War, Civilisation and Myth
After a century of relative peace in central Europe the Great War focused minds on the nature of civilisation. European colonising of other continents had been justified by a civilising mission but this claim was now thrown into question. At the same time ‘primitive’ peoples, who were usually thought to represent early stages of human development, came to represent not a superstitious past to be overcome, but a desirable alternative to alienated modernity. Early man seemed to have enjoyed a richly integrated form of life in an intimate relation to nature. We can see two radically opposed conceptions of human being here. Sigmund Freud, as a scientific rationalist, maintained the older view and sought to expose the irrational illusions of religion and myth. Without the mastery of the civilised ego the instinctual self was a source of delusion and destruction. Friedrich Nietzsche had argued the opposite: that the apparent destructiveness of instinct and desire were the result of repressive demonising of instinctual life. He sought instead to honour the instincts in name of the god Dionysus and D. H. Lawrence, in his ‘war-time’ novel Women in Love, made the same claim. The ‘Freudian’ and ‘Nietzschean’ views are essentially myths in so far as they offer a totalising view of human being that is not susceptible of proof but governs conduct individually and collectively. In the literature of this period the function of myth as a world view by which men live became self-conscious: literary works adopted myth as their narrative form. Whereas nineteenth-century novels had typically adopted the model of history, modernist fiction more typically placed itself under the sign of myth as in Lawrence’s The Rainbow and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Michael Bell is a Fellow of the British Academy, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts. He has written mainly on literary and philosophical themes from the European Enlightenment to modernity. His book-length publications include Primitivism (1973), The Sentiment of Reality: Truth of Feeling in The European Novel (1983), F. R. Leavis (1988), D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (1992), Gabriel García Márquez: Solitude and Solidarity (1994), Literature, Modernism and Myth: Belief and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century (1997), Sentimentalism, Ethics and the Culture of Feeling (2001), Open Secrets: Literature, Education and Authority from J-J Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (OUP, 2007), The Cambridge Companion to European Novelists ed. (2012).