It occurs to me whole cultures may be subject to the ebb and flow of melancholia, black bile as the Greeks knew it, black from melas, bile from kholé. We know it as bipolar disorder. At first the manic phase occurs, wonderful periods of expressive energy like La Belle Époque that so fascinated Americans of the era, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and made them give up the land of their birth and settle, art-starved expatriates on foreign shores. All the while the dreadnoughts were a-building, the anarchists plotting, the nations preparing to war furiously together until the nadir of catastrophe, the First and Second World Wars, virtually the same war, the darkest of destructive rages. Victim of her own prejudices, did Edith Wharton see World War II coming as did W.B. Yeats? I suspect not. She was famously engaged in the French war effort of the first World War and won the medaille d’honneur for her exemplary and extraordinary efforts. But her Europhile tendencies, her attachment to the values of La Belle Époque, her own latent antisemitism may have blinded her to the ultimate madness that was brewing all around her at the time of her death in 1937.
Curious that the low point of her husband’s health and the crack-up of her marriage should have occurred a few short years before the outbreak of World War I, a strange symbiotic connection between the personal and the wider western culture that was her subject. In The Marne, Wharton depicted some of the extreme bipolarity of the era, the sudden collapse of La Belle Époque, so mercilessly replaced by the total victory of barbarism and insanity. In pre-war France, young protagonist, Troy Belknap’s…
“happiness would have been complete if there had been more time to give to the beautiful things that flew past them: thatched villages with square-towered churches in hollows of the deep green country, or grey shining towns above rivers on which cathedrals seemed to be moored like ships; miles and miles of field and hedge and park falling away from high terraced houses, and little embroidered stone manors reflected in reed-grown moats under ancient trees….
“And this young man, his dearest friend and companion, was to be torn from him suddenly, senselessly, torn from their endless talks, their long walks in the mountains, their elaborately planned courses of study—archæology, French literature, mediæval philosophy, the Divine Comedy, and vistas and vistas beyond—to be torn from all this, and to disappear from Troy Belknap’s life into the black gulf of this unfathomable thing called War, that seemed suddenly to have escaped out of the history books like a dangerous lunatic escaping from the asylum in which he was supposed to be securely confined!”
“What was war—any war—but an old European disease, an ancestral blood-madness seizing on the first pretext to slake its frenzy?” –A Son at the Front
One of her favourite novels, Wharton’s A Son at the Front poignantly balances the spiritual polarities of art and beauty, warfare and horror. Unlike many war novels written by men, this book remains studiously behind the lines – not that Wharton wasn’t familiar with them. Because of her reputation, French government help got her right there, an experience she wrote about in Fighting France. But the irascible painter protagonist of A Son at the Front, John Campton begins the novel in Paris as a skeptical American isolationist, desperate along with his ex-wife and her wealthy husband, to keep his son out of the war. But while American, George was born in France and according to French law, subject to compulsory military duty. In their circle, however, like many Wilsonian democrats of whose policies Wharton heartily disapproved, no one believed the outbreak of hostilities was even remotely possible, Campton’s son among them:
“I know French chaps who feel as I do – Louis Dastrey, Paul’s nephew, for one; and lots of English ones. They don’t believe the world will ever stand for another war. It’s too stupidly uneconomic, to begin with: I suppose you’ve read Angell? Then life’s worth too much, and nowadays too many millions of people know it. That’s the way we all feel. Think of everything that counts – art and science and poetry, and all the rest – going to smash at the nod of some doddering diplomatist! It was different in old times, when the best of life, for the immense majority, was never anything but plague, pestilence and famine. People are too healthy and well-fed now; they’re not going off to die in a ditch to oblige anybody.”
When the unthinkable occurs, it does so with a numbing, transfiguring brutality. Once French girls with little switches guided their geese down country lanes. Now Campton is pursued by “visions of that land of doom: visions of fathomless mud, rat-haunted trenches, freezing nights under the sleety sky, men dying in the barbed wire between the lines or crawling out to save a comrade and being shattered to death on the return.”
Such are the conventions of war fiction. But what so often distinguishes Wharton’s work is the unsaid. One of Campton’s best-known paintings is a portrait of his son. Nevertheless, he spends successive years during World War I trying unsuccessfully to capture a barely perceptible look that has flashed across his son’s face, a secretive, inscrutable look intimately allied to his son’s deliberate move away from the desk job his parents (and step-father) have secured for him and toward the culmination of nightmare, active duty. During World War II, correspondents spoke of the “thousand-yard stare,” the tell-tale sign of shell shock, now known as PTSD. George’s look is almost the mirror opposite, a conscious willingness to self-sacrifice, an impulse to serve and ultimately to die. His youthful comrades understand it and, fearing any parental attempts at sabotage, conspire to keep the older generation ignorant of its meaning. After being “smashed” once in trench warfare, it is a look George recovers in hospital, one his father briefly detects as his son returns to “his men” at the front. Hospitalized months later, smashed again, much worse, he wears it this time to his grave.
The depiction of George’s death – spare, precise, restrained – is one of the high points of the book. So are Campton’s reflections on life’s mysterious finalities, conscious, unconscious, always connected to art, or perhaps what lies behind the lines of art, as in the vision of Paris light unfolding for father and son from the top floor of the hotel Crillon:
“…the two stood looking down on the festal expanse of the Place de la Concorde strewn with great flower-clusters of lights between its pearly distances. The sky was full of stars, pale, remote, half-drowned in the city’s vast illumination; and the foliage of the Champs Elysées and the Tuileries made masses of mysterious darkness behind the statues and the flashing fountains.”
On various occasions, Campton comes close to seizing the meaning of that “look” he sees, one of the first just before George leaves for his desk job at the front. Two books are beautifully juxtaposed, his son’s red book, the livret militaire with its instructions on mobilization, and Campton’s sketch-book, which he opens while his son is sleeping. “Like the effigy of a young knight,” he thinks to himself. “It was the clinging sheet, no doubt, that gave him that look… and the white glare of the electric burner.” Of course, it is not the white glare of the electric burner. Campton opens his sketchbook again and wonders, “What watery stuff was he made of?…. What of Signorelli, who had sat at his dead son’s side and drawn him, tenderly, minutely, while the coffin waited?”
A second, more harrowing moment occurs in the Tuileries gardens the following spring, “spring with her deluding promises—her gilding of worn stones and chilly water, the mystery of her distances, the finish and brilliance of her nearer strokes. Campton, in spite of himself, drank down the life-giving draught and felt its murmur in his veins.” In the distance, Campton sees his son together with his mistress, Mrs. Talkett. As they move, George points out “some beauty of sculpture, or the colour of a lichened urn.” In peaceable years, these would occupy the foreground, just as Midge Talkett would seek a divorce from her “poor little ass” of a husband and marry George. The irrepressible Boylston declares: “… she loves him, and nothing else counts.” However, in these years of war, something else does count, the Arc de Triomphe on which the Maenad-Marseillaise “still yelled her battalions on to death,” the embodiment of the silent expository nature of art, something John Campton has yet to come to terms with. There will be no divorce; there will be no marriage, only sorrow and loss.
In the end, right before and after his son’s death, Campton does come to terms. He recognizes the entire conscription process, change of heart notwithstanding, has drawn him closer to his son, though he continues, ungenerously, to disparage Julia, his ex-wife….
“What did such people as Julia do with grief, he wondered, how did they make room for it in their lives, get up and lie down every day with its taste on their lips? Its elemental quality, that awful sense it communicated of a whirling earth, a crumbling Time, and all the cold stellar spaces yawning to receive us—these feelings which he was beginning to discern and to come to terms with in his own way (and with the sense that it would have been George’s way too), these feelings could never give their stern appeasement to Julia…”
Why not? And why not to her husband, George’s step-father who in his own way, loved his step-son very deeply? But what Campton does see is the primacy of memory, the key to “the richness of his own denuded life,”
“…when George was in the sunset, in the voices of young people, or in any trivial joke that father and son would have shared; and other moments when he was nowhere, utterly lost, extinct and irrecoverable; and others again when the one thing which could have vitalized the dead business of living would have been to see him shove open the studio door, stalk in, pour out some coffee for himself in his father’s cup, and diffuse through the air the warm sense of his bodily presence, the fresh smell of his clothes and his flesh and his hair. But through all these moods, Campton began to see, there ran the life-giving power of a reality embraced and accepted. George had been; George was; as long as his father’s consciousness lasted, George would be as much a part of it as the closest, most actual of his immediate sensations. He had missed nothing of George, and here was his harvest, his golden harvest. ”
The operative word is “consciousness.” When Boylston suggests a monument, Campton’s first instinct is dismissive. But he comes around: art, sculpture, painting, novels, all vessels of consciousness, “the golden harvest.” He pulls “out all the sketches of his son from the old portfolio” and begins, that transfigured “look” of self-sacrifice and dedication his primary objective.
Difficult it is for me to imagine a more congenial and supportive notion, since I concluded my own father-son novel on much the same ground. True, my lonely parent is a man of the word, not of canvas or clay. Mont Babel’s mysterious finalities have to do with the extremities of outer space, not with World War I, though from another perspective, World War is simply history’s black hole, another “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” Mont Babel ends in recovery and life, A Son at the Front (seemingly) with the reverse, and yet the synchrony is evident.
Jim Benedict “thought of the first law of thermodynamics, the law of Conservation of Energy. There is such a law. Energy can only be transformed. It can never be created or destroyed. I hoped for an equivalent law of Conservation of Consciousness. It would seem such a waste if all our thoughts, loves, ideas, the miraculous emanations of the human brain, that biological organ that brings us closest to God, would simply evaporate and disappear, sucked into nothingness, into a great void. On the subject of heaven, that constant place, I’m convinced we can never exceed approximation. Hints, glimmerings, like blind men touching an elephant, that’s all we can expect. Music may bring us nearest, at its best, or life itself in its most intimate moments. That look of joy and tenderness on Iris’s face I confess I will never forget. I saw it. I was a witness, as in childhood she was a witness to alien beings, and what there was to apprehend I saw not just with my mind’s eye, but with the eyes of my heart and soul. There, with all my blessed sensory perceptions engaged, at the very center of my puny being, barely more than a mantis shrimp’s, I believe I had what religious people call an epiphany. And in the end, I hoped, after pens are laid down and computer screens closed, after the dimming of the light, the putting aside of all our precious instruments, and the quieting of our hearts, soul may join soul in mystic unity and families find peace.”
Keith Henderson has published six novels with DC Books, The Restoration (1992), The Beekeeper (1990), The Roof Walkers (2013), Acqua Sacra (2016), Sasquatch and the Green Sash (2018), and Mont Babel (2020), political essays from when he was Quebec correspondent for the Financial Post (Staying Canadian, 1997), as well as a prize-winning book of short stories (The Pagan Nuptials of Julia, 2006). He led a small provincial political party in Quebec during the separatist referendum of 1995 and championed Anglo language rights and the strategy of partitioning Quebec if ever Quebec partitioned Canada. He has taught Canadian Literature for many years.