Given that tomorrow is November 11th, it seems appropriate to be writing about Rachel Mann’s Fierce Imaginings. Like her previous works, it is a moving and intellectually acute book, and one which I’m sure will repay further readings.
Fierce Imaginings is an exploration of the impact of the First World War on the cultural memory, faith and symbols of Britain. The chapters take their impetus from considering particular symbols, such as the cenotaph, the cross, the poppy, and they consider their meaning at the time and since. This might sound rather like an exercise in combined semiotics and anthropology, but it is a deeply personal book, driven by Mann’s personal and family history.
She writes eloquently about her own obsession with the war and its effect on Britain’s self-image; the kinds of memories which are legitimated and the kinds which are silenced; the poets whose different visions were offered to later generations; the place of the Church of England in framing the war, amongst many other topics.
The book ranges widely, aware of its own status as an intervention into the very field it is outlining, and of the paradoxes which this inevitably involves. Mann is keen to balance the theorising which might make sense of the traces of the past with an impetus to value the individual human lives involved, and to subject them to a second obliteration via intellectual abstraction.
During these excursions across the topics, the reader comes across from intriguing ideas, which prompt further reflection. For example, the fact that the sides of the Cenotaph in London are not straight, but slightly curved, and that lines were extended from the corners they would meet in a vast, nearly empty sphere. Mann takes this as a possible symbol of the way memorials represent loss – in this case, almost physically.
There is a revealing account of how “shell shock” came to be formulated, and how the newspaper terminology blended with medical classifications and military designations to mark out this area of illness. Later on, there is a reading of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Peter Wimsey as a hero who reformulates re-war notions of masculinity in potent images of wounded hero who tries to bring healing, a cerebral tactician responsible for deaths on the gallows, a buried soldier dug out of the earth and a figure of English pastoral whose return to the countryside might begin the process of renewal.
It is a fascinating book – not the cultural history which might have been expected, but a blend of history, reflection, theology and social critique which sparks off ideas in all directions. Fierce Imaginings is characteristically careful to show the impulses which drive its ideas, and to set them in tension with each other. This might potentially frustrate some readers at times, especially if they are looking for a myth-busting history or a political statement, but it is honest and effective.
As with Mann’s earlier work, the ideas of the Eucharist and the funeral are frequently invoked, giving a sense of how they connect with other aspects of life without making them the subject of lengthy theorising. This book also shares with her previous writing a sense of the necessity for paradox, and the dangers of it. Where previously she described the Eucharist as an “act of profound resistance to theorising”, in a phrase which is tempting to put forward as a theory itself, here the Christian liturgy’s “uselessness” and lack of instrumental function is stressed, in a way which comes close to suggesting this is its use and function in the face of the mysteries of life and death. I would thoroughly recommend the book.