I began writing this listening to Wes Montgomery play "Windsong." No particular significance in that, except maybe the utter disconnect between the tune and the subject at hand. Paul Fussell, who died last week at 88, might have laughed derisively at it, more evidence that our minds, collectively, are full of corrosion and catnip. He was an erudite grump, and there's no reason why you should listen to his gripes. But for some reason, I have to, have always had to. And that's why I'm writing this about Paul Fussell as I medicate myself with Wes Montgomery and Mason Williams and Johnny Nash, and try not to think about all the years wasted not getting to the difficult heart of things.
Paul Fussell was the author of "The Great War and Modern Memory" (1975). It was a compelling, and surprisingly popular study of literary perspectives on the disasters of World War One. Among his trenchant theses, that the war introduced irony as a pervasive mode of thinking which affected the entire culture.
Fussell wrote, "Irony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence. One reason the Great War was more ironic than any other is that its beginning was more innocent." He wrote with first-hand experience from the next World War. Fussell barely survived brutal action late in the European theatre.
He also wrote a slim book called "Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars." The Armistice unleashed a mania for travel, preferably to hot places, among Brits who had the means, and a significant number of them could write about their travels exceedingly well. Fussell's book made a biting distinction between travel, which he said hardly existed anymore, and tourism, which he loathed. He also retrieved a forgotten classic, Robert Byron's "The Road to Oxiana," a marvelous account of "real" travel by an intrepid eccentric whom Fussell claimed should be remembered before T.E. Lawrence.
He wrote about class, about the significance of uniforms, and mined that El Dorado of warnings and Jeremiads in these bad old days, the dumbing of America.
He wasn't an individual out to make us feel good about ourselves. I've noticed that many people are healthy enough to turn their backs on those who lace their prose with acid. I don't know what it is about me. I tend to trust the intelligent dyspeptic more than the ingratiating optimist. Probably stems from deep-seated neuroses. I'm one of those who inhabit a skin in which such fierce critics' barbs stick best.
It doesn't seem to help that my job involves what is generally considered an irreproachable cultural asset. No, it's more complicated than that. When a Fussell talks, a valid voice, I keenly feel myself part of a declension, and contributing to it, and unable to stop the slide. Yeah, probably the healthy response is to turn away.
But one reason I don't, one reason I listen to the scoldings, is that even in great seas of fatuousness there are tiny islands of meaning. They're just very hard to find. A guy like Paul Fussell, hard, cranky, disgusted, is nevertheless a sure hand at the tiller.