I think a lot about projection and pedestals, and devotion vs delusion. In a culture of fanaticism and glorification, I think it’s crucial to critically assess these things as much as possible, for they are often habits we’ve unwittingly learned: from popular media, from books and art and film and songs. Today we are living in a post-Romanticism period, our society littered with leftover remnants of the most beautiful (and unrealistic) cultural movement in history. I think a lot about how Romanticism still informs our wider understanding and perception of romantic love: obsessive and tragic attachment is a distinctive feature of the movement and, in some of the most significant works (think The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wuthering Heights, Manfred), nine times out of ten, someone (often our brooding hero, expiring for love, or the object of their unrequited or unfulfilled desire) dies.
I will probably write a more in-depth post at some point about all of this, but needless to say, I try to be super conscious of the shit I project onto others through our zeitgeist’s subconscious lens of ‘post-Romanticism’ — feeling in extremes, excessive sentimentalism, idealising and romanticising unhealthy or abusive behaviours, suicidal ideation, placing unfair and unattainable expectations onto others in the name of love… We are all victims of past painters and poets.
“The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love. […] A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp. A good man may be the stimulus for a love both violent and debased, or a jabbering madman may bring about in the soul of someone a tender and simple idyll. Therefore, the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself. It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many.”
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Carlson McCullers
Is attraction (and repellence for that matter) ever anything more than projection on some level? I’m convinced the more damaged you are, the more prone you are to perceiving individuals through a prism of your own unmet needs — whether that leads to idealisation or devaluation or both.
If everyone you meet is a mirror, how can you begin to discern the illusion you’ve created from the reality of who they actually are?
Carl Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, wrote the following piece in 2003 about her husband’s death. I think about it a lot.
What’s more beautiful than the (im)probability of existence? The chance of any one of us existing at all is approx 1 in 10^2,685,000. To clarify, that second number is a 10 followed by almost 2.7 million zeros.
Now double that number for every person you love. For every chance encounter, for every miraculous bond and companionship that enriches our time on this planet, that makes us forget the ultimate pointlessness of it all — of life — all the inertia and inevitably of inhabiting a giant rock hurtling towards oblivion. Borne of stardust and supernovas and 4 billion years of single-cell survival… To not only co-exist but to find each other in the cosmos, at this time and place, in spite of it all — we are so lucky! I am so grateful for the people I love, the people I have loved – without motive, without agenda (without, admittedly, sometimes, the slightest bit of self-composure). I am grateful that somehow — inexplicably, implausibly, incredibly — the universe found a way.
Maybe we came from the same star a billion years ago.
Sometimes, one thanks some people for merely existing at the same time as we do.
I dread the day that the monotonous equilibrium of those every day and simplistic certainties I take for granted — health, safety, the comfort of hearing my mother trudging down the stairs every morning, the expectant sound of gravel crunching under my sister’s tyres as she arrives home from work every day at 6pm — is jerked into cold, cataclysmic suspension.
Nestled in the pseudo-cocoon of ignorance and denial,
Pried open by a all at once distant and familiar sinister irony:
Time, fate, life, death.
I fool myself into thinking it’s a long way off, bury my head in the sand, try not to think about it, immersed in and distracted by the solace of structure and routine. Yet in the back of my mind it’s always there, silent and shrouded but lurking around every corner; the unwelcome guest at every family meal, inescapable as a shadow in the noon day sun. An ever-present reminder burrowing into the fine lines upon my grandmother’s face; the disquieting implication behind stiffing limbs, muscle tremors, and the passage of time: none of this will last.
Sometimes I look at the people I love — focus on their faces until my eyes sting, willing my retinas to burn their image into sacrosanct memory — every pore, scar, freckle, discolouration, stray hair. Saving the image for the day I absolutely know exists, somewhere in the lottery of the future, predetermined, pre-penned into every new calendar I buy.
I understand now why humans find so much comfort in conventionality, why they invent tradition, embrace familiarity: these things are merely weapons against that faceless, sinister fact closing in a little further each day we are alive, which promises but one thing; to disrupt beyond reparation everything about an existence we thought we once knew.
It circles. It stalks from afar. I feel it even in my happiest moments; a pang of dysphoria, the subtle dread of certainty. One day I will hug my mother for the last time. I stand in my garden. Take in the space I currently occupy. One day it will no longer be mine. I breathe, oxygen facilitated by trees who will outlive me. We are all nature’s tenants, I think to myself as I leave imprints in the grass of a thousand former footprints.
Constantly bracing, constantly preparing. For the horror I know, I know, I know — beyond all earthly comprehension — awaits.
Heidegger, in his magnum opus Being and Time, called this existential orientation “Being-towards-death” — he argued the only way to live authentically is to constantly acknowledge our own death. Sound morbid? Welcome to existentialism . I wrote my 10,000 word undergraduate thesis on it. I’m fun at parties, I swear.
Each time I am deeply, profoundly hurt there is an overwhelming, dread-filled sense of inevitability and resignation that feels something like: “Oh god, this is it. This is the one that’ll do it. This is the one that’ll finally break me. My heart just can’t take it again.” Each time I sit, crushed, inconsolable, waiting for the world to end — and each time it begins again in the morning. My fragile, bruised heart: a fox fleeing bloodhounds – stricken but stoic – carries on beating; blood keeps pumping; lungs keep inhaling, keep exhaling; tear ducts (which I am certain have well exhausted their function by now) spill anew once more. Ups and downs. Loss and adjustment. And yet, I – somehow – despite it all – do not, will not – lose the fundamental trust and faith I feel towards humans and nature and friendship and joy and love. To possess the capacity to love another person – without judgement, without agenda – is a gift. To own the capacity to feel deeply is a gift. Connectedness to another – passing or permanent – is a gift. Sometimes people shine their light on you only briefly: entering your life unannounced and unexpected, inspiring and enriching and emboldening your very soul, and then they are gone, it seems, as soon as they appear, vacating the home they made in your heart. It’s brutal, it’s unfair, but I refuse to let grief take the shape of anger; to demonise or vilify. I will cherish the memories and the lessons and the bond – the capacity to find fulfilment and joy and understanding and commonality in another human. To be able to love and love unconditionally – I am so, so lucky.
“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it” David Foster-Wallace wrote once. To feel deep pain is to feel deep love – absence always denotes a presence. All I strive for anymore is the grace to accept and to let go – with dignity, with decorum – everything which does not (will not, can not) whole-heartedly choose me back.
What to say about a novel whose reputation has eclipsed it?
I have avoided this book like the plague up until this year, my twenty-eighth trip around the sun, ignorantly and incorrectly assuming (due to the infamous and controversial subject matter) that it normalises pedophilia. “Lolita is a book for Lana Del Ray fans and infantilised women who seek out destructive love affairs with men thirty years older, viewing very obvious power imbalances through their rose-tinted heart-shaped glasses” I would say. No, no, no! I was WRONG! (This doesn’t happen very often so I’m more than happy to suck it up. I haven’t felt like such a fool since I watched a Tarantino movie for the first time – aged twenty-five – after deliberately shunning his filmography throughout the first half of my twenties because all the worst people I knew would wax poetic about Tarantino — pretentious students sat beneath the framed Pulp Fiction poster in their living rooms. “These people suck, so must his movies.” God, I played myself there.)
And here, too, it seems.
There is a temptation to conceal this book when reading it in public. Can’t bring it up in conversation—can of worms—who wants to discuss a book about a pedo, much less actually read one? But here’s the thing: Lolita does not romanticise pedophilia. It is a viscerally tragic story about a reprehensible sex abuser and his victim. A book can both describe abhorrent things whilst writing them beautifully. It reminded me of Fowles’ The Collector and, to a lesser extent, Süskind’sPerfume. Sardonic, witty; a black comedy. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is one of the most pathetic men I’ve ever come across, fictitious or otherwise; despicable, pitiful, loathesome — laughable. He isn’t written as a sympathetic character (at all) which I emphatically argue is not and was never Nabokov’s objective. Humbert is portrayed as calculating and manipulative; delusional, coercive, jealous, possessive, his cruelty masked by his superficial concern – for himself more than anyone else. Granted, Humbert lacks social and self awareness: he grapples with moral reasoning and points out the ancient historical practices of incest and pederasty, implementing cognitive dissonance to convince himself that what he’s doing (grooming and abusing a twelve year old child) is fine — permissible. He is, in his own disturbed mind, if not innocent, then justified; being sole protector and guardian to his poor, poor orphan waif, after all. She is watered, fed (just enough to not gain weight lest she lose her lithe, spindly boy legs and flat torso, mind you), there is a roof over her head, she is positively spoilt with treats in the form of candies and toys (in exchange for sexual favours, of course). I mean, consider the alternatives for a destitute orphan in working class America — and he does consider this, and forces his poor Lolita to, as well, regularly making thinly veiled threats of reformatories and orphanages. What more could she want?
At no point is Lolita a “romance” or a “tragic love story” (and anyone I come across describing it as such will be assigned to the category of walking red flag). The subject matter is obviously very distressing (Martin Amis, in his essay on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, proposes very convincingly that Lolita is “a study in tyranny”) and yet, all of this bleakness contrasts with the genius of Nabokov’s writing: the masterful use of the language, the intricate prose, the satirical double entendres, the cunning subtext… I was left juxtaposed somewhere between anguish and incredulity.
Reading Lolita, though, has only reaffirmed my understanding that, in cases of child abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), the gravity of the tragedy is not merely culminated by the child possessed (controlled, harmed, abused etc) but the child preserved – in time, in motion, in circumstance. “Childhood innocence” is a quaint term: what is really robbed in these cases is the once seemingly boundless possibilities of life; of a future, of a wholly benevolent outside world, of naivety and promise and hope. One’s potential in this way is immediately and inexplicably limited, restricted, hindered; the effect this has on a child’s psyche is probably the cruelest and most sinister thing about abuse — the still-developing juvenile brain responding to and attempting to process what is happening to and around them; goodbye to trivial and trifling matters such as schoolwork and play: neuroplasticity ensures the brain’s alteration, adjustment — (in order to function, to endure, to survive) — and it is never the same again.
The novel lapses in time to three years later and we are confronted by the catastrophic reality that — once a smart, obstinate child with “the IQ of 120” and a gifted tennis player — Dolores Haze (aka Lo aka Dolly aka Lolita) has found herself in the suburbs, pregnant and a housewife at the weathered old age of seventeen. “He broke my heart, you merely broke my life” Dolores tells Humbert, straightforwardly and not unkindly, as they discuss her “cheating” (running away) (see also: kidnapping) at the hands of another pedophile, an associate of Humbert’s no less. What of Dolores Haze’s potential? University? Professional tennis? Hollywood billboards? A string of passionate (and – check this – consensual) love affairs? A satisfying family life that doesn’t feel like mere acquiescence to circumstance? We’ll never know, all because a creep masquerading as her mother’s boyfriend couldn’t control his depraved impulses when she was a child. Humbert’s only fractionally redeeming moment? He gifts Dolores the inheritance she is rightfully due from the sale of her dead mother’s house. What a guy.
There’s a poignant moment towards the end of the novel where Humbert finally reflects on (note: reflectson, not realises — I think he knew all along) the damage he has caused, inflicted; the life he has stolen:
The good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding […] Alas, I was never unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithopathic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me — that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can then life is a joke), then I see nothing for the treatment of my misery.
Nabokov, Lolita, pp.257–258
How many people are walking this earth knowingly lesser-than because their emotional and spiritual development was fatally arrested by adults who were meant to protect, care for, nurture? How many amongst us – broken, battered, and bruised – have been robbed of our potential, living a life we know could have been so much more, if only, if only. To stay alive whilst waking up every day and confronting that knowledge; to mourn a life that never was, that never will be: is a bonafide superpower.
Dolores isn’t one for the luxury of self pity, however, when Humbert shows up at her doorstep after tracking her down she refuses to dwell on the particulars of the past, only hoping she can give her unborn child what she never had — a chance. She ends up dying due to childbirth complications on Christmas Day, 1952.
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 is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable feminity. Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars–to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording–all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.
Sylvia Plath, ‘The Unabridged Journals’
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.’
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.