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Veteran Poetics

British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790-2015


Kate McLoughlin


Cambridge: University Press, 2018

Hardcover. xi+320 pages ISBN 978-1107195936. £29


Reviewed by Catherine Hoffmann

Université Le Havre Normandie




Kate McLoughlin’s name will be familiar to those of us interested in the representation of war in literature, especially since the publication of her stimulating work Authoring War : The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Although she has considerably narrowed her field of investigation in her new book, Veteran Poetics : British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790-2015, she has retained the connection with ancient Greek literature in the form of vignettes from The Odyssey, introducing the points and motifs discussed in all but the final chapter. This formal and thematic conceit signposts the author’s argument and highlights a literary genealogy inaugurated with the veteran figure of Ulysses.

Veteran Poetics appears to have originated in its author’s realisation that, in spite of his “extraordinary potential” as a literary figure, the war veteran has often been “treated as a sentimental or comic character”, or, more recently “diagnosed as traumatised”, when not simply “overlooked by critics” [2]. While acknowledging the relevance of the psychological / psychoanalytical perspective on war trauma, Kate McLoughlin adopts an essentially epistemological approach to the ways in which the figure of the veteran has been deployed in British literature since the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Epistemological concerns, already in evidence in Authoring War, are central to McLoughlin’s analysis of “what fictional veterans do in and for literary texts” [3] and to her argument that, in the age of mass warfare, the literary veteran is especially apt to figure the disruption of the Enlightenment project and its collapse into “a post-Enlightenment version of modernity” [2].

The disruptive function of the veteran is evidenced throughout the work, including in the first two chapters concerned with questions of personal identity and social / communal identity rather than with issues relating to experience and communication. Those are explored in chapters three to five, where the passing-on by ex-soldiers of their experientially-based knowledge is revealed to be increasingly problematic to their diegetic audience, to themselves, and to the readers of the literary works in which they appear as protagonists until, at the end, their silence and unfathomability undermine the Enlightenment’s ideal of rational communication and the transitivity of knowledge. It may be objected that war veterans, whether in literature or in real life, are not the only group exhibiting this disruptive power, but Kate McLoughlin’s argument is that their very number, a direct consequence of mass warfare, their prominent presence in literature,(1) and the epistemological anxieties generated by the uncertainties of modern wars make them particularly fitting vehicles to convey a post-Enlightenment world-view and, ultimately, to invite a new ethical reading, which involves both attention to and respect for what has not been said and for what cannot be known.

Although the point made in each chapter is supported by the analysis of literary examples, and in spite of what the “Poetics” of the title seems to suggest, the theoretical foundations of Kate McLoughlin’s discussion are philosophical rather than narratological or stylistic, and many of the concepts she uses originate in the work of German thinkers: Kant, Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Habermas. She also displays linguistic inventiveness in coining her own useful concepts of “having-been-ness” and “biographical decorum”. The first is inseparable from the notion of veterancy – a handy neologism, possibly also of the author’s invention – especially in its restrictive sense referring to the condition of ex-soldiers / combatants since the quality of “being former” or “having been” is inherent in the figure of the veteran. By “biographical decorum”, Kate McLoughlin refers to the kairos of the ancient Greeks, the idea that certain things are appropriate to certain times of life. The concept informs the first chapter, “Life Times”, which explores the ways in which literary works show veterancy to upset the sequential order of individual life, either through belatedness or prematurity, exemplified, for instance, in narratives of the return, no longer expected, of a veteran exhibiting the signs of premature aging, the bodily inscription of veterancy in the form of weather-beaten skin, emaciation, maimed or missing limbs forming a persistent motif in most of the texts analysed in Veteran Poetics.

In chapter two, “Strangers”, the concepts of “otherness” and “hospitality”, the latter borrowed from Kant and Habermas, provide the theoretical lenses through which the figure of the veteran-as-xenos is discussed. In the texts used by Kate McLoughlin in this chapter, all relating to World War Two, the ex-soldiers (one is in fact an impostor) are presented as intruders who disrupt the life of the community to which they return, test Kantian conditional hospitality to its limits [72-73], and may even constitute a social and political threat.

Crucial to the remaining chapters is the distinction, made in particular by Walter Benjamin, between Erlebnis, immediate or isolated experience, and Erfahrung, “cumulative experience acquired over time allowing the individual to form judgments” [106]. The veteran, McLoughlin argues, having “literally been through the wars” [109] and supposedly acquired knowledge and wisdom from this harrowing experience, “is the natural figurative expression of Erfahrung” [109]. Thus, the veteran detectives of chapter three, “Problem-Solving”, embody a strand of detective fiction which “foregrounds human insight” [116] based on Erfahrung-related qualities, in contrast to the scientific method of a Sherlock Holmes. In spite of its usefulness in crime-solving, the veterans’ epistemology, based on their war experience, is shown, in the novels of Dorothy Sayers and J.K. Rowling, to have its own limitations and to require hard forensic proof in support of the truth. The value of this epistemology is further undermined by the compulsive story-telling veterans encountered in chapter four, “Telling Tales”. The adjectival meaning of “telling” is jeopardised by excessive, repetitive or unsolicited story-telling on the part of the veteran characters whose narrative deluge undermines not only the effectiveness of the stories but the possibility of rational communication. Chapter five, “The End of the Story”, is inaugurated by a conspicuous typographical blank where the vignette from The Odyssey should have been. This breach of the book’s formal pattern visually dramatises the final stage in the crumbling of experientially-based epistemology, and the ushering in of a post-Enlightenment modernity. In the literary works analysed in this chapter, the collapse of Enlightenment modernity is represented figuratively by veterans incapable of communicating their war experience. Like the dropped staff of Wordsworth’s “The Discharged Soldier”, experience seems to “have fallen away” from them, “slipped through [their] grasp” [206]. What those veterans express is a double unfathomability: unable to make sense of their war experience, they remain opaque to others who can neither learn from them nor empathise with them. Kate McLoughlin, mostly drawing on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, suggests in her conclusion, “Can the Veteran Speak?” that this double unknowing should invite new ethical ways of reading, attentive to and respectful of veteran silences.

Veteran Poetics is, to borrow from its author’s terminology, a hospitable book. Hospitable in that it offers critical space to a varied, eclectic, unprejudiced array of literary works, ranging from canonical works by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Tennyson, Austen or Woolf to lesser-known or forgotten poems or novels (e.g. a 1795 poem by Robert Merry, an 1804 anonymous ballad, novels by Betty Miller and Helen Ashton), and allowing co-habitation between Zadie Smith and Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers and J.K. Rowling. Occasionally, one may have some reservations about the justification for inclusion (this is the case for Austen’s Persuasion) but these do not detract from the pleasure of discovery or rediscovery. Kate McLoughlin is at her best in those passages of close reading (for instance the twenty-three pages devoted to Wordsworth’s “The Discharged Soldier”) which articulate textual analysis and her epistemological argument fluently and convincingly. Veteran Poetics is hospitable also in relation to its readers, treated by its author with consideration and with a view to ensuring fruitful communication through careful definitions, clear transitions and what could more generally be termed pedagogical means, including a useful appendix, “The Veteran in National Life and Culture”. In this sense, and in contrast to the uncommunicative veterans of chapter five, Veteran Poetics is heir to the Enlightenment’s ideals. Kate McLoughlin’s clear, distinctive, occasionally humorous voice(2) and linguistic inventiveness contribute greatly to the pleasure experienced in the course of reading her work.

Veteran Poetics should be a source of inspiration and an encouragement to investigate representation of the veteran in other literatures, in film and television series,(3) especially in relation to recent asymmetrical wars and the issues – representational, political and ethical – raised about veterancy in these new contexts.


(1) In the appendix, Kate McLoughlin notes, for instance, that “the First World War produced almost 6 million British veterans. Nearly a million of them […] were disabled.” [260]. Veterans of the two World Wars, she observes, are still a pervasive presence in British literature. More recent British engagements in various theatres of war have continued to produce veterans, their number in the UK being estimated at 2.83 million in 2014.

(2) For instance: “it is possible to respect another person without usurping their footwear” [27].

(3) While reading Veteran Poetics, the present reviewer happened to be watching Season One of the British series Peaky Blinders and was struck by how relevant McLoughlin’s analysis was to its World War One veteran protagonists.



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