Friday, February 19, 2016

Attridge and Staten 7: Wilfred Owen’s "Futility" and the issue of historical context

Attridge and Staten worked with Wilfred Owen’s Futility as a way of examining the question of historical context. Here’s the poem:
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
Here’s how Staten put the matter (p. 39-40):
In this poem the speaker speaks of a companion whose newly dead body lies, apparently, nearby. Since Owen’s greatest poetry is to be found in his war poems, and “Futility” was written during the war, is about a recently dead man, and laments his death, this poem is naturally read by practically all critics as a war poem. Yet it contains not a single explicit reference to war. There is a mention of France, but that’s it. Owen’s other war poems are much more direct in their references to the war. There are strong contextual reasons to read “Futility” as a war poem; and yet, someone who stubbornly, and perhaps against commonsense, insisted on reading only what is “in” the poem would be unable to find any justification for such a reading.
He concludes this preamble by observing (p. 40): “I have to admit I have to exercise considerable mental discipline on myself not to see the reference to France as decisive; but when I read the whole poem with care, I’m quite sure that this is not a war poem.”

A War Poem?

In response, Attridge notes that he’s always read the poem as a war poem, “though it’s clearly more than that” (p. 40), and admits that the most obvious reason for so doing is that Owen is known as a war poet. If we didn’t know that, however, if we just came upon the poem on a page with no contextual information, not even the author’s name, how would we read the poem? He then goes on to worry about the distinction between what’s “inside” the text and what’s “outside” (the scare quotes are his) and to muse about the meanings of words, with references to Wittgenstein and Kripke, historical knowledge, and to authorial intention (“whatever Owen thought he was doing” p. 41).

Then he turns the discussion back to Staten, who allows that minimal reading assumes the sort of general cultural literacy that one could pick up through the Wikipedia, which in this case would identify Owen an English poet and soldier who fought in World War I (p. 42). On that basis, the reference to France would place WWI “inside” the poem –the scare quotes are Staten’s, not mine. But I assure you that I would use them in that context as well, for we are on nebulous ground indeed when we talk about the “insides” and “outsides” of poems. Staten also notes that he’s reread all of Owen’s war poems and “this poem is uniquely evasive in its reference to war” (p. 48). So, he asserts, we must look closely at the technique of this poem.

After a bit of this and that Attridge notes that poems work line by line, to which Staten strongly assents (p. 44), and then the dialog is back to Attridge, who, among other things, offers some biographical details about Owens’ participation in, hospitalization during, and ultimate death in the war (pp. 45-46). Staten doesn’t know quite what to make of the biographical information, leading to a line of speculation leaving us “bogged down in the imponderability of context, and yet no amount of such information would tell us the specific effect of language Owen was trying for when he constructed his poem in just this way” (p. 47) and he goes on to note in passing, “the endless labor of reading the poem” (p. 47).

We have more this and that from both of them – including an interesting distinction between the speaker of the poem and the designing poetic intelligence who created that speaker (pp. 47, 49) – and Staten brings the discussion around to the word “this” as in functions in line 12 (3rd from the end). He offers five ways of reading it (p. 52):
Here is a scale of possible readings, from the most particularized to the most general, that could be given to this:

1. This individual death here. Since my comrade’s life has been prematurely ended by this brutal senseless war, it’s better that the earth had remained a cold, lifeless orb for all eternity.

2. This individual death as representative of the carnage of WWI. Since so many lives have been ended by this was as this one has, it’s better that ...

3. This individual death as representative of the senselessness of war death in general. Since many, many lives have been ended in a similar way by many wars, it’s better that ...

4. This individual death as representative of the premature, senseless cutting off of life in general, however this might happen. Since a multitude of lives has been ended, and continues to be ended, prematurely, senselessly, by war and many other causes, it’s better that ...

5. Since all organic life ends like this, in the stark horror of the corpse, which reverts to the cold clay from which it came, since there is no resurrection, not by the sun or by anything else, then all organic life had better not have existed.
Staten then enters into a brief discussion of the first four possibilities, which he concludes thus (p. 52):
Meanings 1 to 4 are all, of course, imposable on the poem, but a skillful poet who wanted us to get at least a sense of the occasion for such wild grief should have done something to evoke the pathos of brutal, senseless, premature (war) death, instead of leaving us to weave it in our minds out of the phrase “even in France.”
Since, however, Owen is a skillful poet, we are left starting at 5, which Staten defends and explicates over the next four paragraphs. That last paragraph reads (p. 53):
The proper historical context within which to read this poem, on this reading, would then be not the war (although the war does provide the contingent occasion for the confrontation with death), but the triumph of the scientific, materialist worldview against which the Victorians had fourth the last agonized battle. Tennyson’s In Memoriam is a directly relevant predecessor to “Futility”.
In the interest of simply getting through this, I’ll give the final word to Attridge (p. 54):
So we need a way of talking about an experience of the poem which is not simply the aggregate of the psychological responses it occasions, just as we need to find a way of keeping in check the ingenious interpretations it occasions […] that the assiduous and inventive critic is able to bring to the poem.

Maybe the way forward is to regard any reading of a poem as provisional, always open to being affected by new information, fresh insights, more careful scrutiny of the way the words work. A minimal reading would be one that does justice to the poem as a construction in words relying on reasonable public knowledge–cultural literacy as you called it.
He notes that he “can’t move wholly past 3 and 4 in favor of 5” (p. 54), for the mention of France will evoke the war context for any “literate reader”. After some elaboration he offers a page of commentary on Owen’s poetic technique, noting that he exploits conventional patterns in unusual ways: “Most readers are probably completely unaware of these details, but they do their work in the reading as part of the experience that makes this such a powerful and memorable poem” (p. 56).

So What?

This is quite a bit of detailed discussion organized around a single question – Is this a war poem? – though it touches other matters. Well, is it? What does it matter?

Let me note, first of all, that the issue that motivated this discussion is not an open-ended: What does it mean? It’s a fairly specific question: war poem or not? My own take on the discussion is that, without contextual information, the conclusion that it IS a war poem is only very weakly motivated, if that. Even given the contextual information provided in this discussion, I find that conclusion only weakly motivated. Mostly, we just don’t know.

With that in mind I’m going to assert, somewhat polemically, that, most generally, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a war poem or not. Does that make me a know-nothing postmodern deconstructive nihilist? That would be news to me.

Let’s back up a bit. Let me invoke one of my touchstone passages. This one is from Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973, but originally published in the 30s). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
...surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
If that is how we (by which I mean all of us, not just professional critics) use literature, then a question we (by which I now mean professional critics) might ask of any text is: What range of experience is reasonably brought to order by the text?

I propose that we treat Staten’s five possible readings, not so much as interpretations of the text, but as an assertion about the range of life experiences accessible to this text, Futility. The text my ‘fit’ some of them better than others, but in one degree or another, it fits them all. As such, the text becomes a vehicle, a mediator in Latour’s terminology, through which people share their experiences. It is a device, if you will, for building community.

Seen this way, the text doesn’t have to have some one (determinate) meaning incumbent on all. The meaning can be elastic – a word I prefer to the deconstructive “indeterminate”. In fact, it may well be that its elasticity is what makes a text so useful – if I may be so vulgar – for it is that elasticity that allows the texts to bring diverse individuals within communal range of one another.

If that is so, then one might ask: what is it about literary texts that gives them this community-building elasticity? Some years ago I argued at some length that it is form [1], and I still believe that. But I do not believe that we have substantial knowledge about the mechanisms of literary form. I say that knowing full well that formalism in one guise or another has been a mode of critical thought and examination for a century or more. But this is not the place to enter into that discussion – I’ve discussed it in the morphology paper [1] and in the first post in this series [2].

Beyond this I wish only to note that interpretation, whether minimal or maximal, is not a well-ordered and precise procedure. There are no protocols that guarantee a reasonable result, much less, an exact one. Nor is it clear to me just what interpretation, even minimal interpretation, tells us about how literary texts are made. Literary texts and interpretations of them are different kinds of mental acts. The relationship between them is, at best, obscure. We have little reason to believe that the sorts of meanings we “fix” (as biologists fix specimens) in interpretive prose are constituents in the underlying mechanisms of literary texts.

Just what I mean by that is, alas, obscure, most of all to me. Perhaps I can clarify in my next post, in which I take up the general question of reading, meaning, and techne in Attridge and Staten.


[1] Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608. URL: Download:

[2] Attridge and Staten 1: What is Minimal Reading?, New Savanna, URL:

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