanding what the sense of the words is. It is because one sees nothing behind the words that the history of wars looks so little tragic to us.
For example, you read: ‘The regiment has held the position during the whole day’. This looks very simple to you. However, the point is what the word ‘hold’ involves. I have just ‘hold’ the Haussu Farm during a whole day and I know what this dull word means. It means to stay in the trenches without moving, be prepared to receive, with gunfire, the whole attacking infantry, and that under a deluge of iron and fire.
Since eleven o’clock till the night percussion bombs, shrapnel shells, machine-gun bullets rained on our heads. The two companies that were in the farm ... have withdrawn – read ‘have taken to their heels’ –. I have received them in my line and I have gone on to ‘hold’ the position. Soon the farm has burst into flames, producing enormous clouds of smoke.
In the evening we lay down in the wet meadows, still in our positions, in a night lighted by the shine of the fire burning behind the triangle of the roof silhouetted against this shine.” (Charles Delvert, Carnets d’un fantassin, Les Éditions des Riaux, 2003, pp. 113-114)
As Delvert shows here, the holding of a military position is not simply a series of words in a report or a remark in a history book, but it is full of danger, emotion and personal experiences. I think that what Delvert points out here is true for any report or story written from a third-person-perspective, i.e. from the perspective of the outsider or data gatherer. We tend to forget it but stories in any form whatever always refer to what agents and their witnesses actually lived through, and behind the so-called facts and events there is often blood, flesh and tears or a smile or a whoop of delight.

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