Emily Dickinson, and some thoughts on Grief

Emily Dickinson wrote the above poem during a period of immense personal and collective grief while the English Civil War raged around her.

“What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance is missing, or lost?”

Loss visits every human life. It is unavoidable. Inevitable. Philosophers like Feuerbach (and the writers of Love Actually) would argue that the one unifying experience across humanity is love, and I used to retaliate – in typical cynical Charlie fashion – that no; if one such universal experience exists then it is undeniably the anguish of grief. But then, I realised, the two are intertwined. One cannot exist without the other. Grief is but a measure of immeasurable love; the thing left over, the imprint of impact. You cannot feel grief if you have not felt love. And, in acknowledging that, we might (and I really try to do this) actually start to be able to view grief as a beautiful thing; something to embrace, to celebrate: the tangible evidence of all the love that’s left, that stays with (enriches, sustains, comforts) us, until – and even after – we ourselves are gone.

The grace with which we adapt to and accept the sudden descent into the darkness of grief may be the greatest measure of resilience — but it’s also an indication of the absurdity and duality of what it means to truly be human: to live (to accept death), to love (to ultimately lose). To be cognizant of eternity in an instant, to be capable of infinity. And that might be the most miraculous thing of all: to wander around alone – unguarded, unmoored – without matchstick or map – knowing that the darkness is creeping up behind us — gaining on us — will eventually and inevitably catch us one day — yet still unflinchingly trusting that those few, fleeting moments in the light have been worth it when the jaws close in.

Being born a woman

We try and try to reclaim centuries of oppression and injustice by subverting social norms, loving our bodies, embracing our vulnerabilities and channelling traumas into powers for good – but there is still a glaring inequality; a paralysing and all-encompassing fear: of being misinterpreted or unheard, underestimated or ridiculed, of finding ourselves a vessel for men’s insecurities and anger: of being demonised, targeted, and yes, physically harmed or killed by a stranger on our way home. We are conditioned from birth to be hyper-vigilant and afraid. You couldn’t possibly begin to understand all of the normalised, ingrained safety behaviours we navigate life with on a daily basis, all because the sex in between our legs makes us targets for persecution, perversion, possession. Being a woman is fucking exhausting.

“You read too much and it’s ruined your expectations of love and life.”

— something I’ve found myself regularly thinking from a very young age.

I seem to have discovered the optimism in cynicism: it is both a blessing and a curse to have an untethered imagination, for no event in actuality – good or bad – can ever quite match it. Poetic beauty? Romantic devastation? Always an illusion, always an imitation.

If you love someone let them go: some thoughts on Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has been heralded as a pioneering feminist novel since its publication in 1899. Set in the oppressive environment of the postbellum American South, the plot centres around Edna Pontellier (a respectable young mother and wife) and her struggle to achieve sexual and personal emancipation. Edna is a brilliantly written character, joining the likes of Jane Eyre amongst the heroines of protofeminism. Breaking through the passive role appointed to her by society, Edna not only acknowledges her dreams and desires but also has the strength and courage to act on them. It is, in its most simple form, the story of a woman discovering her own identity independent of her husband and children. It’s also a heart wrenching love story, or almost-love story.

Enter Robert Lebrun.

After a painstaking year of friendship and building sexual tension, Robert and Edna confess their love for each other near the end of the novel. It’s dramatic and passionate and primes the reader for the satisfying resolution of a union. Edna sits on Robert’s porch alone, restless, and decides: to hell with the consequences, she will finally spend the night with him and finally, finally embark on the affair they have both secretly longed for, for so long. She marches into the house ‘with the intoxication of expectancy’ and then—

She finds him gone. The house is empty. Nothing but an eight word note remains: “I love you. Goodbye — because I love you.” (p. 124)

This is so shocking because it occurs at the climax of the novel — right at the moment when Edna and Robert’s romance comes the closest to fulfilment and fruition. The reader feels cheated, the happy ending is snatched away. But why? Initially, I blamed Robert, obviously, him being a man and all. Men! And their flighty non-committal bullshit! And then, oh god, I realised that during the exchange between the two of them confessing their mutual romantic feelings, Edna pretty much tells him flat out that she will never marry him: “I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours.’ I should laugh at you both.” (p.119) Edna admits here that even if Robert is the love of her life, she will never marry him because she does not want to be tied down; she wants to remain a free spirit, untethered by expectations or feelings both from and towards a man. Robert’s decision to leave shortly after hearing this is because he knows that he will never have Edna, at least not in the way he really wants — not only because of societal expectations (her being a married woman and mother), but also because she will never give herself fully (“Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself (…) for anyone.”) (p.53).

Edna will never belong to anyone other than herself. Robert ultimately knows this, I think; knows that his dreams of marriage and a family would only serve to limit and restrict her independence, her growing interests, passions, and desires to explore and experience and break free from oppressive social constraints. He can’t bring himself to dim or deaden her dreams, or to deprive her of the kind of life she she wants, so he leaves. At the height of her self-actualisation, he leaves. He loves her in this moment—infinitely—for who she is, for who she wants to be; but he knows all too well: that by not wanting to be anyone’s anything, she will never be his, either.

Ugh. I love this book.

Diderot said (of women) “you all die at 15” …

Thinking about my teenage self. Thinking about the death of dreams and selfhood in adolescence, wherein women become partly conventional and partly legend; when their sense of reality is sapped and they begin to exist, function, perform — not for themselves but for a growing, persistent awareness of everyone else: when autonomy and freedom is given away and set aside at the very brink of its actualisation and allure.

Most women, without access to resources and education, cannot change their lives, so interwoven with their very existence are the systems that oppress them. All they can do past a certain point is to merely wish, hope, dream for change… Reduced to magical thinking, lamenting on lost opportunities and stolen potential — what once was, what might have been — whilst constantly having to face the reality of what they are; of who they’ve become: “fire, tears, wit, taste, and martyred ambition.”

(That last line is from an angry Adrienne Rich poem, ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law’, a tribute to “women whose dreams have been aborted and whose very beings have been thwarted and silenced.”)

I grieve for these women all the time.

A belated Fathers Day post. . .

Some days I just really miss my grandpa. He was the most humble, gentle, and kindest man I’ve ever known. Being from a working class family in London, when he came to Nottingham to do his PhD he was sneered at for not having come through Oxford or Cambridge. He went on to win a Nobel prize anyway. Despite the brilliance of his mind and the reverence of his peers — travelling around the globe to give speeches and lectures — at home he preferred to keep in the background, only contributing to conversation when he had something important to add, or, when my grandma – matriarchal and catholic and always speaking her mind – had to be told to “put a sock in it, Jean.”

He had a dry sense of humour – not really one for jokes or comedy, but prone to the occasional deadpan one liner: “What was the most romantic thing you ever did for granny?” “Marry her.”

I saw him get angry maybe once in my life. He was sensitive. Observant. Neurotic – something I think stemmed from having been separated from his mother at a young age during the war. He was always fixated on something. His mind was constantly working, constantly thinking. He would take apart electronic gadgets just to see how they were assembled so he could later make his own (and improve/adjust accordingly). He was the most determined person I’ve ever met. Failed his eleven plus exam and was advised not to pursue science. Pursued it anyway, became a professor of Physics, built rockets in his spare time, taught himself three languages, got his piloting license in his forties. Nothing stopped him once he’d set his mind on something.

I remember asking him once, how did it feel, knowing the impact MRI had — has — every single day; what did it feel like to indirectly help so many people etc, and, in keeping with the very essence of his nature (this perfectly summarises his personality and who he was), he thought about his answer very carefully before slowly replying something to the effect of: “for every success of MRI, there’s the patient for who it marks the beginning of the end” (in which the scan discovered some incurable, advanced, aggressive tumour for which prognosis was poor to non existent) “so I think about them too.” Literally nothing sums up my grandpa more than that answer: downplaying his incredible achievements by choosing to focus on the sobering reality.

He loved physics. Almost as much as he loved being a grandpa. He loved raspberry picking and making his own jam at home. When we were little, he loved freaking us out with that detachable thumb trick. He made us hot cocoa every night before bed. His stories of choice were educational but always first hand and personal; of the East End, Devon, of bomb shelters and doodlebugs. An air of quiet, dignified respect followed him – you couldn’t help but be in awe of him – and yet, he was the most unassuming person. The most consistent man in my life. I will always miss him.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

I have officially reached the point in lockdown where I’ve began repurposing my family home as the setting for a Shirley Jackson gothic horror novel.

Isolation playlist

I hope everyone’s keeping safe. Reality feels like a surreal dystopian alternate universe right now and it’s absolutely bizarre. I am using the time to get fit, write, catch up on university work, and learn some new skills (currently, I’m speaking fluent French and teaching myself how to do the splits.) Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever been this productive in my life… It only took a global pandemic happening for me to blossom into the fully functioning member of society adult that I should have already been.

books, books, and more books.

My typical reaction to literally anything happening in life ever is to make a Spotify playlist, so here’s a quarantine-themed one if anyone’s interested. Happy social distancing!

How the harrowing etchings of ‘Der Krieg’ by Otto Dix have preserved the horror and trauma of World War I

Not many war tributes are as grim and unflinching as Der Krieg (‘The War’) by German artist Otto Dix (started in 1915 during his time at the front and completed in 1924) — a series that preserves in memory the horrific reality experienced by soldiers during The Great War. Join me as I examine the underlying emotions and themes represented within Dix’ pieces: from the obvious horror and violence; to the subtle nihilism, existential despair, disillusionment, and eventual empathy that so many young men found themselves experiencing whilst living face to face with unrelenting death and decay.

“The twentieth century was the most murderous in recorded history.”

O. Knowles, Wilfred Owen War Poems (1994)

Prior to the start of The War, propaganda from each side championing patriotism and nationalism was encouraging a collective ‘war fever’. This hysteria, soldiers would later discover, was nothing more than an attempt to ‘justify the righteousness of the war’. The popular Latin phrase ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (‘It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country’) became associated with the propagandist rhetoric of celebrating the dead as martyrs and heroes – something veterans, including Dix, saw right through following their return from war (Wilfred Owen, a British soldier, referred to the phrase as the ‘Old Lie’ in his eponymous war poem in which he documents the horrors of war). Most World War I poems and artwork reflect on this experience of disillusion: the shattering contrast between the idea of a glorified, heroic service ‘for king and country’ and the reality: the indignity and perversity of war and death in which there exists no such ‘glory’.

Otto Dix was twenty-four and a student at Dresden School of Arts and Crafts when he enthusiastically enlisted in the army; seeing war as an ‘inevitable part of life’ and a ‘catalyst for change’. In 1915, he was called to serve and operated as a machine gunner on the front line – however it was not until after the war, in 1924, his anti-militarist series Der Krieg was showcased. 

‘Wounded Man’ (Autumn 1916, Bapaume) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

Der Krieg is a collection of fifty-one etchings, full of barbaric realism; destruction and death set against a backdrop of foreboding misery. In the series, Dix captures his human subjects unflinchingly and candidly – he thrives on representing the most honest documentation of his wartime experiences; whether that means the portrayal of a soldier glaring at the viewer in wide-eyed agony following a blast to the abdomen, or the harsh fate shared by almost one million men: being reduced to nothing more than a skeleton on the ground, infested with worms and maggots.

‘Skull’ (Schädel) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

“Lice, rats, barbed wire, fleas, shells, bombs, underground caves, corpses, blood, liquor, mice, cats, gas, artillery, filth, bullets, mortars, fires, steel: this is what war is! It is the work of the Devil!”

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)

Perhaps the most disturbing theme one encounters whilst viewing the series in its entirety, is a sense of unsettling nihilism. Human life devoid of any meaning or significance; death is accepted as, literally, part of the scenery: mutilated remains of the dead crudely entangled in barbed wire, decomposing bodies sinking into the barren fields and mud of No Man’s Land. Poignant in its disillusionment, Dix portrays a grim testament to reality: speaking for the men falsely promised by politicians and generals a war ‘free of lice and rats’ and assured they’d be home in time for Christmas. 

‘Dance of Death’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

The stylistic documentation of the works – the fact we are seeing the war experience through Dix’ eyes – is what makes Der Krieg so frighteningly realistic, perhaps even more so than the hellish acts of violence it displays; the fact that, despite conjuring those vivid images of Armageddon, this was an inescapable truth. This happened. How can we dare to doubt Dix in his conviction? He lived it. He was there. 

‘Mealtime in The Trenches’ (Mahlzeit in der Sappe) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

It is clear that everyday life for those in the trenches was abysmal. Setting aside the violent aspect, we are forced to confront the fact that this is what life can be reduced to – even for us: World War I was not the first atrocity on Earth, and it certainly won’t be the last. Dix names a panel ‘mealtime in the trenches’, a deceptively benign title which forces us to compare our own experiences of mealtime – surrounded by family in the comfort of our own homes – with a trench mealtime: surrounded by filth with nothing but a decaying corpse for company. This is interesting when considering the depictions of trauma preserved in Dix’ work: he cleverly inserts a very unsettling depiction of traumatic stress into a drawing of a mundane, everyday activity. By definition, ‘emotional trauma’ manifests as the body’s response to a sudden and shocking change. We know not every mealtime this soldier has experienced in his lifetime has looked like this one; we can see that, past his thousand-yard stare, he is a human just like us – albeit with his faculties shot and his very self isolated amidst depravity. Arguably, it was during the adjustment to trench life – the adaptation of these ‘mundane, everyday’ activities (such as mealtime) against the hostile and horrifying backdrop of war – that enabled traumatic stress to manifest.

One particularly horrifying panel depicts a soldier who, we presume upon first glance, has died from the visible injuries caused by artillery and gunfire: flesh torn from his body, unprecedented wounds, his face contorted in agony. Only, upon further inspection, do we find the title of the piece – to our horror – informing us that this man is, in fact, not dead. Rather, he is dying. Probably slowly, certainly painfully. Again, we are forced to confront the pitiful and devastating reality of the war: Dix almost thrives on the horror he’s reproducing from his memories; it is as if he’s egging on the viewer ‘I endured this, you have to, too.’

‘Dying Man’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

There is an element of inquisitiveness when viewing Der Krieg; it is almost voyeuristic – we may be left feeling as though curiosity has got the better of us (and perhaps even the artist himself). When speaking about his reasons for enlisting in the war, Dix talks of his need for realism, which not only explains his harrowing artwork but also supports his case of reliability further:

“I had to see all that myself. I’m such a realist, you know, that I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it’s like that. I have to experience all the ghastly, bottomless depths of life for myself…”

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)
‘Dead Sentry in the Trenches’ (Toter Sappenposten) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

One of the most famed pieces from Der Krieg is the panel ‘Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor’ (‘Shock troops advance under gas’). Dix portrays five soldiers donning gasmasks, advancing the enemy lines. It is other-worldly, apocalyptic, and genuinely scary. Worse still, these soldiers – who, with their gasmasks obscuring their faces – have lost all trace of humanity – are crawling, scraping, hacking through dirt and barbed wire with whatever instruments they can find, and are coming for us, the viewer.

‘Shock Troops Advance under Gas’ (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

Upon contrast with other World War I artworks, Dix’ is distinct because of his refusal to conform to creating ‘aesthetically pleasing’ images: he is unflinching, brutally honest with the viewer – we cannot blend with gentle brush strokes the devastation of war and death. One might argue that too many artworks depicting war exist wherein the artist has taken great care to ensure a flattering composition complete with vibrant colours and an immaculate finish. Instead, Dix opts for stark black and white contrast, the messy – almost violent – technique of etching: creating the impression that the artworks themselves have been bayoneted, shot at, and left to decay in the muddy fields of France and Belgium like many of their subjects. The dreary, colourless hues found throughout Der Krieg only emphasise its sinister, jarring impact. Dix shows us a world sapped of colour; of life, of hope, of escape, and in doing so he succeeds in epitomising absolute horror.

‘Dead Man In Mud’ (Toter im Schlamm) from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924.

It’s clear from the varying emotions channeled into each drawing – some of which evoke a calm eeriness, others which quite literally personify fear, despair, and death – that Dix used drawing ‘in the midst of boredom and misery’ during the war as a sort of catharsis. Dix’ wartime experiences were so traumatic that he would later go on to suffer from recurring nightmares, and if his grisly artwork is anything to go by, one can scarcely even attempt to imagine the memories haunting him.

“For at least ten years I kept getting these dreams in which I had to crawl through ruined houses, along passages I could hardly get through

Otto Dix, War Diary 1915–1916 (published 1987)
‘Corpse caught up in barbed wire (Flanders)’ from Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix, 1924

In conclusion, Der Krieg is a brutally honest and unflinching narrative of war, told by a first-hand perspective of one of its casualties (and, later, its opposers). Der Krieg forces us to acknowledge the reality of warfare and the physical and psychological effects of those whose lives it touches. Dix’ approach is aggressive – the harsh etching, the duotone contrast – his anger and terror tangible in every piece, the sputtered canvases themselves reminiscent of something straight from No Mans Land. It is almost as though Dix sees it as his duty to set straight the glorified ‘Old Lie’ by revealing the ‘truth’ – a theme of justified embitterment that many war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon explore in their work. For these men, they are united amongst an almost tangible sense of unforgivable betrayal. Their work survives and serves as retribution for the Lost Generation.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by, 
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know 
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Siegfried Sassoon