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Mary A. Favret. War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. Princeton: University Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-1-4008-3155-5. Price: US$26.95

  • Michael Verderame

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  • Michael Verderame
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The notion of “distant war” that gives Mary Favret's book its title is immediately recognizable to readers today. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, news and images from our own distant wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ever-available and yet intriguingly compartmentalized in our everyday existence. The specific threats, issues, and theaters of war recede into the background, dissolving into a general awareness that we are living in an undifferentiated period of “wartime,” without a clear beginning or end. We as distant observers seem be both removed from and somehow implicated in the wars we observe through what William Cowper called the “loop-holes of retreat.” For Cowper, famously, the daily arrival of the post-boy provided the medium for engaging with the world at war. The Internet and cable television provide us the same access, now in real time rather than days or weeks late, but with the same unsettling blend of familiarity and alienation.

Wartime, as Favret defines it, is not merely a geopolitical condition but an affective state, a structure of feeling, constituted in everyday lived experience, not only at the actual sites of war but (perhaps especially) on the home front. Moreover, she argues, wartime in the modern sense is not universal but emerged at a particular historical juncture, the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here, Favret challenges a common view, presented most notably by Paul Fussell but shared by many, including Virginia Woolf, that modern wartime as a distinct phenomenon came into being as a result of the weapons, communications technology, and sheer brutality of the First World War. While Favret agrees that a radical and unprecedented shift in the cultural significance of war did occur and did help to bring the modern world into being, she locates that shift more than a century earlier, in the European wars of the 1780s and 1790s, which 20th-century historians, enjoying the privilege of hindsight, describe as “conventional wars” in contrast to the “total war” of the 20th century. Although19th-century writers did not envision nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, Favret shows that they did have an understanding of war—bloodless, scientific, rationalized, and professionalized—remarkably similar to the 20th-century concept of total war. Romantic wartime translates war seen by earlier ages as a “sublime event,” random and outside the normal scope of understanding, into an “underlying situation or condition of modernity” itself (38). The spatial and temporal disorientation produced by regarding war from a distance, Favret concludes, helps to define and produce the self-questioning, uncertain modern subject.

War at a Distance attempts to explain why modern wartime came into being at this particular moment. Along with geopolitical factors, Favret identifies an intriguing range of scientific and cultural changes—from the standardization of time-keeping conventions and developments in journalism to advances in meteorology and the etymology of the word “war” itself—that contributed to changing the way the British public understood and experienced war. The experience of waiting for war dispatches in the post produces an uncanny sense of temporality that troubles the categories of past, present, and future. Readers know that whatever news they receive will already be weeks or months out of date by the time they read it, and therefore the events disclosed in the newspaper inhabit a shadowy realm which is neither completely past nor fully present.

Regular access to newspapers also created a sense that all of the war news fit into an underlying order, one that gradually unfolded in a series. This notion that war could be assimilated into a logical, orderly structure was a key attribute of Romantic wartime. Even the ways in which words such as “war,” “wartime,” “civilian,” and “noncombatant” were used suggests a changing understanding of war's role in human history. Using illustrations from eighteenth-century dictionaries and philosophical texts, Favret contends that the notion that war was an aberrant and chaotic event, bringing “confusion and perplexity,” yielded to a view of war as professionalized, systematized, logical, even “the highest operation of intellect” (184).

At the same time, the new meteorological science of the period emphasized Britain's interconnectedness with the rest of the world by conceiving of weather not as an accumulation of individuated local events but as a predictable global system. The Romantic-era public became acutely conscious of the connections between weather and the fortunes of war, with the storms that influenced the outcome of Waterloo only the most famous example. While, as Favret points out, the association of war with weather had long been established as a literary trope, with winter storms in particular metaphorically connected to war, this connection gained a new resonance as scientists began to describe the weather in more sophisticated and systematic ways. The new meteorology meant that the weather, like the modern view of war, was “mobile rather than static, predictable and systematic rather than erratic; and above all, global in its reach” (130). The knowledge that a weather system affecting Germany or France today would affect British weather tomorrow provided a striking metaphor for the threat of actual military invasion--war, like the weather itself, became conceivable only on a global scale. As a result, war after the Napoleonic conflicts would always have a different meaning than it did before: not a disruption to the normal geopolitical order, but the underlying basis for that order.

Modern wartime was not exclusively the product of these political and scientific developments. Favret argues that literary texts (including Cowper's The Task, Wordsworth's Excursion, Austen's Perusasion) both registered and helped to produce this shift in cultural understanding. Far from occluding the realities of war, as 20th-century critics of Austen and Romantic poetry have often charged, Favret shows that these texts actually reveal the extent to which the war pervaded everyday experience, to the point that the “everyday itself, its peculiar status in modern thought, derives from its intimate relationship with war” (12). In these texts, representations of war are mediated to produce something between a “felt or sentient experience of war” and a “distant and abstracted, unfelt view of violence”-- a state familiar to the Western 21st-century reader, for whom war is neither immediately present nor truly absent (189).

The central figure in Favret's narrative is Cowper, whose famous description of perusing the war reports in the newspaper in Book IV of The Task lends the book its title and organizing metaphor. Favret follows other recent critics of Cowper (most significantly, Kevis Goodman in Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism) in underscoring the poem's historicity and immersion in the debates and issues of the day, as well as its importance in shaping the poetic and intellectual vocabulary of Romantic literature. One of The Task's key contributions, Favret persuasively argues, is to challenge the eighteenth-century view that “our feelings diminish as the objects of suffering are removed by distance, temporal or geographical,” and to portray a moral economy in which all human beings are bound together by affective and sympathetic ties (24). It becomes possible for an Englishman at home in Olney to identify not only with his country's soldiers, but with their opponents in war, and with slaves and the empire's colonial subjects. This sense of a smaller and more tightly interconnected world, for Favret is a key constituent of the everyday experience of modernity, but one which is only thinkable through the state of spatial and temporal dislocation produced by wartime.

The final chapter of War at a Distance traces this notion of everyday wartime into the present. Drawing on a wide variety of theorists (including Kant, Sigmund Freud, Benjamin, Raymond Williams, Susan Sontag, Derrida, and Judith Butler), Favret turns to the question of how visual representations of war (from Napoleonic-War panoramas to photographs from the U.S. Civil War and the Crimean War) mediate the viewer’s experience. Visual representations neither immerse viewers completely in the experience nor separate them altogether from it; instead, they create an uneasy sense of a “middle distance” that enables viewers to empathize with the suffering of others even as they retain their own cultural position (227). Favret challenges Williams's view that images of war create a “culture of distance” which aestheticizes and papers over the reality of war (223). Rather, she argues, the unique relationships opened up by middle distance can create the foundation for a “new cosmopolitics” grounded in our ability to care for the anonymous strangers displayed in war images (229).

Despite its historical focus, War at a Distance feels uncannily pertinent to the present day, and the experience of the U.S.'s late-20th and early-21st-century wars looms constantly in the background (and occasionally the foreground as well). Favret underscores this connection by putting The Task and “Frost at Midnight' in dialogue with a 2003 anti-war poem, C. K. Williams's “The Hearth,” in which the poet, like Cowper and Coleridge before him, “looks into the fireplace and contemplates a world at war” (1). With all the differences in weaponry and communications technology between the two periods, there is a commonality of experience linking Cowper, Coleridge, and Williams (and by implication, us): uncertain of the future, disturbed by reports of the war even as its alarms are muted by distance. The situations are not exactly parallel, but Favret's intriguing suggestion is that perhaps the self-reflexive mode of poetic subjectivity that we have come to think of as the particular heritage of the Romantic age (and which, in one form or another, has shaped poetry ever since) evolved in conjunction with the modern view of war, in response to the questions war raises about our connections to the world, other human beings, other nations, and even time itself.

War at a Distance is an ambitious, wide-ranging, and deeply insightful study that will be relevant not only to Romanticists, but to anyone interested in the literature, visual culture, and cultural history of the past two centuries. Favret's readings of the individual texts are penetrating and persuasive. Scholarship of Cowper in particular will need to take her meticulous unpacking of The Task's historical situatedness and of its pervasive influence upon the habits of thought of core Romantic writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Austen into account. By the end her initially counterintuitive thesis--that the Romantic-era public experienced the “everyday” of wartime in a manner substantially similar to the present day, and substantially different from earlier periods--comes to seem plausible and even inevitable. It will be interesting to see how historians of other periods respond to Favret. Can scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for instance, trace the roots of the changes she describes in those periods, or is she right that the modern view of war could only come into being as a result of the intellectual, scientific, and geopolitical climate of the late eighteenth century? Will modernist historians accept the notion that the public's everyday lived experience of wartime during, for instance, the First World War, is in fundamental ways similar to that in the Napoleonic Wars, or do the technology and global scale of twentieth-century wars render, as Fussell argued, that experience essentially different? However one answers these questions, any future intervention in the debate about the meaning, genealogy, and cultural significance of “wartime” as an experiential and affective category will have to be informed by Favret's study.

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