November 02, 2006

The Pity of War: Jean-Yves Le Naour The Living Unknown Soldier

Anthelme Mangin was found in France in 1918, a veteran of the first World War, amnesiac and sufferer from what was then called daementia praecox. Mangin over the next twenty four years until his death in 1942 stayed within various mental asylums, being battled over by various groups of people who claimed to be his relatives. Le Naour's biography of Mangin is an incredibly interesting book which sums up a life filled with sadness and pathos- a life that in many ways stands for so many lives within that generation. Lives that were blighted not merely by the obvious effects of the war, deaths, injuries and scars, but by the psychological effects of war- by the hatred felt by men formerly soldiers for their families who had demanded that they serve for the sake of respectability, by the shreiks of men wakening to dreams of nightmare and perhaps more insidious by those who could not remember or became mad. In France many in that case later died when in 1940-4 the asylums were understaffed and undersupplied with food and neccessaries.

Le Naour understands this and as very little can be said about Mangin himself- he ceased to speak much in the 1920s or recognise people, fiddling with the buttons of people who came to see him but registering very little of the outside world. Getting inside the mind of a man who has lost the ability or wish to signify it to the outside world is beyond the capacity of most who meet him- let alone those who meet him through the fragments of the source record- records which only arose when the case reached particular noteriety, some of which even then have been lost in the administrative confusion of World War Two.

So Le Naour portrays not Mangin- but the way that society reacted to Mangin and particularly the way that those who beleived that he was their relative beleived sometimes to the exclusion of any rational thought that this was their father, brother, husband or son. Le Naour's portrait is designed to show us the desperation of the generation that fought in the first world war- his drawing is acute- Mangin once identified faded away but whilst he was anonymous he became a kind of monument to every man. Just as French men and women gathered at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier saying this could be your son, this could be your husband- so families gathered around the unknown lunatic exclaiming the same thing.

Le Naour points both to the pathos and the self righteousness of a grief which seeks an object to greive over, pointing to a particular situation and particular time he illuminates the tragedy of war- the tragedy of lives ripped apart not by the obvious wounds made by gunshot, sword or bomb, but the hidden wounds made psychologically on the frame of both the soldiers and those linked to them- in short upon us all.

War whether now or a thousand years ago echoes through the minds of those effected for years and years- as Le Naour comments even now one family continues to plead that Mangin was misidentified and wants his corpse exhumed for genetic testing- despite the fact that the evidence from administrative records indicate that the Anthelme clearly wasn't who they think he is.


Nominous Maximus said...

You advertised a blog on the neocons but it seems to have disappeared - were you intimidated?

Gracchi said...

Sorry about that its here I'll post this at your website as well, I thought I left this link up but obviously didn't so hope anyone else coming across gets this. Sorry bout that.

Political Umpire said...

A very interesting post, and I will try and seek out a copy of the book. One of the things I've found interesting since moving to the UK has been the views and attitudes towards both wars from people other than Anglo-Saxons. A German friend despairs of the British obsession with WWII, though almost always makes a joke about it when I see him. A French friend is quietly proud of her grandfather's role in the resistance, and her great grandfather's service at Verdun, but at the same time regrets the fact that all her elder family members revile Germans.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Umpire- yes its a fantastic book only just been transalated- I just found it somewhere so it isn't difficult to locate. But its very well written and the story is much more interestign than I was able to post here- there are all sorts of literary references as well taht he sorts out and stuff like that.

I agree with you about the wars and the different European reactions. They are very interesting- I find it intriguing how also families were effected- my own family history was effected quite profoundly by the experience of my great grandfather whose life was destroyed by the First World War and consequently hated his family who had forced him to go to the front.

Political Umpire said...

I have always wondered why the impact of war on families is something largely ignored both by official histories and popular documentaries. Certainly in my case as well, the effects were real and lasting. My great uncle died at Gallipoli aged 19, and my great-grandmother never, according to older relatives, recovered, slipping into a depression for the remaining three decades of her life whilst telling herself that he was about to return (the body was never found, so he was only MIA as far as she was concerned).

On the other hand, on my father's side despite relatives serving on the Western Front in WWI and in every service in WWII, there were no casualties amongst my direct descendants, although my grandfather's absence from the family for six years itself had lasting effects on his place in the family for many years afterwards.

One exception was the series Ian Hislop did a year or so ago on the Great War, when he travelled around trying to trace descendants of those whose names adorn all the small local memorials one finds in every town and village. One story was unbelievable - a woman lost five of her six sons on the Western Front (and the sixth died of influenza). No 'Saving Private Ryan' for her. As none were married, she received the war pension for each (amounting to a few bob a week). She had to leave the village, because there were so many murmurings and sly remarks about how well she must be doing on five war pensions. Apparently her protestations that she'd rather have her sons back fell on deaf ears. It did indicate just how much some people suffered and also how attitudes amongst the 'golden age' perhaps weren't always so golden.

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree with you its something that we continually ignore at our peril I think. Its also a way that history seems to be to be linked rather than split up into nicely segmented historical segments. I always remember a great story from the early 18th Century to illustrate it- that when Queen Anne was crowned an old man in the crowd was heard to recite from Shakespeare the line 'Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown' the old man was Richard Cromwell, Oliver's son and heir who was still alive at that point.

Its always struck me that so much say about the sixties revolt was really about the second world war- that there are quite clear things like the hippee hairstyle responding to the military crew cut.

I'm not sure that's an adequate response to your fascinating comment thanks very much for what you wrote its incredibly interesting.