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Distance Learning: Mary A. Favret’s “War at a Distance”

It’s a common truth now that as much as we create our culture, our culture also creates us. Like Frankenstein’s monster acting with a mind of his own, culture eludes our attempts to rein it in and shapes us in return. Mary A. Favret’s War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime looks at the way we look at warfare from the home front and point to the age of the Romantics, mired as they were in the Napoleonic Wars, as the origin of how we still see our world in times of conflict. Ranging back in history as far back as the Iliad and as far forward as W.G. Sebald, Favret centers her view of warfare vision on the days of Wordsworth and Turner.

The British public lived the Napoleonic Wars on a daily basis. Aside from the ever-present threat of invasion, they lived with the deprivations of the drain on the economy necessary to field an army and navy large enough to defend the realm. The wrecked bodies of returned soldiers lined the streets of cities and towns—soulless shells clamoring for alms. As Favret relates, Wordsworth almost hoped for an invasion just to put an end to the endless anticipation. The Romantics—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, et al—wrote during this time and couldn’t help but record this reality in their poetry. Favret mines much of the minor as well as major works of these authors and others to find clues to how they, and the average citizen, felt about life on the home front in a time of endless war. These feelings thus became part of the cultural DNA that we all, the children of the Romantics, have grafted onto our sensibilities as part of our cultural inheritance. Even someone as temporally elusive as Jane Austen can’t help but contribute to the conflicted nature of those touched by conflict at a far remove.

Although the main focus of Favret’s study is the literature, she does venture into the world of art and how it reflected the view of war. Instead of the art of the Napoleonic Wars, however, Favret turns her critical eye to the nineteenth century British art of India, especially that of Thomas and William Daniell, Robert H. Colebrooke, and Robert Home. Each of these artists portray the “otherness” of the Indian landscape as a landscape of war—specifically the war of conquest by the British Empire. Bringing in figures as diverse as Goya and Susan Sontag, Favret weaves a fascinating thesis regarding how we can both see and not see the violence of these unpeopled landscapes and how that paradox has served as a kind of template ever since.

As interesting as it was to discover these now-obscure British artists of the Romantic period, I couldn’t help but long for some extended discussion of Turner and Constable—the twin towers of British Romantic painting. Constable appears on the cover of War at a Distance but never once in the text. Turner makes a fleeting cameo appearance. How does a work such as Turner’s The Field of Waterloo fit into Favret’s theories? That painting shows women and children trolling the battlefield for their loved ones—a less than glorious scene in which the home front intrudes on the theater of battle. Perhaps Favret disqualified that scene for lacking distance, but even contemporary reviewers saw the painting as more allegorical than journalistic. Considering the influence of Turner—perhaps the closest visual analogue to Wordsworth in British Romantic painting—a consideration of his works seems warranted. Favret works wonders with minor artists as indicative of the spirit of the age and as true barometers of what filled the air at the time, but I’d have liked to have seen more mention of Turner, if for no other reason than as a contrast—the exception proving the rule.

Aside from this minor concern, I found Favret’s narrative compelling. To connect all the necessary dots, she needed to lace together a fine web of interrelated texts of all kinds—verbal, visual, and historical. The final product stands up to the weight of scrutiny as well as entertains with a bravura performance of looking back and ahead in equal measures. Mired ourselves at a distance in our endless War on Terror, we should look long and hard at Favret’s War at a Distance not only for the sources of our coping mechanisms, but also for the origins of how we separate ourselves from the reality of waging war and, perhaps unconsciously, contribute to how wars begin.

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of Mary A. Favret’s War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime.]

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