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War and gender

June 12, 2013

Margaret E Higonnet appears to rather have specialised in women and war. In one of her works, she writes: “What can a woman writer have to say about war? Why is the canon of American writers about World War I exclusively male? War, thought Hemingway, is ‘one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of,’ especially if one has not ‘experienced’ it. To ‘see’ war, he continued, is ‘quite irreplaceable’. His literary canon accordingly includes Tolstoy and Stendhal, taught by revolution and Napoleon; only one woman, Charlotte Yonge, figures briefly with her sketch of Thermopylae in Men at War, the anthology of war descriptions and memoirs Hemingway edited.
What does it mean to ‘see’ war? Must the war writer ‘man’ a gun turret and read the mud fields through its sights before ‘he’ can write with a pen? Homer, we are told, was blind; in postwar years, the French ritually paraded down the Champs Elysées their mutilated and blinded soldiers in testimony to their war sacrifice. Why does Hemingway, who served as an ambulance driver, so often insist on what he calls ‘the big wound’? The ultimate proof that one has seen action in war is to be mutilated or even dead. We might define war as the politically sanctioned inflicting of wounds and death by one body of soldiers (usually male) on another. War involves the communal experience of death. Paul Fussell and Eric and Leed have helped us understand the way this ultimate confrontation shapes a homosocial, even at times homoerotic, and aesthetically elect community. In the twentieth century not only seeing combat but dying in action have become paradoxical prerequisites to the writing and certification of war poetry. The annotations to many anthologies of ‘lost voices’ suggest that the direct experience of death itself offers the highest guarantee of a war poet’s authenticity and interest.” (p.192)

Higonnet continues: “Does death have a sex? Death, it seems, is indeed what differentiates men from women in wartime. In ‘Before Action,’ a poem written two days before his own death, William Hodgson prays, ‘Make me a soldier. … Make me a man…. Help me to die‘ (Hussey 78-79; my italics). War has always been a ritual that initiated youths into manhood. With the Great War of 1914-18, war and death became a rite of passage to poethood as well.
If war and death are understood to define manhood (and manly poetry) they also by opposition define womanhood. In this symbolic economy, to escape from death threatens the manhood of the war survivor…. Although in the past most thinking about war has been governed by the double helix of gender, reflection on that discursive dichotomy should make it possible for us to escape its reductive regime. On the surface, however, a masculinist and militarist ideology dictates that womanhood be identified with peace and life, positive values. For a woman to write about war, then, might seem an oxymoron.” (p.193)

Does a woman writer defile war itself by traversing boundaries between domestic and public arenas? Central to the question whether a woman can write about ‘war’ is the distinction between the battlefront and the home front, a distinction that may make little sense in total war. What is the political agenda of a woman who writes a ‘war novel’ about the ‘home front’? Does ‘seeing war’ mean witnessing the deconstruction of a physical landscape into muddy chaos? If seeing clearly means recognizing a pattern at a broader sociopolitical level, which patterns count as historic or poetic or both? Which are unutterable? Social order and transgression, central themes in women’s works on this subject, are at stake in the prohibition on women’s writing about war and about the ostensibly communal, masculine experience of death.
One of the areas that calls for inquiry, then, is that mapped by tropes of femininity in time of war. Do tropes built on ‘womanly’ activities of reconstruction such as sewing or nursing necessarily reinforce the stereotypical opposition between women and war? If poetry is a more ‘feminine’ genre than prose, do male poets become feminized and female poets hyperfeminized in their attempts to represent war? …In fact, as Jean Elshtain has said, neither woman nor war is a self-evident category. Do we see war as an action, a time, a political and social process, or a place? If we look closely at texts that record the experience of World War I, we find very significant slippages between war and peace, between masculinity and feminity, between death-dealing and life-giving functions, as well as between positive and negative values. War, according to a familiar political formula, makes peace possible; peace, according to a number of women writers, masks gender war.” (p.194)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Margaret E Higonnet “Women in the Forbidden Zone: War, Women, and Death.” Death and Representation. Ed. Sarah Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. pp.192-210.

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