Friday, June 22, 2012

An insignificant human being

I suppose this is the end. This book is not a history book, but just the plain tale of an insignificant human being. Countless hosts are to be maimed, killed, wasted, ruined. For what? For Poland? For the Greater Reich? No. These are just the slogans that cover the whole damnable, wicked, crass stupidity. Great God in Heaven, why did you create Man just a little lower than the angels, just a little higher than the beasts?
(extract from diary of Ted Pates, 01/09/39)

Last month, I spent three days in Berlin. The occasion was a family reunion that centred around an uncle’s birthday, and which brought me together with many people I hadn’t seen in several years. I’d passed through Berlin once before, spending a few hours in the place whilst en route from Prague to Amsterdam in the late 90s, but this was my first change to actually soak up any of the ambience of the place.

Berlin is a city that wears its scars on the outside, as a place that has been location for such historically significant events as it has can only do. These days, it also has a great sense of what can be achieved when divisions no longer divide so deeply. Eventually, I’ll put the pictures up here, as I'm sure they will do the city far greater justice than my stumbling words can attempt to achieve.

Many years ago, following on later from the death of my grandfather’s brother Ted, I inherited a sheath of papers from this same uncle whose birthday we had come to celebrate. This set of mercifully-legible dot-matrix printed pages spanned September 1939 to March 1944, and contained Ted’s personal diary from World War II. I’ve always intended to do something with this resource, but haven’t known quite what.

By ending in early ’44, the diaries are also incomplete. Tracing the parallel story of his life with that of the development and conclusion of the war is not possible without the missing parts of the puzzle. To my great surprise during the Berlin trip, I had a conversation with a cousin where I discovered that she actually possessed some of the remaining parts of this journal. I found out today that her copies go up to August 1945, so although there will still be parts of the puzzle missing (Truman officially declared the war over in December 1946, and that leaves Ted’s perspective on a year and a half of aftermath still hidden from view), that is a much more complete picture than I have now.

I mention all this here and now because I am contemplating preparing an abstract to submit to a conference on ‘War and Life-Writing’ at Oxford University in November this year, and Ted’s work seems like a gift horse of a resource for making a contribution to this conference with.

The problem I have (aside from not having the complete diary or even having completely read through the years that I do have) is that I don’t know what to do for it. I’ve spoken at conferences before, but doing so at Oxford’s kind-of taking it to a whole different level. I guess that even getting accepted for speaking at a conference at Oxford is bit of a step up in itself. I’ve also given myself very little headspace recently in which to think up things like this, so I’ve a thing (the diary) and a place (the conference) but I haven’t yet got a ‘what to do’.

In scholarly pursuit, a question always marks a beginning. Possible research questions that this conference seeks to address include:

  • How do the genres of life writing (and/or film) mediate the experience of war?
  • How does war impact upon the genres of life writing?
  • What is the significance of the emerging digital genres of life writing for war representation (i-journalism, Twitter, social networking sites)?
  • What are the relationships between gender and life writings about war?
  • How can the phenomenon of missing or silent testimonies be theorised?
  • How do representations of war in the life-writing genres challenge or support ‘official’, governmental, or archetypal depictions? 
One of the interesting facets of Ted’s diaries is that he was a pacifist, as far as I’m aware throughout his life, but certainly during that war. Although British men were no longer court-martialled for refusing to fight by the late thirties as they had been during WWI, pacifism nevertheless remained a socially taboo position to hold, particularly when London’s skies darkened with Luftwaffe and a rising tide of solidarity against an external threat produced certain common positions amongst neighbours.

Would this stance of Ted’s be considered a ‘missing or silent testimony’? How indeed could that be theorised? When today it is possible to give voice to a peaceful opposition to conflict by tweeting live from the war zone, what implications does that have for the silencing of testimonies? What challenges do his representations of the war present for contemporary readings of the period, ‘official’ or otherwise?

I do not know yet how or whether this one will pan out, but it is certainly tempting to try and get something together for the conference. I’ll report back if I manage to put an abstract/proposal together for it, but in the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions for an angle of pursuit, feel free to add in the comments below.

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