Lost Generations

The term “lost generation” is usually associated with that generation which experienced the brunt of the First World War’s impact on society, including its disorientated survivors during the 1920s. Might one also speak more generally of “lost generations”? For example, were escapist lifestyles in the 1960s a result of the societal impact of the Second World War as much as escapist lifestyles in the 1920s were a result of the First?

Recently, browsing a charity shop introduced me to an unknown British publication that was published with the support of the “World War One Centenary Art Commission”. I expected it to be about “the war poets” but it wasn’t quite like that. Featuring reflections by ten fiction writers, not just from Britain but also from Europe, Turkey, Africa & China, the book consisted of diverse reflections on how war always makes a society dumb or silent. That’s a fairly fascinating idea.

The book’s inevitable reflections on “the [UK First World] war poets” came largely from a Scottish-born author, who I’d only ever heard before, co-singing an obscure song with a pop singer that, incidentally, is reputedly a great-grandnephew of a member of the IRB Supreme Council in 1916. She suggested that later pop singers had something in common with “the war poets” by being anti-war, but is that what “the war poets” were really about? True, I haven’t read their words in many a year, but I tend to think of them less as negative commentators on war than as writers whose lives reflected the pervasiveness, or the seeming inescapability, of war for their generation or various social classes.

How often is that a feature of the history of societies? That’s a subject that is rarely written about because it is so difficult to write about well. Indeed, it is like a missing piece in history narratives that has yet to be incorporated into historical writing. A while ago, I heard an online talk by Samuel Moyn, an American scholar of international relations, who suggested that reading Leo Tolstoy’s criticisms of the first Geneva Convention might provide future generations of historians with an inkling how to do so. Yet most people seem to expect that the purely human effect of war on society can only be reflected by artistic productions, not in the pages of a history book or in any kind of analytical study of political societies. Perhaps the Tolstoy observation is merely an unintentional reflection of that same idea.

That notion suggests some vague association of ideas for me. Ireland’s so-called revolutionary generation have sometimes been seen like “founding father” figures, but there is also a sense of them being like “a lost generation” because the 1920s-1960s saw so little change from the past. The country’s financial institutions were so successful in opposing any semblance of independent Irish government that people accepted poverty, social stagnation and co-dependence with a neighbouring island as a permanent condition, but who gave voice to their frustrations? Were writers like Frank O’Connor or Patrick Kavanagh actually spokesmen for a lost generation, of sorts?

And what about the aftermath of the Second World War? Did the children of those who fought in the war give vent to their sense of social alienation via things like rock’n’roll? I once read a story about why so many US rockers came from Jacksonville, Florida: the navy was the only job in town, so there was only one escape from the same military life as your father: vent your preconditioned social aggression through a rock band instead! Maybe that’s a daft idea. Yet I came across a similar story closer to home.

For a laugh, I remember reading a memoir by a punk rocker, who once improvised an obscure song about the war poets and who also co-wrote a “top ten” song, the lyrics of which were actually inspired by teenage UK army recruits he knew in his own day who were put to work in Northern Ireland. He noted that where he grew up in Scotland, there was just two career options: the mines or the army, before, like circus performers of old, he tried to invent a third option literally as an escape: join a rock band! But the community he came from, like many working-class British societies (so he judged), was conditioned to produce soldiers and that marked his imagination and found its sonic equivalent in rock music. I’ve never heard it said, but perhaps there is a connection between the rock music of the UK & USA with its reputed unresolved aggression issues, surfacing through the relieving of boredom through violence in sound(if not necessarily in person), and a conditioning of these same societies for warfare.

If that seems like a daft idea, there was an interesting comparative reflection in the book mentioned by a Slovenian poet about the difference between his society and the English-speaking world. When he was asked to help to prepare an exhibition on a century of warfare (i.e. ever since the First World War) in the former Yugoslavia, he discovered that the only books on the subject were by British or American authors because local authors, even historians, were not mentally conditioned to conceptualise the meaning of warfare. The stories of the local generation that were lost to warfare in 1914-1918 (including 16% of the entire population of Serbia) remains untold, in part for that reason and partly because the war seemed like an imposition on society that came from abroad and so remained alien, mysterious & inexplicable to the region, despite its pervasive affects and its reputed origins with ethnic tensions on the streets of Sarajevo. In 1915, W.B. Yeats wrote of the First World War (he is quoted in the same book) that “it is merely the most expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen and so I give it as little of my thought as I can”, but perhaps Irish society merely conditioned him to think that way? By point of contrast, what of the people of the Balkans? And in other societies altogether, perhaps there are always “war poets” to be found, even when there is no war.

In contrast to the perspective of the Slovenian author, a Chinese author in the book noted that the tens of thousands of Chinese enlisted in the 1914-18 war by the UK (via a commercial deal with the Chinese government) and who perished as labourers while attempting to feed the UK’s troops aren’t thought of as war victims in China, because to the Chinese mind “war means above all massacre”, citing the An Lushan Rebellion or the 1937 sacking of Nanking as more representative examples of the Chinese idea of warfare than a (mere) few thousand perishing in or about trenches. Somehow, I doubt W.B. Yeats could get his mind around that extreme idea, and perhaps I cannot either. Perhaps the Chinese government is right about one thing: one would be better off not knowing what Chinese rock music might sound like, were it allowed! Yet perhaps without outlets for expression like rock music, lost generations are more likely to remain silent, or to simply seem less pervasive than they (at least reputedly) are.